Thu, Dec 20, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Book review: The medium is the madness

David Barton’s latest literary work encompasses text, music and video and is as obscure and difficult as his previous work, something our reviewer wouldn’t have any other way

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter


David Barton is at it again. Regular readers of the Taipei Times may remember him from a clutch of reviews over 10 years ago, of Teaching Inghelish in Taiwan (reviewed Oct. 28, 2007) and Saskatchewan (reviewed Nov. 25, 2007), plus an interview “Professor with a fighting chance” (Nov. 25, 2007).

Barton is a professor in the English department at the National Central University in Jhongli City, Taoyuan County (“the armpit of Taiwan” in his view). But he’s perhaps better known for the sheer zaniness of his writing, a zaniness that in fact takes many forms.

Then, more recently, there was Lazar and Leper: The Book of Time Barton (reviewed June 15, 2017). I called that, among other things, an “intellectual comic strip,” but it was only the beginning. He has now re-issued it, together with two more items, to make a trilogy, or perhaps we should say a triptych. It now contains music, as do the two new volumes, and so is currently only available on YouTube. The three “books” are entitled Deck of Cards, Search for Lost Causes and Endgame.

This may sound strange, but the material is even stranger once you get to grips with it.

As for the first volume, the addition of Javanese gamelan music is a huge improvement, making you think that this Nietzsche-like contemplation of the cycles of time and messiahs has the philosophical reach the music embraces, putting the action of the rational mind into a trance-like suspension. Any echoes of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot become very disorienting with this added oriental dimension.

The same applies to this new, second book, where the music features one of those low-toned Tibetan flutes, producing a drone-like effect. None of these three books, incidentally, is now available without the music, such as via the link we gave in the original Lazar and Leper: The Book of Time review last year.

Publication Notes


By David Barton

Available on YouTube

I have to admit to being almost totally flummoxed by Barton’s text this time. Not that the first episode was any clearer, but at least initial contact gave rise to some thoughts. Now it’s as if I’m in the world of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, surrounded by phrases that are potent enough but don’t carry any very coherent meaning, at least on a first encounter.

There are recurring images such as collapsing galaxies, eggs, time, space, red dwarfs, viruses, ICBMs, a universe of pain and there are unexpected elements — Humpty Dumpty, the Second law of Thermodynamics, Star Wars, plus many more. The cultural contexts are wide-ranging too — Blake’s “forests of the night” gets a mention, as do Milton’s “brooding on the vast abyss” and Shakespeare’s “something rich and strange.”

“We are the fragments of a conscious catastrophe” made me think of Brexit (but then Barton is Canadian, not British). But what the “argument” of the whole might be is, I would think, pretty much anybody’s guess.

“The systole and diastole of the universe”, perhaps, combined with a way of looking at the politics of war?

So, what is the imagined situation? Two male figures, Lazar and Leper, are playing cards and talking, and have been for several thousand years, as was the case in part one. Their remarks are laconic and cryptic, as after that length of time they are likely to be.

Then there are echoes of nursery rhymes, CS Lewis, the Beatles’ octopus’s garden, The Bells of St Mary’s, not to mention dark matter and private matters.

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