- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

John Barth on Writing, Fiction, “Passionate Virtuosity,” and More


Happy birthday, John Barth! 91, today! Here are some quotes from the author:


“Self-knowledge is always bad news.”


“[F]iction isn’t a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life.”


“In art as in lovemaking heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.”


“The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.”


“[Plot is] the gradual perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium.”


“Drolls & dreamers that we are […], we fancy that we can undo what we fancy we have done.”


“Love it is that drives and sustains us!’ I translate: we don’t know what drives and sustains us, only that we are most miserably driven and, imperfectly, sustained. Love is how we call our ignorance of what whips us.”


“Every artist joins a conversation that’s been going on for generations, even millennia, before he or she joins the scene.”


“Yet everyone begins in the same place; how is it that most go along without difficulty but a few lose their way?”


“My notion of the way to make fiction, correctly, carefully, is to make every possible aspect of the fiction resonate, reflect, emblemize, the main concerns of the fiction: your choice of place, your choice of viewpoint, your choice of language, your choice of cadence, your choice of punctuation, your cast of characters, your whole aesthetic premises about writing the fiction in so far as you have enough intelligence to be aware of them, and imagine them, and put them to use. I like them to be relevant rather than merely gratuitous. This can take insane forms.”


“I admire writers who can make complicated things simple, but my own talent has been to make simple things complicated.”


“It’s easier and sociabler to talk technique than it is to make art.”


“One way or another, no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition, and will disclose my secret hope though I sink for it.”


“Supreme in this category of human constructions to be farewelled—so much so, to this fareweller, as to be virtually a category in itself—was that most supple, versatile, and ubiquitous of humanisms, language: that tool that deconstructs and reconstructs its own constructions; that uses and builds its users and builders as they use, build, and build with it. Ta-ta, language, la la language, the very diction of veridiction in this valley valedictory. Adieu, addio, adiós, et cetera und so weiter; he could no more bear to say good-bye to you than so to say to those nearest dearest, in particular the nearest-dearest, so to say, themof: He meant the without-whom-nothing for him to bid farewell to whom must strain the sine qua non of language even unto sinequanonsense. Impossible to do, unthinkable to leave undone, and the mere prospect did undo him…”


“The nightsea journey may be absurd, but here we swim, will-we nill-we, against the flood, onward and upward, toward a shore that may not exist and couldn’t be reached if it did.”


““In life, […] there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”


“It’s not difficult to be encyclopedic in a work of fiction; it’s damned difficult to be encyclopedic, I suppose, in truth.”


“[T]he world is richer in associations than meanings […] and it is the part of wisdom to distinguish between the two.”


“There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide). To realize that nothing makes any final difference is overwhelming; but if one goes no farther and becomes a saint, a cynic or a suicide on principle, one hasn’t reasoned completely. The truth is that nothing makes any difference, including that truth. Hamlet’s question is, absolutely, meaningless.”


“There’s a great difficulty in making choices if you have any imagination at all. Faced with such a multitude of desirable choices, no one choice seems satisfactory for very long by comparison with the aggregate desirability of all the rest, though compared to any ‘one’ of the others it would not be found inferior.”


“I have remarked elsewhere that I regard the Almighty as not a bad novelist, except that He is a realist.”


“Thus mired and bound I groaned aloud: nothing is loathsomer than the self-loathing of a self one loathes.”


“It’s extremely important that you learn to assume these masks wholeheartedly. Don’t think there’s anything behind them: ego means I, and I means ego, and the ego by definition is a mask. Where there’s no ego–this is you on the bench–there’s no I. If you sometimes have the feeling that your mask is insincere–impossible word!–it’s only because one of your masks is incompatible with another. You mustn’t put on two at a time. There’s a source of conflict, and conflict between masks, like absence of masks, is a source of immobility. The more sharply you can dramatize your situation, and define your own role and everybody else’s role, the safer you’ll be. It doesn’t matter in Mythotherapy for paralytics whether your role is major or minor, as long as it’s clearly conceived, but in the nature of things it’ll normally be major. Now say something.”


“[T]he enemy you flee is not exterior to yourself.”


“[P]eople still fall in love, and out, yes, in and out, and out and in, and they please each other, and hurt each other, isn’t that the truth, and they do these things in more or less conventionally dramatic fashion, unfashionable or not, go on, I’m going, and what goes on between them is still not only the most interesting but the most important thing in the bloody murderous world.”


“So, I begin each day with a gesture of cynicism, and close it with a gesture of faith; or, if you prefer, begin it by reminding myself that, for me at least, goals and objectives are without value, and close it by demonstrating that the fact is irrelevant. A gesture of temporality, a gesture of eternity. It is in the tension between these two gestures that I have lived my adult life.”


“The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it’s you I’m addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You’ve read me this far, then? Even this far? For what discreditable motive? How is it you don’t go to a movie, watch TV, stare at a wall, play tennis with a friend, make amorous advances to the person who comes to your mind when I speak of amorous advances? Can nothing surfeit, saturate you, turn you off? Where’s your shame?”


“I particularly scorn my fondness for paradox. I despise pessimism, narcissism, solipsism, truculence, word-play, and pusillanimity, my chiefer inclinations; loathe self-loathers ergo me; have no pity for self-pity and so am free of that sweet baseness. I doubt I am. Being me’s no joke.”


“So, reader, should you ever find yourself writing about the world, take care not to nibble at the many tempting symbols she sets squarely in your path, or you’ll be baited into saying things you don’t really mean, and offending the people you want most to entertain. Develop, if you can, the technique of the pall bearers and myself: smile, to be sure—for fucking dogs are truly funny—but walk on and say nothing, as though you hadn’t noticed.”


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