John Barth discussion

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Eitan Frankel's introduction to John Barth

Why am I here delivering this introduction?

To answer this question, I want to take you back to a Monday a few weeks ago when Al dedicated our class to the seniors present; a group that included me.  On that day, we were discussing Giles Goat Boy.  As I am sure many of you know, in this 710-page novel, George, a goat-boy, embarks on an epic quest to grasp the meaning of graduation.  Intertwined with his adventures are a series of political, religious, and historical allegories; (Pause) but it was the quest that captivated my attention.  Just as George was trying to understand graduation from New Tammany College – what it meant not to be “flunk-ed” - I was trying to figure out what “commencing” from this university really entailed.  And when I finished the novel, I felt “pass-ed”; I thought that I understood the meaning of Mr. Barth’s mantra that “Failure is passage,” and that I comprehended the significance of graduation: that graduation was not about fixing everything and becoming a perfected product, but rather about recognizing and embracing one’s own faults.

But when Al began our 3-hour class session with the question, “Do any of the seniors in the room have any thoughts they want to share?” my answer was pure “flunk-edness,” -- and not in a good way.  I mumbled something generic – that I was both excited and nervous about graduating -- but it was clear that I had failed to fathom the wisdom that Mr. Barth and George had tried to impart on me.  Fortunately, I would be given a second shot.

Fast-forward two weeks in seminar time, and 40 years of Mr. Barth’s illustrious literary career, and I was surprised and greatly pleased to see that Mr. Barth was still struggling with the very question that I had failed to answer: the question of closure.  While The Development, a collection of short stories, and Every Third Thought, Mr. Barth’s most recent novel, had traded the university for a gated community on the Maryland shore, both works still dealt with approaching the “end of a road.”  Any attempt to succinctly summarize Mr. Barth’s work would be futile because his writing is often concurrently epic, tragic, comedic, serious, honest, deceptive, multi-layered, literal, challenging, experimental, paradoxical, and inspirational -- but a common theme does underlie his work.

Mr. Barth insists on asking the difficult questions, and manages to do so in a way that brings insight to the most clich├ęd topics.  Rather than accepting conclusions as foregone, his writing dissects the processes – (Pause) what does it mean to age, to commence, to write a novel, to narrate a story, to come to the end of one’s career -- even to die?  The answers to these questions aren’t ever easy, or even possible to determine, but Mr. Barth skillfully reveals the paradoxes of life—coming and going, success and failure, life and death.  In The Development, a loving, aging husband and wife commit suicide because neither can imagine living life without the other; I couldn’t help but empathize with their desperate plea of love.  In Every Third Thought, the narrator, G.I. Newett, continually struggles with his insignificance as a writer: his first thought fails, his second thought fails, and his third thought? – well, it is unclear that he ever formulates a concrete third thought that will allow him to compose the novel that will justify his literary career.  Newett’s novel remains unfinished—a testament to the insatiable desire of the narrator to succeed.  It is this candor that I much admire and have found so exciting and inspiring in Mr. Barth’s writing.  Never before have I been so skillfully guided through a series of events that have given me insight into the concurrent and often paradoxical hardships, joys, tragedies, positive memories, mishaps, and emotions associated with entering the winter phase of life.  Mr. Barth doesn’t shy from questions because they are too complex or too uncomfortable; instead, throughout his career, he has taken the questions that other people refuse to ask -- let alone answer -- and has turned them into whole stories.

The past month was quite a test of endurance: in four weeks the members of the Fellows seminar read The End of the Road, Giles Goat Boy, The Literature of Exhaustion, Lost in the Funhouse, The Development, and Every Third Thought.  And while I couldn’t imagine myself saying this when I was entrenched somewhere around page 300 of Giles Goat Boy, by now I can emphatically say that I wish we had read more.  Throughout college I have read and read and read, but never before has a single writer forced me to rethink my assumptions about such a vast array of topics: from literary elements such as authorship and narration, to existential dilemmas such as identifying meaning at the end of life, Mr. Barth has truly done it all.  While over the four years that I have traversed from Commencement Gate to Graduation there have been times when I have questioned whether I was on the right path; now I can definitively say that Mr. Barth’s works have validated my decision to study literature.  His writing has forced me to do a little bit of everything: to struggle, to accept uncertainty, to question the writing process, to question myself – and in the end, I have realized that if graduation can be as meaningful as picking up and reading one of Mr. Barth’s novel, then it will have been a great success.  For this, Mr. Barth, I would like to thank you.

So it is with great pleasure and much honor that I introduce the third Kelly Writer’s House Fellow of 2012 – John Barth.

Rivky Mondal introduces Ron Silliman

I must admit that before taking Al’s Fellows seminar, I had never read anything by Ron Silliman. Now, I feel like I’ve known him for years. Besides the fact that I’ve been reading and thinking about little else but Ron Silliman for over a month, his critical and poetic works connect me to the thinkers I’ve been studying throughout my college career: Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, whose theories of language Mr. Silliman has breathtakingly absorbed and surpassed in his own writing.
Until reading Ron Silliman, I viewed creative writing and literary theory as two camps of thought. One was innovative, the other critical, and the two met occasionally but never intersected. But Mr. Silliman has changed my approach - and dare I say my entire academic outlook - completely. I realized: It’s one thing to write about lit theory, but to enact it as Ron Silliman does is a feat of creative genius. For me, his poetry is theory in motion. In his sentences, I saw the layered mythologies of Barthes, the mirrors of Lacan, and the linguistic signs of Saussure. For example, in his poem “BART,” Mr. Silliman writes: “Description implies a relation,” and later, “My writing is a scrawl, an act of description.”
When I first read “BART,” I was dumbfounded. As a Brooklyn girl, I am not unfamiliar with public transportation. When I was younger, my mother used to urge me to take a cab home, but, unbeknown to her, I always opted for the subway. The look of the sunset from a dirty window of the Q train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is the closest I’ve ever come to a beatific vision. Ron Silliman combines my two great loves in “BART”: lit theory and gritty public transportation. I had always craved this dailiness in theory; it had always felt so unanchored from the everyday. Before encountering Silliman in this seminar, I was starting to feel detached from the everyday in my theoretical studies at Penn. Having my head in the books was causing me to lose my connection to the urban. But Ron Silliman finds the philosophical in the quotidian, showing me that I can have my Barthes and my Brooklyn, that the two are not dissimilar. Mr. Silliman can convey in one line what others take a whole book to do - this being the inability of language to render life through realism. So, for example, when I say, “It is March 19, 2012, and I, Rivky Mondal, am not only sharing breathing space with Ron Silliman, but am also introducing him” it doesn’t come close to the real. "Because we think we can represent the world in language,” writes Mr. Silliman in The New Sentence, “we tend to imagine that the universe itself performs as one. Yet, if we look to that part of the world which is the poem...we find instead only metaphors, translations, tropes...[E]ach paradigm is aware of itself as a translation of the real, inaccurate and incomplete."
I love Ron Silliman’s poetry, but man, am I a geek for his critical writing. This rejection of conventional narrative proved difficult to swallow for a Fellows seminar of mostly English and History majors. We first read “Albany,” a Language poem of apparently disconnected moments, states, and revelations from Mr. Silliman’s life. Besides its socio-political message, the class recognized that the poem could be seen as abstract. And to be fair, Ron Silliman’s work can appear abstract or even opaque to readers who are not willing to do the work, because Ron Silliman wants his readers to be proactive and informed. The Fellows class leapt at this call to action, and after deciphering the Fibonacci sequences, searching for key repetitions, and following the torques, we were rewarded with meaning. And as a reader who cannot finish a book without underlining every other sentence, commenting in the margins, and dog-earing the pages, I have to say: Thank you, Ron Silliman. Thank you for giving me a space to interpret your work, for demanding that I labor for its import. Thank you for encouraging my obsessive habits, for making them seem not only reasonable, but necessary. You've wowed me with your lyrical sentences and critical linguistic observations, but you've also let me find my own meaning in your form. And thank you for not making me any false promises, because you do not presume to capture reality in three easy steps of set-up, conflict, resolution. I am astounded by your reformation of language, because for someone who theoretically distrusts conventional language, you are a master of it. And you’ve even inspired me to write some Language poetry of my own, and for someone who has internalized the traditional academic writing of thesis-body-conclusion, that’s unbelievable.
Yet what I admire most about your work is your refusal to settle - to settle for writing within the literary canon, to settle for a critical discourse confined to academic circles, to settle for creative immersion that is anything less than absolute. You were dissatisfied with the old sentence, so you created a new one. You’ve shown me that theory is poetic, that knowledge goes beyond the syllabus and that meaning doesn’t end with the sentence.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce the second Kelly Writers House Fellow of 2012, Ron Silliman