Thursday, April 19, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Coming to terms with Joyce

I'm going to be eggheady today.

And why do the thing by half measures. Let's start with Gottlob Frege (Pronounced roughly like a question and answer, Q: "Got lob?" A: "Fray gay!") In 1894, Frege wrote one of the most devastating reviews ever of a book by a now mostly (and deservedly) forgotten philosopher named Edmund Husserl. But while neither Husserl nor his book are of much import anymore, what does matter is a "disease in thought" that Frege diagnosed in Husserl.

The disease is roughly this: A belief that you can analyze consciousness in order to discover, correct or reconstruct logic and understanding. The problem, as Frege noted, is that you begin your analysis already equipped with a logical strategy and, to no great surprise, it always turns out that "consciousness" is structured pretty much the same way the logical strategy we employ to analyze it is. If you are concerned with religion, you will find an inner temple, if you are concerned with sex, you'll find your inner porn theatre, if you are concerned with logic, you will discover an inner computer and so forth.

So we can see right from the beginning that Stephen Daedalus's project:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
is doomed from the get-go. There is no reality of experience nor is there any smithy of the soul outside of the one that Stephen projects into it. All Joyce was ever going to find was the assumptions he started with. Which is why his fiction gets progressively more incoherent the further he gets from Dublin. So long as Joyce has to run up against real Dubliners and the actual logic of their social life all goes well. Once he gets into some library on the continent with his maps and schedules, it all gets kinda crazy.

But oh, how that man could write. No one in their right mind would read all the way through Finnegan's Wake but you can crack that book open anywhere and be sure that you will find a stretch of beautiful writing somewhere on the page you land on.

So it seems to me that the question is this: If the project Joyce (or at least Stephen Daedalus) thought he was engaged in was doomed, what did he actually achieve? Because that good stuff is very good even if the project he was pursuing was impossible. And not just him but a whole lot of other twentieth century modernists.

Take the opening of A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. It is a brilliant opening and hugely influential.
Once upon a time and a  very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens boy named baby tuckoo ....
You want to read that story. You still want to read it after the next paragraph when you learn that this is a really a story about that story that young Stephen's father told him rather than the thing itself but you are a bit disappointed because the story of the moocow and baby tuckoo sounded like it was going to be good stuff. Maybe it only feels this way because the story itself tells us that once upon a time was a "very good time" and we like that. Telling your readers that there is good stuff ahead hooks them in.

From there we bounce to other childhood memories such as wetting the bed and then we leap with a bang into boarding school where young Stephen has a rough time. How rough? It's hard to say. The story tells us it was really rough but the suspicion begins to kick in pretty early that Stephen is a bit of a pussy boy so we either pull back or jump right in depending how susceptible we are to the pussy-boy world view.

But are we seeing young Stephen's consciousness here? Does this way of telling the story get us into his mind? Or are we seeing a way of telling a story?

Everyone gets bullied at school. There are no exceptions. But there is a huge difference between the kid who is still telling the story of how they were bullied and how devastating it was years later and the person who has moved on to tell other stories. This is "a" portrayal of the artist as a young man as done by someone who is no longer a young man. On that view, the fragmented account of early childhood is not the way kids actually experience life but rather the disjointed bits pulled from the memory of an older man trying to reconstruct something long lost. And this reconstruction will necessarily take the form of the assumptions he brings to it. This is not the boy but a creation of the boy and that creation has a structure and logic from the adult writer projected into it.

Here is another even better opening sentence from Joyce:
Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.
That is in medias res with a vengeance. And what res are we in the middle of? You really want to know. You know something about Lily and her social class and we know that we are reading her thoughts because she uses language "incorrectly". Only not really because even though it is logically incoherent to say she was literally run off her feet, we still know what she means.

If we keep reading this story (The Dead), we see something else fascinating. The story features a writer named Gabriel Conroy who has verbal encounters with three women and he comes off a poor second in all three encounters. And it is a very courageous thing that Joyce tells it that way. In that portrait, the writer or artist is not the hero. (In this respect, Dubliners and Portrait work as a binary pair.)

Here is Lily again:
"Miss Kate and Miss Julia thought you were never coming."
"Is it snowing again, Mr Conroy?"
"I'm done schooling this year and more."
"The men that is now is all palaver and what they can get out of you."
In each and every case, Lily's language is "wrong" but ever so right. In the second example above, to pick just one, she uses the word "again" to mean "still". The Irish I grew up with in Saint John, New Brunswick spoke that way. We'd say, "it's wonderful cold this morning" meaning "It's very cold". Or we'd say "Hello for Jimmy Coghlan" meaning "Hurray for Jimmy Coghlan".

And it's not just a way of speaking, it's a way of telling.

That, it seems to me, is Joyce's great strength. He had a wonderful way of telling. Even when what he was telling was incoherent or, at the very least, more trouble than it was worth to follow, it was wonderfully told.

In any case, I'm rereading Portrait and will blog my way along. This is my way of saying right up front that my goal is not to find Stephen or Joyce's purpose in telling the story but something else that I think better than that.

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