Author Archive

So That’s It, Huh?

May 13, 2012 4 comments

Howdy, folks! Sorry to have been away for, oh, almost the entire book—I’ve only just got out from under probably the worst job situation of my entire working life. (Which doesn’t include the bits where I haven’t had any work at all, so how much complaining can I really do.) I was so excited, too, because I thought there was another week or two after this one. Oh well. At least I made it, and managed to get back in time for the wake.

As a general summary matter, I think my reading definitely suffered from being forced by circumstance to go it alone. I hope to go back and comment on some of the previous posts, now that I have a chance to read them (forewarned is forearmed, people). The threshold matter of not being able to determine what “happens” (more or less)—that is, which narrated events are real in a Watsonian sense—induced a too-permissive suspension of the need to work things out.

(Picking this back up on a different day now, because the distracting power of TVTropes is not of the Lord.)

I may or may not have mentioned here before the concept of reading protocols. One of the reading protocols that folks who appreciate SF tend to learn pretty early is a kind of patience; since the world the work takes place in isn’t one you can already know (given the fantastic nature of SF), the work has to build that world for you. As a reader, that means you have to be willing to let the important unfamiliar things become clear and let the unimportant ones remain vague. I found SF when I was young, so this is a way of reading I have a lot of practice in. In fact, as I’ve started looking back on my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow, I’ve realized that I was unconsciously applying this protocol, and it wasn’t a successful way to read the book.

An essay by Brian McHale (“Modernist Reading, Postmodernist Text: The Case of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’” in Constructing Postmodernism) pinpointed for me some of what was happening in my reading. McHale gives a kind of taxonomy of unreal narrated events in the book. The most obvious ones are the ones that are cued ahead of time: “Here’s what didn’t happen.” Then you get ones like Pökler’s night with Ilse (Christine mentions this one in her post I linked to), where the narration explicitly clears up the event’s unreality after the fact—sometimes very much after the fact. And then there are ones like the candy scene Daryl wondered about. These are scenes that are later contradicted (in this case by the results of the SEZ WHO guys’ investigation), but not really authoritatively: It may be the later scene that’s unreal instead. McHale describes these scenes as ontologically “flickering.” I think what happened for me is that I got tired of mentally going back and erasing events from continuity, and then on top of that I got tired of leaving so many events up in the air, so to speak—holding off on making ontological judgments.

Because the “reality” or “nonreality” of events was deliberately obscured—and I was getting frustrated with that—I stopped trying to work it out. I figured the distinctions I needed to be able to make would become apparent, and thus I could read more carefully for things like prose style, ideas, set pieces, political or philosophical positions and their illustrations, etc. Which means, among other things, that I didn’t realize the 00000 had been fired in any narrative past. Until I read otherwise in secondary material, I thought the firing that’s interspersed throughout the final section was in the narrative present. I missed important things, is what I’m saying.

So that’s how I gave myself a harder time than necessary with this book. But I have a quibble with the ending that I’d be interested to hear other opinions about. I’ve learned that a major part of what’s going on in the last section, with all the subtitled vignettes and the Raketen-Stadt and Takeshi and Ichizo and all of that, is a depiction of Slothrop derezzing. And retrospectively, that makes for an enormously affecting story: He was essentially sold, by his father, to experimenters when he was an infant, and throughout the book he’s never really treated as a person. He’s an experimental subject (still), he’s a pawn, he’s a courier, he’s an instantiation of a legendary hero, he’s a half-mythical character—he’s always a means for other people, never an end in himself. Slothrop’s been the only entity trying to maintain a kind of synoptic understanding of himself, an idea of himself as subject. And in the end, he gives up that struggle against all other forces; they win. “It’s doubtful if he can ever be ‘found’ again, in the conventional sense of ‘positively identified and detained.’” I find that very, very sad, and a solid way of partly accounting for the structure of the end of the book.

But I don’t think it’s enough, because Slothrop was also kind of never the point. (I’m not sure the book treats him any better than the entities within it, although I’d be willing to have a discussion about it that would probably be very interesting.) The end of the book is focused on the flight of the 00000, which has at its heart the “black device” that has exerted such a gravitational pull on the characters and events, and here’s where I think Pynchon makes an artistic misstep. (Subjective response ahoy!) For me, the main matter of the book is systems—social, religious, scientific, political, economic, racial, sexual, etc.—and especially the interactions of these systems when they’re superimposed and the way these systems will each tend to absorb as much of existence as possible into themselves. There is a totalizing drive inherent in these systems, although they are often forced to accommodate each other (a few characters note that the war seems to be one such accommodation). The 00000 is one site, perhaps the most salient in the book, where a number of these systems overlap and impinge on one another—which is why I find it disappointing that when the rocket finally gets a star turn, that’s when the text achieves its greatest decoherence. I see the argument that the rocket is the apocalyptic event that can’t be contained within the existing arrangement of systems, so it’s like the event horizon of a revolution—the line past which all else is unrepresentable. Except that a large amount of the book actually does take place afterward, and the systems are all still in force. It’s after the flight of the 00000 that they are able to terminally attenuate Slothrop. I’d like to hear what other folks thought about the ending. Did you even consider it in this way? If so, were you disappointed too, or are there aspects I’m not taking into account?

Even though I disagree with some authorial choices about the ending, I’m glad I got through GR this time. If I ever return to school, and my project remains generally what I currently expect it to be, I’m going to have to do some serious grappling with this book. I look forward to my romp through the posts.

Found This Some Months Ago

March 14, 2012 6 comments

I knew it would come in handy someday!

Christine Stole My Title

March 11, 2012 4 comments

(The longer this continues, the more I think we’re cosmic brain twins.)

A tsunami of work blew up in my face this week and sucked all the time right out my lungs, but like Carlotta Campion, I’m still here (skip ahead to 24:36 if you must).

Wow, we had a doozy of a reading for this week. I feel like I have so many things to say that they’re almost fighting for my attention and my words. It’s like Three Stooges Syndrome (illustrated at right), only with thoughts instead of germs. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that we’ve got some very dense sections this week. There’s so very much that I know I’ll leave out something I had planned to cover. One of the benefits of being Jeff-come-lately, though: Daryl and Christine have already covered some of it.

I want to look mostly at the Katje section (1.14), although the points that interest me the most also come up in the Christmas section (1.16). Okay but first, on the level of pure plot: The message that Pirate Prentice, um, revealed in 1.11—that was the order to extract Katje, right? Or, since rockets ostensibly launched from the occupied Netherlands would make for an awfully inefficient way for the Allies to transmit orders among themselves, was it instead a request from Katje herself? (If this is a spoiler thing, just tell me as much; I can be patient.)

I’ve called it the Katje section because she bookends it (being secretly videotaped for some kind of conditioning experiment on an octopus?), but it’s really got a number of centers of gravity: the S/M-drag-kinky-Hansel-and-Gretel setup with Blicero, Blicero’s own experience in Südwestafrika, Gottfried, and Frans van der Groov and the dodos. Like I said, too much going on, so I want to focus on the thread of expansionism that runs through the whole thing. I actually sideswiped at this idea in my first post, and then this week it jumped up at me.

It took me a couple times through to figure this out, but the house where Katje, Gottfried, and Blicero play out their little game is in the Netherlands (it’s just outside the Hague, near Wassenaar and the Duindigt racecourse). Katje thinks of how to behave “in a conquered country, in one’s own occupied country.” The whole explanation for their setup—from her end, anyway—is that it’s about “formalizing” (better, say stylizing) the experience of extralegal subjugation as a way of coping through control. As Christine and Daryl both discuss, Blicero’s getting something else from it, and Gottfried seems to need the domination (incidentally, from what I’ve been able to find about conscription in the Wehrmacht at the time, Gottfried’s probably 17—not the child I originally thought), but for Katje it’s explicitly a strategy of living through military expansion into her home country.

As for Blicero, much of how he now relates to the world seems to have been formed by “his own African conquest.” The mere existence of German South-West Africa is obviously tied to colonialism, but more specifically, imperial Germany’s treatment of the Herero offers a premonition of Nazi policies toward the Jews. Rape, slave labor, and confiscation of land and property led the Herero to revolt; Germany’s response was the first genocide of the twentieth century, complete with concentration camps, corporate collusion, and medical experimentation. Blicero visits twenty years later and…falls in love? There’s obviously a huge amount of exploitation built into the situation (look for the narration calling Blicero “the white man” and “the European,” not to mention the likely pedophilia), but Blicero gives the boy a German name (power play, like renaming the towns and cities) from his beloved Rilke and calls him “Liebchen.” And then plays out the pattern again, but debased (further?), with Gottfried and his “doubleganger” Katje.

And then Frans van der Groov. I was boggled by this bit at first. (Love your reaction, Daryl, because it’s so close to mine.) But it turns out to be another story about expansionism, exploitation, and genocide. The Dutch went to Mauritius and found a strange bunch of birds with the audacity to not fear them. The dodos apparently deserved what they got because they were stupid, ugly, and not very tasty. Obviously they ought then to be extinguished. And for what? Nothing, as it turned out: “The enterprise here would have lasted about a human lifetime.” That’s a horrible enough story (and I found it surprisingly affecting that Frans forbore firing on the egg he found, but it didn’t make a difference since the dodos all died anyway), but then Frans turns it into a religious fantasy about bringing all the natives of wherever to God (“It is the purest form of European adventuring”), and suddenly it ties back to Enzian’s asking Blicero to make Ndjambi Karuna.

I was also going to talk about the Jamaican countertenor in 1.16, but it’s dinner time on Sunday; I think I’m late enough as it is. So let me just remark this:

These are not heresies so much as imperial outcomes, necessary as the black man’s presence, from acts of minor surrealism—which, taken in the mass, are an act of suicide, but which in its pathology, in its dreamless version of the real, the Empire commits by the thousands every day, completely unaware of what it’s doing. . . .

Seems to me to say that imperialism programs its own death the same way that Blicero looks to act out a story that inevitably ends with his.

Chew on This

February 29, 2012 10 comments

I had an idea that I might try just straight-up asking questions about some things that I have questions about. Think of it as a front-pager’s-privileged version of a WTF. (Or, for the more traditionally inclined among us, a discussion question.) I even made up a fancy new tag for them, in the hope that they will in fact provoke conversation. So here’s one:

It seems to me that literature about World War II is qualitatively different from literature about World War I. I don’t say that as a judgment of merit, but as a position on the distinctive elements of each. Consider, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Im Westen nichts Neues versus Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22. It seems like there’s a transformation, from the one literature to the next, of straight-up horror to horror inflected with ironic, absurdist, or even nihilist laughter. But I don’t know that I feel well-enough informed to be able to call this a fact. On the understanding that this entire effect may just be an artifact of my specific reading experiences and lacks—in which case, please tell me so I can fill them in—why do you think this is? Was there a particular change in the ways of war that caused it (nuclear weaponry, maybe)? Is it a function of the time lag between the wars and their respective literatures? (If so, what kind of function?) Is it just a matter of changing literary fashions that happened to coincide with the passage of time between the wars? I’m all ears.

On the Third Hand…

February 28, 2012 14 comments

So I was telling my mom about this go-round here at IZ, and she’s unfamiliar with Gravity’s Rainbow. I started trying to describe it to her, and after hitting the main points (WWII, a star-sticker map of sexual encounters, the desperate kitchen-sink response to the Nazis including even mysticism, lots of bananas) I ended up with almost a whine: “It’s hard.” Not a complaint, really, because I like a challenge in my reading—obviously you all understand, or you wouldn’t be here. But I don’t often even describe a book as difficult. That feels like a value judgment of the work involved in reading, and I just don’t ordinarily think to characterize reading effort in positive or negative terms. It’s reading and understanding, so it’s work worth doing, duh. My point is that GR is taking a lot more work than I—a serial Infinite Jest rereader and Gene Wolfe fan—am accustomed to, and I’m not sure yet that I feel like I’m accomplishing that work successfully.

Some things seem pretty clear to me, though, like Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake. (Quick note: Good god do I love the names in this book. Joaquin Stick took me a few minutes, but then I cracked up, and I think Constant Slothrop’s naming his son Variable is one of the funniest onomastic jokes I’ve ever read.) Their relationship lets Pynchon set up a kind of three-sided opposition (although we know what happens to opposites in the transmarginal state) of the war, love, and…what to call it? Math? Truth? Order? I think “order.”

Start with war. It’s Roger’s mother in section 1.6, which is an odd description, and then it’s a laboratory for Pointsman and Spectro in 1.8, but the most striking characterization of it is the political literalization of the “state of war.” In 1.12, Pointsman feels that he’s become a citizen of the war, and Brigadier Pudding thinks of “other named areas of the War, colonies of that Mother City mapped wherever the enterprise is systematic death.” There’s probably a very interesting line of inquiry here involving colonialism and the prosecution of World War II—which would apparently also manage to draw in Südwestafrika and the Herero, chronology be damned, along with whatever the Schwarzkommando turns out to be, and now I’m wishing I’d had this idea soon enough to research it in time for a post—but: the state of war. Although Pointsman and Pudding enlarge the image for us, with the outlands of war and the uncertainty of its successor state, it’s actually Jessica and Roger who introduce it. End of 1.6: “If they have not quite seceded from war’s state, at least they’ve found the beginnings of gentle withdrawal.”

That last stretch of 1.6 is also where we get the second term in this opposites relation I’m spelling out. Roger and Jessica’s not-quite-secession is in the form of their huddled little place together outside of town. The whole section convincingly shows a couple who care for each other. It gets the details right; the ending—“They are in love. Fuck the war.”—feels both earned and disarmingly direct. Its clarity and sincerity make quite a contrast with the bewilderment in every other setting so far. (I’m a little concerned about how the inevitable appearance of Jessica’s Beaver will complicate this situation.) Note that Jessica and Roger understand what they’re doing as, among other things, a kind of protest against the disruptions of the war and its attempt to claim even people’s internal lives as materiel to be mobilized and spent: “Both know, clearly … that, indeed, the Home Front is something of a fiction and lie, designed, not too subtly, to draw them apart, to subvert love in favor of work, abstraction, required pain, bitter death.” The text is pretty specific about the opposition here.

In section 1.9 we find a longer, more intimate bit about the couple. Among other things, it has Jessica but not once Roger succumbing to lovely domestic fantasy. (Could be characterization just as plausibly as sexism, so I’ll move on.) But after one of those phantasmic shifts of scene that help make this such a tough book comes the third term I’m interested in: Roger’s unbending commitment to scientifically or mathematically verifiable phenomena. This is what I’m calling “order.” Roger has no patience for his coworkers at “The White Visitation” and their mysticism. Where the Psi Section people see him as a prophet, he sees himself just plugging numbers into an equation that describes reality. I understand strategies of literary structuring well enough to know that, at least so far in the book, no one of the three oppositional terms I’m pointing out is supposed to be dominant—but I sure do like Roger’s side in all this (as well as his and Jessica’s, I mean). I feel a bit like everyone can see my underwear hanging out in his contretemps with Pointsman, since I’m the one who’s twice insisted “It must mean something,” like Pointsman does here. But he’s being histrionic when he panics that the end of history and even of cause and effect might lie germinating in the simple recognition that independent events…are independent. I’m reasonably certain the rest of the book will give us a remarkable number of wholly contingent events, so Dr. Pointsman should be able to rest secure.

What remains is to show that this order term is actually placed in opposition to both war and love. I suppose it’s obvious enough with regard to war—the absurdism of living in the state of war comes through every page of this book, loud and clear. But also, Jessica understands in 1.9 that she can’t protect Roger “from what may come out of the sky”—for me, a recognition from her (if not yet from him) that his idea of order can’t stand in the random path of war and not be flattened. And as for love vs. order, check Roger in 1.6: “In a life he has cursed, again and again, for its need to believe so much in the trans-observable [possibly spurious hyphen], here is the first, the very first real magic: data he can’t argue away.” Combined with his and Jessica’s mind-to-mind communication in 1.9, I think this shows what’s really a fairly standard depiction of love as transcendent, the great battering ram that overthrows reason.

Looking ahead, I kind of feel like order will be the biggest loser. Anybody else have any predictions?

“Contemporary” Catechism

August 27, 2010 2 comments

The other day I read a diverting—if argumentationally (Joyce isn’t the only one who can make up words) lightweight—piece by Annie Dillard called “Contemporary Prose Styles,” in which Dillard plays Linnaeus and classifies “contemporary” prose styles (the article is as old as I am) as either “fancy” (or “fine”) or “plain.” She kind of claims that fancier styles are better suited to modernist projects, and that plainer styles are preferable to contemporary readers for their ostensive presentation of the world as it is rather than as a writer arranges it. Those both strike me as naive, or at least unreflective, positions, but Dillard doesn’t seem wholly attached to them anyway, since she goes on to say that basically all writers work somewhere in between the two poles. Which is fine by me, since I don’t even intend to criticize the piece (more); I bring it up for its relevance to our reading of Ulysses.

Dillard marshals Joyce as one of her exemplars of the fancier styles: “I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Beckett, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.” I think she’s right to mention Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—I assume those are “the novels”—as pyrotechnic displays of writing. In at least some respects, that seems to be the point of some of what we’ve been reading these past few weeks. Can we talk about “Oxen of the Sun”?

But what’s interesting to me is when Dillard turns her attention to the plainer styles. She gives a broad characterization that leaped to mind throughout my reading of “Ithaca”:

This prose is not an end in itself, but a means. It is, then, a useful prose. Each writer of course uses it in a different way. Borges uses it straightforwardly, and as invisibly as he can, to think, to handle bare ideas with control[.] … Robbe-Grillet uses it coldly and dryly, to alienate, to describe, and to lend his descriptions the illusion of scientific accuracy. His prose is a perceptual tool[.] … Hemingway uses it as a ten-foot pole, to distance himself from events; he also uses it as chopsticks, to handle strong emotions without, in theory, becoming sticky: “On the other hand his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time.” (At its worst, this flatness may be ludicrous. Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence, “Paris is a nice town.”)

Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect.

This is “Ithaca.” For all its earthiness and democratic range of subject matter, Ulysses retains a peculiar fastidiousness about its characters’ emotions. (At least so far; I don’t remember whether “Penelope” blows this out of the water.) Maybe I’m just not catching what I’m reading—a definite possibility—but to my mind the book mostly lets its characters feel what they feel without, I don’t know, intruding too much. It gives us their thoughts verbatim, but most of the emotional weight is left to us to register on our own. As the final homecoming, the episode when Bloom at last returns to the privacy of hearth and bed, “Ithaca” is the pinnacle of this reserve.

The somewhat detached tone also accomplishes the other goals Dillard names at the end there, creating a fully realized portrait not just of Dublin in 1904 but of the entire universe and all its contingent particularities that make possible this day for this man in this city. Daryl covers many of the fields this episode brings into play; what I love is how comprehensively it establishes what is the case in this world. It runs up the scale to intergalactic space and down to the corresponding space within the atom. It discourses on both physical and metaphysical principles. And it sets a willed positivity against “the apathy of the stars” (17.2226). A few months ago, I went on about Moby-Dick being about everything; I think Ulysses is similarly encyclopedic, but with an entirely different effect. What we see in “Ithaca” is how a regular old day—nothing any more remarkable about it than about any other day—necessarily includes in it everything else that exists. Every moment is entirely conditioned by everything before it (and this is heading toward the kind of understanding of reality that science was also heading toward at the time of Ulysses; Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle in 1927), every day is the sum of all previous days.

And then we follow Bloom into sleep, with Darkinbad the Brightdayler, to recharge the everyman for his next everyday.

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August 8, 2010 2 comments

Howdy, Zombies! My mother (neither beastly nor dead) came ’round, and my time she flew by. But I’m honor-bound to make it all up, and while it would make sense to jump aboard where the boat is now, I feel I must backfill. That is, what I have to say on “Aeolus” and “Scylla and Charybdis” echoes forward, and I can’t hark back to what I haven’t said.

(I wasn’t kidding about how reading affects my writing.)

To begin, I admit I’m a sucker for scenes behind the scenes in publishing. It’s what I do, and it amuses me. So I enjoyed Bloom at work in “Aeolus,” and felt fondly for Nannetti in his reading closet. But I also think a place where texts are made is a fertile literary setting; events and meanings seem to bloom and multiply. (Paging Adso of Melk.) That’s certainly the case here in Ulysses—indeed, texts themselves start overgrowing their espaliers and covering the style we’ve learned how to read in the first six episodes.

Judd mentions David Hayman’s idea of the Arranger, which I’m not familiar with but sounds right on. Stipulating the Arranger’s existence, then (and the fact that I’m talking out of my hat; any ridiculousness here is my lookout, not Hayman’s), what I’m specifically sniffing after is the way It takes textual models and mashes them down onto the story of this day in Dublin, sometimes pressing so hard that the “original” material gets squeezed into some odd configurations to make room.

In “Aelous,” the arranging is largely a matter of editing and editorializing. It takes work to learn how to sort through Stephen’s and Bloom’s thoughts, and then just as we’ve had three episodes of each to grow accustomed to their styles, Bloom’s newspaper suddenly grabs hold and starts to run away with the book. It’s funny, for sure (“K. M. R. I. A.”), but the heds also create this peculiar space between the narrative and itself, so that what had seemed disorienting but still reasonably straightforward is now doubled and deeply suspicious. The prose that had perhaps pretended to psychological transparency is now making hay of its printedness (and the Arranger is making fun of the characters, at least some of the time). Most striking, I think, is that the arranging here doesn’t clarify anything. Whatever the Arranger’s goals, they do not appear to include simplifying. Instead, It unfolds a whole new broadsheet of meanings and structures between us and what we had taken to be the pages we were reading.

Outside of maybe the Dickensianly vigorous grotesquerie of all the eating, my hobbyhorse here hops right across “Lestrygonians,” but it strikes down hard in the Strait of Messina where dwell “Scylla and Charybdis.” We lay our scene in a library—a book hoard!—and people it with very many texts: Wilhelm Meister, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Lovesongs of Connacht, King Lear, and so on, plus all the songs and snippets I won’t look up because one of the Ulysses guidebook writers must already have done. Stephen performs an absorbing (if, in my eyes, wrongheaded) demonstration of the biographical fallacy to prove that Shakespeare was in fact one of his own characters; he even hauls in Will’s will’s second-best bed. The Arranger grows impatient with him, and lets Its attention wander: First It reproduces a snippet of notated Gregorian chant, then at line 684 It takes short inspiration from the Shakespearean subject and versifies the matter. Ideas appear to flit across the Arranger’s awareness, sometimes momentarily sticking together to produce name changes like “Mr. Secondbest Best,” “Eglintonus Chronolologos,” and “Sonmulligan.” (Quick leafing shows only “Puck Mulligan” repeated.) It goes all in, formatting just over a page as a play, gives up again, and finally ends with (almost) the end of Cymbeline.

I know I said the Arranger isn’t interested in clarity, but it’s notable that It isn’t blotting out the story It’s interfering with. There’s enough left recognizable that we can even in some sense distinguish what it might have been like “before” the Arranger got Its mitts on. (I know this is a fraught way of thinking.) Post hoc, it seems inevitable that a newspaper office and a library would inspire such shenanigans, but I think that’s only because we begin to discern the Arranger’s concerns through the bizarre palimpsests It makes of these episodes. Now of course we ask the questions that all start with “why,” but I shall take the Arranger’s own authority and defer: Sufficient for the day is the post therof.

Et in Arcadia Ego

July 26, 2010 2 comments

We’ve seen a man shaving, two breakfasts, nude swimming, a bath, and a trip to the outhouse; who didn’t see the “Hades” funeral coming? When part of the point is apparently to depict the pure embodiedness of living, death has to hover on the horizon. And notice how almost none of the physical living we’ve seen has been done by Stephen? Bloom gleefully feeds his body on other bodies; the “Odyssey” section, the “Calypso” episode, and in fact Bloom’s whole appearance in the book all begin with an almost Rabelaisian catalog of body parts he loves to devour:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish [fun garden path here—condiment or contentment?] the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Check that out: His favorite flavor comes sauced with piss.

Stephen, on the other hand… He’s mostly just unsettled or disgusted by bodies. He seems to appreciate hands, but otherwise the bodies that come up in his episodes have so far been dead mothers, bloated, drowned corpses, a dead dog. Oh, and he wipes some snot on a rock. There’s none of the earthy appreciation for embodied living that fills Bloom’s episodes with such gusto.

Which is why I’m so pleased that it’s Bloom in the funeral carriage, rather than Stephen. We can probably guess what kind of morose, depressed-person, self-centered piece it would be to read if it were focused through Stephen. But with Bloom instead, it’s lively and funny and touching and humane. (I hope to come to feel warmer toward Stephen over the course of the book.) He has both a sentimentality and a pragmatism in this episode that I just love. His wry outsider’s perspective on the Christian burial ceremony is awfully percipient, and there’s an undeniable frisson to his description of postmortem liquefaction and his meditations on maggots and how even a graveyard rat’s gotta eat.

I’m getting a little scattershot here, but it’s because this post is more appreciative than interpretive. I can go through bit and bit describe for you what moves me in this episode and why, but it amounts to the presentation of Bloom as—to quote the man himself, in his private appraisal of Martin Cunningham—a “sympathetic human man.” In all its mundanity and gruesomeness and sorrow and totting up and shallowness and sympathy and bruised pride and sexual desire, Bloom’s internal experience of the funeral of an acquaintance feels entirely real. What most rouses my great tenderness for him here is his repeated return to thoughts of his dead infant son and his father’s suicide. His observation on the pointlessness of staking a suicide’s heart—“As if it wasn’t broken already”—is so sad and so empathetic. Joyce shows him in this episode as a man who, for all the energetic joy he brings to living, carries enormous sorrows with him but still looks out for the sufferings of others. (That’s why he says a sudden death is best: no suffering.) He’ll spend part of his day looking to see whether statues of goddesses have anuses, but he also thinks about how comforting it must be for the dead to hear jokes or fashions discussed by the corteges that tromp over them.

Eh, I’m rambling. My point is: The “Hades” episode is a beautifully empathetic portrait of a normal, everyday, empathetic man who understands that life you love more than your own can begin with the sight of two dogs mating in an alley, and that that doesn’t diminish it even a little.

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And the Stream of Consciousness Rolls Ever On

July 18, 2010 5 comments

All right, so I know that in 1922 the stream of consciousness was the very Rubicon that marked the border with the future of literature; but lo these 88 years later, we’re reasonably familiar with the trick. I have a well-loved Mrs Dalloway in one of my boxes of books, and we most of us had to read The Sound and the Fury in high school, or repeatedly for pleasure, right? (And let’s not forget Ken Erdedy and Clenette Henderson.) It’s not a new game. But I’m surprised at how disorienting it is in Ulysses. I may just be rusty, but Joyce’s use of the technique—especially in “Proteus,” although of course that’s no accident—is more thorough and defamiliarizing than I expected.

I caught the switch between third person and first person that Judd notes, so it’s mostly clear when we’re dealing with “the narrator” and when we’re reading a character’s mind. What trips me up sometimes is the comprehensiveness of the stream-of-consciousness bits: In the same way that your thoughts to yourself generally don’t actually narrate your situation and actions, but only your impressions of them, conscious reactions to them, and mental processes that merely happen to take place among them, Stephen doesn’t tell us what he’s doing, only what he’s thinking about as he does it. This makes it difficult sometimes to keep up with the stage business of the story. Among other things, I think this is what makes “Proteus” such a challenge on the first try. Stephen is so wrapped up in his own head that he only notices some of what occurs around him, and what “the narrator” doesn’t explain for us, we often have to riddle out. For instance (to backtrack to “Telemachus”), that seal’s head is Malachi Mulligan, plump double dactyl, ’s, right? Instead of an actual seal’s, I mean.

Then again, it’s Stephen’s imagination and rambling associativeness that drives the most beautiful passages in the first three episodes. His memories that never happened of the milkwoman (1.397ff.) and of Mrs. Sargent’s mother-love (2.139ff.) are magical bits of imaginative creation, and the water-songs (1.242ff., 3.55ff., and 3.456ff.) are gorgeous poetry. I think the most impressive stretch of these first 40-ish pages is Stephen’s remembered dream of his mother at 1.102ff. For sheer psychological condensation, it rivals “My mother is a fish.”

The Ulysses “Seen” page for this passage does a fine job of showing the horror that Stephen attaches to the details of his dream’s dead mother—the smells, the physical wasting, the breath coming out of her mouth. The text then begins a remarkable layering process that demonstrates how overdetermined Stephen’s thoughts are, how everything reminds him of other things. He’s looking at his cuff, and remembers (among other things) his mother’s graveclothes; then, as he thinks of the “wetted ashes” smell of his mother’s breath, he sees beyond his cuff the sea, which Buck, quoting Swinburne, has called a mother. (Wetted ashes and the water and horrid breath congeal again at 3.150: “Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man’s ashes.”) “Clothes” and “wet” and “mother” lead from his own mother to the sea, where the bay is the edge of a bowl holding a “dull green mass of liquid” just like the white china bowl his mother hacked her bile into on her deathbed, and then “Buck Mulligan wiped again his razorblade,” which reactivates the bowl association to include the first sentence of the book, in which Buck’s shaving bowl parodies a solemn religious accoutrement (I don’t know Catholicism well enough to say which one) so that we remember again what we learned 15 lines ago, that Stephen refused to pray for his own dying mother.

As densely associative as this passage is—and I’m sure I’ve missed some of the connections; at the very least, I suspect there’s something in it of Stephen’s penury (the edge of his cuff is both “fraying” and “threadbare”) and of the contrast between Buck’s “wellfed” voice and the mother’s “loud groaning vomiting”—that’s how Stephen’s mind works. It’s a foretaste of the “Proteus” to come, in miniature and with context, to demonstrate how far we’re going to roam in this book from what we’re accustomed to. Yet it will seem familiar all the same, once we can learn the motions of it, because its abandonment of traditional technique is in the service of a psychological realism in which we can recognize some of the ways our minds work.

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From Hell’s Heart He Stabs at—What, Exactly?

July 2, 2010 5 comments

“The ‘elusiveness’ of Kafkaesque terror … is maybe the supersaturation of every possible line of allegorical reading (you can’t isolate what is everywhere).”

John Holbo.

(I know Kafka’s a long stretch from Moby-Dick, but he’s not why I used the quotation; I aim to connect the extract and the point below.)

We finally meet the White Whale! And he’s just as vicious as we’ve been led to expect: rocketing up out of the depths of the ocean to chomp an occupied boat in half, swatting at other boats with his tail as if they were flies, pulling a remarkable Three Stooges maneuver with two harpoon lines to smash their boats against each other, single-headedly staving an entire ship so that its whole crew (but one) drowns in a maelstrom. But then, after three chapters of mayhem, there’s a short epilogue and the book is over. That’s it, nothing more to see.

It seems an odd kind of book whose title character only appears in the final pages to kill practically every other character and then vanish. It all happens quickly, but I agree with Paul that it doesn’t feel rushed. Instead it just feels very final, and brutal. Speaking for myself, there’s something about the mystery of Moby Dick and the compactness of his “on-screen” presence in the book that I find irresistibly suggestive. There’s too much weight placed on him through the course of the narration to be borne by that tiny role, so I find myself again saying it must mean something.

It’s not just me, though: Many of the characters, and I would imagine much of the criticism, look to Moby Dick as a symbol of something. For Ahab, he’s an agent or principal of supernatural malice, an implacable nemesis. Starbuck seems to think he is a devil and expresses concern that they’ll get dragged to Hell if they harpoon him. (I don’t know how literally he means it.) Ishmael goes everybody one better and devotes an entire chapter to projecting his own meanings onto the empty canvas of the whiteness of the whale.

As far as that whiteness goes, Melville practically invites us to write our own interpretations onto the blank page that is the whale’s skin. It’s certainly easy enough to grope toward reading Ahab and Moby Dick’s contest as humanity vs. nature, or humanity vs. the greater powers, or will vs. matter, or (at least poetically comprehensibly) even past vs. progress, and probably any number of other allegories. The resonance and capaciousness and complexity of Melville’s writing give us lots of pitons to rope a reading through, and seem to support a great variety of interpretations. The book brandishes an enormous amount of knowledge about whales, and brings to bear on the plot and its giant albino a huge range of human discourses, including economics, biology, anatomy, physiology, oceanography, literature, psychology, and theology. Of course we can make him mean something!

But this is where the quotation I began with enters the picture: allegorical supersaturation. Moby Dick can mean all those things, at least tolerably well; which is too many meanings. The confusion of every possible meaning that can be attached to him cancels out to a nullity—you can’t isolate any one of them, because the others all impinge too much upon it. Consider: After all we’ve read, outside of his great savagery we know nothing significant about Moby Dick except for a probabilistic idea of where he’s more and less likely to be at a given season. He’s visible from a mile or two out, and we know less about him than about the electron. To steal a phrase from Daniel, we still don’t know dick about Moby Dick. He spends the vast majority of the book hidden both figuratively and literally below the surface; for all the psychological effect he has on the characters (and, I admit, this reader) before he appears, he remains wholly unknowable. We can squeeze him into any interpretation we want, but it will teach us no more about the whale and we will have made the same mistake as Ahab and Starbuck and who knows who else: We will have ignored the irreducible fact of the whale in favor of converting him to an interpretive object.

That’s what I find the most compelling about Moby Dick. He comes out of nowhere, without warning (dare I say “like a thief in the night”?), does whatever he is going to do, then vanishes. There is no taming him or managing your encounters with him or even understanding him. He’s almost like a Lovecraftian monster in his assault on the idea that human beings can master or even comprehend the world. He is purely sublime, and although he will bear a great number of interpretations, none of them will encompass him. For someone as intellectual and Enlightenment-infatuated as I am, it’s an exhilarating thing to read such a stimulating book and then get my face slammed right up against the wall of human understanding. I look forward to it every time.


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