Friday, January 19, 2007

Joyce and Lemony Snicket

Pity me, pity me. I'm sick and have not had the energy to pursue my secondary reading of Vico, fascinating as it is. Instead I've polished off the last volume of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. It was a gift. I had read the first four (out of thirteen) or so years ago and enjoyed them but not enough to keep it up. But there's nothing like an easy-to-read mopey tale while you're laid up so I gobbled it up figuring that I would be filled in to whatever extent necessary about what I had missed.

I enjoyed it, but as I'm tying things into Joyce here, I have to say that one of the aspects of my enjoyment was identical to my enjoyment of Joyce. Part of the humor of the book is its web of allusions--the fictional Snicket's dead love is Beatrice, an island of castaways has characters such as Mrs. Caliban, Ariel, Calypso, and intriguingly Finn. I eat this sort of stuff up now, but I can see kids eating it up even more as decoding each reference gives them more information about the world they're trying to figure out, and information recommended by an author they really like. When I was younger, I would chase after these kinds of things with a fervor that if I could only understand every aspect of this, I'll have ascended to the highest level of wisdom. Parents must like this too, although I pity the parent who is asked to explain why a baby with a strange vocabulary uses the word "Anais" to mean "flesh."

The parallel to Joyce is obvious, as Joyce's work also contains webs of allusions. When I read him, it awakens the same impulse I had when I was kid, just transformed into: "If I can read Vico, St. Augustine, Lawerence Sterne, Rabelais, and so on I'll have figured it out!" What "it" is and what it would mean to really "figure" it out I have no idea, but with a good enough reading list does it matter? Books that use allusions really well make you feel like you're not just reading a book but a history of the world, or at least its literature, and it's a wonderful feeling.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Phew!

Last night I finnished the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter, and with it the first half of the Wake (eight out of sixteen chapters) or the first third of the Wake (200ish out of 600ish pages) or the first quarter of the Wake (first out of four books).

At this point, I’m tempted to consult some secondary literature for kicks, and blessed with a Borders gift card I got Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake and Giambattista Vico’s New Science.

The Skeleton Key I must admit I’m wary of. I got it as various people from David Earwigger Medine to the venerable Finnegans Wake Society of New York recommend it as an essential book. OK. But upon opening it up, I find that much of it “translates” the Wake into plain English, which necessarily flattens out the whole thing. Even in the introduction of the book, the opening statement “Finnegans Wake is a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind” strikes me as depressingly two-dimensional. Still, it could be a handy reference if used gingerly. I’m just worried about the movie effect—you see a disappointing movie of a favorite book and when you got back to the book try as you might you can’t get Daniel Radcliffe or whoever out of your head as you’re reading.

I’m much more excited about Vico, whose name stirred me as a college freshman for its mystery and resemblance to the villain of Ghostbusters II (“So be it…”). Vico, for those who were napping in post-Renaissance Intellectual History was an 18th century Italian thinker whose writing was a major influence on the Wake. I understand that Joyce was primarily inspired by Vico’s conception of cyclical time, of history moving through cycles. The back of my newly arrived edition of New Science emphasizes Vico’s breaking away from the widespread adulation of the Romans and Greeks to point out that they were in fact genuinely weird. What’s his deal? I shall do my best to discover and report.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Finnegan wakes, has a cup of coffee, blogs about implicit music

As Isaac noted, the problem with blogging books is that it is difficult to keep pace with your reading. I thought this wouldn’t be the case with the Wake since it goes so slow but I was wrong. My lack of posting has not been due to any cowardly retreat from the Wake but due to gobbling it up at the expense of writing about it. But I would like to keep writing, so here we are again.

Joyce has said that the musical sense of the Wake is more important than deciphering its multilingual puns and puzzles. By the musical sense, he means the rhythm of the words, their sounds, etc. The above qualities are musical in a literal sense, yet Joyce is also playing with nonliteral implicit music.

The element which struck me most while reading large sections of the text was the way in which Joyce manipulates the ease with which we understand the text. There are parts which are nearly impenetrable, other parts where he is astonishingly clear and even whole passages with barely any puns to decipher. In controlling the degree of transparency on the text, Joyce is controlling his texture like a composer. Sections dense with puns and allusions are much like music with a dense texture with many contrasting melodies and rhythms swirling around each other. One still gets at least a vague sense of what’s happening in either case and certain fragments may leap out, but you would be hard pressed to say “this is the tune.”

In the same way, when the polyphony of the Wake becomes simpler, it becomes more akin to something like Mozart, namely that amidst the interesting different parts there is still a clear melody to hold on to and tell you where we’re going. Those alarming moments when Joyce writes plainly are almost like a chant in its relative simplicity and directness.

When writing about implicit music it’s tempting to stretch it far, and no doubt I will give in to that temptation at some point, because I can't help but see Joyce’s contrast between circles and squares in musical terms. But the analogy in this post is actually pretty tight. A composer’s control of the texture is mostly a matter of how much information the composer is going to throw at the audience and to what extent the composer will emphasize some information more than others. Joyce is controlling his texture in precisely the same way. His technique of writing can graft three our four meanings not just onto a single sentence but on a single word. The extent to which he layers meanings is analogous to musical counterpoint and his control of it is one of the pleasures of reading the damn thing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Come out, come out, wherever you are...

The thing that makes blind dates so horrific-aside from the fact that you have no idea what type of visage is going to greet you at the bar-is that you’re expected to present “My Life Story- Abridged” to a complete stranger as a selling point that will win you a second date. Along with the usual “these are my goals”speech, and the “I work here just to pay the rent” speech, is the all too familiar “coming out story."


The “coming out story” is a staple of the lesbian date. Somewhere in between the 2nd and 3rd glass of wine stories of playing doctor with the little girl from across the street, or making out with your best friend naked in your mother’s bed, seem to just spill out of you. These stories gracefully evolve into full scale confessions of love to the first girlfriend, and then to even scarier confessions of self discovery to family, friends, etc. As you speak she smiles knowingly, and as she speaks you interject with energetic nods and "Yes! Omigod, totally!", until finally over dessert you’ve come full circle and can eat your cake knowing you've found common ground.

I get bored with the same old scenario on a date, but I will say it's nice to have a complete stranger turn into a strong ally after only a few drinks. One whose had the same thoughts, doubts, and desires as you've had and who has the potential of being a good friend if the whole romance thing doesn't really fly. Having recently gone on several dates with lovely women with whom I’ve shared my story, I thought I’d recommend for 2007 my favorite read of 2006 Alison Bechdel’s coming out story, “Fun Home.”

Bechdel shares not only her own sexual realization but also the discovery of her father‘s homosexuality and his suicide which followed shortly thereafter. “Fun Home” is a heartbreaking and intelligent read and I highly recommend it. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Oh Heck

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic exploration of Jack The Ripper and the Rise of the 20th Century is far more impressive than it is good. Impressive because of Moore's considerable gifts for research and drawing said research together (detailed extensively in a series of notes on sources of pretty much each page of the book in an appendix after the book is over), and not particularly good because it is never capable of sustaining much in the way of narrative tension, characterization or even visual beauty.

As in all of Moore's major work, From Hell is about a Mad Genius who sets himself a goal and then accomplishes it. In Watchmen this narrative structure worked because you actually didn't know that was the story you were reading until the very end. In V For Vendetta, this proved disasterous because you never doubt that V is going to do exactly what he says he's going to do, and thus there is no real reason to read the book once V has declared his intentions. From Hell is stuck somewhere in between. This is because Moore (as per usual) populates his book with lots of side characters and digressions that are, while more interesting than V For Vendetta, aren't as fascinating or moving as, say, The Nightowl or the newsstand denizens in Watchmen.

The problem with the whole Mad Genius plot line is that it is, at the end of the day, more about the writer than the character. After all, to write a genius, you have to at some level be a genius. And so I can never shake the suspicion reading Moore's work that on some level his fundamnetal point is about how much smarter he is than the reader. That certainly seems to be the point of V, anyway.

From Hell is a little bit different, because it shows the occasional high cost of said genius-- namely that it might turn you into a murderous psychopath. William Withey Gull, royal physician, mason, expert surgeon and stroke vicitm is held to be Jack the Ripper. He kills the prostitutes at the beheast of HRH Victoria herself, because they are blackmailing Prince Albert over a baby he fathered while living undercover as a student artist. Gull is himself a sociopath-- completely devoid of empathy, capable of doing (and justifying) just about everything. His goal, his life's work is to take the myths that form the foundation of Masonry (which he knows are pure bushwha) and make them Real through the ritual sacrifice of the Whitechapel prostitutes.

Needless to say, the book is dark. And Campbell's illustrations are as well. so dark that frequently I had trouble making out exactly what was going on, or who was speaking. All of the prostitutes dress alike. Many of them look alike. Ditto the upper crust men.

The book, at the end of the day, is bogged down by the historical fiction syndrome, where interesting facts/personages surrounding an event are brought together in ways that seem increasingly ludicrous. Witness Oscar Wilde's cameo late in the book, or the parts of the novel where people mention books, tropes, intellectuals, authors, events etc. apropos of nothing because Moore found it in some obscure Almanack. I think it's fascinating that someone predicted most of the events of the twentieth century. I don't see how it fits into a discussion of whether or not visiting American Indians were responsible for the Jack the Ripper killings.

This mix makes the novel intermittedly fascinating and frustrating, and this keeps the book earthbound when it desperately wants to soar. I think this will mark the end of my reading of Alan Moore. I loved Watchmen, I still think it's one of the Great Books of the 20th Century, but everything else he's written has left me somewhere between cold and frustrated to the point of anger.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Respect My Authority! (part one)

Rob's post below about George Orwell's Why I Write has inspired me to revisit one of my favorite essays, David Foster Wallace's Authority and American Usage (Or Why George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is Redundant). It's such a masterful piece of writing, and sufficiently complex, that I hope to exigesize it a bit here over the next couple of days.

Let us start with the basics... AAAU(OWGOPATELIR) (which I'll refer to from here on out at Authority... is ostensibly a book review for Harper's Magazine of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. The fact tht the essay is 62 pages long should tip the reader off to the fact that Wallace intends to... well... delve. And delve he does. This essay isn't so much a review as an anatomy of the Language Wars and then an encapsulation of how Garner deftly navigates said wars. Or, as Wallace himself states on the second page, to talk

"about the historical context in which ADMAU appears, and this context turns out to be a veritable hurricane of controversies involving everything from technical linguistics and public education to political ideology, and these controversies take a certain amount of time to unpack before their relation to what makes Garner's dictionary so eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar can even be established[.]"


In other words... don't you know there's a war on??. And this pre-War-On-Terror essay wants to tell you about the war that is being waged day in and day out for the very language we use to communicate.

***Why You Should Trust DFW On This One***

It helps that in navigating these heady and complicated waters we have for our guide an author like Wallace. First off, he is an expert in English Language Usage. He is what his own family refers to as a SNOOT, which is to say an English Language "trekkie" of unfathomable proportions (SNOOT might stand for "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time" or it might stand for "Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance"... thank god I didn't sit at that family dinner table). He is also a professor of English and the author of three collections of short stories, two books of essays and two novels, one of which is Infinite Jest which you may have read. I have read it. I say this not to brag about navigating its thousand pages (plus endnotes!) but merely to state that this is no impartial observer of Wallace you are dealing with. I love his writing.

Well, to be more honest, I love his essays. Love them enough that I had my mom call a friend and send me a three week old NY Times Magazine because an essay of his (about Roger Federer, perhaps you read it?) appeared on the cover. His fiction is trickier. There are bits of Infite Jest that I positively adored (Eschaton, which this popular blog is named after, the sections dealing with Boston AA etc.) but ultimately, I felt cheated by its lack of ending (did I mention its over 1000 pages long?!). Or, as a friend of mine's husband put it "this book broke my heart". His short fiction collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men contains both moments of genius and real clunkers. Which is probably the sign of a true experimental spirit, but it can also grow wearying.

(If I was able to, I'd have inserted a Wallacian footnote at the end of that paragraph to discuss his biography of infinity, which I also read, and did not understand one bit but thought was beautiful nonetheless)

What additionally makes Wallace such a great guide is that, stylistically speaking, he's a genius. Wallace uses language like few others, and his style has become a bit of a trademark. Basically, how it works is that Wallace's prose style represents an almost neurotic need for exactitude in his own writing. He's on a quixotic quest to communicate objectively a subjective experience using a subjective medium, namely written language. This leads to lots of twists and turns in his language and enormous numbers of his trademark footnotes, and it also leads to some wonderful humor. One of Wallace's best devices is to take a rather technical sentence, one filled with big words like dysphemism or sesquipedelian and then throw in a very colloquial word or phrase like bat-shit insane or whatever. ("Or whatever" is itself a frequently used colloquialism in his prose).

So the great thing about this is that you have someone whose entire (constantly failing) project seems to be taming language itself writing a review of a book by someone claiming to resolve all the usage wars going on in the US. Neat, huh?

***DFW's Thesis

Unlike in DFW's other main essay about writing which seems to be eighty pages of brilliance without a thesis, Wallace, clearly lays his out in this essay. Which is that

Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in US English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit". A Democratic Spirit is one that combine rigor and humility, i.e. a passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS's criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity-- you have to be willing to look honeestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.


He goes on for a few more paragraphs about how being Dogmatic is infinitely easier than being Democratic and each sentence is like a little piece of gold, and you could write an entire essay about each one, and I probably will reference some of this stuff on my other blog at some point but this unpacking of Wallace will go on forever if I do all of that now. Also, I'll probably violate his intellectual property rights over the essay at some point. Or something.

Anyway, this central thesis is brilliant because its actually complicated to try to address. He must show the at-root-political nature of this debate. He must show why a Democratic Spirit is required. And he must show how ADMAU (the book he's reviewing) has said DS in spades.

What makes it extra-brilliant is that DFW is himself performing a feat of Democratic Spirit in his own essay writing. This is why he must be so self-depricating about his SNOOTitude. He must, as part of his DSness, acknowledge how others see him. And he must struggle over the course of the essay, to apply his own DSness to the Language Wars and see what can be discovered. And those things discovered is what we'll get into in future installments.

Respect My Authority! (part one)

Rob's post below about George Orwell's Why I Write has inspired me to revisit one of my favorite essays, David Foster Wallace's Authority and American Usage (Or Why George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is Redundant). It's such a masterful piece of writing, and sufficiently complex, that I hope to exigesize it a bit here over the next couple of days.

Let us start with the basics... AAAU(OWGOPATELIR) (which I'll refer to from here on out at Authority... is ostensibly a book review for Harper's Magazine of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. The fact tht the essay is 62 pages long should tip the reader off to the fact that Wallace intends to... well... delve. And delve he does. This essay isn't so much a review as an anatomy of the Language Wars and then an encapsulation of how Garner deftly navigates said wars. Or, as Wallace himself states on the second page, to talk

"about the historical context in which ADMAU appears, and this context turns out to be a veritable hurricane of controversies involving everything from technical linguistics and public education to political ideology, and these controversies take a certain amount of time to unpack before their relation to what makes Garner's dictionary so eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar can even be established[.]"


In other words... don't you know there's a war on??. And this pre-War-On-Terror essay wants to tell you about the war that is being waged day in and day out for the very language we use to communicate.

***Why You Should Trust DFW On This One***

It helps that in navigating these heady and complicated waters we have for our guide an author like Wallace. First off, he is an expert in English Language Usage. He is what his own family refers to as a SNOOT, which is to say an English Language "trekkie" of unfathomable proportions (SNOOT might stand for "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time" or it might stand for "Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance"... thank god I didn't sit at that family dinner table). He is also a professor of English and the author of three collections of short stories, two books of essays and two novels, one of which is Infinite Jest which you may have read. I have read it. I say this not to brag about navigating its thousand pages (plus endnotes!) but merely to state that this is no impartial observer of Wallace you are dealing with. I love his writing.

Well, to be more honest, I love his essays. Love them enough that I had my mom call a friend and send me a three week old NY Times Magazine because an essay of his (about Roger Federer, perhaps you read it?) appeared on the cover. His fiction is trickier. There are bits of Infite Jest that I positively adored (Eschaton, which this popular blog is named after, the sections dealing with Boston AA etc.) but ultimately, I felt cheated by its lack of ending (did I mention its over 1000 pages long?!). Or, as a friend of mine's husband put it "this book broke my heart". His short fiction collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men contains both moments of genius and real clunkers. Which is probably the sign of a true experimental spirit, but it can also grow wearying.

(If I was able to, I'd have inserted a Wallacian footnote at the end of that paragraph to discuss his biography of infinity, which I also read, and did not understand one bit but thought was beautiful nonetheless)

What additionally makes Wallace such a great guide is that, stylistically speaking, he's a genius. Wallace uses language like few others, and his style has become a bit of a trademark. Basically, how it works is that Wallace's prose style represents an almost neurotic need for exactitude in his own writing. He's on a quixotic quest to communicate objectively a subjective experience using a subjective medium, namely written language. This leads to lots of twists and turns in his language and enormous numbers of his trademark footnotes, and it also leads to some wonderful humor. One of Wallace's best devices is to take a rather technical sentence, one filled with big words like dysphemism or sesquipedelian and then throw in a very colloquial word or phrase like bat-shit insane or whatever. ("Or whatever" is itself a frequently used colloquialism in his prose).

So the great thing about this is that you have someone whose entire (constantly failing) project seems to be taming language itself writing a review of a book by someone claiming to resolve all the usage wars going on in the US. Neat, huh?

***DFW's Thesis

Unlike in DFW's other main essay about writing which seems to be eighty pages of brilliance without a thesis, Wallace, clearly lays his out in this essay. Which is that

Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in US English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit". A Democratic Spirit is one that combine rigor and humility, i.e. a passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS's criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity-- you have to be willing to look honeestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.


He goes on for a few more paragraphs about how being Dogmatic is infinitely easier than being Democratic and each sentence is like a little piece of gold, and you could write an entire essay about each one, and I probably will reference some of this stuff on my other blog at some point but this unpacking of Wallace will go on forever if I do all of that now. Also, I'll probably violate his intellectual property rights over the essay at some point. Or something.

Anyway, this central thesis is brilliant because its actually complicated to try to address. He must show the at-root-political nature of this debate. He must show why a Democratic Spirit is required. And he must show how ADMAU (the book he's reviewing) has said DS in spades.

What makes it extra-brilliant is that DFW is himself performing a feat of Democratic Spirit in his own essay writing. This is why he must be so self-depricating about his SNOOTitude. He must, as part of his DSness, acknowledge how others see him. And he must struggle over the course of the essay, to apply his own DSness to the Language Wars and see what can be discovered. And those things discovered is what we'll get into in future installments.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Why I Write

Earlier this week I stumbled across a gift given to me last year by Mr. Parabasis himself: George Orwell: A Collection of Essays. Inside I found Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write, and found it contained many compelling thoughts relevant to last week’s conversation about the intentions and motivations of artists.

As Orwell says, “I think there are four great motivations for writing… They exist in different degrees in every writer…”

Here is what they are:

1) Sheer egotism. As he explains it, the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood, ect.”

2) Esthetic enthusiasm. As he says, “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.”

3) Historical impulse. “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

4) Political purpose. As he says, “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

Now, given Orwell’s body of work, one might assume that for him, number four was a prime motivator. However, he admits that “by nature… I am a person in whom the first three motives outweigh the fourth.” Totalitarianism forced him to become a political writer, as he says, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

A survey of his artistic motivations reveals that he was not driven primarily by his virtues, but by his vices. As a child, he first turned to writing to seek egotistic redemption for his social failure. As he says, “at the start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued…” He felt he could create “a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” He continues, later, “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy…” – passages that support the arguments made by Rousseau in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences.

The “political purpose”, as Orwell puts it, is the only virtuous motivation he describes. He writes because “there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention…” This noble motivation is the only one he outlines that seemingly seriously contributes to the reduction of society’s suffering.

However, he says of writers, “at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that “every book is a failure,” as he says. Perhaps all men are struggle-seekers, addicted to striving after unachievable goals, believing in their hearts, as Kropotkin did, that “to struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life.”

Or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that, as Jean Anouilh said, “fiction gives form to life.” Orwell describes himself as a child “making up a continuous story about myself, a sort of diary existing only in my mind.” It seems only natural that narrative storytelling forms relaying tales of men suffering while striving for goals, would provide comfort to humans, being that we all create value in our lives by setting a goal and measuring meaning by our ability to achieve it.