Friday, April 10, 2009


A long time ago, as an undergraduate, I took a course on contemporary American literature that included several texts by John Barth, including The End of the Road (1958, revised 1967). I was in the full glory days of my existentialist period at the time, so Barth's The End of the Road and the twin novel with which it is packaged, The Floating Opera (which I've referenced before on this blog) really struck a chord somewhere deep within my 20-something crise d’identit√©. Barth's central character in The End of the Road is Jacob Horner, a grammar teacher and philanderer, who suffers from an existential condition metaphorically represented by pointillism. The painting to the left here is Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grand Jatte, one of the foremost examples of the pointillist painting technique, which relies on the ability of the human eye and the human mind to mix color spots into a coherent image that transcends (and makes sense of) the disparate "points" of which it is composed. By analogy, Horner speculates that he is only able to make sense of the entirety of his existence by blurring his focus on any one particular point of that existence-- but he worries that this traps him in a paradox of meaning and meaninglessness that is ultimately debilitating. On the one hand, sacrificing the integrity of the individual moments renders them meaningless, plaguing the entire picture of his life with a kind of nonsense that renders his gaze immobile. On the other hand, when he tries to accentuate the particular moments of his life and throw them into a kind of mythical and meaningful relief, he risks rendering the whole meaningless at best, invisible at worst.

Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., claimed that The End of the Road was the inspiration for his song "Laughing" off R.E.M.'s first album, Murmur. Though the protagonist in Barth's novel acknowledges the irony of his situation, he doesn't find his condition laughable. In fact, he describes it as a kind of paralysis-- "gazing on eternity, fixed on ultimacy...there is no reason to do anything--even to change the focus of one’s eyes"-- in which the long-view of all of life's options and possible meanings renders the freedom to choose between them impotent. He calls this condition cosmopsis, "the cosmic view" that produces a kind of intellectual and spiritual entropy in its sufferers. What does one look at when standing in front of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grand Jatte? What IS one looking at? And once one concedes to relaxing his or her focus, giving oneself over to the whole, how does one look away? Remember this scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off?

That's cosmopsis. The closer one focuses in on the individual points, the more decontextualized and meaningless they become. The more one blurs the individual points to find the meaning in the whole, the more one becomes transfixed, paralyzed, unable to think or choose or be anything for fear that to lose sight of the whole, even for a moment, is to lose any sort of meaning at all.

Now, I'm willing to admit that this is just the kind of hyperbolic, existentialist angst that appeals to people in their twenties (which I was), who like to think of themselves as, to use Barth's phrase, "pronouns sans ante or precedent"(which I did), but for some reason I've found myself thinking a lot about cosmopsis recently. Maybe it's the fact that I'm trying to write a book, which can be its own kind of pointillist painting. Maybe it's the constant news about the economic collapse, which most of the time makes sense as a "whole" story, though the consitutive parts often seem so nonsensical and strange. Maybe it's some kind of (premature) mid-life crisis, which tends (stereotypically, anyway) to repeat the behaviors of our 20-something crises. Maybe it's a reaction to the dramatic and abrupt channel-change that our nation has done politically, in which the discrete events of this change seem completely absurd if one is still looking at and thinking about them in the context of the old channel's narrative. Maybe it's Bernie Madoff's fault.

At any rate, the problem of having to decide whether to look at the points to see the picture, or look at the picture to see the points, is seeming more and more to me a hazard of the philosophical life. But it's probably much more mundane than that...


sue said...

This is an interesting post in a variety of frameworks, but I do wonder if this state of mind is somehow a product of your work and its relation to current events. Observe these two phrases in recent posts:

a - "Maybe it's a reaction to the dramatic and abrupt channel-change that our nation has done politically, in which the discrete events of this change seem completely absurd if one is still looking at and thinking about them in the context of the old channel's narrative."

b - "...I realized several times what a completely different world we are in now than we were in when I was writing most of it"

Now, I have to admit that I was puzzled when I read (b) a few weeks ago. I don't know the exact nature of your current project but I understand (am hoping that) it relates to your posts on weak humanism which I have followed with great interest. Does it?

Maybe I'm hoping that you are examining recent events in the context of a larger ethical framework of a re-defined humanism. In which case, I would not find any of them to be "completely absurd", nor do I think we are living in a "completely different world".

Then again, maybe I'm completely wrong to connect those remarks like that. In which case, I owe you a beer.

DOCTOR J said...

Hi Sue. You're probably right to connect my comments. I've been working on the weak humanism book a lot lately and, naturally, the whole world seems to be filtered through that project (which is itself still taking shape).

You can still buy me a beer, though. Where are you, by the way?

sue said...

I am from the states but have been living overseas for an extended period of time, currently in Spain, so I'm not sure where the beer-buying is going to take place - we'll have to keep that open!

I have truly enjoyed the weak humanism posts over the past year and find myself applying the principles broadly. I'll be very interested to hear more about it.

At this point I should mention that - in addition to being a bit removed over here from american politics - I am not at all professionally involved in either philosophy or academics.. in any way, whatsoever.. so my interest is purely for self-indulgence. That, and because I think it's relevant and important to re-shape our thinking on these matters.

And, yet, beer..

nyquil chug said...

I am a huge fan of Barth. I believe that he is an overlooked and underrated novelist.