“James Joyce,” a chapter from James Huneker’s collection of criticism, Unicorns (1917).
Who is James Joyce? is a question that was answered by John Quinn, who told us that the new writer was from Dublin and at present residing in Switzerland; that he is not in good health—his eyes trouble him—and that he was once a student in theology, but soon gave up the idea of becoming a priest. He is evidently a member of the new group of young Irish writers who see their country and countrymen in anything but a flattering light. Ireland, surely the most beautiful and most melancholy island on the globe, is not the Isle of Saints for those iconoclasts. George Moore is a poet who happens to write English, though he often thinks in French; Bernard Shaw, notwithstanding his native wit, is of London and the Londoners; while Yeats and Synge are essentially Celtic, and both poets. Yes, and there is the delightful James Stephen, who mingles angels’ pin-feathers with rainbow gold; a magic decoction of which we never weary. But James Joyce, potentially a poet, and a realist of the De Maupassant breed, envisages Dublin and the Dubliners with a cruel scrutinising gaze. He is as truthful as Tchekov, and as grey—that Tchekov compared with whose the “realism” of De Maupassant is romantic bric-à-brac, gilded with a fine style. Joyce is as implacably naturalistic as the Russian in his vision of the sombre, mean, petty, dusty commonplaces of middle-class life, and he sometimes suggests the Frenchman in his clear, concise, technical methods. The man is indubitably a fresh talent.
Emerson, after his experiences in Europe, became an armchair traveller. He positively despised the idea of voyaging across the water to see what is just as good at home. He calls Europe a tapeworm in the brain of his countrymen. “The stuff of all countries is just the same.” So Ralph Waldo sat in his chair and enjoyed thinking about Europe, thus evading the worries of going there too often. It has its merit, this Emersonian way, particularly for souls easily disillusioned. To anticipate too much of a foreign city may result in disappointment. We have all had this experience. Paris resembles Chicago, or Vienna is a second Philadelphia at times; it depends on the colour of your mood. Few countries have been so persistently misrepresented as Ireland. It is lauded to the eleventh heaven of the Burmese or it is a place full of fighting devils in a hell of crazy politics. Of course, it is neither, nor is it the land of Lover and Lever; Handy Andy and Harry Lorrequer are there, but you never encounter them in Dublin. John Synge got nearer to the heart of the peasantry, and Yeats and Lady Gregory brought back from the hidden spaces fairies and heroes.
Is Father Ralph by Gerald O’Donovan a veracious picture of Irish priesthood and college life? Is the fiction of Mr. Joyce representative of the middle class and of the Jesuits? A cloud of contradictory witnesses passes across the sky. What is the Celtic character? Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun? Or isn’t the pessimistic dreamer with the soul of a “wild goose,” depicted in George Moore’s story, the real man? Celtic magic, cried Matthew Arnold. He should have said, Irish magic, for while the Irishman is a Celt, he is unlike his brethren across the Channel. Perhaps he is nearer to the Sarmatian than the continental Celt. Ireland and Poland! The Irish and the Polish! Dissatisfied no matter under which king! Not Playboys of the Western World, but martyrs to their unhappy temperaments.
Guy de Maupassant
They had just dined together, five old friends, a writer, a doctor and three rich bachelors without any profession.
They had talked about everything, and a feeling of lassitude came over them, that feeling which precedes and leads to the departure of guests after festive gatherings. One of those present, who had for the last five minutes been gazing silently at the surging boulevard dotted with gas-lamps, with its rattling vehicles, said suddenly:
“When you’ve nothing to do from morning till night, the days are long.”
“And the nights too,” assented the guest who sat next to him. “I sleep very little; pleasures fatigue me; conversation is monotonous. Never do I come across a new idea, and I feel, before talking to any one, a violent longing to say nothing and to listen to nothing. I don’t know what to do with my evenings.”
The third idler remarked:
“I would pay a great deal for anything that would help me to pass just two pleasant hours every day.”
The writer, who had just thrown his overcoat across his arm, turned round to them, and said:
“The man who could discover a new vice and introduce it among his fellow creatures, even if it were to shorten their lives, would render a greater service to humanity than the man who found the means of securing to them eternal salvation and eternal youth.”
The doctor burst out laughing, and, while he chewed his cigar, he said:
“Yes, but it is not so easy to discover it. Men have however crudely, been seeking for—and working for the object you refer to since the beginning of the world. The men who came first reached perfection at once in this way. We are hardly equal to them.”
One of the three idlers murmured:
“What a pity!”
Then, after a minute’s pause, he added:
“If we could only sleep, sleep well, without feeling hot or cold, sleep with that perfect unconsciousness we experience on nights when we are thoroughly fatigued, sleep without dreams.”
“Why without dreams?” asked the guest sitting next to him.
The other replied:
“Because dreams are not always pleasant; they are always fantastic, improbable, disconnected; and because when we are asleep we cannot have the sort of dreams we like. We ought to dream waking.”
“And what’s to prevent you?” asked the writer.
The doctor flung away the end of his cigar.
“My dear fellow, in order to dream when you are awake, you need great power and great exercise of will, and when you try to do it, great weariness is the result. Now, real dreaming, that journey of our thoughts through delightful visions, is assuredly the sweetest experience in the world; but it must come naturally, it must not be provoked in a painful, manner, and must be accompanied by absolute bodily comfort. This power of dreaming I can give you, provided you promise that you will not abuse it.”
The writer shrugged his shoulders:
“Ah! yes, I know—hasheesh, opium, green tea—artificial paradises. I have read Baudelaire, and I even tasted the famous drug, which made me very sick.”
But the doctor, without stirring from his seat, said:
“No; ether, nothing but ether; and I would suggest that you literary men should use it sometimes.”
The three rich bachelors drew closer to the doctor.
One of them said:
“Explain to us the effects of it.”
And the doctor replied:
“Let us put aside big words, shall we not? I am not talking of medicine or morality; I am talking of pleasure. You give yourselves up every day to excesses which consume your lives. I want to indicate to you a new sensation, possible only to intelligent men—let us say even very intelligent men—dangerous, like everything else that overexcites our organs, but exquisite. I might add that you would require a certain preparation, that is to say, practice, to feel in all their completeness the singular effects of ether.
“They are different from the effects of hasheesh, of opium, or morphia, and they cease as soon as the absorption of the drug is interrupted, while the other generators of day dreams continue their action for hours.
“I am now going to try to analyze these feelings as clearly as possible. But the thing is not easy, so facile, so delicate, so almost imperceptible, are these sensations.
“It was when I was attacked by violent neuralgia that I made use of this remedy, which since then I have, perhaps, slightly abused.
“I had acute pains in my head and neck, and an intolerable heat of the skin, a feverish restlessness. I took up a large bottle of ether, and, lying down, I began to inhale it slowly.
“At the end of some minutes I thought I heard a vague murmur, which ere long became a sort of humming, and it seemed to me that all the interior of my body had become light, light as air, that it was dissolving into vapor.
“Then came a sort of torpor, a sleepy sensation of comfort, in spite of the pains which still continued, but which had ceased to make themselves felt. It was one of those sensations which we are willing to endure and not any of those frightful wrenches against which our tortured body protests.
“Soon the strange and delightful sense of emptiness which I felt in my chest extended to my limbs, which, in their turn, became light, as light as if the flesh and the bones had been melted and the skin only were left, the skin necessary to enable me to realize the sweetness of living, of bathing in this sensation of well-being. Then I perceived that I was no longer suffering. The pain had gone, melted away, evaporated. And I heard voices, four voices, two dialogues, without understanding what was said. At one time there were only indistinct sounds, at another time a word reached my ear. But I recognized that this was only the humming I had heard before, but emphasized. I was not asleep; I was not awake; I comprehended, I felt, I reasoned with the utmost clearness and depth, with extraordinary energy and intellectual pleasure, with a singular intoxication arising from this separation of my mental faculties.
“It was not like the dreams caused by hasheesh or the somewhat sickly visions that come from opium; it was an amazing acuteness of reasoning, a new way of seeing, judging and appreciating the things of life, and with the certainty, the absolute consciousness that this was the true way.
“And the old image of the Scriptures suddenly came back to my mind. It seemed to me that I had tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, that all the mysteries were unveiled, so much did I find myself under the sway of a new, strange and irrefutable logic. And arguments, reasonings, proofs rose up in a heap before my brain only to be immediately displaced by some stronger proof, reasoning, argument. My head had, in fact, become a battleground of ideas. I was a superior being, armed with invincible intelligence, and I experienced a huge delight at the manifestation of my power.
“It lasted a long, long time. I still kept inhaling the ether from my flagon. Suddenly I perceived that it was empty.”
The four men exclaimed at the same time:
“Doctor, a prescription at once for a liter of ether!”
But the doctor, putting on his hat, replied:
“As to that, certainly not; go and let some one else poison you!”
And he left them.
Ladies and gentlemen, what is your opinion on the subject?
Reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s riff/story/essay “Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs,” I couldn’t help but think of his correspondent, David Markson, whose 1996 novel Reader’s Block is anticipated in the structure of Sorrentino’s piece. Obviously Markson’s project and Sorrentino’s riff have literary roots that go way way back—maxims and riffs are hardly novel. Still, there’s something about the tone, rhythm, and content of the piece that reminds me of Markson’s tetralogy. A few samples below; read the whole thing in the Fall ’93 issue of Conjunctions.
I have never read a review of a play by Samuel Beckett in which the reviewer’s ignorance of Beckett’s fiction was not made clear.
All popular culture is essentially the same, i.e., it cannot transcend its audience-attentive whatness, nor can it escape the universe of camp toward which it is pointed at the moment of its birth. Lawrence Welk really is the same as Mick Jagger and “Saturday Night Live” the “Ed Sullivan Show”‘s other face.
No fatal disease is privileged, and all disease is as natural as health. To believe otherwise is to believe that we are “supposed to” die in a certain, “reasonable” way, sans pain and sadness. This attitude toward mortality makes for a lot of misery.
That Charles Olson made indisputably great poetry does not obviate the fact that he was also the Wizard of Oz.
There are few things more disgusting than a superior, mocking, self-important review of a trashy book by a hack writer.
Abstract love and generalized compassion increase in direct proportion to organized social viciousness.
Frank O’Hara is the saddest of all postwar American poets.
My father didn’t speak English until he was eleven, at which time he left school and went to work on the Brooklyn waterfront. His letters, despite an occasional spelling error or grammatical gaffe, are written in a better prose than can be managed by most of the university undergraduates I’ve taught. He was far from unique.
If, as Goethe’s Mephistopheles says, all theory is gray, theory concerning theory is Joycean brown.
Artists who pretend that they are no more than workers in the arts are neither artists nor workers.
To say that most book reviewers are lazy, illread and addicted to the banal is like saying “war is hell” or “greed is the root of evil.” These remarks hide their truths behind the deadening familiarity of their verbal representations; but they are truths nevertheless.
Popular art reflects and flatters popular culture, or, if you prefer, the Zeitgeist. In retrospect, it sometimes seems as if it leads and influences the true culture, or the innate wisdom of a people, but this isn’t so.
August 10th.– The natural taste of man for the original Adam’s occupation is fast developing itself in me. I find that I am a good deal interested in our garden, although, as it was planted before we came here, I do not feel the same affection for the plants that I should if the seed had been sown by my own hands. It is something like nursing and educating another person’s children. Still, it was a very pleasant moment when I gathered the first string-beans, which were the earliest esculent that the garden contributed to our table. And I love to watch the successive development of each new vegetable, and mark its daily growth, which always affects me with surprise. It is as if something were being created under my own inspection, and partly by my own aid. One day, perchance, I look at my bean-vines, and see only the green leaves clambering up the poles; again, to-morrow, I give a second glance, and there are the delicate blossoms; and a third day, on a somewhat closer observation, I discover the tender young beans, hiding among the foliage. Then, each morning, I watch the swelling of the pods and calculate how soon they will be ready to yield their treasures. All this gives a pleasure and an ideality, hitherto unthought of, to the business of providing sustenance for my family. I suppose Adam felt it in Paradise; and, of merely and exclusively earthly enjoyments, there are few purer and more harmless to be experienced. Speaking of beans, by the way, they are a classical food, and their culture must have been the occupation of many ancient sages and heroes. Summer-squashes are a very pleasant vegetable to be acquainted with. They grow in the forms of urns and vases,–some shallow, others deeper, and all with a beautifully scalloped edge. Almost any squash in our garden might be copied by a sculptor, and would look lovely in marble, or in china; and, if I could afford it, I would have exact imitations of the real vegetable as portions of my dining-service. They would be very appropriate dishes for holding garden-vegetables. Besides the summer-squashes, we have the crook-necked winter-squash, which I always delight to look at, when it turns up its big rotundity to ripen in the autumn sun. Except a pumpkin, there is no vegetable production that imparts such an idea of warmth and comfort to the beholder. Our own crop, however, does not promise to be very abundant; for the leaves formed such a superfluous shade over the young blossoms, that most of them dropped off without producing the germ of fruit. Yesterday and to-day I have cut off an immense number of leaves, and have thus given the remaining blossoms a chance to profit by the air and sunshine; but the season is too far advanced, I am afraid, for the squashes to attain any great bulk, and grow yellow in the sun. We have muskmelons and watermelons, which promise to supply us with as many as we can eat. After all, the greatest interest of these vegetables does not seem to consist in their being articles of food. It is rather that we love to see something born into the world; and when a great squash or melon is produced, it is a large and tangible existence, which the imagination can seize hold of and rejoice in. I love, also, to see my own works contributing to the life and well-being of animate nature. It is pleasant to have the bees come and suck honey out of my squash-blossoms, though, when they have laden themselves, they fly away to some unknown hive, which will give me back nothing in return for what my garden has given them. But there is much more honey in the world, and so I am content. Indian corn, in the prime and glory of its verdure, is a very beautiful vegetable, both considered in the separate plant, and in a mass in a broad field, rustling and waving, and surging up and down in the breeze and sunshine of a summer afternoon. We have as many as fifty hills, I should think, which will give us an abundant supply. Pray Heaven that we may be able to eat it all! for it is not pleasant to think that anything which Nature has been at the pains to produce should be thrown away. But the hens will be glad of our superfluity, and so will the pigs, though we have neither hens nor pigs of our own. But hens we must certainly keep. There is something very sociable and quiet, and soothing, too, in their soliloquies and converse among themselves; and, in an idle and half-meditative mood, it is very pleasant to watch a party of hens picking up their daily subsistence, with a gallant chanticleer in the midst of them. Milton had evidently contemplated such a picture with delight.
I find that I have not given a very complete idea of our garden, although it certainly deserves an ample record in this chronicle, since my labors in it are the only present labors of my life. Besides what I have mentioned, we have cucumber-vines, which to-day yielded us the first cucumber of the season, a bed of beets, and another of carrots, and another of parsnips and turnips, none of which promise us a very abundant harvest. In truth, the soil is worn out, and, moreover, received very little manure this season. Also, we have cabbages in superfluous abundance, inasmuch as we neither of us have the least affection for them; and it would be unreasonable to expect Sarah, the cook, to eat fifty head of cabbages. Tomatoes, too, we shall have by and by. At our first arrival, we found green peas ready for gathering, and these, instead of the string-beans, were the first offering of the garden to our board.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for August 10, 1842. From The American Note-Books.
“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers
First read-through: you are biking through the Cotswolds when you come across the thing. Spring of ’63. Twenty-one years old, in your junior year abroad at the University of York, after a spring term green with Chaucer, Milton, Byron, and Swinburne. (Remember Swinburne?) Year One of a life newly devoted to words. Your recent change, of course, has crushed your father. He long hoped that you would follow through on that Kennedy-inspired dream of community service. You, who might have become a first-rate social worker. You, who might have done good things for the species, or at least for the old neighborhood. But life will be books for you, from here on. Nothing has ever felt more preordained.
Term’s out, and it’s time to see every square mile of this island. Bicycle clips, a Blue Guide, a transistor radio, and skin-hugging rain. Villages slip past on valley roads as twisty as the clauses in Henry James. The book turns up in a junk shop in an old Saxon market town whose name you will remember as almost certainly having an “m” in it. Among the rusted baby buggies and ancient radios you find old cooking magazines, books on fly-tying and photography, late-fifties spy novels with cardboard covers worn as soft as felt.
The thing pops out at you: “To the Measures Fall,” by someone named Elton Wentworth. There’s nothing else like it in the shop. It’s a fat tome with rough-cut pages in a deluxe, tooled binding. The dust jacket has disappeared, but the front matter suggests that you know all about Mr. Wentworth already. Born in 1888, the author of twelve previous books and the winner of awards too numerous to mention.
The first line reads, “A freak snow hit late that year, two weeks after the sand martins returned to the gravel pits near the South Downs.” The next few paragraphs sketch out a hard-pressed town, Wotton-on-Wold, much like the one you are in, with the “m” in it. On page 3, the author reveals the date: 1913. On the last page, a village search party finds the body of a young amputee captain who served at the Somme lying at the bottom of said gravel pits. Only seven years have passed, but the lilting opening cadences have darkened into fragments from another world.
The book seems to be a sweeping portrait of rural England before and after the First World War. You check the title page: copyright 1948. Aside from two bold exclamation points at the end of Chapter 1, the pages are unblemished, perhaps unread.
Pencilled into the upper right hand of the inside front is a price: 10/6 d. Exorbitant. You draw seven pounds a week for student expenses. A three-course Chinese dinner on Station Road costs four shillings, and lunch in the canteen is half that. A 12-inch LP runs only a pound, and even a two-minute call to the States is cheaper than Mr. Wentworth’s book. Half a guinea for a used novel you’ve never heard of? Robbery. But something about that opening is too strange for you to resist. Besides, you’ve just devoted your life to literature. You graze the start of Chapter 2, in which Trevor, a spindly farmer’s son with Addison’s disease, baffles his parents by insisting on going to university. You need to know how this beginning can reach so macabre an end.
The shop’s owner is a beaked old man with a gray hairline like a cowl slipping off his head. It’s humiliating to bargain with him, but you’re desperate.
How much do you offer the junk-store owner for his used book?
You are, by the way, female. Lots of folks think you shouldn’t be out biking alone, even in the Cotswolds. See pages 214 to 223 of Mr. Wentworth’s epic.
How much would you have offered for the book had you been male?
I’ve read Roman Muradov’s debut graphic novella (In a Sense) Lost & Found a few times now and it’s great—hits the trifecta of strange, beautiful, and smart. It’s new from Nobrow Press. Here’s their blurb:
(In a Sense) Lost and Found, the first graphic novel by rising star Roman Muradov, explores the theme of innocence by treating it as a tangible object; something that can be used, lost, and mistreated. Muradov’s crisp, delicate style conjures a world of strange bookstores, absurd conspiracies, and charming wordplay. A surreal tale in the mold of the best American alternative comics, In a Sense retains its distinctly Eastern perspective.
Muradov lets the art tell this surreal story of a girl looking for something that the narrative refuses to reveal to us. There is no exposition, and readers looking for dialogue that explains everything to them will likely be perplexed. The book is gorgeous, rich, dark—I would include some panels here but the pages are so thick and dark that my iPhone simply can’t handle them. (The picture I took of the cover, above, does no justice to the book’s aesthetics). I’ll get some hi-res images for the full review I plan to post next week though. Great stuff.
I am in a mood that gets more and more familiar: words lose their meaning suddenly. I find myself listening to a sentence, a phrase, a group of words, as if they are in a foreign language—the gap between what they are supposed to mean, and what in fact they say seems unbridgeable. I have been thinking of the novels about the breakdown of language, like Finnegans Wake. And the preoccupation with semantics. The fact that Stalin bothers to write a pamphlet on this subject at all is just a sign of a general uneasiness about language. But what right have I to criticize anything when sentences from the most beautiful novel can seem idiotic to me?
… I made tea, and then I remembered a story that was sent to me last week. By a comrade living somewhere near Leeds. When I first read it, I thought it was an exercise in irony. Then a very skilful parody of a certain attitude. Then I realized it was serious—it was at the moment I searched my memory and rooted out certain fantasies of my own. But what seemed to me important was that it could be read as parody, irony or seriously. It seems to me this fact is another expression of the fragmentation of everything, the painful disintegration of something that is linked with what I feel to be true about language, the thinning of language against the density of our experience.
From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook.
“The Crystal Crypt” by Philip K. Dick
“ATTENTION, Inner-Flight ship! Attention! You are ordered to land at the Control Station on Deimos for inspection. Attention! You are to land at once!”
The metallic rasp of the speaker echoed through the corridors of the great ship. The passengers glanced at each other uneasily, murmuring and peering out the port windows at the small speck below, the dot of rock that was the Martian checkpoint, Deimos.
“What’s up?” an anxious passenger asked one of the pilots, hurrying through the ship to check the escape lock.
“We have to land. Keep seated.” The pilot went on.
“Land? But why?” They all looked at each other. Hovering above the bulging Inner-Flight ship were three slender Martian pursuit craft, poised and alert for any emergency. As the Inner-Flight ship prepared to land the pursuit ships dropped lower, carefully maintaining themselves a short distance away.
“There’s something going on,” a woman passenger said nervously. “Lord, I thought we were finally through with those Martians. Now what?”
“I don’t blame them for giving us one last going over,” a heavy-set business man said to his companion. “After all, we’re the last ship leaving Mars for Terra. We’re damn lucky they let us go at all.”
“You think there really will be war?” A young man said to the girl sitting in the seat next to him. “Those Martians won’t dare fight, not with our weapons and ability to produce. We could take care of Mars in a month. It’s all talk.”
The girl glanced at him. “Don’t be so sure. Mars is desperate. They’ll fight tooth and nail. I’ve been on Mars three years.” She shuddered. “Thank goodness I’m getting away. If—”
“Prepare to land!” the pilot’s voice came. The ship began to settle slowly, dropping down toward the tiny emergency field on the seldom visited moon. Down, down the ship dropped. There was a grinding sound, a sickening jolt. Then silence.
“We’ve landed,” the heavy-set business man said. “They better not do anything to us! Terra will rip them apart if they violate one Space Article.”
“Please keep your seats,” the pilot’s voice came. “No one is to leave the ship, according to the Martian authorities. We are to remain here.”
A restless stir filled the ship. Some of the passengers began to read uneasily, others stared out at the deserted field, nervous and on edge, watching the three Martian pursuit ships land and disgorge groups of armed men.
The Martian soldiers were crossing the field quickly, moving toward them, running double time.
This Inner-Flight spaceship was the last passenger vessel to leave Mars for Terra. All other ships had long since left, returning to safety before the outbreak of hostilities. The passengers were the very last to go, the final group of Terrans to leave the grim red planet, business men, expatriates, tourists, any and all Terrans who had not already gone home.
“What do you suppose they want?” the young man said to the girl. “It’s hard to figure Martians out, isn’t it? First they give the ship clearance, let us take off, and now they radio us to set down again. By the way, my name’s Thacher, Bob Thacher. Since we’re going to be here awhile—”