Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Growing Up Joycean

Growing Up Joycean (3) – A Portait from the Artist as a Young Man

For more than twenty-five years a promotional poster for Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce has hung on dozens of walls in the various houses and apartments I have called home. I don’t remember how or precisely when my father acquired the poster but I have a clear image from when I was nine or ten years old of it pinned to the wall above the makeshift shelf of Joyce books in my parents’ bedroom. Later, during a brief mania that involved mounting to wood or foam board any image he intended to look at more than once, my father attached the poster to a piece of cheap plywood. By then we lived in a house big enough to devote an entire room to our books, so the poster resided in the closed-in porch we called the library. Eventually (again, I don’t remember how or precisely when) the poster came to me.

One evening about ten years ago I had some friends over to watch a couple movies. As I was bringing out a bowl of chips I noticed one of my friends looking intently at the poster of Joyce. This friend was older than the rest of us (nearly forty) and had the seen the poster many times over the years, so it was odd that he was scrutinizing the image so closely. When I asked him (a bit sarcastically) why he seemed so captivated, he smiled and said, “I just can’t believe how much younger Joyce looks in that picture every year.”

One of the ironies of hanging an image on your wall is that you seldom see it and almost never truly look at it. My father had once pointed out to me how magnified Joyce’s eyes were by the strong lenses of his glasses but beyond that I had never really looked at the man in the photograph. I had certainly never thought about his age. As a boy I simply regarded Joyce as a grown-up—and a dead grown-up at that. Even as I became a grown-up myself I simply didn’t think of Joyce as having been a living, breathing, aging, human being. Of course, Joyce’s boater hat and bow-tie as well as the sepia toned rusticity of the photograph itself all contributed to that sense of timelessness, as did Joyce’s reputation and stature as a Man of Genius. Joyce was an Immortal, how could he age?

When I finally looked at the picture I saw that my friend was right. The photograph was taken circa 1917 which means that Joyce was in his mid-thirties (he was born in 1882). In other words, the Joyce in the photograph was younger than my parents, younger than my professors, younger even than some of my classmates and friends at the time. The Joyce in the photograph had, in fact, only recently published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and was about five years from finishing Ulysses.

Since that evening I have tried look past the iconic image and see the person. Now I find that I am older than the Joyce in the photograph.

A work of art is a constant in a changing world, a reminder that we are changing along with everything else. Whenever we revisit a work of art we are given a rare glimpse of that change in ourself. The film or song we loved as a child we find insipid in our twenties but return to with nostalgic affection in later life. The book that once seemed so touching or original fails to move us as we grow older, while another work that baffled or bored us ten years ago now seems laden with wisdom.

The eerie sense of communing with your former selves is even stronger when you are the creator of the work in question.

When I was twenty-one I enrolled in my first creative writing course. Initially my pieces were short, gimmicky metafictions. I remember one story (cleverly titled “A Story”) that consisted entirely of a narrator stringing together digressions for five pages and never actually telling his story. As part of his critique of this piece, the professor encouraged me to stop playing games and write something true. I took his suggestion to heart and the result was “The Sentence,” a longer piece about my relationship with my father in the months after my parents divorced. At the time it was a breakthrough story for me, my first attempt to explore the texture and complexity of real life in fiction. Reading it now I find it uneven, filled with youthful narcissism and painfully transparent adolescent poses. Still, it was the story that would establish the techniques and values that have defined my writing ever since.

Since I recently posted excerpts from letters my father wrote about Joyce, I thought it only fair to include the following excerpt from “The Sentence”—a description of my father and I talking about Joyce. This is the only description of my triangular relationship with my father and Joyce that was written at the time. I present this excerpt exactly as it was written, resisting a great many temptations to edit and revise.

*     *     *

I would usually find him sitting in his padded rocking chair, cramming cigarette butts into an ashtray already crammed full of them. He was having trouble sleeping . . . His eyes were puffy and red, his face careworn. There were cigarette ashes everywhere . . . The ashes that had not settled on him or the furniture became trapped inside the thin shafts of sunlight that shone through the cracks in the blinds. The entire room was still . . . quiet. Only the creaking of the his chair as he lightly rocked back and forth . . . He would raise his eyebrows in greeting when I walked in . . . The expression on his face seemed to indicate that he was on the verge of speaking, but he never did . . . The awkward silence would get to me after awhile and I would begin to talk . . .

—I’m reading Chekhov in class.

He looks up, probably more interested in the fact that I’m talking, than in what I’m saying.

The Cherry Orchard?
—No . . . No, we’re reading the short stories.
—Ah, Lady with Lapdog, then?
—Among others, yes . . . They’re really terrific. I’d honestly have to say he’s better with short stories than Joyce.
—Really? Better than The Dead?
—Well . . . That’s something else. I was thinking more of the shorter stories by Joyce. A Painful Case, Clay,  . . . Araby.
—Well, Joyce’s form was always the novel.

James Joyce is almost like a member of the family . . . He is mentioned more than certain relatives. I am named after him.

—Oh, sure . . . But his short stories aren’t bad by any means. In fact, I can honestly say that only Chekhov and Melville impress me more.

He is leaning forward now, genuinely interested.

—Speaking of Joyce . . . You’ve read Portrait, right?
—Sure. That’s the only one I have any sort of grasp on.
—Don’t worry about it . . . It’s like Ellmann says: You don’t read Joyce . . . You re-read him . . . Anyhow . . . What was I saying?
—About Portrait?
—Oh, right . . . Well, I was just re-reading Kenner’s essay on Portrait . . . Since I have so much time on my hands. He laughs and then shrugs apologetically. Did you ever read that one?
—I don’t think so. I answer with feigned absent-mindedness, knowing that I have.
—Well, in it he makes this great point about about the bird-girl passage. You know, that really beautiful passage where Stephen is watching the young girl in the stream, but he describes her as a seabird . . .
—I remember it well, it’s one of my favorites.
—Well, Kenner in this essay . . . Here, let me read it to you. There’s no point in my butchering it with a paraphrase when I have it . . . He twists around and drags his finger across some of the books behind him . . . Right . . . Shit, where the hell is it . . . Ah, here it is! . . . I tell you Kenner is great . . . Alright . . . Yes, here it is . . . Okay, first he talks about how Joyce doesn’t just want to parody, how does he put it . . . To parody adolescent rapture . . . Now here’s the good part: Yet he’d not pretend that it soared over limitations. It is just what it is: a talented boy’s rhapsodizing. I think that’s right on . . .

For some reason the comments feels like an insult. Limitations? But the passage is beautiful . . . What more can one ask?

—Hmm . . . I don’t know that I agree with that. Why is a beautiful passage like that any less valuable than a mature work by someone like Yeats? Like The Song of Wandering Aengus . . .
—No, you’ve missed the point. The beauty of the passage is that it put Stephen’s talents at the time in perspective. Joyce doesn’t just parody the immaturity of his writing—which would be pointless—but he also doesn’t do anything ridiculous like make him seem too talented for his age. It’s still great writing, but it is made greater when you understand the accomplishment. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of pretty words strung together.
—I guess . . .

My father is sitting up now . . . He is excited and enthusiastic, passionate. He is looking at me eagerly . . . Eager for me to agree, to develop . . . He expects a lot of me . . . He told me once that he could never bring himself to write because he was terrified . . . That was his word: terrified . . . Every time he picked up his pen to write . . . Terrified.

—Remember, James . . . A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man . . . The most important words in the title are the last four: as a Young Man.

Most of what he says to me he has said before. Maybe he realizes this, because he sits back in his chair and fades away again.

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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
at
The
stake.

*     *     *

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
Obviously
I’m as confused as
Ever.

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

Growing Up Joycean (1) – How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Ulysses

“There was no hope for him this time . . .”
— James Joyce, Dubliners (“The Sisters”)

We are all raised in the wake of someone else’s obsession. Religion and politics are the most common examples but it can be anything: a parent who loves old cars or spends every spare moment in their garden, an older sibling who collects stamps, a grandparent who is devoted to a hapless baseball team, a relative who loves Jazz or crossword puzzles . . . The same people who are there when we speak our first words or take our first steps, who teach us to tell time and tie our shoes, also initiate us into the parallel universe of their peculiar fascinations.

For me it was James Joyce. Before I could write, before I could read, my father was already sharing his love of Joyce with me in ways I am still discovering. My father’s opinions and observations about Joyce are buried throughout my mind like land mines. If I come across the word “very” in a book or article I immediately recall my father’s assertion (taken from Joyce) that it is a useless word. Sometimes, while watching or listening to a science program, someone will mention quarks and, like a reflex, my mind supplies “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (the term quark, my father loved to point out, was taken from Finnegans Wake). It is nearly impossible for me to think of Joyce without thinking of my father or, for that matter, to think of my father without thinking of Joyce.

Was my father a professor of Irish literature? A Joyce scholar? A writer or critic? He was none of these. In fact, he was a self-described hippie who dropped out of high school. He took many college classes but he never completed his degree. Not that this description does him justice. He was intensely curious, had a phenomenal memory, and a deep passion for reading. The superficiality of formal, institutionalized education frustrated him. The glib notion of studying a subject simply to pass a test or fulfill a prerequisite was anathema to him. He wanted to learn.

Which made him an ideal match for Joyce, a writer who requires (even presumes) active, engaged, and curious readers.

My father told me the story of how he discovered Joyce many times. In the late 1950s he was sent to a prestigious Catholic boarding school in New England. At some point the school authorities circulated a list of books that were forbidden. Already a rebellious student, he turned that list into a syllabus and vowed to read as many of the books as he could. One of those books was Ulysses. My father did not understand much of what he read but he was convinced it was a work of genius. Rather than dismiss Ulysses, he accepted its challenges and rewards with real excitement.

I never discovered Joyce. Joyce was always simply there. As far back as I can remember my father was telling me about Joyce and I took what he said as gospel. I was a particularly obedient child and my father was strident in his opinions. As a young man, though, I struggled with the reality of reading Joyce for myself. Where my father was fueled by the pleasures of rebellion, I had an eagerly approving authority figure looking over my shoulder—sometimes literally. It was an impossible situation. I loved reading and wanted to enjoy the writer my father revered above all others but the difficulty of the books themselves and the pressure of my father’s expectant enthusiasm made for a grueling experience. Joyce became a chore.

As I went on with my education, reading and loving other writers, my father was supportive and enthusiastic. At times, though, I could see he was losing patience. Yes, Melville and Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Austen were all wonderful but what about Joyce? When I started reading Proust he became peevish. He would pick up whichever volume of In Search of Lost Time I was reading, open it to the first page, and feign interest. Then, after a few seconds, his chin would drop to his chest as he pretended to fall asleep. I always chuckled gamely but part of my amusement came from the notion that someone who revered the last chapter of Ulysses (eight sentences that total forty-five pages) could be bored by anything, even Proust.

In her essay “Ulysses Without Tears: Teaching the Young a Difficult Book,” Mary Gordon describes how she introduces Joyce to college students:

“Imagine you had a friend,” I tell them, “who is a bully. An intellectual bully. He really enjoys knowing that he’s read much more than you. He often throws out references that you can’t possibly get . . . Why do you put up with him? Why do you continue to spend time with him? Because he tells great jokes and knows the words to absolutely wonderful songs. And he has a friend whom he travels with who’s a lot nicer than he is.”

That could easily be a description of my father. He could sit with you for hours and eagerly discuss literature, or film, or music. He also enjoyed dropping an allusion and letting it sit there between you, his face simultaneously expectant (did you catch it?) and challenging (I’ll bet you didn’t). When you finally gave in and asked for clarification, he explained himself with the earnest enthusiasm of a runner taking a victory lap. It was annoying and humbling and, more often than not, you didn’t mind because you learned a lot and he was funny as hell.

Eventually, my relationship with my father grew strained. At the time of his death in 2005 my father and I we were not exactly estranged but we had never fully reconciled either. My relationship with Joyce had also settled into a sort of truce: I genuinely loved several of the stories in Dubliners, especially “Araby,” “A Little Cloud,” and “The Dead.” I had tried to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too soon and for many years my feelings about Joyce’s first novel were mixed. For Ulysses I had a grudging respect that was tinted by nostalgia for my father and the love of literature he had given me. As for Finnegans Wake, a book so filled with puns and allusions that it barely qualifies as English, so opaque that it is considered by many to be the most difficult book ever written . . . until recently I did not even own a copy. Nevertheless, for years I have joked that Finnegans Wake is a book I am condemned to read.

Then, over the last year, something changed. I fell in love with Ulysses. There was no eureka moment, no epiphany. It was as though a tide of appreciation and affection had been quietly rising within me until it simply spilled over and became an excitement my father would have recognized.

That moment of spilling over came courtesy of Irish critic Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses & Us: The Art of Everyday Life in James Joyce’s Masterpiece, released last year. For Kiberd, Ulysses is an example of wisdom literature, a book filled with lessons about how to live in the modern world. My father was uncomfortable with the idea that a work of art could have a message or serve any function outside itself. “If you want a message, go to Western Union,” he liked to say, often attributing the line to Joyce. Still, I think he would have appreciated Kiberd’s view.

I, at any rate, find the idea of Ulysses as wisdom literature liberating. Gone is the art-for-art’s sake compendium of style and technique and in its place is a book of supreme humanity whose challenges and difficulties are means to glimpsing how we could lead happier lives in this chaotic world. Even where Kiberd and my father overlap it was useful to read some of my father’s ideas in someone else’s words. Ulysses & Us helped me appreciate Joyce for myself, in my own way.

Which was what my father wanted all along, of course. It’s a sad truth that his love for Ulysses both prevented and made possible the arrival of my own.

I’m only sorry that my father is no longer here. I’m sure we could have had a good, long discussion about Ulysses. We would have talked long into the night as open books stacked up between us. Then, just as the conversation was winding down, he’d pause significantly. I imagine him stubbing out a cigarette for dramatic effect, then shooting me a cheeky glance over the rims of his glasses and saying, “So, when are you going start Finnegans Wake?”