Wednesday, October 27, 2010

James Joyce's "Grace": Temperance of Conscience

The psychoanalyst Eugene Mahon in 2006 published a wonderful paper in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child entitled “The Invention of Purgatory: A Note on the Historical Pedigree of the Superego.”  He writes of Purgatory as a kind of “third way” in the history of imaginings of the afterlife:

“If Heaven and Hell sound absolute in their depiction of total damnation or total eternal salvation, Purgatory seems to represent a yearning for continued communication with the afterlife in an attempt to modify the imagined sufferings of departed ‘souls.’ ”

Mahon then poses the fascinating question: “Is the psychology that led to the concept of Purgatory a possible forerunner of the later Freudian concept of the superego, which, at its most mature, rejects splitting and magical absolutism in favor of a more reasoned assessment of guilt and pleasure?”

The question caused me to turn back to “Grace,” the penultimate short story in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners, in which Tom Kernan drunkenly falls down some pub stairs on the way to the bathroom and bites off the end of his tongue.  The memory or idea of this incident seems to have had some importance for Joyce, as it reappears in Ulysses in the interior monologue of Molly Bloom: “Tom Kernan that drunken little barrelly man that bit his tongue off falling down the mens W C drunk in some place or other…”  Joyce’s brother Stanislaus informs us that “Grace” treats the Kernan fall as an allegory: “Mr Kernan’s fall down the steps of the lavatory,” Stanislaus writes in My Brother’s Keeper, “is his descent into hell, the sickroom is purgatory, and the Church in which he and his friends listen to the sermon is paradise at last.”

Most of “Grace” takes place in that Purgatorial “sickroom,” where Kernan’s friends sit and talk with him while he recuperates; eventually, they make plans to atone, as inhabitants of Purgatory are meant to do.  The word “grace” is in fact one intimately connected with Purgatory in the Christian faith.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that Christian Purgatory is “the state in which those who have died in grace expiate their sins….”

Whether Joyce would agree with Mahon’s interpretation of Purgatory I don’t know, but Joyce clearly had Purgatory on his mind in the writing of “Grace,” a story I never much liked because it seemed to ridicule its own graceless characters in a simplistic and unsympathetic way.  But rereading the story with Mahon’s insights in mind, I think Joyce may have been using the idea of Purgatory in a more sympathetic way than I first understood.  While the characters certainly look foolish in their slapstick discussion of theology (Mr. Cunningham tells a ludicrous story about an Irish priest they all know who supposedly argued with the Pope over papal infallibility only to be overruled on the question by infallible papal verdict)—but while they’re foolish, they’re also wiser than I first guessed—especially the hero, Tom Kernan, with the bitten-off tongue.

Of the fourteen stories in Dubliners based on a Christian vice or virtue (that is, all the stories except “The Dead”), “Grace” occupies the anchoring fourteenth position.  The virtue Joyce assigned to this story is clearly temperance, as Kernan and friends seek to temper their drinking.  But more importantly, they exhibit a healthy temperance when it comes to the conscience that damns sinners to eternal Hell.  As such, “Grace” is not only deep, but a sort of antidote to the damning syndrome of psychological paralysis introduced in the collection’s first story, “The Sisters.”

Kernan’s friends’ discussion of sin and atonement is warm-hearted, jovial, and hilariously funny, nothing like the grave treatment of sin in that opening story.  There are no bottled-up, paralyzed, tortured figures here.  Kernan amiably goes along with the plan to confess in church, but he knows the limits of his conscience.  When Mr. Cunningham tells him he has to stand up with a lighted candle and renew his baptismal vows, he balks.  Joyce writes:

“No, damn it all,” said Mr. Kernan sensibly, “I draw the line there. I’ll do the job right enough. I’ll do the retreat business and confession, and... all that business. But... no candles! No, damn it all, I bar the candles!”

Shortly thereafter Kernan rephrases his objection to the candle ceremony in a wonderful and telling way: “I bar the magic-lantern business!” he cries.  It’s as though Mr. Kernan, in waving off “the magic-lantern business,” is renouncing precisely that “magical absolutism” of conscience that Mahon describes as the animating force in the Manichean system of Heaven and Hell.  Kernan’s conscience “sensibly” makes a Purgatorial compromise wherein he’ll renounce Satan but not himself, who he stands up for with his sense of humor intact: “I’ll just tell him my little tale of woe.  I’m not such a bad fellow—” he tells his wife.

This jolly, kindly, self-tolerant, all-together-now group of friends may drink too much, but it appears they’ve achieved a higher form of grace in Joyce’s eyes: temperance of conscience.  This hilarious story of self-forgiveness has now become a favorite of mine.  Another indication of its importance to Joyce is its prefiguration of Leopold Bloom, the amiable, self-tolerant protagonist of Ulysses; one of Kernan’s friends, Mr. M’Coy, is an advertising canvasser married to a soprano (like Bloom—and when Molly thinks of Tom Kernan in Ulysses she also has some unflattering words for Mrs. M’Coy’s singing).  “Grace” also contains very funny mention of a banker named Mr. Harford, an Irish Jew like Bloom.  Joyce writes that “his fellow-Catholics, whenever they had smarted in person or by proxy under his exactions, spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew and an illiterate, and saw divine disapproval of usury made manifest through the person of his idiot son.  At other times they remembered his good points.”

Mr. Harford the Jew is not only saved, comically, from damnation but, in Joyce’s created conscience, granted an apotheosis—into the stardom of Leopold Bloom.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Naturalist of Good and Evil

Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Essay on Bentham: Together With Selected Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John AustinUtilitarianism, On Liberty, and Essay on Bentham: Together With Selected Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin by John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is the rock star of moral philosophy.  And I don't say that because he trashed his hotel rooms.  He didn't trash them, or even stay in them, to my knowledge.

But he's got the sort of brilliance that sings, that fears no tradition and no opprobrium.  Jeremy Bentham's idea of utilitarianism (a good action is one that has happiness of self and others as its consequence) was genius to begin with and Mill applies his own genius to it to give it another level of subtlety and versatility.  Mill's utilitarianism is for me the most honest and helpful of moral philosophies.

Some people complain that utilitarian ethics neglect 'Kantian' notions of good: fairness and justice.  Mill was aware of this complaint and he addresses those questions about the connection between justice and utility in Chapter V of Utilitarianism, titled "On the Connection Between Justice and Utility."  See how to-the-point he is?  And he addresses the question to my satisfaction, thoroughly.  Mill is a naturalist who observes and describes moral sentiments more than he attempts to interpret the will of a moral God; he observes morals in action like David Attenborough hiding in the bushes and training his binoculars on a troop of baboons.  I suspect he offends people who believe religiously that we are not animals and that morality is an emanation of the divine.  Mill says, "[O]bjectively the dictates of Justice coincide with a part of the field of General Expediency."  That is, you can explain the moral value of justice in the secular terms of utility.  His analysis of moral instincts points ahead to Nietzsche's brilliant On the Genealogy of Morals and on to Freud.

Warning: Mill does often write in those endlessly lapping nineteenth century waves of dependent clauses upon dependent clauses.  They seem to sway to and fro across the page and actually make my chin swing back and forth.

Spoiler: Mill dies.  The chronological table says (p. 346) that he became godfather to a baby named Bertrand Russell in 1872 and died in 1873.  I knew there was something foreboding about the fact that he was born in 1806, but still I was rooting for him.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pious Aeneas

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil

How is this for a blurb: I liked this book so much, I named my first-born child after its author.

Virgil is a legend.  Just as the Romans 'Hellenized' the world and spread Greek culture to all of us barbarians in the hinterlands, Virgil helped to canonize Homer with his Homeric epic in Latin, The Aeneid.  Virgil's poem follows Aeneas after the fall of Troy (just as The Odyssey follows Odysseus after the fall) and Virgil explicitly borrows from and transforms the work of his predecessor as writers have been doing ever since.  For maximum enjoyment, read The Iliad and The Odyssey before The Aeneid and then go on to Dante's Inferno, where Virgil becomes Dante's tour-guide through Hell.

But enjoyment is not exactly the point.  The Aeneid may be one of those great works that rewards close reading but isn't as entertaining on the dramatic level.  It is, however, a work of great beauty.  I had to translate it from Latin in high school and I still remember Virgil's sensitivity to nuance and detail on one hand, and on the other, his sense of epic proportion when dealing with fate, time, or the sea.  It's the work from which I learned the literary tropes and the basics of grammar and I have a particular fondness for it as a literary mother of sorts.

If you do want to compare Virgil and Homer, it may be of interest to note the way that The Aeneid rebuts certain elements of the worldview of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The Aeneid seems to me to look ahead towards a more guilty pre-Christian morality.  Aeneas's epithet is "pious" versus Odysseus's defining trait of wiliness--and this may explain why The Aeneid is a bit stiffer as a story, because Aeneas is a more duty-bound and inhibited creature than Odysseus.  The Aeneid begins with a reversal of perspective that's similar to what the Christian gospels were doing at the time they were written.  The gospels retell the story of a crucifixion from the perspective of the victim and glorify martyrs; in the same vein, Virgil revisits the destruction of Troy from the perspective of the victim and glorifies the victims, not the conquerors.  (The victims in fact literally "inherit the earth" since Aeneas's Trojan line supposedly gives rise to the Roman people.)  So it's no wonder that medieval Christians favored Virgil among pagan writers (when they paid attention to antiquity at all)--they even supposed that by some divine influence his work foretold of Christ.  The Aeneid was, of course, written for Augustus Caesar to glorify the Roman people, but it is politically subversive, precisely because of its ironic attitude to conquerors.

A.D. Nuttall describes Aeneas as "great and at the same time rather weird." Where Odysseus repeatedly breaks free, Aeneas suffers.  Odysseus is consummately independent, while Aeneas dutifully carries his father on his back.  The warlike Athena sponsors Odysseus and the goddess of love (Aeneas's mother) pulls for him.  Finally, Odysseus has sex with every female that walks on two legs while Aeneas endures a grim and painful love affair with Dido.  These contrasts, especially the last, reflect not only Virgil's somewhat different attitude to guilt, but also a more modern, realist approach to character and relationship than you find in Homer's highly expressionistic Odyssey.

I've read the Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum translations but not the Fagles.  I'm fond of Fitzgerald, who was a professor but also a practicing poet and a friend to Flannery O'Connor, who lived with him and his wife in Connecticut for a couple of years.  But any recommendations of other translations are welcome.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Hamlet: War of the Generations

Hamlet (The Oxford School Shakespeare)Hamlet by William Shakespeare

"Hamlet is the finest of all the plays in the English revenge tradition," says Roma Gill, editor of the Oxford School Shakespeare edition of Hamlet.  Some would call that an understatement, since Hamlet is frequently invoked as the greatest play in any tradition.  (Flaubert said, "The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart's Don Giovanni.")  Hamlet is, however, a revenge play, a fact which often seems to go unappreciated by directors and actors and existentialist critics.  Laurence Olivier was a fantastic actor, I grant--hey, I saw Marathon Man--but there was little of the revenge motif in his very stylized and emotionally beige Hamlet, who seemed to suffer from "indecision" as if indecision were akin to shingles, or something you'd find in the DSM IV, as opposed to a manifestation of inner conflict.

Who wants to watch Hamlet bitching about his terminal shingles?

Hamlet is about a war of the generations, between young and old, fathers and mothers versus sons and daughters.  Claudius makes war on (and kills) his older brother, King Hamlet; Hamlet makes war on his uncle and his mother and their royal advisor Polonius; Laertes and Ophelia laugh at their father Polonius for being out of touch and giving stale old advice.  Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius make war on Hamlet; Polonius doesn't trust his son Laertes and sends Reynaldo to check up on him; and of course King Hamlet's ghost wants his younger brother dead and torments his son Hamlet with charges of filial debt and obligation, a sense of belittlement, and with his taunting, withdrawing, loveless apparitions and his absence.

At the same time, Hamlet honors and wishes to avenge his dead father, and Laertes feels the same way after the murder of his father Polonius, who he formerly laughed at.  The ambivalent, “two-way” relations between the generations reflect inner conflict, a war of rage and guilt, and these opposing emotional vectors create a doubleness in the major characters.  Hamlet resembles Laertes in mourning his father (and notes as much in Act V scene ii when he says, “For by the image of my cause, I see / The portraiture of his”); at the same time, in killing Laertes’s father, Hamlet has followed after Claudius, another father-killer.  Claudius has boldly stolen his brother’s crown and his wife, but he suffers self-doubt, berates his own actions as “rank,” much as Hamlet frequently berates himself.  Hamlet devastates his opponents with self-confident repartee and at the same time he remains meek and loyal servant to his father.  The name Shakespeare gave to the son of Polonius, “Laertes,” seems to signify this instability of identity where sons identify with both their fathers and themselves; in Greek mythology, Laertes was not a son, but a father, the father of Odysseus, no less.  Shakespeare has seemingly assigned the name to the wrong party, but it's fitting, since rage and guilt are dynamic poles that split the characters’ personalities in Hamlet, warping identity, perception, and fate.

There is nothing native to Hamlet of the chemically inert, romantic substance fed into him by some of his interpreters on stage.  As written, he’s a yin-yang of hate and self-hate, more hate and more self-hate.  The role calls for an actor who can access guilt and rage during a performance, and it got just that in Zeffirelli’s movie version, because he had Mel Gibson, who portrays it flagrantly, on screen and off.

Harold Bloom says in The Western Canon, p. 365, “[T]he masterpiece of ambivalence is the Hamlet/Oedipus complex.”  (The “Macbeth complex” is, according to Bloom, “the masterpiece of anxiety.”)  Hamlet touches the same iconic themes as Oedipus Rex but has been realized with an unparalleled level of psychological realism.  That’s why it’s not only the finest revenge play, but so much more.

I like the Oxford School editions of Shakespeare; they’re meant for high school and college students and are straightforward, not self-serious, and their notes on the text are aligned vertically at the edge of the extra-wide page, so that you don’t have to hunt at the bottom for an explanation.  Its cover photo, however, is of a Kenneth Branaugh whose expression is noteworthy for not seething with either hate or self-hate or, better yet, both.

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