“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

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.

The Anti-Ulysses

August 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Mulligan Stew.

I talked in the last post about the Stew portion of the title.  Now let’s talk about that Mulligan.

Aside from the allusion to hobo food, there is the allusion to Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses.  I posit that Buck Mulligan is the perfect figure for the title of this book because he begins Ulysses with a parody — no, a travesty — of the Eucharist.  Mulligan Stew is a travesty of Ulysses.  It contains, in its novel-within-a-novel, first titled Guinea Red and then Crocodile Tears, the anti-Ulysses: as the eighteen sections of Ulysses chart and critique the techniques of literature and progress of western civilization through their densely layered and allusive texts, the fourteen chapters of Antony Lamont’s unfinished novel, plus two alternate first chapters (along with the various fragments of his other books, and the unforgettably awful excerpts from the work of his archrival/brother-in-law, Dermot Trellis), show the variety of ways to write horribly, mean nothing, “make it up as we goes along,” to paraphrase the final chapter’s title.

I won’t go into this with the detail I could, and really, it’s more of a hunch that I have that Sorrentino might’ve had this in mind for his book.  It is an example of how awful Ulysses should’ve been, in its attempt to encompass all techniques, all archetypes, all forms into one story.  Lamont tries the epistolary and writes letters that have no reason to be written, in an age of telephones, and no reason to be copied by their sender, and even recognizes this, and yet rationalizes it to himself.  (Ironic, since his caustic, unhinged, deliriously profane letters to his “enemies” are the best things in the book, and the one thing for which he shows any talent.)  Lamont writes pornography in which his main character ejaculates dozens of times and his seductresses go through multiple costume changes (hilariously, this gets Martin, the character, hopeful about future scenes along the same lines) and convinces himself it’s an example of truly sophisticated erotica.  Lamont writes dialogue that makes no sense, but tarts it up with lots of French to make it seem classy and obscure.  Lamont gives his chapters overwrought, inappropriate, or utterly tone-deaf titles, all or at least some of which are quotes from Finnegan’s Wake (my favorite is probably “Nameless Shamelessness,” for the porn chapter), constantly repeats or contradicts himself (hilariously moving a corpse from location to location), and finishes every single chapter with the word “blue” for no good reason (towards the end, he just adds the word “blue” for no good reason, compulsively).  I will confess that I actually kind of like one chapter, “A Bag of the Blues,” which is a Beat riff that I like a lot better than much of the work of the actual Beats that I’ve read.  This makes me wonder about myself.

Anyway, could this “blue” be the blue of Ulysses‘ original cover?  Two sections especially reminded me of Ulysses:

-In the chapter “She Is the Queenly Pearl,” there’s a kind of travesty of Molly Bloom’s book-closing soliloquy, but of course it’s terribly written and Lamont has to telegraph what he’s up to: “…marvelous it was actually it was called my Florida frock he had the most extraordinary habit of painting a moustache on his face whenever he felt blue do you like the way I’m talking on and on without any pauses or punctuation it’s my consciousness just simply streaming.”  Naturally, Lamont talks himself into loving it even though it refutes more or less everything else he’s already written.

-The chapter-long soliloquy delivered by the ghost of Ned Beaumont in “Like Blowing Flower Stilled,” in a kind of Irish dialect, with liberal use of Latinisms a la Buck Mulligan (or Joyce himself).  Lamont claims not to have written this chapter, and it’s certainly bad in a more interesting way than his other stuff, but still well nigh unreadable.

I’m probably way off, since I’m basing this anti-Ulysses hypothesis on incomplete information: I’ve read Ulysses, but not Finnegan’s Wake or At Swim-Two-Birds, the two other major touchstones I know of for this book.  It’s such a great idea, though, that I want it to be true.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

Perverse French Jokes About James Joyce

July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright.

Reading next: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

Raymond Queneau is the reason I want to learn to read French.  I will read anything he wrote.  Coming across Witch Grass a few years ago was like finding an unexplored tropical island.  (Of course, he’s a legend in Europe; so maybe it was more like a native of an unexplored tropical island discovering the existence of France.)

Loving Raymond Queneau means loving Barbara Wright, who translated much of his work into English.  Translating Queneau, who thrives on puns, portmanteau words, idiomatic and colloquial expression, and literary allusion, is impossible in some respects (hence the desire to learn French).  So Wright (who died earlier this year) is something more like a co-author, or adapter.  Interestingly, she says in her introductions to both We Always Treat Women Too Well and Witch Grass that, with Queneau’s blessing, she would insert her own allusions to English literature and English idiomatic renderings to correspond to Queneau’s untranslatable French equivalents.  Without looking at her papers (at Indiana’s Lilly Library), we can’t know what delightful quirks of language are hers and which Queneau’s.  (Something to do if I ever find myself in Bloomington.)

All of that being said: what the hell is We Always Treat Women Too Well?  Not having delved into 1940s French pornographic pulp fiction, I can only take the word of some person named Valerie Caton when, in the introduction, she insists that this work is only masquerading as pornography; that it is actually a parody of the kind of book published by Editions du Scorpion, and not itself pornography.  Now, while there’s clearly a parody happening here, this is also fairly disingenuous, especially since the book was published under the pseudonym Sally Mara, by a publisher of “erotica” and straight-up porn.  It was a joke, certainly, but a joke the original audience was not in on.

However, it is fairly amusing to imagine pervy French dudes trying to get their postwar jollies from this deeply weird book.  Maybe the bar was just set really low for titillation; like I said, I just don’t have comparables here.  (The book was not a success.  Shocking!)  There’s certainly kinky sex and gory violence and nymphomaniacal behavior; but there’s also typically Quenovian (?) etymological wordplay, hilariously tangled and repetitive dialogue, deliberate anachronism, philosophical subtext, scholarly footnotes by the book’s imaginary translator (from the imaginary English original of the imaginary Irish lass Sally Mann) Michel Presle, and, throughout, allusion and homage to and satire on Ulysses.

So, yes: the book is really a perverse joke, on many levels, and I can imagine Queneau making himself giggle throughout.  He loved Joyce: it must’ve given him great delight to write the stream-of-consciousness monologues of Gertie Girdle, using the ladies’ room as Irish rebels take over the post office where she works, alluding to both Leopold Bloom’s own use of the w.c. and Molly Bloom’s grand soliloquy.  And to give the subordinates of his band of IRA fighters names of tertiary Ulysses characters and/or similar alphabetic structure: Gallager, Kelleher, Callinan, Dillon, Caffrey (the consonant-vowel-double consonant pattern).  And to make the rebels’ battle cry “Finnegan’s wake!”  And to invert the repressed sexuality of Joyce’s Dublin, to give a crazy plot to the prurient urges of that book’s characters.

Valerie Caton argues in the introduction to this edition (the 1981 New Directions paperback) that Queneau intended the scenes of sex and violence to be “disquieting and absurd,” and that the book is an act of “literary sabotage” upon the fascism inherent in both black humor and pornography.  Sure, if you’re reading it as pornography; if “disquieting” means you can’t get off.  I’m sure it was an act of sabotage upon some of its initial readers.  (In this sense, it’s kind of a book meant to be left unread: did Queneau really expect his porno readers would do anything but toss the book aside?)  Maybe 60 extra years of hilarious violence and kinky sex both literary and cinematic have jaded me beyond the point of being “disquieted” on any deeper level by some s&m action (note the initials of Sally Mara).  But the book also seems like a goof, plain and simple: “why not write a porno set in Joyce’s Dublin?”  I can definitely say it’s the funniest book I’ve ever read that also features a coital dismembering.

Semiautobiography: Madame Psychosis and Metempsychosis

September 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading:Infinite Jest.

It is both true and kind of oxymoronic that this book is intensely semiautobiographical.  While I mean by the “semi-” that the book is, of course, fiction, and full of made-up stuff and not a roman a clef in any way, I also mean that I get the feeling that DFW, the person (rather than the mind, the author, or the persona), is scattered throughout the book to a degree that, say, Pynchon is not in Gravity’s Rainbow or Joyce is not in Ulysses (or even Portrait, for that matter).  Authors are inscribed in every word they write; people aren’t, necessarily.

(Sidebar: GR and U are the two books that consistently spring to mind for me as comparables, here.  They are size- and stature- and scope- and ambition-equivalent, more or less, I think.  I haven’t read Gaddis or Gass or maybe they’d be in there too.  Nabokov doesn’t strike me as comparable, for some reason, while we’re playing this little parlor game.  I can’t quite put my finger on why.)

I’m not getting this primarily from recent events or little cues that certain characters are obvious stand-ins for certain “real people.”  And in fact, IJ has one of my favorite copyright-page notices: “The characters and events in this book are fictitious.  Any apparent similarity to real persons is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination.”  But nevertheless, I insist: DFW, the person with the lived life, is all over this book.  Which is both funny and sad, since he was always saddled with the rep of being too “cerebral” or cold or unapproachable or experimental.  He poured an awful lot of himself into this book.  I’d even say that’s what made the book one of the greats, ultimately: this semiautobiographical element, and not the language or structure or style alone (although, hell, they’re pretty damn good too).

I have a feeling that what I’m dancing around here is a kind of transmigration of souls.  Metempsychosis.  One of the most quotable and direct and self-contained sections is p. 200-205, a litany of things “you” can learn hanging around a facility like Ennet House.  It’s a characterless section, leading us to believe that it’s the narrator telling us all of this.   (Sidebar again: the narrator is an interesting problem in IJ, or rather an interesting lack of a problem, because I’m going to go ahead and commit a horrible lit-crit fallacy and say that DFW’s narrator is DFW, trying to tell us things DFW believes, and giving us scenes and voices that DFW thought worth paying attention to.  There’s some metafictional trickery, sure, in that the narrator is wildly omniscient in some ways and extremely not in others, but it’s him.  I’d swear to it.  I think that DFW thought of himself as writing this book.  DFW was a rhetorician of the first water, and I think that’s the conclusion he wants us to arrive at.  And I happen to believe it.)  But then we segue smoothly and without break into an exploration of Tiny Ewell’s obsession with other residents’ tattoos, and we’re kind of in between the narrator’s head and Tiny’s (or was it Tiny’s all along?).  And then Ewell approaches Gately and we’re a bit in Gately’s head and from his perspective, too.

And but so… metempsychosis.  Bookending this little passage I was just talking about are our introductions to Madame Psychosis, aka Joelle van Dyne.  And the section p. 219-240, of Joelle’s preparations to commit suicide by overdose, is one of the true tour-de-force sections of the novel.  The name, Madame Psychosis, is an obvious reference to metempsychosis.  To DFW, that undoubtedly means Joyce, Ulysses, where the idea and the word are major motifs in the grand modernist style.  (On the other hand, I suspect that “Dyne” might be an allusion to Yoyodyne, the company in Crying of Lot 49, in addition to being a unit of force.)  But it’s more than homage, and part of the bloody point of this book is that there’s more to life and to fiction than creating a web of allusion and referent and ambiguity, although those are cool.  He’s engaging with Joyce through this name and this idea, but there’s more.  I think he’s making a kind of argument about the nature of literature: that what it is, in a way, is a transmigration of souls, from an author to a character to a reader.  And I think he’s also indicating one of his primary methods — his own personal soul, flitting from voice to voice, perspective to perspective, unlike Joyce’s use of the term to allude to the constant reenactment and reembodiment of archetype in modern times — and through that method two of his primary concerns.  And those are empathy, and heredity.  Less-sexy varieties of transmigration of souls.

I mean, this is one of the best books about sports ever written, and it reeks of lived experience.  It’s horribly authentic on depression and drug abuse and grad school.  (Yes, they seem to belong together.)  It’s got grammar riots and cast-off scenes of peoples’ interactions with entertainment.  Hal and Joelle and Don and others: you can see glimpses of DFW’s life and his experience in them.  But of course I doubt DFW ever killed a Quebecois terrorist in a botched robbery; I think he could feel what it would feel like to be that desperate, though.  That’s where empathy comes in.  I also doubt his father or grandfather ever took his son out and treated him to an excruciating drunken self-involved monologue, exactly.  That’s where heredity comes in.

And I haven’t even mentioned death, which is kind of central to the whole thing.  We’ll talk about this later, eh?

Id, Ego, and Supercargo

February 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Chapter 3 presents a wild, wild scene in a bar/house of ill repute called the Golden Day. The narrator, driving a trustee of his college to the bar to get him a “little stimulant”–whiskey–to shake him out of the shock he’s taken, runs into a pack of patients from the insane asylum down the road. They take over the Golden Day; their orderly, named Supercargo, is hit with a bottle of whiskey and trampled.

This is a funny, diagrammatic chapter a la Ulysses: Supercargo is cast as superego, the reckless patients as id, Halley the bartender as ego, just trying to make a buck and keep his bar out of trouble with the law and the local bigwigs. But there are a number of complicating elements, as well, muddling my sense of what Ellison’s trying to do here.

At one point a patient with some medical knowledge calls the trustee, Mr. Norton, “A trustee of consciousness,” adding to the psychological allegory. Supercargo (a noun meaning a ship’s officer in charge of its commercial concerns) is a white-clad orderly; his name, outfit, and place in this allegory would seem to associate him with the only white person in the bar, Mr. Norton. His boorish bullying of the war-veteran mental patients, coming down from his room upstairs to try to establish order in the bar with his boots and fists (and receiving worse in return), seems to indicate that Ellison means to tell us something about the workings of race relations in addition to the workings of consciousness in this chapter. This chapter contains multitudes, a whole bizarre array of social strata (prostitutes to bankers) and events and crypto-events (race riots, nervous breakdowns, self-doubts).

Modernists get a bad rap for this kind of thing, now–this kind of heavily symbolist, deeply weighted narrative–but I’m a sucker for it. Especially the kinds of rich, mingled layers of meaning that Ellison digs up here. And the sentences! I mean, look at this semi-soliloquy recited by the mental patient/vet/former doctor to Mr. Norton:

“Rest, rest,” he said, fixing Mr. Norton with his eyes. “The clocks are all set back and the forces of destruction are rampant down below. They might suddenly realize that you are what you are, and then your life wouldn’t be worth a piece of bankrupt stock. You would be canceled, perforated, voided, become the recognized magnet attracting loose screws. Then what would you do? Such men are beyond money, and with Supercargo down, out like a felled ox, they know nothing of value. To some, you are the great white father, to others the lyncher of souls, but for all, you are confusion come even into the Golden Day.”

I mean, whoa! What a range of styles, meanings, associations.

(Full disclosure: I once wrote a heavily allusive, diagrammatic bar scene of my own. My bar, in the novel I wrote in college, was called the Broken Road; its walls were covered with pictures of hitchhikers; and its men’s room was missing the ‘n,’ so it was the Me room. Obviously I’m not comparing myself to Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, or anyone else in any way whatsoever– but what is it about bars that calls out for this kind of literary treatment?)

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