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Par for the course has changed, and Finnegans today must hit from tees so far away they can’t see the green, let alone the flag. They move to the park, where the fruit rusts, but the green is real. In Finnegans Wake (1939), Joyce juxtaposes Wall Street with Phoenix Park, foreshadowing Occupy Wall Street:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.” (para. 3)

Off the wall, Wall Street, in Finnegan’s retail-priced nighttime view, fall the archetypal financial partners, the “oldparr,” finding themselves now in dire straits, closed streets. The short notice is the layoff, the cancelled contract, down the shoot, out to the park. The fat egg Humpty Dumpty is enjoying a baseball game when he gets the news. A ball is knocked out of the park, and Humpty, once a solid egg, looks to the West for an answer, but is hit in the head and knocked out. The rest is a dream.

Taking the facebook Pledge; or, The Allegory of the facebook Cave

I decided again to leave facebookland. I’m back on the facebook wagon. I spent too much time driving around in circles, and my time on facebook was beginning to feel like living on a freeway, not free, and only two ways, on and off, and I had to keep up with the traffic, stay out of the way of semi-posts, watch out for falling photos. True, the sky was blue, the windows down, the radio on, everyone waving to one another: life is good in facebookland.

I also ditched twitter, which had come to feel like reading in a nest of mosquitoes. When I left facebookland, I was detained by lures of questions asking why I was leaving, and I was distracted by messages claiming that my friends would miss me, specific friends: Jack will miss you; Jill will miss you. Twitter has a slightly different guilt driven, exit poll strategy: I was advised that I may never come back using the same name and address. It’s like going home again: you can go back home, but only as a different person. You may re-enter the facebook highway anytime you want; your friends may not even know you got off. If, when you exited, you de-friended them, that’s problematic, since they may not re-befriend you, but they’ll probably be happy to have you back, and say something like, I thought we were already friends.

Facebook has features I never used, like the real time chat, which must feel something like an electronic cocktail party rather than an endless freeway commute. It’s not facebook’s fault, my leaving. Facebook is a clean, well-lighted place that never closes, even if it is a cave. There is no night in facebookland; the sun never sets. Part of the reason I found myself soaking up more and more facebook light recently is my new laptop, a refurbished MacBook Pro I bought a couple of months ago. It’s a hovercraft. I love the way the keyboard lights up in the dark. The design is perfect, like a well-fitted, classical guitar. No viruses. As intuitive as a bicycle. It goes everywhere my backpack goes.

But the primary reason I left facebookland are the writing and reading projects I have going. There’s no pursuit more pleasurable and rewarding than reading and writing. Not that I’ll ever finish any of these projects (can one finish a blog? one might end it, but that’s not the same as finishing it), but that’s of no consequence, whether I finish a writing project or not. Abandoning a writing project is an experience very close to finishing one, though perhaps not as satisfying. One abandons books, occasionally, as ill-suited, poor fits, bad choices. Just so, one abandons one’s own writing projects. Perhaps we were not ready for them, the writing or the books we gradually let go of, until one day, they were simply gone, like past friends. One must read and write every day, without interruption, just as one must pick up the guitar every day, or the brushes or sticks, or the golf club, or the fishing pole, or the shovel or rake, or the hammer, or the ball and glove, or the pool cue, or the surfboard. And whatever distracts from these purposes, these pursuits, must be put away.

Perhaps facebook is a kind of reading and writing, some new electronic sub-genre, like texting, videos, and other sound bites. But at least facebook is what it purports to be, a social media, driven by advertising dollars, purposed to persuade users to continue, to keep on, to stay in. Facebook is a new rhetoric, a new art of persuasion. Here is facebook’s mission statement: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Does the world want to be more open and connected? Apparently so, given the number of facebook users. But what does open mean? How does one measure more? And connected to what? “Open Sesame” gets you into the cave of the thieves, but you don’t want to forget the magic words that unseal the cave so you can get back out. Those magic words might be “Deactivate Account.” Or we are back in Plato’s cave, and though it appears we are looking directly into the light, what we see on the wall of the facebook cave may not be reality, but shadows of advertisements passing before the fire of commerce that burns behind our backs.

Increasingly, we seem to live in two worlds, “in twosome twiminds,” as Joyce said, the electronics of visual perception (the charge of the light brigade, for Joyce, was the coming of television), and the philosophy of acoustics, and we are drowning in doubt.

Note: Meaghan Morris, “Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney,” published a scholarly article titled “Grizzling About Facebook” in the November, 2009 issue of the Australian Humanities Review. The article is not what you might expect. For one thing, Meaghan resists the old journalist codger who would “urge me to spend more time off-line (‘making new friends and maintaining old friendships’) for the sheer good of my soul is a grizzle from those fairies at the bottom of the garden” (para. 9). Yet she acknowledges that facebookland does indeed have its back alleys and unlit corridors:  “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these” (para. 10). But while recognizing the traps in facebookland, Meaghan seems to think the risks worth taking, and this is what makes her scholarly viewpoint worth listening to: “…what Facebook does well is combine: you can write private letters, play games, send gifts, do quizzes, circulate news, post notes, music and clips, share photos or research, test your knowledge, join groups and causes, make haiku-like allusions to your state of mind and chat on-line with friends, all in one place and time—restoring or relieving, according to need, the pattern of an everyday life” (para. 22), and who among us, Meaghan asks, does not value these life on the street, at work, and at home activities? I’ve mentioned Meaghan’s article in a previous post, here. Meaghan’s article is a scholarly gem.

Double Consommé; or, the Doo-wop of the Tweet

What was the first human’s first utterance? Did it fill 140 characters? “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said, but we picture a slip on a banana peel followed by Joyce’s 102-character utterance:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy” (Finnegans Wake).

So the tweets re-circle, and the Twitter Big Bang is well on its way to 300 sextillion tweets. What does 300 sextillion look like when not doing “duty for the holos”? 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. But multiply that number times 140 to get a closer look at the Twitter universe. Who can read it all, each tweet a star?

Two converging posts sent us tweet gazing this morning, Mozart in the background, one (over at the Books I Read blog) drawing our attention to Alain de Botton’s recent tweeting experiment, a kind of History of the Western World in 7 Tweets, the other an essay in yesterday’s Times suggesting we might use the 140 character limit of the tweet in college composition classes.

The tweet is to writing what the Doo-wop three-minute song is to music. But we like Doo-wop, and we enjoy the well-worded tweet. As interesting as Joyce’s vocalized fall is, we think the first human’s first words were probably more like “doo-wop,” and the fall may indeed have been into banana cream and not language. This is the way T. S. Eliot’s world ends, not with a bang but a tweet.

Fear and Loathing in Lexical Vegas

Over at Language Log we find a discussion on “words we hate.” I can’t tell if discuss is one or not. But some words strike some as literally offensive, or cause physical stress, a kind of lexical anxiety. This is not about disdain for the simple malapropism, or of academic scorn for the wrong word in the wrong place, but of word phobia, a word like some dreaded dog we walk around the block to avoid.

What is the source of this strange malady, a fear of certain words? Perhaps some words do have facial expressions. Lenny Bruce tried to solve part of the problem, the dirty words versus dirty minds dichotomy. In the beginning was the word, and “the fall is into language” (O. Brown, Love’s Body, 257). Lenny may have gone down with his solution in part because we don’t want a solution; we need words we abhor.

So I googled (a word I don’t like, but don’t hate, but like certain tools we’d rather not have to pick up, the plunger, for example, the plumber’s helper, knowing we’re headed for another good word, “by means of suction,” add rubber cup and we’re having some fun here, sometimes we just have to grab it and get on with things – though to google hasn’t always been this way: from the OED: 1907 Badminton Mag. Sept. 289 The googlies that do not google) “words we love,” and guess what? The words we love are the same words we hate.

Perhaps James Joyce best explains words that cause fright: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (“The Sisters,” in Dubliners, 1916).

“this yr”

“this yr” is a poem published in chapbook format in December, 1976, by Stephen Jama. 100 copies were printed. The chapbook consists of three sheets, 6&3/4” by 6”, folded and hand-sewn with red thread. The cover is slightly thicker than the inside pages, the inside paper a bit heavier than standard typing paper.

Jama was a popular instructor at El Camino College. The “this yr” shown in this post was a 1976 Christmas gift to me from Michael Mahon, also a friend of Jama’s, and a professor at Dominguez Hills. Another example of a Jama poem, this one in a kind of broadside, or broadsheet, format, “each sounding’s its answer,” is on-line as part of Jama’s Kent State library donations.

Chapbooks and broadsides were popular self-publishing formats in the 1960s and 70s, and were also popular formats used by small press, or alternative press, publishing, a popularity in part perhaps inspired by and certainly fueled by the folk revival, which spread songs around the country by word of mouth, in small coffee houses in cities and around campuses, and in small concert venues, and which, along with the Beat writers and musicians, helped popularize and rescue poetry from the scholiastics.

James Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach is another kind of chapbook, published originally by Shakespeare & Co. (Paris) in 1927. It was published again in 1966 by Faber and Faber. Shown in this post is a Faber reprint published in 1971 that I purchased used for $1.00 some time ago. The penny each is at least literal, for Joyce, who understood the difficulties of publishing, self-publishing, and quick-scrapping, calls to mind street hawkers selling fruit from carts.

While broadsheets are usually only one page, chapbooks contain more pages, but by definition not very many pages. The Faber book is only 47 pages, and includes a “Publishers’ Note”: “In order to make this volume more substantial and to show a wider range of James Joyce’s verse, there have been added to Pomes Penyeach the following…,” and three additional poems are added, including “The Holy Office” and “Gas from a Burner,” which each run a few pages, including footnotes. The original Pomes Penyeach contained only 13 poems.

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.

How to Live Happily to 106: Happy Bloomsday, Mr. Leopold Bloom

Articles celebrating victims of extreme old age usually ask about diet, so let’s get that out of the way first:

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The time is morning, the scene the house, the organ the kidney, the art economics, the symbol the nymph, the title Calypso, the technique mature narrative (Gilbert, 1930). The day was June 16, the year 1904, the place Dublin, the book James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Speaking of mature narrative, Jonah Lehrer, over at the Frontal Cortex, has put up a post titled “Old Writers” in which he dispels the myth that writers do their best work when very young, that older writers can’t match the quality or creativity of their younger work, as if writer’s ink were a kind of dark blue testosterone that fades and weakens in potency with age. Lehrer concludes his post with “…different circumstances call for different kinds of creativity…The most successful artists aren’t slaves to their chronological age. Instead, they succeed by speaking to the age in which they live.”

Works want readers, listeners, viewers, and they always want new readers, new listeners, new viewers, and when they don’t get them, they feel old and weak, remaindered and marked down, bagged for the garage sale: Books Penyeach.

Pomes Penyeach was first published in 1927, when James Joyce was 45 years old. Joyce’s works are remarkable for their consistent creative originality that insists on new forms to communicate the events that parallel the writer’s age and the age of the writer. And they have not weakened over time, but have grown stronger with age. Perhaps it was those nutty gizzards. Almost certainly it must have been the burgundy, as Bloom suggests (although Joyce preferred white wines). In any case, the example of Joyce’s works expresses Lehrer’s definition of the successful artist, that the work has nothing to do with the age of the artist, but everything to do with the age at which the work is experienced.

Menand’s Meandering PhDs; UFOs; and Joyce’s Jejune Jesuits

“There are no aliens,” Susan reminded me of Kit’s happy thought number one from Bowfinger (1999), but sensing my disappointment asked to see them – the unidentified flying objects (UFOs) I had just captured on camera. I had snapped them hovering over SE Stark from Flying Pie Pizzeria, where we were celebrating Emily’s birthday. “Maybe they’re coming in for some pizza,” Susan said.

Having recently read Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, I began to think that chasing flying saucers was indeed an appropriate metaphor for pursuit of the PhD in today’s market. Joyce’s Buck Mulligan agreed, calling Stephen the “jejune jesuit,” for, as Anthony T. Grafton says in his New Republic response to Menand:  “The last hour has come, the times are very bad…Our space is shrinking: only one-third of American undergraduates still major in the arts and sciences, and less than a third of them in the humanities. We get no respect: the media stick to covering our dysfunctions, from the Paul de Man affair to the butchering of Robert Frost’s notebooks…But our worst enemies are ourselves: from William Chace, who argues that we helped to drive away our own students by dismembering the curriculum and substituting ‘for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture),’ to Mark Taylor, who declares that disciplines are obsolete and that ‘there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text,’ to William Deresiewicz, who complains that we cannot talk to plumbers.”

Plumbers, incidentally, fall under Menand’s definition of a professional: “A professional is a person who is licensed – by earning a degree, taking an examination, or passing some other qualifying test – to practice in a specialized field” (p. 101). Or you can just call a plumber and ask his hourly rate. One wonders if Deresiewicz ever tried to talk to one. In any case, Grafton’s solution sounds like a call to those who would join Joyce’s jejune Jesuits: “…it means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years…,” where “a few years,” according to Menand, is a decade of one’s life. For Joyce, who chose to avoid both the Jesuits and the academy, it nevertheless lasted his entire life (Joyce was almost never financially solvent on his own; he lived off private grants – and in that sense he was like a lifelong PhD candidate).

Juliet Flower MacCannell, writing on Lacan’s Joyce, says that “For Lacan, university discourse is the dominant discourse of our post-Hegelian era. In the introductory section of ‘Joyce the Symptom I’ entitled ‘University and Analysis,’ Lacan writes that Joyce may mean the closing or turning away from this dominant discourse: ‘In accordance with what Joyce himself knew would happen to him posthumously, the university in charge. It’s almost exclusively academics who busy themselves with Joyce. [. . .]. And he hoped for nothing less than to keep them busy until the extinction of the university. We’re headed in that direction’ (JSI, 3).” Frustrated they are too with Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, who, as D. T. Max discussed in “The Injustice Collector: Is James Joyce’s grandson suppressing scholarship?” (New Yorker, June 19, 2006), refuses scholars access to Joyce’s correspondence, and the problem with that is they’ve already picked his books to the bare bone, and, one wonders, to what end, if they’ve not found new readers for them. Perhaps the aliens will find some interest in them.

Christmas Platterful

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been filmed again and again, but one must read it to savor the chef’s cloves of exclamation points that spice the prose of the platterful Cratchit Christmas table: 

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” 

Yet this is nothing compared to Joyce’s engorging in “The Dead,” the last story in Dubliners. Here he sets the stage for a food fight good and large: 

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.” 

Hemingway, reporting from Switzerland for The Toronto Star Weekly, in a piece entitled “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (December 22, 1923), tells how, after a day of skiing, they 

“…hiked up the hill towards the lights of the chalet. The lights looked very cheerful against the dark pines of the hill, and inside was a big Christmas tree and a real Christmas turkey dinner, the table shiny with silver, the glasses tall and thin stemmed, the bottles narrow-necked, the turkey large and brown and beautiful, the side dishes all present, and Ida serving in a new crisp apron. It was the kind of a Christmas you can only get on top of the world.” 

Meantime, at the bottom of the world, Faulkner’s people eat a Christmas dinner of “possum with yams, more gray ash cake, the dead and tasteless liquid in the coffee pot; a dozen bananas and jagged shards of cocoanut, the children crawling about his [Bayard Sartoris’s] feet like animals, scenting the food.” 

We are neither at the top nor the bottom of the world this Christmas eve morning, but we are where we have chosen to be, with the smell of a fresh cut tree mixing with coffee and the sound of jazz and family filling the air – our platter is full.

Me epistle on “Moopetsi meepotsi”

Whenever challenged with words unknown we go first to the OED then to Finnegans Wake. We did so this morning looking for meep, following yet another Language Log thread. We found meep in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, on page 276, in footnote number 4:

“Parley vows the Askinwhose? I do, Ida. And how to call the cattle black. Moopetsi meepotsi.”

A meep, then, is a calf, and a moop, the calf’s mom.

The moral of me epistle can be found in today’s Boston Globe, where the principal barning the word learns who abuses meep, steps in moop, for the pot (principal), trying to silence the kettles (students) back, starts them whistling, creating a word stampede:

“That was the first joke of Willingdone, tic for tac. Hee, hee, hee! This is me Belchum in his twelvemile cowchooks, weet, tweet and stampforth foremost, footing the camp for the jinnies. Drink a sip, drankasup, for he’s as sooner buy a guinness than he’d stale store stout” (p. 9).

Let the peeps meep, for as Robert Frost said, “…there must something wrong / In wanting to silence any song” (“A Minor Bird”).