By John Barth
Publication Date: 11/8/22
Proving himself yet again a master of every form, Barth conquers in his latest the ruminative short essay—“jeux d’esprits,” as Barth describes them. These mostly one-page tidbits pay homage to Barth’s literary influences while retaining his trademark self-consciousness and willingness to play.
John Barth is our most celebrated postmodernist. From the appearance in 1956 of The Floating Opera, his first published book, through the essay collection Final Fridays, released in 2012, he has published at least two books in each of the seven decades spanning his writerly life thus far. Thrice nominated for the National Book Award—The Floating Opera, Lost in the Funhouse, and Chimera, which won in 1973—Barth has received the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he taught for twenty-two years in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He now lives in Florida with his wife Shelly.
“Barth’s earlier accomplishments amount to a watershed for the country’s fiction, a landmark in what’s known as Postmodernism. … As Barth’s work matures, its elements of experiment take us further from the ordinary.” —John Domini, LitHub
“Every sentence he writes either looks at itself askance or ushers in a following sentence that will perform the task. In his fascinated commitment to the art—and to the criticism—of storytelling, he has no rival.”—William Pritchard, New York Times
“John Barth has spent most of his allotted era watching our wheels spin with a coolly detached, not unamused gaze. He doesn’t ignore or eschew change, but he takes a wider view. He is Heraclitean to the core. . . . If, as Nabokov wrote in the Afterword to Lolita, art is kindness, then John Barth embodies art every bit as much as anyone ever has.”—James Greer, LA Review of Books
“I stand here ironing,” declares the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s much-anthologized short story of that title. Me, I sit here rocking—in my two-dozen-year-old swivel desk chair at my forty-plus-year-old work table, between strokes of my Parker (19)51 fountain pen in the seventy-year-old loose-leaf binder (picked up during my freshman orientation at Johns Hopkins in 1947) in which I’ve first-drafted every apprentice and then professional sentence of my writing life, up to and including this extended one—my now nearly nine-decades-old body taking idle comfort in the so-familiar oscillation that has, this workday morning, caught the attention of its octogenarian mind.
Nothing vigorous, this rocking: just a gentle, intermittent back-and-forthing as I scan my notes and exfoliate them into these sentences and paragraphs. Notes, e.g., on the ubiquitous popularity of rocking chairs (including the iconic John F. Kennedy Rocker), porch swings, hammocks, and the like: a popularity surely owing to our body’s memory of having been calmed and soothed through babyhood in parental arms, cradles, infant-slings, maybe, later on, rocking-horses. And in adulthood, a particularly delicious feeling for my wife and myself was the gentle rocking of our cruising sailboat at anchor in one of the many snug coves of Chesapeake Bay. These calmative effects in turn no doubt derive from our prenatal rocking in the womb as our mothers went about their pregnant daily business, themselves rocking in chairs now and then to rest between stand-up chores and to lull their increasingly active cargo. We are not surprised to hear from neuroscientists and physicians that rocking releases endorphins, which abet our physical and mental health—though one also remembers the furious, feverish rocking of the never-to-be-soothed protagonist in D. H. Lawrence’s ironically titled “The Rocking-Horse Winner.”
Old-timers, especially, favor rockers as they circle toward second childhood, and nursing homes, particularly ones for patients with dementia, are more and more using rocking chairs as therapy: Thus from “Rock-a-Bye Baby” we rock and roll our way to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Rockin’ Chair’s Got Me.” “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking,” writes Walt Whitman of the waves of Long Island Sound, “I . . . a reminiscence sing.” A boyhood beach-memory, it is, of his having sharply pitied the keenings of a male mockingbird bereft of its mate: desolated love-cries that the Good Gray Poet is pleased in retrospect to imagine having inspired his whole ensuing poetical life’s work. And that he now “fuses” with the sea’s “low and delicious word”—“Death, death, death, death, death”—to arrive at an intellectual acceptance and emotional transcendence of The End. Not for us to question whether, in Whitman’s case, the poem’s conclusion declares a psychological accomplishment on its author’s part or merely raises a hopeful/wishful possibility.
In my own case, as befits a mere novelist, the out-of-the cradle rocking-reminiscence is more prosaic: For the first seventeen-and-then-some years of my life—from babyhood until college—it was my fixed nightly habit to rock myself to sleep. Left-side down in bed, I would roll gently back and forth into oblivion at a rate slightly lower (so I’ve just confirmed by comparing kinesthetic memory, surprisingly strong, with my watch’s sweep-second hand) than my once-per-second normal pulse. About 1.5 seconds per rock it was, by my present reckoning, or forty rocks per minute—which I now further discover to approximate my most natural-feeling frequency for desk-and rocking-chair rocking as well. Try it yourself, reader: Once per second feels frenetic, no? And once every second second a bit laggard? When “restive” (odd adjective, that; it sounds as if it ought to mean rest-conducive rather than rest-resistant), I would rock even in partial sleep.
So I learned from my twin sister, whom my habit never seemed to bother in the ten or so prepubescent years when we shared a bedroom (with, appropriately, twin beds); perhaps she was inured to it from our months together in the womb. And so I was reminded further and less patiently by my older brother in the several subsequent years of our room-sharing, between my puberty and his departure for college and military service, through which interval I troubled his repose with my rockrockrocking and he mine in turn, more intriguingly (if I ceased rocking and feigned sleep), with the soft slapslap of adolescent masturbation, which his kid brother was only just discovering. And so I was reminded finally by the teasing of college roommates, who pretended to think I must be jerking off in some exotic waywise when, too ashamed at that age and stage to rock myself to sleep, I sometimes embarrassed myself and entertained them by endlessly rocking in my sleep.
An old-time Freudian, one supposes, would maintain that it was in fact masturbative, that rhythmic back-and-forthing that wore away the shoulder of my teenage pajamas from friction against the bed-sheets. But hey: masturbation as far back as pre-Kindergarten? Sure, our hypothetical Freudian would reply: All toddlers play with their privates until shamed out of doing so, whereupon the instinctual itch finds other outlets, or inlets. Yes, well, maybe: but about my rocking as a mode of post-pubescent-though-still-virginal Getting It Off, I feel the way Robert Frost felt about his critics’ reading his “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as a poem about the death-wish: “When I write a poem about death,” Frost maintained in effect, “I write a poem about death. When I want to write about stopping by woods on a snowy evening, I write about that.” Or, more directly to the point, the young woman in one of Bruno Bettelheim’s classes whose fiddling with her hair during his lectures reputedly so distracted the eminent psychiatrist that he admonished her publicly by declaring that what she was doing was a sublimated form of masturbation—to which she spiritedly replied, “When I feel like masturbating, Dr. Bettelheim, I masturbate. When I fiddle with my hair, I’m fiddling with my hair.” By age fourteen, when I was inclined to whack off I whacked off. Rocking myself to sleep was a different business altogether.
Which is not to deny any twenty-first-century holdout’s contention that even to the busily copulative and/or explicitly masturbatory, the gratification of rocking in bed—yea, even of rocking in desk chair or front-porch rocker—may have a mild erotic component. If so, however, then like reflexology or floating on gentle sea-waves (in my experience of giving or indulging those pleasures, at least), it’s more assuaging than arousing to the carnal itch—rather like “shuckling,” the Jewish custom of swaying back and forth while reciting the Torah. Anyhow, as a wise philosophy-professor used to remind us Hopkins undergrads, one arrives at generality only by ignoring enough particularity: The more a proposition applies to everything in general, the less it applies to anything in particular. If my real subject were erotic gratification, I’d be “off my rocker” to write about rocking myself into the arms of Morpheus in bedtime years of yore and, in desk chair work-mornings since, into fruitful intercourse with the muse.
Not quite right, in this context, that old slang expression for “crazy”—which my Pocket Dictionary of American Slang dates to circa 1930 (the year of my and my sister’s birth) but gives no derivation of, as does neither my American Heritage Dictionary nor my compact O.E.D. To be “off one’s rocker” sounds turn-of-last-century mechanical to me, in the vein more of “slipped one’s trolley” than of a senseless “out of one’s chair.” In any event, my infantile habit disappeared, rather swiftly and painlessly as I recall, during that freshman college year, thus sparing me the embarrassment that I used to fear more than my roommate’s teasing: that I might unconsciously fall to rocking while sleeping with a woman when that eagerly-anticipated time arrived, and frighten the bejesus out of her. And there’ve been no relapses in the decades since, although even nowadays my wife will sometimes ask me to please quit distracting her by rocking in my chair when we’re reading or TV-watching in a room together. Recliners I can do without, but if there’s a rocker I’ll go for it, and only with some effort eschew its intended function.
Meanwhile, back on campus, this then-new old loose-leaf binder was filling up with lecture notes and term-paper drafts, its divider tabs labeled EUR HIST, LIT CLASSICS, POL SCI, and the like, instead of their present W[ork] I[n]P[rogress]#1, WIP#2, etc.—the former for front-burner fiction in the works, the latter for essays, lectures, and such miscellanies as this. By sophomore year I had managed to get myself duly and rockinglessly laid and had amended those notebook-dividers, replacing JOURN[alism], my tentative original major, with something like FICT 101. The exact name of the university’s introductory fiction-writing course escapes me (Hopkins’s brand-new degree-granting creative writing program was one of only two such in the nation back then; nowadays, for better or worse, there are above 400), but not the trial-and-error pleasures of fumbling my way into Vocation.
In those green semesters of literary (and, coincidentally, sexual) apprenticeship, did I have a swivel-rocking chair? Not impossibly, although it and the desk it served will have been among the battered Goodwill Industries cheapos wherewith we-all furnished our off-campus student-warren row-house walk-ups. What strikes me now—what nudges my patient Parker 51, anyhow—is that it will have been just about when I ceased rocking myself to sleep that I awoke to my calling and commenced my curriculum vitae as a desk-chair-rocking Writer (and, coincidentally, lover/husband/father). What had formerly been a sedative, a tranquilizing soporific, had morphed into a facilitator of reflection, contemplation, deliberation, even inspiration: in both aspects, one supposes, a channeler and discharger of mild but maybe mildly distracting nervous energy.
So? Sixty years on, a veteran wordsmith now and a seasoned octogenarian, I find my musings sometimes preoccupied with that latter datum and, by obvious extension, with my mortality: a preoccupation that, while often sharpening the pleasures of a many-blessinged life, sometimes dulls their edge and threatens to pre-empt my professional imagination. Unlike Walt Whitman, I do not find “the sea’s low word” delicious and reconciliatory, much less inspiring; I find it quietly chilling. Death (and worse, one’s own and one’s mate’s approaching infirmity, dependency, bereavement, and the rest) inspiring? One would have to be . . . off one’s rocker to find it so! Or else believe in some Happy Hereafter—which I utterly cannot.
How then come to terms with The End, except—small comfort, but doubtless better than none—by fashioning sentences, paragraphs, pages out of its inexorable approach, while not for a moment imagining that such wordsmithery will delay by even 1.5 seconds the thing’s arrival?
I rock and consider, in pensive (though not wordless) vain . . .