Preparing For the Worst

Autobiography As De-Facement – A De Manin Reading of "Perseid" in John Barth’s Chimera

This article focuses upon the de Manian reading of “Perseid” – the second novella in Barth’s Chimera – with respect to its autobiographical implications. The concept of autobiography contributes to the deconstruction of the figure of Barth-Perseus as the main textual function in this novella. This attempt in its turn substantiates the impossibility of a totalized reading in de Manian critical prospect.

Many critics of Barth have considered Chimera, in particular the last two novellas as autobiography. This segment tends to respond to such critics by applying de Man’s theory of self-defacement. Initially, “Perseid” is going to be scrutinized with its Barthian concept of autobiography; fictionalized biography. Then, by applying de Man’s notion of defacement, the text deconstructs itself.


Chimera is an autobiography. It is the deliberate account of what has gone before. The artist has become the critic who is artist commenting on his own themes, his own book, and his own performance. Details of public and publishing history keep the theme of life-story in the forefront of the text in which Barth analogously examines the lives, as he tells the stories of heroes who are avatars of himself. Like Sherry, Perseus and Bellerophon, Barth looks at the point midway in his journey when his career has reached a climax – according to Freitag’s life-story line. Barth and his avatars live their days nostalgically, examining the question of their heroics, their performances.

However, Barth can never reduce his novel to just a simple autobiography. He parodies his own concept of my-life-in-its-climax by posing three diagrams as the schema for the typical rise and fall of dramatic action in a hero’s life. The auto-Barthian-biography of his artistic life is sharply juxtaposed with the mathematically measured life-line of exposition, rising, climax and falling. Barth depicts his life-line satirically, in which the straightforward diagram is decentralized by a spiral temporality, with discrepant zones. This kind of autobiography does not delineate the author’s life as an ontological entity, which undergoes various stages in order to achieve a predestined goal. The epistemology of the outer existence can never be the target of the writer, since gaining a true understanding of the world is quite impossible in Barth’s worldview. For him the key to the treasure of knowledge is useless, except for purposes of satire. Such a malady – cosmopsis – leads Barth-Perseus to the fact that nothing has inherent value, one can never choose, and ultimately would have no reason to choose. The only sensible activity would be to refuse to make a choice.

Hence, the artist is the hero, and the hero-artist is Barth himself at some ontogenic level removed from mere autobiography. Perseus depicts the predicaments of being Barth by accepting the fictionality of his own character. In contrast to many postmodernist fictions in which the characters are in search of their authors or are victimized by the author of their tale, as in Gabriel Josipovici’s “Mobius the Stripper” (1974) or Nabokov’s Transparent Things (1972), Chimera depicts a heterarchy, a metalepsis in which the author does not possess the highest authority in the text. He is as fictional as the characters, even at some points leaving the decisions to character-authors to determine an ending or a course of action. In this kind of autobiography, Barth’s personal anecdotes of the incidents of his life are substituted by the anecdotes of literary incidents, climaxes and falls. Barth has converted himself to a textual function whose art-line is figurally depicted by the life-lines of Scheherazade, Perseus and Bellerophon.

Barth fictionalizes the autobiography, and acclaims a different ontological status from pure fiction, resulting in a stronger one. Chimera becomes an “autobiographical fiction, not a straight autobiography” (McHale 203). Barth co-opts himself as a character (whether Genie, Perseus, Bellerophon or Polyeidus). Roland Barthes explains what happens to the author when he/she inserts or inscribes himself in the text,

It is not that the Author may not “come back” in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a “guest”. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, figured in the carpet, no longer privileged, paternal, aletheological, his inscription is ludic. He becomes, as it were, a paper-author; his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work. […] The I which writes the text, it too, is never more than a paper-I. (“From Text to Work”, 161)

Accordingly, Barth never intends to centralize the autobiographical aspects of the novel. He hides behind the paper I in “Perseid”, “Bellerophoniad” and Genie in “Dunyazadiad”, yielding to their implications as characters.

Chinese-Box or Russian Babushka dolls can exemplify how autobiography works out in Chimera. Brain McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) defines this concept in terms of an analogue,

A recursive structure [Chinese-Box] results when you perform the same operation over and over again, each time operating on the product of the previous operation. For example, take a film, which projects a fictional world; within that world, place actors and a film crew, who make a film which in turn projects its own fictional world; then within that world place another film crew, who make another film, and so on. (112-3)

Gerard Genette in Narrative Discourse (1980) calls this recursive structure “the metalanguage of narrative levels”. He denominates the primary world diegesis. The secondary world within diegesis, he calls it hypodiegesis. Then it would be possible for the characters of a fiction to descend deeper into a hypo-hypodiegesis (238-42). This structure has the effect of interrupting and complicating the ontological horizon of the fiction, multiplying its worlds, and laying bare the process of world-construction.

“Perseid” along with the two other novellas can be elaborated in the light of the Chinese-box prototype. The diegetic world in each of them is the mythological construction of Scheherazade, Perseus and Bellerophon. Primarily, the novellas are nothing but the recounting of three myths. Barth tries to remain faithful to the mythic diegesis by preserving the characters, places and on the whole the cosmology of each myth. Nevertheless, he steps into a hypodiegesis by making each of the avatars the author of their own fiction, as Perseus confirms, trying to “learn about art and life” (60). They are both “the protagonist and author” (83). Within this hypodiegetic world of character-authorship, Barth imposes a hypo-hypodiegesis, that is, his own world as the author of the entire novel. In other words, he disguises behind his own characters as they tell their stories. He resides at the depth of the text, and observes how Sherry’s struggle for writing the part three of her tale or Perseus’ sexual impotencies reflect his own predicaments on the way to his artistic climax. Calyxa, the prostitute-priestess summarizes Barth’s autobiographical strive: “How can Being Perseus Again be your goal, when you have to be Perseus to reach it?” (101). Being Barth again at his climax, overcoming the writer’s cramp (block) requires revising of Barth himself, getting to know his past in order to ascend to the diegesis of the future world, in which he is no more a hypo-world but the primary diegetic level of his own fiction as Perseus says: ” I thought to overtake with understanding my present paragraph as it were by examining my paged past, and thus pointed, proceed serene to the future’s sentence” (83).

Hence, it can be concluded that Barth fictionalizes his own biography or literary biography in order to bring about a double coding, that is, amalgamating past and present, fiction and reality. He never tries to differentiate between the various ontological levels that he inserts in the novella. The only thing that matters for him is disrupting the run-of-the-mill autonomy of predetermined life structure, such as that of Freitag’s. Whether Perseus or Bellerophon, Barth never ceases to exist in his characters, and sketches his own life-line in which the climax can also serve as the unknotting of another tale. For Barth, the foundationalism of storytelling is not worth the linearity of a bunch of tales rising and falling into an ending.

De Manian Hero-Machy

De Man in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984) deals with the problematics of autobiography. He initially targets the attempt for treating autobiography as if it were a literary genre among others. Since the concept of genre designates an aesthetic as well as a historical function, what is at stake is not only the distance that shelters the author of autobiography from his experience but the possible convergence of aesthetics and history. By making autobiography into a genre, one elevates it above the literary status of mere reportage, chronicle, or memoir and gives it a place, albeit a modest one, among the canonical hierarchies of the major literary genres. This does not go without some embarrassment, since compared to tragedy, or epic or lyric poetry, autobiography always looks slightly disreputable and self-indulgent in a way that may be symptomatic of its incompatibility with the monumental dignity of aesthetic values. De Man continues his observations of autobiography in regard with its generic history, whether Augustine’s Confessions is the first autobiography, its style, that is, if it is possible to write an autobiography in verse.

Then he moves to the crux of his debate; the distinction between autobiography and fiction. Autobiography seems to depend on actual and potentially verifiable events in a less ambivalent way than fiction does. It seems to belong to a simpler mode of referentiality, of representation, and of diegesis. It may contain lots of phantasms and dreams, but these deviations from reality remain rooted in a single subject whose identity is defined by the uncontested readability of his proper name, like John Barth that intermediates the gap between character-Barth and author-Barth. The reader approaches the text with Barth’s signature on the text, in other words the name itself creates a presupposition, an identity in the mind of the reader. However, de Man moves beyond the literal problematics of autobiography to a more figural sphere, and asserts that the author of any autobiography becomes a trope in his own text. He is no longer the determined, outer identity that imposes his extra-textual elements upon the text, but he becomes part of his own work. He is the metaphor of his real self; Barth in Chimera – Perseus or Bellerophon – is the metaphor of Barth-the-real. In other words, the author is lost in his own medium; Barth hardly arises above the level of his own fictionality to the level of pure autobiography. De Man concludes that the “distinction between fiction and autobiography is not either/or polarity but that it is undecidable” (70). This tension between fiction and autobiography is capable of infinite acceleration and in fact is not successive but simultaneous.

Autobiography, then, is not a genre or a mode but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs to some degree in all texts. The autobiographical moment happens as an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflective substitution. The two subjects are on the one hand, the author who declares himself the subject of his own understanding – the author of the text – and the one that is specularly reflected in the text, who bears his name – the author in the text. The mirror-like quality of autobiography supposedly renders self-knowledge for the author, but as aforementioned this quality becomes tropological. “The study of autobiography is caught in a double motion; the necessity to escape from the tropology of the subject and the equally inevitable reinscription of this necessity within the specular model of recognition” (72). The discourse of autobiography is “a discourse of self-restoration” (74). Any author by venturing into pinning down his ontogeny strives toward the preservation of his self along with gaining a self-revealing insight to his inner depth.

The definition of autobiography with regard to de Man’s perspectives instigates his de-valorization of the genre (now used with more caution). He believes that prosopopeia is the trope of autobiography, in which author’s name (signature) is made intelligible and memorable as a face. It is the fiction of an apostrophe to an absent, or voiceless entity, which posits the possibility of the latter’s reply and confers upon it the power of speech. “Voices assume mouth, eye, and finally face, a chain that is manifest in the etymology of the trope’s name, prosopon poien, to confer a mask or a face (prosopon)” (76). Autobiography as the prosopopeia of the voice and the name of the author transforms him into a voice-from-beyond. In fact, it is the rhetorical function of prosopopeia to posit voice or face by means of language. Also, “to the extent that language is a figure, it is not the thing itself, but the representation, the picture of the thing, as such, it is as silent and mute as pictures are” (80). Language is always privative, and it works “unremittingly and noiselessly”. To the extent that, in writing, “we are dependent on this language we are all deaf and mute – not silent, which implies the possible manifestation of sound at our own will, but silent as a picture, that is to say eternally deprived of voice and condemned to muteness” (80).

It can be concluded that autobiography as a genre is universally acknowledged as the self-preserver, self-restorator of its author. However, for de Man it is a figure of speech, prosopopeia. Its literal sphere is that of personification, or giving voice, face or human attributes to the work of art in order to represent its author. The figural pole of the trope is that of silence, absence and facelessness. The author is not restorated by autobiography but diminished via its decrees of linguistic referentiality. Autobiography is like any other language figural, and can never be expected to yield itself to closure or totalization. As de Man mentions, the aporia between the literal and figural spheres of the prosopopeia is never settled. Autobiography veils a defacement of its author of which it is itself the cause.

De Man’s concept of autobiography applied to “Perseid” concords with Barth’s attempt in creating a heterotopia; a world seething with conflicting ontologies. It should be mentioned that this procedure can be applied to “Dunyazadiad” and “Bellerophoniad” too, since the three novellas are of the same content, and follow a common objective, that is, depicting the author as the creator and character of his own art. “Perseid” begins with “Good evening”, that marks the continuation of “Dunyazadiad”, and entrance into another hereocosm – the otherness of the fictional world. From the very outset, the text substantiates it fictionality: “Stories last longer than men, stones than stories, stars than stones. But even our stars’ nights are numbered, and with them will pass this patterned tale to a long-deceased earth” (59). Barth insinuates his mastery over the text by foregrounding the tale-ness of the narrative and also by addressing the narratee, here Calyxa, in first person point of view. The aestho-autogamy of Perseus, that is, his birth into the world of the novella is when he “is sea-leveled, forty, parched and plucked” (60). He is at the height of his heroic career, has slain Medusa, married Andromeda, and now twenty years after slaying Medusa, he is dead, living in heaven with a nymph-priestess-prostitute catering him.

In heaven, Elysium or whatever signifier it can be called, Perseus recounts his story to Calyxa through flashbacks, anecdotes and particularly the panels that depict “alabasterly several chapters” (59) of his youth. He actually tells the story of his life from these panels, and at some points cannot finish the tale without the upcoming panel, and presses Calyxa to tell him how far the murals go, for while he could predict some incidents but several of them such as his demise were obscure to him. Thus, panels present the authorial role of another author, that is, Barth who procures his character with the story to tell. In this regard, the amalgamation of art and life creates the hypodiegesis to which Barth belongs. Barth presents the process of becoming himself by the camouflage of Perseus. He himself after writing Giles Goat-boy (1966) was struggling with creative writing, and the used-upness of his potentialities culminated in Chimera. In this fictionalized autobiography, Barth flickers between being the fictionalized I, Perseus, who narrates the tale and his real I (real author), the one whose experiences are reflected in the text. But he is totally aware of the fact that the absolute reality of him as the author becomes just another level of the fiction, and his reality retreats to a further remove. He reincarnates himself in Genie, Perseus or Polyeidus, and retains his omnipresence and omnipotence throughout the novel, particularly in “Perseid”, where without the role of a mentor, that of Genie or Polyeidus, it is Perseus himself that takes on the course of his narrative. Thus, diegetic level of Perseus, as the primary, mythological ontology directly evokes the hypodiegesis of Barth as the author.

Having centralized Barth as the subject of autobiography, it would be metaphorically de Manian to de-figure him. “Perseid” can be considered as an autobiography, which in its own turn is the prosopopeia of Barth. The novella as a trope possesses the literality of delineating Barth’s personally experienced tensions within an author. The conceptual sphere is that of Barth’s absence, facelessness from his own text; he is as fictional as other characters. In other words, “to reveal authors position within the ontological structure is only to introduce the author into fiction; this gesture merely widens the structure to include author as a fictional character” (McHale 197-8). Thus, Jac Tharpe’s labeling of Chimera as an autobiography is obscured by the fact that the specular presence of the author as the subject of his own text yields itself to a self-defacement. The autobiographical text never allows its author to divulge his inner self regently. Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges and I” is the closest parable to de Man’s notion of the author of autobiography with two selves. The article begins with the sense of division between the authentic self and an inauthentic role or mask. The innovation and the source of paradox is Borges’ identification of inauthenticity with the self that emerges in and through writing, the written persona from which the authentic self claims to be in constant retreat,

Years ago I tried to free myself from him, and I went from the mythologies of the city suburbs to games with time and infinity, but now those games belong to Borges, and I will have to think up something else. Thus is my life a flight, and I lose everything, and everything belongs to oblivion or to him? (Borges 200)

He continues to say that if the protest against the inauthentic written self is itself made in and through writing, then from whom does this protest originate? Who speaks?: “I don’t know which one of the two of us is writing this page” (Borges 201). Accordingly, the writer vanishes, and is eclipsed by his writing; he dies by projecting himself into writing. The paradoxical relation between the writer and written self correlates in de Man’s author-of-text and author-in-text. The tension between the two results in not self-advertisement or self-liberation of the author but, a self-deselfment. Perseus the embodiment of Barth-in-text observes that “myth isn’t reality” (109), thus his reflection of Barth can never be accounted for as true essence. When he has told the two-third of his story up to the first climax where he is going to confront Andromeda and her lover, Cassiopeia, he ironically proclaims: “Let my second tale be truly a second, not mere replication of my first; let a spell of monologue precede new dialogue…” (115). Here Perseus exemplifies de Man’s dual selves; the written self of Barth admits his inability to depict a true picture of the writer Barth. Any try would result in just a “replication”, a mirror-like relation between the two in which Barth’s reflection in Perseus reflects a faceless Barth, a mere echo in void. The final conversation between New Medusa and Perseus testifies such process of de-facement. Perseus is now constellated into Delta Persei. Thus Barth is finally converted into an utterance; as long as Perseus talks, Barth can exist. The worry of a blank page or silence shadows the text, pertaining to Barth’s struggle for having his autobiographical hero as a refuge from the whiteness of the blank space; “hurrying away and filling up the page with discourse” (Federman 51). However, “Perseid” ends with “Good night”, after resonating within the last pages, the voices of Perseus and New Medusa vanish into the a dark silence. Barth’s self-preserving attempts succumb to the discourse of non-existence, to “infinite pause” (Chimera 90). The final dialogue between New Medusa and Perseus encompasses Barth’s objective of writing such an autobiographical text, which is never accomplished.

Barth’s attempt in immortalizing himself, thus shapeshifting to a constellated mythological demi-god, Perseus, reduces him to just a composite of visible signs, yet silent. Ironically, he is content with what de Man considers to be mortalizing, a process of self-erasure. The contentment that Barth relishes, being “rehearsed as long as men and women read the stars”, paradoxically instigates the perpetual presence of his defacement in the mind of his readers. Since he has not managed to present a true image of himself, what remains is just an illusory, faceless reflection of Barth in the mind of his audience.

Thus, the much claimed autobiographical facet of Chimera collapses. “Perseid” represents de-faced Barth who from the very outset of the novel has ventured to originate a strong link between his artistic career and the text. Along with “Perseid”, “Bellerophoniad” rounds off in a zero zone in which the autobiographical hero sustains his ontological status, however, as a decentered phantom echoing in the final pages. In spite of the fact that Barth has accomplished to establish a fictionalized autobiography, he has been obsessed with the diegesis of his mythological hero, hence backgrounding what he initially intended to foreground; his most inner self as an author. The application of de Man’s autobiographical approach elucidates the figurality of any type of writing or genre, even the most wildly-recognized realistic ones. Fictionality or deviation from objective truth can be traced in any assumedly real-life-based writing. J. G. Ballard in his introduction to Crash (1974) asserts: “We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent reality (Cited in Travers 310). Henceforth, Barth can never do away with the fictionality of his text. The aporia in which he is entangled is between being an outsider or an insider with regard to the text. As an outsider or the subject of autobiography, he is hindered to see his reflection in the text by Barth-the-insider or Perseus. It goes without saying that there is no edge or divining line between the two; they intermingle to the extent that the distinction between author-Barth and Perseus-Barth is hardly possible.

Source by Narges Montakhabi

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