Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 10

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Wk 5 - Thurs (21/8), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

John Barth: The Floating Opera (1957) / The End of the Road (1958) -

Existentialism, Postmodernism & the Post-war

The Outsider

Albert Camus' L’Étranger was first published by Libraire Gallimard in Paris in 1942. In 1946, it was first translated into English by British author Stuart Gilbert and this translation was read by millions for over four decades. A second English translation was published in 1982 by British publishing house Hamish Hamilton. This translation, by Joseph Laredo, was adopted by Penguin Books in 1983 and reprinted for Penguin Classics in 2000. In 1989, another translation by American Matthew Ward was published.

The tone of the three English translations is quite different, with the Gilbert translation exhibiting a more formal tone. An example of this difference can be found in the first sentence of the first chapter:

French: "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J'ai reçu un télégramme de l'asile: Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. Cela ne veut rien dire. C'était peut-être hier"

Gilbert translation: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday."

Ward translation: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

Laredo translation: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday."

Plot Summary:

At the start of the novel, Meursault attends his mother's funeral, where he does not express any of the usual emotions that such an event often induces. He is asked if he wants to view the body of his mother but declines, instead smoking and drinking coffee in front of the body. Meursault sent his mother there because he felt she would be more happy with other people rather than living alone with Meursault in his apartment. The novel goes on to document the next few days of his life through the first person point-of-view. His best friend Raymond Sintès, one of his neighbors, of whom Meursault aids in dismissing his Arab girlfriend because Raymond suspects her of infidelity. Later, Raymond and Meursault encounter her brothers on a beach, and Raymond is injured in a resulting knife fight. After retreating, Meursault returns to the beach and shoots one of the brothers in a moment of confusion caused in part by the glare of the sun. "The Arab" is killed, and Meursault fires four more times into the dead body.

At the trial, the prosecuting attorneys seem more interested in the inability or unwillingness of Meursault to cry at his mother's funeral than the murder of the Arab, because they find his lack of remorse offensive. The argument follows that if Meursault is incapable of remorse, he should be considered a dangerous misanthrope who should be executed by guillotine in order to set an example for others who consider murder. Meursault is charged largely due to the lack of emotions shown at his mother's funeral, rather than for the murder of the Arab man.

As the novel comes to a close, Meursault meets with a chaplain and rejects the chaplain's insistence that he turn to God. The novel ends with Meursault recognizing the universe's indifference toward humankind. The final lines echo his new realization: "As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."

John Barth

Intellectual and spiritual disorientation is the family disease of all my main characters - a disease usually complicated by ontological disorienation, since knowing where you're at is often contingent upon knowing who you are.

- "Getting Oriented." in The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction (New York: Putnam's, 1984), p.131.

According to Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1987), p.9:

The dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as … “How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?” Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are limits of the knowable? And so on.

He then goes on to formulate a second thesis (p.10):

The dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins [in A Dialectic of Centuries (1978)] calls “post-cognitive”: “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?” Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance: What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on.

Epistemology foregrounds questions of consciousness.

Ontology foregrounds questions of existence.

It's interesting to find such an explicit invitation to pose such questions even in the preface to our reprint of Barth's first two novels:


My books tend to come in pairs, as did their author; I am half of a set of opposite-sex twins.

1. In a Sense, I am Jacob Horner


1. Tuning My Piano

So. Todd Andrews is my name. You can spell it with one or two d's; I get letters addressed either way. I almost warned you against the single-d spelling, for fear you'd say, "Tod is German for death: perhaps the name is symbolic." I myself use two d's, partly in order to avoid that symbolism. But you see, I ended by not warning you at all, and that's because it just occurred to me that the double-d Todd is symbolic, too, and accurately so. Tod is death, and this book hasn't much to do with death; Todd is almost Tod - that is, almost death - and this book ,if it gets written, has very much to do with almost-death.


The author of these words is a fifty-eight year old storyteller, mainly a novelist, who -- as a student in the 1940s and fifties -- cut his apprentice literary teeth on the likes of Frank Kafka, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound: the old masters of what we now call literary High Modernism …

When my first novel (The Floating Opera) was published in the mid-1950s, it was approved by the critic Leslie Fiedler as an example of "provincial American existentialism." The description intrigued me; like a good provincial , I went and read Sartre and Camus to learn what existentialism was, and I concurred with Mr. Fiedler … if not altogether with Sartre and Camus. If people had done such things in those days, I'd have had a T-shirt printed up for myself: PROVINCIAL AMERICAN EXISTENTIALIST.

My second novel – The End of the Road, published two years later – was generally assigned to a new category called Black Humor. I buckled down and read such alleged fellow Black Humorists as John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut .. and (when he arrived on the scene) Joseph Heller, and I decided that this was not a bad team to be on: the Existential Black Humorists.

But my third, fourth and fifth books, published through the 1960s, came to be described no longer as Existentialist or Black Humorist, but as Fabulist, and the term was made retroactive to those earlier productions too …

Sure enough, just when I had a pretty good idea was Fabulism was, in the 1970s the stuff began to be called Postmodernist. With increasing frequency I found myself categorized under that label, not only with my old U.S. teammates, but with some first-rate foreign ones: Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garçia Márquez. I had hoped that some women would sign on next time the ship changed names – would be signed on, I should say, since the artists themselves are not normally consulted in these matters.
– "Postmodernism Revisited." in Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures and Other Nonfiction, 1984-1994 (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1995), pp.117-18.

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