DL Fowler's Blog

Lincoln’s Cosmopsis and My Tribute to John Barth

Don’t bother looking it up. Cosmopsis isn’t likely in your dictionary. John Barth used (probably invented) the term in his 1958 controversial novel, The End of the Road. The image of Jacob Horner, Barth’s main character, sitting on a train station bench all night has stuck with me since my college days – yes, they had trains before I entered USC.

What was Horner’s problem? He was paralyzed by indecision. He had $30 with which to buy a train ticket and couldn’t find a reason to visit any of the available destinations.

No. That doesn’t parallel anything we know about Abraham Lincoln. Not the indecision, that is. But the paralysis, yes.  Many of Lincoln’s contemporaries describe episodes like the one his law partner William Herndon recounted. Lincoln sitting in a chair in their law office one morning, staring into the cosmos, disconnected from the reality around him.  Herndon couldn’t shake him out of his trance. Two hours later, Lincoln kicked one leg straight out then crossed it over his other leg and launched into telling a raunchy story as if the previous two hours never happened.

It’s the staring into the cosmos,  cosmopsis, the two had in common.  Barth describes Horner’s gaze as similar to ancient Greek statutes – “sightless, gazing on eternity, fixed on ultimacy.”  Lincoln’s eyes were the same, but in way different.

On several occasions in his novel, Barth describes a specific statute from Greek mythology. Horner carries a small replica of it with him through the story, treating it like an disapproving parent reminding him constantly of his inadequacies. It’s the statute of Laocoön, his eyes reflecting the futility of his plight as he’s strangled by sea serpents, assassins dispatched by angry gods to punish him.  Lincoln’s eyes reflected Laocoön’s cosmopsis.

We know little of Jacob Horner’s early life to help us understand his psychology. After all he’s a fictional character.  Of Lincoln we know this – he suffered not just one trauma, but a series of events, any one of which could induce symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Psychologists have recently observed that a series of lesser trauma (for instance serial bullying) could produce the same manifestations that often dog soldiers returning from combat zones.  What Lincoln experienced from his childhood into early adulthood was tantamount to spending twenty-plus years in daily combat. 

Horner’s cosmopsis may have reflected a wimpy shirking off of simple decisions. Lincoln’s eyes reflected the deep agony of his life.  In Lincoln’s Diary – a novel, I have attempted to pay homage to John Barth’s creative imagery while honoring Lincoln’s victory over the god’s assassins.  If you take the time to study The End of the Road as you read Lincoln’s Diary, you should have fun picking out my tributes to Barth’s work.


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