“The Dead,” Illustrated by James McNeill Whistler

February 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

And so I have read “The Dead” again.

“The Dead” is the best thing to read if you find yourself questioning the whole literary enterprise.  It is full of small miracles of language, character, and structure, and its smallness expands into a sense of the cosmic in the most astounding ways.  Its odd length — a very long story, or a short novella, or another thing altogether — is somehow perfect.  (In this and in “Grace,” the also-long preceding story, it really does seem that Joyce found his rhythm, and that this rhythm was decidedly mismatched to that of the commercial press of the time.) An incredible amount of literary energy has been spent trying to catch up with Joyce’s exploration here of the gaps between even the closest human minds, and the community of even the most deliberately estranged, and the ambiguity inherent in all joy and sorrow.

Both times that I’ve read this story, the following passage has been the first to stop me in my tracks:

Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cool pane of the window.  How cool it must be outside!  How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!  The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a cap on the top of the Wellington Monument.  How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!

This is simultaneously ironic and deeply familiar, this feeling.  It is Christmas, with family; you are intended to feel cozy and happy and glad to be by the hearth.  And you do, in a way.  But the room is close and quite warm; the desire to be alone, by yourself, can be overwhelming, especially if you have a melancholic disposition.

Throughout the story, I kept thinking, in passages like these, of J. M. Whistler’s Nocturne paintings, those gorgeous, proto-Modern impressions of tint and shadow, form and motion.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne in Gray and Gold," 1876

Whistler makes an interesting complement to Joyce.  Both were controversial expatriates, and both were quite self-consciously artists, interested foremost in the form and beauty of their works.  Joyce was, certainly, more political and social in his art, less of an aesthete and decadent.  And yet there is an emphasis on form and aesthetic in “The Dead,” as certainly as there is in Whistler’s most famous painting, Arrangement in Gray and Black:

J. M. Whistler, "Arrangement in Gray and Black," 1871

Use this painting to illustrate the famous passage near the end of “The Dead,” a passage that serves not only as a premonition and insight into Gabriel’s state of mind, but also to give a formal bookend to Dubliners, which began with a wake:

Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees.  The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.  He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones.  Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

Obviously, Whistler was most interested in the composition and artistry, not the content, of his famous painting.  And yet, one would willfully and needlessly reduce the significance and impact of the painting by ignoring the fact that it portrays his mother; form and content are joined here in a beautiful whole, as in “The Dead.”  Beyond its place in the whole of Dubliners, the story itself hinges on a type of artistic expression: Gabriel’s speech honoring the three Misses Morkan.  The two paragraphs before Gabriel begins are, I think, among the most beautiful I know.  I’ll quote the second here, which is another beautiful, sensuous imagination of snowy night:

Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company.  Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier.  The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door.  People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music.  The air was pure there.  In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow.  The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea," 1871

The oration is a self-conscious piece of rhetoric, and its delivery preoccupies Gabriel throughout the first half of the story.  We see him planning out how he will use the occasion to score points off of a foe, Miss Ivors, and we even get this: “What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?”

And yet the speech works.  It is a moving tribute to the hostesses, to the dead, and to Ireland, both to its fictional listeners and its real readers.  As the work of Gabriel, a writer and lover of literature, married to a woman from Galway, it is possible to read this as a microcosm of Joyce’s own ambiguous and constantly shifting emotions toward his homeland.  If Gabriel had planned to score rhetorical points despite his own reservations about the ignorance or vulgarity of his own people, he ends up meaning it anyway, in spite of himself.

Both the speech itself (and its status as the self-evident focus of the story) and the turn of Gabriel’s thoughts thereafter to memories of he and his wife, young and in love, point to “The Dead” as a work of art about art’s creation, and its power.  The story moves toward its astounding conclusion beginning with this paragraph:

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.  Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

As it happens, “distant music” is also what I hear when I look at Whistler’s paintings: they evoke soft music, sounds of night.  And distant music is precisely what Gretta’s thoughts end up being, to Gabriel: the music of memory, a memory he knew nothing of, and that had nothing to do with him.  As devastating as this is to Gabriel, there remains the power of the “sudden tide of joy” he feels when she sees him; the “proud, joyful, tender, valorous” thoughts she evokes in him; the sweetness and fondness of his memories of moments of their life together.  The ambiguity of being human with another, in the end.  The mingled emotion of a rocket falling back to earth.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne in Black and Gold," c. 1874-75

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More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #5: “Supernatural Superserious” and My R.E.M. Favorites Playlist

February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it.  This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be.  R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands.  For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons.  They made art, not product.  They cared about beauty and integrity.  They cared about not selling out.  They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.

I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar.  But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too.  I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour.  Everyone loved this band.  They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion).  They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.

Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band.  But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums.  R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message.  The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.

My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.

This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook.  I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him.  It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track.  (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title.  I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.”  That would explain it.)

There’s a lot going on in these lyrics.  It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.”  And then we get this knockout verse:

At the summer camp where you volunteered

No one saw your face, no one saw your fear

If that apparition had just appeared,

Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation

Of your teenage station

Nobody cares

No one remembers and nobody cares

So we have a song about adolescence.  A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation.  And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares.  No one remembers, and nobody cares.  This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about.  Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours.  That summer-camp humiliation?  Forgotten.  Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals.  We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?

This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.”  It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman.  It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity.  (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song.  Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)

Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.”  And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.

There follows another great verse:

Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird

Don’t be afraid I will hold you near

From the seance where you first betrayed

An open heart on a darkened stage

A celebration of your teenage station

A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks.  That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us.  You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing.  Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.

***

In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):

  1. Finest Worksong
  2. It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
  3. Swan Swan H
  4. You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
  5. Don’t Go Back to Rockville
  6. Try Not to Breathe
  7. Man On the Moon
  8. Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original.  There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
  9. Near Wild Heaven
  10. Sweetness Follows
  11. Driver 8
  12. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
  13. Orange Crush
  14. Turn You Inside-Out
  15. Supernatural Superserious
  16. Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track.  Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
  17. Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
  18. Fall On Me
  19. Half a World Away
  20. Nightswimming

Joyce’s Epiphanies and “An Encounter”

February 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Dubliners, by James Joyce, and James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann.

Reading next: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.

I’ve been reading Ellmann’s biography of Joyce slowly, a chapter at a time here and there between other things, as part of my preparation for a trip to Ireland later this year.  (I’m not sure whether the voluntarily exiled Joyce would scoff at or be proud of this fact.  Maybe a bit of both.)  It is as great as everyone says, full of meticulous detail, useful insight, and a great balance between attention to Joyce’s works and information on his life.  And yet, now that I’m reading Dubliners, all of his incredible work tracking down real-life counterparts for characters and scenes can seem so pale and inconsequential — the stories are just that great.

But the book has been immensely interesting, and I’m very glad to be reading it.  Ellmann convinced me to take a look at the “Epiphanies,” some of Joyce’s earliest fictional or pseudo-fictional works to survive.  These very short works — we would call them short shorts or flash fiction now — are well known by just about every 20th century reader of literature, even if they’ve never heard of them, due to their immense influence.  Joyce explains them in his early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man entitled Stephen Hero:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.  He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

Forty of Joyce’s epiphanies survive.  They don’t all live up to his own sublime definition, and they are most important as apprentice examples of a concept which would transform literature.  Many of them make their ways into his masterworks, put into minds and mouths of characters, allowed to bloom in their new environments, as we’ll see later.  The epiphanic structure of so much of modern literature is due largely to Joyce and the immense power of his use of the tactic in his fiction.  (I’m convinced, incidentally, that Joyce is the most influential figure of 20th century literature.  Beyond the impact of his works themselves, the arc of his career from lyrical poetry to short stories to autobiographical novel to monumental works of avant-garde literature has become the basic template by which authors are judged, everyone expected to produce something as crystalline as Dubliners and to move on from it to something as opaque and challenging as Finnegan’s Wake.)

Because this is Joyce, we’d do well to remember the multiple meanings of the chosen term for his invention (or “invention,” if you prefer).  Beyond its common meaning as a sudden flash of insight, Epiphany is the Christian celebration of Christ’s revelation as man (his “manifestation,” to use Joyce’s word), the celebration of the Magi’s visit to the manger or, especially in Eastern Christianity, of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.  Joyce was constantly putting his Catholic education and upbringing to use in understanding the world in the most unexpected ways; here, he embues the Christian and emotional meanings of the word with new, Freudian significance.  An epiphany becomes a revelation of the true self to the world, or a revelation of the deeper self to the self.

One of the epiphanies (number 38 in the sequence as I read them, edited by A. Walton Litz, in Joyce’s Poems and Shorter Writings) appears, transformed, in “An Encounter,” perhaps the most controversial of the stories in Dubliners, central to its place in publishing purgatory for a decade.  Two boys skip school to see the sights and take a trip to the “Pigeon House” on the waterfront.  As the day wanders on they rest on a bank above the Dodder River and are met by a mysterious man.

"On the Dodder," Dublin, by Robert French, ca. 1880-1900. From the National Library of Ireland.

The 38th epiphany concerns a “Little Male Child” being asked about his “sweetheart” by two “Young Ladies” at a “garden gate.”  In “An Encounter,” this exchange is between the two truants, Mahony and the narrator, and this mystery man:

Then he asked us which of us had the most sweethearts.  Mahony mentioned lightly that he had three totties.  The man asked how many had I.  I answered that I had none.  He did not believe me and said he was sure I must have one.  I was silent.

-Tell us, said Mahony pertly to the man, how many have you yourself?

The man smiled as before and said that when he was our age he had lots of sweethearts.

-Every boy, he said, has a little sweetheart.

From there, things get very creepy indeed, the man revealing his interest in flagellation of young boys.  The complicated system of symbols and allusions in the story leads me to see a number of “sudden spiritual manifestations” in the encounter.  One is a possible reading of the incident as an allusion to the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness: the narrator, an innocent away from his Christian school for the day, visited by a man with a sexual interest in pain and suffering, an interest in seeing the innocent defiled.  The narrator’s sudden realization that the man has green eyes — trickster’s eyes, the color of the eyes of Ulysses in medieval tradition — may have significance here.

I think this allusion is there, intended by Joyce, but more powerful is a reading of the man as a kind of epiphany himself.  Once the man begins on the subject of “sweethearts,” the narrator says, “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit,” and he begins to focus on boys, girls, and flagellation.  This is about as vulgar as an epiphany can get, this manifestation of obsessive, unhealthy sexual desire.

But the encounter here functions as a more mental, spiritual revelation, to the author (whom we can understand as Joyce or “Joyce”) and his audience, of the twisted side of Christianity.  “An Encounter” could be the encounter with Catholicism as obsession with the torture of an innocent child of God.

Dickens, Beckett, Domesticity, and Modernism

February 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett; Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Reading now: A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, by Mac Wellman.

Reading next: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

It is an exaggeration, but an interesting one, to say that modernist literature is a reaction to Dickens.  In his massive popularity (and desire to be and remain popular), his embrace of transparent plot and familiar character, his omnipresent sentimentality, and his fastidious avoidance of any mention of sex, he represents a nicely dialectical figure for the modernist authors. From Henry James to Woolf and Joyce, the modernists found Dickens ridiculous and bourgeois.

Read the Victorian fabulist/realist master Dickens in close proximity to the modernist/postmodernist master Samuel Beckett and you can feel like these two men inhabited completely different universes, completely different ways of experiencing and translating the experience of being in the world.  But as I was reading Malone Dies, I found myself thinking of Dickens, and seeing the text as a kind of unwitting reply to one of the dominant themes in his work (as in much of Victorian literature): belief in domestic bliss, in the comforts of home.

It was the story of the Lamberts, especially, that brought this to mind.  All of Malone Dies — and, to a lesser degree, all of Molloy, and to a greater and more overt degree, all of The Unnamable — is self-conscious of the creation of fictions and exposure of the mechanisms by which narrative is produced.  The Lamberts are one of the many attempts by Malone to distract himself, to tell a story, this one about a farming family for whom the young creation of Malone named Saposcat is boarding.  Malone introduces the family by saying, “There was the man, the woman, and two children, a boy and a girl.  There at least is something that admits of no controversy.”  But this quick, self-consciously “normal” nuclear family is immediately made weird: “Big Lambert” has married his “young cousin.”  Nothing all that weird about that, according to Victorian/Dickensian mores; after all, there is the bizarre (to us) engagement of Esther and Jarndyce in Bleak House.  But Lambert has also been married two or three times before, with children from these past marriages now grown.  And Lambert is a butcher, of both animals and his family, with an omnipresent threat of violence hanging over his wife and children.  Beckett also brings sex to the foreground of the domestic situation, in the crudest possible terms.

Sapo’s place in the family is as the hard-working unfortunate lad, the Copperfield of the narrative.  But Mrs. Lambert is no kind caregiver; instead, she often pauses in her hard work to give voice to “angry unanswerable questions, such as, What’s the use?”  And Sapo cannot stay with the family, but flees.  There are faint, faint echoes of Copperfield’s trek to Betsey Trotwood’s house in Saposcat’s journey.  But the quality of despair in Saposcat’s journey is so very different than in Copperfield’s irrepressible optimism:

My bed at night was under another haystack, where I rested comfortably, after having washed my blistered feet in a stream, and dressed them as well as I was able, with some cool leaves.  When I took the road again next morning, I found that it lay through a succession of hopgrounds and orchards…. I thought it all extremely beautiful, and made up my mind to sleep among the hops that night: imagining some cheerful companionship in the long perspectives of poles, with the graceful leaves twining around them.  -David Copperfield, chapter 13

But the face of Sapo as he stumbled away, now in the shadow of the venerable trees he could not name, now in the brightness of the waving meadow, so erratic was his course, the face of Sapo was always grave, or rather expressionless.  And when he halted it was not the better to think, or the closer to pore upon his dream, but simply because the voice had ceased that told him to go on.  Then with his pale eyes he stared down at the earth, blind to its beauty, and to its utility, and to the little wild many-coloured flowers happy among the crops and weeds. -Malone Dies

Beyond that, Beckett (through Malone) continually points to how “traditional” narratives are constructed, with such asides by Malone to himself as, “That’s it, reminisce” and hesitant corrections of the course of the narrative.  It does seem that Beckett and Dickens would find in each other perspectives on the world that the other could not possibly countenance.  The experience of the twentieth century makes it hard for any of us to fully participate in the Dickensian comedy, as much as we love and aspire to it.  Beckett could not write the family as a utopia any more than Dickens could imagine an irredeemably dystopian and solitary world.

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