Thursday, June 16, 2011
Pour Joyce: Eighteen Joycean Thoughts for Bloomsday
In honor of Bloomsday 2011 here are eighteen thoughts inspired by Ulysses, one for each chapter. Pour them into the porches of your rears.
1. TELEMACHUS. Who is Stephen Dedalus's third 'master,' the one who wants him "for odd jobs"? He pedantically identifies the first two masters (Pope and King) for the benefit of Haines, but his cryptic reference to the third flies far over the Englishman's low-altitude head. It's one of the many teasing riddles Stephen leaves unsatisfactorily answered, and thus several answers suggest themselves. (This shows that Joyce has learned well the secret of Shakespearean motivation: the less an author explicitly tells, the more labyrinthine the reader's guesses.) Stephen might mean Ireland, the unchosen country of his post-collegiate funk (Yes, Stephen Dedalus is 20th-century literature's archetype-defining 'slacker'), or he might be referring to his literal boss, the decidedly odd Mr. Deasy; or, at a stretch, Buck Mulligan, who depends on Stephen's job to finance his Thursday night carousing. The best answer, though, is literature, the artistic master to whom he has yet to offer a sacrifice, save his grandiose 'epiphanies' and the odd little scraps of poetry composed on library slips (and torn typing paper) during stolen moments on Sandymount Strand.
2. NESTOR. Every good reader of Joyce is, like Stephen, a learner rather than a teacher. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while great and re-readable, are less than infinite works. They don't demand a lifetime of re-reading. Ulysses, by contrast, is a book one can re-read even beyond the Biblical threescore and ten. (Fortunately, it's better than the Bible, and funnier.) And Finnegans Wake surely requires several lifetimes (as well as proficiency in many languages), many cycles of recirculation before we begin waking to the Wake. We are all learners of Joyce, attempting with each reading to understand his books in toto and always moderately succeeding before always colossally failing. For however well we may read, Joyce reads better; however cleverly we may interpret, Joyce interprets more cleverly. He knows all of our tricks and is always several steps ahead of us, occasionally turning to mock us, always scribbling determinedly on...
3. PROTEUS. An excellent example of the vast network of cross-references that ties Ulysses together appears in this passage from 'Proteus': "Pico della Mirandola like. Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once..." Taking the middle sentence first, this Hamlet line seemingly thrown up by random association refers back to the first chapter, where a peninsula is described as lying "on the water like the snout of a sleeping whale." More obviously, it sounds the novel's Hamlet motif and joins the Hamletisms of chapter one to the motif's gargantuan thematic expansion in 'Scylla and Charybdis.' The mention of Mirandola in the first fragment signposts the third sentence, which is a pitch-perfect parody of Walter Pater's essay on Pico della Mirandola in The Renaissance. This parody of Paterian prose precurses the parodic style/structure of 'Oxen of the Sun' (where Pater is among those specifically parodied) and might also remind us of Pater's oft-quoted line (from the essay on Giorgione in The Renaissance) about all art aspiring to the condition of music, a possible conceptual inspiration for the 'Sirens' chapter. And wherever there is Paterian aestheticism in Ulysses, one gets a whiff of the novel's Wilde motif and the closely related motif/theme of homoeroticism, two aspects of Ulysses that have been insufficiently explored.
4. CALYPSO. The tolling churchbells that end this chapter resound Westminstered through the pages of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf disliked Ulysses (her well-known statements about it are shallow and class-prejudiced, not Woolf at her critical best), but she was deeply influenced by it, writing in Dalloway an anglicized, bourgeois-centric, feminacentric, more formally traditional, more sharply focused, and much more concise 'revision' of Joyce's novel. Joyce's exact contemporary (Woolf was also born in 1882 and died in 1941) was hardly alone in being decisively influenced by the the book of Mr. Bloom's day. Ulysses was influencing writers even before Sylvia Beach booked it. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot read it as a work-in-progress in manuscript and magazines, so the Joycean juxtaposition of myth and modernity stands behind two of the great poetic monuments of Modernism, The Waste Land and The Cantos. Is there any other novel that has had a comparable influence on the history of poetry?
5. LOTUS EATERS. When Bloom, walking near Trinity College, sees an unimaginative poster for a sporting event, he thinks, "Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye." The poster he sees is too obvious and representational: a "cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot." The one he imagines is more abstract, even avant-garde, the sort of thing the Italian Futurists or Russian Constructivists might have conceived. In other words, it's au courant for the time of the novel's composition, but too early for that of its setting. If Joyce learned from Shakespeare, he also learned from Dante: a writer can easily make his characters seem ahead of their time (or in the Florentine's case, make them peerless prophets) by setting his tale a few years in the past. This tiny scene is also a demonstrative commentary on how quickly the most radical artistic ideas can be turned to the stuff of advertising. Capitalism can digest anything.
6. HADES. Consider a single paragraph from Mr. Bloom's ride to the cemetery:
"The stonecutter's yard on the right. Last lap. Crowded on the spit of land silent shapes appeared, white, sorrowful, holding out calm hands, knelt in grief, pointing. Fragments of shapes, hewn. In white silence: appealing. The best obtainable. Thos. H. Dennany, monumental builder and sculptor."
Note the sudden whiplash turns of tone and register, the unexpected collisions of discourse--all perfectly appropriate for a description of something seen from a speeding carriage. We begin with neutral, tourguide-like description, then jarringly lapse into the discourse of auto racing (a motif of the funeral procession). After a mere two words, our temporary sports fan of a paragraph spills into lyrical description ("Crowded on the spit of land...") that crosses over into a parody of elegiac sentimentality ("sorrowful, holding out calm hands...In white silence: appealing"). This register is hewn by the more descriptive fragment "Fragments of shapes, hewn," and after a brief return to the elegiac, we immediately lapse into the language of self-promotion, advertising, Leopold Bloom's professional discourse: "The best obtainable." And we end with a passing glimpse of Mr. Dennany's business sign, a capitalist banality that bathetically undermines the lyrical beauty of the preceding lines.
7. AEOLUS. Here's a truism I'm tired of repeating: Modernism at its best was always already post-Modern. Joyce becomes postmodernly self-conscious in this chapter about newspaper production, printing, writing and (above all) rhetoric. Wandering among the newsmen of Dublin, Ulysses achieves self-consciousness and reflects upon the means of its own production. At the most explicit moment of formal involution, editor Myles Crawford pulls Stephen Dedalus aside and asks him to write "something with a bite in it" and proceeds to prophesy the novel in which he appears: "Put us all into it, damn its soul. Father, Son and Holy Ghost and Jakes M'Carthy." Mr. McCarthy's compatriots are of course well represented in Ulysses, fathers and sons constitute one of the novel's major themes, and the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare are holy enough for Joycean work. Among the other spirits present at the seance, one should mention Stephen's mother, Bloom's father and son (that theme again), Oscar Wilde, Parnell, Paddy Dignam, and an unholy host of others.
8. LESTRYGONIANS. When Bloom pauses to watch a typesetter in the 'Aeolus' episode, his mind returns to a memory of his father reading Hebrew, and he reflects upon Old Testament morality: "Justice it means but it's everybody eating everyone else. That's what life is after all." Sweeney Todd couldn't have said it better. This Hebraic Hobbesianism is explored further in 'Lestrygonians,' when Bloom enters the Burton and witnesses a panoramic Darwinian spectacle of the eaters and the eaten: the munching men are compared to animals at their feed. This may be what life is, after all, but Bloom decides to have none of it and retreats to Davy Byrnes's "moral pub" for a gorgonzola sandwich (not recommended for the lactose intolerant). It might be possible--but not terribly interesting, perhaps--to interpret this chapter as an allegory of the birth of ethics as a dialectical response to the Hobbesian state of nature. But like all of Ulysses, it's much, much more than that.
9. SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS. Joyce has already Brechtianly revealed the stage machinery of his novel (most explicitly in 'Aeolus'), so it should come as no surprise when Stephen begins his discourse on Shakespeare by mentally invoking that unlikeliest of muses, the most secret father of Joycean naturalism, Saint Ignatius Loyola. Buck Mulligan is absolutely right about Stephen (and his creator): he has the cursed Jesuit strain in him, but it's injected the wrong way. It's ferociously secular. And just as Stephen Loyolanly meditates upon Shakespeare's London, Joyce the novelist Loyolanly 'composes' his own earlier Dublin. Ulysses is, among much else, a demonstrative secularization of the Loyola meditation technique known as 'composition of place' (which Stephen explicitly cites in the same line). This, I am convinced, is the compositional key to Joyce's realism. This is how he 'achieves' Dublin on the page. Joyce the apostate sat in Trieste-Zurich-Paris from 1914 to 1921 and performed Loyolan compositions of place on the Dublin of 1904.
10. WANDERING ROCKS. Before he ends this most peripatetic of episodes with a tour de force tour de Dublin, Joyce takes us inside the consciousness of Master Patrick A. Dignam, son of the encoffined and engraved stiff from 'Hades' ("First the stiff; then the friends of the stiff."), in a 'juvenile' prose style reminiscent of the early pages of the Portrait. It also, to my ear, sounds like a typically pitch-perfect Joycean parody of Gertrude Stein's prose. Judge for yourself. Here's the son recalling the father's death and encoffinment: "His face got all grey instead of being red like it was and there was a fly walking over it up to his eye. The scrunch that was when they were screwing the screws into the coffin and the bumps when they were bringing it downstairs." This also sounds a bit like mid-period Samuel Beckett, the Beckett of Molloy. But the art of the sentences is pure Joyce: notice that "screwing the screws" sonically and visually analogizes the repetitive screwdriver turns of the action it describes, and that the b's in the second half of the sentence 'bump' against its smooth sonic flow like the coffin against the stair walls.
11. SIRENS. One obvious question arises from this section: Where is "Ulysses: The Opera"? Answer: it's right here, waiting for a composer Wagnerianly ambitious enough to music the 700-page Joycean libretto. Seriously, a novel this musical cries out for operatic adaptation. We have had two attempts at film adaptations (by Joseph Strick and Sean Walsh); both are watchable and interesting but neither comes close to the book's level of artistry. A less 'realistic' adaptation for the operatic stage might work much better. It might, in fact, given a sufficiently Brechtian director, come much closer to the novel's artistic heart. Imagine an operatic Ulysses conceived like Berg's Wozzeck, with eighteen scenes that play like self-contained mini-operas, each in a different style. I will ask my question again: Why doesn't such an opera exist? Why isn't it already part of the Met repertoire?
12. CYCLOPS. A few years ago, in a basement gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, I encountered a photograph that absolutely destroyed me, tore at me until I felt fragmented, ripped me apart like an angry child's least favorite toy. The photograph was taken after World War II by David Seymour (known professionally as 'Chim'), and it showed a young girl named Terezka standing before a chalkboard on which was scrawled an indecipherable jumble of tangled, spiralling lines that superficially resembled some of the abstract expressionist paintings in the galleries upstairs. The wallcard informed me that Terezka had been photographed in a home for disturbed children after spending most of her young life in a concentration camp. She had been asked to draw a picture of 'home' on the chalkboard. These words helped me understand the image, but the image itself blew all that understanding away as soon as I looked into Terezka's eyes. Her haunting and haunted stare, directed straight into the camera, is one of the most deeply horrifying things I have ever seen. These are eyes that have seen far too much, that have been forced to drink so deeply of human horror that they can only project that horror outward. These are eyes blighted and blinded by experiences most human beings can hardly imagine. Looking into them was like staring into the sun. I couldn't bear it for more than a few seconds at a time. I left the gallery, left the Art Institute, and walked aimlessly north on Michigan Avenue. By the time I reached the Water Tower I heard another voice, a counter-tone, rising up inside me to meet the unspeakable horror of Terezka's eyes. It offered itself as a kind of answer to the image. It was the voice of Leopold Bloom from the 'Cyclops' episode, answering the anti-semitic arseholes at Barney Kiernan's by defining love as the opposite of historical hatred. Love. It's a kind of answer.
13. NAUSICAA. After his Gerty-enabled ejaculation on Sandymount Strand, Bloom tries and fails to write her a message in the sand with a phallic wooden 'pen.' He throws the wood away, accepts that they will never meet again, and slips into a doze. (The parallels between his encounter with Gerty and his later and longer one with Stephen Dedalus are instructive.) His sleep-slipping mind immediately fires off a machine gun barrage of motifs (beginning "O sweety all your little girlwhite up I saw dirty bracegirdle made me do love sticky...") to create one of the novel's most extraordinarily avant-garde passages. This brief paragraph is beyond the rest of Ulysses, beyond surrealism, beyond even Finnegans Wake; the nearest analogy that comes to mind is William Burroughs' 'cut-up' method. As Bloom sleeps, Joyce leaps.
14. OXEN OF THE SUN. This chapter is Joyce's gift to English majors. A good part of its lit-geek fun comes from trying to identify all the styles parodied. Even the best-read of readers probably won't correctly identify them all. Fortunately, Gifford and Seidman's Ulysses Annotated (an essential reference) does a wonderful job of separating the pseudo-Lamb from the cod De Quincey, the faux-Ruskin from the false Carlyle. Joyce's takeoff of Carlyle is particularly hilarious: "By heaven, Theodore Purefoy, thou hast done a doughty deed and no botch! Thou art, I vow, the remarkablest progenitor barring none in this chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle. Astounding!" Astounding indeed. This is parody so perfect that it passes into criticism and forces the reader to wonder why anyone ever took Carlyle's maniacal fustian seriously.
15. CIRCE. If 'Sirens' sings out a demand for operatic adaptation, 'Circe' demands an imagistic alchemization at the animating hands of Terry Gilliam. It's a script for the greatest cartoon Gilliam will never draw. Much, much more than this, "Circe" is Joyce's farcical response to Goethe's already rather ridiculous Faust, Part Two, as well as a parodic take on Flaubert's weirdest work, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. More immanently, this longest section of Ulysses--taking up more than a fifth of the book's total length--is the novel's outrageously Freudian dream of itself. Or as a Reagan-era public service spot might have said: this is Joyce's brain on drugs, really good drugs, premo shit, hardcore hallucinogens cooked up especially for Ol' Jimmy Boy by Albert Hofmann's predecessor at Sandoz Labs. But this isn't really Ulysses unhinged. Joyce never loses control. This is Ulysses uncensored, a dreamtime bursting of the imaginative strictures, the rational rules of fiction, under which much of the novel is written (especially the more 'realistic' sections; Joyce here shows us that adherence to the rules, not to reality, is what defines 'realism.') For me, 'Circe,' 'Penelope' and 'Proteus' are the novel's three most liberating chapters...
16. EUMAEUS. ...and this chapter is surely its most boring. Intentionally so. If 'Cyclops' and 'Circe' are the inspirational takeoff points for Thomas Pynchon's wildly imaginative flights, then 'Eumaeus' and the first half of 'Nausicaa' might be considered the birthplaces of David Foster Wallace's accomplished and irritating experiments in imitative form. This chapter is a resting place in the night, a cabman's shelter where the novel pauses to catch its breath after the metamorphic frenzy of 'Circe.' It is also--and this may be the most interesting thing about it--the last piece of traditional narrative fiction Joyce ever wrote. After this comes the catechism of 'Ithaca' and the deluge of 'Penelope,' and then the labyrinthianly idiolectal Finnegans Wake. 'Eumaeus,' then, might be read as a demonstration of the exhaustion not merely of Bloom and Stephen but of the naturalistic narrative tradition as a whole. Joyce comes not to praise the tradition but to bury it. This is Joyce turning the final screw in the Paddy Dignam coffin of traditional fiction.
What is the significance of the four full-page initials, U, S, M, and P, that decorate respectively the title page and the first page of each section of the standard 1961 edition of Ulysses?
Anagramming most obviously as 'sump,' the letters codedly signify a pit to which liquid wastes are drained, a cesspool, and might therefore constitute a puritanical designer's critical commentary on the book's content. Another view reads the letters in order to form an acronym describing the central character: Unreconstructed Sado-Masochistic Paddy.
Why does the 1961 edition of Ulysses end this chapter with a greatly enlarged period?
That's not a period, my daffy darling. It's a wormhole that bypasses the 'Penelope' episode and takes the daring reader directly into the loonyverse where sleepers never wake, Finnegan's, there to meet sinbad the sailor and jinbad the jailer and tinbad the tailor and--you get the picture.
18. PENELOPE. Here's a highly arguable assertion about the overall structure of Ulysses and its relationship to twentieth-century literature: Ulysses begins in Modernism (the first six chapters), passes through the Postmodern dissolution of the autonomous self (chapters 7-17), and ends, in 'Penelope,' with a compelling Post-Postmodern recovery of the subjectivity dissolved in the previous chapters. Discuss. ("Oh, rocks! Tell us in plain words.")
And while you're discussing it, I'll take this opportunity to lament the fact that the 1975 edition of Joyce's Selected Letters, edited by Richard Ellmann, is currently out of print. By virtue of its inclusion of the uncensored texts of Joyce's wonderful erotic letters to Nora, this is quite possibly the only volume of author letters in existence that might conceivably sell a commercially respectable number of copies, so I find its absence from the market puzzling, to say the least. Surely this book would be a natural for the New York Review Books Classics imprint. I wonder why they haven't picked it up. Until this book is brought back into print, the Joycean literary landscape will be like a home without Plumtree's Potted Meat.