An unmissable passage from THE SOT-WEED FACTOR by John Barth…

Part II: Chapter 23
…23, an illuminating number that gives the answer 42 !

“…a splendid morning for rededication —“

After that single quote from this chapter, a longer important passage from it is shown below (starting with Ebenezer Cooke talking to Henry Burlingame), a passage that will likely change the direction your life as it did mine in the 1960s. Now, in old age, 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!

My ongoing review of my re-reading of this massive landmark book starts here:

A major book surprisingly out of current print.

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