Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Sot-Weed Factor - part 3



Part Three of my real-time review of THE SOT-WEED FACTOR by John Barth, a review that will evolve in the comment stream below as I read it…

Continued from Part Two here:


12 responses to “*

  1. 17

    “— sounded to Ebenezer like Drehpunkter, Dreipunkter, Dreckpächter, Droguepécheur, Droitpacteur, Drupègre, Drêcheporteur, or even Despartidor, and to Bertrand invariably like Drakepecker.”

    Demonstrating the difference between master and servant, poet and literalist. Yet, B dreams of a golden city in this land, where he can ‘god’ about, and E is ironically more down to Earth, as they live out this cross between Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, with some elements of the latter’s Modest Proposal style of approach, here about master and servants, and slaves, and so-called savages, gods and men, involving an infected knee and a wild cast of characters in these roles, and talk of the pesky English over the brow of the hill, planters of agriculture or planters of what and where? The fabulous and the amoral, the downtrodden and the, well, we are all downtrodden whatever else we are, I guess. Parse and scry this fable if you can! A place where the woke and the unwoke are no different during this premonitory version of today’s co-vivid dream! And what ‘shitten’ place does this once exotic isle suddenly morph into within such a dream from which perhaps we shall now never wake?

  2. BCBD500C-C3EC-4A42-8E4F-5D778BBFC7F518

    ”…his audience, who guffawed and snorted, smacked their thighs and held their sides, wet their noses and elbowed their neighbours, and pointed horny fingers at Ebenezer, and broke wind in their uncouth breeches.”

    Mixing “Negroes” and “Englishmen”, we learn by osmosis of the original Eben Cook ‘Satyr’ and the original Sot Weed Factor and the Planters found there, the politically incorrect corrected like smacking or elbowing the reader would do, magicked there by the power of literature, leapfrogging straight to Maryland without being crucified first by a stay on Crusoe’s island! Intoning a high and mighty poem of welcome to himself, one that, as if he were a Blue Peter presenter, he had prepared earlier! Magicked, ironically, too, over the misguided river Choptank, by dint of his own literature, a sonnet specially writ for the ferryman instead of paying him by gold. I, for one, knew by biting it, it was no strict sonnet, or just by counting its lines. But the river still mocked me with its identity.

  3. 19
    “…Humphrey (sic) had loved Elizabeth all in vain and now would have his love returned tenfold!” (my sic)

    …strikingly I am currently, by preternatural chance, reading and reviewing, in ‘The Shadowy Third’ here, another ‘love affair’ between a Humphry and an Elizabeth!
    Meanwhile, in the S-W F, we have another truly remarkable chapter – this one about E and B meeting a swineherd maiden, who — with, amid her pigs, a lengthy tale she tells of intrigue, chance twins and likenesses, blasphemies, a swiving-by-opium and a religious/ sexual mania involving her as a Bride of Christ* — reminds E of Joan Toast and his persistent battle to maintain his virginity in face of the desires within him. All exquisitely styled and couched, with hints of roistering farce.

    *another remarkable prose fiction about a Bride of Christ recently reviewed here:

  4. 20

    “I shall cleave thee with the rhymer’s blade, cure thee with the smoke of love, stuff thee with the lardoon of Parnassus, baste and infuse thee with the muse’s nectar, and devour thee while thou’rt yet aquiver!”

    This word-teeming Restoration Comedy will subsume thee with pig smells and whip-scars — and will toast thee with Toast. Comprehend its Boatmen and Mitchells and Maldens and Maidens ugly-faced or not, ugly-assed or not, and all else at your sanity’s peril as Ebenezer flies close to the edge, amid shifting identities and assumptions, ours not necessarily his — while his precious and noble virginity be tempted beyond forbearance. But I leave it all pent up, by not entering the next chapter’s outcomings till another day…

  5. 21 & 22

    “Ah, sir, no amorous practice is itself a vice — can ye be in sooth a poet and not see that? Adultery, rape, deceit, unfair seduction — ‘tis these are vicious, not the coupling of parts: the sin is not in the act, but in the circumstances.”

    More scandalous passages in this book, perhaps the most scandalous of all of them so far, and I can hardly imagine future passages able to become more scandalous and shocking than these. Yet am I truly shocked? I followed naturally the audit trail stemming, almost literally, from E’s outdoors piss that stirred a shoat in the piggish or swine world (just like the butterfly in ‘chaos theory’) that led to all manner of things yet to happen in this book, firstly E entering the piggery compound still lustful for the swine herd maiden, yet still due to preserve his holy holism of virginity, for he meets a slippery customer, a man he took one way, till we all learn who this man was, who searches still his heritage and hankers after E’s sister Anna and, according to him, her him, and the man with a yen for E, too, and explicating various other intrigues in the ineluctable streams of this book concerning Coode and the pirates et al.
    SPOILER: This man, like many previous spoilers of disguise, turns out to be Burlingame who could even make the reader empathise with relishing the coupling with — or planting their eggs in — various beasts, with these or with either gender of their own kind, young and old alike…
    Like E, though, this reader preserves his honour against such ministrations that even the preternatural powers of fiction or literature can otherwise make seem toothsome.

  6. 23
    … an illuminating number that gives the answer 42 !

    “…a splendid morning for rededication —“

    An important passage that will change the direction your life as it did mine in the 1960s. Now, in old age, possibly dying by a recent resumption of prostate cancer, it welcomingly renews its effect on me! A new triangulation of coordinates toward redirection and rededication of the ultimate, if Zeno-Paradoxical, gestalt…

    “How can I know what I must do and where I stand?”

      Burlingame laid his arm across the poet’s shoulders and smiled. “What is’t you describe, my friend, if not man’s lot? He is by mindless lust engendered and by mindless wrench expelled, from the Eden of the womb to the motley, mindless world. He is Chance’s fool, the toy of aimless Nature—a mayfly flitting down the winds of Chaos!”

      “You mistake my meaning,” Ebenezer said, lowering his eyes.

      Burlingame was undaunted: his eyes glittered. “Not by much, methinks. Once long ago we sat like this, at an inn near Magdalene College—do you remember? And I said, ‘Here we sit upon a blind rock hurtling through a vacuum, racing to the grave.’ ’Tis our fate to search, Eben, and do we seek our soul, what we find is a piece of that same black Cosmos whence we sprang and through which we fall: the infinite wind of space…”
    In fact a night wind had sprung up and was buffeting the inn. Ebenezer shivered and clutched the edge of the table. “But there is so much unanswered and unresolved! It dizzies me!”

      “Marry!” laughed Henry. “If you saw it clear enough ’twould not dizzy you: ’twould drive you mad! This inn here seems a little isle in a sea of madness, doth it not? Blind Nature howls without, but here ’tis calm—how dare we leave? Yet lookee round you at these men that dine and play at cards, as if the sky were their mother’s womb! They remind me of the chickens I once saw fed to a giant snake in Africa: when the snake struck one of the others squawked and fluttered, but a moment after they were scratching about for corn, or standing on his very back to preen their feathers! How is’t these men don’t run a-gibbering down the streets, if not that their minds are lulled to sleep?” He pressed the poet’s arm. “You know as well as I that human work can be magnificent; but in the face of what’s out yonder”—he gestured skywards—“ ’tis the industry of Bedlam! Which sees the state of things more clearly: the cock that preens on the python’s back, or the lunatic that trembles in his cell?”

    Ebenezer sighed. “Yet I fail to see the relevance of this; ’tis not germane at all to what I had—”

      “Not germane?” Burlingame exclaimed. “ ’Tis the very root and stem of’t! Two things alone can save a man from madness.” He indicated the other patrons of the inn. “Dull-headedness is one, and far the commoner: the truth that drives men mad must be sought for ere it’s found, and it eludes the doltish or myopic hunter. But once ’tis caught and looked on, whether by insight or instruction, the captor’s sole expedient is to force his will upon’t ere it work his ruin! Why is’t you set such store by innocence and rhyming, and I by searching out my father and battling Coode? One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to’t, or go babbling in the corner; one must choose his gods and devils on the run, quill his own name upon the universe, and declare, ‘ ’Tis I, and the world stands such-a-way!’ One must assert, assert, assert, or go screaming mad. What other course remains?”

      “One other,” Ebenezer said with a blush. “ ’Tis the one I flee…”

      “What? Ah, ’sheart, indeed! The state I found you in at college! How many have I seen like that in Bedlam—wide-eyed, feculent, and blind to the world! Some boil their life into a single gesture and repeat it o’er and o’er; others are so far transfixed, their limbs remain where’er you place ’em; still others take on false identities: Alexander, or the Pope in Rome, or e’en the Poet Laureate of Maryland—”

      Ebenezer looked up, uncertain whether it was he or the impostors whom Burlingame referred to.

      “The upshot of’t is,” his friend concluded, “if you’d escape that fate you must embrace me or reject me, and the course we are committed to, despite the shifting lights that we appear in, just as you must embrace your Self as Poet and Virgin, regardless, or discard it for something better.” He stood up. “In either case don’t seek whole understanding—the search were fruitless, and there is no time for’t. Will you come with me now, or stay?”

      Ebenezer frowned and squinted. “I’ll come,” he said finally, and went out with Burlingame to the horses. The night was wild, but not unpleasant: a warm, damp wind roared out of the southwest, churned the river to a froth, bent the pines like whips, and drove a scud across the stars. Both men looked up at the splendid night.

      “Forget the word sky,” Burlingame said off-handedly, swinging up on his gelding, “ ’tis a blinder to your eyes. There is no dome of heaven yonder.”

      Ebenezer blinked twice or thrice; with the aid of these instructions, for the first time in his life he saw the night sky. The stars were no longer points on a black hemisphere that hung like a sheltering roof above his head; the relationship between them he saw now in three dimensions, of which the one most deeply felt was depth. The length and breadth of space between the stars seemed trifling by comparison: what struck him now was that some were nearer, others farther out, and others unimaginably remote. Viewed in this manner, the constellations lost their sense entirely; their spurious character revealed itself, as did the false presupposition of the celestial navigator, and Ebenezer felt bereft of orientation. He could no longer think of up and down: the stars were simply out there, as well below him as above, and the wind appeared to howl not from the Bay but from the firmament itself, the endless corridors of space.

      “Madness!” Henry whispered.

      Ebenezer’s stomach churned; he swayed in the saddle and covered his eyes. For a swooning moment before he turned away it seemed that he was heels over head on the bottom of the planet, looking down on the stars instead of up, and that only by dint of clutching his legs about the roan mare’s girth and holding fast to the saddlebow with both his hands did he keep from dropping headlong into those vasty reaches!

  7. 24 & 25

    Some lengthy longueurs where Barth seems to rewrite American history and I skipped lightly through it all, just garnering one quote*…although one of these chapter headings seems to think that much here is “less relevant in appearance than it will prove in fact.” But I am eager to get on to matters I fully understand as full-fledged fiction, rather than recobbled history…

    * “‘Crescentia,’ Burlingame replied, and added: ‘Whether ‘twas meant to signify the holy lunar crescent of Mohammed or the carnal crescent sacred to Priapus is a matter still much argued by scholars.’”
    As they will also continue to argue about these two densely-packed chapters, being Jesuitical apocrypha or not about Pocahontas et al!

  8. 26

    “‘One need not be a hen to judge an egg,’ Ebenezer allowed,…”

    Restarting their journey, E recites to HB some verses he has penned that he trusts will be included within his mighty Marylandiad-to-be.
    A lively and entertaining discussion ensues on rhymes, Hudibrastic or otherwise. And a wager to find a rhyme for ‘month’.
    I think myself that ‘onth’ could be a synonym for ‘first’, as ‘tooth’ is for ‘second’?

  9. 27

    Many a truth is spoke in ignorance, and many a wrong set right by chance.

    …often the way I real-time review books, I guess.
    For ignorance, also read innocence. One Greek, the other Latin, but I recall not which is which. E and HB, after having a Socratic dialogue about ‘justice’, arrive, amid much plottage that escapes me, on the way to Malden, at a courthouse where all manner of wagers, bribes and other judicial jiggerypokery apply, where, for a nonce, E, in an outburst of uncontained idealism, himself becomes tantamount to Judge in a sex case involving the erstwhile swine herd maiden now scrubbed up and neatly dressed. I fear for the repercussions on the plot!

  10. 28

    Drunken, licking his wounds in having given away Malden, Ebenezer brainstorms the legend of Adam and Eve, and the destruction of not only his American dream, but the gestalt American Dream itself!? Is this a cruel satire by Barth, or a gratuitous, if richly worded, romp of a rare wit or wisdom as well as drunken swiving and conspiracy. A hoax or a literary holiness. The story of an Idealistic Innocent Abroad while taunting us all with our frailties of understanding. While Burlingame (aka Tim Mitchell at the moment) amid the jeering planters, taunts E with this mixed-up metaphor of himself as Adam, and taunts E, too, with E’s sister Anna’s lust for Burlingame as the latter’s lust for her. True or not.
    Some pungent language here, where poetry’s meat of metaphor and its thin gruel as rhyme compete, at least in my mind, if not theirs! Just a digression from my otherwise misunderstanding what I read. As I ever do. 😦
    Perhaps I am drunk, too.

  11. Having suffered shock, not to mention such a shock’s concomitant lack of confidence on my part, at the end of the last chapter above wherein Ebenezer has himself fallen dead upon the sawdust floor, I shall need to recover for a while, after which time my real-time review will continue here:

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