Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Month: June, 2016

Detective Story #10—Terra Cognita

On days like today—lazy, quiet, empty days that settle like dust in corners—I can’t help but think of my teachers.

Professor Lu began the first lecture of his Business of Detection class by saying, “When you first open for business, you’ll have all the solitude you can bear. Waiting for that first client to come through the door is a unique form of loneliness. No matter how much confidence you have, no matter how carefully you have prepared, it will feel as though your success has become concentrated on the question of whether or not someone will discover a small point in space that only you know exists. You will feel powerless. Which is why this period of solitude and emptiness is the ideal time to start an investigation.”

The students, many of them still settling into their seats, fell into awkward silence. Professor Lu was elderly and during those first few classes many of us assumed (partly due to misinformation spread, with his encouragement, by former students) that he was a bit senile. “Investigating what?” some student asked, trying to conceal her irritation. Professor Lu looked perplexed. Later, after watching him deliver this same lecture many times, I came to see that this was all teacherly theater. After a pause he said: “Your next case, of course.” Slipping into the gentle condescension young people often use with the elderly, another student asked if it didn’t make more sense to wait for a specific client to arrive in order to avoid making assumptions. Professor Lu shrugged, saying, “What are you waiting for, exactly?” Then, in the tone of a man quoting himself, he went on: “All of life hangs together in once piece, everything is connected with everything else. Don’t you already have enough to get started? Don’t you always have enough to get started?”

His method was simple. We should sit in our bare offices and investigate whatever came to mind: “Spread your thoughts as wide as you can and dive as deep as possible.”

“Spread wide and dive deep,” a male student said in a lewd stage whisper.

Professor Lu didn’t acknowledge the joke but he didn’t ignore it either. With the timing of a comedian he held his delivery until the brief spell of tittering subsided. He showed no sign of disapproval or annoyance, only a gentle, subtle generosity that demonstrated his point: a skilled investigator allows for everything. “Start your investigation before your client comes through the door and you’ll already have some clues.”

He was right. There were many empty days when I first went into business, days when I had nothing but myself and the world around me to investigate—so that’s what I did. As if it were no small thing. At first, I stood at my casement windows and fixed my gaze towards Chao’s Restaurant across the street; watching the customers come and go, watching the passers-by pass by. It was too much. So I turned around and looked at my own office. I investigated everything that came to mind; every inch of the room around me. At least that’s how it felt at the time, though I’ve come to see how superficial those investigations actually were. Still, when my first client finally showed up—a middle-aged man trying to remember a pun he had thought of the previous day and then forgotten—I found that I already had some leads.

I also think of Professor Arkpafisto. I still listen to my recordings of her Art of Investigation lectures: “The unknown begins with the known. Think of old maps with large zones of empty space labeled Terra Incognita. Why in the world would a map include uncharted territory? What purpose can this serve? I can’t speak to what those old cartographers were thinking but I believe there is a beauty in marking the transition between the known and the unknown, in conceding that knowledge is bounded on all sides by frontiers of ignorance. Why does this matter to us? Because a detective is an explorer in the terra incognita of other people’s lives. When a new client first steps into your office you know nothing about them or their situation. Which begs the question: why do clients seek the assistance of someone who knows less about their problem than they do? Remember: people don’t hire detectives because of what they know—they hire us because we are comfortable navigating within the unknown. And that comfort only comes with practice.”

So, on empty days like this one, I chart the terra cognita of my office. I do this to prepare and to combat boredom—not only in the moment, but generally. If you see life and the world around you as a mystery, boredom is impossible. The flat, static, familiar objects you believe you already know become clues leading infinitely outward.

For a long time I worked with lists. I picked a spot in the office that felt unfamiliar and stood there, clipboard in hand, while I wrote out an inventory of every item in my office. I reflected on each item, considering where it came from, how long I had owned it, what purpose it served, until I became intrigued by some idea or question. Then I tried to follow that idea or question wherever it might lead, for as long as possible. It was rare for me to work through the entire inventory. Usually I became engrossed by a particular item. On one memorable occasion I got no further than my clipboard. Regardless, the process was time-consuming and resulted in some expensive phone bills and convoluted browser histories. But it worked: my metal filing cabinet lead me to the life of Sir Francis Bacon; my aspidistra directed me to a history of Japanese Bento boxes; the glass ashtray I keep as a decoration (smoking has never been allowed in my building) resulted in my reading a biography of Anton Chekhov; the armrests on my couch took me to the Levant States and the history of French Colonialism, while the upholstery pointed me to special effects in theatre. And, over the years, those same items have taken me in dozens of other directions.

Gradually, my interest shifted, became less literal. The inventory became an annotated list. Then I annotated my annotations. The objects were forgotten in favor of the list itself. Word-by-word, I consulted my reference books, noting each definition and listing synonyms. Using an X-Acto blade like a scalpel, I extracted each word, then sat at my desk and rearranged the cut-out slivers into poems and horoscopes. I made enlargements of each word so I could cut out individual letters to make new words; I made anagrams and palindromes. It wasn’t long before working with text began to feel too abstract and I shifted my focus back to objects. With the graphite pencils I had left over from my art course at the Academy, I made small line drawings on index cards of each object in my office. One day I laid these sketches side by side on my desk and stepped back to look at them. Laid out at random they looked like puzzle pieces and when I began to rearrange the cards to reflect the layout of the room, I saw that I had the beginnings of a map.

So now, on empty days, I draw maps of my office and annotate them. The maps have evolved—are evolving. The first maps were little more than floor plans with lists attached. As I’ve slowly taught myself to draw and paint, what began as an attempt to itemize a room and its contents has become an investigation in itself. With each map, I explore both the contents of the room and my experience of it. With pencil and ink I record the facts of the room and with brush and color I try to capture some of its essence.

Today:  


Note: Three mottos hang on the walls of my office. The most prominent, which I have already mentioned several times, hangs directly behind me: “Life is a mystery and these are the clues.” The second also hangs on the wall behind me but it is much smaller and less prominently placed.  They are Professor Lu’s words: “It’s all one case.” The third (and longest) motto hangs on a small patch of the opposite side of the room, blocked from view by the office door whenever it is open. This motto, a quotation my brother found and had printed and framed, is just for me:

Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery
is everywhere; but still the truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled.


—Mark Winsome

*       *      *

Acknowledgements: For making Nadie’s map a reality, my sincere thanks to Acey Toothypegs, beloved sister and dearest friend. Lovely as it is, this map only hints at her creative talents. Take a moment to explore Acey’s work at www.toothypegsart.com.

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Detective Story #11 – The Complemental Op

“Can I count on your discretion?”

His first words. Even before he introduced himself.

Not that an introduction was necessary. I already knew his name — we all did. He was a legend. 

This was my first time seeing him up close. His figure was slight but he didn’t seem small. He seemed economical: absent any extraneous details. His pants were perfectly cut; pressed without looking too crisp. His cream colored shirt looked so comfortable I wanted to wear it. His shoes were worn but clean and well-maintained.

I tilted an open hand toward the two chairs in front of my desk, a vague gesture that seemed to imply he was welcome to sit in both chairs simultaneously. He took a step forward but didn’t sit down right away. Instead he stood between the chairs, the fingers of his left hand grazing padded upholstery. 

I nodded.
“I prefer vocal confirmation,” he said. “I’m sure you understand.”

He waited, his body not so much still as it was neutral, like a car: engine running, gears disengaged.

“Yes, of course,” I said in a clear, deliberate voice. “You can absolutely rely on my honoring the code of confidentiality between detective and client.”

“Thank you,” he said. Then his body flowed into motion, stepping between the chairs, then easing himself into the chair on the right. Standing still he had seemed light on his feet but in motion he was so graceful that his movements nearly escaped notice. 

“How can I help you?” I asked, sitting back in my chair.

“I’m working on the wrong case,” he said.

I resisted the urge to nod. Most clients need to feel that I understand their problem right away and a quick nod, even if it is a little premature, can help. This situation called for something different. He was a veteran detective. I had studied several of his cases, attended his lectures. No professional tricks: that was the best way to proceed.

I opened my mouth to ask what he meant but he stopped me by raising a finger.

“I have several active cases. High-priority, paying cases. I have operatives helping me, of course, but there is an expectation — a perfectly reasonable expectation — that I will attend to each investigation personally, if not fully. My operatives are not intended to act as surrogates for me, they are surrogates for my time. They allow me to conduct more investigations than would otherwise be possible. Recently, however, I have become distracted by what I have come to realize is another case, a non-paying case.”

Now I nodded. This was a situation I could understand. 

“Do you know why I became a detective?” He asked.
I shook my head and said nothing. I make it a rule to never answer rhetorical questions.

“I became a detective,” he said, “because I wanted to see the sadness in all things.”

I raised my eyebrows. Many detectives leave the profession because they find it too depressing. We spend most of our time in the double darkness of our clients’ uncertainty and our own. Guiding people through the mysteries in their lives can be disheartening. I had never heard a detective cite sadness as their reason for joining the profession. No wonder he was such a natural.

“When I started out I understood my motivations quite differently,” he continued after a pause. “Over time I’ve come to better understand my own impulses. I thought I was seeking truth and beauty and all that abstract, philosophical silliness. But all I really wanted was to find the sadness that lies at the heart of some things and covers the rest like a veneer. Sadness is the truth and beauty of this life: it is the vessel of beauty and the marrow of truth; what isn’t born of sadness ends in sadness — and there is much that is sad through and through.”

I nodded, noting the melancholy his words had triggered in me. Sadness was the core, the marrow, of life. How any times had I been on the verge of having this same, lovely realization?

“And how do you find it?” I asked.

The question seemed to surprise him and he smiled. 

“It’s about how you approach cases, how you approach witnesses and clues.” He paused, then went on: “I’m sure you’ve already figured this out — that’s why I’ve come to you — but many of our colleagues approach everyone and everything they come across with so-called skepticism. Everyone is a liar until their story checks out, every clue might have been planted until you can confirm to your satisfaction that it wasn’t, every suspect is guilty until you have determined that they’re not (and even then they’re still guilty of something else). Tiresome nonsense. Skepticism is a fine approach for science but it makes for a hollow way of life. And, like living, investigation is an art. Each case is a work of art. The crime, if there is one, is a work of art, and so is our investigation.”

“And you don’t see a place for skepticism in approaching a work of art?”

“Of course not.” He said. “Art requires openness, a willingness to overcome your point of view. Skepticism, or what people call skepticism, is usually a withdrawing into one’s point of view based on the assumption that what has worked in the past is all the truth there is to find. We’re all chauvinists and if art has any value it’s enabling us to see and understand another point of view. Too often skepticism is an extension of anxiety. We fear being wrong, so we hedge our bets by being skeptical of everything — which usually just means being unwilling to accept the value of a new idea. Frankly, what most detectives characterize as their skepticism is only cynicism. Challenging and questioning during an investigation should open doors not close them. The jaded, trust-no-one, hard-boiled persona is a product of ego and there’s no place for ego in this busines.”

“That’s true,” I nodded. “Is that why you’re here?” I asked trying to bring the conversation back into focus. “Because your ego has gotten in the way of a case?”

“Not exactly. At least, I don’t think so. I’m here because I want you to investigate me and how I’m investigating a case.”

I raised my eyebrows again.

“I can see potential confidentiality issues. Has your client given his or her authority for this — or would I be retained as one of your operatives?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. “As I said, this is a non-paying case. In truth, this is a case without a client. No one has hired me, I’m not being paid, so there is no expectation of confidentiality.”

I waited.

“You use silence well,” he said, smiling. “I’ll explain.”

He lowered his eyes for a moment. 

“There is a hot dog vendor in front of my building. He’s been there for years. We’ve been on a first name basis for most of that time. He’s friendly and amiable and moves easily between conversations with his various customers. I’ve spoken briefly with him about the weather, sports, politics — all the standard, casual topics. I’ve also spoken with him about life, death, spirituality, philosophy, aesthetics. We’ve had chats that lasted twenty seconds and others that lasted twenty minutes. Lately, however — for about the last six weeks — I’ve been unable to focus on my work because of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with him. We talk for long periods of time, sometimes more than an hour. I order a hot dog, we talk, then I wait when other people order and he and I continue talking whenever there is a lull or whenever he is able to do his job while also conversing with me. Sometimes I do most of the talking but sometimes I just listen. Increasingly, time I should be spending on my investigations is spent talking to this hot dog vendor. Whenever our conversations end, I feel a real sense of regret and often find myself going over them in my head, rehashing what each of us has said and rehearsing what I’ll say next time.”

“And you say this has been a single, ongoing conversation for the past six weeks?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“May I ask what the conversation is about?”

“It doesn’t matter.” He said and shrugged. “Besides, you’ll find out soon enough.”

I agreed to take his case. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes discussing terms. He wanted to waive the customary rate reduction within the trade but I was unwilling to charge my full rate to a colleague. After some pleasant back and forth we agreed that I would receive part of my payment in future referrals.
I expected him to leave after we had signed the contracts but once he had returned my pen and clipboard he settled back into his chair.

“Before I leave, I have a request.”

“Yes?”

“Whenever I work with another detective I ask them to tell me the Parable of the Assassin — I assume you know it?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve heard and read it many times. At the Academy, of course, and from my father before that.”

“Tell it to me,” he said, gently.

I took a deep breath and then began. 

Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce‘s modern epic of everyday life, which takes place on June 16, 1904. Bloomsday is named for the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, a modern-day Odysseus who echoes that Homeric hero’s long journey home as he strolls the streets of Dublin.

Ulysses was published on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, but the impulse to celebrate the novel on June 16th seems to have been immediate (in a 1924 letter Joyce mentions “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—June 16”). In 1954 a group that included two Irish writers (novelist Flann O’Brien and poet Patrick Kavanagh) inaugurated the intention (if not the practice) of celebrating Bloomsday by retracing Bloom’s journey across Dublin and re-enacting events from the book—ultimately they settled for accomplishing the equally Joycean feat of getting drunk in a pub. In the ensuing decades, though, those intentions have been realized by Joyce admirers the world over in the form of festivals, walking tourspublic readings, radio broadcasts, informal gatherings, and countless tributes on social media.

The Bloomsday Project is my own contribution. Beginning with Episode 1 in 2006, I have paid tribute to Ulysses every Bloomsdayone chapter at a time, by posting an excerpt prefaced by my own commentary and observations. My goal is to share some of the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here. All of my previous Bloomsday posts can be found in the archives.

Sirens (Episode 11)

Ulysses is an uncommonly musical novel. Several characters, including Molly Bloom and her lover Blazes Boylan, are professional singers, while others, like Stephen Dedalus and his estranged father, Simon, are talented amateurs. Most of the rest, like Leopold Bloom himself, are music-lovers. This is only the beginning of musicality in Ulysses, however. The text itself is woven through with references and allusions to music of all kinds. More than three-hundred songs are listed in the index to Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, a list that includes nursery rhymes and bawdy ballads; liturgical music and jingles; pop songs and rebel songs, earworms and arias. Some songs are used in passing, others recur as motifs or reveal a character’s state of mind (imagine how much more annoying that summer chart-topper would be if, like Bloom, you knew it was by your sexual rival). At least one song, a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, subtly foreshadows the famous final line of the novel’s coda. The better we understand Joyce’s use of music in Ulysses, the deeper our understanding of the book as a whole. And nowhere in Ulysses is music more central than in Episode 11, where Joyce has set himself the seemingly impossible task of both writing about music and attempting to make music with his writing. Music is referenced throughout Ulysses but Episode 11 is music.

In Homer’s Odyssey the Sirens are two magical creatures who lure sailors to crash on the rocky shore of their small island by singing an irresistible song promising each listener gifts of wisdom and prophecy. Determined to hear the siren’s song without falling victim to it, Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the mast and plug their ears with wax so that he can listen while his men row on to safety.

In Ulysses, the Sirens episode is set in the Ormond Hotel bar, an actual location that was a well-known haunt for amateur musicians at the turn of the last century. The episode takes place around 4:00 PM, an hour that has particular importance to Bloom, who knows this is when his wife has arranged a rendezvous with her lover, Blazes Boylan. Bloom is surprised, then, when he sees Boylan’s car outside the Ormond Hotel, and decides to investigate under the guise of meeting with an acquaintance in the hotel saloon. Two barmaids, Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, who idly flirt behind their reef-like bar, partially stand in for the sirens—though the closest they come to singing are peals of orgasmic laughter. (Miss Kennedy also makes a sort of music when she obliges a customer by snapping an elastic garter strap against her thigh). The singing is left to the male patrons, most significantly Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, a talented singer and raconteur who squanders his talents in pubs and bars while his family slips into poverty. Simon Dedalus and the other patrons take turns playing the piano and singing, while Leopold Bloom, ever the voyeur, looks on from his seat near the door, sometimes covertly joining in by strumming an elastic band of his own.

In Episode 7, Aeolus, Joyce displayed his tremendous command of language and rhetoric. Here he combines those skills with his understanding of music, which was formidable in its own right. Joyce was an accomplished tenor who considered a singing career (as Stephen Dedalus does in Episode 10). His knowledge of music was encylopedic and throughout his life he was known to give impromptu recitals at parties and literary events, accompanying himself on the guitar or piano. That same knowledge provides him with an arsenal of devices as he strives to make music with words.

Here are a few examples:

  • The episode, which Joyce described as a fugue, begins with what appears to be sixty-three lines of non-sequiturs, sentence fragments, and even meaningless strings of letters (“Imperthnthn thnthnthn”). In fact, as literary historian Kevin Birmingham writes in his excellent The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, those sixty-three lines are “an overture, an introduction to the musical sounds and phrases that would be repeated, contextualized and vested with meaning over the course of the chapter.” In context they make more sense: “Imperthnthn thnthnthn”  proves to be a barman’s juvenile mockery of Miss Douce’s haughty promise to report his “impertinent insolence.”
  • Throughout the episode, Joyce insinuates musical terminology into his writing with puns like “play on her heartstrings pursestrings too” and “if he doesn’t conduct himself.” In describing Miss Kennedy’s mouth with the phrase “coral lips” he simultaneously evokes the siren’s coral reef and vocal (choral) music.
  • Joyce also plays with sentence structure to bring a sense of music to his writing. Consider this three-sentence paragraph, which critic Declan Kiberd likens to “finger exercises in musical scales, ringing changes on the same set of words”: Miss Kennedy sauntered sadly from bright light, twining a loose hair behind an ear. Sauntering sadly, gold no more, she twisted twined a hair. Sadly she twined in sauntering gold hair behind a curving ear.

So what temptation does Bloom, like Odysseus, experience without succumbing to its power? For the men and women in the Ormond Hotel bar, the camaraderie that comes of sharing songs is as important as the songs themselves. They are unified as much by the patter and banter surrounding the music as they are by each nostalgic, sentimental song. Even Bloom, the lurking outsider, experiences a moment of community in the section of Episode 11 I have chosen as this year’s excerpt. Bloom listens as Simon Dedalus performs a beautiful rendition of  M’Appari (“Come Thou Lost One”), an aria from Friedrich Von Flotow’s light opera Martha, in which Lionel, a successful farmer who has fallen in love with a Lady masquerading as a servant girl, laments her sudden disappearance. For nearly one-hundred lines, Joyce cuts between the text of the aria (Simon Dedalus sings a loosely translated version) and Bloom’s interior monologue as he responds to the words and music. The climax so moves Bloom that character, singer, and listener become entwined, an ecstatic state Joyce captures with the portmanteau word “Siopold!”—an exultant combination of Simon (singer), Lionel (character) and Leopold.

It is a powerful moment, one that has genuinely moved Bloom even though, true to his contemplative nature, he soon goes on to reflect: “Numbers it is. All music when you come to think. . . Do anything you like with figures juggling. . . And you think you’re listening to the etherial.” Still, music is important to Bloom. He takes an active part in his wife’s singing career and wonders why their daughter, Milly, has not inherited her parents’ discerning taste. As Kiberd suggests, “the beauty of good music is that you can hear it many times with added pleasure. . . At its best, it may evolve new forms, which work in surprising ways; but sentimental songs performed around the piano by tired men will not generate new meanings. These men want to retreat into a past which will allow them to forget the unhappy present.” When Bloom hears another talented singer (Ben Dollard) bringing another sentimental song (The Croppy Boy) to its tragic climax, he thinks it best to “get out before the end.” Tellingly, the song-forged trinity of performer-character-listener embodied by the one-line exclamation “Siopold!” has been replaced by passing uses of “Lionelleopold” and “Simonlionel”—a lingering trace of the character, Lionel, remains in both men but the connection between singer and listener has vanished. For Bloom, the community in the Ormond Hotel bar is an enticing trap that uses fetishizing the emotional power of music as a lure. “Better give way only half way,” he decides. So Bloom leaves the Ormond to continue his journey across Dublin having enjoyed some beautiful singing without falling victim to its charms. Outside, though, he makes a little music of his own, letting loose a noisy fart (“Pprrpffrrppffff“)—a residual echo (or, perhaps, a distillation) of the songs he heard in the Ormond.

Below is this year’s excerpt (the Siopold section described above). As usual, I’ve also included an audio clip of the excerpt from the 1982 RTÉ full-cast production of Ulysses. Given the musicality on display in the writing, more than ever I would encourage readers to play the clip and follow along.


Each graceful look

First night when first I saw her at Mat Dillon’s in Terenure. Yellow, black lace she wore. Musical chairs. We two the last. Fate. After her. Fate.

Round and round slow. Quick round. We two. All looked. Halt. Down she sat. All ousted looked. Lips laughing. Yellow knees.

Charmed my eye

Singing. Waiting she sang. I turned her music. Full voice of perfume of what perfume does your lilactrees. Bosom I saw, both full, throat warbling. First I saw. She thanked me. Why did she me? Fate. Spanishy eyes. Under a peartree alone patio this hour in old Madrid one side in shadow Dolores shedolores. At me. Luring. Ah, alluring.

Martha! Ah, Martha!

Quitting all languor Lionel cried in grief, in cry of passion dominant to love to return with deepening yet with rising chords of harmony. In cry of lionel loneliness that she should know, must martha feel. For only her he waited. Where? Here there try there here all try where. Somewhere.

Co-ome, thou lost one!
     Co-ome, thou dear one!

Alone. One love. One hope. One comfort me. Martha, chestnote, return!

Come!

It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness…

To me!

Siopold!

Consumed.

Come. Well sung. All clapped. She ought to. Come. To me, to him, to her, you too, me, us.

—Bravo! Clapclap. Good man, Simon. Clappyclapclap. Encore! Clapclipclap clap. Sound as a bell. Bravo, Simon! Clapclopclap. Encore, enclap, said, cried, clapped all, Ben Dollard, Lydia Douce, George Lidwell, Pat, Mina Kennedy, two gentlemen with two tankards, Cowley, first gent with tank and bronze miss Douce and gold Miss Mina.