David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2006 (page 1 of 2)

Gnostic Children’s Books

What with this talk of gnosticism, and John Crowley’s linking of it to the tropes of fairy tales and fantasy, I wanted to put in a plug for my favorite two books of mine as a child that display a metaphysical conception close to that of the gnostics, that of there being a “world behind the world,” or rather, something more real than the physical.

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater. Not only does Pinkwater leave the whole Mars business mostly unexplained, but the central device in the book is that famous “lost” places like Atlantas and Mu exist in the same physical space as our world, and through various techniques, the two fat Jewish teenagers who are the stars of the book can travel between them by tuning out our world and tuning in the other. There’s a wildly psychedelic scene where they’re halfway between one and the other and everything in our world becomes transparent and permeable.

Figgs and Phantoms, by Ellen Raskin. This one went completely over my head when I read it as a kid. Raskin did the far more normal Westing Game, but this one, about a family of eccentrics who have had their own personal afterlife (Capri, they call it) for hundreds of years, bears little similarity to it, or to anything else I read as a child. You do get to see Capri–sort of–but the ultimate message is that we make our own afterlife. Haunting.

Needless to say, these both read well at any age, and they’re far easier than Finnegans Wake.

Finnegans Wake and Little, Big

I purposefully read Beckett’s Watt after Proust to clear away ideological detritus. After Finnegans Wake, I didn’t sense any particular residue, so I chose to reread John Crowley’s brilliant and unique Little, Big, not realizing that its approach is in some ways opposite that of the Wake.

The two books don’t seem to have any special relation, and I don’t know anyone that’s claimed a place for Joyce as one of Crowley’s major antecedents. (I see more of James Branch Cabell and Charles Kingsley than Joyce, for example.) But with the Wake floating in my mind, there was one polar difference that weighed on me the entire time I was reading Little, Big, which I’d loosely put as gnosticism vs. physicalism.

Now, I’m a bit biased here because my Wake teacher is an avowed enemy of gnostics (his criticism in a nutshell: “They just make shit up!”) and so had something of a vested interest in reading an anti-gnosticism into Finnegans Wake, but even on the surface level, the Wake is a very physical and visceral book. It’s most obviously present in Joyce’s obsessive scatology and descriptions of near-every bodily functions, which eventually make the book clinical enough that all disgust and fetishism fall away, and you might as well be reading about the sexual proclivities of moths. But as I said last time, Joyce isn’t one to deal in ephemeralities: there is little theology or eschatology in the Wake. When religion is invoked, it’s often with direct relation to the physical or the historical.

Little, Big (and for that matter, much of Crowley’s work) not only sets itself to discussing the reality behind the appearance, but does so in a rather gnostic matter. The subsequent Aegypt books make this connection explicit, but it’s certainly there in Little, Big, in which a set of the privileged are allowed mysterious, ineffable access to a world within a world that exists consubstantially with ours.

One look at Finnegans Wake and it seems like mysticism. But Joyce is almost devoutly quotidian: the things he repeatedly, obscurely analogizes are the very basics of the world and more importantly, the known: male, female, parents, children, birth, death, day, night, sex, education, work, play. The most realistic scene (in
III.4) appears to concern a pub-owner and his family, and the
situation as far as I can discern it is hardly anything more unusual than Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses. If anything, it’s more normal, as there’s far less information given to make these people unique. The pub-owner, named Porter, is a Protestant Irishman and well-respected citizen leeading an typical middle-class life. Joyce loads the scene up with the usual allusions and such, and I take from it that this scene is to be put on an equal footing with all the complications and mysteries have gone before. The message: This is it. This is the world for all to see and all that anyone can see.

It’s hardly so clear-cut, of course, and the heavy use of the Egyptian Book of the Dead are one of the most prominent mythologies that seem to negate Joyce’s physicalism. But as I read it, these mythologies chiefly analogize the physical, monistic reality around us, rather than alluding to some Other realm, just as Bloom’s hallucinations in Nighttown explore his brutal reality. You’re welcome to disagree, but the sense I get is that language and the physical are the two realms at work, and Joyce’s problem isn’t the lack of correlation between one and the other, but the overlapping and overloaded correlation between the two.

Little, Big, on the other hand, purposefully portrays the world-as-we-know-it through a gauzy haze, abstracting New York as “the City” and only vaguely referencing massive events of upheaval in this world, as though to emphasize that the characters are already in process of leaving this world and entering another. Little, Big repeatedly invokes the unexplainable and mysterious motivations in showing the encroaching Otherness in the familiar world. The basic illusoriness of the physical is even more present in Engine Summer, and I think that Crowley enjoys using the concept to show how stories and conceptions of the world trump any certainty about the world itself, using fairy tales as one of his key metaphors. And ultimately, I think Joyce prefers to use the tales to serve the world, rather than the other way around.

Supposedly the hyper-obscure debate between Bishop Berkeley (note the “Ding hvad in idself” reference to Ding an sich) and Saint Patrick near the very end of Finnegans Wake describes the triumph of materialism over Platonic-styled idealism, but I won’t pretend to have much idea of what it means. But consider Giordano Bruno, who figures heavily in both Crowley and Joyce’s worlds. For Crowley, it’s the gnostic/hermetic tradition that Bruno embodies, with his memory arts and mystical reality therein. At least to my eye, Joyce doesn’t reference those aspects often, at least nowhere near as much as the near-constant references strewn about to Bruno’s cosmology and the physical, natural homogeneity of the universe. (Bruno was quite creative and disparate in his philosophies and heresies!) I think he was quite happy having his hands full with the world as we know it.

I don’t really have a preference for one approach over the other, but amazing how Joyce made me forget about non-monistic accounts of reality. Amazing Joyce’s utter presence in this world.

[Thanks to those who responded. I will address your comments soon!]

Reflections in/on Finnegans Wake

I’ve spent the last few months slowly reading Finnegans Wake, which has been the biggest reason for the sparseness of posts. I didn’t find it suitable for the sort of episodic reflections that I was able to make with Proust, and anyway, my experience was biased by having one particular guide’s view as I read it. Hell, it was tainted by taking one particular approach to the book, that of the old-time Joyceans like Roland McHugh, Clive Hart, and Fritz Senn. I like this approach–it may be the best first approach these is–but clearly the exercise of reading in this manner is very different than the one that spurred John Bishop’s idiosyncratic reading in Joyce’s Book of the Dark, which abandons most of the purported thematic elements (Vico, fathers and sons, etc.) to focus on the quiddities of sensory perception.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The idea of writing for “those other people who’ve read the Wake” seems silly even on a little blog like this one. And I don’t know if I’d say that I’ve read it, but I can say that I am now familiar with it. I feel like I have an idea of the shape of the book, and how the verbiage ebbs and flows over the course of 600+ pages. I know that the second book (of four) is an absolute cauchemar of impenetrability, while parts of the first sometimes approach clarity.

One thing I’ll say, though, is that calling it nonsense is a bit perverse given Joyce’s attitudes. Joyce was a obsessive conceptualist and list-maker, and he organized his lists by even more concepts. The trend is there, buried, in Portrait, and it’s rather straightforwardly present in Ulysses, which lays at least one big analogy on top of one big story. Finnegans Wake, then, was Joyce’s attempt to lay all analogies on top of all stories and to revel in the contradictions rather than making the pretense of resolving them. He let puns and portmanteaus be his serendepitous guides in associating ideas, but he never left it at that. If Buckley and Berkeley happened to sound the same, Joyce would be damned if he didn’t create a conceptual schema behind them linking the two…or, more likely, several contradictory schemas. One term of Joyce’s that’s been suggested for this is “transaccidentation.”

Now, of course these things collide constantly, but they’re always there. Given determined effort, meaning and allusion start pouring out of the text, and they do so in structured ways. It’s when the structures start overlapping and colliding that the book becomes genuinely baffling. Add to that the constant knowledge that there’s plenty that you’re missing, and you grow tentative. Since it is clear that any sense of the book lies in the contradictions and not in any one interpretation, there is the sense of boring through a wall of infinite depth with a variety of implements. Whether with a toothpick or with a jackhammer, there can be slow progress and fast progress, but you’re not going to see the end of it. I think Fritz Senn has it right:

FW goes so much against the grain of the binary, digital predominance
all around us. It shows that the world is never to be resolved into either/or, cannot be reduced to 1’s and 0’s. There is no doubt a need for ambiguity and indeterminacy. FW cannot be dominated, controlled, domesticated, in spite of our efforts.

Q9: Can we learn something by reading it?

I suppose it reinforces a sort of skepticism. Its basis seems (to me) instant contradiction, or a choice of alternatives. Antidote to dogmatism. It may also teach that all is vanity, the same anew, but somehow must go on.

The book is easier than its reputation would have you believe because it exudes purposeful meaning: everything is there for a reason, and usually several reasons. It’s more difficult than its reputation because underneath the surface text, there is no single plot, character, or explanation for what is buried under the opaque verbiage. This becomes most noticeable in most of Book III, where the text tends to be a lot less abstruse than in Book II, but in which the situations being portrayed are even less realistic than before, culiminating in the grandiose fantasia of III.3, in which four senile old men seem to be excavating the mound of history itself, until a litany of betrayals and suffering pour out. I found this section tremendously moving, however little I understood it. Though the book may be impenetrable, Joyce is not the most philosophical of writers: he constantly references the physical and the commonplace, and as much as we all know these things, we can read ourselves into bits and pieces of the Wake.

Why did I do it? As a reader, as a writer, as a student, I want to read things that are sui generis. This was looming large on that list.

What did I get from it? Among other things, a sense of limitless possibility.

Was it worth it? Yes. But I have only invested a couple months, not the decades that others have.

To be continued…

(To all: please comment with your thoughts and experiences on FW! The book, more than any other I know, is a collective experience.)

Harper’s: The Verdict is In

In the March issue, Bill Wasik’s My Crowd delivers the judgment without prejudice. It could have been worse. I could have been to the left of Jedediah Purdy.

RIP Grant McLennan

Always the modest one in the Go-Betweens next to Robert Forster’s arty stance. I remember reading Forster remark that McLennan had little ability to edit himself or judge his own work, so McLennan would come in with a dozen songs thinking that he was done, and Forster would throw out most of them. This is the sort of thing that doomed Ford Madox Ford (87 novels, according to Coetzee) to second-string status, but pop is more concise, and McLennan’s best still overshadows most of his competition.

His finest moments, for me: Cattle and Cane Dusty in Here

And one more obscure gem: Heaven Says

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