Paulus Torchus

Finnegans Wake 1.2

One erratum from last week’s post: HCE is not the Dublin common man. He, rather, seems to be one of the elite (at least in this section), sort of a Pere Ubu type of character, some sort of dignified figure. He also seems to be in the rotund side as we shall see anon. I have a great appreciation of Joyce’s tendency to shy away from conventional lead actors. I mean, think about it. Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence as Leopold and Molly Bloom? No, Joyce has a Fellini-esque realism and this, I assume, is why Virginia Woolf found him vulgar. Well… that and the swears and Onanism I guess.

First, I would like to say a few words about having pierced the membrane of the first 29 pages. I am finding that, in a way, it worked! What I mean to say is, everything I’ve said previously about the book (the important of help material, the crucial “plot” outline) stands, but I am finding myself having a much easier time with it. Custom hath made it in me a property of easiness. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement actually, but I am finding the comparison of learning how to read this book to learning a new language apt. Right now I feel a bit like I did watching Run, Lola, Run right after my first year of German. I could kind of sometimes not look at the subtitles!

In this section we are finally introduced to HCE (I’ll use the initials for the sake of clarity as his name seems to shift, but the initials stay the same). He encounters a common man who seems to be accusing him of a sexual indiscretion (the nature of which also shifts. In the dreamscape of Wake, I sense that the indiscretion amounts to general sexual guilt and HCE’s claimed innocence seems like it might indicate the sense of sexual guilt when one hasn’t actually done anything wrong).

The man is first identified as a “quidam.” This took me back to my teenage years when my older brother worked in the ticket booth of a Cirque du Soliel show of that name. I remember him telling me about an affluent man who came to the ticket booth and sneeringly asked, “What’s Quidam supposed to mean?”

My brother said, “You know that guy walking down the street who you don’t know and who you don’t care if he lives or if he dies? That’s ‘Quidam!’”

Not a story that Joyce would have known, but I feel that this sort of free association is not out of line in response to this text.

HCE is accused of the indiscretion by the quidam (another moment where I audibly laughed was when, for simplicity, Joyce suggests we call him “Abdullah Gamellaxarsky.” And then proceeds to never call him by that name again). HCE denies it, and goes on his way. The rest of the chapter is an account of the rumor spreading. It comes to the ear of a priest. We hear a stutterer commenting on it. We see it pass through a pub (the wonderful term “alcoherently” is coined) of hunters, ladies, ne’er-do-wells, professionals, and thence to a group of waggish parody song writers. They take it upon themselves to write a satirical ballad.


One of the beautiful tools of this modern age is Youtube. Whenever you approach a piece of literature that includes music, you can rest assured that one of the billions of users on Earth have attempted to record the song. Usually you’ll have your choice of versions. While I have a bare-bones enough music education to sight read, my imagination is not so great as to fill in what a song sounds like just by looking at the notations. I like this performance, although I’m not so crazy about his commentary. He says this song is an outline of the plot of the book and I don’t think it is. Also, he’s settled on one version of HCE’s indiscretion and I don’t think the book does that. However, bravo for performing the whole droning thing in front of a live audience! So I’d recommend starting the video when the music starts at 1:07.

More soon.

Finnegans Wake 1.1

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Yes, it is a dense work. Yes, it is slow reading. Yes, it does not make conventional sense nor is it in conventional English. But about ten pages in, as I was struggling with the text in the way I’m sure everyone struggles with the text, I thought to myself, “Yes, but am I enjoying it?”

And I found that I was. Much like Ulysses, in spite of the overly reported difficulty of the book it also strikes me as a highly joyful book. The wordplay is sweeping, cosmic, immense, sublime. The comparison I imagined was Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, another overly reported difficult work. If one were to buy a ticket to that opera, one finds one’s self in the opera house for around five hours observing a piece that is famously both minimalistic and abstracted. People have made all sorts of accusations against the work of Philip Glass, some of which I can intellectually understand where they are coming from, but I’ve never been able to shake the fact that I simply enjoy his sound. When one realizes this, one can settle back into enjoying the next five hours or six hundred pages.

Well, I guess that remains to be seen.

As I predicted, the Oxford World’s Classics edition has proved invaluable. There is one passage early on:

“This is camelry, this is floodens, this is solphereens in action, this is their mobbly, this is panickburns. Almeidagad! Arthiz too loose! This is Wellingdone cry. Brum! Brum! Cumbrum!”

What on Earth is Joyce on about? Well, in the introduction there is a Chapter by Chapter Outline of the, as it were, plot. In regards to this section “Finnegan’s ‘mild indiscretion’ projected onto the battle of Waterloo”. These sections, these plot fragments, flow not nearly so neatly as they are delineated in the introduction, but, having read this and knowing it was coming, at one point I realized “Oh! The Duke of Wellington!”

YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS! You cannot travel this land without a Virgil! I am convinced of it and I think Joyce meant for it to be. I think he meant to open a deep deep mine and throw the reader into it, leaving it up to the reader to find the tools to mine anything from it or even a lantern. I think I read someone somewhere compare the first 29 pages to learning a new language. It is daunting, but I am assured that it’s also rewarding. I’ve also heard it compared to a dream, the night-twin of the day of Ulysses. Considering the intersections between the lives of Joyce and Jung, this interpretation has a rather startling edge to me.

Also, onomatopoeia is one of Joyce’s chief playthings in this work. Famously, at the beginning, he makes a joke about The Fall of Man:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!)”

The “word” in parenthesis is, perhaps, the thunderclap of God’s wrath over Adam’s sin or, an option that made me chuckle when I read it, the written sound of someone falling down a flight of stairs. The book is brimming with this kind of “joke.”

This book does require a great deal more digging than Ulysses required. Indeed, people can spend a lot of time and energy… well, I suppose a better way to put it might be to say that what one gets out of it depends upon what one puts into it, much like life (and, as Tom Lehrer observed, a sewer). I discovered that someone actually put this moment to music:

<p><a href=”″>Thunderclap for Six Kinetic Light Drums + Finale</a> from <a href=””>Jenn Figg</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

People have devoted a lot of time and energy to this book. I am thankful for so many civic minded individuals who have traveled this path and left landmarks.

And speaking of music, it is helpful to know the song from which the work takes its title. In the first 29 pages, I think the lyrics of the song have cropped up nearly a dozen times:

The Fall of Man seems to be a motif. Since this is Joyce, it is transposed over a common Irishman with a problematic relationship with religion whose sin is succumbing to sexual urges. In this we see both an indictment of and an attraction to the baser instincts, which reflects the nature of Original Sin, that is to say the inclinations towards impurity. Also since this is Joyce, these themes are going to go into the high speed blender. As form meets content, we are warned of this. The first lines seem to reference the beginning of Tristan und Isolde and we who read the introduction know that the daughter of the… I suppose we should call him the title character although Finnegan morphs into a man named HCE for most of the book (I think), anyway the daughter is named Isolde. Also knowing that Joyce’s daughter Lucia, upon whom he doted, was descending into schizophrenia as he was writing this, we are prepared to see this theme of Original Sin in this form permeate every human in the story like sunlight through glass.

And looking back on the sentences I just wrote makes me keenly aware of how difficult it is going to be to talk about this.

I suppose one of the hotly debated, polarizing questions surrounding this book is whether a work of literature should demand this much of a reader. I would hazard a guess that out of nine billion people, only a thousand some people on Earth have read it at any given time. I have six hundred daunting pages to go still and I’m wary of making any hubristic statements at this point (picturing myself as Stephen Icarus), but I think that this is a fine use of the form. If I wanted everything presented to me on a silver platter, Western Civilization is chock full of entertainment outlets happy to provide for a fee. Should a book be difficult as this? Sure! Should a book be simple as Hemingway? Sure!

Am I going to make it through this book?

Am I going to make it through this book?



Is this thing on?

On Losing My Home

So, Laurie and I are moving.

We have known for some time that our ability to keep the financial ball in the air is unsustainable under current circumstances. There are a number of reasons for this: our financial situation has changed drastically and unforseeably since we bought this house, the whole world of home-ownership in America has changed in the past 7 years to the point where the axiom “safe as houses” is unavoidably laced with bitter irony, exterior forces and a smattering of ill advised choices, an impending balloon payment which we once had a plan for that has since fallen through, etc., etc.

We have seen this coming for a long time.

We wanted to be proactive, not to simply allow nature to run its course. Neither of us is comfortable with hunkering down to wait for a foreclosure and we still have not hit that point. The incitement to move now came in the serendipitous offer of a house to rent, larger than the one we live in now and significantly cheaper, permission for all pets and as much gardening as we like, in a nicer and quieter neighborhood, and I even like the decor (I keep describing it as “retro-1950s with full PeeWee’s Playhouse potential”). 

The bad news is we are returning to the world of renters, the dream failed, we are losing a home that we love and in which we’ve had some of the happiest memories of our lives. And a home that we dumped barrels of money into. C’est la vie.

The good news is that we will have new memories, a new home to decorate, and, for the first time in our marriage, to live below our means, giving us the opportunity to possibly do some good rather than doing nothing more than constantly flailing to keep our noses above water.

If you’re local and want to help, you can start saving boxes and/or block out some time in the first weekend of May to help us move. If you’re not local… well, thanks for your kind attention and expect any further pictures of us at home to be in a different location.

As you were.



Approaching Finnegans Wake

By reputation of all that I’ve read, one of the most difficult books in the (disputably) English language. As far as I know, no one I know in real life has made it through the book.

I had planned for this to be the year in which I finally read The Russians, but it’s turned into the year in which I read James Joyce. Ulysses and Portrait were so brilliant, some of my favorite reading experiences of all time. In spite of what I’ve heard from people who have taken a stab at this book, I simply can’t believe that the man who wrote those two books then went on to spend 16 years writing utter jibberish.

While waiting for Finnegans Wake to arrive, I picked up a Samuel Beckett anthology that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I noticed a piece titled Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce (the periods seem to indicate centuries between the authors named). It turned out to be an essay about Finnegans Wake and turned out to be quite helpful… I think. Beckett gave me two expectations which I think will serve as valuable tools: 1) that most literature divorces form and content, but Joyce is attempting to make form and content inseparable. In this book, form is content, which rather reminded me of a photo I saw recently of Marshall McLuhan’s marked up copy of the book. That’s pretty much McLuhan’s thing in a nutshell, innit? 2) Joyce has, in this book, created a Purgatory (like Dante), but rather than it ascending to Paradise, it is cyclical, never-ending, a “return of same” situation (like Vico. Which I know by way of Spengler).

I bought the Oxford World’s Classics edition. In my experience, they are excellent in highly helpful supplementary material. Again, as synchronicity would have it, they were the edition that helped me to read Dante for the first time, as well as the works of St. Anselm. It has become one of my favorite imprints and if they had an option to subscribe to their publications, a book of the month sort of situation, I would be all about it. Their edition of Finnegans Wake has about 50 pages of introductory material. The long introduction was written by a Wakehead who unpacks some key points (describes the shifting characters, defines the symbols, give an overview of the “story”). There is a chapter by chapter, sometimes line by line summary of what is happening. There is also a timeline of the life of James Joyce. This might seem like a point of general interest, but I also have this suspicion that Joyce’s daughter Lucia might be a key to the book. I doubt Joyce would appreciate me analyzing him like that.

So, did all of this prep work prepare me? Well, I’m four pages in now and my step-daughter just asked me what I think of it so far.

“Um… Well… It’s very dense. You really have to dwell on every word and phrase. You have to read things out loud and sometimes you’re laughing at things that don’t make sense. But I have the sense that it really is brilliant.”

Laurie came in from the other room and said, “Promise me something. If you find you’re just reading this to prove a point, please stop.”

“I’m not just reading this to prove a point. I really think there’s something here. I think there’s a lot here actually. I believe in Joyce. He’s earned it.”

But while Laurie has grave doubts about the mental health of James Joyce, I feel that anyone can understand the music of Johann Strauss, but you have to work to mine appreciation from Arnold Schoenberg (my two year old grandson danced immediately to the former, left the room over the latter). Everyone understands a cheeseburger, but some people have to work to acquire some tastes for, say, sushi or Vegemite. I don’t think it is invalid to have to work for something (nor am I saying that the immediately understandable is “low brow.” I think both have their place in a rich human life). One of the introductions I read (I forget which) compared the book to a complex machine, like a nuclear reactor, which takes some time to learn how to operate, but which is highly useful once you do. They seem to suggest that the usefulness lays in the unique variety of perception afforded to those wading in the seas with St. Tristam.

There is also this thought by Harold Bloom (about whom my feelings are about as mixed as they come):

“Devote an inordinate part of your lifetime to “Finnegans Wake”, and it will reward your labors; that is its design.”

I have one more book planned for this year. If I read anything else, I’ll consider it a bonus.

Also, probably needless to say, I plan to liveblog the experience of reading this book. So stay tuned for that.


Sans Dents

That look the first time their aged mother

is too far gone to cover anymore.

Secreted within the arms of the armchair

the all embracing arms of Death.

The Romans had a curse:

“He will die an old man in his bed”

turned virtue in our winds over shifting sand

foundations on medicine, insurance, credit,

the furnace god into which we throw second infancy.

Our desire is for our antithesis

with antithesis removed.

The readiness is all

covered by the din of daytime tv and bingo.

Ouroboros life

to get from A to B

without attaching wisdom.

Native Son, by Richard Wright

What a brilliant and harrowing work of literature! I devoured it. Although it is half the length of Ulysses it took me about 1/8th as long to read. I found the storytelling to be masterful. I hardly know where to start.

I suppose I should start with personal experience. I am a white male, raised on the cusp of upper middle class who, through life choices and economic forces, grew into a man on the cusp of lower middle class. My “poverty” is, “I might lose my three-bedroom, two-bath house” or “I can’t take more than four days worth of vacation at a time.” Which is to say that my poverty is not very, and I’m well aware of it, like a tactful thin woman when she gains five pounds.

I have been, since my youth, a literature person, and I managed to get through public school and private university without ever even hearing that Harlem had a Renaissance. One of the richest periods of American literature was not even mentioned! Why? And yet the morally reprehensible Beat Generation were, in the 1990s, front page news in literature curriculum. Here we have a symptom of the systemic disease addressed by this book.

Bigger Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, is a young black man in 1930′s Chicago. The book is in three sections and I don’t suppose it would be a spoiler to cover the inciting incident in the first section, especially as the back cover blurb on my copy reveals it. Bigger has all of the self-actualizing handicaps that one would anticipate a young black man in abject poverty in 1930s Chicago would have. He is given the opportunity to have a job as a chauffeur to a wealthy white real estate baron who fancies himself magnanimous to Negros by virtue of his charitable donations to specific causes. His daughter, much to her father’s chagrin, has taken to associating with Communists. The Communists fancy themselves magnanimous to Negros by virtue of their treating them as equals and encouraging them towards revolutionary aspirations.

Bigger is trying to keep his job to keep his family from starving. He has never shaken hands with a white man before and, out driving the Communist and the daughter, is called upon to do so. He has never eaten with white people before, but these two young people fancy themselves so revolutionary and hip that they want Bigger to take them to a Negro restaurant and eat with them! And drink with them. Heavily.

All of which is terrifying to Bigger, unbeknownst to the young white people. He is horrified that, at every turn on that first night, this young couple seem as if they are about to get him into trouble by no fault of his own. And I see that the story, again, is so excellently crafted that I am inclined to retell the whole thing here in my blog post. I did that the other night to Laurie in great excitement over this book I was reading. She made me stop when I got to the moment where Bigger is trapped in the room, having carried the drunken daughter to her bed, when the blind mother enters the room and, in panic that it will somehow be revealed through sound that he, a black man, is in the bedroom of a white woman, he tries to keep the young woman from making any noise, first by pushing her to lay down, then, in desperation, by putting a pillow over her face.

And it all spirals downward from there.

One of the questions I came away with was: Did Bigger have to kill? And commit the series of crimes that follow? The answer is far more complex than it appears on the surface. At one point, I think during the trial, it is mentioned that he could have simply gone to the parents and said, “Hey, your daughter is too drunk to walk up to her room.” It was a physical possibility for him to do that, but as a young black man in abject poverty given a chance at a decent job and on his first night…

Which brought to mind the theological concept of Total Depravity and individual responsibility. Can one not sin? Well, yes and no really. It would appear that it is a physical possibility, but all of human existence is inclined in sin’s direction. Is Bigger responsible for committing the crimes? Yes, of course. Is the entire structure of our culture, where a black man in the presence of a lone white woman, where people of a certain skin color are not allowed to live outside of a certain neighborhood, have a certain level of income, is that structure responsible? I think if we’re answering honestly, the social structure begins to look an awful lot, extending our comparison, like the Principalities of Darkness.

One of the only critiques I found myself having towards the book’s perspective was the dim view it took of religion. It seems to have the Marxian “crutch” view of Christianity, the “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die” view. I feel like sin nature is an explanation to so many of these problems in the world, but I also feel that many people mistake this interpretation as a defeatist view, almost a resignation towards the inevitability of man’s inhumanity to man.

Slavery does come up, naturally. When our forefathers brought forth this nation, they were faced with the choice of true freedom and democracy or to preserve the institution of slave labor. They went with money. One version of the story is that, about a hundred years in, a great President triumphed in abolishing this blot on the history of our nation. Another version of the story is that the Industrial Revolution had grown to the point of pushing slave labor closer and closer to obsolesce anyway.

Another serious question/problem posed by the story is what is one to do? One white character who is sympathetic gets murdered, another is revealed to be profiting off the backs of the very people he claims to be sympathizing with, another is accused of the crime, another is demonized by his peers. Not to add spoiler upon spoiler, but I don’t think it’s a surprise ending to find that those who seek to overthrow this institutionalized racism are not successful. I have a couple of Hispanic friends, who are as American citizen as I, who visited the Grand Canyon last week. They came back with a disturbing story of an encounter with some of the Arizona police as they were simply visiting the national monument. This encounter would not have happened to me if I were in the same circumstance.

This is hard to write about because it is so huge. I see that things have changed a bit since the time of the novel, even since the time of Richard Wright’s highly suspicious death (hounded by the CIA and then happens to have a stomach ailment/heart attack sort of thing and subsequent quick cremation, which should send a shudder of recognition through any reader of this book). I also see that things have not changed, but seem to be given lip service of having changed. I see these things and I see my own displeasure at these things and I think, “so what, should someone pin a medal on me?” This seems to be one of the key problems to the sympathetic white characters in the story. 1) The order does not change because .5% of white people feel sympathy, and 2) so you’ve come to realize what any base-level decent human being should realize. There is a well known event in the life of Malcolm X when a blonde white college girl came up to him and asked what she could do to help, he replied tersely “Nothing.” He later came to regret that moment, but I think there’s a truth to it too. It’s really that bad.

I am faced with another alarming question: am I part of the problem? I certainly want all humans to be equal. I agree that our economic and political structure as it stands excludes some and inclines towards inequality. Which is evil. And certain uncomfortable questions arise like, I am not a real estate baron, but from whence came the clothes I’m wearing, the coffee in the mug next to me, the gasoline in the car my wife drives (I bike, so there’s one good thing at least)? Or from whence came the opportunities that I have had? To the exclusion of whom?

And the final question, the important question, the question that I’m still chewing on, the question, I assume, that had the CIA up in arms: What can I do? I have some good ideas as to what I shouldn’t do, which is to contribute in any way to the culture of occlusion. Indeed, this is a bit of a proof text to incite one towards ways of thinking, demanding ways of living, for any moral person revolutionary to the current order.

In the end, there are no easy answers. I leave this reading experience deeply bothered. And I feel like I ought to be. I feel like we all ought to be. I am bothered in my cozy, warm little house with my tea and Mahler symphonies playing. How does that compare with how Bigger Thomas was bothered? How does that compare with how Richard Wright was bothered?

Let’s All Write a Lyric Poem!

A Lyric Poem is, simply, a poem which sounds like it might be sung. So says Ron Padgett. In days of yore, it is thought, these poems were sung, but we do not have the music. Think of the Psalms.

The word comes from the “lyre.” A lot of poetry is composed to be sung and a great deal of poetry that seems to have been composed for that purpose exists without any indication of what the original music may have been. William Blake is said to have sung his poems and we have no musical notation. Allen Ginsberg put out a remarkably awful album of how he thought Blake’s poems may have been sung. Indeed, one could put these poems to music.

This was a tricky form for me. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem intended to be a lyric piece in my life, save for that one time I started writing an opera libretto (which is another item on my bucket list by the way). I found myself writing in a sort of “patter” which reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan or, oddly enough, hip-hop. I learned that this specific form of simplicity is not my strong suit.

Any attempt by anyone out there to put this to music is highly encouraged. I picture verse 2 as a chorus, I suppose.



Late February Song

by Paul Mathers


February, when the coats are on the rack in readiness.

Vapo-rub and lavender in all of their headiness.

Earliest mosquitos tap the window to my room

and the bare, first twinges of what is soon to bloom.


And all the hemisphere begins to reboot.

The dead get buried, the vine spits out new shoots.

And I’m laying speculating the next verse to my song

If I should live so long.


Blindly fumbling through the path of life, we so often lose our way

with no compass, map, or blind man’s staff we weave our parquetry,

Anything that’s keeping falling sparrows calculating

is a force complex enough to keep my blood pump palpitating.


It’s all vanity: your panicky attempts to speak some pathos

when your only navigation’s acceleration through the chaos.

So I pull on my pants, each foot I put a shoe in,

drag myself into the kitchen and get the coffee brewing.

Ulysses, by James Joyce: Conclusion

We get the Good Samaritan comparison out of the way right off the bat.

Bloom and Stephen walk through Dublin late at night, reflecting on the violence of the town and how the police are only there to protect the affluent, to a cabman shelter (seems to be a bit like an all-night diner). Stephen is still a bit delirious. In the course of things, we and Bloom come to find out that he has not eaten in almost 48 hours. As is increasingly the case and as is so often the case in the wee hours of the night, their reflections take on a larger scope: God, existence, order. That latter is a strong point for Bloom and a point of almost complete ambivalence for Stephen, illustrating one common gap between young adulthood and middle age. Bloom tries to get Stephen to eat. Bloom believes that prostitutes ought to be monitored by the government and medical professionals. Bloom has opinions on the police and local government. Bloom has economic views, and views on gainful employment, which promote individual responsibility in the “each according to his ability” camp. Stephen only engages when the topics drift from the earthly.

There is a scene with a sailor boasting of his exploits at sea. Bloom seems to doubt the veracity of the mariner’s claims. As we get towards the end (not to get ahead of myself) I believe that there is a morality, or at least a metric of judgment, being promoted by Joyce. We are being led to feel certain ways about certain people, although there is a modern sensibility of the “gray” about many of the characters. This was most evident earlier in the citizen. Bloom’s motivations become a bit mixed in the scene that follows Skin-The-Goat as he speculates on the potential financial gains to be had on the quality of Stephen’s tenor voice. Therefore we no longer see Bloom as the purely compassionate surrogate father figure, but with a twinge of self-interest muddying the waters. Bloom adores Stephen regardless of Bloom’s now slightly soiled image, but this is so true of so much of human altruism. People are inclined to rewrite or apologize in retrospect, but there is so little purity in human behavior. More on this in a moment when we get to what I think is the closest passage to moralism: Molly Bloom.

We also see this in the next section as Bloom considers the concept of the perfectibility of humankind on its own steam. He internally concedes a list of factors that would prevent humans from ever achieving perfection and the list, humorously, is long. Also, in the next section, as Bloom’s reflections grow increasingly universal, the void of the infinite suggests to him that, even if there was life at other points in space, the nature of mortal existence is that of vanity. The allusion to Ecclesiastes reminds us of Buck Mulligan’s early Nietzschean worldview. Indeed, this is one of the points in which Existentialism and Judeo-Christianity harmonize. A little later, biographical information colors in our view of Bloom as a man who rejected the faith of his father and embraces the progressive ideas of his time, fancying himself a man of science. We will see by the end that faith and faithfulness seems to be a major point of the novel, albeit perhaps not viewed through a traditional lens.

I was reminded of the newspaper report about Paddy Dignam’s funeral which misrepresents who was in attendance (at least two who were not actually there and one whose identity remains a mystery). Bloom is denied the posterity of his name being accurately recorded among the mourners. His irritation is also vanity.

Joyce plays with this veiled vestigial recognition of the twinges of truth of Catholicism by making the next section narrated in the form of catechism. A question is: who is talking here? Who is showing us these things? Who is asking and answering these questions? One online friend of mine believed that it is Joyce himself inserted into the book “behind the curtain” as it were. I am inclined to agree, but I still believe that Stephen is Joyce. I also feel that there is a bit of trickery in the title in that Stephen is the true protagonist of the book. Bloom is not our hero. Stephen = Hero.

Bloom wants Stephen to stay as he does not see where Stephen could go at this hour and on this side of town. He begins to fantasize about a sort of “rent payed in tutoring” situation, having an live-in intellectual force. Stephen, the character who seems to have self- confidence and a form of self-control not dictated by the expectations of common civilization, declines. We have a wonderfully symbolic transition as Bloom’s mind turns to the moon, water, flowers, and women, all of which are external forces that Bloom seems to be at the mercy of. Before we move on, some of these judgments on the buffoonery of humankind are driven home as, in the face of reflection on the sublime, Bloom knocks his head against a beam in his house.

Bloom also toys with the idea of running away from his life, disappearing in favor of a life of wandering. He rejects this fancy due to the lateness of the hour, the attractiveness of his bed, and the attractiveness of a statue of Narcissus on the dining room table (puts a fine point on it, I’d say). Bloom also thinks back on his day as the story of scripture (specifically the Old Testament, but with himself as a messianic figure at the end in his act of trying to help Stephen). Certain points do correspond, but we readers know that Bloom has the wrong book of antiquity in mind.

And now we come to Molly. Before I dive in here, I have to say that I feel as if having read so many other authors who are in debt to or derivative of Joyce (Vonnegut, Burroughs, R.A. Wilson, etc.) possibly prepared me to read this book by searing the nerve endings over the more scatological material. This book was tried for obscenity in my country, in which we are supposed to enjoy free speech and press, and this book was burned at one point by the United States government (as were many other books in this too too sullied nation’s history). I was a little surprised to learn that the passage specifically offending the censors was the highly cloaked passage describing Bloom’s self-abuse. I wonder if the censors of the 1920s didn’t make it far enough to Molly’s not-ready-for-prime-time language.

Molly’s lack of education, earlier hinted at by comments dropped by Bloom, is highlighted in her stream of consciousness. We’ve just had 700+ pages that couldn’t go a half dozen paragraphs without dropping a line of Shakespeare, an allusion to scripture, a poetic turn of phrase, the deep dark reaches of philosophy, or the otherwise collected wisdom of humankind. Molly thinks nearly exclusively about people and how she judges them. Her only cultural touchpoints seem to be lyrics of popular song. She thinks of her affair (with one of the more despicable characters in the book) and has the usual justification of the adulterous (if Bloom had only been a better husband). She considers seducing Stephen. She also thinks often of bodily functions and her language is decidedly “of the people.”

This tells us a few things about Bloom as well, some of which we may have suspected by now:

1) he married for looks and is inclined towards objectifying other people.

2) he lacks wisdom. We doubt he’ll ever have is dream garden estate as he’s broken even on the money of the day.

But what keeps these two together? In spite of her connubial dissatisfaction, she is defensive of Bloom at times and her episode culminates is a fond reminiscence of love. I think their common uniting factor is that they are two faithless or unfaithful people. Their totem of Narcissus in the other room as they lay foot to head, a yin to a yang, represents their worship of the body with their own on the throne. Stephen, by contrast, and although the familiar words of the father figure Polonius is one of the only bits of Hamlet not quoted in the book, is to his own self true. When Stephen left the narrative some 50 pages ago, we, like Bloom, have no idea where he’s going to go for the rest of the night. Is he going to be alright? Is he going to sleep or eat? Stephen is as one who considers the lilies of the field.

I’ve said it loud and often elsewhere, but for the sake of my own vain posterity I’ll say it here: I believe this to be one of the most perfect books in the English language. I feel a little sad that I will never again have the opportunity to read it for the first time. I was on the phone with my wife at lunch the other day as I walked the bike trail by Little Chico Creek and I was talking about this book. June 16th, 1904 did not seem, on some levels, to be a particularly momentous day in the lives of these characters. While some remarkable and memorable events occurred, the day might well blur into the haze of personal history. I was talking about Bloom’s super-objective of filling the son-shaped hole in his life with Stephen in these latter scenes and remarked on my uncertainty over Stephen’s super-objectives. Then I remarked on how, in the course of a common day, super-objectives are not always clear. The super-objective of the average day often seems to be “to get through it.” Alexander Woollcott once said,

“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.”

The quotidian adds up. What we do in our daily lives ends up the sum of our lives. Bloom, Molly, and Stephen’s actions in the day are informed by their values, where they put their faith, if you will. Ours is not to place our faith in imagined future paradises, but rather to bring who we are to the present feast of human history.

Thank you for reading.

Ulysses, by James Joyce: Part 6

I was incorrect in the next 50 pages being Bloom’s stream of consciousness. Rather, Bloom wallows a bit in self-cultivational guilt before drifting into other thought tributaries as he continues his odyssey, unclean until evening, as time and distraction so often numb guilt (the wages of sin is death?). Bloom winds up in a pub where Stephen, Mulligan, and several other established characters are carrying on typical pub talk/activities save for two unusual elements. One is that someone is having a baby seemingly within earshot. The other is that the language of the narrative turns into a sort of Thomas Malory style. At first I felt as if this might suggest that, for all intents and purposes, humankind has not evolved much past the medieval and that childbirth is a fine example of this. While I don’t think this interpretation was invalid, as the scene progresses, the narrative language style progresses through the history of the written English language.

Why this and why here? I do feel that universality of the human experience, regardless of the fixed temporal point, is intentional. The discussion of the nature of time and language recur frequently throughout the book. One of the theses of the Modernist is a rejection of the linear, pat, orderly arrangement of time and language as demanded in the fictional narrative of the previous century. Time is not experienced like a parade; perception is infinitely more complex. Language is not a fixed star, but a wandering comet (Melmoth? Ahasver perhaps?).

Nothing like a barroom full of men talking about childbirth, what? And, as usual, it gets a bit brutal and, again, the topic of the cuckold returns (I suddenly am reminded of the earlier proclamation, in the library, that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Certainly what’s about to come brings to mind the knight in horns tormented by the fae. Also Stephen’s Oedipal/daddy issues. More on that very soon). Man’s inhumanity to man is a necessary theme in any great urban modern piece I think. Again, Bloom is denigrated by his peers. Loneliness in a teeming metropolis is also a necessary theme and Bloom embodies this fairly well.

At the end of this section, I simply wrote in the margin “I have no idea.” Likely another bit of modern commentary, when the language evolves to the current, it is incomprehensible. Stephen and, indeed, Joyce may very well be sounding the lament of the Classicist.

We then enter the Circe section. I knew this without looking it up because people (including Bloom) keep turning into swine and they seem to be in the presence of bewitching women. What is actually going on is obscure for, oh about 100 pages I would say, which sounds dense but this section is all written in stage dialogue and, therefore, reads remarkably quickly. In another illustration of the unreliability of time, the reader goes from halfway through the book to about 150 pages from the end in a single afternoon.

I imagine someone somewhere has written a thesis on “Women in Joyce’s Ulysses.” I also imagine someone somewhere has written a thesis on “Men’s Bodily Functions in Joyce’s Ulysses.”

I was reminded, as we move out of the hallucinogenic haze, of a long ago conversation with a friend of mine who was a creative writing professor at CUNY. He was talking about the two film interpretations (to that date) of Hunter Thompson: Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He said that the latter was the successful of the two because it showed what was going on inside the head of Thompson whereas the former showed how he looked in consensus reality. I was reminded of this because Bloom seeing a parade of women he has lusted after, turning into the Jewish Messiah of Ireland at first adored and then tried (seeds of Kafka!) and lynched, turning into a female and then to a pig is far more compelling than, “Bloom, Lynch, and Stephen sat in the lobby of a brothel drinking absinthe and staring off into space.” The hanging motif reminded me that both William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett undoubtedly read Joyce. Again, so many owe so much to this work. I would add that this is why it’s good to always go to the source, the classics, the early material. You can then discern from whence later figures are deriving (or paying homage or, in some cases, plagiarizing.)

In spite of these harrowing apparitions surrounding Bloom, the most fearsome is the final spectre: Stephen’s dead mother. She says “Beware! God’s Hand!” Which the dead mother seems to be saying to Stephen/Joyce/all of us. The guilt and terror grip Stephen, as does his resolve to his chosen path. Stephen is deeply shaken, but entirely unrepentant. The message of the story demands the triumph of his will just as much as it demands the utter personal devastation in the face of that resolve against the cold universe, against God, against the fragmented couple that gave him life, against nations, against humankind. Bloom, Lynch, and Stephen spill out into the street where British soldiers take exception to an oath of Stephen’s regarding the King (and the brutishness of nationalism rears its ugly head once again. It seems that Joyce’s villains are either nationalistic or canine).

A curious thing: the morally ambiguous Bloom steps into an actual savior role (the next section takes great care to immediately get the Good Samaritan comparison out of the way). He assumes a surrogate father role, which seems like it is an inevitability for both of the characters. Bloom has the keen ache of the loss of a son and Stephen the loss of both of his parents in their own way. When Bloom cares for the beaten Stephen, it is one of the most beautiful moments in the book in my opinion. Perhaps I am putting too much of myself into this interpretation, but it is a small moment that resolves some major existential angst for the type of person likely to have made it this far in reading this book: the longing for salvation by/frustration over the failings of compiled human civilization that came before us. No less true for a turn of the century Dubliner looking at his parent’s generation than it is for a turn of the following century man looking at the destruction that the Baby Boomers have left in their wake.

But, again, maybe that’s just me.

Weighty stuff in the street outside of a Dublin brothel.

More soon. Possibly a conclusion soon!

Ulysses, by James Joyce: Part 5

I’ve just finished two important parts (chapters?) of the book.

The citizen is, while an extremely well written character, likely the most despicable character in the novel so far. In fact, I made a chart ranking my opinion of some of the major characters I’ve encountered so far, ranking them from  how despicable I find them to how likeable I find them:

ImageA couple of notes on this: Buck Mulligan is the character I find most likeable, but the sections about Stephen Dedalus are my favorite. Simon is unpleasant, but his tragedy does a lot to temper that. Bloom seems to land right in the middle, but certainly not in a neutral way. He seems to be a bit of both. However, the reasons the other characters dislike him are by no means the things about him that we dislike!

And this section is the perfect example. The citizen is a monstrous man and this section is a monstrous section. Almost everything out of the mouth of everyone in the pub, except for Bloom, is brutal, ethnocentric, and mean, but the citizen is the worst. He is nationalistic, he hates foreigners, he has a vile dog (I looked up James Joyce and dogs. Apparently Joyce had a severe fear of dogs, so this, for him, was a shorthand to evil). I couldn’t help but think “‘Twas ever thus.” The citizen reminds me of people I have known: older, xenophobic, with a sort of petulantly rigid and narrow form of patriotism. Like the mistreated dog, Freud might suggest that such people are actually built nearly entirely upon fear and cowardice.

The section with the citizen is peppered with interruptions by humorous vignettes. When the citizen talks about the foreigners clear-cutting the woodlands of Ireland we are treated to a wedding announcement of people with tree related names. I was struck, again, by this book’s influence on comedy. So many owe so much to Joyce. This gives a sense that, while the citizen and his court are entirely lugubrious, we don’t take them too seriously and they do, in fact, prove impotent. Near the beginning there is one while these brute meditate on the death of Dignam which takes us through the higher levels of enlightenment by way of a variety of other religions than Catholicism.

Bloom is trying to educate this bunch on the topics that arise, but learning is lost on this bunch. Bloom is constantly disrespected by his peers and, in spite of his shortcomings, you really want to stand up for him. But in this case, it culminates in rampant anti-semitism. The citizen, if I understand the heresy correctly, seems to suggest that he is a British Israelist. He certainly hates actual Jews and sojourners. Bloom finally “stabs him in the eye” at the end of the scene by reminding him that Christ was a Jew and by introducing the word that these men cannot abide: love. As we progress through the scene, I noticed an increasing “sight” motif. This puts us in mind of the cyclops, of Homer, and, indeed and probably unintentionally, of Joyce’s own later blindness. I’m tempted to try to shoehorn Milton in there somehow, but I should probably leave well enough alone.

For all of the citizen’s brutality, he seems to be “Mr. Ireland.” I wonder how this is meant to reflect on Joyce’s view of Ireland, but I suppose I might be inclined to go in a similar direction if called upon to describe Mr. America.

As an aside, the Hamlet references continue to gallop apace. I begin to feel as if Hamlet was to Joyce what Beethoven’s symphonies were to Brahms. I want to say to them “The things you are going to create will be just as magnificent in their own way.” Where the comparison breaks down, I don’t think Joyce is crippled by his awe over Hamlet.

We then shift to one of the first real immersion in female characters. Gerty is a dreamer, a romantic young woman. She shifts seamlessly between sweet innocence and holiness to hating children and desiring the love of a mysterious stranger, the caprice of youth. When she sees the man, looking so sad and intense, she imagines a heroine-complex narrative around him. Her companions are two women with children (rather spoiled children, I thought). There is a cute aside about one of the women’s madcap character exemplified in her once donning men’s clothing and walking down the street smoking a cigarette. Scandalous!

The stranger is, of course, Bloom and the intensity of detail committed to Gerty’s appearance, the fireworks, his hands in his pockets, and rising pitch seem to suggest a return to the motif of Onan. Placed next to the sound of the church service, this seems to suggest a blending of the sacred and profane. Indeed, both parties, Bloom and Gerty, leave with their internal fantasies intact (albiet Bloom slides immediately into guilt).

What follows is another 50ish pages of stream of consciouness, which I am still reading so we’ll pause here for now.

More soon.


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