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Four Dubliners and a Scholar’s Mirror

When Richard Ellmann wrote his Library of Congress lectures in the early 1980s on four Irish writers (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett), later issued in book form under the title Four Dubliners, Beckett was still living (barely; he died 18 months after the book’s publication). Most of Beckett’s work comes after WWII, work that often seems remote from time, if not out of time, and his coming to the tee last in the foursome is more than chronologically significant. Is he the oddest in an odd foursome?

Ellmann acknowledges in his brief preface the tenuous argument of linking the four together as peas in a pod: “These four, it may be granted, make a strange consortium.” Ellmann sews the group into a singularity with thematic threads from their works and their lives: “They posit and challenge their own assumptions, they circle from art to anti-art, from delight to horror, from acceptance to renunciation. That they should all come from the same city does not explain them, but they share with their island a tense struggle for autonomy, a disdain for occupation by outside authorities, and a good deal of inner division.”

One of the life-threads linking Joyce to Beckett was the trouble with occupation, how to earn a living while the world was busy ignoring what they considered to be their real work. They both tried but were disappointed with teaching. Joyce, who could have easily obtained a scholarly position at a university, instead occupied himself for a time with an alternative form of teaching – tutoring English language lessons. Beckett, who did secure a credible post, declined it almost immediately: “His teaching post at Trinity he quit abruptly because he discovered, and would later remark, that he could not teach others what he did not himself understand, a handicap that most of us endure without bridling” (92). That end break in scholarly text is not Ellmann’s only one in a short book full of gems and surprises.

One of the surprises that emerges might be both Joyce’s and Beckett’s humility and self-doubt as they stumble up to the world’s literary stage. One of the gems is found in a story Joyce once told to a friend, Louis Gillet:

“It was about an old Blasket Islander who had lived on his island from birth and knew nothing about the mainland or its ways. But on one occasion he did venture over and in a bazaar found a small mirror, something he had never seen in his life. He bought it, fondled it, gazed at it, and as he rowed back to the Blaskets he took it out of his pocket, stared at it some more, and murmured, ‘Oh Papa! Papa!’ He jealously guarded the precious object from his wife’s eye, but she observed that he was hiding something and became suspicious. One hot day, when both were at work in the fields, he hung his jacket on a hedge. She saw her chance, rushed to it, and extracted from a pocket the object her husband had kept so secret. But when she looked in the mirror, she cried, ‘Ach, it’s nothing but an old woman!’ and angrily threw it down so that it broke against a stone.”

“Authors, he [Beckett] has said, are never interesting” (93). And Wilde: “There is something vulgar about all success. The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.” And Becket: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail…” (109). Ellmann the scholar was able to thread remarks like these together to form an interesting view of four writers who “were chary of acknowledging their connections” (Preface). If authors are never interesting, what can scholars, their mirrors so quickly obscured, hope for? Let alone the common blogger, whose posts continually fall like awetomb sheaves down the electronic chute.

Ellmann, Richard. Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. New York: George Braziller, July 1988. 122 pages.

Related Post: Breakfast at Beckett’s

James Joyce on Writing: “write dangerously”

“The important thing is not what we write,” Joyce tells Arthur Power in Conversations with James Joyce, “but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously” (95).

Though I’ve several books written by people who knew Joyce, I’d never read Power’s book. Menand mentioned it in his “Silence, Exile, Punning: James Joyce’s chance encounters” (New Yorker, 2 July 2012), and I was able to find a cheap copy. [Menand’s title is itself a kind of pun on something Stephen tells his friend Cranly toward the end of Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning” (247)].

Menand questions whether what we read in Power’s book are the actual words of Joyce or the “gist” of a conversation that took place decades prior to the book’s publication. Would Menand have the same complaint if Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s highly regarded biographer, was the one recalling the conversations? It seems Menand thinks Power belongs, if he should be mentioned at all, in a footnote somewhere, his “renown” based on a single book, and while I agree with Menand that Power misread Joyce’s comment regarding the birth of a grandson, I don’t think Power should be dismissed based on Menand’s “gist” complaint. [An argument ensues, as Gordon Bowker, whose new biography Menand is reviewing, responds, timely, for the question of the journalistic practice of approximating quotes is in the air].

And Arthur Power was a journalist of sorts, an art critic, but he seems to have had skill and talent enough to closely observe and record [he said he wrote daily in his notebook, so the conversations were fresh in his mind when he recorded them], and we certainly have no reason to think that he had motive to misquote Joyce. In any case, Power’s book is full of pearls, and whether the gems contain the exact words of Joyce or simply the “gist,” I found them worth reflection.

But that business I quoted above, Joyce saying, “The important thing is not what we write…,” does he qualify that with this: “A writer’s purpose is to describe the life of his day, and I chose Dublin because it is the focal point of the Ireland of today, its heart-beat you may say, and to ignore that would be affectation” (97). In other words, Joyce seems to be saying that what we do write should come from what we know, what we have experienced.

There’s no doubt Joyce had a sense of humor, and could be an acerbic wit. An illustration of humor: “Yes, said Joyce, I met him [Proust] once at a literary dinner and when we were introduced all he said to me was: ‘Do you like truffles?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I am very fond of truffles.’ And that was the only conversation which took place between the two most famous writers of their time, remarked Joyce – who seemed to be highly amused at the incident” (79). And an example of Joyce’s acerbic wit: upon hearing of the sad suicide of the socially bumbling and difficult and “irritating” portrait painter, Patrick Tuohy, Joyce had hired to paint his father and later his immediate family, Joyce said, “I am not surprised. He nearly made me commit suicide too” (105).

But reading Power’s book I found my focus going to Joyce’s comments on writing: “A book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality” (95). Joyce seems to have preferred emotion over intellect. I suppose it takes an intellectual giant to argue this: “I know when I was writing Ulysses I tried to give the colour and tone of Dublin with my words; the drab, yet glistening atmosphere of Dublin, its hallucinatory vapours, its tattered confusion, the atmosphere of its bars, its social immobility – they could only be conveyed by the texture of my words. Thought and plot are not so important as some would make them out to be. The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion” (98).

Joyce employed humor in his writing: “In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact. There is humour of course, for though man’s position in this world is fundamentally tragic it can also be seen as humorous. The disparity of what he wants to be and what he is, is no doubt laughable, so much so that a comedian has only to come on to the stage and trip and everyone roars with laughter” (99). Joyce says, “Out of this marriage, this forced marriage of the spirit and matter, humour is created, for Ulysses is fundamentally a humorous work” (89). As for who is to say what any writing “fundamentally” is, Joyce clarifies, for critic, writer, and reader at once: “Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating?…Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk” (89).

An example of good writing Joyce found in Hemingway’s short story “A Clean Well Lighted Place”: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, said Joyce, which is what every writer strives to do…It is masterly…I think it is one of the best short stories ever written; there is bite there.” Yet Joyce’s enthusiasm at the time for Hemingway is tempered and foreshadows so much of what was to come, both for Hemingway and for literature in general: “I admit to his merit, of course, that he is very much of our time. But in my opinion he is too much of our time, in fact his writing is now more the work of a journalist than that of a literary man” (107).

But by literary man Joyce wasn’t referring to the PhD, the academic, the professional scholar, whose polite conversations transpire in private behind the rood screen of the contemporary paywall, but to something more real and immediate and accessible to all: “What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear…Most lives are made up like the modern painter’s themes, of jugs, and pots and plates, back-streets and blowsy living-rooms inhabited by blowsy women, and of a thousand daily sordid incidents which seep into our minds no matter how we strive to keep them out. These are the furniture of our life” (75).

Power, Arthur. Conversations with James Joyce. The University of Chicago Press. 1974. Phoenix edition 1982. Edited with Foreword by Clive Hart. Reprint. Originally published London: Millington, 1974.

Lilliput Press eBook (Feb. 2012) at Barnes and Noble.

Unmoving Literary Works; or, Needs Editing, “Ha Ha Ha”

“Ulysses could have done with a good editor,” Roddy Doyle said, fed up with all the attention Joyce gets to the neglect of other Irish writers. “I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it [Ulysses],” Doyle said. Roddy was just stirring up the stew, tossing in some new ingredients, and no need to cook it so long over an open fire. Let’s eat; I’m hungry. But what of Paul Coelho; what’s his beef with Joyce? “Ulysses is pure style. There is nothing there,” Coelho said. We introduced the topic in Monday’s post: must a work “move” the reader to have literary value?

In his On the Sublime, Longinus says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification.”

Ha Ha Ha! Take that, Coelho!

Yet Longinus also says, “In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise.” But does the reader despise Joyce’s Ulysses for its “pure style”? Longinus said “that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.” Is this true of Ulysses? And, if not, would editing help?

Longinus lists “five principal sources of elevated language:…the power of forming great conceptions…vehement and inspired passion…the due formation of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression…noble diction…[and] the fifth cause of elevation…is dignified and elevated composition.”

Can we edit one or more of Longinus’s principal sources of elevated language out of Ulysses and still expect something sublime to emerge?

But what of the idea that for a work of literature to be considered “great” it must “move” the reader? I began thinking of literary works that we might consider great yet don’t move the reader. I selected those works whose design seems to match up to Longinus’s ideas of the sublime and elevated language but also at the same time might, using Doyle’s critical voice as expressed in the Guardian article, have “done with a good editor.” Here’s the list, annotated with wry comments using the “must move to be good” literary critical voice:

1. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville: Edit out all that business about whaling, surely included simply to fatten the thing up, so Melville could boast he had written a big book. But the real problem is, can anyone be moved by the killing of a mad sailor by a vengeful whale? What has this to do with the price of a loaf of bread and a bottle of beer at the local grocery?

2. The Trial, by Franz Kafka: Well, it’s a trial reading it. And who was ever moved by a trial, particularly one that had no ending?

3. Three Novels (Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable), by Samuel Beckett: Triple play of boredom, the reader thrown out at every base, a runner that never reaches home plate. The work defines constipation, the antithesis of being moved.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon: Where are those scissors?

Still, there’s something to the topic that invites comment. What is good? Should a work be considered good simply because it achieves its objectives, even if those objectives lack sentiment and fail to move? Or should we keep looking, for those books that are both “pure style” and contain enough sentiment to be considered moving? How about Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

Related Post: Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

From Longinus’s On the Sublime, Chapter 1: “As I am writing to you, good friend, who are well versed in literary studies, I feel almost absolved from the necessity of premising at any length that sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. 4. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.”

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.

“Penina’s Letters” at The Boulevard

A short excerpt from Chapter Two, “The Truth of Things,” from Penina’s Letters, a novel in progress, is now up at The Boulevard, a publication of the Hawthorne Fellows at the Attic Institute: A Haven for Writers.

Click here to read “The Truth of Things.”

I’m a Hawthorne Fellow at the Attic Institute for the period April though August, working on a novel, Penina’s Letters. For information on the Hawthorne Fellows, click on the Attic door below. They are accepting applications now for the next Fellows period, Oct. through Feb., 2012-13.

Related Post: “Penina’s Letters”: Hawthorne Fellows at The Attic Institute

“…and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d ‘a’ knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t ‘a’ tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Huckleberry Finn, last sentences).

Check out the Toads post at berfrois: “…what happens to Huck when he winds up in a research paper writing class? Tom skates through while Huck suffers the fantods.”

“Penina’s Letters”: Hawthorne Fellows at The Attic Institute

Strolling readers! Announcing:

Writer at work, work in progress:

I’m a Hawthorne Fellow at the Attic Institute for the period April through August 2012, working on a novel tentatively titled “Penina’s Letters.” The first chapter is now on-line at The Boulevard (Issue # 3), a publication of the Hawthorne Fellows at The Attic Institute. Please check it out, and read the other Fellows as well!

A Year From The Use and Misuse of English Grammar

We learn grammar when we learn to speak, we know grammar, we pause where we want, when we want, pulling words like fish from our Pond of Vocabulary and stringing them on the line, one after another, one to a hook, using commas instead of periods when we don’t want to be interrupted, YELLing when someone is so rude as to keep on talking when we are trying to interrupt – we fall silent, dashed, a period of rigour-tunge follows (our tongues rigged with rules), then we bounce awake, trim our sails, for we’re surrounded in the Bay of Prescription, the murky waters of communication, with boats of advice all bopping this way and that (there goes the “Do This,” firing across the bow of the “Don’t Do That”), the pond stormy on a storm swept night if there ever was one.

In Wendell Johnson’s “You Can’t Write Writing,” (The Use and Misuse of Language, 1962, S. I. Hayakawa, ed.), we learn that bad grammar, baby, ain’t our problem: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, ‘Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to?’ Mr. Darrow was contending…the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to’” (101).

This has implications for those who would aspire to teach writing, and Johnson continues, “The teacher of English appears to attempt to place the emphasis upon writing, rather than upon writing-about-something-for-someone. From this it follows quite inevitably that the student of English fails in large measure to learn the nature of the significance of clarity or precision and of organization in the written representation of facts” (103).

Grammar is the least of our worries, argues Johnson: “So long as the student’s primary anxieties are made to revolve around the task of learning to spell, punctuate, and observe the rules of syntax, he is not likely to become keenly conscious of the fact that when he writes he is, above all, communicating…his first obligation to his reader is not to be grammatically fashionable but to be clear and coherent” (103).

Hayakawa, in his introduction, has already explained his interest with regard to how people talk: “We are not worrying about the elegance of their pronunciation or the correctness of their grammar. Basically we are concerned with the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii). And, ultimately, for the reader interested in more than mere prescriptions on how to write, emphasis is placed “not only on what the speakers said, but even more importantly on their attitudes towards their own utterances” (vii).

Hayakawa sums up his concerns as follows: “What general semanticists mean by ‘language habits’ is the entire complex of (1) how we talk – whether our language is specific or general, descriptive or inferential or judgmental; and (2) our attitudes toward our own remarks – whether dogmatic or open-minded, rigid or flexible” (vii).

Whenever I hear some self-appointed cop of language (or worse, someone with the badge of a degree), attempting to arrest a speaker’s tongue, putting it in the handcuffs of some prescriptive rule, I think about Hayakawa’s The Use and Misuse of Language.

But, unforlorn, I’m inclined toward and recline with an infuzen of John Cage, who sums the problem up nicely in his A Year From Monday (1969), which begins with “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965

        I.               Continue; I’ll discover where you

                            sweat  (Kierkegaard).            We are getting

rid of ownership, substituting use.

Beginning with ideas.            Which ones can we

take?            Which ones can we give?

Disappearance of power politics.            Non-

measurement.”

Related:

“You Can’t Write Writing”
Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major
How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders