Sunday, June 26, 2016

Late for Bloomsday: Two More Thoughts on ULYSSES

There's a kind of 'wit of the staircase' that affects only Joyceans. It happens in late June when we recall, a week or so after the fact, something we meant to mention on Bloomsday. I've just had the experience twice in as many hours. First, back on the seizieme I should've wondered aloud why Joyce titled the novel Ulysses instead of the more philologically correct Odysseus. The true reasons are probably banal: Joyce's greater fluency in Latin relative to Greek; the historical privileging of Latin in Western European literature and education, which likely led Joyce to call the character 'Ulysses' from his early schooldays. But the decision for Latin, even if unconscious, resonates meaningfully with Joyce's intention to Buckishly Hellenize the Irish isle, to translate the events of the Odyssey into a language Catholic Dublin might understand. (And even as I type that thought, another occurs: In the bawdy Buck's mouth, the word 'Hellenize' would also punningly mean "to treat like Helen," that is, to take the island, fuck it up, and then fight a senseless war over it--which was exactly what the Irish were doing while Joyce was in Paris putting the finishing touches on his book.) Second, the "crustcrumbs" in the funeral carriage in 'Hades,' an enigma that even the seemingly exhaustive Ulysses Annotated passes without explication, are not the remnants of a picnic, as Mr. Power at first suggests. Rather, as Simon Dedalus and Martin Cunningham quickly perceive--and Bloom does not, hence the enigma--the passengers are sitting on crumbs of dried semen. Someone has used the carriage for a romantic rendezvous--or an equally alliterative hasty handjob--and forgotten to clean up afterward. Hence the Dedalean verdict, "it's the most natural thing in the world," a sentiment that blends perfectly with Bloom's memory-thought earlier on the same page, "Give us a touch, Poldy. God, I'm dying for it. How life begins." These seminal crumbs, like Bloom's memory, also sound one of the section's (and the novel's) master motifs, the presence of life in the midst of death.

Mario Vargas Llosa on the novel and the Inquisition

In the second of the lecture/essays collected in his 1991 book A Writer's Reality, Mario Vargas Llosa permits himself a "long parenthesis"(pages 23-25) on the early history of the novel in the western hemisphere. Here is the entirety of this marvelous digression:

As you probably know, the novel was forbidden in the Spanish colonies by the Inquisition. The Inquisitors considered this literary genre, the novel, to be as dangerous for the spiritual faith of the Indians as for the moral and political behavior of society, and, of course, they were absolutely right. We novelists must be grateful to the Spanish Inquisition for having discovered before any critic did the inevitable subversive nature of fiction. The prohibition included reading and publishing novels in the colonies. There was no way naturally to avoid a great number of novels being smuggled into our countries, and we know, for example, that the first copies of Don Quixote entered America hidden in barrels of wine. We can only dream with envy about what kind of experience it was in those times in Spanish America to read a novel--a sinful adventure in which in order to abandon yourself to an imaginary world you had to be prepared to face prison and humiliation.

Novels were not published in Spanish America until after the wars of independence. The first, El Periquillo Sarniento (The Itching Parrot), appeared in Mexico in 1816. Although for three centuries novels were abolished, the goal of the Inquisitors--a society free from the influence of fiction--was not achieved. They did not realize that the realm of fiction was larger and deeper than that of the novel. Nor could they imagine that the appetite for lies, that is, for escaping objective reality through illusions, was so powerful and so deeply rooted in the human spirit that, once the novel could not be used to satisfy it, all other disciplines and genres in which ideas could freely flow would be used as a substitute--history, religion, poetry, science, art, speeches, journalism, and the daily habits of the people. Thus by repressing and censuring the literary genre specifically invented to give the necessity of lying a place in the city, the Inquisitors achieved the exact opposite of their intentions.

We are still victims in Latin America of what we could call the revenge of the novel. We still have great difficulty in our countries in differentiating between fiction and reality. We are traditionally accustomed to mixing them in such a way that this is probably one of the reasons why we are so impractical and inept in political matters, for instance. But some good also came from this novelization of our whole life. Books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortazar's short stories, and Roa Bastos's novels would not have been possible otherwise. The tradition from which this kind of literature sprang, in which we are exposed to a world totally reconstructed and subverted by fantasy, started without doubt in those chronicles of the conquest and discovery that I read and annotated under the guidance of Porras Barrenechea.

One might spend a long book--or an entire scholarly career--unpacking the many ideas Vargas Llosa crams into these three parenthetical paragraphs, ideas ranging from now-commonplace and highly arguable generalizations to provocative social-historical insights, but I find myself drawn to that wonderful image of Don Quixote, the seminal--and for some, such as Garcia Marquez, the ultimate--European novel arriving in the western hemisphere as contraband, a dangerous drug that alters people's minds. The novel arrived on our landmass the way cocaine and heroin sneak in today: smuggled in shipping containers like the Greek's smack in season two of The Wire. And in a very important way, the greatest novels have never ceased to be outlaws on our side of the world. These original literary illegal aliens have continued to break laws and blow minds, and the entire world is richer for them. All the rude, unruly bastard children of those original stowaway Quixotes are the vertebrae supporting the body of our hemispherical canon: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, Borges' Collected Fictions, Gravity's Rainbow, Terra Nostra--fictions that tried to redefine fiction. All this from a few copies of Quixote stuffed like the Duke of Clarence into a butt of Renaissance wine. Jesus only turned water into wine; those 17th-century book smugglers turned wine into literature, a much better trick.

A Henry James Stick-Up Note

A few years after the West was won, notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James were joined on their nefarious trail by their East Coast cousins, Henry and William. No record survives of pioneering psychologist William James's youthful criminal activities, but a document recently acquired by the Harry Ransom Center (for a hairy ransom in unmarked bills) sheds a small amount of light on prose master Henry James's heretofore unknown career as a frontier bank robber. Written in James's hand on a tattered, heavily creased and suspiciously stained napkin from Delmonico's, it reads:

Given--and it is, assuredly, a situation for which I offer my most profuse and elaborate, indeed positively Byzantine, apologies--that my right palm caresses the unfortunately named handle piece of an unmentionable product of the Smith and Wesson manufactory, and that the aforesaid object is, as the gauche are wont to say, 'aimed' in the general direction of your cranial compartment, it would behoove you to transfer, posthaste, the entirety of the foldable and numismatical contents of the drawer devant vous into the conveniently provided burlap receptacle accompanying this overhasty communication, said receptacle's dark maw hungrily gaping as though consciously, not to say avidly, desiring the cold comfort of coin.

To date, researchers have found no further documentary evidence related to this episode in James's life, so the entire affair will likely remain, like the interpretation of The Turn of the Screw, shrouded in the multiple mummycloths of mystery.

A Simple Wish

Here's hoping that a year from now, after the fact-free sound and fury of all the too-tall tales told by Trump, I might click on my insomniac TV at four o'clock one morning and hear the unmistakable voice of Donald J. Trump, defeated and disgraced, reduced to starring in late night infomercials hawking his new line of "Make America Grate Again" Trump Cheese Graters: "These are the world's greatest graters in the history of the universe, I guarantee it. They grate Parmesan like you will not believe. They grate Swiss, they grate American--I love grating American--they grate pepper jack, they grate so great... You will not believe how great they grate. It'll make your head spin. And if you order now, in addition to the grater I'll throw in for free one of these beautiful "Make America Grate Again" baseball caps. People love these caps, let me tell you. Oh, people really love these caps. Many people have said to me--many, many people, thousands--they've said to me, 'Donald, where did you get the idea for those caps?' Well, I'm a great businessman, first, and I have this really good brain, and we had boxes and boxes of these caps after the, you know..the thing, the, the... the Hillary winning thing, the, you know...after that I had one great idea: cheese graters. So I called a friend in Indonesia and he arranged for a factory of waddyacallem, street urchins, yes, five year-olds, four year-olds, the best, the best street urchins in all of Indonesia, and my friend--now I don't know if he actually used a cattle prod...there were stories, but that's neither here nor there--his employees very cost-effectively switched the letters around on my surplus hats, and voila, a new business. This is just the way my brain works, I can't explain it...But I'll throw in one of these beautiful caps for free with your grater and an additional charge of $5.99. Isn't this the most lovely thing you've ever seen on a human head? Here, here, let me put this cap on my African-American. Where's my African-American?..."

Dispatches author Michael Herr dead at 76

Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, the brutal and beautiful Vietnam War narrative that stands as the most artistically impressive book yet written about the American way of war, has died at 76. It is perversely appropriate, given Herr's status as a pillar of countercultural New Journalism, that a Washington Post headline writer flubbed the obit header ("Vietnam War reporter Michael Herr, who helped write ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ dies at 76") by failing to lead with Dispatches. However impressive and culturally significant his contributions to the two named films, Herr deserves to be remembered--and, more importantly, repeatedly reread--as the author of Dispatches, a masterpiece of American prose that combines Esquire-style literary journalism, Beat Generation cool, jazz hipster improvisation, and psychedelic rock n roll surrealism to produce a book that was not just about but of the American war in Vietnam. He wrote the war in its own language--analogous to the way Jimi Hendrix in "Machine Gun" and the Woodstock "Star-Spangled Banner" evoked the war by appropriating its sounds--and found in that language, from the laconism of long-range reconnaissance soldiers to the endless bitching of grunts to the terribly realized fantasies of a John Wayne-addled generation, a ferocious American polyphony that belied the monologic government/corporate/media 'official story' of the war. Dispatches is war reporting as high art (at least as high as Hemingway's and Malaparte's); it fuses politics and prose poetry better than any American book since All The King's Men; there's probably not a writer alive who doesn't read it with envy.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gregory Rabassa, 1922-2016

Word comes this Bloomsday of the death earlier this week of Gregory Rabassa, the dean of American translators. This spectral presence on our literary scene, who so beautifully ghosted into English Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Autumn of the Patriarch, Cortazar's Hopscotch, Antonio Lobo Antunes' Fado Alexandrino, Jose Lezama Lima's Paradiso, and so many other novels of Latin America and Iberia, is also remembered in a Washington Post obituary as the son of a Cuban immigrant father and an American-born mother, as a member of the OSS during World War Two, and as a lifelong university teacher of Spanish and Portuguese literature. Gabo once paid him the highest compliment any translator can receive, saying that Rabassa's English version of Cien anos de soledad was superior to the original Spanish. Gregory Rabassa was 94.

Bloomsday 2016

Like the calendar's notional circle, like the Earth on its imaginary axis, like the bottomless Bloomsday glass of Guinness we drank until we puked again like Christians, our bloody phantastical time has Vicoed around again to Thursday the sixteenth of June, day and date of fictional No-Man Leopold Bloom's nevertaken journey. This Bloomsday the thunkthunkthunderumble of a morning storm appropriately accompanies the halting Tourettic tapping of my fingertips on the computer keyboard (a sound very like the cane of a drunken blindman barging into the bar of the Ormond Hotel and demanding satisfaction from that strawhatted rake flirting with the bronze and gold he has never seen--a scene Joyce inexplicably left out of Ulysses...), and in a cameraflash of sunshine between thunderheads the pine tree at my window glistens bejeweled with water droplets clinging to the tips of dark green needles and twinkling like tiny stars, and this image Prousts me back to Sandymount Strand twelve years ago when I spent a sunny Sunday morning like Stephen Dedalus walking along the beach and ruminating and watching the lovely seaside girls and scrawling impressions in my pocket notebook. I remember sitting on the rocks as the tide rolled in and watching as reflected sunlight fired off a thousand small explosions of blinding brightness on the rippled mirror of sea between Sandymount and Dun Laoghaire and thinking that this was my natural fireworks display. No need for Gerty's drawers and the masturbatory Roman candles of Mister Bloom. This mile of yellow fire sparking off the sea was ecstasy enough for the day... And now, a decade and a brace of years later, unProusting it, back here under the rolling clouds and flashing sun of a muggy Midwestern Thursday, I page through my two much-thumbed copies of Ulysses (a Gabler and good one--I remain sentimentally attached to the first Ulysses I ever bought and read, a 1990 Vintage International paperback of the standard Random House edition), I reach down my hardshelled Wake from the high shelf where it sleeps overhead, I dig out my copy of Edna O'Brien's little book on Joyce and Ellmann's Ulysses on the Liffey, and I flip through memories and marginalia in search of things I hope I haven't said before. Here are the comings of my goings, a few wordy ejaculations inspired by the Big Book of Bloom, aka Virag's Volume:

1. The internal and external voices of Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan in "Telemachus" constitute a dual parody of tragic and comic consciousness. The sunny and tripping Buck exemplifies comic consciousness taken to an extreme of expulsiveness; he is entirely external, possessing no interior monologue and immediately voicing whatever passing notion po(o)ps into his mind, no matter how cruelly callous or mawkishly sentimental the never-great notion. In a less comic character, this would be hypocrisy and cynicism (a Trump-like speaking from multiple sides of the mouth), but the Buck is not merely a comic character; he is comedy, pure comedy, unadulterated with even so much as a touch of seriousness. He's the Whitmanic, Wildean, Dionysian comic life force of "Telemachus," constantly contradicting himself and then contradicting his contradictions, remaining unreadable and unknowable not because of his silent and unplumbable depths, but because his comic shallowness embraces everything with an equally onionskin-thin insouciance. Contrast his loose-bowelled, lighter-than-hydrogen, comic sense of life with that exemplified by Stephen Dedalus, the tragic, black-clad Hamlet of Joyce's opening chapter. In his initial characterization of Stephen, Joyce seems to strike every possible tragic note (death, grief, mourning, silence, blackness, stasis, fear, anxiety, even Gothic horror...); the author does everything short of nailing an ancient Greek mask to Stephen's perpetually dour mug. And this excess, this rhetorical over-the-topness, signals Joyce's parodic intention: Stephen is not merely a tragic character; he is tragic consciousness personified--the comic Buck's dialectical opposite and twin. Where Mulligan is a glass of Guinness that perpetually runneth verbally over, Dedalus tends toward laconism, his few enigmatic deadpan statements always requiring interpretation and cutting more ways than a Ginsu knife. Likewise, while Mulligan is granted no interior monologue, Stephen is given a poetically rich thoughtstream that overflows like Malachi's mouth--but much more solemnly, and as silently as prayer. Where Mulligan trips through life in the sunny key of C, Dedalus trudges along in a darker minor mode. The point of this dichotomy, I think (my mind stepping warily over the line marked 'intentional fallacy'), is not to encourage the reader to choose one worldview over the other, but to recognize that both Stephen and Malachi are, to adapt the Buck's phrase, "impossible persons." Pleasant in small doses, their personalities would curdle faster than old milk if we were forced into their company for an extended period of time. It wouldn't take us long to gag on them and spit them out. Both of these young men are--for the duration of this chapter, anyway--hollow men, stuffed men, their headpieces filled with the rotting straw of hidebound comic and tragic traditions; and Joyce is the unseen man in the Anonymous mask conducting them, and us, through this weird, walpurgisnachtian Guy Fawkes Day parade.

2. Turning a few pages to the end of "Nestor," consider queasy-making Deasy's nauseating, chapter-penultimating cough: "A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm." The schoolmaster's anti-Semitic laughter here terminates in what is surely one of the most appropriately sickening descriptions of a cough in all of Western literature. That ball of coughlaughter (think of a hairball coughed up by the Blooms' housecat) leaps like projectile vomit from Deasy's throat and then drags itself back down to dirty earth with a mucoid rattle. As Henry James might have said, "Yuck!" But it's also important to notice that Joyce's sentence, unlike Deasy's sentiment, doesn't solely sicken; even here we find great formal beauty and an abundance of metaphorical meaning. Note the weird internal slant-rhyming of 'coughball' and 'laughter,' the way the first letter of 'laughter' alliterates into 'leaped,' the way the sentence pauses without punctuation in a natural caesura after 'throat' (this little touch is the mark of a master prose stylist; a lesser writer--meaning just about every other writer of the past hundred years--would've signaled the caesura with a comma; Joyce is confident enough to let the words do the work), the way the doubled consonants in 'dragging' and 'rattling' and the other hard consonants in the second half of the sentence onomatopoetically imitate the sound their words describe. And notice also the perfect little metaphor Joyce constructs with these dissonantly musical words: Deasy's laughter, in a move worthy of the greatest metaphysical poets, becomes the ball-and-chain of anti-Semitic prejudice in which he has imprisoned his mind. And just in case your mind isn't already sufficiently blown, remind yourself that Joyce crams all of this into a single 16-word sentence that consists of 12 one-syllable words and 4 of two syllables. That's why reading Ulysses is a lifetime job.

Philip Roth,
At it Again...
Early in "Proteus," Stephen briefly recalls, in a typically multivocal passage of Joycean interior monologue, a scene from his not-long-ago horny adolescence: "On the top of the Howth tram alone crying: naked women! What about that, eh? What about what? What else were they invented for?" (The they refers both to the trams and, more comically, to the fantasized pneumatic nudes of the teenage male imagination.) Philip Roth seems to obliquely remember this little passage in his strongly Joycean novel Sabbath's Theater where a character confesses to masturbating in a library restroom and Mickey Sabbath replies, "Everybody masturbates in libraries. That's what they're for." Exactly, Joyce might've replied to his Jewish-American literary child, What else were libraries invented for?

4. The thick web of subtle cross-references that almost-invisibly tapestries Ulysses together shines out with emerald brightness near the beginning of "Calypso" when Bloom likens his cat's eyes to "green stones," a phrase that shoots its filament backwards to Haines's cigarette case in "Telemachus," silver with a green stone set into it, an imperialist image of Ireland encased in a silver, British-ruled sea. The green in the cat's eyes is also explicitly linked to her 'greed' for milk and food, yet an other link to Haines, the avid English appropriator of Irish things--and drinker, in the first chapter, of Irish milk...and shooter of imaginary cats...and.... This could go on forever.

5. Who's getting it up?
Blazes Boylan, most assuredly; Bloom at the beach this evening while scoping Gerty's fireworky upskirt show; Stephen, probably, in the late morning on the Sandymount rocks (a fine place to rock one's rocks off); the patrons of Bella Cohen's Nighttown brothel (most of them, anyway); most of male Dublin, certainly, in the privacy of their fantasizing minds... One Dubliner surely not getting it up is crazy Denis Breen, recent recipient of a postcard containing two initials--"U.P." Some critics think the postcard reads, "U.P. up," but when Leopold Bloom is shown the card he reads only the two initials; the word up is pronounced by Mrs. Breen and probably not written on the card. A little ambiguity remains, but not much. A greater ambiguity inheres in the interpretation of the initials, for Joyce leaves them entirely enigmatic. The two-letter text seems to be an idle, nonsensical joke meant to drive a madman to further madness. The little postcard thus becomes a preemptive critical caricature of the big book that contains it; the postcard represents the Ulysses constructed by its least perceptive readers: a text consisting entirely of enigmatical nonsense, fodder for fools, pseudointellectual twaddle, a book no one could ever possibly understand. Readers who know these charges and prove them wrong with every rereading can find comfort in the fact that Joyce saw the reaction coming and satirized those poor readers in the very book they misunderstood. The nonplussed, the stymied, the angrily frustrated, the mistrustful of Modernism, the self-righteous puritans, the censors--Joyce drew a bead on them all in the figure of Denis Breen, an outraged madman seeking to file a lawsuit over a text he mistakenly thinks he understands.

6. Seen from a different angle, the UP postcard might be the crux of a postmodern reading of Ulysses. The letters U and P figure prominently in Joyce's text, being respectively the first letter of its title and the first letter of its third and final section. In the Random House edition, the title page U and the first letter of each section--S, M and P--are printed as gargantuan full-page initials, so a text reading UP might be interpreted as a partial acrostic signifying the book itself. The text is uninterpretable by characters in the book precisely because they are inside the very book it signifies. They can no more understand its meaning than a fish can understand wetness. Only sad, mad Denis Breen has caught a glimpse of the truth, an inkling that his reality is all ink. The postcard comes as a confirming clue that he and all the others are merely puppets in a Joycean show, and this knowledge has made him Nabokovianly mad.... Okay, I admit I'm pushing the text here, but this interpretation is almost supported by the text...that tantalizing almost...Like Stephen Dedalus, I'm almosting it.

7. One crucial difference between Finnegans Wake and most of Ulysses is that in the Wake the music of language is as important as--and often more important than--any obvious referential meaning. Language in the Wake tends toward the abstraction of music. This literary development is strongly paralleled in paint a decade later by the abstract expressionists (Hoffman, Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Guston, Mitchell, Krasner), for whom the music of color and gesture became more important than representational content.

8. Three great and useful coinages mined from the midden that is Finnegans Wake: melomap, a musical representation of the world (i.e., the Wake itself, or any symphony or tone poem of Mahlerian ambition); twitterlitter, both the perfect description of the rhetorical stylings of Donald Trump and a juste Joycean mot for the socially networked 2010s; and on page 42 Joyce names the real author of the first five books of the Bible, Anonymoses, another lovely little portmanteau we could unpack for hours.

9. In Ulysses on the Liffey, Richard Ellmann pornographically interprets the slangy ending of the "Oxen of the Sun" episode as a vast linguistic cumshot, "a series of random ejaculations, a spray of words in all directions." A page later, he tropes the ending as a "placental outpouring," an "afterbirth as well as an ejaculative spray..." So the ending is both alpha and omega, the vice-versing beginning and end of the fetal development Joyce claimed as the episode's guiding structural metaphor.

10. Here's a triplet of quotes to keep in mind while reading in and about and around James A. Joyce of Dublin, Trieste, Zurich, Paris, and a six-feet-by-two in the Swiss earth with his toes to the daisies:

Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity. For Joyce, people were becoming more remote and would eventually be specters. He was not the only one. Flaubert's mother thought that her son's love of words had hardened his heart and all who met Joyce found that though he could be humorous, he lacked warmth. -- Edna O'Brien, James Joyce

Those who produce important artworks are not demigods but fallible, often neurotic and damaged, individuals. -- Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (This same passage is quoted, from an earlier translation, as an epigraph to Geoff Dyer's surprisingly good But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz)

Never confuse a genius with a saint. -- Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes

Even today, a century after Marcel Proust initially conceived his great roman  fleuve as a refutation of Sainte-Beuve's moralistic biographical criticism, we too often remain in thrall to the notion that a great artist must also be an exemplary human being. We would all be much more comfortable if Pound had not been a fascist, if Yeats had not written marching songs for the Irish fascist movement, if Picasso had been more gentlemanly toward the women in his life, if Van Gogh had not been self-pityingly self-destructive, if Michelangelo had not been such a whiny little bitch, if Rembrandt hadn't arranged to have his inconvenient mistress conveniently imprisoned, if so many painters hadn't painted so beautifully for so many monarchs who enjoyed burning so many of their fellow human beings alive... Yes, art would be an altogether more pleasant subject if we didn't have to reckon with the fucked-up lives of its creators; but since the artist's life is context, and context is meaning, we're as stuck with their fucked-up lives as they were. Joyceans can take some comfort in the knowledge that their novelist was, compared to most other transformational artistic geniuses, a fairly decent guy. He had his faults. and biographers have exhaustively chronicled them, but he seems in general to have led an ethically unshabby life. And for an artistic genius in a society that derides both art and genius, unshabbiness is in itself a notable accomplishment.

Happy Bloomsday!