Our Cultural and Genetic Heritage: John Barth’s “Night Sea Journey”

Lost in the FunhouseAlthough John Barth’s “Night-Sea Journey” from Lost in the Funhouse is barely six pages long, it is quite a journey, actually one which quickly expands into several voyages occurring simultaneously. Our first impression of the story is not at all like the second reading; it is a journey of a character we first assume to be human, a character we later realize is a sperm. This does not, however, stop us from reading the sperm as human, since he has a human voice and poses very human questions, it merely adds another layer. The sperm telling the story is an individual, but also a carrier of genetic heritage, the human voice, a purveyor of cultural heritage. The story itself is also implicated in the question of how it can be a unique work of art and still part of its literary heritage. The author does not resolve the question of identity and heritage, but hints at an acceptance, possibly a celebration, of our uncertain existence.

The journey begins with the title, which makes us think of adventure on the high seas, hinting at something illegal or illicit, since it takes place at night. Looking more closely, however, we realize that it is not the journey which “night” modifies, but the sea, as indicated by the hyphen. What is a night-sea? Are we on an ocean in the center of the earth or on a cursed world where the sun never shines? Even before we catch the allusion, the title has invoked heroic adventure and mythic fantasy. Carl Jung identified the “night sea journey” as an archetypal voyage through depression and neurosis, “a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious” (from the “The Psychology of the Transference,” by Carl Jung, quoted on the New York Association of Analytical Psychology’s website).

Barth’s story certainly reads like a trip through hell, as the narrator relates the misery of existence; the ghosts would be those who have already drowned. It takes place “somewhere beyond consciousness,” which, as we learn later, is at the cellular level. In mythology, the night sea journey typically involves being swallowed by a sea monster or a dragon, but could include abduction, imprisonment, even crucifixion, “experiences traditionally weathered by sun-gods and heroes: Gilgamesh, Osiris, Christ, Dante, Odysseus, Aeneas. In the language of the mystics it is the dark night of the soul” (NYAAP). The story then is meant to be a heroic journey, or at least a mock-heroic journey, with psychological and mythical overtones. The voyage is “a dark night of the soul,” in which the hero withdraws from the world by being swallowed up. The anti-hero of Barth’s story wants to be released from whatever cycles of existence he is a part of but does not understand, and he is certainly “swallowed up” by both the body of the woman he was ejaculated into and by the egg at the end of the story.

Typically, at sunrise, the hero escapes from the monster’s belly with the help of a bird, the release symbolizing for Jung the continuation of psychological and spiritual progression. Such myths arise from the perceived loss of the sun, which, Jung wrote, “sails over the sea like an immortal god who every evening is immersed in the maternal waters and is born anew in the morning” (from Carl Jung’s “Symbols of the Mother and of Rebirth,” NYAAP). In Barth’s story, maternal waters and rebirth function literally as well as mythically. The loss of energy, Jung says, symbolized by the setting of the sun, like the loss of energy during a depression, is necessary for rejuvenation. “Cleansed in the healing waters (the unconscious), the sun (ego-consciousness) lives again” (NYAAP). The sperm who is our storyteller does indeed live again in the form of the offspring created, but does this imply psychological rebirth as the allusion would suggest? (All this from a short title of only three words, two of them hyphenated.)

When a written work begins, as “Night-Sea Journey” does, with a quotation, it immediately establishes two personas: the speaker and the narrator or writer. Barth’s story uses quotation marks throughout; in fact the entire story is quoted. But who is doing the quoting? In this piece of fiction, we never hear the background narrator’s voice, the one who is quoting the storyteller, the sperm. The quotation marks set the story one step back from direct narration; we are hearing everything through an unknown secondary voice, like an echo in the darkness. The use of quotation marks foregrounds the fictionality of the story by making us aware that there is a person telling someone else a story, a silent listener who may be a character and/or the narrator, a narrator who is in turn passing the story on to us.

The storyteller says, “One way or another no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition” (333). By saying “it is myself I address,” the storyteller suggests that this an internal monologue. Since he is the only one of his kind left alive, as we learn later, an internal monologue is a logical explanation. Such an interpretation, however, is complicated by the fact that the narrator addresses “You” at the end of the story. “You who I am about to become, whatever You are” (338). The “You who I am about to become” is a fertilized egg, a baby, a human being.

At the level of narrative then, “Night Sea Journey” is a sperm talking to himself and, at the same time, addressing the human being he is about to become, “to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition.” The sperm’s secret hope is that “some unimaginable embodiment of myself (or myself plus Her if that’s how it must be) will come to find itself expressing, in however garbled or radical a translation, some reflection of these reflections” (338). Since someone is expressing to us “some reflection of these reflections,” whether garbled or quoted exactly, this part of his hope is realized. The storyteller says, “May You to whom, through whom I speak, terminate this aimless, brutal business!” (338). The “You” then is the human being produced by the ecstatic fertilization at the end of the story, a character who is “listening” to the story and probably the one repeating it to us, the one “through whom I speak,” the background narrator. Since he is repeating the story to us, it’s clear that he has not terminated “this aimless, brutal business.” At least not yet.


(Image from Live Action News.)

Many critics have assumed that “this egg, upon fertilization, will develop into Ambrose Mensch, the protagonist of several later stories, including ‘Ambrose His Mark'” (enotes). Whether the human being produced is a recurring fictional character, as these critics have suggested, or a separate, implicit character, we are again reminded of the fictionality of the story. Since John Barth is the real writer of the story, the offspring could be supposed to be Barth himself, and he is imagining his own conception. In that case “the stranger” Barth is addressing is the reader. A writer writing alone essentially talks to himself, but imagines a stranger, the unknown reader who will read his work. That also makes each of us the “You” of the story, the human being produced by the ecstatic fertilization, and “Night-Sea Journey” is the story of our own fertilization. Which of these readings is correct? Barth’s story resists such reduction and insists that all the variant readings, grounded in the text, operate simultaneously.

And what is this heritage the storyteller is passing on? On the level of narrative, the heritage is the biological information, the genes that the sperm gives to the egg, genes passed on to the newly-formed human being, a human being who may also produce sperm or eggs. As imagined by the sperm’s cynical friend, (who may be the storyteller himself, since he says, “Sometimes I think I am my drownéd friend” [337]), the sperm achieves a conditional immortality by combining with “Her!” to form a third, incomprehensible being that is both himself and another. In a very real sense, the genes that have survived in each of us have attained a limited immortality, limited in the sense that they have survived so far, but there is no guarantee that they will continue indefinitely; any particular copy may come to an end as a branch of a tree breaks off, yet the tree as a whole continues, which is basically what the storyteller was suggesting when he said, “Any given ‘immortality chain’ could terminate after any number of cycles, so that what was ‘immortal’ (still speaking relatively) was only the cyclic process of incarnation which itself might have a beginning and an end” (336).

As an example of this cellular “immortality,” a cyanobacteria living in underwater volcanoes has never tasted death in the four billion years of life on earth. It has split and split and split, and of course billions upon billions of these cells have died, but those that live have never died nor have any of their “ancestors.” Our genes may live, but we die. In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote a book called “The Selfish Gene,” which argues that evolution is not based on survival of the fittest individual, but rather survival of the fittest gene, which demands from us such behaviors as self-preservation and reproduction. He argues convincingly that we are not the ones in charge, as we seem to be. The storyteller asks, “And if I am, who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport?” (333). The story is asking us to reexamine identity in the light of modern scientific discoveries.

The Heritage discussed in the story, however, is not simply biological. The story must be read as well in terms of human culture. The “theories of the journey” he discusses include a wide range of religious, philosophical and scientific ideas, all of which seem plausible to the storyteller, even the most absurd theories, which he can believe “because our night-sea journey partakes of their absurdity. One might even say: I can believe them because they are absurd.” The word “absurd” calls to mind the theater of the absurd and the works of modernists such as Beckett and Artaud, modernists who were struggling with the concept of a cultural heritage which had lost its foundations, making all human endeavors seem absurd. If all theory, logic, and science must be based upon propositions that are ultimately unprovable assumptions, logic and science ultimately matters of faith.

Why is Genesis any harder to believe than the big bang theory, which posits that all material and energy in the universe existed in a single point and then accidentally exploded outward into a complex, perfectly balanced universe? Sartre claimed that the loss of absolutes gave us all a great freedom and deep personal responsibility, but the storyteller says of people who believe such theories, “it’s their very freedom and self-responsibility I reject, as more dramatically absurd, in our senseless circumstances, than tailing along in conventional fashion” (334). The storyteller, drowning in modernist doubt and existential despair, is rejecting an acceptance of his absurd state and suicide, without supplying an alternative, except to continue and hope that his offspring will end the night-sea journeys.

The storyteller, saying he can believe in a common Maker because of the absurdity of the idea, asks, “Has that been said before?” (333). Voltaire wrote, “”To believe in God is impossible, not to believe in Him is absurd.” The statement “I have seen the best swimmers of my generation go under” (333) alludes to Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl.” “Numberless the number of the dead!” (333) invokes both Dante’s Inferno and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” All of these are part of the human cultural and literary heritage which the storyteller, the narrator, and the author are reshaping and handing on to us. The storyteller asks, “How can I be both vessel and contents?” How can the sperm, or a human being, be an independent living creature and a carrier of genetic information that stretches back to the beginnings of life? How can a story be both an independent work of art and a purveyor of literary tradition? The story poses rather than answers these questions.

The other part of the storyteller’s secret hope, besides that his ideas will get transmitted, is that his offspring will “terminate this aimless, brutal business! Stop Your hearing against Her song! Hate love!” (338). Since someone is quoting the storyteller to us, presumably the offspring produced by the sperm, we can assume that the human or author has not terminated “this aimless, brutal business,” at least not yet. How cynical is the story? Is the nameless narrator going to kill himself? The storyteller ends with “! Love! Love! Love” (338), but we are not listening to the exact moment of ecstatic union. The storyteller is predicting what he will say, “I shall forswear myself, deny myself, plunge into Her who summons, singing . . . ” (338). He knows it is about to happen, and yet he is insisting on his cynical withdrawal from life, insisting that the creature who cries “Love!” is not himself, adding another level to the layers of identity. “Which is to say, I die already; this fellow transported by passion is not I; I am he who abjures and reject the night-sea journey!” (338). He seems to be saying that he is not his passion. The chemically-induced ecstasy that carries him away is not himself. He is his cynical philosophy. But can we claim, in the face of modern science, to be anything but our bodies? The reader is also carried away by this last line, caught up in the ecstasy of the moment. Our brains pour endorphins into our bodies as we read it and imagine ecstatic unions of our own when we lose our identities to love.

Does the story share the cynicism of the sperm? The title is the best clue. The heroic night sea journey cannot be completed until the hero is completely swallowed up by the sea creature, in this case, the egg. He cannot come back into energy and life, cannot be reborn until this happens. Most significantly, we have a quoted story, someone, presumably the product of the fertilization is repeating the story to us, so the heritage continues, life continues. We are the ones, as writer and reader, the ones who wonder who we are, why we live. We are the lost heroes pulling back from life, discouraged and unhappy, the wounded heroes who keep going in spite of all logic, the heroes caught up in the ecstasy of love, the ecstasy of rebirth, the ecstasy of fiction.

(Written for Michael Krasny’s class “Contemporary American Short Fiction” at San Francisco State University, Fall 2009.)

Works Cited

Barth, John. “Night-Sea Journey.” American Short Stories Since 1945. Ed. John G. Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Barth, John: Introduction.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Christopher Giroux. Vol. 89. Gale Cengage, 1996. eNotes.com. 2006. 9 Mar, 2009

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University, 1979.

“Night Sea Journey.” New York Association for Analytical Psychology.

Palmer, Donald D. Sartre for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1995.

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