The Sot-Weed Factor
Part Five of my real-time review of THE SOT-WEED FACTOR by John Barth, a review that will evolve in the comment stream below as I read it…
Continued from Part Four here: https://nemonymousnight.wordpress.com/the-sot-weed-factor/#comment-761
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“When was it he had finished The Sot-Weed Factor in his room at Malden?”
Another resonance of the FACTOR with the ‘house OF (tobacco?) LEAVES’, is that both books eventually appear as themselves within the plot AS themselves. (Ref: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/24625-2/#comment-15418) Cf my old published and edited book containing many authors: THE HA OF HA (The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies) and some of the stories within it that have the same phenomenon of the solipsistic book within its own plot.
Meanwhile, E and HB have arrived at St Mary’s City,and we learn the Catholic / Protestant dichotomy between Anne Arundel Town and this city respectively as seat of government, and how this affects the Lord Baltimore plot machinations etc. E also re-encounters his valet Bertrand again masquerading as E! And more plot machinations revealing themselves.
“Is’t not a well-known fact that more history’s made by secret handshakes than by all the parliaments in the world?”
On a storm-tossed sloop Bertrand and E discuss the various seeming incredible sleights of disguise by HB, and the machinations of plot that evoked the above quote, followed by some recurrence of machinations with “Negroes”, and a prospective fate worse than walking the plank? But the most seminal part of this chapter — and perhaps of this whole book, even exceeding the HB’s Geminology section, and perhaps EVEN of all literature — is the discussion about dreams, including lions of Numidia and the Dreamer of the World, all of which presages miraculously our increasingly universal concept of the Co-Vivid Dream, today! (This passage is shown under the double line below…)
The roll of the boat threw Bertrand to his knees; his face went white.
“’Tis all very well, sir, all very well indeed; but I must shout to the
captain to turn back! We can fetch Miss Anna another time, when the
Ebenezer declared they would fetch her now, and went on with his
reminiscence. “The thing I just recalled,” he said, “was how Joan Toast
waked me by knocking on my door, and how I was so amazed to see
her, and still so full of sleep, I could not tell to save my life whether ’twas
a dream or not. And I remember reasoning clearly ’twas doubtless a cruel
dream, for naught so wondrous e’er occurred in natural life. All my joys
and tribulations commenced with that knock on the door, and so fantastical
are they, I wonder if I am not still in Pudding Lane, still wrapped in
troubled sleep, and all this parlous history but a dream.”
‘Would Heav’n it were, sir!” cried the valet. “Hear that wind, i’Christ,
and the sky already dark!”
“I have had dreams that seemed more real,” Ebenezer said, “and so hath
Anna, many’s the time. There was a trick we knew as children: when the
lions of Numidia were upon us or we’d fallen from some great Carpathian
cliff, we’d say, ‘Tis but a dream, and now I’ll wake; ’tis but a dream, and
now I’ll wake — and sure enough, we’d wake in our beds in St. Giles in the
Fields! Why, we were even wont to wonder, when we talked at night
betwixt our two bedchambers, whether all of life and the world were not
just such a dream; many and many’s the time we came nigh to trying our
magical chant upon’t, and thought we’d wake to a world where no people
were, nor Earth and Sun, but only disembodied spirits in the void.” He
sighed. “But we ne’er durst try —”
“Try’t now, sir,” Bertrand pleaded, “ere we’re drowned past saying
charms! I’God, sir, try’t now!”
The poet laughed, no longer feverishly. “‘Twould do you no good in
any case, Bertrand. The reason we never tried it was that we knew only
one of us could be The Dreamer of the World that was our name for’t
and we feared that if it worked, and one of us awoke to a strange new
cosmos, he’d discover he had no twin save in his dream. . . . ‘Twas too
much to risk. What would it profit you if I saved myself and left you here
But Bertrand was too frightened to follow his master’s reasoning: he fell
to pinching himself ferociously and bawling “’Tis but a dream, and now
I’ll wake! ‘Tis but a dream, and now I’ll wake!” — to no avail.
5: CONFRONTATIONS AND ABSOLUTIONS IN LIMBO
“’Tis e’er the salvages’ wont,” his valet insisted, finding his voice in ear-
nest. “Ye’ve but to run afoul of one in your evening stroll, and bang! he’ll
skin your pate as ye’d skin a peach! Why, ’tis still the talk in Vansweringen’s
how a wench named Kersley was set upon by Indians in Charles County,
just year before last: she was crossing a field of sot-weed ‘twixt her own
house and her father’s, with the sun still shining and a babe on her arm
besides, but ere she reached her husband’s door she had been scalped,
stuck with a knife, and swived from whipple to whitsuntide! And again,
not far from Bohemia Manor —”
Whether “Negroes” or “Indians” mentioned here, I think that the old word for savages is here “salvages”, as if such are the rescue or salvage of our dying world today from the white race! The flaying and flensing toward a new purity, skinned and scalped by “complete extermination of every white-skinned human being in Maryland!”
Here E and Bertrand, in such a white plight, having been thus captured for priming from the sloop, now meet, by another fine coincidence, the man who was instrumental in the monumental wager at the start concerning Joan Toast, also in captivity. His story and other machinations with which I shall not bother you eventually creates a fine rite of passage for absolutions in this savage place that someone once called Limbo.
But where are those aubergines or egg-plants I recall so well from reading this book in the 1960s? I must have imagined them. I am about three-quarters through my re-reading.
Just checked back and have reproduced roughly the whole of the Rape of the Cyprian chapter here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/a-chapter-from-the-sot-weed-factor-any-john-barth/ where the egg-plant syndrome is briefly mentioned! Possibly the only time it has been mentioned so far.
6 – 21
“The whole history of his twenty-eight years
it was that had brought him to the present place at the present time; and
had not this history taken its particular pattern, in large measure, from the
influence of all the people with whom he’d ever dealt, and whose lives
in turn had been shaped by the influence of countless others? Was he
not, in short, bound to his post not merely by the sum of human history,
but even by the history of the entire universe, as by a chain of numberless
links no one of which was more culpable than any other? It seemed to
Ebenezer that he was, and that McEvoy was not more nor less to blame
than was Lord Baltimore, for example,, who had colonized Maryland, or
the Genoese adventurer who had discovered the New World to the Old.
This conclusion, which the poet had reached more by insight than by
casuistical speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The
point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him
would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and
Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had
rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people whom the accidents of
history had made in many ways superior Ebenezer did not doubt that
his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the Eng-
lish were doing. To the extent, then, that historical movements are ex-
pressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just
object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged, in a deeper sense than
McEvoy had intended in his remark of some nights past, to the class of
the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had
shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what
guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility:
for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference
between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specializa-
tion of each group’s psyche, then it was as “human” for the white man
to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to
slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him
to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had
once enslaved that savage. In sum, the poet observed, for his secular
Original Sin, though he was to atone for it in person, he would exact
a kind of Vicarious Retribution; he had committed a grievous crime against
himself, and it was himself who soon would punish the malefactor!”
Note use of ‘savage’ there rather than ‘salvage’.
You must already know how these plot machinations pan out from this point onward to the end, this point of realisation in fateful turnings, this concertina of meaningful or Panglossian coincidences, nature as well as nurture, with more bawdiness, more wise gratuitousness, and Anna’s eventual child needed to be at least assumed as Ebenezer’s child, too. As if born from an endemic Geminology.
Another arguably happy ending, with Malden HOUSE recouped, as with my reading today about the Navidsons’ ending was equally just as happy….
And the sacred rite of the eggplant? Well, we all now know what THAT was really all about. I was always determined from the start not to finish reviewing this book in public, on this second reading. I wanted to die erect, never supine, never quenched.
The book that contained itself, the HA of HA bloody HA!
The five parts of this review