Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Month: July, 2010

Growing Up Joycean (2): litters from aloft

“Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds.” — James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Not long after my father died in October of 2005 a small group of friends and family gathered to remember him and spread his ashes. There were only six of us but we were the six people left in the world who had known him best: my mother, my sister, one of my father’s two brothers (the other had died a couple years earlier), and two friends of the family who had known my parents for nearly forty years.

It was the most informal service imaginable—we had no choice but to call it a Wake—that amounted to the six of us sitting on patio furniture in my mother’s backyard and swapping stories about my father.  My sister played Kate Bush’s song “The Sensual World,” which was inspired by Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. I read Brendan Kennelly’s “A Man I Knew”—a poem that could well have been written about my father. Our old family friends had brought a small collection of letters from my father that they had saved over the years. They read some selections and gave us copies.

For the last few years I did little more than glance through those letters. The idea of hearing my father’s voice again without being able to answer was too painful. When I began sketching ideas for the “Growing Up Joycean” entries on this site I struggled to find ways of conveying my father’s enthusiasm for Joyce. Words like “passion” or even “obsession” only hint at the strength of his feelings. Then I remembered the letters. I decided to read them through and excerpt some of my father’s comments about Joyce so that he could speak for himself. It is telling that I knew with absolute certainty they would contain plenty of Joyce material.

Written to dear friends who shared my father’s love of literature the letters seldom mention daily life (though there is often a postscript  in my mother’s hand with personal updates) focusing instead on books, movies, and music. Often lengthy passages from books my father was reading are copied out in their entirety. My father always loved that Joyce encouraged his readers to discover the works of other writers. From books of Norse and Celtic mythology to Vico’s New Science; from The Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead to the novels of Melville and Thomas Mann, that love of discovery permeates each letter.

The cost of my father’s reverence of Joyce is also to be found in these letters. My father once said he was so intimidated by Joyce’s legacy that whenever he picked up a pen to write he felt terrified to the point of paralysis. In letter after letter the wordplay of Finnegans Wake haunts my father’s writing. The puns and portmanteau words are clearly a self-conscious tribute to the language of Finnegans Wake but there is also the sense of an aspiring writer struggling to move beyond imitation.

I was apprehensive as I began reading the letters, fearing the inevitable flood of memories and emotions. Most of the letters dated from 1972 (the year before I was born) when my father was twenty-seven. As I read, the necessary sadness was there but it was alloyed by unexpected pleasures: the novelty of reading the thoughts of my father as a young man; my amusement at his hippieish turns of phrase (describing 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico as “far out”); the occasional wince-inducing comment (as when he notes that the “the girls” in his Feminism course “have really interesting ideas”); the surprise of reading him praise a book he had always told me he disliked (Jonathan Livingston Seagull).

When confronted by some consistency-minded nitpicker who wanted to nail down his protean thinking (usually me) my father was fond of quoting Whitman’s “Song of Myself:”

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

We tend to simplify people, to make them more consistent than they actually are, especially when they are no longer here to surprise us. These letters, at least temporarily, helped remind me of those multitudes my father contained.

Still, it was inevitable that reading them would be bittersweet. Mixed with the pleasure of hearing my father’s voice again is the looming knowledge that he never found a channel for all his enthusiasm and knowledge—none of his ideas ever went beyond living room discussions.  My father never wrote the book about Joyce he mentions in these excerpts and now that he is dead he never will. That finality is what haunts me most: the person who wrote the words you are about to read is gone forever and the memories and words of those who knew him are only the fading echoes of a life that has ended.

Note: While I have tried to intrude as little as possible in transcribing these excerpts, I have taken some liberties for the sake of clarity (spelling out abbreviated words, adding punctuation, etc). Where I have been unable to decipher a key word I have replaced it with a bracketed question mark.

*     *     *

The book that I’m going to write (someday) has found the bases (didn’t really need to look it was there all ways) from which to work — it’s simple — as simple as the subject matter — JJ from Dubliners to Portrait – to Ulysses (ah Ulysses) to Finnegans Wake — one leads to the other grows from its predecessor — culminating in the beautiful fact that its just (just) one book — the book (mine) will deal with the simplicity — since that’s all there is. “Everything I write is simple” J.J.. It’s only the insistence of others to make it complicated — Ulysses ain’t hard to read — it’s a gas! — It’s difficult if you try to read it like a novel — Joyce was no novelist — he’s a poet!

*     *     *

Vico’s New Science is amazing—completely! Passage after passage of Finnegans Wake come clear as each page of Vico rolls by—

Bruno’s a gas too—will send or bring him to you—please read Vico—definitely important for JJ. Important on its own—

As of late the desire to write has become almost overpowering (almost).

*     *     *

Malory (Morte Arthur) Walter Pater Marius the Epicurean. Names of cats who did strange things with English.  Malory — ancient, wrote 5 page sentences — perhaps some hints there? Ulysses Oxen of the Sun — long sentences — parodies (9) (I think) each corresping to development of the English language. Also fetus. Also etc.

How goes it with Vico? Definitely into language—very strong argument he presents. Joyce’s attraction obvious.

Giordano Bruno’s “On the Infinite” a must.

O! While in Germany, if possible, would you  get the “Limited Editions Club” edition of Ulysses? It’s in 2 vols I think. It’s the most accurate text available. Would be much appreciated.

*     *     *

Glad to hear you’re reading Vico — pretty spaced out wop. Bruno is too — so far out “they” (“they” being the powers that were—i.e. The Church [did I say were?]) burnt him at the stake. All because the silly man believed that for every this there’s a that, for every up a down left-right good-bad—(obviously a fool) and that this infinity of differences is caused by none other than TADAH—you. And me and everyone who believes there’s a left or good or beautiful etc. And he (Bruno) rather than spend his time reading off the list of names of every sonofabitch within a five hundred mile radius said in effect—that the you-me-I is actually a level of consciousness whereby all those participating are kinda doomed to make uncertain choices (Joyces) and under [?]— peacably violently fucked up forever: or until they realize that all men are conceptual animals and that god is one concept in millions, countless millions — and so on.

So Bruno the Nolan:
(“No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude; and the artist, though he may employ the crowd, is very careful to isolate himself.” J.J. Day of the Rabblement. 1901.)
was burned

*     *     *

Volleyed with myself as to whether or not to copy out translation of Latin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — decided yes. “Yes, I said yes I will Yes.”
Note: Joyce said the last four words in the title of A Portrait . . . are the most important.

*     *     *
Last page of the Wake: — “the keys to. Given!” — are the keys to given within the text? — Yes. May the words “the keys to. Given!” be read thusly: “The keys to. Give in!” Yes.

*     *     *

Reading J.J.. Shem the Penman — amazing chapter — confirms many things — on 1 level — it’s J looking at hymnself with more than jaundiced eyes — on the other is the Wrathful Deities of Tibetan fame  . . . The more I read him the funnier he gets. Laughter seems to be the greatest high. Also his poetry — exquisite . . .

*     *     *

Been reading The Wake and Ulysses a lot — goddamn; my heart, my all, jumps and leaps, swoons with the magic of his enchanted language — such music — “Lowly, longly a wail went forth.”— Such calm and peaceful knowing that all flows annalike into the sunflower lily light within us all . . .

*     *     *

Ideas for the Joyce book rumble endlessly through me — amazing connections with amazing Things — all pointing to [?] type expansion states of mind — multi-channeled, quadraleveled.

Pages of the Wake exploding — a universe of raw substance — Listen! — It roars.

Creator hands clap — and bang! A pencil line of light shoots threw an inky universe illuminating hidden vistas of self — countless reflectors and echoes flash and hum — the sounds — vibrations.

Birth Death Birth, etc.

It occured to me that the last few times I opened the book that each time I did it indeed was “Finnegans Wake.” Each Time! Flipped out!! Energy: — raw — clear — vibrant.

It darkles — what a funmanimal world.

Eyes closed — The portals of mine ears receive — Face to Face — The Cosmic Howl: HoHoHoHo —

Well—why not?

Looking for a goal I found none.

Looking for nothing it was all there — eyes still closed because opened eyes see no more than be heard anyway — music — no — sound/silence — distinguishing seems to be nowhere — rather somewhere — nowhere being everywhere.

All this                        all that
I’m as confused as

I have a book on the Scandinavian elements in the Wake — would you like it?

Also Our Exag, which is as close to indispensable as any book about the Wake could be. A real mind bender.

Love and Peace,

Lovesoftfun at Finnegans Wake

Angels & Muses

Sitting at his desk, pen in hand, this writer often imagines he has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. If only, he jokes, he could tell the two apart. On his right shoulder (he’s right-handed) is his first self-chosen muse, and sometime devil, J.D. Salinger. Occasionally he looks more like Raymond Carver, or Dostoevsky, or any number of hardboiled detective writers, but usually he is simply J.D. Salinger. Perched on the writer’s shoulder, Salinger whispers that he should write in an engaging first-person voice; create an erudite narrator who leavens a basic plot with humorous digressions. Sometimes, when the writer anguishes over the details of a description or a kink in the plotline, Salinger grumbles, “Never mind the goddamned plot, it’s the narrator that keeps people interested.”

On this writer’s left shoulder, bespectacled and sporting a van dyke beard, is a much later muse, one he learned to love: Anton Chekhov. Now and then, this is Chekhov the playwright (and doctor) urging the writer to consider the point of view of a character he is unthinkingly trying to neglect. Mostly, though, this is Chekhov the writer of short stories. He speaks mildly from his place on the writer’s shoulder, sounding at times like Austen, or Proust, or even the old haiku poets Basho and Issa. In his doctorly voice he reminds the writer that, in many ways, characters are like patients – they all matter and they all need something from the people around them. “Remember that characters talk to each other, not the reader, and they talk mostly of minutiae. Think of them as patients who love talking of their diseases, although those diseases are the least interesting things in their lives. Do not put words in a character’s mouth. Your language should not distract the reader from your characters,” he intones, reminding the writer (and Salinger) of the old Japanese proverb that an haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon—if the finger is bejeweled it draws attention away from the moon.

Salinger nods with a smile at the digression into Eastern philosophy but bristles at the distinction between character and language. “You learn as much about people—perhaps more about people—from how they tell you their story as you do from their interactions with other characters. Say what you will about psychoanalysis, but there is no question that it has shown us the importance of what people say and how they say it.” Chekhov nods politely, thinking of those stories in which he used excerpts from the diaries and letters of his characters to capture their inner lives. “Of course, you are right that we learn a great deal about a person in psychoanalysis from the choices they make in how they tell their story. But we learn almost nothing about the psychoanalyst.”

The two of them can go on like that for hours, though they always agree on at least one point: that a judicious use of humor in an otherwise sad story only serves to make it more true.

Yet there is another figure, neither angel nor devil, looming large behind the writer and Salinger and Chekhov and the host of smaller angel-devils; a figure so large, with a presence so pervasive, that he often goes unnoticed. Like the Titans or the pre-Christian deities of the pagan world, this Old God holds dark, mysterious powers. He is at the heart of this writer’s mythology and also outside of it. This is James Joyce or, more precisely, a version of Joyce concentrated through the idolatry of the writer’s father. While distinct from the figures of Chekhov or Salinger, this Joyce is also the template, the space within which the entire constellation of angels and devils exists. It is Joyce that creates this writer’s urgent need to weigh and consider each word, to tinker with each sentence in hope that it will ring with layered tones of meaning and shimmer with verse-like beauty.

“Beauty,” Joyce says a bit sternly “is not simply truth, but also the perfect union of form and meaning. A sentence should not only tell the reader something, it should also be constructed in such a way that the reader experiences what you are trying to describe. It is not enough to describe the ringing of bells. Your description should also capture the cadence of those bells. If a character is tired, the writing should contain the lumbering rhythms of fatigue.”

“But these are poetic devices.” Chekhov breaks in. “Of course, if they are married to character they can be useful, but they should not distract you from those characters.” Joyce is booming now, more Milton the blind absolutist than the mild-mannered Jesuit who wept because on certain days his failing eyes prevented him from writing. “Language is a character, perhaps the greatest character.” Chekhov looks smaller, retracted as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope, but he holds his ground. “Language is many things to a character: voice, mood, impression . . . it is perhaps everything but character. Characters are people.” This is an argument whose quiet logic and truth neither Joyce nor the writer’s father can fully deny. The contradiction between Joyce the lover of language and technique and Joyce the writer who sought to create a complete human being is too great and, at least for now, he is shattered into shards of truth as he hears the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry and a screaming comes across the sky: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawn-toohoohoordenenthurnuk!”

The heavens burst open in a mutiny of voices as this writer is deafened by a lifetime’s worth of family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, books, newspapers, events, films, songs, places, feelings, truths, lies, silences, experiences, sensations, thoughts

Tall Tale

Translated from the Russian.

Not so long ago, in the town of Putzgrad, there lived a shy, lanky man named Arkady Schtupkin. He was forty years old and had worked twenty of those years as a clerical at the University, sorting and filing papers and entering figures. If asked, his co-workers would all have admitted that if they didn’t see Schtupkin sitting behind his desk or in the cafeteria eating a tuna sandwich every day they would soon forget him altogether. In fact, Schtupkin would hardly be worthy of even an author’s attention were it not for his strong feelings and tenacious thinking on a particular subject.

Over the course of his forty years Arkady Schtupkin had developed an intense dislike, one might even say hatred, of short people. This was not because they are repugnant, stubby little specimens of humanity—though this is quite true and anyone would be excused for despising short people on these grounds. Neither did this aversion of Schtupkin’s arise from a lifetime of dealing with the so-called “Napoleon Complex”—a very real and prevalent disorder whereby short people attempt to compensate for their lack of physical stature by dominating the world, or at least those unfortunate enough to live or work with them. (This being said, Schtupkin, who had always been unusually tall, endured a great deal of torture and belligerence throughout his life at the hands of people with the Napoleon Complex. As a child in Sunday school he was the de facto choice for “Goliath” on the playground, meaning time that should have been enjoyable was spent dodging hurled debris. By the age of twelve he was a head taller than his own father, who mocked Schtupkin in front of his siblings for taking up too much space, eating too much food, and being clumsy. Schtupkin was at his most content when he went unnoticed but teachers always called on him in class because his slightest movement drew their attention; later his employers regularly selected him for additional duties for the same reason, and even his wife admitted after they were married that she had first been drawn to him because of his height. It only made matters worse that schoolyard and barroom bullies could safely attack Schtupkin because they knew from experience that people over six feet tall are by nature passive and timid about fighting back. The authorities—both teachers and the police—were unsympathetic if he complained. “Why didn’t you just squash him like a insect? You could easily have trounced such a small person,” they always said, dragging their eyes over the length of him and shaking their heads.) No, none of this was the source of his animosity towards short people. He knew that this sort of behavior from others was to be expected and could not be changed. But what he could not resign himself to were the staggering number of delusional notions that short people held about what it was like to be tall.

This was the source of Schtupkin’s anger. He was tired of listening to ignorant, disgusting little runts tell him how wonderful it must be to be tall. It wasn’t enough that they had mercilessly and relentlessly singled him out for all sorts of mistreatment because of his height—he was also expected to sit by and listen while his tormentors praised the very source of his misery. Sometimes the comments were presumptuous (“it must be nice to be so tall”) other times envious (“I wish I was tall like you”), still other times awestruck (“Wow, how did you get to be so tall?”) but always they needled at Schtupkin, infuriating him.

“What do you know about being tall? What can you know about being six foot six? You have no experience! I have been your height—many years ago—but you have never been as tall as me!” He often spoke this way to people who said such things, surprising them with his intensity. Sometimes he would go on at such length that he worked himself into a fever, “You have no idea what you are talking about! Nice to be tall? Is it nice that I spend hours of every year taking things down from high shelves because people are too lazy or proud to get a footstool? Is it nice that I must wince at every new introduction, dreading the moment when each new acquaintance will ask if I play basketball? Would it be nice for you if I asked you to pick up things I have dropped because I do not feel like bending over? Would you like it if every time you met someone they asked if you were a jockey? Of course not! There is nothing nice about being tall. But tall people must endure your rudeness. And not only that, they must do so while being considerate of the fact that you are ‘sensitive about your height.’ If someone told you that a tall person was sensitive about his height and that you shouldn’t bring it up, you would think the idea ridiculous. This world is run by short people and designed by short people—and it’s no wonder! Short people are given every advantage! In school they are told to sit in the front row where they can see the board clearly and can learn properly, while tall people are stuffed into the back where we won’t obstruct anyone’s view. A short person can go through their day in comfort: never shoved into an airplane seat with no leg-room, never forced to stoop over a desk that is too low, never bent double over sinks or under showerheads, never forced to duck under chandeliers and ceiling fans. Every seat is a first-class seat for a short person. I can say this with certainty because I have been every height below 6’6 and I know that the perfect height is 5’8. Every chair was comfortable, every table the right height and for every shelf or cabinet door that was too high for me to reach, there were a million things that were exactly where I wanted them. Do you know why there are so few tall people left in France? Because they were all killed off during the First World War, that’s why. Sent to their deaths by short people like you, by little Napoleons. Being tall isn’t a blessing, it’s a disability. And yet you look at me and my disability and try to tell me how splendid it is? Would you approach someone in a wheelchair and say, ‘it must be wonderful to never need to find a seat’ or go up to a blind person and say, ‘how lucky you are to be able to develop your senses of hearing and smell’? It’s inconceivable. And yet when it comes to tall people you show no sensitivity at all. So don’t lecture me on something you know nothing about. There is nothing nice about being tall. It is torture for the body and the mind.”

Of course, it is true that Schtupkin never actually gave this speech. He spoke parts of it to various people over the years, occasionally adding embellishments when relating the conversations to his wife (who was herself quite tall). But most of it he spoke only to himself in the car during the long commute home, adding and reworking phrases and rehearsing his delivery with the hope that one day the perfect opportunity would come and he would be able to give vent to his feelings in one eloquent burst of righteous rage.