John Barth, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road – Anchor Books, New York 1988; ISBN 0-385-24089-9
Read from March 13th till 28th 2016
When Existentialism is not a Humanism anymore
I’m still not sure whether it was a good thing to read The End of the Road immediately after The Floating Opera, even though they are often discussed together and the author himself decided to put them in one volume. Of course, there are some reasons for this decision: not only both novels illustrate the first stage in John Barth’s creation, but they have also some similar themes, motives and structure – existentialism, nihilism, suicide, adulterous triangle etc.
However, the main difference, stressed by the author too in his useful Prologue (I admit using the adjective “useful” somehow deprecatorily for the readiness with which he offered his lecture key frustrated me a bit), is the change of tonality, difference that makes (in Barth’s words) “a nihilist comedy” of the first novel and “a nihilist catastrophe” of the second; moreover, it leads to the interpretation of a second theme (also generously revealed in the Prologue) – villainy (the author admits he was obsessed at the time with Shakespeare’s statement, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain.”). Both Todd Andrews and Jacob Horner’s villainy seems to be the result of some fundamental dissonance with humanity, and in the end they successfully severe (to employ Sartre’s terminology) existence from humanism, denying themselves as human beings due to their eerie quality of seeing the two sides of the coin at the same time, thus answering two of the main questions raised by Camus in his oeuvre: is suicide the only important philosophical theme and is human life so meaningless that the only weapon against it is supreme indifference? The first question, answered in The Floating Opera, is in Barth’s view, a variant of the second: neither suicide nor going on living is of any significance whatsoever in the great scheme of things. And the second one, with its own empty Meursault in leading role, as the embodiment of the absurd, takes estrangement to its outer limits.
Interesting enough isn’t it? However, after the delightful and delighted reading of The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, orphan, in great measure, of the black humor that made the first so digestible, was sometimes intolerably grim, although here there is, again, the ironic interpretation of some Existentialist themes and values. One if the bearers is the ultra rationalist Joe Morgan, convinced that he has managed to dictate the meaning of his own life by creating his own values, values that may be not intrinsic but are nonetheless important (I remember Todd in the other novel discovering too the lack of intrinsic value of life, but with the following thought that because of this life itself was meaningless):
“When Rennie and I were married we understood that neither of us wanted to make a permanent thing of it if we couldn’t respect each other in every way. Certainly I’m not sold on marriage-under-any-circumstances and I’m sure Rennie’s not either. There’s nothing intrinsically valuable about marriage.”“Seems to me you put a pretty high value on your marriage,” I suggested. (…)“Now you’re making the same error Rennie made a while ago, before supper: the fallacy that because a value isn’t intrinsic, it somehow isn’t real.”
Unfortunately, Morgan lives in a fool’s paradise, whose design is ready to be destroyed by one of the absurdities of the world, Jacob Horner, whom Joe befriended because he read in his detachment a deeper meaning. In fact, Horner is incapable of truly reacting to the outside world and he conducts his actions by precepts he learned but did not fully understand. He autodiagnosed himself as suffering of “cosmopsis”, which physically manifests sometimes as a general paralysis. During one of these crises he met the Doctor, an eccentric individual who leads a shady practice in somehow secret surroundings and who wants to treat him because of medical curiosity. The Doctor, another adept of the Existentialism, believes in the theory that, given the absurdity of life the only way of coping with it is to become aware of and find the best way to handle it. And the way he recommends is Mythotherapy:
“Mythotherapy is based on two assumptions: that human existence precedes human essence, if either of the two terms really signifies anything; and that a man is free not only to choose his own essence but to change it at will.”
Given that, unlike literature, in life every man is the hero of his own story, he has the power to give secondary roles to those around him, an action the Doctor calls myth-making. All relationships are based on the roles assumed and the importance of this role distribution depends on the impact they have for your ego. However, when the circumstances change the only way to survive is to promptly assign other roles in order not to lose themselves. The Morgans’ tragedy begins when Rennie, fascinated by the non-entity of Jacob, is not able to follow the scenario she has forced herself to live her life with anymore. Her incapacity to find a new mask to replace the old, rendered futile, ultimately leads to her destruction:
“If the new situation is too overpowering to ignore, and they can’t find a mask to meet it with, they may become schizophrenic – a last-resort mask – or simply shattered. All questions of integrity involve this consideration, because a man’s integrity consists in being faithful to the script he’s written for himself.”
And the agent of destruction is Jake Horner not because he wants it, on the contrary, he tries, in his amoral way, to prevent and/ or repair it, but because of his habit to always change not only his masks, but also those of the others. His “mytoplastic razors” cut in every direction because he is unable to follow only one script:
One of the things I did not see fit to tell Joe Morgan (for to do so would have been to testify further against myself) is that it was never very much of a chore for me, at various times, to maintain with perfect equal unenthusiasm contradictory, or at least polarized, opinions at once on a given subject. I did so too easily, perhaps, for my own ultimate mobility. Thus it seemed to me that the Doctor was insane, and that he was profound; that Joe was brilliant and also absurd; that Rennie was strong and weak; and that Jacob Horner – owl, peacock, chameleon, donkey and popinjay, fugitive from a medieval bestiary – was at the same time giant and dwarf, plenum and vacuum, and admirable and contemptible. Had I explained this to Joe he’d have added it to its store of evidence that I did not exist: my own feeling was that it was and was not such evidence.
I think the “mythotherapy” was the concept I was most fascinated with in this novel. I would have also liked if its first title, What To Do Until the Doctor Comes, were not changed by the editor (who feared it could be mistaken for a first aid treatise). The unabated sarcasm of the abandoned title would have made it by far more appropriate a name for this weird book, which I still don’t know how I feel about.