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.
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:
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.
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.
January 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: David Copperfield.
Continuing the survey of my favorite passages from each chapter:
“Yes, it’s always so!” she said. “They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and fully grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me! They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier! Yes, yes, that’s the way. The old way!”
This from Miss Mowcher the dwarf, in a surprising scene with David, revealing her sorrow at Steerforth’s behavior and her not catching it beforehand. A great example of the celebrated humanity of Dickens, his empathy for the motivations of behaviors of even his minor or comedic characters.
Taking that part of the Commons which happened to be nearest to us – for our man was unmarried by this time, and we were out of Court, and strolling past the Prerogative Office – I submitted that I thought the Prerogative Office rather a queerly managed institution. Mr. Spenlow inquired in what respect? I replied, with all due deference to his experience (but with more deference, I am afraid, to his being Dora’s father), that perhaps it was a little nonsensical that the Registry of that Court, containing the original wills of all persons leaving effects within the immense province of Canterbury, for three whole centuries, should be an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their Own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public’s wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply. That, perhaps, it was a little unreasonable that these registrars in the receipt of profits amounting to eight or nine thousand pounds a year (to say nothing of the profits of the deputy registrars, and clerks of seats), should not be obliged to spend a little of that money, in finding a reasonably safe place for the important documents which all classes of people were compelled to hand over to them, whether they would or no. That, perhaps, it was a little unjust, that all the great offices in this great office should be magnificent sinecures, while the unfortunate working-clerks in the cold dark room upstairs were the worst rewarded, and the least considered men, doing important services, in London. That perhaps it was a little indecent that the principal registrar of all, whose duty it was to find the public, constantly resorting to this place, all needful accommodation, should be an enormous sinecurist in virtue of that post (and might be, besides, a clergyman, a pluralist, the holder of a staff in a cathedral, and what not), – while the public was put to the inconvenience of which we had a specimen every afternoon when the office was busy, and which we knew to be quite monstrous. That, perhaps, in short, this Prerogative Office of the diocese of Canterbury was altogether such a pestilent job, and such a pernicious absurdity, that but for its being squeezed away in a corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard, which few people knew, it must have been turned completely inside out, and upside down, long ago.
It’s long, I know, but I do love it when Dickens gets himself worked up like this over some unjust, rectifiable absurdity of bureaucracy or government. He developed such an effective and entertaining rhetoric of outrage.
Peggotty was glad to get it for him, and he overwhelmed her with thanks, and went his way up Tottenham Court Road, carrying the flowerpot affectionately in his arms, with one of the most delighted expressions of countenance I ever saw.
Traddles’ love affair with the two pieces of furniture for his future household with his beloved Sophy, which he bought, then pawned, then bought back, is another delightful example of the way in which Dickens creates the illusion of not just a plot or a community, but a universe: it is the accumulation of just such tertiary incidents, and the care which he put into them, which gives the impression that the characters are living, in a world very similar to (but not identical with) our own, operating on tweaked rules of logic and behavior. Such rules lead to characters like Tommy Traddles inevitably winning back the flowerpots they’ve earned for their beloveds, and cradling them happily in their arms.
There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm, seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning:
“Blind! Blind! Blind!”
The fact that David is blind when it comes to Dora is indisputable. He is an idiot about her; she is a child; that childlike selfishness, pettiness, and idleness is, of course, the reason for the attraction for him, who was deprived of most of his childhood. The startling thing is how David (the narrator) foreshadows this fact, and gives us these hints of foreshadowing darkness in even the besotted-courtship phase of their relationship, such as this startling tableau with the beggar to close the chapter, after the revelation of his impoverishment.
I began the next day with another dive into the Roman bath, and then started for Highgate. I was not dispirited now. I was not afraid of the shabby coat, and had no yearnings after gallant greys. My whole manner of thinking of our late misfortune was changed. What I had to do, was, to show my aunt that her past goodness to me had not been thrown away on an insensible, ungrateful object. What I had to do, was, to turn the painful discipline of my younger days to account, by going to work with a resolute and steady heart. What I had to do, was, to take my woodman’s axe in my hand, and clear my own way through the forest of difficulty, by cutting down the trees until I came to Dora.
This is great, this bright and beautiful beginning to the chapter, following right on the pensive and deeply dark end to the previous one, its optimism so indicative of the feeling you can get on a crisp morning that anything is possible. And oh, that “woodman’s axe”: one of the most vivid examples of David seeing and telling the fairy tale of his life.
My aunt had obtained a signal victory over Mrs. Crupp, by paying her off, throwing the first pitcher she planted on the stairs out of the window, and protecting in person, up and down the staircase, a supernumerary whom she engaged from the outer world. These vigorous measures struck such terror to the breast of Mrs. Crupp, that she subsided into her own kitchen, under the impression that my aunt was mad. My aunt being supremely indifferent to Mrs. Crupp’s opinion and everybody else’s, and rather favoring than discouraging the idea, Mrs. Crupp, of late the bold, became within a few days so faint-hearted, that rather than encounter my aunt upon the staircase, she would endeavour to hide her portly form behind doors — leaving visible, however, a wide margin of flannel petticoat — or would shrink into dark corners. This gave my aunt such unspeakable satisfaction, that I believe she took a delight in prowling up and down, with her bonnet insanely perched on the top of her head, at times when Mrs. Crupp was likely to be in the way.
I love that “insanely perched” bonnet and that “wide margin of flannel petticoat.” The third sentence would be a lot of fun to diagram — it’s one of Dickens’ twisty marvels.
March 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.
(Re)reading next: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, accompanied by The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.
I just barely passed my AP calculus exam; I was seriously unsure about whether I’d done well enough until getting that blessed “3” in the mail one day in the summer after graduation. College credit in hand, I happily forgot just about everything I’d “learned” in cramming for the exam. This is a common experience, I suspect, at least for those expecting to go into the humanities in college.
Part of my disconnect with calc — my reason for scraping by just exactly as much as I could without trying to get much at all out of the class — was that I either wasn’t paying attention at the beginning of class or was never given an explanation about what, exactly, I was learning: what were all these crazy new theorems and formulas for, exactly? What did the symbols, procedures, and functions signify? AP calc was so compressed and results-based that there wasn’t necessarily time for these kinds of background explanations. But I never even “got” what limits were, or why they were important, or what even differentiated calc from algebra, trig, etc. It all just seemed kind of pointlessly complicated and wickedly disconnected from any level of empirical reality (which is more or less diametrically wrong, but that is how it seemed).
Which is to say, in DFW’s phrase, it seemed “stratospherically abstract,” divorced from human experience or even (my) comprehension. So does much of Everything and More, to be honest, and at times I’m scraping by with the same bare modicum of understanding I did in AP calc if I’m scraping by at all. But at least DFW has given me some sense of what calc is for — understanding and manipulating continuities like motion and time — and what limits and functions and derivatives are about, at a basic level. All of this is somewhat tangential or at least secondary to the book’s main point, the history of infinity as a mathematical concept of central importance. But I’m grateful for it. DFW clearly had a really gifted and engaging teacher of calc, a Robert Goris, whose techniques for teaching many different concepts in calc are referenced quite often in the text.
I would never have considered reading this book if it weren’t for DFW-completist reasons. And I honestly don’t care much whether I understand calc, advanced math, and/or mathematical infinities. That ship’s long since sailed. What I cared about was DFW’s approach to the material, which was obviously very important to him, and about how or whether he would adapt the idiosyncratic style and voice of his fiction and creative nonfiction to what he presents as a “piece of pop technical writing” in his “Small but Necessary Foreword.” (I’m not sure it’s all that “pop,” to be honest, even so far as writing about mathematical history goes; we get all of five pages of “Soft-News Interpolation,” padded by two photos, on the biography of its ostensible subject, Georg Cantor. DFW’s titling of this section as “soft news,” and rather arbitrary placement at the “Last Place to Do It Without Disrupting the Juggernaut-Like Momentum of the Pre-Cantor Mathematical Context,” seems to me to suggest that even this tiny amount of non-technical discussion might have been forced on him by his editor.)
Some of the DFW quirks are here: the footnotes, of course, and the tendency to use abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols to save space within the text. Actually, one of this text’s illuminations on DFW’s style is that these quirks in his literary works are reflections of his mathematical/philosophical academic background: these techniques are par for the course in those academic disciplines, and he found them efficient and natural ways to deal with his dense literary material, as well. While I’d registered before the general academic/technical register of these techniques, their precedence in his own academic history had never occurred to me before.
Rhetoric is always a paramount concern in DFW’s work, with self-awareness in the text of the arguments and appeals that are being made, the techniques that are being employed, and the intended relationship between the author and the audience. Everything and More is also rhetorical, though it is more subdued and consistent in its voice and its stance toward the reader than most of his other work, and much less self-conscious. In fact, he discusses his rhetorical stance in the aforementioned “Small but Necessary Foreword,” like so:
The aim is to discuss these [mathematical] achievements in such a way that they’re vivid and comprehensible to readers who do not have pro-grade technical backgrounds and expertise. To make the math beautiful — or at least get the reader to see how someone might find it so. Which of course all sounds very nice, except there’s a hitch: just how technical can the presentation get without either losing the reader or burying her in endless little definitions and explanatory asides? Plus… how can the discussion be pitched so that it’s accessible to the neophyte without being dull or annoying to somebody who’s had a lot of college math?
And then, in the first of the book’s footnotes:
Your author here is someone with a medium-strong amateur interest in math and formal systems. He is also someone who disliked and did poorly in every math course he ever took, save one, which wasn’t even in college, but which was taught by one of those rare specialists who can make the abstract alive and urgent, and who actually talks to you when he’s lecturing, and of whom anything that’s good about this booklet is a pale and well-meant imitation.
This last seems to be an obvious allusion to the aforementioned Robert Goris. So maybe it’s obvious that by and large, DFW is operating here as a teacher, rather than as an everyman or tour guide or friend or even expert. He sprinkles the text with less formal sentences and phrases, and occasional restatements and reminders and examples and metaphors, just like a good teacher would. He is more concerned with getting through the material than in his other works, where he’s more focused on maintaining an entertainment-informational-emotional balance. In other words, though he never says it, it seems to me that DFW is simply enthusiastic about the content of the work, and believes it will shine if he gets out of the way as much as possible and presents the text. He wants to help you understand the concepts he’s talking about.
Those quotes above also include one of the book’s more obvious rhetorical strategies, consistently employing the word “booklet” to refer to the text in hand. This term is ridiculous in reference to a 300-plus-page hardbound book. This is a booklet like Infinite Jest is a beach read. DFW knows this. I think he uses “booklet” to try to make the work seem less intimidating to the lay reader. Or he was deluded or misguided by the publisher about the format or intended length of the work.
Do DFW’s rhetorical strategies succeed for his stated purpose? Marginally, at best, I think. DFW’s writing here was well received by critics as a promising step in his career (as I recall), and I suspect that’s because he’s subdued his style and concentrated on clarifying his dizzyingly abstract subject. Critics are often lazy, and dumb. DFW is trying not to make you work at understanding him here, in order not to pile rhetorical difficulty onto his subject’s difficulty. This is rather different than what he’s trying to do in his literary registers, where he’s frequently emphasizing that we all need to work a little harder at understanding texts and people and the fiercely concrete complexity of life.
September 20, 2008 § 7 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Google “and but so” and you get over 200,000 hits. As in any Google search for something not a salable product, most of it is coincidental or indecipherable junk. Of the first 100 hits, the vast majority of comprehensible sites are instructions for using conjunctions, and reviews of, excerpts from, and parodies of David Foster Wallace.
On the basic, sentence-by-sentence level, it’s kind of his trademark — what he’s known for. And I think it’s most prevalent in IJ, although it pops up everywhere. Most writers don’t have any sort of grammatical or syntactical trademark, simply because their goal is writing transparent prose. This was not DFW’s goal, although I think he comes closest to writing transparently in this book. (Of course, it was not Hemingway’s goal either, whatever he might have thought about it. There are all kinds of self-conscious writing.)
DFW was obsessed with grammar, usage, sentence structure. It was more or less second nature to him. A lot of those pages I mentioned above dismiss “and but so” as a tic, an annoyance, or an affectation. But I think, given his level of attention to and control of the building blocks of his work, that it behooves us to think about it when he chooses heterodoxy. Why “and but so”? And, although I probably won’t get into it too much, why “like,” which he also uses selectively?
FIrst of all, it’s important to note that it is “and but so,” not “and, but, so.” It’s not bifurcated in meaning, as in something like “And, but so many of us can go to the pool.” It is a kind of unit, and perhaps in time it’ll become “andbutso,” like “insofar.” DFW breaks it up (“but so,” “and so but,” etc.), with meaning sometimes importantly varying (see p. 77 of my 1996 Little, Brown first paperback, Kate Gompert explaining her condition — another absolutely great and heartbreaking section: ‘”And so,’ she said, ‘but then I quit.'”), but I think that it mostly indicates exactly what it should indicate: the sentence or clause it introduces is, or could be, or seems to be (probably most often the second or third) an extension of, potential contradiction of, and logical conclusion to the preceding.
Now, it’s used in dialogue, in internal monologue or ventriloquized thought, and in narrative exposition (these last two being extremely tricky to separate and define, in IJ). I suspect, therefore, that DFW heard it in actual usage and did not simply concoct it one day in grad school as a writerly trademark, which seems to be how some of his detractors view it. I suspect this because DFW was one of our great writers of voice and dialogue, an unjustly overlooked aspect of his work. I’m talking about verisimilitude, not content, here. He got phrasing, pacing, tone, and the translation of all of that into typographic symbol just right, when he wanted to, which is almost all of the time in this book. And he would not use “and but so” in dialogue if he hadn’t heard it. And I think he’s right; if you listen, I think you’ll hear it more than you think.
Like “like,” the verisimilitude is part of the point. DFW’s passion for rhetoric wouldn’t allow him to write exclusively prescriptively, and we’ve already had sections of transcribed dialect and jargon. But he also uses these words because they’re useful, and they do things efficiently that his language could not otherwise do. (In the case of “like,” there may be a degree of having heard roughly three trillion times from older, prescriptive people how disgusting and pointless and apocalyptic its usage is for the language, and thumbing his nose at that by showing how it is used and useful, as a placeholder while thought takes place or attempts to transform itself into spoken word, or, in “they’re like,” as a casual substitute for “they thought/said/indicated,” or as a carrier of tone, although that tone is typically dismissal, condescension, or indifference, which, granted, were mostly the things DFW was fighting against in his writing.) By and large, “and but so” is a moment of internal conflict. It reveals confusion. It’s a false start of language. People aren’t quite sure what they mean, and what they meant, but they are obliged to explain. Using it in a belletristic novel points out how difficult it is for one to know even one’s own motivations and tendencies, much less those of another, much less those of an entire cast of characters (or, in a more day-to-day sense, a whole family, a whole class of students, a whole office). Like a lot of DFW’s writing, “and but so” reveals the anxiety of being human with other humans. It’s hard to explain something important to yourself or to someone else, hard to get it right, and for all the words he used DFW was always pointing out how the words were not quite right, or not quite enough.
February 11, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Invisible Man.
The narrator, the invisible man, has stumbled onto the eviction of an old black couple from their home, and has, in spite of himself, made a speech (beginning as a call to law-abiding behavior and long-suffering) leading to an act of violent uprising. This catches the eye of a socialist group, led by Brother Jack, which grooms him to work for them and speak for them.
In chapter 16 he makes another speech, this time in a crowded auditorium of proselytes, and has similar impact. He says, at one point, after “a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time” that he feels “more human” before them. He makes a powerful, emotional appeal to them, telling them that they will rise up, and they react powerfully, and he sobs.
He is, of course, being used. The words had poured out of him and it is unclear whether or how deeply he meant them, and where they came from. Immediately after leaving the stage, he meets up with Brother Jack and the other party leaders. In a funny scene, the head socialists are cold and disgusted by his appeal to emotions–his “antithesis of the scientific approach,” his stirring up of the common people. But the organizers, the ones on the streets–they loved it, loved the enthusiasm he generated.
Ellison is opposed to both sides, I think, and is most bothered by all those eyes on the surface of his invisible man, by the enthusiasm of a crowd witnessing the baring of a soul and thinking it mere rhetoric, merely the talking points of their agenda. The narrator himself is troubled by “more human,” and what he might have meant by it. He wonders if he heard it in the literature (Irish Lit?) class he was in, taught by a Dr. Woodridge, who said, of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals.” Ellison does want us to move past race, I think, without neglecting it–to become more human without making anyone become “less of what I was, less a Negro.”
To digress: it all (and maybe obviously) reminds me of Barack Obama. I remember watching his speech at the Democratic Convention in ’04; I remember it was amazing, beautiful, powerful, star-making (maybe more so after all the clunky, wooden verbiage of Kerry and Bush’s utter lack of anything like a believable rhetoric). And obviously it was. And it seemed realer, somehow: you got the sense that he felt it, not just that he knew it was his chance to make a name for himself. We’d gotten to like him, in Illinois, and I was actually excited for him, and about him, and to see him showing it to the rest of the country. I remember the analysts on PBS after it ended. They were clearly very impressed, clearly thought highly of this kid from Illinois–and I caught a whiff of dismissal, a sense that he might amount to something after three or four terms in the Senate. Putting him in his place; bemoaning his lack of the scientific approach.
Anyway, I digress. “More human” is clearly an ambiguous, dangerous, problematic phrase for Ellison and his invisible man, but I do think it’s a perfect statement of what I (we all?) want to end up with in this election. More humanity, for God’s sake. We’ve got no choice but to vote for an operator, but let’s at least vote for someone with a sense of what they’re operating for, and who they’re operating on.