David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: ulysses (page 2 of 2)

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!]

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.

Joyce and the Past

No-one here to hear. Tonight deftly amid wild drink and talk, to pierce the polished mail of his mind. What then? A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise. Why had they chosen all that part? Not wholly for the smooth caress. For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

Ulysses I.2

This passage (ominously quoted by the Times sportswriter before he said “It is clear that the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been pondering long and fruitfully on this text from the great book”) is thought by Stephen early on in Ulysses, and I read it as one of the most evident unifying points between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Stephen and Bloom both blatantly invoke the difficulty of accepting the past, Stephen with his “History is a nightmare…” attitude and Bloom with his entire family life and family history. (And really Stephen with his family as well, for family and death are two of the great Catholic/Platonic pillars around which Joyce’s work revolves.)

Specifically, the issue is one of accepting the erasure of possibilities and the cementing of tragedy by the passage of time. The obsession with alternate possibilities and counterfactuals embodies the otherworldly gnosticism that Joyce frequently rejects and ridicules. This passage in the second chapter is mirrored quite precisely by one from the penultimate chapter, when Bloom sadly contemplates “the irreparability of the past [and] the imprevidibility of the future” in abandoning the idea of Stephen as a surrogate son. Bloom comes to some acceptance of time’s branding. With Stephen it is less clear.

But I do think Joyce not only endorsed this acceptance but urged that the tragedy be memorialized and (secularly) sanctified. In the climatic passage of III.3 in Finnegans Wake, when the Four Old Men or whatever you want to call them excavate the mound of sleeping, dead HCE and the screams of history come pouring out, a torrent of war calls, mournings, and death:

— Crum abu! Cromwell to victory!
— We’ll gore them and gash them and gun them and gloat on them.
— Zinzin.
— O, widows and orphans, it’s the yeomen! Redshanks for ever! Up Lancs!
— The cry of the roedeer it is! The white hind. Their slots, linklink, the hound hunthorning ! Send us and peace ! Title ! Title !
— Christ in our irish times! Christ on the airs independence! Christ hold the freedman’s chareman! Christ light the dully expressed!
— Slog slagt and sluaghter! Rape the daughter! Choke the pope!
— Aure ! Cloudy father ! Unsure ! Nongood !
— Zinzin.
— Sold! I am sold! Brinabride! My ersther! My sidster! Brinabride, goodbye! Brinabride! I sold!
— Pipette dear! Us! Us! Me! Me!
— Fort! Fort! Bayroyt! March!
— Me! I’m true. True! Isolde. Pipette. My precious!
— Zinzin.

The men are senile and HCE/Shaun is sleepy or dead, so there is an elegaic quality to the chapter, but here there is no hiding the raw horror, the actual and endlessly repeated fall of man. (It’s some of the least confused verbiage in the whole book; the mysterious “Zinzin” is theorized to be the ringing of the phone that the old men are listening in on.) I read it as a codification of that which must be spoken not to be forgotten, repressed, and/or ignored, in order to speak honestly and fully of the “irreparability of the past” and not think it away.

Indulgence: Joyce, Beckett, Oulipo

Via correspondence to Bellona Times, Paul Kerschen tells of a story of Joyce dictating Finnegans Wake to Beckett:

There was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in’?” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.” He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method. (Ellmann, 649)

In other words, Beckett was pissed off. There are so many who worry about slaving away in the darkness to an audience of one, only seen as cranks by the rest of the world, and there are impudent jokers like Joyce who implicitly ridicule them. For those of us who still wonder about the point of chapter 14 of Ulysses next to its massive show-off, the sight can be wearying.

I haven’t read enough of the Wake to comment on how dastardly the intrusion actually is–I’ve looked at the passage and it seems obtrusive and isolated enough to be disregarded–but it is this ethic that, intuitively to me, seems to reflect itself in the act of exhibitionism to young girls that figures early on in Finnegans Wake. But Joyce’s own private use (private even, I believe, from Stuart Gilbert) of the sigla does seem to mitigate against the charge of pure japery, and it’s that somewhat submerged ethic that keeps even non-obsessives wondering if the thing holds the meaning of the universe. On the other hand, it could just be a joke on the third item in Ray’s taxonomy of desperation, a tinge of regret that he gave up the five or six schema variations too quickly. But Joyce wasn’t that much of a joker.

(And Beckett had his own preoccupations as well.)

What later became a proving ground for indulgence vs. earnestness was the Oulipo, whose trickeries have overshadowed the vast differences between the efforts of its authors. Harry Mathews has more in common with B. S. Johnson than with Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec, and even Perec and Queneau, the most famous of the French set, are atypical next to, say, Jacques Roubaud, a seemingly more archetypal Oulipo writer who bears more of a resemblance to Donald Barthelme than he does to any of the aforementioned. That the rubric doesn’t include Robbe-Grillet or Claude Simon, who can be considered defiantly post-surrealist and viably experimental, makes the affiliation seem rather superficial: these authors were brought together by their love of palindromes, of games, of metafictional tour-de-forces.

And I think this is the reason that, with the possible exception of Perec, these authors’ most significant work was done outside of their association with the Oulipo, and their work inside of it was their most playful. (With Mathews, I see the difference as almost polar, particularly in his later work like Cigarettes and The Journalist.) The indulgence was a consequence of the context, of the avowed project.

The name-dropping in the last two paragraphs isn’t so important. The point is that the oil and water of logorrheic brinksmanship and the drive towards hidden universals (e.g., the sigla) can coexist. Some authors, like Beckett and Barthelme but also, for example, Lawrence Sterne, mostly reject one or the other. Many of the Oulipo authors worked with both at different times. In Ulysses, Joyce worked with both simultaneously. I suspect the same is true of Finnegans Wake.

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