David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2011 (page 2 of 3)

The Linear and the Circular in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

James Joyce made the superimposition of conflicting patterns one of the central principles of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. (You can see it in Portrait as well, but nowhere near to the extent.) While he drew on Dante’s schematic cosmology as a model for organizing huge and diverse amounts of material, he drew from Shakespeare the notion that uncertainty, indeterminacy, and outright contradiction could give immense strength and depth to the effect of a work on readers.

Unlike Shakespeare, Joyce could not hide his life from his readers. People were now far more interested in the life of the artist, and documentation was too easily had. But rather than trying to mask his intentions, he could overload a work with as many conflicting and indeterminate moments, motifs, and significations as possible. Schemata that came to mind after the basic construction of a work, like the infamous Ulysses schema that Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert that has held too much sway ever since, were just additional bricks to add to the consternating edifice. (Note the somewhat variable Linati schema.)

This gave rise to the peculiar modern criticism that Joyce does not say anything. Harry Levin was both perceptive and naive in 1939 when he reviewed Finnegans Wake and said:

Among the acknowledged masters of English—and there can be no further delay in acknowledging that Joyce is among the greatest—there is no one with so much to express and so little to say. Whatever is capable of being sounded or enunciated will find its echo in Joyce’s writing; he alludes glibly and impartially to such concerns as left-wing literature (116), Whitman and democracy (263), the ‘braintrust’ (529), ‘Nazi’ (375), ‘Gestapo’ (332), ‘Soviet’ (414), and the sickle and the hammer (341). The sounds are heard, the names are called, the phrases are invoked; but the rest is silence. The detachment which can look upon the conflicts of civilization as so many competing vocables is wonderful and terrifying. Sooner or later, however, it gives a prejudiced reader the uncanny sensation of trying to carry on a conversation with an omniscient parrot.

Harry Levin, “On First Looking into Finnegans Wake” (1939)

The rest is anything but silence. Joyce was aware of the implications of all of these terms (and was hardly impartial about them). He created breathing space not by failing to elaborate on these terms, but by invoking as many associations with them as possible, fully aware of their contradictions.

This sort of technique agglomerates into daunting complexity, but I don’t think the method is meant to complex, nor did Joyce intend it to be. It doesn’t need to be complex for striking effect. One very central opposition/superimposition is the idea of linear and circular motion. Joyce conflates the two very frequently in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The very basis of Ulysses, a single day, is a canonical example: at the end of the day, one cyclically returns to where one started, while having progressed linearly to a new day. Likewise, Odysseus returned home on a circular journey while experiencing the linear movement of plot. Very simple.

But Joyce also applies the device repeatedly at a lower level. (I hesitate to use the dread word fractal, but it’s appropriate in this case.) The novel is constructed in a symmetrical form: 3 chapters, then 12 chapters, then 3 chapters. Yet the mapping of the styles individual chapters in the first and final sections is not done in reflection:

  • Chapters 1 and 16 (Telemachus and Eumaeus): third-person narration.
  • Chapters 2 and 17 (Nestor and Ithaca): interrogative dialogue.
  • Chapters 3 and 18 (Proteus and Penelope): first-person interior monologue.

And yet chapter 1 was given the sobriquet “Telemachus” rather than chapter 3, which would make more sense given this parallel, as Stephen is Telemachus and Molly is Penelope. But it would wreck the larger symmetry of having a book called Ulysses that begins with Telemachus and ends with Penelope. Joyce had no problem with breaking patterns for the sake of establishing other patterns.

Likewise, the middle 12 chapters divide into sets of 3, with every third chapter (6, 9, 12, 15–Hades, Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops, Circe) having a Big Plot Event, conflict, or climax relative to the remaining, somewhat more subdued chapters, even as the style and material of the chapters is continually progressing into new and generally more abstruse territory. The “squaring of the circle” theme that preoccupies Bloom is also a reflection of how the linear is coextant with the cyclical, but not identical. There are many, many other instances.

And I think that this fundamental overlay of linear and cyclical remains, more or less unaltered, in Finnegans Wake. I believe it to have been a fundamental component of Joyce’s metaphysics and cosmology, and I believe that Vico was primarily a way for Joyce to obtain a central cyclical structure for history. Richard Ellmann quotes Joyce as saying, when asked if he believed in Vico’s New Science, “I don’t believe in any science, but my imagination grows when I read Vico as it doesn’t when I read Freud or Jung.” The content of Vico’s cycle, while useful, was less crucial than its form.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Diagram of Finnegans Wake (1946)

But even though Joyce gave Finnegans Wake a clear cyclical structure by having its first sentence complete its final sentence, the linearity is there everywhere as well, from Jaun’s evolution, journey, and quest narrative in the third part to the very process of children growing up and defeating/killing/usurping their father. The one-way journey from birth to death, from child to adult, is neither trumped nor negated by a cyclical view of history. (Perhaps it’s only in infinity that endless similar recurrences of a process can result in occasional identical instantiations of that cycle; again, think of the squaring of the circle, which would only be possible in infinity.) If the cyclical aspect seems overly pronounced at times, it’s only because the linear aspect is so often the default.

The timescale of the book works similarly. Two of the timescales in the Wake is from 6pm to 6am and sunset to sunrise. Sunset and sunrise are mirror reflections in time and in space, but the sun’s one-way motion across the sky accounts for it rising in the east and setting in the west, it having made a reverse journey to return to its place of origin while maintaining forward motion, by virtue of the extra dimension. The half-revolution of the Earth covered by this time period covers exactly half the journey, 180 degrees, from one linear extreme to the opposite, before reversal toward the point of origin begins.

Joyce also used the Egyptian Book of the Dead as a foundational text for Finnegans Wake, and Egyptian mythology has a near-perfect analogy for this process. In Egyptian mythology, Ra the sun god dies at the end of each day in the west and makes a journey through the underworld each night to return to the east, where he is reborn. (He makes the journeys on boats, no less, allowing for Joyce to fit in the female aspect as the water.) This fits uncannily with Joyce’s ever-reborn masculine, eternal feminine, and the identification of the day-night cycle with that of life and death, rise and fall, civilization and breakdown.

The motion motifs pile up to immense complication, since Joyce works this superimposition in at many levels. One combination of circular and linear motion then becomes part of a larger series of circular and linear motions which can reflect, mirror, or reiterate the original combination; and so on and so forth. Joyce makes much hay of reflection, mirrors, symmetry and asymmetry, twins and opposites, and so on.

Appreciating this complexity does not require seeing all these superimpositions or even most of them. Joyce knew this would be impossible for a reader or even a group of readers, so he chose an approach that would demonstrate this near-infinity of superimpositions through a fundamentally simple method that could organically grow into immense complexity. This creates the secular sense of awe that Joyce inspires in me. I see it as Joyce’s ultimate expression of the attempt to comprehend the metaphysical infinite with the finite resources of the mind and portray it in art.

Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, quotes a passage of Benedetto Croce, which Joyce had certainly read, that is quite apt:

Croce’s restatement of Vico, ‘Man creates the human world, creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society: by thinking it he re-creates his own creations traverses over again the paths he has already traversed, reconstructs the whole ideally, and thus knows it with full and true knowledge,’ is echoed in Stephen’s remark in Ulysses, ‘What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself, becomes that self…. Self which it itself was ineluctably preconditioned to become. Ecco!

Denis Diderot in the TLS

I have an article in the May 6 Times Literary Supplement on Denis Diderot’s life and philosophy. The article is available to subscribers online here: Moi and Lui and a Beehive.

This excerpt covers some of Diderot’s very diverse influence on subsequent thinkers and writers:

Moi and Lui and a Beehive

Denis Diderot OEUVRES PHILOSOPHIQUES Edited by Michel Delon and Barbara de Negroni 1,413pp. Gallimard. €65.

Philipp Blom WICKED COMPANY Freethinkers and friendship in pre-Revolutionary Paris 384pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.

In 1805, over twenty years after the death of the French philosophe Denis Diderot, Goethe read a manuscript of Diderot’s then-unpublished dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau. Captivated, he translated it into German. After reading the translation, Hegel cited Diderot along with only half a dozen other modern philosophers in the Phenomenology of Spirit, alongside Descartes and Kant.

Since then, Diderot has wielded diverse influence across the humanities and sciences. Sigmund Freud credited a passage in Le Neveu de Rameau with anticipating the Oedipus complex, while Simone de Beauvoir singled Diderot out as having championed the cause of women. Karl Marx, who like Diderot also wrote a homage to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, counted Diderot as his favourite writer. Auguste Comte called him the greatest philosopher of the eighteenth century, and a key forerunner of positivism. The pioneering cultural pluralist Johann Herder drew from Diderot’s observations on cultures and language.

Yet well into the twentieth century, Diderot’s intellectual reputation remained comparatively submerged, even in France. He was the least systematic of writers, and his works were published in the least systematic of ways. His modest publication history during his lifetime paled next to the monumental achievement of editing the Encyclopédie, which occupied him for twenty years. Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, he never published a chef-d’oeuvre. His most sophisticated and radical works were published only posthumously, and their interdisciplinary and non-systematic nature prevented their easy assimilation into the literary or philosophical traditions. His first collected works were not published until 1870. The new Pléiade edition of four volumes, of which the volume under review is the second, is a welcome corrective measure, capturing and contextualizing his unique, eclectic voice and aggressive speculation. Today, Diderot seems more contemporary than his more famous brethren, Voltaire and Rousseau.

Dante at the River Lethe, Memory and Forgetting

The end of Purgatorio is my favorite part of the entire Divine Comedy, perhaps because it’s the point at which there seems to be the greatest human drama, the greatest sense of a story that has not yet been fully told and solidified into the cosmos. Dante’s confrontation and reconciliation with Beatrice is one of the few moments where he is not taking the role of an impervious (though not disinterested) observer. And it momentarily breaks the fabric of the entire epic, because Dante is no longer any sort of traditional epic narrator.

In XXXI, at the very top of Purgatory, Dante is dipped into the River Lethe, which will cause amnesia. The chant of Asperges me [purge me] accompanies his immersion, and he then forgets his past sins and his atonement for them is complete. (Even the memory of sin is apparently too polluted for the purified soul.)

Then, in XXXIII, Beatrice accuses Dante of having strayed from God’s way, and this bizarre exchange takes place between the two of them:

To that I answered: ‘As far as I remember
I have not ever estranged myself from You,
nor does my conscience prick me for it.’

‘But if you cannot remember that,’
she answered, smiling, ‘only recollect
how you have drunk today of Lethe,

‘and if from seeing smoke we argue there is fire
then this forgetfulness would clearly prove
your faulty will had been directed elsewhere.’

Purgatorio XXXIII.91-99 (tr. Hollander)

For Dante as an epic narrator, there’s a problem in recounting these events. In writing the Divine Comedy, he has to remember remembering that he forgot the sins that he previously remembered. So he still remembers remembering having sinned.

Not even Lucretius and Lucan (probably the two most eccentric employers of the epic style prior to Dante, at least that I know of) had placed themselves in such a paradoxically unauthoritative position in their work. I don’t think Dante can resolve this knot without damaging his authority, and that humanizes the poem for me. It seems insolubly paradoxical. That seems to be the one crack in the otherwise hermetically sealed world he creates.

Dante needs such a move, of course, for his Christian narrative. It would not do for him to be an impersonal narrator in the way of the pagan epics, even a highly contentious and chummy one like Lucretius. Ironically, for all of Erich Auerbach’s emphasis on Dante’s portrayal of the organized human cosmos in Dante: Poet of the Secular World, this scene reifies the distinction that Mimesis makes between the more external, fatalistic Greco-Roman epic mentality and the inward-turning, single-person psychological focus that he sees born out of Judeo-Christianity. The modern, psychological “secular” world seems to arise out of the salvation myth itself and the necessity of mental moral purgation. Or, more frequently, the failure to do so.

(Even more ironically, the source for the forgetting is classical and pagan, the Lethe being a Greek invention. I won’t even speculate on the implications of this here.)

Nightspore added a comment generalizing this slippery loss of authority to the entire poem:

I think it refracts into all the addresses to the reader, all the moments when he has to reflect on himself: his apology at having to name himself, for example.

Again, specificity endangers authority.

I suspect Dante inherited at least part of this memory/forgetting framework from Augustine, who obsesses over time and memory to no end. In particular, there is this passage from the Confessions:

I can mention forgetfulness and recognize what the word means, but how can I recognize the thing itself unless I remember it? I am not speaking of the sound of the word but of the thing which it signifies. If I had forgotten the thing itself, I should be utterly unable to recognize what the sound implied. When I remember memory, my memory is present to itself by its own power; but when I remember forgetfulness, two things are present, memory, by which I remember it, and forgetfulness, which is what I remember. Yet what is forgetfulness but absence of memory? When it is present, I cannot remember. Then how can it be present in such a way that I can remember it? If it is true that what we remember we retain in our memory, and if it is also true that unless we remembered forgetfulness, we could not possibly recognize the meaning of the word when we heard it, then it is true that forgetfulness is retained in the memory. It follows that the very thing which by its presence causes us to forget must be present if we are to remember it. Are we to understand from this that, when we remember it, it is not itself present in the memory, but is only there by means of its image? For if forgetfulness were itself present, would not its effect be to make us forget, not to remember?

…Yet, however it may be, and in whatever inexplicable and incomprehensible way it happens, I am certain that I remember forgetfulness, even though forgetfulness obliterates all that we remember.

Confessions X.16

I’ve trimmed this passage; Augustine actually goes on at much greater length. Once you realize that Augustine is talking about sin in this passage, it becomes obvious why he is being so obsessive.

This paradox of memory as it relates to salvation and authority may be an indicator of the sort of problems Scholasticism faced in fighting off gnosticism, as posited by Hans Blumenberg. Worldly authority (especially in the form of narrative and memory) cannot survive when it is critically dependent on the idea of an otherworldly salvation and deity. More to come on this subject.

Diderot, 25 Years On

From 1772 or so, some haunting words of Diderot’s that spring up almost from nowhere in the middle of his thoughts on physiology, including a grim paraphrase of Cicero’s old maxim:

I shall not know until the end what I have lost or gained in this vast gaming-house, where I shall have passed some threescore years, dice-box in hand, tesseras agitans.

What do I perceive? Forms. And what besides? Forms. Of the substance I know nothing. We walk among shadows, ourselves shadows to ourselves and to others.

If I look at a rainbow traced on a cloud, I can perceive it; for him who looks at it from another angle, there is nothing.

A fancy common enough among the living is to dream that they are dead, that they stand by the side of their own corpse, and follow their own funeral. It is like a swimmer watching his garments stretched out on the shore.

Philosophy, that habitual and profound meditation which takes us away from all that surrounds us, which annihilates our own personality, is another apprenticeship for death.

Denis Diderot’s Pensées Philosophiques

The Pensées Philosophiques were an early work of Diderot’s written around 1747. They were popular but also got him into trouble by critiquing religious belief and Catholicism. A few years later he would be an outright atheist. They are more aphoristic than usual; he was never given to great exegesis, but he tended to avoid the overly polemical statement as well. Chalk it up to youth. The translation here is from 1916, by Margaret Jourdain, and is a bit antiquated. I’m not aware of a newer one.

People are for ever declaiming against the passions; they attribute to them all the pains that man endures, and forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures. It is an ingredient in man’s constitution which cannot sufficiently be blessed and banned. It is considered as an affront to reason if one ventures to say a word in favour of its rivals; yet it is passions alone, and strong passions, that can elevate the soul to great things. Without them, there is no sublime, either in morality or in achievement; the fine arts return to puerility, and virtue becomes a pettifogging thing.

It is not from the metaphysician that atheism has received its most vital attack. The sublime meditations of Malebranche and Descartes were less calculated to shake materialism than a single observation of Malpighi’s. If this dangerous hypothesis is tottering at the present day, it is to experimental physics that the result is due. It is only in the works of Newton, of Muschenbroek, of Hartzoeker, and of Nieuwentit, that satisfactory proofs have been found of the existence of a reign of sovereign intelligence. Thanks to the works of these great men, the world is no longer a God; it is a machine with its wheels, its cords, its pulleys, its springs, and its weights.

You grant me that matter exists from all eternity and that movement is essential to it. In return for this concession, I will suppose, as you do, that the world has no limits, that the multitude of atoms is infinite, and that this order which causes you astonishment nowhere contradicts itself. Well, from these mutual admissions there follows nothing else unless it be that the possibility of fortuitously creating the universe is very small but that the quantity of throws is infinite; that is to say, that the difficulty of the result is more than sufficiently compensated by the multitude of throws. Therefore, if anything ought to be repugnant to reason, it is the supposition that –matter being in motion from all eternity, and there being perhaps in the infinite number of possible combinations an infinite number of admirable arrangements,–none of these admirable arrangements would have ensued, out of the infinite multitude of those which matter took on successively. Therefore the mind ought to be more astonished at the hypothetical duration of chaos than at the actual birth of the universe.

And a note on style, from “Letter on the Deaf-Mutes”:

The poet and the orator gain by studying harmony of style, and the musician finds his compositions are improved by avoiding certain chords and certain intervals, and I praise their efforts; but at the same time I blame that affected refinement which banishes from our language a number of vigorous expressions. The Greeks and Romans were strangers to this false refinement, and said what they liked in their own language, and said it as they liked. By overrefining we have impoverished our language; and though there may be only one term which expresses an idea, we prefer rather to weaken the idea than to express it by some vulgar word or expression. How many words are thus lost to our great imaginative writers, words which we find with pleasure in the pages of Amyot and Montaigne! They were at first rejected from a refined style, because they were commonly used by the people; later on they were rejected by the common people, who always ape their betters, and they are become entirely obsolete. I believe we shall soon become like the Chinese, and have a different written and spoken language.

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