Paulus Torchus

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.

Let’s All Write a Lune!

The Lune is a form concocted in the 1960s by poet Robert Kelly. He was upset over the Western version of the haiku, feeling that the rigid syllabic adherence detracted from the original flow of the form. Japanese, he said, uses more syllables than English. So, he devised a form of 5/3/5 syllables, a sort of English haiku form. He called it a Lune because the right side of the poems sort of resemble a crescent moon.

But then came a wonderful variation on the form. Poet Jack Collom was teaching poetic forms to schoolchildren. He misremembered the Lune as being 5/3/5 WORDS instead of syllables. Realizing his mistake, he looked at the poems that the children had written and found that the removal of the even slightly stricter rule of syllables freed them up to experiment with greater ease.

I tried both and found that the best ones came sitting in my front room, simply observing what was going on in the room. They do sort of have an English haiku feel to them I think. First, the syllabic form:


Black dog lies on side

hard wood floor

wheezing, paws twitching.


Black cat curled by dog

both sleeping

one paw on dog’s leg.


Day’s rain on pavement

pools in cracks

grass saturated.


And then I wrote some of the word variety.


He yawns, stares at her,

turns his head,

licks lips, looks at me.


Her socks are coffee cream

sweater and sweats

hair failed pulled from face.


Pickle snaps when teeth bite

vinegar numbs tongue

bottom soaks through paper towel.

Ulysses by James Joyce, Part 4

Preparations for my wife’s birthday party and a subsequent chest cold have dramatically slowed my progress. I expected this to be a thing I read in January but it looks like it’s going to be a thing I read for 2/12ths of 2014.

This next section, again, put me in mind of Whitman. Sort of an “I Hear Dublin Singing” section. The priest makes his way through town and we are treated to a number of vignettes of the Dublin denizens. We like the priest because the priest likes the people. He likes “cheerful decorum,” a lovely reflection of the belief in a God of grace and order. The priest runs across a constable, each nod at the other on their lonely beats. We see the Dedalus kids scouting out food, a one-legged mad sailor beggar who I couldn’t help but cast in my head as Tom Waits, men watching women, bitter foreigners, barflys. I think my favorite, or at least one of Joyce’s wonderful language plays was the gentleman who has caught a cold and periodically punctuates his conversation with “Chow!” Around the second or third time it hits you that Joyce is recording the sound of the sneeze, much like he describes how the pigeons “roocoocooed.”

One image that recurs in this section had me thinking of Gatsby (that other “greatest novel in the English language”) and how keenly aware these two 1920s books were of billboard advertising. At once modern and archaic, these men were on the cusp of that one thing that we are now entirely soaked in. And they had the good sense to make it a symbol of their time.

Bloom makes only a passing appearance in this section. We see that his sensuality also extends to his literary taste. Again, do we choose to see this as a man dazzled by the deep headiness of all things lusty, or just kind of a creepy lech?

The high point of this section was, for me, Buck Mulligan. He is full of life and I want to be more like him. He and Haines are talking about a number of things including Stephen’s recent brilliant Shakespeare rant (to which Haines replies “Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.” I might do well to make that a plaque to post over my front door), and Mulligan’s theory on why the Irish have no concept of Hell.

A procession of titled nobles seems to pass in a section that reads like what I always thought this whole book would read like:

“Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.

Martha! Come!

Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappyclap.

Goodgod henev erheard inall.

Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.

A moonlight nightcall: far: far.”

This goes on for about a page or two and then we are in a barroom scene with Simon Dedalus, Poldy Bloom, et al. They flirt with the women. They sing beautifully (and I was reminded of the Sirens). We reenter the stream of Bloom’s consciousness and he thinks on what he is experiencing, returning often to the concept of death, no doubt due to the manner in which he started his day.

I peeked ahead and, in the section to come, I would be surprised of someone doesn’t get a spear jammed into their eye.

More soon.

Ulysses by James Joyce: Part 3


I have reached a point of great frustration with James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is this: that I can’t just sit and read it to the exclusion of work and all other responsibilities of life. I love books that demand that I throw myself into them. I love books that devour me and spit me out a different person than I was when I started. This is one such book. I just want to disappear into it.

Bloom enters the offices of his newspaper, which is his place of employment. This section is split up under bold headings (like a newspaper, you see). The men in the newspaper office are a bit like roughhousing horses in their banter, much like a group of men in a working environment. “The Professor” brings in more talk about links to the classical and the desperation over the dying Irish language. Also Hamlet. Also foot and mouth disease. There also seems to be a motif of Onanism. I think this last one speaks to the time, the modern world as separate, alienating, isolating, loveless in a way.

These motifs could be synchronicities or they could simply be what is boiling in the collective unconscious of that corner of space/time (if there really is a difference between the two). These are men in various places of their lives from The Professor’s place of intellectual headship, waxing elegiac over Greek as the language of the mind, to J.J. O’Molloy’s general process of decline to Mr. Simon Dedalus who seems bitter over the loss of his wife and the state of his son’s life. There is a point later when Hamlet is quoted again:

“Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit

Doomed for a certain time to walk the earth.”

That’s Simon.

The narrative itself does not give many indicators of how we are supposed to feel about a certain person, so the few times when it does, it seems like we are called upon to take great notice.

We have another odd Modernist breach in Stephen Dedalus. He isn’t quite the hero, is he? At the very least he is not our protagonist (or main character might be more appropriate to describe Bloom). I know I can’t be alone in this, but I WANT to be following him. I think the Key that I read before starting commented on how Stephen jumps in and out like a flea and we are delighted when he shows up. This is definitely the case for me. I also find myself picturing Stephen as Joyce himself.

These newspapermen, his coworkers, seem to have little to no respect for Bloom. Such is life in the workplace I suppose. There always seems to be the type who decide to take a disliking to one of their coworkers for no good reason at all. ‘Twas ever thus.

Bloom wanders around a bit, taking us along in his consciousness stream. The memory of a crucifix nightlight to the Catholic tendency towards rampant childbearing.

I had another point of looking up something because I did a triple-take when I came to this line:

“Like getting L.s.d. out of him.”

Knowing this to have been first published in full in 1922. It isn’t acid. It is the abbreviations for pound, schilling, and pence. Funny how words and terms change.

There is so much to comment on, far more than I ever could, and I suppose that’s rather like a day. Bloom is still in his mourning clothes and this fills people he meets with an unease. A humorous unease. Some ask; some speculate behind his back. Bloom reflects on birth and mortality moments after feeding some bird:

“One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.”

Here is one of the moments of clarity and awareness of the immensity of existence- arguably one thesis of the piece. About a page later, Bloom remembers the old days and thinks on how he was happier then. Then he second guesses that. Is he happier now or was he happier then? That is the side effect of nostalgia.

Bloom goes to a reeking pub filled with disgusting men eating sloppily, but thinks better of it and goes to a humbler pub. He wanders in thought a bit more and then we find ourselves in the library. And in one of the most perfect chapters in the English language.

Stephen Dedalus is holding court, explaining his theory of Shakespeare to some of his intelligentsia friends. Again, this is one of my favorite things that I’ve read so far and I don’t just mean in this book. I mean as in ever. And as such I don’t feel like writing in too much depth about it as I am still in the glow of reading it, but I will make a few comments.

Dedalus and his friends also have a bit of that roughhousing horses energy to them. Stephen says that Hamlet is reading the book of himself… which is what Stephen is doing too, right? He says that Shakespeare works in local color, works in everything he knows and makes them accomplices. Which is what Joyce is doing, right?

He then proves to us that Shakespeare is Hamlet’s ghost, that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, and that all of Shakespeare’s characters are Shakespeare (a Jungian interpretation). There is so much more to leave unsaid, but I think this entry has probably gone on long enough.

More soon.