So, what is the case against David Barton?
Endgame is the final item in his Lazar and Leper trilogy. Like the first two items it consists of text, paintings and music, and hence has to be experienced online rather than in any conventional printed version.
I’ve laid out something of the details of the whole work in the previous two reviews [Taipei Times, June 15, 2017 and Dec. 20, 2018] so I won’t repeat them except to say that two characters, Lazar and Leper, are playing cards and exchanging cryptic remarks about the nature and fate of the universe, and have been doing so for several thousand years. Here they appear to come to the end of their discourse.
Barton warned me that this final episode would be “probably the weirdest and most brutal trip.”
Well, as before, I found it mesmerizing if frequently incomprehensible. The extraordinary Tuvan throat singing from Mongolia added a lot to the powerful effect — bird chirpings and all. As for the paintings, they are more densely worked over than previously and have less of an immediate impact. But a close examination might well reveal great riches.
As before, famous names and scraps of quotation, or half-quotation, pepper the text. There’s Bosch and Freud, not to mention Jesus. One section opens with a superb quotation from Nietzsche: “You are breathing a beautiful meaning and a soul into an accident.” It could stand as a motto for all atheists.
There’s an echo of Hamlet in a phrase about doubting the stars are fires (“Doubt thou the stars are fire … But never doubt I love,” as Hamlet writes in a love-letter to Ophelia) and, when someone smells of mortality, of King Lear, (Gloucester asks to kiss the mad king’s hand, but Lear replies “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality”). Milton’s “blind mouths” makes an appearance. And Blake’s tiger re-appears, though this time as a mere “yellow blur” in the forests of the night.
I have praised these very unusual products already, so it’s of some interest to inquire how a case against them might sound. It so happens that I’ve received just such a critique, albeit in condensed form. The writer, like Barton, is a professor of literature, but an American, whereas Barton is Canadian.
“I liked it ok,” my contact started, “but wouldn’t want to watch it again.” He said he got tired of the droning music (he was responding to the middle section, “Search for Lost Causes”) and of what he thought its self-conscious wit. But he thought it had an interesting “cosmological comprehensiveness and curiosity” to it. The paintings seemed a gimmick, he added, but he guessed that was “how it worked.”
He continued by saying that the work seemed quite “smarty-nerdy juvenile in attitude and approach,” and was characterized by a “gloomy cleverness.” On the other hand, he liked the word play throughout, and “the intelligence of it in general.”
How to go on from there is problematic. My view of that middle episode was that it represented a strikingly original attempt to do something more or less unprecedented, and something very unexpected, coming from Taoyuan’s Jhongli District (中壢), where Barton teaches. So I will now offer readers some extracts from Endgame and let them make up their own minds, even if provisionally, on which view takes precedence.
“You should weep like a God robbed of a better universe.”
“Shattered. Like death at a card party. Music keeps playing but the sandwiches go limp.”
“You’ve put a great bird in a small cage to make it sing.”
“They’ve lowered the age limit for dead rock stars.”
“To perish in play is the only way. To be crushed by debris in a soft symphony.”
“Sex tears the self apart it does, in one long groan.”
BLEAK WORLD VIEW
This book made me feel my own life was superficial. But at its best it reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. That celebrated poem is considered by many to be the high point of literary modernism, and Barton offers no challenge there. But what the two works do have in common is a very bleak view of the world, complete with juxtaposed literary allusions that often point to a richer, more myth-centered past.
But Barton is more of a joker than Eliot, and more attuned to the contemporary idiom (though Ezra Pound cut out most of Eliot’s more embarrassing attempts to use the colloquial vernacular). Barton is quirkier, too, ending this final section with a joke rather than anything comparable to Eliot’s Buddhist reverence.
Barton is also capable of the occasional cliche, as when he revives the old feminist slogan about a woman needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle. But “smarty-nerdy juvenile in attitude and approach?” The last thing Barton is is a nerd, and I didn’t detect any evidence for this description. But the American professor later admitted his comments were somewhat “jaded and niggardly,” so perhaps we needn’t take them too seriously.
All in all, this final episode confirms what I said of the previous two — impressive in parts but incomprehensible in others. It can be read on YouTube, including its mesmerizing music and colorful graphics, here.
I also think there are memorable verbal encapsulations, though some inevitably work better than others. To have sustained the original concept, seeing it through to the end, is in addition something of a feat.
So, despite any shortcomings, I remain convinced that Lazar and Leper is some achievement. Besides anything else, what comparable product can Taiwan’s English-language community boast of? Barton remains an eccentric but talented loner.
It remains to say that the author told me at a late stage that he had intended to dedicate the whole work to Taiwan, thus perhaps placing it in a specific historical context. This in itself is, of course, not without interest, though what it actually means, like much else in Barton, is in the final analysis anybody’s guess.
By David Barton
Available on YouTube
(Taiwan, 19 minutes)
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