Author Archive

#OccupyGaddis “such a meaningful learning experience that these kids won’t forget it for one hell of a long time”

June 22, 2012 4 comments

This is my first time doing this, really. Sure, I followed along with Infinite Summer, and a few of you might recall that I wrote a few things back when the Zombies were doing Ulysses, but in both those cases I had read the book several times before, and so wasn’t putting myself in the very vulnerable position of musing, publicly, about something unfamiliar and new. I’ve always respected the people who do that, but I’ve never been one of them.

Until now. This is my first time reading J R. I’ve read The Recognitions, once, a few years ago, and without any great care: I glanced at the wonderful annotations by Stephen Moore once or twice, but for the most part I just read it through, taking what I could get, enjoying the prose, not worrying about all the stuff (a lot!) that I was probably missing. That’s my preferred approach to a new book: taking it on its own terms, without any help from external sources to color (and potentially spoil) the process. You can always go back for that stuff, preferably on a second reading. And that’s what I am trying to do now. I’ve seen the lists of characters and scenes compiled by Moore, and I am sure they are helpful, but with a book like this I think it’s worth trying to figure it out on its own. As Lee Konstantinou (the originator of this little summer diversion) put it in a tweet, a book like this has to “train” you to read it, and reading someone else’s take on it before you’ve been properly trained seems a little bit like, well, I don’t want to call it cheating, but like you are missing a bit of the point, and depriving yourself of a significant part of the experience.

That’s sort of what I want to talk about, reading as a learning experience, because as much as this is a book about money and commerce (or so I’ve heard from book jackets and what not), it also strikes me, 75 pages in, as a book about education (same difference, right?). Of the scenes we’ve read so far, about half of them are set in or near a school. So, as a teacher, I want to think about what is this book saying about school: Nothing good, right? I mean, the focus on testing seems prescient: I don’t know the whole history of standardized testing, but it certainly hasn’t gone away since 1975, that’s for sure. Of course, they are also talking about predictive testing here, not just evaluative: they are puzzled by results that “aren’t consistent with forecasts in the personality testing,” by the fact that a boy (JR? I don’t think it’s him but I’m unclear, so far, who they are referring to; like I said, I’m trying to figure it out on my own) who “scores out at the idiot-genius level, this math-music correlation, perfectly consistent but he’s running around town sticking people up with a toy pistol” (23). They want order, to organize the students, to fit them into little boxes, but as Gibbs points out:

Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . . (20)

And he goes on to begin to explain entropy (until the bell rings). Chaos and entropy, knowledge and noise: Gaddis seems to be telling us exactly what to look for. (And is it any wonder people thought [perhaps still think] he and Pynchon were the same person?)

It’s a pretty bleak picture of the education system, to be sure. And a pretty hilarious one, as well. The use of TVs as pedagogical tools is fascinating (as a look at #OccupyGaddis on Twitter will reveal), especially from our instructional-technology-obsessed 21st-century point-of-view. I look forward to seeing where this is going to lead, in the text. (Possibly nowhere, I don’t know. That’s my point.)

One other pedagogical note: how the hell would you teach this book?

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Would’ve, Should’ve, Couldn’t

September 2, 2010 3 comments


It’s me again: Judd. Maybe you remember me from a month or two ago, when we started talking about Ulysses. I had a lot to say, for minute there, and was really looking forward to all the stuff I would say about the second half of the book: you know, when it really gets good. But then, out of nowhere (or rather not unexpectedly) life caught up with me, and the whole blogging thing got pushed to the back-burner in favor of things I was either getting paid for or graded on. You know how that goes. But I’ve been enjoying reading the other posts on here. Daryl, I’m sorry the book wasn’t your cup of tea, but I’m glad you made it through. I hope you’ll give it another look sometime: it only gets better. And it has the richest body of criticism of any work of literature: there’s lots of smart stuff to read out there. Start with Hugh Kenner.

Anyway, I wanted to put in a final post, now that we’re done and September is here and I’m really getting busy in earnest, about the things I would have written about, had I world enough and time. So here they are:

BLOOM: Obviously Ulysses is a difficult book, and a masterpiece of style and allusion.  But I think what people forget sometimes is that at bottom it is an incredibly humane portrait of a very relatable human being. I love Bloom. He walks around, thinks about stuff, gets hungry, eats, checks girls out as they walk down the street or sit on the beach, gets frustrated and disgusted by the people around him, worries, and tries to do the right thing. But more than that, I’m incredibly moved by Bloom, because he’s just so sad. I think that’s why “Lestrygonians” is among my favorite episodes, and one I would have liked to have written about in more length. It is to Bloom what “Proteus” is to Stephen: the chapter where we are most immersed in a character’s head, with minimal intrusion (ok, there’s more intrusion here than in “Proteus,” but we’re still getting a pretty good look at Bloom’s thoughts). He’s hungry, looking for a nice place to eat lunch, and trying to avoid thinking about that which he doesn’t want to acknowledge. So he thinks about a lot of other stuff, but the bad thoughts keep coming back. Here are a few of my favorite bits:

Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock. The moon. Must be a new moon out, she said. I believe there is. (8.581-5)

I don’t know what to call this, maybe an astronomical version of the pathetic fallacy, but certainly Bloom allows his sadness to color his view of the grand scheme of things (truly grand, like, universal) in a really moving way. (We have a bit of a reversal of this in “Ithaca,” 17. 2012-23.)

And then a bit later the most beautiful, simultaneously sexy and sad, thing I think I’ve ever read, which I’m going to go ahead and quote in spite of its length:

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgandy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Me. And me now.

Stuck, the flies buzzed.

Were three words ever more devastating than that “And me now”? If so, I’d like to know. (We get this same scene again at the very end of the book, of course, in a far more famous passage. But I like this one.) At any rate, we’ll return to Bloom’s head later, in “Sirens” and “Nausicaa,” but by then the narrative has gone in more experimental directions. This is the chapter when we’re most with Bloom, at least for my money.

OXEN: I’m working on a longer piece, for a different audience, on the narrative voice(s) in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. It’s a hard one, for sure, the one that pissed me off the most the first time I read this book (and the second), but it’s a chapter that rewards close attention. There are so many voices blending: the authors being parodied, the characters, the “narrator”; I think Joyce is having a lot of fun pulling the carpet out from under us. When I have something a little more developed (someday soon I hope) maybe I will put a bit of it up here, if people are still interested. In the meantime, if you want to read about narrative voice in Joyce, I strongly recommend John-Paul Riquelme, Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction (Johns Hopkins, 1983).

ADAPTATION: Can you believe this novel has been filmed? Twice? Plus turned into a Broadway show? I just watched the 1967 version: it was pretty good, for trying to do the impossible.

Anyway, those are just a few things I wanted to mention. I’m sure there were others, but this post is starting to get pretty long. It was fun hanging out with you guys: let’s do it again sometime. I hope to be less busy next summer. But then, hope springs eternal, right?

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Rhetoric, Oratory, and a Crux or two

July 28, 2010 6 comments

The seventh episode, “Aeolus,” is where the fun really begins. Up until now we’ve had a fairly naturalistic novel, experimental in narrative technique but hewing close to a few modes: exposition, internal monologue, etc. When episode seven opens, we right away know something’s up: what are these headings doing here? This is the chapter where the true star of the book emerges, what David Hayman dubbed “the Arranger”: a narrative persona beyond simple first or third person, a kind of Artist-God behind the book, playing games with the reader. We’ll see a lot more of him in the second half.

The game in this chapter is rhetoric, and littered throughout the chapter are dozens of rhetorical devices, giving the chapter a linguistic verve surpassing that of the early chapters. You can have fun hunting for them, or, if you’re like me and you wouldn’t recognize a polyptoton if it came up and spit in your face, you can refer to Gilbert and/or Gifford, both of whom provide lists. Also central to the episode are the three speeches cited by various characters, illustrating various styles of oratory. The last of these was actually recorded by Joyce himself, the only known recording of him reading from this book (there’s also an excellent recording, well-worth checking out, of him doing a passage from the Wake):

And then there’s this passage, as J.J. O’Molloy is discussing the second example of oratory: 

–He spoke on the law of evidence, J.J. O’Molloy said, of Roman justice as contrasted with the earlier Mosaic code, the lex talionis. And he cited the Moses of Michelangelo in the vatican.


–A few wellchosen words, Lenehan prefaced. Silence!

Pause. J.J. O’Molloy took out his cigarettecase.

False lull. Something quite ordinary.

Messenger took out his matchbox thoughtfully and lit his cigar.

I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives. (7.755-65)

What is happening in that last line? Who is speaking? Who are the two who “both” are having the course of their lives determined? For that matter, who is “Messenger”? It seems reasonable to say that it is either J.J. O’Molloy or Lenehan, the two who are speaking here, but why do we suddenly have this drastic change of tone? I’m sure many critics have puzzled over it: I rather thought it might be an example of a rhetorical device, but neither Gifford nor Gilbert seems to mention it. Thoughts?

And while I’m putting questions out there: what do people think of Stephen’s Parable of the Plums? That’s something the critics almost always address, usually chalking it up to political allegory (see, for example, Richard Ellmann’s guide Ulysses on the Liffey, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet). But every time I read it I’m still puzzled by it. What do you guys make of it?

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The Dead

July 27, 2010 2 comments

I apologize for not posting last week: I’ve been a bit swamped with other obligations (intensive beginner German studies, mostly: “Learn German too” (6.84)) and haven’t had the time to commit like I should. But I couldn’t let the week pass without a brief comment on one of my favorite episodes, “Hades.” (I have things to say about “Lotus-Eaters,” “Calypso,” and “Proteus” as well, but I’ll have to skip those for now: perhaps I will have the opportunity to make some “trenchant” comments on them in “retrospective arrangement” (6.148-9) as we move forward.)

In my last post I pointed out that one way of reading Ulysses is as a ghost story: and probably no chapter is more haunted than “Hades” (well, maybe: feel free to disagree with me about that in four weeks or so).  There are several qualities of spectre populating this chapter, and I’d like to make a brief attempt to catalog them.

First, there are the obvious ghosts of the characters’ lost loved ones: Daryl’s already written on Bloom’s beautiful elegiac thoughts of Rudy, which weave into his memories of his father’s suicide; we can place these alongside Simon Dedalus’s self-pitying but still moving grief for Stephen’s mother.  And of course there’s “poor Paddy Dignam,” our Elpenor.

The Odyssey parallels seem particularly thick in this chapter, as are the Hamlet allusions, offering a second class of spectrality: the episode, like the book, is haunted by the Ghost(s) of Literature Past. More importantly, the chapter is populated by the shades of Joyce’s previous fiction: we open on a carriage filled with Bloom and three familiar faces. Martin Cunningham and Mr. Power both appeared in one of the most significant stories in Dubliners, “Grace”; Simon Dedalus, of course, looms large throughout Portrait (and there’s also a mention of “old Mrs Riordan” (6.378) from the famous Christmas dinner scene). Many more names from Dubliners appear in their conversation, or on the street as they drive by: Ignatius Gallaher (“A Little Cloud”), Paddy Leonard and Peake (“Counterparts”), Crofton (“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”) and others. The one story that you would most expect to see a connection to, “The Dead,” doesn’t seem to be mentioned, but it looms there in the background. (Gretta Conroy came up in episode 4; Gabriel will be mentioned in 7).

Speaking of Mrs Riordan and “Ivy Day,” perhaps the biggest ghost in the chapter, and the one that eludes many contemporary readers, is the ghost of Parnell, who along with other shades of Irish history and politics haunts  the city of Dublin and the conversations of its citizens. That’s far from my area of expertise, however, so I won’t linger over it.

Finally, the ghosts that I find most affecting in this chapter are two still-living characters who flit through it. Stephen is spotted by Bloom, but isn’t recognized by his own father, to whom he is as good as a ghost at this moment. And Molly haunts Bloom’s thoughts throughout the book, causing some quite painful moments in the carriage when she and Boylan come up in conversation, leaving Bloom to “review the nails of his left hand, then those of his right hand” (6.200). So subtle!

Anyway, that’s just a brief comment on one of my favorite chapters. I hope to have more on another of my favorites, “Lestrygonians,” later in the week.

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Fabled by the Daughters of Memory

July 14, 2010 11 comments

At the end of my last post, I was discussing the question of who paid the rent for the tower (and I should have given credit to my friend Nick Fargnoli, who first pointed this issue out to me), and I invoked the biographical record of Joyce’s actual life. Now, I understand the risks of the biographical fallacy (which is especially prevalent in Joyce-studies, for obvious reasons, especially after Ellmann): however, the relationship between “life” and “art” is a crucial one in Ulysses, and one which is particularly foregrounded in the second episode, for which Joyce specified the art of “History” in his schema; but he could just as well have said “memory,” or “fiction.”

The second episode begins with a history lesson, regarding the empire-building battles of ancient Rome. Memory is evoked from the outset:

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of some impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then? (2.7-10)

The allusion to Blake in the first sentence (which, for once, Stephen is kind enough to tell us from whom he’s quoting) sets up an interesting dualism by which to consider Joyce’s craft: Fable vs. Memory. Ulysses is fiction (fable), but it was born from memory, as the Muses were born of Zeus and Mnemosyne. And yet, it is not memory: it is “in some way… not as memory fabled it.” What is the relationship of the memory to the fiction? For that matter, what is the relationship of memory to history (which is really just another form of fiction, as historiographers such as Hayden White [certainly not the first to say so] like to tell us)? “History [is] a tale like any other too often heard” (2.46-7).

Memory is fallible, as the first page of this episode goes to great lengths to establish: the students “forget the place,” which Stephen is only able to remind them of by glancing at his “gorescarred book”: writing, of course, is just a form of “mnemotechnic” (a favorite word of Bloom’s), and evolutionary psychologists point out with the rise of writing a concomitant decline of  memory: see the difference between oral and written cultures (a difference especially pertinent in this book of all books, where a great oral epic provides the “basis” for a very written epic).

And why is the book “gorescarred”? This word cuts several ways. We can consider the abuse a school textbook is likely to suffer leaving it stained and marked; but perhaps the “gore” is the gore of the battles being described on the page. Consider, also, the circumstances under which the book we are reading was written. Ulysses (whenever Joyce mentions a book, one can assume, narcissist that he is, he is talking about his own), written in a Europe in the grip of the First World War: the compositional circumstances of this book leave it more than a little “gorescarred” itself. Granted, the scene is set before the war, but Joyce licenses a collapse of time, of writing and memory, in the above-quoted paragraph: “I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame.”   Note the subtle sliding of tenses, “shattered glass” (past) and “toppling masonry” (present), calling to mind images not of the ancient battle of Tarentum, but the more contemporary vision of Europe in flames. (I owe this observation to a lecture of Eddie Epstein’s).

Joyce possibly gives us a clue to his use of history in the address of one of Stephen’s students: “Vico Road, Dalkey” (2.25). While certainly a reference to a rather prosperous suburb of Dublin, the name Vico evokes for any fan of Finnegans Wake  the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, whose circular theory of history dominates Joyce’s final work. History, like memory, is a repetition: we don’t “member” something, we “REmember” something. Memory is always a coming-again. The argument of this passage seems to be that history is, as well. (For an interesting reading of Joyce’s sense of history in this episode, see this brief post by my fellow Wakean, David Auerbach). 

The sense of repetition is crucial here: the students ask Stephen to tell them a ghoststory, a tale of the dead coming back again. And Ulysses is certainly haunted: we have already seen how Stephen is pursued by the wraith of his mother, and he’s not the only one dealing with ghosts in this book. Instead of the requested story, Stephen has them turn to “Lycidas,” a memorial elegy to Milton’s late friend: so, perhaps a sort of ghoststory after all. But the student reading aloud doesn’t turn the page, instead repeating the lines he just read. These kinds of repetitions riddle the chapter: another student is instructed to copy problems from the board, but is unable to do them for himself. Later he dries his page with blotting paper, creating another copy-trace. (I’m tempted to go all poststructuralist here, with “traces” and “iterability” and all that floating around, but I will restrain myself [for the time being]).  “Futility,” thinks Stephen, in the face of these repetitions. 

His subsequent meeting with Mr. Deasy only reinforces this sense: “As it was in the beginning, is now” (2.200-1); “The same room and hour, the same wisdom: and I the same.” (2.232-3). Stephen fingers shells, traces of life; Deasy gives him money, traces of labor and value, and lectures him on history and memory:

I saw three generations since O’Connell’s time. I remember the famine in ’46. Do you know that the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O’Connell did or before the prelates of your communion denounced him as a demagogue? You fenians forget some things. (2.268-72)

The same words from the first page recur: “remember,” “forget”: we also add “repeal” to our list of “re-” words, giving a political valence to our repetitions. Deasy is playing in Irish politics, writing letters: Stephen has to wait while he makes copies, transferring from manuscript to typescript, erasing errors (again, one thinks of Joyce’s own struggles to get his text together). In contrast to Stephen’s Blakean/Viconian vision of the timeless reiterations of history, Deasy presents the orthodox teleological Christian vision: “All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” (2.379-80). One can guess what Joyce thought of that idea by Stephen’s response: “That is God […] A shout in the street.”

All these reflections on the endless repetitions of history lead Stephen to utter his famous remark, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (2.377). I can’t help but think of Freud, whose Beyond the Pleasure Principle was published a mere two years before Ulysses, so it is unlikely that Joyce would have read it. But in this episode he provides us with his own, fully realized vision of the repetition compulsion made famous in Freud’s essay.

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First Word; First Person

July 12, 2010 8 comments

I’d like to start out small here, looking at two words from the first chapter: the first word of the novel, “Stately,” and the first-personal pronoun, “I” (as well as its objective-case, “me”). Obviously, this isn’t a lot, but  for me the richness of Joyce has always been how much you can do with a little of what he gives you. 

“Stately” has always intrigued  me as an opening word. Much has been made of it, of course, from the fact that it contains the novel’s final word (spoiler alert: “Yes”) backwards (thanks to M. Thomas Gammarino over at Ulysses “Seen” for reminding me of this in his excellent post about opening lines), to the possibility that it was chosen (at least in part) for its first letter: Gifford points out the the first letters of each of the novel’s three sections (S-M-P) could represent the initials of the three main characters (Stephen, Molly, and Poldy), or perhaps the three parts of a syllogism (Subject, Middle, and Predicate), thus “suggest[ing] a logical and narrative structure, which the reader can grasp but of which the characters in the fiction are essentially unaware.”

All this playing with letters as codes is well and good, but what about the word? Why “stately”? I like the way its grammatical sense is ambiguous: is it an adjective or an adverb? Initially I read it as the former: Buck Mulligan is both stately and plump. This is the way it is generally taken, I think. But what if you read it as an adverb, describing the manner in which Buck “came from the stairhead”? Does that make any less sense? On a certain level it actually adds something: the earliest definition in the OED of “stately” as an adverb reads “With splendid ceremonial or surroundings; in state.” Given that the first thing we see Buck do is intone the opening of a Mass, “splendid ceremonial” doesn’t seem too far off. Also, the use of adverbs is part of the narratorial style of this chapter, as one of our commentors noted, which Bernard Benstock attributes to the focalization of the narrative through Buck Mulligan’s point-of-view (in Hart and Hayman, James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays [U of California P, 1974]). Does it make a big difference which way you read it? No, I suppose not. But I like that Joyce gives us a little taste of verbal ambiguity right out of the gate. There’s more where that came from.

(As an aside, here are the opening words of an early French translation [Auguste Morel with Stuart Gilbert and Valerie Larbaud, assisted by Joyce]: “Majestueux et dodu…” Nice, right? Though [and I know too little French to be sure of this] I think it loses the adverbial possibility. And in German [Georg Goyert, again with the author’s assistance]: “Gravitätisch kam de dicke…” Which sounds like just the kind of polyglottal pun that Joyce would have relished [another opening-line word to watch out for, “relish”]). 

Now what about the use of the first-person? This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Ulysses: the use of various narrative modes (third-person omniscient, free indirect discourse, internal monologue) leaves the reader with the challenge of trying to figure out where various words and statements are coming from (like the oft-discussed “Chrysostomos” on the first page). This first chapter has two main modes: “objective” narration (perhaps focalized though Buck, for the most part) and Stephen’s internal monologue. It is the slide between the two that can be tough to keep up with. (A good rule of thumb for this episode: if it’s gorgeous, confusing, or both, we’re probably in Stephen’s head.) We first hear Stephen’s inner voice (with the possible exception of “Chrysostomos”) on page 5 (line 100 in Gifford):

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coatsleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.   

We aren’t yet in true internal monologue: the pronouns are all still “he,” not “I.” We’re sort of toeing the line between focalized narration and free indirect discourse. It makes sense: Joyce starts us out slow. We have to learn how to read Ulysses, and while he won’t necessarily make it easy, he is here to teach us. However we label it, this paragraph jumps out of the page: clearly we are in a different mode. And we learn right away to associate this mode with memory (not a very pleasant one, in this case).

But we haven’t hit first-person yet, and that’s what I claimed to be talking about here. (I just wanted to lead up to it with a little narratology, sorry about that). On the very next page we get our first bit of true internal monologue, which interestingly enough comes with our first description of Stephen’s appearance:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack. Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to read of vermin. It asks me too. (1.135-8)

 This paragraph, like so many in these early chapters, starts out in the third person with a character doing something before slipping inside to show us what they are thinking. Here we have our first (narrative, at least, as opposed to spoken) use of the first-person: “As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to read of vermin. It asks me too.” It seems important that the passage is about identity: throughout the book we will see both Stephen and Bloom (and perhaps Molly and others) struggling with identity and its relationship to memory, and we are seeing these themes invoked in very strategic ways right from the start. Gifford tells us that “As he and others see me” alludes to Robert Burns poem, “To A Louse”:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea’es us,
An ev’n devotion!

So, crucially, even Stephen’s first bit of internal monologue, a reflection on identity, is relying on the words of others. We will see this throughout: Stephen’s thoughts, however self-absorbed, are presented through allusion and academic philosophical argument, rather than anything direct and, well, human (as opposed to the very human thoughts of Bloom).  The choice of a poem about a louse is fitting, of course, as Stephen hasn’t washed his “dogsbody” in some time.

But what about “It asks me too”? What asks him? Asks him what?

Stephen’s next reveries are triggered by Buck: first he mentions Clive Kempthorpe, causing Stephen to imagine a scene at Oxford, and then, cruelly, he sings some lines from Yeats’ “Who Goes With Fergus?” (a poem so important to Ulysses that William York Tindall used to make his Joyce students memorize it before they even began the novel). At that moment a cloud passes over the sun (watch out for the same event in chapter 4) and Stephen’s thoughts return to his mother:

Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery. (1.249-253).

Love: another word to watch out for. (Remember Stephen’s first thoughts of his mother: “Pain, that was not yet the pain of love” (1.102): what’s that supposed to mean?)

This is our first encounter with “I”: but Joyce wants the word to trouble us, as it troubles Stephen. In his next reverie he thinks of his school days: “So I carried the bowl of incense at Clongowes. I am another now and yet the same.”(1.310-12). Throughout the book we will be asked to wonder, with Stephen and Bloom: was “I” then the same as “me now”?

And sometimes it’s just not clear who the “I” refers to:

He walked on, waiting to be spoken to, trailing his ashplant by his side. Its ferrule followed lightly on the path, squealing at his heels. My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen! A wavering line along the path. They will walk it tonight, coming here in the dark. He wants that key. It is mine. I paid the rent. Now I eat his salt bread. Give him the key too. All. He will ask for it. That was in his eyes. (1.627-32).

Here we are in Stephen’s mind: so who paid the rent? Stephen, right? Well, maybe. Historically we know that it was in fact Oliver Gogarty, the basis for Buck Mulligan, who paid the rent. But that’s not conclusive: obviously this is a work of fiction, and Joyce is free to change whatever details he wants (especially if it serves to make him [as Stephen] appear more persecuted). But what about “Now I eat his salt bread”? Gifford tells us this is an allusion to Dante, in Paradiso, where his great-great-grandfather predicts Dante’s future exile: “Thou shalt make trial of how salt doth taste another’s bread,” e.g. you will see how hard it is to live in a home that is not your own. This allusion seems to indicate that Stephen is already an exile. So who pays the rent? One way to read it is that within Stephen’s interior monologue, he is imagining the direct discourse of Buck: “He wants that key. ‘It is mine,’ [he will say]. ‘I paid the rent.’ Now I eat his salt bread.” But there’s really no way to know for sure.

Complicated? Yes. Beyond what Joyce expects of his readers? By no means.

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An Interview with Robert Berry, of Ulysses “Seen”

July 7, 2010 3 comments

It’s been a busy year for Ulysses-fans, with the book getting a lot of attention on the internet through reading groups like our own, Twitter members posting quotes and page summaries, but especially through the ambitious adaptation being undertaken at Ulysses “Seen,” which has received a bonanza of media attention due to a recent controversy with Apple over the iPad version. Robert Berry, the artist heading the Ulysses “Seen” team, was gracious enough to take some time away from the drawing board to answer a few questions about his project.

Berry’s portrait of a “Disapproving Joyce”:

JS: Let’s start with some general stuff (I realize you’ve discussed this elsewhere, including on your own blog at the site, but it’s worth rehashing for people who might not know about your project): Why Ulysses? Is there something about this novel in particular that you think lends itself to the kind of adaptation you’re doing? 

RB: Some years back, while first noodling around with the idea of working in comics and graphic novels, another cartoonist and I attended a BloomsDay reading here in Philadelphia. I’d read the novel before then of course, so I was there more as a celebrant than a novice, but this was first time I’d been to something like this.  Hearing passages from novel read aloud, particularly to a crowd, is a completely different experience than tackling it on your own. When it’s good, when the reader is really getting it, you can see it on the faces of everyone in the crowd and you can see that they’re getting it too. It’s like theatre and everyone’s just standing around in the twisting turning halls of Joyce’s language and wit.

But it’s not theatre, of course. It’s novel, an intentionally very complex novel, with a very bad reputation as being “difficult”. Unlike theatre, novels have a very one-on-one relationship with the reader; they’re something you can carry with you, pause to think about and unravel at your own pace. Something to stage in your own imagination.

I wanted to make a comic that could give people that same kind of one-on-one relationship with the text but could also give them that same kind of stage direction you get out of the theatre combined with an easy reference guide to what’s going on. A way to “see” the novel as you’re reading or hearing it.

 JS: Speaking of which: Why a comic book? (Is that the term we’re using?: certainly Joyce considered his work a “comedy,” in the old, Dantean sense of the word, but what you’re doing isn’t exactly a book, is it?) And why publish online, panel-by-panel?

RB: Over a few pints of Guinness at the pub on that same BloomsDay, my friend and I got into a discussion of how comics was the only media that could do a faithful adaptation of Joyce’s novel. Theatre and film don’t work because they happen in the real time of the audience. The reading experience works in a completely different way with comics and text. Comics have a linear flow, one image following another, but that line has more freedom, more plasticity, in how it relates to time.

Comics on-line, or on the iPad, have an even greater plasticity than they do in print. What we’re able to do on-line is use a comic panel to freeze a moment in reading Ulysses and allow the reader to jump “behind the page” to look at annotations from the novel or ask questions about what is going on and who some of the characters are. The comic itself serves as a kind of guide for all the external materials, discussions and concepts one might get from reading the novel in a classroom environment.

And Joyce is just waaaay funnier than Dante was.

JS: I don’t know, I bet the Inferno was pretty friggin’ hilarious when it first came out…

RB: It definitely raised more than a few laughs at the time, but it’s a bit more of a “had to be there” kinda humor I think…

JS: Tell me a little bit about your process: how do you go about deciding what a given “page” is going to look like, and then how do you achieve your vision? What’s the timeframe like: how long does a given page take, start-to-finish?

RB: The process is pretty unique in that I’ve never encountered anyone working on something like this, so we sort of took a little time to figure out the method. It all begins with the novel, of course. I have a replica of the 1922 edition, our sole source for the text, that I’ve color-coded with about six different highlighter markers to indicate the differences between action, spoken dialogue, internal monologue, etc.

The first page of Berry’s working copy of Ulysses:

Since each episode (or chapter) of Joyce’s novel presents new viewpoints and narrative styles, my four partners and I get together and talk over beers about the episode we’re doing next. Right now, that’s “Calypso”. This helps give me a set of guidelines to follow, a kind of a plan of what other people look for in a specific chapter. After that, I step away from the group for a while and make a set of storyboards, a rough comic, that includes all the original text. The goal at this stage is to pace and stage the flow of words as a director of a film might, looking for the beats implied by the language and giving just enough information so that readers can see who’s speaking as well as their relationship in space. This is a particularly complex stage, particularly when dealing with work as complex as Ulysses, so I tend to do this part on my own and don’t let anyone see it until I know I’ve made the right choices. It’s the guts of the comic.

After that is done, the storyboards go back to my partners for edits and a bit more discussion. It’s often surprising to see how differently each of us view the novel once it’s been drawn and there are occasional important changes that occur during this stage. From here, the work goes back to myself and our production designer Josh Levitas. Josh hand-letters and sets up the page files into what we call “floorplans”. This allows me to make drawings on hand-lettered pages around the text in accordance with my original storyboards. I think it keeps a freshness and a liveliness to the drawing that was lost in earlier versions in which we lettered with the computer over existing drawings. For the next chapter Josh is doing a lot of the set design as well, making drawings of objects in Mr Bloom’s house that we’ll see again much later in the novel.

In the meantime Mike Barsanti, our resident Joycehead, starts working on the Readers’ Guide entries for each page. He explains some of the major themes and issues in the novel, gives some Joycean anecdotes and tries to show links to other related topics and discussions. It’s an area of the project that I have very little to do with but am probably most proud of.

The goal here in all of our work is open up the world of the novel using comics and the internet, to make it a bit less daunting and to show how it connects to today’s readers as something more than just an English Literature merit badge. It’s a complex novel, certainly, but that complexity, once they’ve started to crack it, brings readers back again and again. It’s what makes it the most difficult book you’ll want to read many times.

JS: I see you’re doing the “Calypso” episode second, rather than “Nestor”: that makes sense to me, but would you care to comment on the decision?

RB: I decided pretty early on that I wanted to go chronologically through the first six episodes of the novel. They’ll still be sorted and numbered according to their original order, so “Calypso”, though it appears next, will still be called episode number 4. I made the decision when I was first thinking about how the web and the iPad are much more flexible platforms for annotation. It seems to me that the comparison between these two chapters is a useful learning guide for first time readers so we wanted to step up that process just a bit. But the main reason for it is that I’m going to do “Nestor” and “Lotus Eaters” simultaneously next year, shuffling their pages together to show the chronological relationship between Stephen’s day and Mr Bloom’s. I’ve already laid that chronology out and, believe me, it’s a great example of comics is such a good format for adapting Joyce.

Plus, I was a bit anxious to get to draw Bloom. If I’d have gone with the strict order of the novel that wouldn’t be happening for another year or two.

A sample of the forthcoming adaptation of “Calypso”:

JS:  Are there any moments/panels that gave you particular trouble, in terms of interpretation/adaptation? 

RB: All of the internal monologue presents problems when you start it. As an illustrator you need to separate out a certain voice for each character and how they see the world. Mr Bloom’s inner mind can’t rely on the same visual devices as Stephen’s does and both have to be distinctly separate from the voice of the omniscient narrator. I could’ve cheated a bit, used different font styles to represent this, but I think that’s kind of a cheap parlor trick in comics and, with so many distinct voices in Ulysses, bound to be confusing later.

But establishing an order for how to slip into the imagination of each character is probably the hardest bit. I think you’ll notice it quite a bit in “Calypso” that Bloom doesn’t dream about the world in the same hard imagery and weight of words that Stephen does.

 JS: What are you looking forward to most, in terms of the coming chapters? Is there any particular moment/line that you can’t wait to illustrate?

RB: Off the top of my head it’s that scene in “Lestrygonians” when Bloom has the memory of the seedcake being passed into his mouth and notices the two flies, buzzing, stuck on the window. To me, that’s a very poetic combination of imagery and text, all of what comics can do better than most other narrative mediums.

JS: Wow… that’s pretty much my favorite moment in the whole book.

A big thank you to Rob and his collaborators at Ulysses “Seen.” Rob will be joining us on our reading, and will post his thoughts about the episodes that he has adapted so far in the coming weeks.

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