Anna Burns, Milkman

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I did not like twentieth century books because I did not like the twentieth century,” says the narrator of Anna Burns’s Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize. In one of the novel’s many knowing ironies, the joke is that she inhabits what is in many ways a quintessentially 20th-century novel, not only due to its nameless but discernible historical setting—a Catholic enclave in Belfast during the Troubles—but also in its form and theme.

None of which is to say that Milkman is not a 21st-century masterpiece: it very much is, the best contemporary novel I’ve read in years, a book I read not only with admiration but with gratitude. But since the problems of the 20th century are still with us, their literary solutions remain relevant.

Some critics don’t think so, however. Claire Armitstead frets in the Guardian that the Man Booker panel’s selection of so “boldly experimental” a novel will displease booksellers hoping for some lighter holiday fare, while Dwight Garner in the New York Times says the novel “slogs.”

Granted, such failures of reading are foretold by Milkman‘s literate heroine, called middle sister in this novel without names (more of which later). She describes the malicious gossip about her that circulates in what she calls “our totalitarian enclave” as “fast becoming a best-seller,” making an association between sensationalistic and easy-to-read fiction with viciousness in public life, whereas she incites the neighborhood’s talk by reading the classics as she walks.

In a late scene, the citizenry conspire to deny the reality of a quiet fistfight going on in their midst:

Being a conventional audience, however, used to chronological and traditional realism, the majority began to doubt that those men, indeed, were fighting at all.

Earlier, middle sister’s French class revolts against its assigned reading, because the text describes sky as something other than simply bleu. When the teacher leads the students to the window to show them all the myriad colors of the sunset, middle sister explains their objection to such poetic perception of reality’s complexity, granularity, and beauty:

It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?

This is “the subversiveness of a sunset”: a diurnal announcement of the world’s multifariousness and our duty to acknowledge it, if only to protect ourselves from the threats we see from the corner of our eye. Choice and responsibility are key to the novel, two elements that make it both timely and untimely.

Timely for #metoo reasons, as most reviewers observe: the novel’s plot concerns the teenaged heroine’s stalking by a middle-aged paramilitary nicknamed “Milkman” (because he drives a white van). Milkman never lays a hand on middle sister and never threatens her outright; he ruins her life, however, by his insinuations and his hovering presence, and by the gossip he inspires in the community, which comes to see her as at once loose-moralled and dangerously allied in what she calls her “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.”

Milkman is given over as much to middle sister’s reflections on what happened to her as on what happened itself. The text is a dense weave of first, second, and third thoughts crossing and re-crossing each other in a learned but vernacular voice; what emerges from this neo-modernist discursiveness is the narrator’s objection to the paranoid and patriarchal community’s denial that a kind of spiritual menace, a vampiric sucking of the soul, takes place via men’s encroachments on women, even or especially when these encroachments are not physical or visible.

She mocks male authority late in the novel for understanding only “rape” and “not rape,” whereas so much of what men do to women—the heroine is affronted not only by Milkman but also by another stalker she calls Somebody McSomebody and by her own brother-in-law—is no less an affront for not being cut-and-dried violent sexual coercion.

One reason, then, that we shouldn’t shirk our responsibilities to pay attention to the complexity of reality or of literature is that if we do we will miss subtle but devastating signs of domination and suffering. At times, the narrator even speaks a New Age language of “fixated energy,” or describes her feeling in Milkman’s presence as “the underside of an orgasm”: we cannot simply ignore what is unquantifiable. The narrator’s own journey is an inner one: she overcomes what she calls her own “jamais vu” to take responsibility for her own perceptions, just as she takes responsibility for her own complicity in the enclave’s small-mindedness.

This insistence on personal responsibility in the Troubles-era setting adds complexity—and untimeliness—to this narrative of attempted victimization and attempted resistance-through-perception. Middle sister’s enclave is totalitarian in the name of collective political struggle, and this fact casts doubt on collective political struggle as a solution to the very real problems of everyday life.

Middle sister grants that this resistance came about for undeniably valid reasons of “historical injustice” and that she too often feels the need for a buffer between her community and the British government; yet the anti-imperialist struggle has been degraded, she quotes her mother as saying, into an affair of “‘the hoodlum, the worldling, the careerist and the personal agenda,'” into mere gangsterism. Can problems caused by men with guns be solved by more men with guns?

The remedy for imperialist injustice cannot be swaggering brutal strong men and the women who love them, Burns suggests. The latter brings me to another untimely feature of Milkman: its its extension of responsibility for the political situation to women as well as men. Middle sister suggests that the cocky and often violent entitlement of what we call “toxic masculinity” is upheld in part by the moralism and backbiting of what we do not call “toxic femininity.” The novel’s satirical portrait of the paramilitaries’ female “groupies” as well as of the gossiping, hypocritical, judgmental “pious women” of the neighborhood is key to this theme.

Furthermore, when middle sister displays collective female agency in her narrative, she lauds it for its localism and aestheticism rather than for its ideological militancy. The totalitarian enclave’s small feminist group earns middle sister’s praise for their behavior during a demonstration, when they do not “harp on in a broad encyclopaedic fashion about injustice towards and trespasses against women, not just in the present day but all through the ages, using terminology such as ‘terminology,'” but rather speak “of homespun, personal, ordinary things.” Likewise, when middle sister is rescued by a phalanx of aggrieved women from the outright violence of Somebody McSomebody at the novel’s climax, she attributes their anger less to a politicized sense of female solidarity than to the fact that the violent predatory man “had no manners basically.”

Meanwhile, this is also a novel that contains a sentence all but forbidden today on forward-thinking social media: “Not all boys and men, though, were like that.” Burns goes out of her way to depict good men as well as bad women, and to depict men and women in states of moral flux, implicitly rejecting our own neo-totalitarian insistence that social structures and group identities determine or obviate individual moral choice.

In fact, the titular Milkman is juxtaposed in the novel with “real milkman,” who genuinely delivers the goods; while Milkman’s alibi for predation is that he protects the collective, for which violent ministrations he is celebrated as well as feared, real milkman’s actual everyday kindness is interpreted as eccentric lovelessness by the unobservant community. (Granted, though, the trope of milk links kindness and care, whether betrayed or genuine, with maternity and femininity.)

Milkman calls on men and women alike to refuse a life of physical and metaphysical violence. “[N]o one has the same personal history even if they have the same communal history,” middle sister observes, privileging individual experience over collective judgment. Without denying the reality of female or Irish Catholic oppression, the novel nevertheless stages a struggle that is less between men and women or between religions and nations, but between those who want to shut down individual human complexity (“my irreconcilables,” middle sister calls this inner condition) and those who do not.

All of the above is why I call Milkman a quintessential 20th-century novel. Just as I suggested that last year’s Man Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, can be profitably read in the tradition of the American novel going back to Charlotte and Wieland, so we might see Milkman in the light of classic Irish fiction, from its high-spirited Joycean satire on all deadening social structures and forms of thought to the linguistic and narrative problems of telling one’s own life story as tragicomically disclosed by Beckett.

But we might see Milkman, with its stylistic defamiliarizations and its interior monologue, in the context of modernism more broadly: of Woolf’s plea to rescue the inner life from crudely materialistic fiction, of Lawrence’s claim that only the novelist (and not the philosopher or scientist or priest) can understand the human being in the round. Even more than this, Milkman reminds me of the late-20th-century novels the Booker used to short-list or award before it went populist and American, global-local novels that were fractured allegories against all forms of oppression by writers like Lessing, Gordimer, Coetzee, Ishiguro, and Atwood, novels that are, in Kundera’s words, “investigation[s] of human life in the trap the world has become.”

Why doesn’t Anna Burns label her setting or give any of her characters names? Because names and labels calcify meaning. They are the primordial form of “sky-is-blue” common sense that allows quotidian malignancy to go unnoticed and unchecked (“‘Semtex is normal,'” a complacent character tells middle sister, revealing how evil the normal may be). Names, labels, concepts, and preconceptions may prevent us from seeing ourselves and each other as we truly are: full of desires and irreconcilables that both the state and its renouncers find too unruly to accept.

A quintessential 20th-century literary theory holds that the purpose of art is to restore experience in its fullness to us:

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”)

More than just defamiliarizing, middle sister is also consistently hilarious despite or because of the novel’s painful themes. Throughout Milkman, I literally LOLed time and again, as, just to give one instance, when middle-sister relays the telephonic customs of her paranoid and overly sensitive community:

Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Good-bye, son-in-law’, ‘Good-bye, mother-in-law’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone. Eventually it would end up back on its hook with the human ear physically removed from it. There might be further insurance goodbyes even at this stage…

Her understated one-liners are good too: “‘Why?’ I accused.” The deadpan style of the novel, with its verbal and syntactical register both stylized and vernacular, gives a comic tone to the whole performance. Another quintessentially 20th-century literary theory holds that the novel is an inherently comic form destined to dissolve in laughter all the epic -isms:

The world of the epic is the national heroic past: it is a world of “beginnings” and “peak times” in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of “firsts” and bests. […] Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. (Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”)

That theorist also argues that novels are intrinsically dialogic: they dramatize ideological conflict without resolving it into propaganda. So it is in Milkman: middle sister at one point walks in on her exaggeratedly brilliant “wee sisters” (whose unlikely erudition is one of the novel’s comic glories) as they read English newspapers. Middle sister admonishes them for activities that may bring suspicion on the family, but the little girls reprove her in the name of the dialogic imagination: “‘Hush, older sisters,’ they said. ‘We’re busy. We’re trying to understand their point of view.'”

Totalitarianism, this novel’s named enemy, is not itself an ideology but a way of holding any ideology; whereas novelistic perception, especially that conveyed by experimental-comical fiction that makes us think and think again, induces contemplativeness and curiosity rather than closed-minded brutality. Think of Orwell quoting Chesterton on Dickens: “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but…’an expression on the human face.'”

Like such aforementioned practitioners as Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, and Lessing before her, Anna Burns has performed one of those periodic miraculous resuscitations of narrative prose, that perennially moribund art form. Under her hands, the novel—that “one bright book of life”—lives again.

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Against Celebration: Bloomsday vs. Dallowayday

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Two years ago, Elaine Showalter suggested that we balance Bloomsday (June 16, the day whereon Joyce’s Ulysses is set) with Dallowayday:

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is set in a single city on a single day: London on 13 June 1923. But while Bloomsday on 16 June is the occasion of riotous celebrations in Dublin and around the world, the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party is ignored. I think Dallowday is a date worth celebrating – it should be the occasion of readings, exhibitions, performances and revelry. Why is Leopold Bloom more important than Clarissa Dalloway? How did Dublin get to own a single day in literary history, and London miss out?

Showalter’s brief essay is in fact a list of fairly good reasons for the predominance of Bloomsday over Dallowayday, reasons including Woolf’s characteristic vagueness as to the actual day her novel takes place and Dublin’s greater need than London for stimulants to the tourist trade. She does not neglect, either, the differing class character of the two novels:

Indeed, I suspect that the absence of a pub crawl has been the major drawback to the institution of Dallowday. Mrs Dalloway’s party in Westminster is a sedate and sober affair. It’s more about the guest list (the prime minister!), the decor (new chair covers!) and the Imperial Tokay, than the wild escapades of Nighttown. A feminine party, in short. I don’t think there’s a pub in the entire book. Women didn’t go to them in the 1920s; Woolf was not celebrated for her heroic drinking. Clarissa Dalloway and her friends do not slip off for nightcaps or dance on the tables like Zelda Fitzgerald.

Showalter is serious in condemning a gendered condescension toward Woolf as against Joyce. She quotes her own undergraduate lecture notes from the 1960s: “VW: more intellectually limited than James Joyce,” which is not only false but the direct opposite of the truth.

Joyce’s genius was for converting perceptions into unimprovable orders of words and then making larger symbolic and narrative patterns out of them, but he was not, that I can detect, interested in ideas at all, and some of his patterns are more technically or mechanically fascinating than they are in any way profound. Woolf, by contrast, and as shown by her vast achievement in the essay form as well as the novel, was an intellectual and woman of letters, discursively engaged in the literary and cultural debates of her time; she was, with Eliot, modernism’s greatest artist-critic.

I would advise against, though, pitting Bloomsday against Dallowayday merely on the grounds of identity politics: boys vs. girls. We are currently in the midst, not without reason, of a gender-first variant of identitarian cultural critique and political activism, the fourth wave reprising the second; “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” is the reductio ad absurdum, which the Washington Post inexplicably saw fit to publish. But my cynical (and no doubt toxically masculine) suspicion is that this is the expedient of a left-liberalism that is, throughout the West, electorally on the defensive, and women tout court are a larger constituency than those conceived in race or class terms. But when left-liberalism was more robust, only half a decade ago, the watchword was “intersectionality,” and an elite white woman with rather amoralist aesthetic and consumerist proclivities like Woolf would have found herself in the crosshairs of identitarian polemic. I myself wrote a doctoral dissertation partially on Woolf and Joyce supervised by a scholar who was arguing almost 15 years ago for a greater critical awareness of Woolf and her modernist cohort as “cultural capitalists” and enclosers of the artistic commons.

With a more intersectional approach, there is not even any guarantee that Woolf comes out ahead in this kind of victimological relay with Joyce anyway. Which identity is the more oppressed and thus more in need of redress, that of a male Catholic colonial of the downwardly-mobile lower middle class, prey to alcoholism and, albeit heterosexual, emancipatorily intrigued by polymorphous sexual expression; or that of the queer upper-class Englishwoman, subject to mental illness? An answer is not so readily forthcoming. Furthermore, the logic of displacement on the grounds of political redress would certainly not stop with Woolf’s ouster of Joyce. Why celebrate white, Anglophone authors at all? Or for that matter, why celebrate authors? Isn’t literacy the ultimate agent of civilizational exploitation, more potent than because the source of superior weaponry?

But Showalter’s own early work betrays just such an awareness of Woolf’s limitations from the point of view of the committed political imagination, so much so that I suspect her Dallowayday article is just in part, as they say across the pond, taking the piss. Here is Showalter’s verdict on Woolf from her pioneering feminist literary history, A Literature of Their Own (1977), bringing to a close a chapter titled “The Flight into Androgyny”:

In George Lukacs’ formulation, the ethic of a novelist becomes an aesthetic problem in his writing. Thus it is not surprising to recognize in Virginia Woolf’s memorable definition of life: “a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” another metaphor of uterine withdrawal and containment. Woolf’s fictional record of the perceptions of this state describes consciousness as passive receptivity: “The mind receives a myriad impressions…an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” In one sense, Woolf’s female aesthetic is an extension of her view of women’s social role: receptivity to the point of self-destruction, creative synthesis to the point of exhaustion and sterility. […] Refined to its essences, abstracted from its physicality and anger, denied any action, Woolf’s vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied. The ultimate room of one’s own is the grave.

“Receptivity to the point of self-destruction” is another word for modernism. Showalter, wishing in the ’70s to found her feminism on the revolutionary Marxist agency theorized by Lukács, rejects the “feminized” (or androgynous) role both male and female modernists since Pater sought for the artist as a receptacle of “sensations and ideas.” But in this, Woolf and Joyce are not at odds but are rather perfectly allied, and their day-in-the-life novels can be celebrated in tandem and without contradiction as epics of the everyday perceiving consciousness in its encounter with the modern cityscape.

But for all these qualifications, Dallowayday is a good idea on two grounds: 1. Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece; and 2. its celebration might serve as a corrective to some of the boozy sentimentality that has grown up around Bloomsday.

I have written on prior Junes 16 about how this day’s sacralization of Joyce’s mock-epic tends to misconstrue its tone and some of its implications, or to elevate some misleadingly at the expense of others. That the novel endorses alcoholic dissipation is one mistake I have mentioned, which should be obvious enough to anyone who reads the book with any superficial comprehension: one of Bloom’s heroic qualities is drinking in moderation.

Bloom’s unquestioned heroism is another problem. Joyce was an adept of Defoe, Flaubert, and Ibsen, three writers who, despite their differences of period, nation, language, and genre, insisted on the objective portrayal of everyday life without superimposed authorial moralism. Bloom is meant to be an outsider to the sickly self-enclosed world of Dublin’s moral, cultural, and political paralysis, and thus a challenge to that stasis. And some of his qualities are morally appealing ones, above all his liberalism, which is this novel’s commendation to the contemporary literati. But Bloom’s existing outside the bounds of conventional morality, whether those of Victorian domesticity or Irish Catholicism, perhaps transgresses boundaries we still recognize, or should.

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For instance: “Why is Milly in Mullingar?” to quote the title of a 1977 James Joyce Quarterly essay by Jane Ford (1977 is also the year of Showalter’s study, and this essay’s interest in father/daughter incest bespeaks the feminist priorities of the period). Ford speculates:

A “piecing together of hints” scattered throughout the novel seems to indicate that Milly is in exile in Mullingar due to three transgressions that have occurred with her father: “once by inadvertence, twice by design” (U 692). […] Notwithstanding Mark Shechner’s contention that “despite the ubiquity of confession in Ulysses and Joyce’s other books, that crime remains as mysterious as Earwicker’s crime in Phoenix Park,” my conviction is that there is sufficient textual support in the novel, not only for fantasies of father/daughter incest, but for the actual occurrence as well. Overwhelmed by guilt, Bloom might well succumb to the temptation to jump into the Liffey.

One doesn’t have to agree with the specifics of this argument, though I think I do, to perceive Bloom’s unseemly sexual interest in his daughter: “Sex breaking out even then.”

My larger point, though, is that celebration, at least in the modern sense of moral approval (as opposed to an ancient sense involving the worship and the propitiation of hungry gods), is the wrong approach to literary texts that make a priority of encompassing all that actually is, which includes so much not worth celebrating. The ludic qualities of Ulysses as well its cyclopedic Homeric vastness, tend to conceal this aspect of Joyce’s vision, however, while the briefer (and more violent) Mrs. Dalloway makes it obvious.

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In fact, I suspect one reason we celebrate Bloomsday over Dallowayday is the flagrant amoralism of Woolf’s novel. I don’t know that Woolf herself, an intellectual of the left, thought Clarissa Dalloway, society wife to a right-wing politician, particularly worth celebrating except as a specimen of humanity as such. Were Mrs. Dalloway written today, it would be a sympathetic treatment of Melania or Ivanka, and its irrecuperability to left activism, correctly perceived by Showalter, would be immediately evident. Moreover, the novel climaxes when this elite protagonist’s sensibility is energized by her aesthetic delectation in the death of a shell-shocked soldier of a lower class:

She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

Do you want to drink to that? Actually, in some moods, I do. This is what literature is fundamentally for: a confrontation with all that is repressed by those discourses and disciplines, from religion to philosophy to sociology to psychology, that have to put a brave face on things. But things are what they are; existence is hierarchy and death, the attractions of doom, the sublime beauties of terror, the appeal of power, the cruelty of consciousness, and the impersonal ecstasies of art. Because Mrs. Dalloway is the shorter and more obviously didactic book than Ulysses, it brings this all-too-human but anti-humane quality of literature to the fore, and is thus less the tourist trap than its Dublin counterpart.

(Speaking of psychology, I saw a comment to the effect that we might celebrate Dallowayday by calling for better mental health treatment in deference to the novel’s attack on the imperial psychologist Bradshaw. But on the evidence of the text, Woolf rejects the medical model of the psyche entirely, regarding it as a means of social control and the squelching of art, and she anticipates the anti-psychiatry of Foucault and Szasz. This is part of Mrs. Dalloway’s glorious if elite anarchism, its Nietzschean rather than Freudian modernism. As I said, celebration, as a social act, may not be appropriate to any of modernism’s wonderfully anti-social books.)

In conclusion, though, I would like to “celebrate” or at least to commend Mrs. Dalloway for its formal differences from Ulysses. I have never been good at reading Woolf’s diary (I don’t want to read strangers’ diaries; I want to read the diaries of my friends and family), but I am aware of some astute commentary there on Joyce’s big book. While Woolf is better known for her discreditably or even disgustingly haughty belittlement of Joyce (“the book of a self-taught working-man,” which he wasn’t, at least not in Woolf’s English caste-system sense of the relevant terms, not that it should matter anyway), there is also some acute criticism of Ulysses in the diary:

It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. […] I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face—as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy. (September 6, 1922)

Joyce didn’t think it absurd: he thought “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” the greatest story in the world. But, if we can forget “the obvious sense” (oh Virginia, you incorrigible snob!) and focus on the literary one, doesn’t she have a point about the novel’s “underbreeding”? (Breeding is a trope in Joyce’s novel, by the way; contrary to his otherwise ultra-modernist attitudes and postmodern anticipations of third-wave feminism, the Jesuit-trained author stands up in the most old-fashioned Catholic or even Tolstoyan way for natural childbirth as his hero offers paeans to maternity.)

That is, Mrs. Dalloway‘s Shakespearean amplitude in brevity (as opposed to Ulysses‘s mock-Homeric exhaustiveness), its enlivening flood of earnest unbroken language (as opposed to Ulysses‘s fragmentary kaleidoscope of styles), its suggestiveness rather than precision (as opposed to Ulysses‘s heavily-researched commitment to the facticity of June 16, 1904), makes it the more affecting work, the Tolstoyan shot straight to the face.

We should not neglect the anti- and postcolonial importance of Joyce’s desire to put the whole of his colonized city onto the map of world literature, but even so, it is a bit of a relief not to know the precise date whereon the events of Mrs. Dalloway occur, and I doubt that Woolf gave it much thought. She did not consult newspapers and directories, just as I have not thoroughly read her diary.

Though Ulysses scrupulously if rather literally mimics the dream-state in “Circe,” which is a just a warm-up for Finnegans Wake, Mrs. Dalloway, with its transience of perception from character to character across expanses of consciousness as well as social space, is the more winningly dream-like achievement. It is Joyce’s formalist literalism, his resolute commitment to achieving every (sometimes inorganic) experiment, that Woolf lacks: this is what she means in her censure of the “tricky,” and I think she is more right than wrong.

But, pace Showalter, we do not have to be little Lukácses, would-be commissars of culture, judging [X] progressive and sending [Y] off to the gulag for reactionary tendencies. Both books sit comfortably on my shelf (two copies of each, in fact), and I love them both. It is only the zero-sum politics of celebration that make literature seem such a dreary attempt to effect political ends by aesthetic means. We can read both of these books, anti-social as they are, in the privacy of home and library, and take them for what they are worth to us: the unspeakable thoughts they so compellingly insist on whispering into our inner ear.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Bloomsday Notes: Jung on Joyce

The emergence of a literature which is predominantly concerned with the exploration of both a social reality and individual consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its first clear manifestations date from about the third quarter of the seventeenth century when the collective projection represented by the Christian “worldview” gradually began to break apart. Inevitably, this occasioned a radical shift in consciousness. It compelled individuals to make sense of their own reality and identity. For the first time in history, writers began to see a much fuller social spectrum than had ever been noticed before and to explore the implications for this for the individual: i.e. to explore both a social reality and a sense of individual consciousness that are recognizably related to our own concerns at the turn of the twenty-first century.
—Terence Dawson, “Jung, literature, and literary criticism” (The Cambridge Companion to Jung)

Since I was already discussing Jung earlier this month, I thought my annual Bloomsday post might be on Jung’s own response to Joyce’s masterpiece, the 1932 essay “‘Ulysses’: A Monologue.” (I am using the version translated by R. F. C. Hull and published in volume 15 of Jung’s collected works, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature.) This essay was written, claims Jung, “only as a subjective confession” to “show how ideas that play a considerable role in my work can be applied to literary material.” The psychologist later sent the essay to Joyce with a letter of ambivalent praise; he comments about Molly’s monologue, “I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.” Two years after that, Joyce consulted Jung in the case of his own schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, whose illness Joyce saw as related to his own genius. Jung’s famous, poignant verdict, as recounted by Richard Ellmann: Joyce and his daughter were “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”

Jung’s Ulysses essay is, as Terence Dawson comments in the entry on literary criticism in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, “amongst his least successful work” and “embarrassingly vague.” Like many distinguished early readers (e.g., Virginia Woolf), Jung seems not quite to have understood what he was reading even at the superficial level. He comments, for instance, that “Joyce’s Ulysses, very much unlike his ancient namesake, is a passive, merely perceiving consciousness”—a misreading of Bloom, the novel’s most active protagonist, who stands up for himself in Kiernan’s pub and follows Stephen into Nighttown out of concern for the young man. Relatedly and more significantly, Jung misjudges the novel’s dominant tone. Disgusted by its naturalism and frustrated by its formalism, Jung seems to condemn Joyce’s effort:

This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory. As a piece of technical virtuosity it is a brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

He goes on:

If worms were gifted with literary powers they would write with the sympathetic nervous system for lack of brain. I suspect that something of this kind has happened to Joyce, that we have here a case of visceral thinking with severe restriction of cerebral activity and its confinement to the perceptual process.

And yet, he allows that his subjective annoyance by the novel must be investigated psychologically. “Yes, I admit I feel I have been made a fool of,” he says. “Irritation means: You haven’t yet seen what’s behind it.”

I propose that we follow the psychologist behind his own bad feelings rather than dismissing them as philistine or bourgeois misinterpretation. True, we now read Ulysses in a very different way from Jung’s. Our tendency is to see Ulysses as something like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a literary attempt (quixotic in several senses) to create “a positively beautiful man” in the figure of Bloom. A celebration of the everyday via its transubstantiation into art, a secularizing blow against religious idealism, a cosmopolitan manifesto against imperialism and nationalism, and a linguistic game showing that all language should (since we have to live inside it) be inhabited as playpen rather than prison, Ulysses is the Bible of the contemporary literati’s liberal irreligion, and today is its feast.

The positive reading is so dominant that the essay I examined last Bloomsday, Leo Bersani’s “Against Ulysses,” accuses Joyce’s supposedly experimental and subversive text of being essentially a work of nineteenth-century humanist realism, a continuation not even of Dostoevsky but of Jane Austen. It might be useful, then, to re-encounter the shock of the novel’s early readers, Joyce’s contemporaries, who did not take it so affirmatively. While it is easy to mock their evident dismay at being presented with defecation and masturbation and fried kidneys, their sense that a sprawling and seemingly formless profusion of sometimes obscene text was a malediction against the tradition its very title invokes might not be wholly misplaced.

And let’s not neglect our own facile misprisions: celebrating Bloomsday in bars, for example, as if the novel were not a lament over the destructiveness of Ireland’s drinking culture, as if it did not depict pubs as major sites of colonial paralysis and powerlessness, where Simon Dedalus squanders his gifts in boozy song in “Sirens” or where the violent nationalist bigots congregate in “Cyclops.” Joyce lets us know that Bloom is heroic because, among other things, he imbibes responsibly, as when he surreptitiously pours out the drinks he’s given in “Oxen of the Sun” so that he can better look after the wasted Stephen. An alcoholic’s cri de coeur, Ulysses, if written straightforwardly, might have been the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of temperance. But I digress; back to Jung.

The psychologist proceeds to ask what the novel’s hostility to the reader (signaled by its formalism) and its radical de-idealizing of reality (signaled by its naturalism), portends. One hint Jung picks up from not only the novel but also from its broad influence in the arts, discernible even in 1932, is that “medieval Catholic Ireland covers a geographical area of whose size I have been hitherto ignorant”: the punitive religious idealism and political essentialism that Joyce revolts against are not merely local Irish or Catholic matters at all. Joyce becomes the spokesman for anyone burdened under interlocking (even when supposedly opposed) repressive forces, as Joyce depicts an Ireland distorted by British imperialism, Catholic theocracy, and even the Irish nationalism that was supposed to be the antidote to these. Jung’s insight is borne out when we consider the enormous influence of Ulysses on postcolonial or minoritarian writing throughout the twentieth century, from Ellison and Roth to Walcott and Rushdie. The now-perhaps neglected negativity of the novel—its preponderant scatology, its unremitting political satire and anti-clericalism—is necessary to smash the idols inhibiting humanity.

Jung further surmises that Ulysses, rather than advocating some kind of new humanism, might rather indicate a “new cosmic consciousness,” “a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the gods nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor prejudice.” Here Jung, while acknowledging the novel’s subversion, still diverges from our affirmative reading and sees Joyce instead as aiming at a transcendence of the material, of the filth, he otherwise seems to wallow in:

Ulysses is the creator-god in Joyce, a true demiurge who has freed himself from entanglement in the physical and mental world and contemplates them with detached consciousness. […] He is the higher self who returns to his divine home after blind entanglement in samsara. In the whole book no Ulysses appears; the book itself is Ulysses, a microcosm of James Joyce, the world of the self and the self of the world in one. Ulysses can return home only when he has turned his back on the world of mind and matter. This is surely the message underlying that sixteenth day of June, 1904…

In other words, Ulysses is the apotheosis of art for art’s sake and the revelation of that concept’s spiritual meaning: the drive to pass through every aspect of experience, including the most horrid, precisely to transfigure it, objectivized and thereby successfully externalized, in the art object. It is, in the grotesque physical metaphor of Joyce’s beloved Aristotle (also used in this essay by Jung), the artist’s purgation.

On the one hand, this interpretation accords with our Bloomsday celebration because it upholds Ulysses as the ultimate manifesto of the artist’s freedom (now, and perhaps forever, under threat from all sides) to treat any material whatever, whether trivial or blasphemous or obscene or offensive. How can author and audience be purged if the emetic, to use Judge Woolsey’s word for Ulysses, is not swallowed? On the other hand, Jung’s astute grasp on the distinction between Joyce and Bloom, his assessment of exceptional author rather than quotidian character as the novel’s true home-tending soul, ill assorts with our own humanism. Bloomsday does seem to depend, for its secular justification and its festive mood, on an understanding that Ulysses is, let’s say, Middlemarch by other means. But if it is less a progressive, reformist tract in cipher and more an attempted rite whereby to lift its creator from humanity to divinity? And does not this feast day, whatever its justification, attest that the ritual fulfilled its function?

None of which means that we must dismiss Joyce as irredeemably haughty. “Elitist” is not a word that belongs in literary criticism. Another sharp early reader of Ulysses, the modernist poet Mina Loy, spoke the truth when she pronounced in her “Aphorisms on Futurism,”

LOVE of others is  the appreciation of one’s self.

MAY your egotism be so gigantic that you comprise mankind in your self-sympathy.

Joyce’s does, and in so doing, renders us all service.

Let me end where I began, with Terence Dawson’s excellent essay on the implications for literary criticism of Jung’s ideas. Dawson notes that Jung’s cultural historiography is organized around the concept of humanity’s “withdrawal of projections,” the gradual discovery of the individual psyche in all its wholeness after it has progressively ceased to beam what it wishes to reject in itself onto its environment or its fellows. First, we were nothing but projection, wholly merged with our world, dancing in stellar patterns to move the stars; then we discovered identity, differentiating collective or personal self (Greece as against Troy, Odysseus as against lesser men) from other; then we turned identity into difference by making moral distinctions between self and other (primarily in the Christian era); with literary modernity we arrive at the fourth era, wherein we still live, when we explore with great complexity, in the realist novel above all (Dawson’s essay is an extended reading of Richardson’s Pamela), the complexities of the contiguity of self and world. What is the fifth stage? Dawson comments,

The fifth stage begins when one determines to become more conscious of the nature and extent of one’s own projections. It is a path, or goal, or ideal rather than a stage in the same sense as the others; even so, it could be argued that it has a literature of its own.

He does not mention Ulysses except to mock Jung’s shallow reading of it; but Jung’s picture of Joyce as the master of negation allows us to see, as more cheerful readings do not, that Ulysses is an anatomy of illusion compiled precisely so that we may recognize illusion when we see it. Purging what makes him sick, Joyce reveals his projections, enshrines them, and frees himself of them. In that sense, Ulysses may well belong to the literature of the fifth stage, well worth celebrating, much as Molly Bloom celebrates the self-involved figure of Narcissus, expressing her wish to interfere pleasurably with its auto-communion, like readers as we intrude on Joyce’s song of himself or writers as they intrude on ours:

why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looks with his boyish face

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William Butler Yeats, The Tower

The TowerThe Tower by W.B. Yeats

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my review of Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, I casually referred to “Yeatsian idealism,” to contrast the earlier poet’s elite modernism with Heaney’s later and more modest poetic of the turf and bog. Facility with such phrases as “Yeatsian idealism” is the fruit of a general education, but as poetry is in the particulars, it is good for us generally educated to re-consult (or sometimes, frankly, consult for the first time) the primary sources to ensure that we actually know what we’re talking about.

To that end, I decided to go beyond the frequently anthologized or selected and read an original volume by Yeats; charmed by its green-and-gold mirrored deco design (by Thomas Sturge Moore), I chose the relatively late The Tower of 1928. As the received story of Yeats’s career goes, he began as an Aesthete and a nationalist, conjuring the Celtic Twilight in languorous post-Wildean lyricism; but events both public and private (the Irish war for independence and the subsequent civil war, World War I, his own tumultuous love affair with Maud Gonne, and his ongoing experiences with the occult) toughened his poetry into grave and austere meditations on history, violence, and the conflict between flesh and spirit. As John Carey wrote in Pure Pleasure, his lines “seem to have been graven on tablets of stone from the beginning of time.” The Tower—a collection organized around Yeats’s residence at Thoor Ballyllee, a Norman tower he bought in 1917—belongs to this later period of stern reflection.

How does my idealism thesis fare? I had in mind poems precisely like the collection’s opener, “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which the speaker, lamenting that his randy compatriots, both human and animal, are “caught in that sensual music” and so “neglect / monuments of unageing intellect,” expresses his wish to cease to be human (with his heart “fastened to a dying animal”) and to be reincarnated in “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make”; he wants to become a mechanical bird upon a “golden bough” singing “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” So far, so idealist.

But the poem, in its praise for “the artifice of eternity,” undoes all its certainties. For one thing, the speaker is clear about the contingent circumstance, namely, old age, that inspires his desire to exit the human:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…

Then there is the mild comedy of his fantasy of being an avian robot in the next life, as if the tradition of visionary poetry had become so attenuated that Keats’s nightingale and his urn have melded into one grotesque object. Finally, the speaker’s fancied triumph is ambiguous, as in his golden and artificial form he will be singing “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” which is to say that he will still be mired “in that sensual music,” however “out of nature” his own person. Yeats’s greatness inheres less in his idealism as such, but in his awareness of all that both inspires and menaces it. Who doesn’t from time to time want to escape their “dying generations,” and yet who can?

The title poem, about Yeats’s inhabitation of his tower in old age and about his dead and living neighbors and his own past work, makes the point still more sharply, that the soul must coexist with its incarnation, as the poet’s avowed credo:

And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet’s imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
Mirror-resembling dream.

In other words, our visions and imaginings, our utopias and godheads, arise from our experiences, our frailties, and our awful mortality itself—every image of the superhuman is a mirror of the human. Or, as he puts it in “Two Songs from a Play,” a perfectly bizarre poem posing as an extract from a Euripidean drama about Jesus, “Whatever flames upon the night / Man’s own resinous heart has fed.”

In “Among School Children,” the poet, while a senator (“a sixty year old smiling public man”) tours a school and envisions his former beloved as a girl; this inspires a reflection on their two souls’ Platonic sympathy, and on how time and age ravage the child (shades of Wordsworth) and make mockery of all idealisms. The poet insults the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras in turn as, like himself, “Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” But the poem’s bitterness modulates into an image of earthly recompense. After observing that “nuns and mothers worship images”—which is to say that devotions to real and to ideal things come to same grief, because idea will always outstrip reality—the speaker then rebukes the divinities with a vision of secular redemption, wherein visible nature and humanity unite with the unseen spirit to produce an indivisible wholeness that cannot be divided into body and soul, real and ideal:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The Ruskinian or even Marxian appeal to unalienated labor in the above stanza’s first lines brings us to Yeats’s politics. Though “Mediations in Time of Civil War” finds the poet expressing “envy in [his] thought” for the soldiers who pass by his door, the poem is largely a lament for his country’s war-torn state (“We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare”), a condemnation of the politics of resentment that lead to civil violence (exemplified by the cry, “Vengeance for Jacques Molay,” which Yeats seems to take as a battlecry of the enraged masses due to its connection to Freemasonry), and an insistence, reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s axiom on civilization and barbarism, that our beautiful possessions were born of violence and reared by labor, and that we must “take our greatness with our bitterness.”

The famous sonnet “Leda and the Swan,” about the rape of Leda by Zeus and the consequent engendering not only of Helen of Troy but of the whole Trojan War, voices the same lament that there can be no peace or beauty without war and violence, even as it suggests that the rapt victim of inhuman forces may thereby gain inhuman power:

Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

(While Yeats is one of the more masculinist poets, it should be noted that in one of the sonnet’s several implied allegories, the inspired poet is the violated female figure rather than the male violator.)

Finally, there is the devastating “Nineteenth Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem that has both the Irish war for independence and the Great War for its context. Here the poet scorns all our enlightened and progressive complacency, none of which has made the world a more humane place:

The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

The poet’s soul, figured as a swan, in this circumstance “leaps into the desolate heaven,” and the poem ends in disgust with Salome and Alice Kyteler, with witchcraft and sensuality in a whirwind and wasteland of death.

It is easy enough to say with Orwell that Yeats was a reactionary and a fascist. Edward Said, who did so much to redeem Yeats for the PC era by praising him in Culture and Imperialism as an anti-colonial poet meditating on Fanonian themes (in another mood, I might enter this into evidence for the fascist tendencies of identity politics), once wrote of “Swift’s Tory Anarchy.” The label might be applied to Yeats, who admired Swift: to his Tory elegy for a shattered culture of wholeness and authority, to his anarchic drive toward the shaping of a soul out of the chaos of experience. This conflict at the heart of his poetry is not reducible to idealism, obviously, though idealism is a necessary part of it, and it is not reducible to a single politics. And if the poet meant his wisdom only for the few, the books are widely available now, and their thought and feeling perhaps more widely shared than he suspected.

As for this collection qua collection: its less famous pieces are justly less famous, though the long penultimate poem, a blank-verse narrative set at the court of Haroun Al-Rashid, will interest autobiographical critics and those interested in the occult as it seems to dramatize (in a displaced historical fantasy) Yeats’s marriage to a medium. Feminist critics will not care for the speaker’s fear that his wife may become more than a vessel for spirits, may become an articulate intelligence who will challenge the seeming innocence of his love for her beauty (“A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner; / Under it wisdom stands”), but, in distinction to postcolonialism, there is probably no rescuing Yeats for feminism, despite my parenthetical effort above on the poet’s identification with Leda.

Reading Yeats is like reading Hamlet or the King James Bible—it feels like perusing a dictionary of quotations. But no one knew better than did the poet himself that these ideal, unforgettable lines were wrenched out of painful material. We must take his greatness with his bitterness.

___________________

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist

Death of a NaturalistDeath of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thinking, for what should be obvious reasons, about previous Anglophone poets who won the Nobel Prize, I decided to read this, Seamus Heaney’s first collection, published in 1966. All the virtues we’ve heard about and know from the anthology pieces—the dense sonic texture of the poems, their thickness like that of the matter they describe, a verbal impasto thickened with slant-rhyme, alliteration, and assonance—are there in full in the poet’s debut. I analyze what I think it all means:

Two famous poems bookend the collection: “Digging,” in which the poet’s art is explained as a a sublimation of his father’s and grandfather’s rural farm labor, their traditionally masculine role that the speaker, like Hamlet and Telemachus before him, cannot adopt for himself (“But I’ve no spade to follow men like them”), as a substitute for which he supplies his pen in place of their excavator’s tool; and “Personal Helicon,” in which the poet’s art is explained as a sublimation of his own childhood play, when he would “pry into roots,” “finger slime,” and “stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring”—now that these occupations are “beneath all adult dignity,” he makes rhymes instead, “to set the darkness echoing,” reprising juvenile narcissism as adult creation.

In these poems, Heaney seems to see poetry as a modest art: in naturalizing his art, Heaney eschews the visionary quality of Shelley or Yeats, the social mission theorized by Wordsworth or Eliot. But Heaney’s view of a poetry that grows organically out of the soil and slime, out of the roots and wells—and which is linked to sexual processes and development (his father’s spade and his own pen are phalluses, just his earlier “pry[ing] into roots” is masturbation)—reconceives the poet’s vocation as an adjunct to the growth of the nation from its native soil, the evolution of labor into art and narcissism into generation. In the guise of modesty, Heaney travels as postcolonial bard rhyming the suppressed nation into a new existence.

Several poems toward the end of the collection reinforce Heaney’s understanding of poetry as he canvasses and dismisses alternative approaches. “Saint Francis and the Birds” envisions poetry as a completely natural and also holy act—the saint’s demonstration of love by releasing the birds into the air: they “like images took flight”—a beautiful gesture, obviously unavailable in the middle twentieth century. “In Small Townlands,” evoking an itinerant painter, gives us the artist as visionary, forging the landscape in perceiving it—

His eyes, thick, greedy lenses, fire
This bare bald earth with white and red,
Incinerate it till it’s black
And brilliant as a funeral pyre:
A new world cools out of his head.

—precisely the Yeatsian idealism Heaney refuses for himself, because its perception is “greedy” and because it arrogantly kills the landscape to recreate it. And in “The Folk Singers,” Heaney shows himself not to be a simple-minded populist, as he scorns the arts of the volk as “narcotic strumming” that “strikes a pose / Like any rustic new to the bright town,” a pleasing minstrelsy implicitly far inferior to the modern poet’s conscious artistry, which enlivens rather than pacifying the audience and challenges their image of the patria rather than reifying it.

“Poem,” dedicated to Heaney’s wife, is generically titled because it reaffirms the logic underlying the others as the speaker tells us that his childhood construction of mud fortifications is fulfilled in adulthood by his marriage, “within our golden ring”—which, as readers of Shakespeare will remember, is synonymous with the vagina. Having attained via the pen the phallus, the poet now completes the circuit and generates both poetry and progeny.

With his poetic authority certified, Heaney can pronounce on political matters. There are public poems in the collection, some more successful than others. Two poems about the potato famine: “At a Potato Digging” captures the blight in the other nature poem’s grotesque imagery that suggests the national history explaining just why Heaney’s pastoral is in general so Gothic (“you still smell the running sore”); and “For the Commander of the Eliza,” about an English ship captain who wanted to aid the starving Irish but knew that he could not because he would be refused by his superiors in the name of laissez-faire, is an outraged satire on the rational calculating intellect to which the poetic mind, with its rhyming and ringing, is subliminally opposed:

Sir James, I understand, urged free relief
For famine victims in the Westport Sector
And earned tart reprimand from good Whitehall.
Let natives prosper by their own exertions;
Who could not swim might go ahead and sink.
“The Coast Guard with their zeal and activity
Are too lavish” were the words, I think.

Other public poems are less successful, particularly “Docker,” a condescending portrait of a violent Protestant laborer in a pub (“Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets; / God is a foreman with certain definite views”).

One of the collection’s most famous poems, “Mid-Term Break,” about the death of the poet’s brother in childhood, is universally celebrated, but I have to say, at the risk of sounding heartless, I do not care for it. Just as certain forms of humility are self-aggrandizing, certain modes of artistic restraint indulge sentimentality by other means, and the poem’s celebrated last line, faux-laconically explaining the significance of the length of the child’s coffin, “A four foot box, a foot for every year,” makes me feel like Oscar Wilde reading about the death of Little Nell.

The collection is called Death of a Naturalist because the naturalist had to die for the poet to be born. The poet, though, is at his best in his poems of nature, whether seen in the wild or transfigured through rural labor. For the pastoral poet to be sovereign in the nation, the sovereignty of nature must be circumscribed by the poems. But for poetry to be great rather than merely good, the poet must testify to what he cannot master—the repressed has to return, otherwise we could just content ourselves with folk songs and church sermons and the language of state. Where does this happen in Death of a Naturalist?

Everywhere, and from the start. In “Digging,” the poet’s pen is not only his father’s spade, but the nationalist or revolutionary’s gun—poetry is sublimated labor and also sublimated violence, which is the hopeful reading of the simile describing the pen (“snug as gun”), but a less hopeful reading tells us that violence no less than art comes out of soil and tradition. A tour-de-force poem about trout systematically compare the fish themselves to guns, finding the supposed artifice of men’s violence far further down the evolutionary scale; and the extraordinary poem about drowning cats, “The Early Purges,” will prevent anyone from romanticizing rusticity even as its hard-headed pragmatism forbids the urban liberal from looking down his nose:

Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups’. It makes sense:

‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town
Where they consider death unnatural
But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

Now we are prepared to understand the title poem, in which the speaker, the little boy-naturalist, finds his love of slimy nature defeated (and simultaneously assumed into poetry) when he encounters the real monarchs of the landscape:

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

This is not the Romantic sublime, which, while lordly, is clean and purifying and kin to the poet’s imagination; for Heaney, the imagination itself is the product of a muck and a slime and a scum and a sex of which it will never be lord, and which forges rings and guns and poems as it spawns the formless frogs. Hooped in slant rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, the “great slime kings” are recreated in sound, a poetic act more like ancient rite of propitiation than the state-of-the-art gestures Heaney elsewhere adopts as Nobel-worthy poet of postcolonialism. The gun is in the landscape, the frog is in the poem, you fuck and you fight within the golden ring—the bard’s authority is much less absolute than it seems, and here Heaney attains a real modesty, not the fashionable, phony diffidence of the postmodern artist but the panic (from Pan, delirium-inducing god of nature and sex) of the boy eye-to-eye with the vast inhumanity that underlies all seeming sense and meaning.

I end with the collection’s penultimate poem, “The Play Way,” a reminiscence of Heaney’s days as a schoolteacher (he sportively toys with Eliot: “Mixing memory and desire with chalk dust”) when he would have his students do a free-writing exercise while listening to Beethoven. His student’s response, as the “big sound” “silenc[es] them,” is obviously the response Heaney hopes to elicit from his readers—not the pacifications of folk song or the obeisance due the visionary, but thoughtful, troubled reflection, as of the child’s face in the well, shattered by nature or by his own falling body:

A silence charged with sweetness
Breaks short on lost faces where I see
New looks. Then notes stretch taut as snares. They trip
To fall into themselves unknowingly.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Bloomsday Thoughts: Blasphemies, Monuments, Traditions

The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart…

—T. S. Eliot, “Sweeney among the Nightingales”

Joyce was an apostate, renegade, heathen, exile, dissident, blasphemer—and so perhaps the most faithful way to celebrate Bloomsday would be to blaspheme Joyce.

In his bracing 1988 essay, “Against Ulysses,” Leo Bersani does just that. Despite its venerably clear polemical title, the essay’s argument is intricate and tricky, befitting its wideawake post-poststructuralist theoretical commitments (again, it was 1988).

Bersani’s argument, insofar as I can do it justice, runs like this:

—the major pleasures of Ulysses are those offered by the nineteenth-century realist novel (rounded, appealing, recognizable characters; a detailed social milieu; and a morality that counsels social sympathy and an appreciation of the everyday);

—the novel’s many and notorious difficulties, from the stream-of-consciousness narration of its first half to the encyclopedia of parodic styles in its second, do not detract from this Victorian realism, but rather perfect it—they raise the novel’s realism from the level of description to that of performance, so that all of western culture is reflected in the mind of Joyce as he dreams Bloom’s day, and is thereby redeemed for the reader;

—finally, Joyce’s use of the novel’s experimental form to name himself (and therefore too his reader) the rightful heir to all previous culture exacts the high price that the novel can only be decoded but never read—because the characters are solid beneath the cypher that is the text itself, the reader is left to decode and then to appreciate, but never to be disturbed into thought or feeling.

Bersani damningly sums up Ulysses’s ambition to be the total Book of the west, the Book that would “ground history and desire,” as the product of “drives without affects.” Joyce, therefore, has given us a frozen monument, a realist novel in forbidding marble. This accounts for Bersani’s amusingly accurate description of Joyce scholars, who tend to alternate between passages of technical description or convoluted anti-essentialist rhetoric and passages of downright pre-New-Critical moral appreciation for warmhearted Bloom and his racy Molly.

To Ulysses, Bersani contrasts a congeries of disparate writers—Flaubert, James, Proust, Lawrence, Beckett, Bataille—all of whom somehow displace culture and tradition in favor of the writing process itself, the foredoomed struggle to fit words to experience. Their procedures call not for decoding but rather interpretation, explorations of how the writer loses control of his material in the very process of its coming to language. (I am reminded of the time I once had to explicitly instruct a room full of first-year college students not to look for a Magic-Eye-style hidden picture in a Jackson Pollock painting I was showing the class—the point, I suggested, was not what the picture symbolized but rather what action went into its making.)

Bersani is not alone in this argument; I believe Edward Mendelson and Gabriel Josipovici have defended an appreciation for Woolf and Beckett over Joyce on similar grounds; Josipovici even wrote, at the height of critical controversy over Anthony Julius’s prosecutorial examination of T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, that he would trade “the whole of that impeccable philo-semite, Joyce (the darling of the politically correct), for just that one Sweeney poem of Eliot’s.” Josipovici (himself Jewish, by the way, and so, by the laws of political correctness, “allowed” to say something so untoward) echoes Bersani’s disparagement of the moralism of Ulysses:

In one of the moral clichés to which this presumably revolutionary novel has given rise, Stephen’s coldness and inability to love is often opposed to Bloom’s warmth and frequent expression of concern for others.

This leads Bersani to what he actually admires in the novel: its depiction of Bloom’s almost metaphysical or interstellar loneliness, his lostness in “the parallax or parallactic drift of so called fixed stars, in reality ever moving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures,” a chilling vision that Lawrence or Eliot or Beckett might, in their different ways, show us. Such existential isolation, which refuses the power-flattering blandishments of a supposedly salvific culture, is what Bersani treasures in literature—its conveyance not of meaning or of morality or of personality but of affect, the latter always subject to and subjecting language in the networks of social power.

Well, what can one say to this? It’s possible that there is no need to say anything at all. The year is no longer 1988. We have made progress: it is 2016. We have learned to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin again, we have learned that Middlemarch is the greatest British novel, we have learned that empathy is what reading literature is fundamentally for. And Joyce is our contemporary, as Josipovici, scorning “political correctness,” observes: SJW Bloom standing up for love and compassion and cosmopolitanism against the alt-right nationalist Twitter trolls in Kiernan’s pub is the Bloom whose day the literati celebrates today:

— But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

— What? says Alf.

— Love, says Bloom.

And anyway, Bersani’s description of how reading Ulysses actually works is the best I’ve ever read. As a conceit, “Oxen of the Sun” is nearly nonsensical; as a literary exercise, it is exhilarating and exhausting; as an emotional experience, it is immensely moving—not to mention rewarding—once one has disentangled the textual code to find Bloom’s tender regard for Stephen, for Mrs. Purefoy, for his dead Rudy. Perhaps Bersani has neglected a perversion or two in Joyce’s book—most notably, Bloom’s incestuous desire for his daughter, which I’m not sure Lucia’s father ever really managed to re-sublimate. But overall, his unlikely comparison of Joyce to Austen and Joyceans to Janeites holds water.

So to Bersani’s radical challenge I can only offer a provisional and reluctant defense of Joyce’s crypto-conservatism. First of all, and perhaps least interestingly, there are some moral clichés we really wouldn’t want to do without (“Thou Shalt Not Kill” or even, on good days anyway, “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself”). And likewise there are some characters in literature who mean as much as any author’s auto-portrayed struggle, however instructive and compelling; Joyce added to the immortal fictional characters with the Blooms, who sit alongside Robinson Crusoe, Hamlet, Don Quixote, the Wife of Bath, and, indeed, Odysseus. If Bersani disagrees, then that is a difference of literary first principles. Over a decade ago, some theory types on some blog were trying to fit Ulysses into some tedious Hegelo-Marxian grand narrative wherein it represented “the end of literature” or somesuch; and a friend of mine (in whose apartment, come to think of it, I first read Bersani’s essay on a long-ago spring night in Portland, ME) left a comment to the effect that Ulysses is really about valdidating all the ways of using language creatively, which is to say that it is a beginning for literature and not an ending.

Finally, cultural continuity is much more complex than Bersani suggests. It is not as if Flaubert, Lawrence, Beckett, or even Bataille are on some other bookshelf than the one Ulysses sits on. Every successful radicalism succeeds not in overthrowing tradition—which is impossible; humans are in traditions as fish are in water—but in transforming tradition in its image, so that it finally becomes a classic. Flaubert and Beckett are as much a part of culture as Joyce. Deleuze and Guattari are now Penguin Classics; Nirvana is now classic rock. Every artist is trying to build a monument, even the ones who think they are trying to lay dynamite. Or let Stephen Dedalus, drunk in the maternity hospital and resentfully elevating artistic production over biological reproduction, say it, this esoteric truth about literature cloaked as much behind Bersani’s bold radicalism as behind our own timid political correctness:

His words were then these as followeth: Know all men, he said, time’s ruins build eternity’s mansions. What means this? Desire’s wind blasts the thorntree but after it becomes from a bramblebush to be a rose upon the rood of time. Mark me now. In woman’s womb word is made flesh but in the spirit of the maker all flesh that passes becomes the word that shall not pass away. This is the postcreation.

This pronouncement, with its parodic Blake/Yeats citations and its seemingly unJoycean Platonism, its screaming misogyny (contempt for the female body) and its whispered affiliation to feminism (preference for mind over womb), is not necessarily a toast to raise a pint to. (Ulysses, anyway, is much more hostile to the culture of drinking than its boozy reputation would suggest.) But the novel’s procedure, i.e., Joyce’s own transfiguration of his desires and his times into an everliving, still, and eternal rose/word, does not contradict Stephen here. After all, it is Dedalus, not Bloom, who is capable of understanding what book he is in. Do we understand what book we are in? Something to think about on literature’s highest holy day.

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Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

Happy DaysHappy Days by Samuel Beckett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fascinating but not my favorite. Evidently Beckett regarded Winnie as a kind of earth mother spirit, indomitable, and I do find some patronizing piety or maybe just pity here, a refusal of the corrosive irony Beckett’s male heroes have to endure in the midst of their own eschatological travails. The idea of the setting as a kind of post-apocalyptic degraded vacation-destination beach where the blazing bleaching sun never sets is wonderful, as is the whole mystery of the play’s circumstance, literal explanation of which would be unnecessary and, ultimately, trivializing. I love the way Beckett’s plays have an uncircumscribed reference, so that they are about aging, illness, depression, war, apocalypse, all at once, without having to be bound to some explicitly announced social issue (e.g., fear of nuclear war). But Winnie lacks the weird negative charisma with which Beckett usually invests his protagonists, at least as I see it; she is too much the victim, too little complicit in her own situation. Unless we are to take her purgatorial state in the sand as a Dantean punishment for her ostensibly naive good-natured and somewhat dim-witted stoicism or even for her half-repressed eroticism; but Beckett’s simply making fun of her would be more intolerable than his unironically sentimentalizing her. Perhaps the master of the wryly self-lacerating male monologue just cannot attain the same emotional complexity when attempting to portray a figure of mature female sexuality, for reasons best left to the psychoanalytic critics. As an image, Winnie in the sand is striking, unforgettable; but as a narrative, I find it thin.

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