The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Exhaustion of Exhaustion

Reviewing a biography of the unfairly neglected American novelist John Champlin Gardner [another John Gardner wrote James Bond books when the franchise was resurrected some years after Ian Fleming's death], Baltimore's City Paper focused on the ideological and personal dispute between Gardner and Johns Hopkins professor and novelist John Barth.

Gardner championed "primary art", writing directly about life, and aggressively disparaged the "secondary art" of overtly form-oriented and self-referential novels. Barth, on the other hand, was perhaps the nation's leading practitioner of secondary art. Two things are notable about Barth's works; the first is the extent to which the writing is about words and the characters' own writing, and the second is the flippant and trivial treatment given to the "real" subject matter -- mass murder, incest, homosexuality, and the like. [The equal billing of homosexuality in this pageant of deviancy is, I believe, present in Barth's work -- bear in mind this writing dates from the early 1960's.]

Barth spent decades afterward [after The Literature of Exhaustion was published] trying to explain that in his essay on "exhaustion," he wasn't saying that literature was "used up."
More accurately, Barth's "exhaustion" meant that known storytelling forms of established efficacy had been damaged through overuse. The literature of exhaustion is not exhausted literature, but literature which examines the exhausted field and finds, based on the obstacles there, new forms. The canonical example is Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote". [Hat tip: Electronic Labyrinth.]

However, even in this optimistic formulation, literature will inevitably become steadily more recondite, spiralling inward in a maze of stylistic innovations sparked by stylistic obstacles. Gardner, while not Barth's equal in the abstract duels of postmodern academia, was perceptive enough to recognize this prescription for writing which would be more and more about other writing.

This is reminiscent of the distinction between science and engineering. Barth's ideal writer, like a scientist, must always be doing something new -- what is repeated is no longer science. Gardner's ideal writer is an engineer, using established methods as a means toward some external end of value.

The question of whether writing should be primary is still under debate. I am not able to tell which way the tide is running, though I know what I would prefer. Barth, despite his manifest intelligence, never wrote with the predatory zest of Grendel or the painstaking humanity of The Sunlight Dialogues. He remained a consummately clever wordsmith and verbal trickster, who had nothing at all to say. I would trade all 330,000 words of The Sot-Weed Factor for a single sentence from "Winged Figure Carrying Sacrificial Animal" (ch. XX):
She had underestimated hate.