“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

The Preoccupied Text

October 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

Reading next: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

The most surprising thing about this book isn’t the erotica, or the range of genres and voices employed; that’s always somewhat startling in a 19th-century work, but it’s really par for the course in the Boccaccio-Chaucer-1001 Nights stories-within-stories tradition.  What’s surprising about Potocki’s book, at least to me, is its self-consciousness, its reflexivity, its — dare I say it? — its metafictional tendencies, and its occasional seemingly contemporary sensibilities.

These moments can be hard to track, and may be an effect of translation as much as content.  However, there must be something undeniably modern in a passage like this, from the end of the tenth day, as van Worden is puzzling over the strange way that a story seems to apply to his own situation: “The bell for dinner sounded.  The cabbalist was not at the table.  Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself.”

Everyone seemed preoccupied to me because I was preoccupied myself. Couldn’t that be Fitzgerald, Carver, or even a Dylan lyric?  That anxiety, disaffectedness, alienation?  That projection of inner turmoil onto environment?  They rattled me, those flat, modern sentences, coming as they did after the retelling of a 17th-century religious parable/spook story.  This juxtaposition itself seemed further evidence of a rather jaded, modern sensibility; evidence that the history of literature is much weirder, more tangled, and idiosyncratic than its presentation in survey courses; evidence that seeming historically inevitable, societally molded progressions are often more like cycles of discovery, rediscovery, recycling, affiliations among fellow thinkers.  (Call it the Tristram Shandy hypothesis.)  The passage, and others like it, seemed a window onto the mysterious Potocki: losing himself in his maze of stories and characters, eminently preoccupied, unable to connect with others.  Facing a quandary, perhaps, about the need for entertainment and the need for human contact.

It’s a very flat work, emotionally.  I am uncertain how conscious of this Potocki was, or whether he cared.  Compared to Boccaccio or Chaucer, certainly, Potocki evinces much less concern or compassion for his characters and much more concern for his structure, for the mapping of his narratives and the relationships among the work, the author, and the reader.  There is an ongoing motif in the framing narrative of characters coyly voicing the concerns Potocki feels the reader (and perhaps he himself) has about the direction the book is taking.  Much of this Potocki works rather brilliantly into the romantic subplot between Rebecca/Laura, the caballist’s daugher, and Velasquez the geometer (of whom I’ll write at more length later).  At the end of the 28th day, Velasquez complains that the stories-within-stories that the gypsy chief Pandesowna is telling have become impossible to follow, and, even though he’s hearing rather than reading the stories, he states,

“It is a veritable labyrinth.  I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

“You are right,” said Rebecca….  “That would no doubt clarify the story.”

After Velasquez clarifies that he wishes the stories would be presented more systematically and logically, Rebecca replies: “Yes, indeed….  Continual surprises don’t keep one’s interest in the story alive.  One can never foresee what will happen subsequently.”  After one more dig, van Worden realizes “that Rebecca was making fun of all of us.”  The author takes the last word here; but at the end of the 35th day, with its four layers of tales, Velasquez the geometer states, “I was right to foresee that the stories of the gypsy would get entangled one with another….  I hope the gypsy will tell us what became of fair Ines.  But if he interpolates yet another story, I’ll fallout with him…  Meanwhile I don’t believe that our storyteller will be coming back this evening.”  He is not refuted.  In these passages, Potocki performs the neat trick of sympathizing with and challenging his readers.  Potocki seems keenly aware of the “level of reader annoyance” (I seem to recall DFW using the phrase, as applied by an editor to himself) for which he is aiming, and which he thinks the interest of the work can withstand.

There are many more examples of these metafictional flourishes; the convenient summoning and dismissal or departure of the Wandering Jew, and the discussion of same, form another fascinatingly self-conscious thread, especially in its play with the supernatural and listeners’ (and readers’) attitude toward it.  But more on that shortly.  Another simple but telling example: the continuation of the gypsy chief’s tale with the phrase “the gypsy, having nothing else to do, continued his story as follows.”  Having nothing else to do.  Does Potocki intend his metafiction and modernism as avant-garde gestures and comments on his society, his self?  Or does he have nothing else to do, and amuse himself by complicating his narrative, even to the point of talking back to himself?  Part of the attraction and the frustration of reading historical works is the difficulty of grasping the mind behind the work — their frame of reference, the culture and society and family and history and canon to which they are responding.  Potocki is clearly and explicitly writing in many traditions here, and responding to them, but it is hard to find the motivations behind those responses.

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