Thursday, June 16, 2016

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!

1 comment:

Bacchus said...

Good stuff. I want and need to read Sabbath's Theater and more Roth in general. Thanks for typing up another Bloomsday post. It seems you have enough insight and material to write a book about Ulysses. I would love to read it! Again, thank you.