Jul 26 2017

Works of Art versus the Art of Hard Work: Some Recent (& Not So Recent) Examples

typewriter

I don’t know where the cliché “Are you working hard or hardly working?” originates from, but it recently came to mind as I was reading Frank Goodwyn’s Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (1955) where a few passages made me huff:

As in the case of older Texans, their faith was bolstered by a strong equalitarian outlook. They scorned all aspirations to identify themselves with the self-styled elite by cultivating a fondness for deliberately complex musical, artistic, and literary patterns. Their basic philosophy prevails to this day, coloring the political and cultural life of the state. Their blanket endorsement of plain labor and their suspicion of all exclusively intellectual activities are well depicted in the answer that one West Texan gave when I asked him whether his town had produced any successful artists, writers, actors, or musicians. “No, sir,” he said. “None ever had time for such things. All have tried to work and make an honest living.” [1]

I suppose all work and no play means West Texas has no “complex” music, at least it didn’t in 1955. Perhaps it’s why I (being born in West Texas) never learned how to properly read (and therefore never bother to attempt to write) poetry. Continuing with Goodwyn:

Most Texas versifiers are still too busy being poets to write good poetry. Anxious to excel in the literary world’s critical eyes, they adopt the classic poet’s manner without capturing his fire. They follow his metrical rules without fully feeling their powers shying from clichés and baying the moon in accepted bardian style. They think they have to speak in terms of Greek mythology and cosmic dreams, treating the seasons as if they were lovelorn spirits and the heavenly bodies as if they were rational creatures. The task of expressing these trite ideas without using the trite words which have traditionally conveyed them is too much for the average Texas poetaster, as it would be for anyone else. He hence emerges with little more than a few lame lines in slender books printed at his own expense. [2]

As Mark Athitakis has recently pointed out in The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2016) one of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder focused on hard work, particularly in her first work Little House in the Big Woods (1932), is because, when one is living in a frontier environment as she did in her childhood, one quickly appreciates hard work’s relationship to survival. Wilder’s emphasis on the relationship of hard work and survival is part of what made it a hit with Depression-era readers when the book was first published. [3]

Athitakis then goes on to show that some contemporary writers of the Midwest have been much more hesitant in their enthusiasm for portraying hard work, even when portraying hard work as it relates to the act of writing, as in Athitakis’s example of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother (2013), which I have yet to read. [4]

Now when it comes to the concept of hard work and contemporary nonfiction writers of the Midwest, J. D. Vance has recently observed in Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016):

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work[5]

The concept of hard work (and sometimes the mere appearance of hard work) was very much accompanied with that of survival for most non-whites in the early and mid-twentieth century South. As Isabel Wilkerson shows in The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) with the example of Robert Joe “Pershing” Foster:

The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. “Sometimes,” he said, “You have to stoop to conquer.” [6]

For Pershing, survival eventually meant leaving the South. But others were determined to stay (and they did), like the parents of actor Wendell Pierce as he, a native to New Orleans, writes in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken (2015):

It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. [7]

With regard to hard work and Southern whites, consider the nonfiction writer Rod Dreher and his family situation. Even though his father Ray Dreher graduated from LSU, “he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature,”[8] because “Paw had not wanted to go to college; he thought he belonged at trade school, where he could improve his mechanical skills, which were his passion.”[9] In contrast, Ray describes his son Rod as a child who “had your head in books all the time,” unlike Ray and Rod’s sister Ruthie who “loved nature, and being outside.” [10] Later on when Rod and Ruthie attend LSU:

Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied…. [11]

We were both straight-A students, but Ruthie earned her grades through hard work and grit; academics came much more easily for me. [12]

Ruthie and Ray revered hard work in a way Rod (at the time) did not; they even defined the concept differently than he did, where in a sense, physical accomplishments were valued more than mental feats. At times, for Rod, even something as physical as preparing a dinner for his family ended in resentment, because, frankly, concocting a hoity-toity bouillabaisse just ain’t the same as stewing plain ole gumbo. [13] Rod describes his father’s worldview:

To him, preferring the world of ideas to the natural world was no mere aberration on my part. It was personal, and constituted a failure to love. If I loved as I ought to love, I would desire the things he desired. [14]

If that wasn’t enough his sister and her husband felt similar to their beloved patriarch:

Hannah [Rod’s niece] said she and her sisters had grown up with Ruthie and Daddy disparaging me as a “user”––my father’s word for the most contemptible sort of person, one who gets things done craftily, usually by taking advantage of others. [15]

Rod’s hard work as a writer was never fully accepted by his family.

As I attempt to bring these thoughts to closure, let me contrast these contemporary American concepts of hard work, and their relation to survival, and their relationship to creative output (particularly writing) to the life and work of James Joyce––an Irishman who worked hard on his writing—some might say too hard, at least some of the time, because it is hard work to learn to read him properly, no matter what they say in West Texas.

As his biographer Richard Ellmann acutely observed:

We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter….[16]

He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.[17]

At one point Joyce confessed:

“My literary work during the last eleven years has produced nothing. On the contrary my second book Dubliners cost me a considerable sum of money owing to the eight years of litigation which preceded its publication.” [18]

NOTES

wood

[1] Goodwyn, Frank. Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective. NY: Knopf. 1955. p. 239.

[2] Goodwyn 339.

[3] Athitakis, Mark. The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing. 2016. pp. 37–39.

[4] Athitakis 39–43.

[5] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 57.

[6] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 131.

[7] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. p. 21.

[8] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. pp. 3–4.

[9] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 63.

[10] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 9.

[11] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 35.

[12] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 8.

[13] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 78–79; How Dante 19–20.

[14] Dreher How Dante 10.

[15] Dreher How Dante 27.

[16] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford UP. 1959. p. 1.

[17] Ellmann, James Joyce 4.

[18] Ellmann, James Joyce 404.


Apr 29 2017

Ireland in the Merry Month of May

Some final notes before I ship off to Dublintown:

The tourist busy season begins in May and reaches its peak in July and August.

On the mythology of May, starting with Robert Graves:

Five (V) was the number sacred to the Roman Moon-goddess Minerva. The month extends from April 15th to May 12th, and May Day, famous for its orgiastic revels and its magic dew, falls in the middle. It is possible that the carrying of sallow-willow branches on Palm Sunday, a variable feast which usually falls early in April, is a custom that properly belongs to the beginning of the willow month….[1]

The hawthorn, then, is the tree of enforced chastity. The month begins on May 13th, when the may is first in flower, and ends on June 9th. The ascetic use of the thorn, which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Cardea must, however, be distinguished from its later orgiastic use which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and which accounts for the English mediaeval habit of riding out on May Morning to pluck flowering hawthorn boughs and dance around the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality; which is why the Turks use a flowering branch as an erotic symbol. Mr. Cornish proves that this Flora cult was introduced into the British Isles in the late first-century B.C. by the second Belgic invaders; further, that the Glastonbury Thorn which flowered on Old Christmas Day (January 5th, New Style) and was cut down by the Puritans at the Revolution was a sport of the common hawthorn. The monks of Glastonbury perpetuated it and sanctified it with an improving tale about Joseph of Arimathea’s staff and the Crown of Thorns as a means of discouraging the orgiastic use of hawthorn blossom, which normally did not appear until May Day (Old Style)…. [2]

Christmas was merry in the middle ages, but May Day was still merrier. It was the time of beribboned Maypoles, of Collyridian cakes and ale, of wreaths and posies, of lovers’ gifts, of archery contests, of merritotters (see-saws) and merribowks (great vats of milk-punch). But particularly of mad-merry marriages ‘under the greenwood tree’, when the dancers from the Green went off, hand in hand, into the greenwood and built themselves little love-bowers and listened hopefully for the merry nightingale. ‘Mad Merry’ is another popular spelling of ‘Maid Marian’, and as an adjective became attached to the magician Merlin (the original ‘Old Moore’ of the popular almanacks) whose prophetic almanacks were hawked at fairs and merrimakes. Merlin was really Merddin, as Spenser explains in the Faerie Queene, but Robin Hood had taken his place as the May Bride’s lover, and he had become an old bearded prophet. The ‘merritotter’ is perhaps called after the scales (representing the Autumn equinox) in the hand of the Virgin in the Zodiac, who figured in the Mad Merry Merlin almanack: devoted readers naturally identified her with St. Mary Gipsy, for true-lovers’ fates tottered in her balance, see-sawing up and down….[3]

The main theme of poetry is, properly, the relations of man and woman, rather than those of man and man, as the Apollonian Classicists would have it. The true poet who goes to the tavern and pays the silver tribute to Blodeuwedd goes over the river to his death. As in the story of Llew Llaw: ‘All their discourse that night was concerning the affection and love that they felt one for the other and which in no longer space than one evening had arisen.’ This paradise lasts only from May Day to St. John’s Eve. Then the plot is hatched and the poisoned dart flies; and the poet knows that it must be so. For him there is no other woman but Cerridwen and he desires one thing above all else in the world: her love. As Blodeuwedd, she will gladly give him her love, but at only one price: his life. She will exact payment punctually and bloodily. Other women, other goddesses, are kinder-seeming. They sell their love at a reasonable rate—sometimes a man may even have it for the asking. But not Cerridwen: for with her love goes wisdom. And however bitterly and grossly the poet may rail against her in the hour of his humiliation—Catullus is the most familiar instance—he has been party to his own betrayal and has no just cause for complaint.[4]

From Frank O’Connor:

‘May Day’, so lovely that we have all tried our hand at translating it, exists only in one obscenely inaccurate transcript of which Kuno Meyer and Gerald Murphy have tried vainly to make linguistic sense. In spite of the fact that Meyer ascribed it to the ninth or early tenth century and Murphy to the eighth or ninth, I feel certain it was written by the author of the previous poem, scarcely earlier than the eleventh century, and that what Kenneth Jackson calls its ‘curious style’ is the deliberate archaism of an excellent scholar, who not only played with new metres, but omitted definite articles and the conjunction ocus.

Gairt cuí cruaid den
‘Is fochen sam saír!’
Suidid sine serb
I mbí cerb caill chraíb.

Cerbaid sam sruth snuad;
Saigid graig luath linn;
Lethaid fat fraích folt;
For-beir gort fann finn.

Fubair os scéith sciach;
Im-reith réid rian rith;
Cuirithir suan sál;
Tuigithir bláth bith.

Berait beich bec nert
Bert bonn bochtai bláth
Berid slabrai sliab,
Feraid seng sian sáith.

Seinm crot, caille ceol
Co ngrenn seol síd slán;
Sethair den do dinn;
Dethaid loch linn lád.

O’Connor’s translation:

The harsh, sturdy cuckoo calls, ‘Welcome, beautiful summer.’ The expanse of the heather’s hair spreads and the pale weak corn thrives.

The budding of the hawthorn threatens the deer; the sea tide runs smoothly; the sea goes to sleep and blossom covers the earth.

Bees of small strength carry a load of plucked blossom; the mountain sustains the cattle; the lean one sings a song of plenty.

The music of the wood is like harp-playing, a perfect peace of melody. The house is cleared of garbage, the flooded pool drops. [5]

From Jeffrey Gantz:

The first day of May, called Beltene, marked the beginning of summer; this feast has since given rise to May Eve[,] Walpurgisnacht and May Day. Beltene was a less important day, and consequently, less information about it has survived; the name seems to mean ‘fire of Bel’ (Bel presumably being the Irish descendant of the continental god Belenos) or ‘bright fire’, and there is a tradition that cattle were driven between two fires on this day so that the smoke would purify them. In any case, the rites of Beltene were probably directed towards ensuring the fertility of land and stock. The Welsh hero Pryderi is born on the first of May, and this fact coupled with the unusual circumstances of his birth (the concurrent birth of colts, the otherworld visitor) suggests that Beltene was also a day when the real and the fantastic merged.[6]

Owen Barfield on why the month of May is always “merry”:

Thus, when a Roman spoke of events as auspicious or sinister, or when some natural object was said in the Middle Ages to be baleful, or benign, or malign, a herb to possess such and such a virtue, an eye to be evil, or the bones of a saint to be holy, or even, probably, when Gower wrote:

The day was merry and fair enough,

it is true that these things were described from the human point of view, but the activity was felt to emanate from the object itself.[7]

Some May miscellany:

‘And now, Sally, I’m safe in bed. Stir the fire, my old darling.’ For although it was the first week in May, the night was frosty. ‘And tell me all about the Tiled House again, and frighten me out of my wits.’[8]

A shaven space of lawn one soft May evening. [9]

When I answered that I did not know, she said, “the month of May, because of the Virgin, and the lily of the valley, because it never sinned, but came pure out of the rocks,” and then she asked, “what is the cause of the three cold months of winter?”[10]

NOTES

[1] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Second Edition. 1975. p. 174.

[2] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 175–76.

[3] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 398.

[4] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 447–48.

[5] O’Connor, (A Short History of Irish Literature: a Backward Look. NY: Viking. 1967. pp. 77–78.

[6] Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. NY: Penguin. 1981. 1988. “Introduction” 13.

[7] Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. NY: George H. Doran Co. 1926. p. 159.

[8] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XI – Some talk about the haunted house—being, as I suppose, only old woman’s tales,” 54.

[9] Joyce, Ulysses. 1922. Random House: NY. 1946. XIV [“Oxen of the Sun”] 414.

[10] Yeats, The Celtic Twilight. 1893. “Happy and Unhappy Theologians.”


Apr 24 2017

What I Read to Prepare for Ireland

Things Previously Read and Re-reviewed

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. 1954.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1791.

Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. NY: Penguin. 1981.

Graves, Robert. Oxford Addresses on Poetry. NY: Garden City. 1962.

  • —–. The White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Second Edition. 1975.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. Penguin Classics with Notes by Terence Brown. 1992.

  • —–. Ulysses. 1922. Random House: NY. 1946.

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904.

Lewis, Clive Stapes. “The Inner Ring.” They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London, G. Bles, 1962.

  • —–. “De Descriptione Temporum,” They Asked for a Paper.
  • —–. “Correspondence: Spenser’s Irish Experiences and The Faerie Queene.” Review of English Studies. Vol. 7. No. 25. (January 1931.) 83–85.
  • —–. “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966.
  • —–. The Allegory of Love. Clarendon: Oxford UP. 1936. Second Edition. 1946.
  • —–. A Preface to Paradise Lost. 1942. Oxford UP – A Galaxy Book. 1961.
  • —–. The Great Divorce: a Dream.  London: Geoffrey Bles. 1946.
  • —–. The Four Loves. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1960.
  • —–. Studies in Words. Cambridge UP. 1960.
  • —–. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge UP. 1962.
  • —–. Mere Christianity. 1944. Macmillan, NY. 1952.

Patrick (Saint). Il Confessio. (Declaration of Patrick.) From St. PatrickHis Writings and Muirchus Life. Edited and Translated by A. B. E. Hood. Phillimore & Co. London. 1978.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1756–1767. NY: Oxford World Classics. Edited by Ian Campbell Ross. 1983. 1998.

Thompson, E. A.. “Introduction” Who was Saint Patrick? Rochester, NY Boydell & Brewer Ltd. 1982. Electronic Edition 1999.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels: Jonathan Swift. Edited by Albert J. Rivero. NY: Norton Critical Edition. 2002.

  • —–. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. Oxford World Classics. 2008.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. 1890. Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. 2003.

  • —–. “The Critic As Artist” Parts I & II (1891)
  • —–. “The Decay of Lying” in Intentions (Volume 7 of The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde). New York: The Nottingham Society, 1909.

Books Read for the First Time

Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. 1938. NY: First Grove Press Edition 1957. First Printing, Collected Works. 1970.

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson (1791)

  • Read all passages regarding: Burke, Goldsmith, Sterne, and Swift.

Carleton, William. The Black Prophet: a Tale of Irish Famine. Belfast: Simm and McIntyre. 1847.

Davis, B. E. C. Edmund Spenser: a Critical Study. Cambridge UP. 1933.

Dillon, Martin. The Shankill Butchers: a Case Study of Mass Murder. London: Arrow Books. 1990.

Doyle, Roddy. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. London: Secker & Warburg. 1993.

  • —–.Bullfighting. NY: Viking. 2011.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. 1766.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. NY: Penguin. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Seamus Deane. 1993.

O’Brien, Edna. The Country Girls. 1960. NY: Penguin. 1963. 1975.

O’Casey, Sean. Shadow of a Gunman. 1923. Two Plays. NY: Macmillan Co. 1925.

  • —–Juno and the Paycock (1924).

O’Connor, Frank. A Short History of Irish Literature: a Backward Look. NY: Viking. 1967.

O’Hara, Maureen with John Nicoletti. ‘Tis Herself. NY: Simon and Schuster. 2004.

Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. 1596. 1633. Edited by Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley. Blackwell, Oxford. 1997.

Shaw, George Bernard. The Doctor’s Dilemma. NY: Brentano’s. 1909. [and “Preface”]

  • —–Major Barbara. 1907. Bernard Shaw’s Plays. NY: Norton. Edited by Warren Sylvester Smith. 1970. [and “Preface”]
  • —–St. Joan (1923) [and “Preface”]

State, Paul. F. A Brief History of Ireland. NY: Facts on File Inc. 2009.

Yeats, William Butler. The Celtic Twilight. 1893.

Articles Read

Abravanel, Genevieve. “American Encounters in Dubliners and Ulysses.” Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 33. No. 4. (Summer 2010.) 153–66.

Bierman, Joseph. “What The Quiet Man Said: Shifting Contexts and the Polysemy of the Text.” Journal of Film and Video. Vol. 63. No. 3. (Fall 2011.) 30–44.

Cremin, Kathy. “The Dispersed and Dismissed: the World of Irish Women’s Best-sellers.” Critical Survey. Vol. 15. No. 1. (2003.) 60–76.

Dobson, Henry Austin. “IX Oliver Goldsmith,” The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Literature. 1909–1919.

Haliday, Charles. “On the Ancient Name of Dublin.” The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy. Vol. 22 (1849.) 437–51.

Jackson, Alvin. “Unionist Myths 1912–1985.” Past & Present. No. 136. (August 1992.) 164–85.

Kirk, Robin. “Belfast: City of Walls.” The American Scholar. Vol. 80. No. 4 (Autumn 2011.) 7–11.

Kirkland, Richard. “The Spectacle of Terrorism in Northern Irish Culture.” Critical Survey. Vol. 15. No. 1. (2003.) 77–90.

Kittredge, George Lyman . “III.––Sir Orfeo.” American Journal of Philology. Vol. 7. No. 2. (1886.) 176–202 at 195–97.

Lysaght, Patricia. “Visible Death: Attitudes to the Dying in Ireland.” Merveilles & contes. Vol. 9. No. 1. (May 1995.) 27–60.

Markwick, Marion. “Marketing Myths and the Cultural Commodification of Ireland: Where the Grass is Always Greener.” Geography. 86:1. (January 2001.) 37–49.

Moorjani, Angela. “Andre Gidé Among the Partisan Ghosts in the ‘Anglo-Irish’ ‘Murphy.’” Samuel Beckett Today. Vol. 21. (2009.) 209–22.

O’Brien, Peggy. “The Silly and the Serious: an Assessment of Edna O’Brien.” The Massachusetts Review. Vol. 28. No. 3. (Autumn 1987.) 474–88.

Pierse, Michael. “The Shadow of Seán: O’Casey, commitment and writing Dublin’s working class.” Saothar. Vol. 35. (2010.) 69–85.

Rapuano, Deborah and Jessica R. Fernandez. “Remembering and Living Irishness: Tourism, Place and Memory.” International Review of Modern Sociology. Vol. 36. No. 1. (Spring 2010.) 1–21.

Townshend, Charles. “The Making of Modern Irish Public Culture.” Journal of Modern History. Vol. 61. No. 3. (September 1989.) 535–54.

Weston, Elizabeth. “Constitutive Trauma in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy: the Romance of Reenactment.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Vol. 29. No. 1. (Spring 2010.) 83–105.

Wikipedia articles:

Movies, Television, Advertisements

Trailer to The Field


Nov 22 2016

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

bookbread typewriter

let us try / Adventurous work

––Satan, Paradise Lost[1]

Everything is legal.

––Thénardier, Les Misérables[2]

SCENE: Consider the Plagiarist who was successful and had money to spare and how he encountered the Crime Writer who was muddling through her career, sometimes writing fiction, sometimes non:

I.

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever called you a criminal?

PLAGIARIST: I prefer to be called a “master of disguising quotations.” It’s the thrill of masquerade when all the world’s a stage….

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever accused you of being an adventurer?

PLAGIARIST: No, but I think I know what you mean. There is something of a riddle in how adventure sometimes functions as a synonym for criminal enterprise. An Oxford don named Tolkien played around with this idea in the opening chapter of The Hobbit (1936). But I first learned of this riddle from that Gallic journalist André Gide (1869–1951) and his character of Lafcadio in The Caves of the Vatican (1914): a motiveless criminal:

“No doubt his apparent inconsequence hides what is in reality, a subtler and more recondite sequence—the important point is that what makes him act should not be a matter of interest, or, as the usual phrase is, that he should not be merely actuated by interested motives…. A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end….”  He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking…. There is no reason that a man who commits a crime without reason should be considered a criminal.[3]

CRIME WRITER: You certainly can quote when called upon. But don’t expect me today to pay you for yesterday’s words.

PLAGIARIST: There’re plenty who do pay. I don’t need you. And I can perplex at will. I will perplex you with a question: can one be a law-abider––a non-criminal, full of motives or empty of inclinations––and still, nonetheless, possess “the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do?” Or is that urge something that happens only amid the anarchy in the heart of the African jungle of Nod, rather than the governance of the Arabic garden of Eden?[4]

CRIME WRITER: With all my experience of writing about high adventures and misdemeanors, I well remember what Captain Conrad taught me:

Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious.[5]

which was why––

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to [Jim’s] imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.[6]

So to seek adventure—to pursue crime—is rather boring, at least for crime writers like me. Yet the incurious teem with intrigue….

II.

CRIME WRITER: Gide, Conrad, and Gramsci. Besides being a bunch of men, how are these relevant to our dialogue?

PLAGIARIST: the political prisoner Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whether or not technically a “criminal,” certainly possessed motives and rendered them upon the pages of his notebooks. He was motived to philosophize in order to rise above religion and common sense:

Philosophy is intellectual order, which neither religion nor common sense can be. It is to be observed that religion and common sense do not coincide either, but that religion is an element of fragmented common sense. Moreover common sense is a collective noun, like religion: there is not just one common sense, for that too is a product of history and a part of the historical process. Philosophy is criticism and superseding of religion and “common” sense. [7]

On the other hand, for sea captain Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) if a society’s objects of royalty and religion make not good targets for terrorists (who are criminals, members of anti-society), then– at least in his novel The Secret Agent (1907)––science emerges as the preferred target for terrorists, the new motive of criminality:

“You are too lazy to think,” was Mr Vladimir’s comment upon that gesture. “Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church should be left alone. You understand what I mean, Mr Verloc?” …. But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish….[8]

Finally, through his character of James Duffy, exiled penman James Joyce (1882–1941) shows that to be a good citizen of a murderous empire, a non-criminal needs merely no royalty (if Irish at least), a few friends, and a little religion. These things make the life of the good citizen “adventureless”:

He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his hank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.[9]

CRIME WRITER: Crime and adventure….

PLAGIARIST: Advice and censure….

NOTES

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[1] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. X, 254–55. Compare 439–41.

[2] Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. 1860. IV, vi, i.

[3] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. IV, vii; V, i and ii.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. § I.

[5] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale. 1907. XI.

[6] Conrad, Lord Jim. 1900. II.

[7] Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Study of Philosophy” 325–26.

[8] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale II.

[9] Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. “A Painful Case.”


Aug 6 2015

Thrice Joyce: A Third Reading of “Dubliners”

bookbread athens

 

This was my third time to do so, and it’s probably been five or more years since the last reading. The first two times were bittersweet, except for “The Dead,” which is, of course, perfect.

As a reader trying to be a writer, I was particularly drawn this time around to “A Little Cloud” with its themes of paralysis and procrastination and daydreaming reminiscent of Thurber’s “Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

“A Painful Case” also struck me, particularly that last paragraph, and that line “He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him.” To me this means that, by the end of the story, for Duffy, Mrs. Emily Sinico, the woman who has died, has now become the memory of a memory for him.

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Slick Phrases from Joyce that caught my eyes and ears:

“glad of the dark stupor that would cover his folly” (After the Race)

“Deep energetic gallantries” (Two Gallants)

“bet your bottom dollar” (A Little Cloud)

“slake the thirst” (Counterparts)

“the inane expression of sympathy” (A Painful Case)

“keen pang of lust” (The Dead)

“heliotrope envelope” (The Dead)


Jun 9 2010

Apple censors James Joyces Ulysses on the iPad (Expert Reviews)

Although an annotated Penguin edition of Ulysses is available for purchase from Apple’s iBooks store on the iPad, when it came to a comic book adaptation of the novel sold as an iPad app, Apple insisted that any depiction of nudity be removed entirely. According to an interview with the artist Rob Berry (which has images of the uncensored panels in question), Apple wouldn’t accept a compromise such as covering the offending body parts with a fig leaf or pixellation.

Apple censors James Joyces Ulysses on the iPad | Expert Reviews.


Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.

UPDATE:

D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6