Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Day of the Rabblement

The Critical Writings of James JoyceThe Critical Writings of James Joyce by Ellsworth Mason

Joyce begins his essay "The Day of the Rabblement," written when he was 19: “No man, said the Nolan [Giordano Bruno of Nola], can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude….  [I]t is strange to see the artist making terms with the rabblement.”

Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for asserting that the sun was a star like any other.  Just the sort of man Joyce was likely to admire, as he never met anybody's terms but his own--whether at 19 when Father Henry Browne rejected his essay from a literary magazine at University College Dublin (he self-published it with his buddy Francis Skeffington), or in his mid-50s, at the height of his fame, when he was paid little for the manuscript of Finnegans Wake, which took him 20 years to write.  He cared less about pay and more about commas, omissions of which were among many errata Joyce discovered in Viking's edition of the Wake.  He caused them to publish a pamphlet listing every last correction down to the comma and kerning of the letters.

This collection of expository prose, mostly written when Joyce was himself the young man he portrayed in his first novel, is not for the casual reader of Joyce.  But there's much here of interest for those with a serious interest in Joyce's art, his aesthetics, and his biography.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The House of Paper

The House of PaperThe House of Paper by Carlos María Domínguez

This elegant little novella devotes itself obsessively to one topic: the sensuous pleasures of reading.  For a good book is a world of sensation, and furthermore the record of life within a book--for Domínguez's characters, at least--invests the corporeal being of that book, the cover, the pages, the typeface, with sensuous life.  The physical experience of reading the book commingles with the sensations depicted within.  One of Domínguez's characters for this reason prefers to read nineteenth-century novels by candlelight and pairs his reading with particular pieces of music as a sommelier pairs wine with food.  (I read most of this book underground, jammed ribcage to ribcage inside various cars of the Lexington Avenue number 4 and 5 trains as they lurched and halted, lurched and halted, with an ambience of other people's body smells and loud, annoying iPods.  While this didn't prevent me from enjoying the book, it didn't much enhance the experience either.)  The narratives within books acquire some timbre from the minutes of real life in which they are read, and from the larger moment in a life in which they are read.  A vivid book can become irrevocably associated with a certain trip, a certain relationship, a certain phase of development.  Life phases influence the reading experience and a book in turn imbues a phase of life with its particular character.

A copy of Joseph Conrad's novel The Shadow Line, covered in lime and crumbled cement, plays a central role in the story here, but its physical being is far more important than its narrative for Domínguez's purposes.  That said, he does quote this fascinating passage from Conrad's author note to The Shadow Line: "The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is--marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state."  This was Conrad's way of disavowing any interest in the "supernatural" in his work.  One senses that for Domínguez, literary art at once honors and embodies those marvels and mysteries of the natural world.  A book, a real book, not a spell book in a fairy tale, is a magical thing.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The American Dream

Ellis Island: And Other StoriesEllis Island: And Other Stories by Mark Helprin

Is “Ellis Island,” the titular novella in this story collection, the best thing written on the American dream since the Declaration of Independence?

In 1981, when this book came out, The New York Times’s Anatole Broyard said of Helprin, “Nothing is familiar in his stories: he is interested only in the fabulous, the borderline between perception and hallucination, knowing and wishing. His characters exist in a state of sweet anxiety.”

This romantic tension between dream and reality selects his subject matter, but also distinguishes his style.  The cover of my edition is a painting of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, and Mark Helprin seems to paint his images in the mind with Sargent’s sumptuous colors and a similar blend of romance and realism.

And yet he differs from other practitioners of “magical realism,” such as that style’s founding father, Franz Kafka, or Kafka’s famous disciple Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  For one thing, Helprin’s much funnier than Marquez.  He can make me laugh out loud in 11 words; his rootless, rudderless narrator, fresh off the boat from Ellis Island, says, “No place would take me in, not even the Harvard Club.”  There’s a lunacy to his humor that resembles Kafka’s, but Helprin is willing to dare something that Kafka wouldn’t: happiness.

Especially in “Ellis Island,” there’s a sense of joyous, wild abandon akin to that of a Jewish wedding, where for a moment everybody forgets every painful thing that has ever happened--to himself, to herself, to the Jews, and to all people--and drinks, and dances a sweaty dance of near perilous disorder, and hoists the bride and groom and even the parents of the bride and groom--people old enough to break a hip--onto teetering chairs, life-mates linked only by a betrothal white kerchief or table napkin as tenuous as hope, and supported on an unstable, moving buttress of generally unathletic, but surprisingly strong Jewish men in an improvised scrum.

Celebratory Jewish dance is in fact an image in “Ellis Island”:

The dancing was an engine, drawing light through the eyes of each soul into a cylinder of tightly bound rays that went up past the dome.  I had heard of this in the East.  They used to say that the great synagogues of Asia were like this.  But I had never seen it. p. 184

And Helprin makes engines, trains, industry into emblems of joy, hope, humanistic power—who else dares to celebrate America in that way?  How different from Edith Wharton’s America or Kurt Vonnegut’s.  Mark Helprin sees America as a steam engine—or perhaps better to call it a dream engine—an engine casting off confusing clouds of vaporous dream, but also feeding on dreams to fuel the real work that makes dreams come true.  And they do.  “Everyone was in love with freedom,” Helprin writes, “and it is one abstract quality which, somehow or other, always manages to love you back.”

The tension of dreaming derives from the uncooperative, inhuman aspects of reality.  Like skulls peering out between the happy letters A-M-E-R-I-C-A in “Ellis Island” are the ghost letters A-U-S-C-H-W-I-T-Z.  The story seems to take place before 1940, but the cultural memory of Auschwitz has imprinted itself here.  Helprin says that the immigrants at Ellis Island had to go upstairs to examination rooms.

They prayed as they went up.  Even had we not had the sense of floating in Heaven, the idea of judgment was implicit in every angle of the place.  Some had great difficulty struggling up the stairs, and at the top were led away to be sent back—since the doctors could easily see that their hearts were not strong enough for America. pp. 137-138

The narrator appears to interpolate or imagine this fatal sorting of weak and strong by doctors, but does the image not call to mind Josef Mengele and Nazi eugenics?  On p. 141 the narrator states: “They made us take a shower.”  No Jew can picture his ancestors in an en masse compulsory shower without thinking of Auschwitz and Zyklon B, and that will likely be true for the next ten thousand years.  Finally, on p. 168, Helprin refers to “the morning industry of the city’s six million hands.”  “Six million” too is an unmistakable symbol—the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

By a trick of metaphor, Helprin’s America resurrects those six million dead, turns death showers into innocent ones, the nakedness of death into that of love and sex (an art teacher says, “America to you now is a big nude woman, and that’s just fine”), tombstones into towers of glittering glass.  It isn’t perfect, it can’t bring the dead back, and in the end, the narrator must lay aside certain evasive dreams in favor of realities that include death, but the reality is that America has made many a dream come true for real, that it plays host to gigantic love, health, freedom, and industry, to all that grain out there in Nebraska, to many of the profoundest aspirations of men and women, conceived in the dream engine of the world and transformed with great labor into more complex, but still satisfying, realities.

The narrator of “Ellis Island,” a former rabbinic student with a literary bent, hides behind a variety of pseudonyms and ends up writing for the Jewish Daily Forward.  He shares all these attributes, one notes, with the real writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, a master of that age-old dialectic between dream and reality.  And so Helprin realizes his own dream, I think, of joining the ranks of his literary forefathers.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Poet of Nature

A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of RealityA New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality by A.D. Nuttall

A.D. Nuttall is a god damn genius.  As of May 6, 2011, I am his only Goodreads "fan" (as well as the only "fan" of supreme literary critic Robert Alter) and that's a testament both to the meaninglessness of literary fandom and to the intellectually backwards times we live in.  But at least this Nuttall classic is still in print.

This short piece of Shakespeare criticism, first published in 1982, begins with some useful philosophical deprogramming of contemporary French literary theory, and proceeds to the best close readings I've ever read of Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, and other plays.  (In truth, how many close readings of Shakespeare's plays can I say I've read?--but you can't hold this against Nuttall, or even against me, having been miseducated by New Critics and Deconstructionists.)  Nuttall illuminates the meanings and artistic methods of these plays so brightly, I wanted to reread all of them then and there (but he quotes liberally from the plays so you don't have to).

Nuttall addresses his philosophical argument specifically to the absolute skepticism and devout uncertainty that has infiltrated so much literature and literary criticism of the past 50 years (when he wrote it, it was only 20 years).  Next he goes on to reaffirm a notion that's been tossed out of English departments all over America for its supposed naivete and quaintness: viz., that Shakespeare is indeed "the poet of nature," as Samuel Johnson said in 1765.  Nuttall quotes from many other 18th c. literary critics such as John Armstrong, who in 1770 praised Shakespeare’s "deep knowledge of human nature" and his "characters drawn with the strongest, truest, and most exquisite strokes…."

Johnson and Armstrong's view is the common sense view of Shakespeare; but what's so great about Nuttall's argument is not just that it's correct, but that it's sophisticated and ought to be deemed so even by the ultraviolet lights of postmodern literary theory.  Nuttall doesn't contest the postmodern view that literature is filled with aesthetic and social conventions.  He merely asserts that literature does not proceed through convention alone, but through convention and mimesis--the imitation of nature.  And in fact, how could it be otherwise?  How could we rate a convention dubious or inadequate without the capacity for reflection on the truth of nature?  How could we possibly know what's false without also having some idea of what's by contrast true?  (There are many philosophy papers, both older and current, that explain this point in more detail--see a theory of knowledge anthology such as the one edited by Louis Pojman.)  What 18th c. critics found revolutionary about Shakespeare was that he so often cast aside "fake" conventions in order to be more truthful to the more complex reality of human nature.  Through the close readings, Nuttall shows the many different ways that Shakespeare invokes conventions, cliches, stereotypes, audience expectations and then overturns them in favor of a more complex and realistic character or situation.  In this sense, Shakespeare himself was a skeptic of phony conventions long before the postmodernists were.

It's also refreshing that Nuttall actually has a sense of humor.  This is his prefatory commentary on the style of A New Mimesis: "an alternation of donnish knowingness with aggressively simple assertion which is slightly repellent even to me, the author."

But it isn't repellent.  If I were a literature professor, I'd assign this book to everyone.