David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: September 2006

Finnegans Wake: The Book of Lists

Since I was just talking about ecumenicality, I thought it would be good to return to the king of consubstantiality himself, James Joyce. Consubstantiality is an archetypal example of Joyce secularizing his Catholic influences. The Trinity are one substance in three persons, as much as instantiations of interpretation are present in a single substance of the underlying text. Hence, we read out of a text as much as we read into it, and I gather that Joyce so liked this idea that he sought to reject the finality of any single interpretation.

For all of Joyce’s constructivist instincts, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake both take pains not to display their architecture in miniature. The famous Ulysses schema Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert has served as a misleading guidepost ever since it was published, since Joyce made alterations in versions he gave to others, and there is a ex post facto feeling to the whole affair that suggests it only tells a part of the story, or perhaps too much of it.

What Joyce does give, in copious quantity, is lists. Finnegans Wake can be irritating in that Joyce uses lists in two overlapping manners, neither of which serve to advance the overall architecture of the book:

  1. Lists are given to restate with variation a central element or elements.
  2. Lists are given to multiply possible interpretations and actions, both in number and in contradiction.

Joyce does not particularly differentiate between these two tactics, and wading through sometimes exhausting lists of river names (for example) that seem to be adding nothing can feel like trudging through molasses. Alas, there’s no getting around it; the technique is so ubiquitous that you have to approach it as with most things in the Wake, at the figurative limit.

Joyce gives a significant clue early on with the placement and content of the three largest lists. All three are miniatures are the content of their chapters, and all three concern themselves with a single central element. (Quick key: HCE is the father and husband, ALP the mother and wife, Shem and Shaun their twin boys.)

  1. Abusive Names Directed Towards HCE (pages 71-72, I.3)
  2. Colloquial Names Given To ALP’s “Untitled Mamafesta” (pages 104-107, I.5)
  3. Descriptions of HCE (pages 126-139, I.6)

The last one in particular is a real monster, thirteen pages of descriptive clause after clause with no apparent organization or continuity. It’s also the odd one out because while I.3 discusses the gossip around HCE’s purported (but highly doubtful) crimes and I.5 concerns itself explicitly with the physical aspects of ALP’s letter, I.6 is a Q&A between Shem and Shaun about all of the main character sigla of the Wake, from the family members to the old men to the citizens to the book itself. So I’ll leave the monster for last.

The abusive names are comparatively straightforward, a series of accusations in keeping with the general thrust of the chapter. The names, though, slip away from concerning HCE the publican and towards the realm of the wholly universal and arbitrary (“Lycanthrope”? “Sower Rapes”?), and ending with these three: “In Custody of the Polis,” suggesting HCE as both custodian of the city (he is the builder of Dublin and all cities) and being “in custody” of the city (under accusation and buried under the landscape where he sleeps); “Boawwll’s Alocutionist” sounds like “false accusationist” to me, HCE both as the victim and (self-)accuser of neurotic, imagined crimes; and “Deposed,” his ultimate fate of being conquered by his children. But the rest are so reference-laden as to defy easy assimilation, seemingly the residue of past actions and stories only hinted at by these names.

ALP’s letter (which is, at the least consubstantial with the Wake itself) carries colloquial names that are often these stories themselves. Rather than describing a single person’s characteristic or action, these titles often provide backstory, explanations, or motives, in keeping with ALP’s motive to defend her husband from the accusations leveled at him. So we get things like “Look to the Lady” (from MacBeth), “For [Noah’s] Ark see Zoo” (the saved animals now imprisoned), “Lumptytumtumpty had a Big Fall” (that would be HCE as Humpty Dumpty, as he is frequently), “How to Pull a Good Horuscoup even when Oldsire is Dead to the World” (fathers and sons in Egyptian mythology), etc. Only at the end does she explicitly address his purported crimes in a burst of defensive rhetoric about false accusations.

The third list, Shem’s enormous question, becomes partly a statement of filial piety. Not merely providing explanations as the names of ALP’s letter did, here HCE grows in his descriptions to full stature: he is the builder of cities, Adam Cadmon who was first and equal to God, Odysseus, St. Paul, every historical father figure of old. There is no defense in here, nor are there many crimes (there are probably a few in there somewhere…); it is a list of salutation and accomplishment. The speaker and respondent will be the ultimate destroyers of HCE later on, but here in nascent form prior to the proper start of the story (or after the end), they are sons under the sign of their father.

More than concerning their chapter’s contents, all the lists are about HCE in one form or another. They all serve to remove the traditional narrative and present many narratives quickly in no clear order. These progress from the vague accusations of I.3 to the defenses of I.5 and finally to the myths of I.6. Where it all is meaning to go, I can’t really say, but here is one interpretation.

HCE, as the builder and burgher of the city/polis, is strongly identified with the city, which contains all good and all bad in the modern world (“Dear Dirty Dublin” is the common refrain). As HCE and
ALP encompass myriad men and women respectively, so too does the city,
with its accomplishments and filth. The lists are a portrait, appearing as they do in the most spatial, non-temporal section of the novel. (Books II and III are far more narrative than Book I.) Moreover, they are a panorama and mosaic, an array of single shots from different points of view arranged cubist-style (hermetic cubism, I’d say). It extends the consubstantiality analogy into the realm of the visual, and then back into thematic elements, as the city is life itself. The lists are there because on this level, Finnegans Wake is meant as an encyclopedia as much as a narrative. To read it as a narrative and not be constantly reminded of its endlessly multiplicative nature would be to miss the point.


Those who live in the present but who harbour no doubts about the structure of authority, about the extreme dangers of our society, including the estrangement of man and nature, those whose anger does not drive them to delve into the essentials, and those whose approach to their art raises no questions, all of these must renounce their status as artists.

Masayuki Takayanagi (tr. Alan Cummings)

For a long time, the local library would give me old copies of the Times Literary Supplement. For years, I used to read it at night when I could sleep with a mixed fascination. Culture, intellectual life – all this was marvellous. But I was disturbed by the steadiness of its tone and the tranquility of its judgements. So, at least, it seemed to me then. Gradually, I saw in it an old enemy: culture itself, the old culture, whose conservatism was clear when it came to reviewing works of philosophy. My judgement was simplistic, unsubtle, but one day I took hundreds of editions of the TLS to the dump and felt lifted.

What was it I disliked? Simply that a metaphysic was not allowed to lift itself from literature. Or that the approach to literature was in some way obvious, or transparent, and that judgements could be made. But I asked myself – I still ask – whether this is because I lack something, something quality of judgement; that I am not far enough from what I read – and that, perhaps, others like me also lack. But then I also asked – and ask today – whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.

Lars, Spurious

It was Lars’s quote that provoked me, and the anger in the Takayanagi quote that gave me the words and moved me to write (because anger is such a kinetic emotion). An attack on my beloved TLS! And not even on the hyper-Tory issues of early this year that seemed to be begging Rupert Murdoch not to sell them.

I think Lars is probably right if you look at any individual article in the TLS. Unlike the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, which both review books under the aegis of a particular cultural orientation set by the editors, the TLS has always been far more ecumenical. Nonfiction tends to be reviewed by experts in the field of the book under discussion, and correspondingly, the instances of axe-grinding tend to be intradisciplinary rather than cross-disciplinary. This tends to result in a greater plurality of critical apparati, since reading Philip Payne on Carl Corino’s biography of Robert Musil is a lot more enlightening and involving than reading Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop.

Except for the occasional creeping Toryism (happy, Rupert?) and an evident bias towards analytic philosophy, Lars is right to observe the lack of an emergent metaphysic and to say that the engagement tends to be on the books’ own terms. It is precisely this provincialism, which in combination with ecumenicality, allows for much more open-ended speculation. For there is an implicit set of metaphysics in each discipline and review, and to their honest credit, the TLS is open about letting the contradictions sit next to one another. Marxism sits next to neo-liberalism, post-colonialism next to the saner half of evolutionary biology, and Fredric Jameson next to Charles Taylor.

This plurality of habits of being, as it were, provides me (at least) with a constant deferral of finitude. When I read Alastair Fowler shredding Stephen Greenblatt, I don’t see a transparency but a vicious questioning, done on Fowler’s terms but nonetheless insidiously non-final. Moving on to an article comparing various parodies of Bacon, I take not the harsh judgment of Greenblatt (satisfying as it may be), but the sheer partiality of it all. It is this lesson that I take with me in life, and it’s why I hesitate to ever settle on a single field of expertise.

Authors like Beckett, Bernhard, Blanchot, Josipovici, and Davis attempt to effect an erasure of that traditional cultural baggage, that which makes us feel comfortably situtated when reading. They succeed in varying degrees (I vote for Beckett myself), but I admire their project in every way. It is not enough, however. The role of those authors and critics–“fans,” you could call them–that are obsessed with consuming, regurgitating, and mutilating culture is to remind us of the fluidity of such things: that we should not damn it but synthesize it genealogically. Joyce in Finnegans Wake, as I said in many previous entries, constitutes a pinnacle of this all-consuming methodology, but so does the TLS. They give us the evidence.

There are those who selectively pick from that evidence and fall in line; they fall under Takayanagi’s accusation. But one does not cure one’s susceptibility by avoidance alone. Engage impartially and ecumenically and your intentions will be progressive, not conservative.

Art Revue: Dada, Subway

Finally saw the MOMA’s Dada exhibit this weekend, which was fantastic as expected, though I thought the differences between the best and the rest were salutary: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and George Grosz speak to me much more regularly than any of the others, and only Ernst could be considered as even close to the center of the group.

The problem with interdisciplinary movements is that a retrospective of the disparate media is difficult, and MOMA didn’t even try to bring up the influence of Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara, whose writings are fairly crucial to the dada gestalt. I did appreciate their use of some of Tzara, Hausmann, and Schwitters’ sound poems, but I was mostly taken aback to see this print by Raoul Hausmann:

That text happens to be one of the main refrains of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate! (See also here and here for background and sound samples.)

Fümms bö wä tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwiiee. 

What I didn’t know was that Hausmann’s text was apparently the product of asking the printer to choose letters at random in the order that they turned up in the tray. And so the Ursonate uses chance operations; not shocking, but something I’d never given any thought to. (Does anyone know if dadaists had any particular opinion towards chance?)

On a side note, I recommend taking the Q or N lines over the bridge from DeKalb into Manhattan. In the midst of the BMT/IND hairball prior to the bridge, they pass by an illuminated empty area to the right (north) of the train, covered in graffiti and masked by a series of pillars between the train tunnel and it. Passing by the pillars quickly gives a kinescopic effect of the graffiti in constant metamorphosis, akin to some of Stan Brakhage’s hand-painted film shorts. It only lasts a couple seconds, but it’s beautiful.

See Brakhage’s Mothlight on Youtube for an example, although it’s in monochrome.

Little Miss Sunshine

This sometimes amusing farce gives me the opportunity to plug a few far greater comedies that it echoes:

Smile also shares the beauty contest motif, but works it into a small town setting where the teen beauty pageant becomes an exhausting force that draws out suppressed pain and disappointment. Bruce Dern, who was mostly known for playing psychos, does an uncanny job suggesting all that is wrong with the average small-town citizen. Barbara Feldon is also amazing as the disillusioned ex-winner turned ice queen pageant director. Yet it’s not heartless, and the small degree to which the characters can still genuinely emote is touching.

Little Murders is heartless. It was directed by Alan Arkin, who has the best role in LIttle Miss Sunshine, and he did an appropriately ghastly job with Jules Feiffer’s script. Elliott Gould plays a catastrophically depressed photographer in New York in the bad old days of random violence, anomie, and paranoia. Awful things happen. It’s constructed as a series of setpieces, but enough of them are brilliant to keep things moving along. Donald Sutherland’s reverend probably has the best bit, but I’ve always had a weakness for the scene where Gould returns to his parents to be consoled and…I won’t give it away.

And as far as pre-teen beauty pageants go, I think Chris Morris (scroll down to “BRASS EYE”) had the best, shortest commentary on it all.

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