Who Gets Lost in the Funhouse

The following essay is a Heideggerian reading of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. In Appendix E, I point out explicitly some of Heidegger’s insights that I am finding among Barth’s insights here.


Any story, any section of story, will do. This one:

There’s no point in going farther; this isn’t getting anybody anywhere; they haven’t even come to the funhouse yet. Ambrose is off the track, in some new or old part of the place that’s not supposed to be used; he strayed into it by some one-in-a-million chance, like the time the roller-coaster car left the tracks in the nineteen-teens against all the laws of physics and sailed over the boardwalk in the dark. And they can’t locate him because they don’t know where to look. Even the designer and operator have forgotten this other part, that winds around on itself like a whelk shell. That winds around the right part like the snakes on Mercury’s caduceus…. (John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse, 83)

Now the trick is to get hold of it, hold on. Try it. Identify the character(s), the voice(s), the plot(s), theme(s)—identify fact, fiction, implications, significance if any, truth if. The story moves under your hand, changes. It’s Proteus you’re onto.

Ambrose in the funhouse? No, he’s lying on the sand with that physically whelming presence he thinks is Magda, pretending to watch that impostor Peter show off his diving, muscles—form. The timing’s wrong. The funhouse is later. The narrator, then, anticipating his story? Oh yes, and mirroring it, both of them wandering roundly off the track. The narrator’s plan and his character’s plot wandering off into the wrong time, out of place, astray. The characters’ characters (author’s, narrator’s, characters’) blur into each other; there’s no focus; space is as imploded as time. The voice (author’s, narrator’s, characters’) attenuates to one multidistinguishable whine. Point of view? Who’s to see?

When I understood that Proteus somewhere on the beach became Menelaus holding the Old Man of the Sea, Menelaus ceased. Then I understood further how Proteus thus also was as such no more, being as possibly Menelaus’s attempt to hold him, the tale of that vain attempt, the voice that tells it. (167)

Climactic confrontation. Turning point. Turning, turning, turning point. The rest is a story of diminishing returns.

Ajax is dead, Agamemnon, all my friends, but I can’t die, worse luck; Menelaus’s carcass is long wormed, yet his voice yarns on through everything, to itself. Not my voice, I am this voice, no more, the rest has changed, rechanged, gone. The voice too, even that changes, becomes hoarser, loses its magnetism, grows scratchy, incoherent, blank. (167)

The last word? Hold-on.

One more interpretation.

In my discussion of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse1 I shall treat his “series” of stories as a novel: because a unity, a wholeness, is intended, according to the “Author’s Note,” because a single work is achieved, as I hope to demonstrate, and because, as Barth remarked in a “conversation” referring to “book-length fiction” written today, “it’s got to be called something or other.”2 Besides, the form this novel takes (selected stories) is not new to the genre. The moderns broke up whatever unity the form had previously assumed: Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), Williams (In the American Grain), and Faulkner (Go Down, Moses), for example, used collected stories in a technique of fracture, collage, collation, conflation. I shall call Barth’s work a novel, but not to place it in the tradition of the moderns. If its form was predicted, legitimized, in the first half of the century, its themes and its attitudes toward them were not. Postmoderns lost something of the moderns’ sense of shame, of shock, of loss, grief. The moderns’ reactionary reaction to revolutions and world wars, to radical disorientation, first devolved to a milder, less passionate, because existentialist or nihilistic, dis-ease. The emphasis turned from events themselves to interpretations of them. We seemed to have passed another crisis. The fever abated a bit, spirit revived. This turning point is the “ground-situation” for Lost in the Funhouse. The novel discloses the impasse to which Western thought has brought itself, predicts the necessity of a turning if there is to be a going on, and even points out some possible directions. I would classify the work as a comic tragedy. It evokes an effect very much like that of Wallace Stevens’ “The Comedian as the Letter C,” in which a quotidian Real eventually simply preempts all philosophical speculation about the nature of reality. Barth’s novel brings us to the end of an era with the logical demise of a metaphysical paradigm.

Critics have addressed the issues I shall address, for example the problems of a human identity crisis and of the exhaustion of literature, of the author, of authority and motivation, of culture and art; they have noted the technique and thematic of artifice and ultimacy turned against themselves. My study is new only in the weight and concentration I give to a single fundamental Heideggerian insight and to its illumination of each story and of the work as a whole. My purpose is to trace the Cartesian-Kantian subject-object paradigm3 through the novel, exploring Barth’s exploration of the implications and ramifications of that entrenched metaphysics.

The novel has at least three fundamental themes, which develop all at once all the time. They are the “progress” of literature, of language, and of a metaphysical assumption. The “progress” of each and all proceeds (but not chronologically, not logically) through the novel and almost reaches its ultimate logical achievement, that is, the end. As I have noted above, no matter which theme one tries to grasp, one finds one’s taken hold of all three. They are different aspects of one phenomenon, but it is the metaphysics that is responsible for the rest, in my view, and I shall try to untangle that thread from the weave without raveling the whole.

If this series of stories is a novel, as I take it to be, then who is the protagonist? If I generalize, conflate the characters central to all these stories, the protagonist is an author, telling a story, perhaps to himself. He is the subjective self, given Kant’s revision of Descartes’s philosophical schematic. The subjective self is cut off from the Other—the substantial, the real; isolated but not sufficiently insulated; without immediate access to the real, but with mediated access somehow sufficient to impress him unequivocally with its solidity, its mass, its validity, this impression sufficient to put into question the validity, reality, of the impalpable self.4 Given the metaphysical point of view and its development in the novel, protagonists as subjective selves must experience (if subjective selves can bring themselves to presume the experience of experience) a “little crise d’identité” (36).

If this series of stories is a novel, how can we delineate the plot? “Once upon a time there was a story that began once upon a time there was a …” (1-2). Follow the Moebius strip to the end. To the beginning, then, the source (“Autobiography” 35). Then just follow. Identify the principle: repetition? replication? reduplication? reproduction? continuation? Determine the design: circle? cycle? spiral? mirror? maze? what-all? Address the question: endlessly?

The metaphysical schematic is given in “Night Sea Journey.” (Never identified explicitly as such, it is the journey of sperm flooding upstream toward an ovum.) It is the perilous journey motif, a voyage of sorts, this time a self-protagonist struggling alongside the innumerable others, blindly no one knows whenceforth or why toward no one knows what. The self is helpless witness to pointless bravery pointlessly overwhelmed, and pointlessly he is himself singled out for survival. This journey is not the traditional episodic tale of adventure: temptations and fearsome opposition to be courageously ignored, avoided, escaped, endured, or fought, routed, vanquished. This journey consists of a vague, vast turmoil of washing-about, -along, -under. Death is arbitrary and abrupt on all sides, a constantly visibly real threat, but except for the early death of a particular comrade, a seer of sorts or a good guesser, there are no episodes, events. What there are are abstract speculations. Instead of fires, teeth, and cannon, our “hero” contends against an absurd absence-of-answer-to-his-questions. The what about him is terrible—take his word for it—but the unbearable last straw is simply the lack of concrete whenceforths, whitherwards, whys.

If character and plot are submerged in situation, what surfaces are theories—shocking, irreverent, perverse theories. Perhaps the Maker created us accidentally, carelessly, stupidly, maliciously. Perhaps he regrets his error and would correct it; perhaps he is our enemy, destroyer! Perhaps he himself is nothing like ourselves, can’t swim. Perhaps there are many Makers, other seas; perhaps Makers are swimming in their own Makers’ floods, seas in seas in seas. In short, perhaps the universe is nothing like ourselves, is oblivious or hostile to us. Its design is inscrutable; we are mere effects to its cause.

The object of the journey is grounds for speculation too, of course. A shore would mean the end of swimming—and what else are swimmers for? Our self’s friend imagines an Other, a She, awaiting the sole survivor, different from him and complementary, both death and resurrection, end and beginning again. Our self-protagonist cannot conclude. The journey and the problem of the journey are absurd. Our self-protagonist concludes: obscene (the recurrence of this word throughout the novel subtly reiterates the indictment). Schopenhauer-like, he brings his will to bear against the surging flood. “No,” he wills to will—how else can he oppose the senseless slaughter? But miserable lucky he—caught up in warmy rhythmic waves, he’s carried off beyond himself to Love! Love! Love!5

The metaphysical conclusion isn’t metaphysical: life is physical. Pit his will against the matter (matter) if he will, will-he, nill-he, he will be lifted up and surged about by forces forcefuller than his. The Cartesian schematic has provided a dualism—matter and the thinking self—but something has gone wrong with the equilibrium: the res looks stouter than the cogito.6 The self struggles to survive his way—by way of his attempt to see, to justify, to rationalize, to turn into story. The She—that “vasty presence”—draws him or drowns him as She pleases, overwhelming even his will. The self’s judgment on the case: guilty; death penalty. But this self is not up to the task. He “wills” his negative will to posterity. “Hate love!” The injunction echoes through the novel. And throughout the novel the subjective self—the thinker, the writer, the artist—shrinks in validity and vitality in proportion as he withdraws from the milieu, “real life” going-on.

It is in a Cartesian-Kantian context that the real, the other, opposes and invalidates the self. In this context stories, which objectify the self, subjectify the world; the verification of the self is the dissolution of the real. The sum of the two processes is the difference—zero. Remove the Cartesian-Kantian framework and the justification for the fatalistic theme dissolves.7

And that we should and that it may is perhaps what this work suggests should happen.

The Cartesian theme is treated directly in “Petition.” The subjective self is coupled to the objective body in a Siamese twin arrangement, the self on the body’s back, both ways (61). The subject-object, spirit-body union of contraries amounts to one entity, of course. But union does not guarantee unity. This unit incorporates self-division.8 All the differences are significant, fundamental. The subjective self can understand but cannot speak; the other is vocal with nothing to say. The self is conscientious (reasonably so), the other sly. The self is a solitary thinker, a dreamer; the other lives practically, gregariously, in the “real world.” The self is unemotional, detached, the other moody, irrational. The self tends toward the analytical, the other to synthesis. The self recognizes the duality he shares with his brother and is amenable to compromise; the other denies the division, attempts to repress, repudiate, the self. The self has a refined nature, finds pleasure in the conception and contemplation of abstract ideas, art; the other is filthily physical, clumsy, practical (and makeshift at that), gluttonous, lecherous, and so on (62-3).

The brothers compete for control of their life. In childhood their “antipathies …[smolder]” (64), in adolescence burst into flame. They each impede the activity of, embarrass, the other. The crisis comes when they fall in love with the pretty contortionist Thalia. The solitary, analytical self with his natural disinclination to copulation (66) finds repugnant the coarse, lascivious zest that characterizes his brother’s loveship. Which brother Thalia loves is the question. Even when the self becomes convinced that Thalia has a twin too, is two Thalias, the prospect is no less bleak; for if there are two Thalias, one is inside the other (fascinating psychological suggestion), and a sorting out of lovers is out of the question. Both brothers are confident that they are Thalia’s primary interest, but the self’s confidence wanes; he doubts; his doubts grow; the uncertainty becomes unbearable: Thalia must choose one brother or the other. Thus the petition to the visiting Oriental potentate to sever the connection between his brother and himself even though it will mean the death of one of them. “Death itself I would embrace like a lover,” he writes, “if I might share the grave with no other company. To be one: paradise! To be two: bliss! But to be both and neither is unspeakable” (71).

And the process of withdrawal or cutting-off, of shrinkage (and wastage), of retreat to the interior, is just the process this novel follows. Before our very eyes both the theme and the text trace a wasting corpus; the self and the language that expresses it diminish to moribund-if-not-dead shadows of themselves. The subjective self, thinker/writer/artist, is “not up to life” (186). He evades or circumvents confrontation with life, consigns his own subjective experience of the reality about him and in him to idea, consigns idea to fiction, fiction to the status of the illusory, arbitrary irreal. Thus to oblivion.9 A matter of time.

Another exegetical clue is offered in the “Petition” story. The contrast drawn between the twins-at-odds, above, and a set of twins in the mystic East more amicably joined heart-to-heart (though even in the East, love is problematic to the design) serves to define the novel’s perspective on the subject-object polarity-duality. The problem is a matter of construction, of design. The nature of the universe is not the problem of the novel: the nature of interpretations that attempt to deal with the nature of the universe is the problem. “‘When will I reach my goal through its cloaks of story?’” Menelaus cries. “‘How many veils to naked Helen?’” (144). Attaining naked Helen is not the ground-situation of Lost in the Funhouse.10 The postmodern problem of penetrating how-many-veils is.

The Menelaus-Proteus metaphor has been alluded to above. In the story “Menelaid” Menelaus’ salvation lies in holding on to Proteus, no matter what form he takes. But in the ultimate encounter, when Proteus speaks to him in his own voice, Menelaus loses all sense of identity, any point of reference. The certainty that Menelaus grasps is uncertainty. Whether he is a form of Proteus’ conceit or Proteus his can never again be ascertained. Undeceived, he understands the nature of things at last: deception. “‘“He continues to hold on, but can no longer take the world seriously…. all subsequent history is Proteus, making shift to slip me …”’” (166).11

In fact, all subsequent history is not subsequent. As “Frame-Tale” tells and “Echo” echoes: the ending is contained in the beginning. From Oedipus’ pursuit (self-knowledge) through Tiresias’ prophecies (that Oedipus’ pursuit is Narcissus’; that the objectified self is no object, and the catch to the catch is the loss) to Echo’s ambiguous misrepresentations of the same: all history is this series of stories. “Thus we linger forever on the autognostic verge—not you and I, but Narcissus, Tiresias, Echo…. Is Narcissus addressing Tiresias, Tiresias Narcissus? Have both expired?” (103)

The self submitted to subjectivity, protagonist of the novel, is represented by the character Ambrose in three stories, “Ambrose His Mark,” “Water-Message,” and “Lost in the Funhouse.” In the first story Ambrose’s identity is established—as a self who has no established identity. Thus his identity as author is foreshadowed. He is deprived (through simple negligence) of the usual personal and social ceremonies of identification—a name, baptism; his paternity is uncertain, especially in the view of his father; the portent of his birthmark (a disoriented purple bee near one eye) is ambiguous.

In the second story Ambrose struggles to come to terms with the world of signs, significance. After a certain afternoon’s dramatic proliferation of linguistic and semiotic perplexities, discomfited if not defeated, he finds among the seaweed washed up by the tide a bottle containing a message:“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN” (Blank) “YOURS TRULY” (56). A little Anonymiad. Life is suddenly charged with significance.

In the third story Ambrose attempts to make to make a pass at to make a move toward Magda, whose figure is surprisingly well-developed for her age; but his preoccupation with his own feelings, his own self-aggrandizing fictions, prevents any success. He wanders off alone in the funhouse, “wherein he lingers yet.” The author of the story, who has been narrating the story in an excruciatingly self-conscious manner, progressively withdraws from and finally abandons his story.

The pattern of withdrawal can be followed in the changing point of view in the three-story segment. The first story is narrated in first person (an unlikely Tristram Shandy point of view since it is an account of events surrounding Ambrose’s birth and infancy up to the time when he is eventually given a name). The second story is narrated from a third person point of view, a distancing technique—but not from self-consciousness:“The more closely an author identifies with the narrator, literally or metaphorically, the less advisable it is, as a rule, to use the first-person narrative viewpoint” (77). The point of view of the third story is removed one more remove, narrated by “an author” outright. What’s more, the story slips out of the author’s hand again and again until finally both the character Ambrose and the plot of the story get lost in the funhouse; neither is heard of again in the novel.

The Protean dilemma is refigured in this central metaphor of the novel, Ambrose’s disappearance into the labyrinthine corridors of the funhouse. All day, like Menelaus in his turn, Ambrose has been grappling with reality, his self-consciousness cutting him off again and again from any effective move toward Magda. The climactic moment occurs when he stands before the endlessly replicating mirrors in the funhouse, as Menelaus came face to face with Proteus:

Stepping from the treacherous passage at last into the mirror-maze, he saw once again, more clearly than ever, how readily he deceived himself into supposing he was a person. (93)

Ambrose’s irony is like Menelaus’ too—that his most radical revelation, the one that illuminates everything forever afterwards, the vision he sees “more clearly than ever,” emanates from a series of distorting reflections of himself.

At this point Ambrose finds his nametag, which he dropped when he first entered the funhouse. He doesn’t associate the name AMBROSE with himself at all, but with “the famous lightship” and with a certain dessert his grandfather favored (94).12 After Menelaus on the beach, Ambrose loses his sense of identity.

So does the author of “Lost in the Funhouse,” distancing and then removing himself from his story. First he involves himself more and more consciously with himself as author, with the writing of stories, with the problems of authorship and the nature of fiction, the problems of language and the nature of language. And for “problems” read “loss.” As noted above, there is a law of diminishing returns at work in the novel. As the self enlarges its domain, consciousness, reality loses its; and vice versa. Here the principle is given in a comic exposé. The sensitive, imaginative artist-type is satirized as a self-deluded pretender, his fictions as excuses, evasions, refuges against an overwhelming reality. As he loses hold of even his fictions, his story empties of content, reduces to its bare structure, design. It can’t be long till silence.

The problem is recapitulated in the mock-epic “Anonymiad.” Besides recalling all the preceding stories’ motifs and all the protean themes, this story in particular traces the reductio ad absurdum of the metaphysical paradigm. The story begins, of course, in the middle. “Of course” because all these tales about telling tales profess to do the same, to plunge in where they find themselves: in medias res. The yarn’s been being spun since the beginning (see “Frame-Tale”). The ground-situation is a state of fallen-off (see the Moderns for details, laments). Where muses were are amphorae of souring spirits. For Agamemnon’s hearty herohood find nameless, themeless, almost-lifeless minstrel. Instead of fecund Helen to inspire, reward, the stalwart(s), see mild milkmaid Merope. In short, for Truth read Fiction; and for Epic, last-gasp stop-gap.

The last lost word, the Anonymiad, is of course the history of the race entire: the portrait of the artist. His grateful fall into Experience, first forced stop and last on his voyage over the wine-dark sea (mirror and sequel to “Night-Sea Journey”’s journey) is, like Adam’s, Descartes’s, and ours, “a flowered, goated, rockbound isle” where he is thrown ashore and abandoned, to his vast relief. Like Adam’s? Who’s to say? Like Descartes’s (and Kant’s) and therefore ours we know: the isolated subject (exactly what our “Petition”-twin desired).

What cast him out, set him forth? Aegisthus’, Clytemnestra’s, Merope’s and his own weak heart’s ambiguous ambitions; in his own case, the vain conceit that there was in Fact an Other to be gained to make him whole: sad, sere Experience. Never mind what matter(s) he had in mind; the rock’s the thing, the Cartesian limit: elemental encounter with absolute reality. If the ground-situation for this novel is the postmodern turning-point, Barth’s vehicle-situation is this story in its protean forms, figured most boldly here with the minstrel isolated on a deserted island, the subjective self set off against the Ding an sich.

First he dreams a woman. (There are no “real” women here. Merope is a name he will forget [though something lingers], Helen a name he names the goat [romantic hope either way]. He dreams her in a story with optional endings, his favorite one an option he’s forfeited, the fact of Merope. His lyre lost, he discovers his voice, his realm, his happiness: his imagination.

After the first some years of singing, he discovers writing. It’s that that saves him. He vacillates twixt joy and deep despair; it’s fits and starts with him (another motif that rhythms the novel). History ensues: a series of beginnings. The first six eras (muses corresponding) are joyful in the main. With the invention of writing he imagines readers, improvises a system of disseminating his works (amphorae), discovers fiction. The doubts his fancy falls into—that readers never receive, can’t decipher, his works—his fancy assuages with assurance that Zeus, Poseidon, say, get them, get them. And even barring that verification he’s confident of the fact, the being, of his works, therefore himself, for they are objectified in the universe. “[S]omewhere outside myself my enciphered spirit drifted, realer than the gods, its significance as objective and undecoded as the stars’” (194). The self is no safe depository for anything of significance, gives no guarantee of existence, carries no weight on an absolute scale. But outside the self in the “real” universe, in ink, on parchment, in an amphora, set safely (i.e., physically) adrift on the sea, the cogito confides itself to the res; the object can be objectively verified (isn’t that, too, tautology?).

At any rate, our minstrel comes to his seventh and eighth epochs. He “[has] begun to run out of world and material,” has already published, since he came to write, “effusions of religious narrative, ribald tale-cycles, verse-dramas, comedies of manners, and what-all” (194). Now he manages to rouse himself to write a round of realistic, then romantic, on to fantastic, comic fiction. But he’s aging, waning, out of “new [things] to say, new [ways] to say the old” (195). He loses inspiration altogether, interest then, then memory, identity.

Then Something happens. Word comes. Never mind from whom if anyone. “[A] new notion” (196). A sign, signifying: another: a writer—possibly, of course, himself, possibly another: a reader. The old boy is on his feet again. One jug remains, one goat (-skin then) and time for one more masterpiece, piece: this Anonymiad, “written from [his] only valid point of view, first person anonymous” (199). He works the work, expending his last muster. He sets his one thing more once more afloat. There it washes, a mayhap undecipherable symbol signifying fiction, submitted to the Real. Last reflection of “Night-Sea Journey”: the flood has dimmed, the surge subsided to a gentle, rocking wash. The sperm of urgent negative resolve has turned tale, the tale confided to the ebbing tide. No determined defiance of predestination here, but a tentative gesture, one last grateful gamble on any destination at all. The night-sea journey spawned a fiction. The fiction is at last cast upon the waters. How fertile fiction is the sequel must show.

Is this novel a dark apocalypse? Well, yes, the subject(s)-object(s), the plot(s), the stated theme(s), the language tied to the metaphysics, talk themselves into an ending, the end. The novel articulates the postmodern ground-situation. A burgeoning present and no system of seeing or interpreting to account for it, no language to express it; everything sayable already said, said in all the possible ways to say it. The metaphysical paradigm in shreds, used-up, and language caught in a cause-effect cycle with it, part and parcel of it now, trapped with it in its doom. Nothing to do but make clown suits out of both, mock them once for all, have done with them forever. It’s only a matter of time now, not much time.

And yet, as we have seen, this novel teems with robust energy, life going on. The ironies and contradictions between the themes stated and enacted and the wit, the joyful play with which the moribund-if-not-dead is exposed and debunked (the style, as Michael Hinden identifies it, “self-exhausting and yet comically triumphant”13), the provocation of LIFE, evokes a counter thrust of counter themes, indicating though not articulating the case of a vigorous universe, of a fallible human condition, laughable but not absurd. The situation, at least in the novel, cannot be taken to be as negative or as nihilistic as Tony Tanner and Jac Tharpe have assessed it until these counter elements have been counted, as critics are attempting to do in both philosophical and psychoanalytical contexts.14

One element that subverts the apocalyptic tenor is the irony in the wit and in the energy of the wit that sets against all dire projections of doom a quotidian stability.15 To the ground-situation, above, the vehicle-situation (shade of Scheherezade’s, 116) is the novel itself. The soul of the novel is its wit, which Tharpe and others have characterized as Rabelaisian, an exuberant exhibition of life, as any passage will serve to show. In spite of the ostensible gloom, the novel insinuates an effect of reassurance.16

The irony is found, for example, in “Life Story” where the problem of the author (the protagonist) unable to differentiate himself from his protagonist, his life from his fiction—the old Proteus-Funhouse dilemma—is reduplicated out of the story into the author’s author’s study and by the logic of the reduplication into our own living rooms (middle-class, educated, 20th century living rooms). The improbable effect, however, is that it is not our reality that disappears into the fiction so that we dissolve before our own eyes; it is the ideas of reality and fiction that dissolve, resolve into each other. The most significant implication of the work is that philosophy has gone astray, that perhaps it is not life that is absurd, but a way of “reading” it, a way of reading reading it.

Another element at play and at odds with doom is the motif of plans, designs, open options. Of course, this element indicates uncertainty, instability, as clearly as freedom or hopeful possibilities. Since plans, designs, and options almost always prove to be extraneous to actual performance in this novel, we cannot construe the motif as a sign of hope, of rescue. We are merely tempted. The story “Title,” e.g., not only presents the case that literature—and man—is moribund-if-anything, but it confronts the problem of fatalism directly and sketches several options available to us yet. “Title” is a Waiting for Godot meditation and response. The story and, therefore, whatever consciousness it objectifies are merest skeletal remains. Lost are the “novel, literature, art, humanism, humanity, the self itself” (108), claims (what remains of) the narrator. All that isn’t finished is the story. The ghost traces of characters wait for the end, only their conversation delaying it. The conversation consists of “her” interruptions (to, she mocks, the Progress of Literature … to its demise), if “she” is indeed the source of interruption, if indeed, that is, “she” “is.” She is all that remains of Scheherezade: the possibility of an interruption. It is uncertain whether the conversation is dialogue or monologue.

The “Title” problem is Ambrose’s problem in “Water-Message”: the “message” in both cases is the medium: form, sign, design, intent, refiguring the old minstrel’s problem in “Anonymiad”: nothing left to say nor any way to say it. Something (memory perhaps) of the form remains: beginning (middle) and waiting-for-an-end. What remains of content is the all but empty blank. But “Hold onto yourself” (109). There are three, no four, alternatives to ringing down the curtain: (1) “rejuvenation: having become an exhausted parody of itself, perhaps a form … may rise neoprimitively from its own ashes” (109); (2) replacement of the “moribund what-have-yous” by the “vigorous new,” the end of one thing the beginning of another (109); (3) his own recommendation (and Borges’17), a stop-gap expedient: “turn ultimacy against itself to make something new and valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new” (109). The fourth possibility (Beckett’s): “Self-extinction. Silence” (110).

In the almost-empty blank, to which language in this story is reduced thematically, Barth replies to Beckett (and Proteus-style, in Beckett’s voice):

[T]o write this allegedly ultimate story is a form of artistic fill in the blank, or an artistic form of same, if you like…. The storyteller’s alternatives, as far as I can see, are a series of last words … or actual blank. And I mean literally fill in the blank…. The fact is, the narrator has narrated himself into a corner, a state of affairs more tsk-tsk than boo-hoo, and because his position is absurd he calls the world absurd. That some writers lack lead in their pencils does not make writing obsolete. (111-12)

Barth’s plan for the Rerouting of Literature, like his plans for the stories in this novel, gets rewritten many times. For our purpose here there are two points to reiterate: the author blames authors’ “accursed self-consciousness” for the condition of literature, and in order to rescue the corpus from certain oblivion he reverses the priority that history and this novel have given to reality over subjectivity:18

[T]he fact is that people still lead lives, mean and bleak and brief as they are, …, and people have characters and motives that we divine more or less inaccurately from their appearance, speech, behavior, and the rest … and they do these things in more or less conventionally dramatic fashion … and what goes on between them is still not only the most interesting but the most important thing in the bloody murderous world …. And that my dear is what writers have got to find ways to write about … or … their, that is to say our, accursed self-consciousness will lead them… [Fill in the blank]. (113)

In this story, where Barth seems to write directly about what he is trying to do in this work,19 are found the articulation of a state of mind and an era, Barth’s in both cases, exhaustion of possibilities in both cases, and also a series of sets of schemes to avert the catastrophe imminent. We can choose between an exhausted logic and inexhaustible life, but if we choose life we must abandon or redefine our logic. Barth seems to opt for abandoning our logic and redefining as we go on.

Barth’s diagnosis of and prognosis for the state of literature and man agrees in many respects with Alain Robbe-Grillet’s views in For A New Novel, especially in the essay “Nature, Humanism, Tragedy,” written at about the same time as Lost in the Funhouse.20 Robbe-Grillet claims and demonstrates that the late-moderns, absurdists, e.g., Beckett, are not de-humanist or in-humanist to depict the absurdity and prophesy the disappearance of man; it is, Robbe-Grillet claims, precisely their essential, uncompromised humanism that has led them rationally to tragic resolutions. For his own part, he believes that the metaphysical paradigm is in error and has rendered literature and philosophy unnecessarily anthropomorphic and anthropomorphism unnecessarily tragic. He recommends that we face the fact of an empty, impersonal universe, abandon tragedy. The future and language are for exploring in.

But it may be a delusion to think that one can think of man “in” a universe unrelated to him, given his proclivities as we define them—sensory, intellectual, emotional—since this thought (as well as every sensing/thinking/feeling) sets up or depends upon relationship already.21 Besides, the Other maintains the advantage. Man continues to define human-ness as weakness, dullness, diversion, error. Though Barth agrees with Robbe-Grillet that the paradigm is wrong, the correction he indicates is essentially different. He does not opt for further objectification of Kantian objectivity. He shows that the paradigm has been played out to the end. The next turn is not delineated. But the turning is not a turning from “subjectivity”; it turns instead from “objectivity,” that idea which cancels out the heart’s desires. It is ideas that have reached a deadend. In “How to Make a Universe,”22 Barth’s “first proper public lecture,” delivered in 1960 well before he began to write this novel, Barth said:

[A]s soon as Being is conceived of—that is, as soon as it’s represented as a concept (opposed to not-Being) and therefore made problematical—the problem can’t be solved. Even to say “Being simply is” is to impose upon Reality the human conceptions of noun, verb, and adverb, the human logic of grammar and syntax, and thus to falsify it, since there are no categories in Nature’s warpless, woofless web. (22)

Barth does not escape the Cartesian-Kantian schematic, but he suspends its nihilistic force; or he suspends above or inside it something enigmatically human.

In his now-familiar “The Literature of Exhaustion,” written during the Lost in the Funhouse period, Barth congratulates postmodern authors who manage yet “to speak eloquently and memorably to our still-human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done” (30). Thirteen years later in a twin essay, “The Literature of Replenishment,” he again describes literary masterpieces as works “not only artistically admirable but humanly wise, lovable, literally marvelous” (71).23 Something unthematized among the vestiges of the traditionally “human” offers perhaps the “ground of being” in this novel, perhaps the clue to the unaccountable “significance” that the language manifests, a this-ness that outwits, outlasts, the subverting/subverted notions that inform the language literally.

It is at this point that Heidegger’s post-philosophy nonconceptual thinking assists the reading of Barth and of the postmodern situation. The rational paradigm which since Descartes has separated and since Kant has increasingly alienated the human as subject from a world of things in themselves neglects or denies and suppresses: human being, always already ontically/ontologically in-the-world, the world always already engaged as it is drawn into history by and in that relationship. My point here is that Lost in the Funhouse, which does not propose to propose a new paradigm, explores the inadequacy of the current one, and that the “argument” of the novel is compatible in many essential respects with Heidegger’s argument against the Cartesian-Kantian dichotomy, especially in Being and Time. For reasons such as these, I expect, William V. Spanos, in “A Preface” to a collection of essays published in 1976 to initiate and stimulate Heideggerian studies among Anglo-American literary scholars, listed this novel among postmodern works which without direct communication with Heideggerian thinking parallel it.24 Barth’s thematization and demonstration of language as a medium exhausted conceptually but powerful essentially to evoke “meaning” which has no conceptual reference follows the deconstructionist route through exhaustion or totalization to provoke an unaccountable radical revitalization of language.

In an era distinguished for its increasingly neurotic language-consciousness, Barth writes an expose of the phenomenon. He strips language to its vitals: in “Lost in the Funhouse” he unfrocks the operator behind fiction, busy with his funhouse machinations; but both here and in “Autobiography” he shows that the story has a being of its own. In “Title” Barth reduces language to syntax. But still the story’s story persists! These are not hoarse, dulled, diminished echoes. They are stories of hoarse, dulled, diminished echoes. This is not the “book … of a man who cannot really find any sanction for writing either in world or self, yet feels that it is his one distinguishing ability, the one activity which gives him any sense of self,” as Tanner claims (254). These are telling explorations as well as fascinating stories. Exposing the operations behind, beneath, and in authors and stories and language, they discover by demonstration that the operations can not account for the effects, that stories persist quite healthily regardless of “content” or “form.”25 Something of language transcends and includes systems that explain it.

“Ambrose His Mark” is a tour de force on the nature and significance of signs.26 The primary disclosure—here as in the novel as a whole—is that language itself is not the thing. “This is what they mean by ‘[ ],’” Ambrose occasionally suddenly understands. The “this” is the thing. Language is meaningless, sound only, structure only, until one “gets” the “this” it “means.” Language does not imitate; it points. Or, as Heidegger had it, language does not represent; it gives. In “How to Make a Universe” (22-3) Barth compares the artist to a Zen master: “He does not describe reality; he points to it. He gives you a little piece of it.”

Appendix E: Heideggerian Insights

Why should we [not] … [make] sure that in starting our analysis we have not given too low an assessment of Dasein’s Being, regarding it as an innocuous subject endowed with personal consciousness, somehow or other occurring [als harmloses, irgendwie vorkommendes Subjekt, ausgestattet mit personalem Bewußtsein]? (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 323)

Lost in the Funhouse presents itself as the argument with proofs that John Barth is the consummate postmodern, but I include him here for two reasons: (1) his work, the “novel” itself, refutes the argument and carries the proofs off to its own subversive purpose, and (2) it does so by a function of language that escapes the postmodern situation in spite of the fact that there is no place to go.

To conceptualize has been the Western way to “see.” If that way is deficient, ineffectual, or detrimental, then to conceptualize the problem is to stand still or to regress. Barth points beyond conceptualization insofar as he evokes a spirit witty and perverse enough to survive, even to subvert, an exhausted tradition of forms and concepts. But everything beyond that point is inarticulate.

I read Lost in the Funhouse for the first time just after I had read Being and Time for the first time. Same hi/story. Barth put the words, turned the words, (in)to music: American music. The world in which Barth’s stories operate is the world Heidegger deposed (after Nietzsche exposed it) in Being and Time, the Cartesian-Kantian subject-object, cause-effect, true-false, real-romantic, schematic of polarities that circle upon each other, eventually collapse upon each other, as Nietzsche and Heidegger taught us to think, and as I make it my primary business to point out in Barth’s novel. Here the apocalyptic thematic is rendered in the voice of the comedian—voice and little more than voice, since language per se is emptied and minimized (unless the notions of emptying and minimizing are parodied and exposed for frauds). Once the point is made, the novel can be said to resonate with Heidegger’s thinking only in some extraliteral ultrathematic “way.”

But though for Barth the articulable world is a shambles, saying so calls for exquisite design, elaborate mazemaking, fine art, finer technique, working the problem out to the end. What comes to an end is not the will or the power to say, and not something to say, but the conjunction of these. It would not be possible to say what the novel “has” to say in the language of the novel. Therefore the novel says what it has to say outside its language, and the interpretive language that could recoup it is even now in the forging. It could be a still-unfinished Heideggerian “way.”

Here again we are faced with the Being-present-at-hand-together of some such spiritual Thing along with a corporeal Thing [einem Zusammen-vorhanden-sein eines so beschaffenen Geistdinges mit einem Körperding], while the Being of the entity thus compounded remains more obscure than ever. (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 82-3)


  1. Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (New York: Doubleday, 1968). An early version of this essay was published in Arizona Quarterly 44: 4 (Winter 1989): 80-97.
    Republished in Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC), ed. Chris Giroux, 89 (Winter 1989).

  2. A Conversation with John Barth, ed. Frank Gado, The Idol, special issue, ed. Robert A. Hahn and Jean Howard, 49: 2 (Fall 1972): 34.

  3. For Heidegger’s discussion of Descartes’s demonstration and Kant’s appropriation of subjectivity, see passages in Being and Time such as H. 23-5, 45f., 94-101, 116, 179, 319-21. For indications of his impatience with the notion of the “subjective [subjektiv]” see e.g. H. 109, 119, 229, 278, 361. The problem is that the interpretation of the Being of the “subject” derives from the interpretation of the Being of the thing (overlooking the already presupposed structures of the world and Dasein), rendering a subject-object confrontation rather than a relation of Being-in-the-world.

    In saying “I”, I have in view the entity which in each case I am as an ‘I-am-in-a-world’ [das Seiende, das je ich bin als: ‘Ich-bin-in-einer-Welt’]. Kant did not see the phenomenon of the world, and was consistent enough to keep the ‘representations’ apart from the a priori content of the ‘I think’ [die ‘Vorstellungen’ vom apriorischen Gehalt des ‘Ich denke’ fernzuhalten]. But as a consequence the “I” was again forced back [zurückgedrängt] to an isolated subject [ein isoliertes Subjekt], accompanying representations in a way which is ontologically quite indefinite [in ontologisch völlig unbestimmter Weise]" (368).

    The historical interpretation of the “thing” (reality, being: what Heidegger in Being and Time calls the “present-at-hand” [Vorhandenes] is given, e.g., in “The Origin,” Poetry, Language, Thought," ed. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1971): 23-31 and in “The Thing” 174-77.

  4. This characterization of the problem is appropriate to Barth’s novel but not to Heidegger’s reasoning or his language. See footnotes 3 and 7.

  5. The spermatozoan’s negative will is Schopenhaueren; the impotence or the futility of willing in the face of the physics of sexuality indicates that the novel’s metaphysics submits “will” to fatal objectivity. The opposition is not Nietzschean will to power, the spermatozoan’s will against the egg’s; for the sperm wills not to will and “Love” is absolute but willless power. Will in Heidegger, as well as so-called drives, urges, and addictions, belongs to Dasein’s character as Care (Being and Time 238ff.), implicated here only as the novel systematically subordinates it to objectivity.

  6. See the over-weight of the res corpora in Being and Time 123, 127, as Descartes fails to clarify (1) the ontological foundations of both structures or (2) his argument as it regards “substantia.”

  7. Heidegger has more patience with the notion of the self than with the notion of the subject, but he appropriates the term to his own uses, first, as the “they-self [Man-selbst]” and, second, as an authentic “I” (Being and Time 317ff.). The “factically existing Self [faktisch existierenden Selbst]” is what Heidegger calls Care (472), the fundamental character of Dasein. (But note also that Care, or the Self, as thrown, is free, that “Care itself, in its very essence, is permeated with nullity through and through [Die Sorge selbst ist in ihrem Wesen durch und durch von Nichtigkeit durchsetzt]” (331). What I refer to as “self” throughout my reading can be compared with this overlooked Dasein as Being-in-the-world, overlooked when Being in general is interpreted as Being-present-at-hand, objectivity.

  8. Against Descartes’s metaphysics, which splits the human down the middle, set Heidegger’s revision, which gathers up Dasein, always both ontic and ontological; always altogether involved in mood as well as understanding and thrown into facticity.

  9. Echo: Heidegger’s disparaging reference to religious or biological interpretations of conscience, dependent upon the “ontologically dogmatic guiding thesis that what is … must be present-at-hand, and that what does not let itself be Objectively demonstrated as present-at-hand, just is not at all [was ist, … muß vorhanden sein; was sich nicht als vorhanden objektiv nachweisen läßt, ist überhaupt nicht]” (Being and Time 320).

  10. Though, of course, “the subject of [novels], ultimately, is life,” as Barth remarks in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” Atlantic 220 (Aug. 1967): 33.

  11. Heidegger gives the history of the distinction between Being and Appearance in An Introduction to Metaphysics 98ff., esp. 102, 109f.: “Because being and appearance belong together [Sein und Schein zusammengehören] and, belonging together, are always side by side, the one changing unceasingly into the other [and entangling: den Wechsel … und damit die ständige Verwirrung]; because in this change they present the possibility of error and confusion [Verirrung und Verwechslung], the main effort of thought at the beginning of philosophy … was necessarily to rescue being from its plight of being submerged in appearance [die Not des Seins im Schein zu bändigen], to differentiate being from appearance [das Sein gegen den Schein zu unterscheiden] …. Because of this relation between being, unconcealment, appearance, and nonbeing [Sein, Unverborgenheit, Schein und Nichtsein], the man who holds [sich hält] to being as it opens round him … must bring being to stand, he must endure it [aushalten] in appearance and against appearance, and he must wrest both appearance and being from the abyss of nonbeing [muß Schein und Sein zugleich dem Abgrund des Nichtseins entreißen]” (109, 110).

  12. Edgar H. Knapp (“Found in the Barthhouse: Novelist as Savior,” Critical Essays on Barth, ed. Joseph J. Waldmeir [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980]: 183-89) suggests that these displacements of the self signify “mythic overtones,” evoking “the Ambrose Lightship, beacon to lost seafarers, and … ambrosia (the bee-belabored stuff of immortality)” (184); they invite, Knapp continues, a reading of Ambrose as mock-savior, his “heroic suffering [adventures in the funhouse], death [disappearance], and [possibly at least, Knapp cautions] resurrection” buying time, as the story does by its “imaginative design,” buying perhaps some fun as well and a fresh perspective for the other characters and for us; buying time, fun, and perspective most essentially, Knapp concludes, for Barth as author (188-89). Perhaps. But I submit that Ambrose’s identification of his own name with these mythic symbols hints the very self-aggrandizing self-apotheosizing tendency (narcissism plus genuine intellectual deadend) that marks and mocks the subject and the artist conceptualized as separate from the world in all of these stories.

  13. Lost in the Funhouse: Barth’s Use of the Recent Past,” Twentieth Century Literature; rpt. in Critical Essays on John Barth, ed. Joseph Waldmeir, Critical Essays on American Literature, gen. ed. James Nagel (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980) 191.

  14. Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971) 253-59. In John Barth, The Comic Sublimity of Paradox (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP 1974), Jac Tharpe discusses Barth’s farce splendide, the attempt to “Outdo the universe with laughter and enthusiasm, realizing that in fact the universe seems out to get you and, with despair and death as methods, will get you” (114).

  15. Alan Wilde offers a study of irony, the ironic stance developing from Kierkegaard through the moderns to what he calls the postmodern “horizons of assent.” Wilde’s thinking shares many of the Heideggerian assumptions that enable my reading of this text. His rereading of postmodernists’ treatment of the quotidian is helpful here, not to explain what it means but to detect in it an unconceptualized potentiality, a sense of expectation traditionally reserved for the extraordinary. Horizons of Assent; Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1981).

  16. In Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth (Urbana: U of Illinois, 1983) Charles B. Harris calls the same element “passionate virtuosity” (Barth’s phrase), the artist’s irreducible impulse “to construct meaning” from nothing through language (8). According to Harris, Barth enters onto a new schematization that attempts to reach past schema, the old schema at any rate.

  17. According to Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion” 31-32.

  18. Barth neither recognizes nor represents the thought of Heidegger; However, operating in a subject-object framework and giving some preference to the subjective, giving moreover the sense that something vital is inexpressible but not suppressible in the language of objectivity, Heidegger would probably say that he errs on the right side. Cf. Being and Time 250ff.

  19. For what he wrote later about his intention here see “More Troll than Cabbage, Introduction for Tape-and-Live Voice Performances From the Series Lost in the Funhouse,” The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction (New York: Perigee, 1984) 77-79.

  20. Trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1965): 49-76.

  21. Compare Heidegger’s schematic of relationships, beginning with Dasein as Being-in-the-world.

  22. The Friday Book 13-25.

  23. Atlantic 245 (Jan. 1980): 65-71. In his Friday-pieces Barth reiterates the theme; for example, the “real concerns” of “real artists” are “the passions of the human breast and the possibilities of human language” (“Historical Fiction, Fictitious History, and Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, or, About Aboutness,” 191) or, quoting from this essay in his introduction to “Tales Within Tales Within Tales”: “the proper subject of literature” is “‘human life, its happiness and its misery’” (218).

  24. “Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: A Preface,” Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature, ed. William V. Spanos (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979) xii.

  25. Harris, summarizing and assessing Barth scholarship to date, suggests that Barth’s wit or his voice or his style, and all of these entangled, await critical investigation; this novel works not a meaning but an effect, which is to upset the idiom of traditional literary criticism.

  26. The chapter deserves a separate Heideggerian analysis; cf. e.g. Being and Time 120f., 160f. (significance); Sect. 17, 107f. (signs); Sect. 34, 203f. (discourse).


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