The 115th meeting of the Society for the Celebration of Barthomania was called to order (a condition it never quite achieved) around noon yesterday in a crowded, noisy room of the Astor Restaurant on M St. NW.
Dedicated to promoting mania for the works of novelist John Barth, the society was founded nine years ago by two employes of the National Endowment for the Humanities and nobody understands how it has managed to survive until now.
One explanation must lie in the membership. A dozen persons were present at yesterday's meeting and they undeniably resembled the proccuptions of their hero Barth (author of "Giles Goat-Boy" and "The Sot-Weed Factor" and professor in the writing program at Johns Hopkins).
That is to say, they were a bit rowdy, full of word-play, earnestly dedicated to quibbling and very concerned about Doing Things Correctly and the proper observance of formalities. And they are also zestfully attuned to absurbities. Votes were taken by raising a glass and drinking for either "aye" or "nay," and during one of these a non-member asked whether he would be allowed to vote. "It's illegal, but you can do it," he was told.
Spreading its message by word of mouth, the society has grown since 1969 to the point where it has missionary districts in Europe and Idaho and 30-odd members in the Washington area. At the 115th meeting, they spend most of their time quibbling about the contents of the minutes of the 114th meeting last month and getting ready for The Presumably Annual Founder's Day Gala, which will be held on Sept. 16 at the home of a member who said he would rather have it held somewhere else (he was voted down.)
The members at the meeting were divided into quibblers and accepters, depending on their attitude toward the minutes. In the opening ceremony the two groups recited antiphonally the words of the only four communications Barth has sent to the soceity in the nine years since its foundation: "Yes: well wow!" (10/31/69); "Surely - goodness, mercy!" (4/14/71/; "Right On!" (7/17/70) and "The Society are not unloved." (6/10/72).
The final phrase (which apparently represents Barth's latest judgement on his unusual fan club) was intoned by the presiding officer, who is offically known as "Swiver-in-chief." Other officers includ the Tender of the Turn-style, who does odd jobs, and the Keeper of the Eggplant, who keeps the nonbiodegradable eggplant, symbol of the society.
Among the events were the read-ing of a treasurer's report by the Fiduciary of the Funhouse (affectionately know as "The Fid"), the announcement that "The Esteemed Object of Our Celebration" John Barth has his next novel about seven-eights finished, and an attempt to suborn the press.
Noting that a reporter was present, the Keeper of the Eggplant, Robert Bort, moved that a bumper sticker be given to him "as a bribe for a good story." The move was seconded, thirded and passed with one dissenting vote (by the Keeper of the Eggplant who had proposed it). The sticker (reading "John Barth for Semidemigodhood") was passed across the table. The reporter declined, but thereafter purchased two bumper stickers (the other one reads "John Barth Loves Us").
A literary flavor crept into the meeting when the latest issue of Triquarterly Review was passed around, containing the most recent published writings of Barth (described by one member as "the most important thing that has happened to our society since the publication of 'Chimaera.'")
Then the meeting got down to its real business: quibbling. One of the burning issues was the fact that in the minutes of meeting 114 Barth had been called "the Eminent Object of Our Concern," whereas his official title is "The Esteemed Object of Our Celebration." The offending officer promised to write the correct expression 500 times.
The birth of a son to an absent member was formally announced and (by a majority vote) consigned to the archives. The Tender of the Turnstyle complained that "I can't take a baby in the archives."
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The Fid was busy selling raffle tickets and proposed that the society buy one as a fund-raising measure - a suggestion that was enthusiastically voted in, although the Tender of the Turnstyle grumbled about profit-making schemes. The society claims to have been non-profit since its beginning, but so far has failed in its bitter nine-year struggle to become tax-exempt.
"We would have to do some good to somebody," a member explained. "Don't we do some good to John Barth?" another asked. Nobody answered.