Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: james joyce (page 3 of 7)

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.

 

But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

One Line from Hamlet

When Stephen spins an elaborate yarn in Ulysses about Hamlet, Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father and son, and all manner of other things, a yarn that has a little to do with Shakespeare and a lot to do with himself and everything going on around him, part of the joke is that Shakespeare is such an opaque author given over to interpretation that Stephen can easily produce a vaguely plausible theory eerily resonant with his own personal obsessions without straining much. My tentativeness toward Shakespeare stems from my own preference for authors with discernible or overpowering (albeit ambiguous and misleading) authorial personae behind their works: as far as canonical authors go, people like Goethe, Milton, Melville, Gogol, Joyce, and Proust. Shakespeare sometimes seems insufferably coy by being such a cipher, and his spawning of an industry of condescending would-be elucidators of his work grates on me, though I can’t quite blame him for that.

But I have been thinking lately about his sheer talent of ambiguity, and I’ve been particularly preoccupied with the one line from Hamlet that, in terms of word-to-chaos ratio, must be one of his best ever. It’s this line in III.2 in the middle of the Mousetrap play:

HAMLET: This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.

[Quick crib note: this is the line that causes it to appear that the Mousetrap play is not representing Claudius killing the King, but Hamlet killing his uncle Claudius. I.e., Hamlet now makes it easy for the audience (including Claudius) to infer that his purpose in putting on the play is to threaten Claudius with murder. It also renders it far more difficult to ascertain what Hamlet and Claudius are thinking for the rest of the play, how genuinely convinced Hamlet is of Claudius’ guilt, and what Claudius thinks Hamlet knows.]

Hamlet botches his whole “conscience of the king” scheme so badly with this one line (and he is already in the midst of botching it badly enough) that it really drains a fair bit of my sympathy for him. (I do expect a modicum of basic competence from my heroes.) But besides that, Shakespeare’s ability to cause such havoc to any possible understanding of the play’s themes, characters, and plot with this sentence is impressive. And it comes from such an apparently innocuous line, coming right after the seemingly weightier “Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung” spiel, as if to make certain that for the next four hundred years, the line would make less of an impression than it should. And since most of the characters are already confused and only get more confused, it isn’t quite as obvious as it should be that there’s also great uncertainty as to exactly what they’re confused about.

So what gets me is not only that the line gives strength to the radical skepticism interpretation of the play, but that it does so in a rather non-showy way, as though to make it more difficult to believe that Shakespeare really intended such radical skepticism. So the clues that cause the most doubt over likely interpretations are themselves not particularly notable, so as to make the doubting itself look dubious and help guarantee that standard interpretations could take hold that wouldn’t include the full extent of the doubt. The surface-level ambiguities and filigrees would cover up the deeper problems. So, for example, while the Ghost’s provenance remains unknown, we still find out that multiple people see the Ghost, alleviating one uncertainty while exacerbating another. Claudius confesses to the audience, even though Hamlet still may have doubts. It’s a brilliant balancing act.

Any other picks for high word-to-chaos lines?

——————–

[As an example of how the radical-skepticism interpretation still doesn’t get enough purchase, take Richard Levin’s rather unconvincing attempt to wave away concerns about the Ghost’s intent:

Several critics have tried to prove, often by citing evidence from Elizabethan treatises on pneumatology, that he is not the ghost of Hamlet’s father but a devil pretending to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in order to entrap Hamlet. This is a very serious charge because, if it were true, it would mean that he is like the deceptive villains in Shakespeare’s other plays, and so his statement to Hamlet would be completely unreliable. Shakespeare, however, eliminates this possibility by voicing it twice during the early part of the play and rejecting it both times. Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost because it may “assume some other horrible form” to drive him mad (I.iv.69–74), but this does not happen and Hamlet returns from his encounter to assure Horatio and Marcellus that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you” (I.v.138). Then, near the end of the soliloquy that I just discussed, Hamlet himself wonders if the Ghost “May be a devil” who lied about Claudius’s crime in order to “damn me” (II.ii.598–603), but when he sees how Claudius reacts to The Murther of Gonzago, he tells Horatio, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III.ii.286–287), which was a lot of money in those days; and after that we hear no more doubts about a demonic ghost. In terms of my basic assumption, therefore, we can be confident that the Ghost is not a devil because, if he were, Shakespeare would have been sure to satisfy his audience’s “need to know” this essential fact or “necessary question of the play” because he wanted them to understand this play.

Richard Levin, “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido”

Well, I’ll take Hamlet’s word for a thousand pound, which is still a lot of money in these days!]

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

From the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel:

In the early 1990s I was an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, which specialized in what one bookseller disparaged as “egghead” fiction. The most difficult and demanding novel we published was probably Julián Ríos’s Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel, sort of Spain’s answer to Finnegans Wake. It received fine reviews across the country, including a spirited one from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, but since the New York Times Book Review adamantly ignored it (despite Carlos Fuentes’s pleading) and a promised review in the Voice Literary Supplement fell through, I decided to try to reach that hip demographic with an ad in the VLS captioned “Are You Reader Enough for Larva?” The mock-macho appeal was intended to attract those who like a literary challenge, as well as those who are open to new artistic experiences. Since I’m convinced those who malign innovative fiction do so more for personal, temperamental reasons than for the aesthetic ones they publicly espouse, here’s a test you can take to see if you’re the right kind of reader for writerly texts:

1. You are an average Joe or Jane and have moved to a big city offering lots of culture. One night you’re strolling past an art-house theater and the manager is out front giving away tickets to fill the house (the money’s in the concessions). Having nothing better to do, you take a seat and soon learn the movie is in a foreign language and has no subtitles. Do you:

(a) automatically get up and leave, knowing you won’t completely understand it?

(b) stay and get what you can out of it: appreciate the cinematography, the background music, the way an actress holds her purse, the possibility of a sex scene, etc.?

2. A neighbor gives you a free ticket to the ballet in gratitude for babysitting her cat last week. You go and discover it’s not a simple story ballet like Gisele or Swan Lake but an evening of abstract dance. Do you:

(a) give your ticket away because you don’t “understand” modern dance?

(b) stay and enjoy the show: the unusual choreography, the beautiful bodies poured into bodystockings, the weird music, etc.?

3. Speaking of weird music: you go to a club hoping for some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, but instead of a long-haired band there’s a bald DJ spinning some techno-ambient concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Do you:

(a) pull an Ashbery by crying, “I don’t understand this at all” and burst into tears?

(b) let the music wash over you, let yourself find the pulse, maybe even ask that purple-haired girl in the striped tights to dance?

4. You’ve had enough of the big city and decide to return home. Waiting for a bus, you pick up a discarded copy of Larva and, because you have a long bus-ride ahead of you, begin reading. You quickly discover it is not a conventional novel. Do you:

(a) discard it and stare out the window all the way back home?

(b)

From an old interview with Steve Albini:

I can dig the Ramones and the Birthday Party and the Stooges and SPK and Minor Threat and Whitehouse and Link Wray and Chrome and Pere Ubu and Rudimentary Peni and Four Skins and Throbbing Gristle and Skrewdriver and the Ex and Minimal Man and US Chaos and Gang Green and Tommi Stumpff and the Swans and Bad Brains all at the same time, and if you can’t then fuck you.

Blumenberg’s Metaphorology

Two new Hans Blumenberg books are out in English translation, both short: Paradigms for a Metaphorology (and Care Crosses the River (1987). The second one is more aphoristic than anything else I’ve read by him and seems very mysterious at first glance (Stanford’s back-cover comment about how this book “eschews academic ponderousness” is probably not going to help capture the audience they desire). Metaphorolgy is dauntingly abstract but less abstruse, though I’m surprised exactly how much Blumenberg had worked out aspects of his “system” at this early point. This paragraph in particular, from the introduction, seems to be as concise a statement of his concerns as any:

These historical remarks on the ‘concealment’ of metaphor lead us to the fundamental question of the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language. Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time, measured against the regulative ideality of the pure logos. Metaphorology would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also–hypothetically, for the time being–be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality. If it could be shown that such translations, which would have to be called ‘absolute metaphors’, exist, then one of the essential tasks of conceptual history (in the thus expanded sense) would be to ascertain and analyze their conceptually irredeemable expressive function. Furthermore, the evidence of absolute metaphors would make the rudimentary metaphors mentioned above appear in a different light, since the Cartesian teleology of logicization in the context of which they were identified as ‘leftover elements’ in the first place would already have foundered on the existence of absolute translations. Here the presumed equivalence of figurative and ‘inauthentic’ speech proves questionable; Vico had already declared metaphorical language to be no less ‘proper’ than the language commonly held to be such, only lapsing into the Cartesian schema in reserving the language of fantasy for an earlier historical epoch. Evidence of absolute metaphors would force us to reconsider the relationship between logos and the imagination. The realm of the imagination could no longer be regarded solely as the substrate for transformations into conceptuality–on the assumption that each element could be processed and converted in turn, so to speak, until the supply of images was used up–but as a catalytic sphere from which the universe of concepts continually renews itself, without thereby converting and exhausting this founding reserve.

Remember, Blumenberg thinks of Descartes (at least in Legitimacy of the Modern Age) as a somewhat reactionary thinker who ignores the experimental and proto-scientific mindset of Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno in order to think of the world as a rarefied, perfect realm of method. He’s not the caricature that so many contemporary theorists use to trash the entirety of modernity, but a philosopher who seeks refuge in a form of theological thought that had already broken down, Scholasticism. So here, I think, Blumenberg projects mythology and irreducible metaphors as ‘leftover’ aspects of the world that prevent Descartes’ absolutist thought from fully encompassing it. And the more fundamental the metaphors are, the more important the historicism becomes.

Anyway, I find it rough-going.

Care Crosses the River does have a nice little write-up of the infamous meeting between Joyce and Proust, which Tim Kreider dramatized in The Comics Journal [click to enlarge]:

Blumenberg on Significance and Fiction

Significance [Bedeutsamkeit] can exceed what is aesthetically permissiblre. The Dane Oehlenschlaeger was a nonparticipant observer at the battle of Jena. He tends toward ironical distance and he knows that he can also presuppose this as Goethe’s private attitude. He writes to Goethe on September 4, 1808, from Tuebingen, about the plan of a novel and his fear that the result would unintentionally be a description of his own life; and one would not be permitted to make that even as good as it was in reality. There is no feeling, he says, more peculiar than the feeling that one must place what occurs in real life above poetry, even though the role of poetry is to represent “the ideal concentrated beauty and meaningful content of life.” This particular feeling has never been stronger for him “than when I read Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle in Weimar while the French were winning the battle at Jena and capturing the town.” It is the problem of aesthetic probability: Fiction cannot allow itself the significance that reality portrays without losing credibility.

Work on Myth, Ch. 3

“Significance” here is used in the sense coined by Dilthey: a human- and/or historically-given importance over and above anything that can be gleaned from the baseline reality of the natural world. I get more from this passage than from all the heat currently being spilled over Reality Hunger (really now, did it need such marquee reviews?). For someone like me who’s always bothered by the problem of what’s effective and what’s not in creative writing, this passage doesn’t quite give a heuristic, but it does concisely point out one crucial problem: the artist’s struggle to break free of the mundane details of the world in order to isolate what is important, while not going too far and making the work contrived and overblown. In other words, too much meaningfulness, too much significance, breeds artificiality, further from an ideal of beauty than the raw material composing it. But in times of (mutually agreed-upon) massive human change, significance smacks us in the face and the intensity of it is beyond what a writer can conjure up except by indirection (the Romantic’s technique, evoking abstract greatness out of sensory particulars). We may not know the immediate significance of a war or a crisis, but we know that it is significant and must be addressed and understood post-haste. Creativity suddenly seems secondary, while people are absorbed in the seemingly prima facie meaning of the present. (It’s not actually prima facie, but the collective delusion is very strong.) Historical fiction is one compromise used to get around this problem; another is to create really large works of art, in order to smooth over the seams of contrivance with added lesser detail. Or you can go the route of Borges and admit to the contrivance and claim to dwell in the realm of imagination rather than reality. All of these are mitigating techniques, however, not solutions.

There is something to the reality-focus idea, however. With the advent of the internet, the strangest and rarest circumstances can float to notice far more easily than in the past, when newspapers had to resort to making up stories to keep people’s interest. (What’s FML other than a vehicle for condensing and aggregating significance?) It doesn’t make imagination redundant (quite the opposite), but it does seem to be challenging a lot of fiction writers to come up with increasingly grandiose or grotesque scenarios in order to keep pace with the constant stream of significant moments now being shoved in our faces. Significance and meaning randomize rather than orient, and they do so with ultimately trivial mechanisms: crazy stories and inspiring tales, rather than wars and crises. The balance of significance in art and the world has been thrown off. Imagination gives way to mere imitation.

Blumenberg spends a lot of time in this chapter on Joyce, and though I think he’s off-base on his interpretation of Ulysses (more on this later), he does correctly point it out as a case where significance and mundanity are made to collide in constant and violent ways. I think Joyce’s ability to occupy these tensions and contradictions and produce something worth out of them is unmatched. Finnegans Wake achieves the same thing at the historical level rather than the personal, and Blumenberg is dead on there. Again, this will be dealt with in the next post.

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