Wednesday, May 3, 2023

John Barth and the Aftermath

I've long known that John Barth is my favorite novelist. I thought the Sot-weed Factor to be the actual great American novel when I read it way back when, just after college. I never did know that he was teaching here in Buffalo during my high school years. Now I do.

I pulled an original edition of Chimera from our library. I think that edition draws rare-book style prices on Amazon. What a world! It is so very familiar, as though I've read it before. In many different guises. But if I did, I wouldn't have known a thing about Scheherazade and the thousand and one nights. I don't see how I could have read it.

So then last night in my exhaustion from working on my latest boat project, Netflix tells me that there are new episodes from a new season of Better Call Saul. It takes me right into the second episode to realize that I'd seen them all already. I had pretty much zero memory of having watched them, and even less interest to dig in to remember why I had liked the series so much. 

It's easy to get lost when these "TV" series get bought and sold and you lose your digital tracks.

I went to bed so I couldn't sleep. No, that seems to be the purpose of going to bed. I fall asleep more easily in my reading chair. Maybe I'll sleep better on the boat the way that I used to. Whatever.

Nobel Lauriate Olga Tokarczuk comments (in translation) in her address that:

"Today we can have the great satisfaction of seeing the emergence of a wholly new way of telling the world’s story that is purveyed by the on-screen series, the hidden task of which is to induce in us a trance.  Of course this mode of storytelling has long existed in the myths and Homeric tales, and Heracles, Achilles or Odysseus are without doubt the first heroes of series. But never before has this mode taken up so much space or exerted such a powerful influence on the collective imagination. The first two decades of the twenty-first century are the unquestionable property of the series. Their influence on the modes of telling the story of the world (and therefore on our way of understanding that story, too) is revolutionary.  

I came (back?) to Chimera by way of John Williams' Augustus, which I definitely know I hadn't read before. They shared the National Book Award for Fiction given the year I graduated from high school. I hadn't read much by that time, being oriented toward engineering. I do remember my good friend from a more literary family crowing about Giles Goat-Boy, which was plenty sufficient for me to assume that I wouldn't' be able to read Barth. I am certain that I've never read that one. (add to list, check!)

Anyhow, I learn from Wikipedia that Barth, who nearly embodied what post-modern meant, has fallen from fashion. And so I also learn what post-post-modern must mean. It must mean that we see on screen all those lusty pornographic fantasies that Barth conjured freely with his writing. And that we shall forget them all, we have become so bereft of meaning. The reader has lost his work. The reader has been banned and the law made moot by readings more acute than AI could generate. We spin.

Confident CEOs predict that AGI (do I have the acronym right? Artificial General Intelligence?) will be here in a decade. They must be excited. As the Google Deepmind Demis Hassabis CEO guy says onscreen for the Wall Street Journal, "The brain is the only example we have of general intelligence in the universe, as far as we know. . ." Recent Immigrants always know better than we multi-generational Americans about what to do with the country.

But both John Barth and John Williams still want to know about striving for meaning, and they want to do it. Did literature actually end before I started to appreciate it? Has it truly been overtaken by commercial entertainment? Well, yes, of course it has. 

So that we are indeed living the post-post-modern, meaning post end of history, life. No wonder I need another sailboat Sinbad, no wonder. AI cannot want.

Aha! Only just now poking around for references do I realize that it was The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor that I actually did read. It would seem that it covers some of the same ground as "Chimera." Water. Whatever. Maybe the stories all really do rehearse themselves as we scientific engineering-type structuralists once wanted to prove. There is nothing new under the sun, and the key to the treasure is the treasure.

At least I'm not totally lost anymore about why this new-to-me book seemed so familiar. I mean beyond the evident fact that I've learned more about various iterations of the thousand and one nights since whenever I read whatever. 

But I do lose my referents since the actual books I read are no longer on any actual shelves that I own. The words float, perhaps to be resourced by some AGI reader surrogate, should I wish it. But I do still declare that voyaging to Mars has no evident or even hidden relation to Odysseus' voyages. We know that Gates closets himself for some set period each year to read. But does Musk even read at all? 

Of course I mean read the real stuff. The stuff grappling with meaning. And I don't mean the science. All that the science can do is to mitigate the fates, as in we now can know that there is no sailing off the edge anymore than there is any other culture to be found by any conceivable distance from travel. We might as well stay home and wait. 

Though it doesn't ever take much more than a good wind and small and shallow Lake Erie for the bestowing of one's very life to the fates, if that's what one is after. If a thrill is all that's wanted. And so why then, do we stare into a cultivated fire? I know that Barth knows. Musk would be too manic and impressed with himself. Dead to me.

A captain of industry with designs on the lives of the rest of us is not the captain of a ship.

One writes, I suppose, for the same reason that one reads; to move beyond oneself. To encounter the fringes of what can be meant. Beyond the seeming, as the North Carolina license plates suggest in small print. In God to trust. Any AI will always be seeming. I nearly triggered a collision in that reading of small print: "To Be Rather than to Seem."

Now back to the boat, which seems almost ready. It will only be so upon setting sail. Or not. I stand ready in either case, whether I be or not anymore.

No comments: