Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pour Joyce: Eighteen Joycean Thoughts for Bloomsday

Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931. (Toledo Museum of Art; Toledo, Ohio). The sitter is Cadmus's lover, the artist Jared French. This nakedly intimate, surprisingly complex and deeply erotic painting is my favorite artistic image of the novel that has given a name to today.

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.

17. ITHACA.

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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

American Writers and American (Sur)Reality : A Premature Ejaculation for the Fourth of July

"..the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist. Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?" -- Philip Roth, "Writing American Fiction," (1960), collected in Reading Myself and Others

These are Philip Roth's most famous nonfictional words, a classic statement of the American novelist's eternal complaint: how can I write about a reality that constantly outruns my imagination? The best answer to this is a short, Beckettian one: Imagine more. Fail better. This was the path taken by Roth's more experimental contemporaries (Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme) and eventually by Roth himself in Portnoy and after. But even fifty years later Roth's complaint remains quotable, continues to resonate, and even finds unexpected confirmation in Roth's own later Nixon satire, Our Gang, the imaginary outrages of which were quickly overrun by the surreal reality of Watergate, the Plumbers, and the "cocksucker!"-sputtering Nixon of the tapes. While Roth's list of cultural and political figures is hopelessly dated (Adams and Goldfine have dropped completely off the radar; Cohn and Schine exist only as minor cloven-hoofed creatures in the demonology of the American Left; Charlie 'Quiz Show' Van Doren has been reduced to a name on dust jacket blurbs; and everybody today seems to like Ike [except Guatemalans]), the thrust of his argument still cuts to the American bone. Indeed, Roth's words are--as the cliche goes--even more relevant today. Just look at the tame, conventional fictions that are being touted as 'great American novels' (I mean you, Jonathan Franzen) while the central characters of truly great novels strut and preen and perpwalk across our TV screens every evening at 6:30: Bernard Madoff, Donald 'the chump' Trump, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Ensign, Anthony 'the aptly-named' Weiner, the unnamed soldier who is killing or dying in Afghanistan even as I type this...the list is pretty much endless. What American novelist living or dead could have imagined the life of Barack Obama? Not Faulkner, not Fitzgerald, probably not Toni Morrison, not James Baldwin, maybe Ralph Ellison. Who among our novelists could have imagined that a morbidly obese, radio-ranting drug addict would become arguably the most important person in the Republican Party? David Foster Wallace surely could have, ditto Thomas Pynchon, but who else? The life of Hillary Rodham Clinton would have taxed the imagination of Edith Wharton and been denounced as a feminist fairy tale had Joyce Carol Oates written it. If Pynchon had written a novel in which America is illegitimately ruled for eight years by two guys named Dick and Bush, his readers would've chuckled and thought, "Where does he get this stuff?!" More seriously, has any American novel of the past twenty years surpassed in political perception and tragic knowledge Naomi Klein's two-volume nonfiction anatomy of corporatism, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine? Given that corporatism (or globalisation, or global corporate capitalism, or late capitalism, or whatever you want to name the poison) is the hegemonic ideology of our time, any novelist interested in politics should be on this topic like a Blakean fly on Joycean shit. Where are the fictional explorations of the profound psychological impact of corporate thinking on the way we live today? There should be as many novels about corporatism today as there were about capitalism and communism during the Cold War. Who will be corporatism's John Le Carre? Who will be its Pasternak, who its Nabokov, who its Orwell, who its Sartre? What writer will rise to our dreary day and make herself the equal of the current crazy mess? As our political discourse has become increasingly insane over the last three years--a good starting point for the downward slide is the day in 2008 when John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, apparently choosing her name at random from a Juneau phonebook--I have had one recurring, pseudo-Wordsworthian thought: Nathanael West, thou should'st be living at this hour: / America hath need of thee... If you listen very carefully in the stillness of three o'clock in the morning (where all the clocks stop in the dark night of the American soul) you can hear a faint whining sound that after a while resolves into the threnody of America's few remaining readers literally calling out for a book that gives our current political landscape the kind of satirical skewering Nathanael West gave the crazies of his day in A Cool Million, still the greatest of all American political satires. Of course, the West-ern treatment is made considerably more difficult today by the fact that our contemporary political culture not only beggars the imagination but also secretes its own satire. A character as ridiculous as George W. Bush makes an American Swift or Voltaire redundant; everything Dubya says is satire by virtue of the fact that it issues from his face. The same is true of Cheney, but transposed to a darker key. Our coronary cyborg of an ex-Vice President is a headbirth of Joseph Heller at his deadliest. And what of Sarah Palin, the egregious failed governor of Alaska who still basks in the cultic devotion of her millions of foolish followers and luxuriates in the mindless attention of the very 'lamestream media' she thinks she despises? Palin, the puritanical conservative in stripper boots who dog-whistles apocalyptic rhetoric between shopping sprees, the Christian moralist whose electoral appeal boils down to a Morse Code-winked "vote for me because you want to fuck me," seems to have escaped from an unwritten late chapter of Gravity's Rainbow. And how about those psychologically damaged Bobbsey Twins of right-wing demagoguery, the sad fatboy Limbaugh and the delusionally paranoid Beck? Not really self-satirists, these two little boys are case studies in abnormal psychology, more pathetic than comic. Rush Limbaugh will always be the fat kid who wants to be cool and uses his verbal facility to impress the jocks with his outrageous comments. Listen to Big Rush and you can almost hear the 1960s high school football players saying, "That Limbaugh kid, man, he'll say anything. Silly little fucker." Of the paranoid stylings of Glenn Beck more than enough has already been said; it is sufficient to point out that this man sincerely believes that the 1930s kitsch decorative art at Rockefeller Center (of all places!) is part of a Communist plot of imagistic indoctrination. (It worked like a charm, an apotropaic one; Rockefeller Center is the Vatican of corporate capitalism.) Beck's silly hobbyhorses, though, are but so many special cases of the grand delusion affecting too much of the American right: the idea that self-styled 'conservatives' (who at their intellectual best/worst are not conservative at all, but rather constitute a kind of right-anarchist vanguard envisioning a taxless, governmentless corporate utopia) are a powerless, embattled minority fighting valiantly against overwhelming odds. This is obviously risible: a minority they certainly are (witness the returns from the last five presidential elections: Clinton, Clinton, Gore, barely Bush, Obama), but the anti-democratic force of corporate cash skews the odds ever so slightly in their favor. Nor can they be called 'embattled,' since no one really fights them. The centrists who dominate the Democratic Party bend themselves into knots appeasing the right, and the 'American left' is much more a right-wing fantasy than a viable political force. A political discourse free of ideological hallucinations would be a refreshing change, but I don't see the sun of that day rising any time soon. The best image for our current impasse may be Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann's affectless, trancelike stare: a zombie leading the blind. Yes, the goofballs of the right are their own best satirists; they are the unintentional Voltaires of themselves. If they had no real power, they would be as perfectly ridiculous as the hopelessly obscure, utterly powerless hardliners of the American left. But because the rightists do have power, because they are financed and supported by corporations and individuals with theoretically bottomless pockets, they should alarm and energize anyone who cares about freedom. On this upcoming fourth of July, let's rededicate ourselves to saving what's best about America from the so-called 'conservatives' (cue the sound of Burke spinning in his grave) who would destroy it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"the gelatinous, contractible threat of the shapeless octopus of dreams" : On the Prose Style of FADO ALEXANDRINO by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Fado Alexandrino is an amazing novel, brilliantly written and masterfully conceived and executed. Even if it had been less well-written, the novel's impressive formal originality (Lobo Antunes' montage-like narrative style in which temporally and spatially disparate scenes are conjoined in a single page, a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence) would have been sufficient to earn it 'must read' status. The author takes a hint from one or two chapters of Joyce's Ulysses and, exhibiting a Kirk Varnedoe-esque 'fine disregard' for the rules of novelistic fiction, transforms that hint into the hallmark of his style. Fado Alexandrino is the Sentimental Education of the Portuguese revolution, the Ulysses of 1970s Lisbon. It's one of the most important European novels of the past 40 years. And it is also a singularly exhausting reading experience.

I am not saying that the book is especially difficult. (It is a difficult novel--relative to, say, the works of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan--but it's not extraordinarily difficult. After 15 or 20 pages, readers attuned to post-Joycean fiction will become accustomed to the Antunesque style and have little difficulty navigating the cubistically shifting planes of his narrative.) My readerly exhaustion might have something to do with the work required to follow the novel's four distinct but simultaneously narrated storylines, but I suspect a more likely culprit in the very aspect of Fado that makes it so exhilarating and impressive, the author's maniacally metaphorical prose. The metaphor I quote in the title of this post is an admittedly extreme example, but pretty much every page of the novel exists under the gelatinous, contractible threat of Lobo Antunes' octopoid metaphors. (I know it's problematic to comment on the prose of a work read in translation, but Gregory Rabassa, who beautifully translated Fado, is one of the world's most highly regarded literary translators, so I assume that his English version is very faithful to the author's Portuguese.) Antonio Lobo Antunes doesn't write like someone who consciously invents metaphors, who deliberately pauses during the writing process to construct a clever image or a startling simile; he writes like someone who naturally thinks in metaphors; he writes like a man possessed by a metaphorizing demon. Lobo Antunes writes like a demiurge who hovers above every blank page and commands his images to be fruitful and multiply. He is the writer as orgymaster, a Sade of the simile, letting linguistic copulation thrive while his metaphors metastasize into figurative octopi that threaten to strangle the meaning of his serpent sentences beneath an insufficiently diaphanous linguistic veil that sometimes becomes as impenetrably dark as the mouth of the River Tagus on a gloomy winter night... Yes, reading Lobo Antunes at his most manic feels something like that. Reading him, in other words, is both exhausting and exhilarating. It's like good sex. But not the safe, bodiless, postmodern wordsex that academics call 'transgressive.' That's hardly Antonio's style. His prose is strictly bareback, down and dirty linguistic fucking from the wrong side of the tracks. If Jose Saramago is the only contemporary Portuguese literary writer you've read, you definitely need to give Antonio Lobo Antunes a try.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

IN PRAISE OF OLDER WOMEN by Stephen Vizinczey

According to a legend recounted on the front endpapers of my edition of this book, an early reviewer disgustedly tossed his advance copy into a wastebasket and wrote to the American publisher, "...I hope that Mr. Vizinczey will be murdered before he has time to write another book." When the book that caused this Khomeini-esque reaction in 1966 is read today, one wonders what aspect of this urbane, restrained and rather tame novel (tame not only for our time but for its own, the time of Naked Lunch, Last Exit to Brooklyn and the lifting of the Chatterley ban) was so upsetting. A highly literary erotic bildungsroman set against a background of historical tragedy (World War II, Nazism, Auschwitz, Stalinism, the 1956 Hungarian uprising), In Praise of Older Women reads like a lighter, more comic, much less ironically detached, Budapest version of the The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This comparison is intentionally anachronistic; Vizinczey's work preceded Kundera's by about two decades and might have influenced it, in a very general way. In contrast to Kundera's great work, Vizinczey's novel is good, interesting and minor. I want to call it a 'major minor novel.' (Unbearable Lightness is a major novel; Catch-22 is a Major Major one.) It's smart about sex and cognizant of the complexities of love. The chapters on 1956 and the narrator's experiences in Italian exile are wonderful, as are the passages in which Vizinczey's narrator indicts intellectuality and political action as flights from the self--"No argument can fill the void of a dead feeling," he writes--even as he flees from himself into erotic entanglements. Vizinczey should perhaps have given this irony greater emphasis, given us a more Nabokovianly unreliable narrator. As it is, Andras Vajda is an insufficiently unreliable narrator, more Henry Miller than Humbert Humbert. A more mysterious, elusive central character would've made the book more deeply interesting.

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE HUMBLING by Philip Roth

Philip Roth's 'Nemeses' quartet is really a quintet if you count The Dying Animal (which Roth categorizes as a 'Kepesh book'), a sextet if you include the 'Zuckerman book' Exit Ghost, or even a septet if you stretch the concept to include The Plot Against America. All seven books are thematically similar enough to belong together in the Library of America volume in which they will (surely) eventually be bound. The Humbling is probably destined to be considered a lesser member of this group. If Everyman (which I seem to be alone in finding exceptionally weak and unimpressive) was Roth in elegiac mode, The Humbling is his essay in tragedy. And a blatantly theatrical tragedy it is: a three-act structure; an actor-protagonist who has become psychologically unable to act (shades of Bergman's deeply theatrical film Persona); explicit references to O'Neill, Chekhov, etc.;  a makeover scene drawn from the deeply disturbing, self-abnegating makeover of Kim Novak in the last act of Vertigo; and even a gun mentioned in the first act, brandished in the second, and predictably discharged in the third. It is rather remarkable to see how many bases Roth can touch in such a brief book, but this is more the pleasure of watching a master at work than the much greater delight of reading a masterful book. For The Humbling is a minor Rothian performance, evidence that the tragic isn't really this major writer's mode. His greatest and most original mode, the one in which he writes his most powerful fiction, is the comical-tragical-absurdical-outragical of Sabbath's Theater, Portnoy's Complaint, The Human Stain, Operation Shylock, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and (a lesser example) Our Gang. But tragic Roth is better than no Roth at all, and The Humbling is a good enough book, not a bad one. I predictably enjoyed most of its predictable pages.

Friday, June 3, 2011

ULYSSES by James Joyce: Chapter Three, 'Proteus'

Joycean modality of the ineluctably visible. Signs of all things we are here to read. Words, words, words... The 'Proteus' episode of Ulysses, Stephen Hamlet's soliloquy on Sandymount Strand, is a hermeneutic minefield strewn with interpretive traps for wary readers. (Joyce doesn't bother trapping the unwary; that's too easy.) Stephen's thoughts look 'deep,' and Joyce works overtime to achieve this appearance, taking us on an eccentric allusionary tour through his mental library of philosophy, theology, aesthetics, etc. As a consequence, most readers miss the most crucial point of the section: its shallowness. I began to understand this only after traveling to Dublin and spending a sunny Sunday morning on Sandymount Strand. The strand is a huge sandflat. At low tide the soppy sand stretches far out to the barely visible edge of the sea, and it's possible to walk out over the flat, if you don't mind trudging through shoe-sucking muck. When the sea stops holding its watery breath and exhales back toward the land, the tide comes in very quickly over the flats. I know from experience how easy it is to find yourself stranded on a slight rise as the water rills in around you. (I still have an old pair of shoes stained darker brown by Irish Seawater.) When reading 'Proteus' we must realize that although Stephen is indeed at the edge of the sea, it is a pathetically shallow sea. Even at high tide, you can probably wade out a considerable distance before the water hits your waist. Likewise, while Stephen Dedalus appears to be a Hamlet plumbing his depths, those depths are in fact almost all shallows. Whenever his broody musing threatens to touch a deep place in himself, a place of guilt or shame or anxiety about sex or death, Stephen flies off on yet another tangent, soaring away into his mental library, into the rhetoric of theology, philosophy, history, into memories and fantasies, into self-mockery. (The passage in which the cocklepicker man orders his dog away from the dead dog's body reproduces the structure of the entire episode in miniature: the Claudius-voice of Authority orders Stephen Hamlet to put off these thoughts of death ["Tatters! Out of that, you mongrel!"]) This self-mockery may be the most important because it's the beginning of self-criticism, but it's only a beginning. And most of it is, importantly, aimed at his former self, an "other me" who can be more safely dismantled. Stephen went to Paris with grandiose dreams of forging great art in the soul's smithy; now he's back in Dublin and still in the process of realizing that he must first forge his soul.

Another point about this shallowness: late in the section we see Stephen's naked emotions, his loneliness and neediness and self-pity; we glimpse a kind of depth, and it's not a pretty picture. This depth is, in fact, embarrassingly shallow: adolescent, maudlin. Stephen's emotional life is not an acceptably complex, avant-garde construction; it mocks his "Latin Quarter hat," and so it must be fled. I suspect that this, rather than the book's proletarian roughness, is the aspect of Ulysses that Virginia Woolf found so repellent. Posh Virginia wanted to believe that all human beings (or at least that tiny minority that finds its way into serious fiction) are unfathomably complex. Joyce knew that most of the time we are insufferably shallow creatures, ankle-deep and mucky like Sandymount Strand.

There are some endlessly interesting juxtapositions of writing, sex and death near the section's end. Stephen, so horny he's kissing the air, has a thought and writes it down on a torn scrap of paper, a wordy ejaculation that we cannot read. Soon after, while the tide comes erotically in ("long lassoes from Cock Lake"; Cock Lake is a long phallic inlet of the sea into the Strand at low tide), Stephen lies back against the sharp rocks and masturbates, jesuitically mortifying his flesh even as he pleasures it. This is the 'job' he thinks of in the line "Better get this job over quick." He's giving himself a quick handjob as the tide rolls orgasmically in. (The eroticized description of the tide might thus be understood as a construction of Stephen's masturbating consciousness.) And after this, after he comes, he punishes himself with a guilty vision of sexual putrefaction (the drowned man as a "bag of corpsegas" with a "quiver of minnows" in its trousers). And from this vision he predictably flees into pseudo-Hamlet, The Tempest and typically Dedalean intellectual parody. (My masturbation interpretation, which runs counter to the general critical consensus on these passages [most critics think Stephen is urinating here, despite the fact that he's reclining (a good way to wet one's trouser legs) in full view of any passing pedestrians; a pocketed reclining handjob makes more sense], resonates perfectly with Bloom's later masturbation on a different part of Sandymount Strand [in "Nausicaa"]. Sandymount, it seems, was where Dubliners went to wank in 1904. Today they have internet porn.)

The deep power of "Proteus," the part that hurts, is Joyce's bulls-eye portrayal of young male literary consciousness. This is how English majors think--a fact that I can only acknowledge now that I'm older than Bloom. We think we're out far and in deep, but we're really just wading in the shallows, wanking on the strand.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

ULYSSES by James Joyce: Chapter Two, 'Nestor'

Chapters one and two of Ulysses are sutured together by a beautiful sonic 'match cut.' The last word of 'Telemachus,' usurper, shares an initial vowel sound and rhythm with the first two words of 'Nestor,' You, Cochrane. The matching music of the words (an early hint of the technique of 'Sirens') transports us smoothly from the seaside path of the first chapter's conclusion to the classroom at Mr. Deasy's school.

'Nestor' is one of the novel's slighter chapters, but it contains some of Stephen Dedalus's greatest moments. His definition of a pier as a "disappointed bridge" is simply gorgeous, an example of a 'pathetic fallacy' that generates genuine pathos. Every human being wandering alienated through the modern city is a pier who thinks he's a bridge. In his dialogue with Mr. Deasy (a name that Dickensianly rhymes with 'queasy,' appropriate for a character who becomes increasingly nauseating as the scene progresses), Stephen effectively rephrases Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire on the nightmare of history and succinctly deconstructs Deasy's ill-informed Shakespearean allusion by contextualizing it as a line spoken by Iago. He also rather wonderfully describes himself as a 'learner' rather than a 'teacher.' My favorite moment of the discussion, though, is the Joycean coup de theatre that occurs when Deasy's Protestant Hegelian argument reaches its "one great goal, the manifestation of God" at the very moment a goal is scored in the hockey game out the window. Deasy is too blinded by dogmatism to note the deflationary irony, but nothing is lost on Stephen, who "jerk[s] his thumb towards the window" and defines God as "a shout in the street." A shrug of the shoulders slightly defuses this populist blasphemy (which unsurprisingly is also a classical allusion: vox populi, vox dei).

This most literally pedagogical of Ulysses's chapters is the perfect place to say a few words about the vast academic secondary literature that has grown up around this novel. There is an intimidatingly massive library of Joycean books, essays, journal articles, webpages, blogs, etc., but only three books are absolutely necessary for an informed reading of Ulysses: Richard Ellmann's still-standard biography, James Joyce (in its 1982 revised edition); Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses; and Don Gifford and Robert Seidman's Ulysses Annotated. These books, especially the last, will tell you more than you need to know. This may sound like an enormous diss directed at the Joyce Industry, but it's not. I've found many other Joyce books informative and even enjoyable, but none of them are as absolutely necessary as the three mentioned above. As to the fraught question of which edition of Ulysses to read, I've read both the Gabler edition and the long-standard 1961 edition and found that while there are a few interesting differences in some specific lines, most of Gabler's many corrections are very minor. I'm tempted to call the scholarly tempest over the Gabler edition "Much Ado About Nothung"--but surely someone has already used that as an alternate title for Wagner's Ring.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

...and another thing about the opening of ULYSSES

Because the setting of the first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses has become so familiar over the nine decades since its publication, we may have lost sight of just how incredibly disorienting the novel's opening pages are. Think back to your first reading of the book. If, like me, you attempted to read it 'cold,' without first dipping your toes into the tepid teawater of Joyce criticism, the first few pages must have left you entirely at sea (specifically, at the Irish Sea). This is because Joyce takes the principle of in medias res to heart and thrusts us into the midst of things we cannot possibly understand. Only late in the chapter will the attentive cold reader understand, by piecing together various clues, that the chapter takes place in and around the Martello Tower at Sandycove. To appreciate the extremity of Joyce's Modernist difference, the shock of his new, just consider how a 19th-century novelist might have begun Ulysses: "On the morning of June 16, 1904, a stately but rather plump young man known to all as 'Buck' Mulligan paused atop the stairs of the Martello Tower at Sandycove, a sleepy coastal village south of Dublin." That's a perfectly respectable Victorian frock coat of a first sentence that does everything a perfectly respectable silk-hatted first sentence should. It's also a fine substitute for Sominex. Joyce's 'cold open' is, by contrast, considerably more disreputable, disorienting, defamiliarizing. It doesn't make me drowsy.

ULYSSES by James Joyce: Chapter One, 'Telemachus'

I'm beginning this Bloomsday month with a quick re-reading of the Joycean Telemachiad, the first three chapters of Ulysses, a book I've read cover to cover seven or eight times. (Yes, I've lost count.) The point of these posts isn't to offer any 'universal' interpretation of the novel or its episodes (Ulysses dissolves all interpretations like a universal solvent, anyway). Rather, I want to shine some light on a few passages and ideas that may not have received sufficient attention in the voluminous critical literature... 

The first words of Ulysses are too familiar, so let's look closely at them until they become strange again. "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead..." The elevated, formal connotations of 'stately' are rammed immediately, with only a comma's mini-pause, into the low-comic, ironically deflationary connotations of 'plump.' (The deflation is ironic because the word's literal meaning is an opposite of 'deflated.') Read the words aloud and you can hear the deflation: 'stately' slides smoothly off the tongue through slightly parted lips; 'plump' pops and snaps and rumbles flabbily as it climbs laboriously out of the mouth. Here, in the book's initiating moment of differential meaning, its first two words, Joyce simultaneously demonstrates the deflationary irony that will be the keystone of the novel's comic rhetoric and gives us a crucial lesson in how to read Ulysses. We must take nothing, not a single word, at face value; we must always look for the deflating irony that inevitably lurks somewhere nearby.

Every time I re-read Ulysses I'm amazed anew at the number of major themes Joyce is able to introduce, with seeming effortlessness, in the brief space of the first chapter. Most of the novel's themes and motifs and many of its techniques are either stated or foreshadowed here:  a haunting familial death (Stephen's mother here 'containing' the theme that Bloom splits between his father and son), anti-semitism (in Haines's late anti-Jewish aside), cultural imperialism (Haines's plundering of Irish folk culture), imperialism and/as the nightmare of history (Haines again: "history is to blame"), Oscar Wilde as/and the specter of homosexuality (Wilde, dead only a few years before the first Bloomsday, stands alongside Parnell as one of the novel's most important ghosts; note also Buck Mulligan campily calling Stephen "my love"), Catholicism (in Buck's comic blasphemies and Stephen's melancholy pronouncements), fathers and sons (in the teasing preview of Stephen's discourse on Hamlet and in Mulligan's "Ballad of Joking Jesus": "my father's a bird," an image that unites the dove of the Holy Spirit and the winged phallus of classical art while also saying, less exaltedly, "my dad's a dick."), the classical and Mediterranean worlds (Buck's Wilde-ish Hellenism), and much more. The whole novel is contained in embryo in this first chapter. Subsequent chapters will perform acts of cellular division and gargantuan multiplication upon the various parts of the fetal body here formed.

Homer's Odyssey and Shakespeare's plays are the most important intertexts in Joyce's radically intertextual novel. The relationship to Homer is well-known after 90 years of exhaustive exegesis, and I've long considered it less important than the novel's profound and multifaceted intertextual relationship to the plays of Shakespeare. If Homer is the skeleton of Ulysses, Shakespeare is its central nervous system. I'll have more to say about this (someday) in an eventual post on "Scylla and Charybdis," so for now I'll limit myself to a general thought on the allusions of Ulysses. The densely woven allusionary texture of this novel (exemplified in "Telemachus" by allusions to Shakespeare, Xenephon, the writings of the Church Fathers, Yeats, Wilde, Swinburne, and many, many others) is the literary culmination of that distinctively Modernist rhetoric developed decades earlier in the studio of Edouard Manet. My favorite place and time for the birth of Modernism is Paris in the spring of 1863. While Salon-goers crowded in to mock Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) at the Salon des Refuses, the artist was across town working on Olympia. These two seminal paintings were built around a texture of knowing allusions to the history of art, allusions that both deflated the authority of tradition by positioning it amidst mundane modernity and deflated the modern by juxtaposing it with older, more 'heroic' forms. Manet should thus be recognized as the inventor of the technique of mutually deflationary allusion that lies at the heart of the rhetoric of literary modernism: Ulysses, The Waste Land, Mrs. Dalloway, Pound's Cantos, and all the libraries of works that have flowed from them. Manet is the father of Modernism; his model Victorine Meurent might be considered its mother. (Some readers might say that this form of allusion elevates rather than deflates, granting the tradition the immediacy of modernity and raising modernity into the heroic realm. There is a name for such readers: optimists.)