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.


At 4:51 PM, Blogger Herxanthikles said...

Two footnotes: this impulse I'm describing here isn't always a good thing and a clever use of allusions isn't enough to spruce up something bad. For the latter, the name that readily leaps to mind is Neil LaBute. He's obviously a clever guy and delights in patterning his work after assorted Greek tragedies or biblical stories (Adam and Evelyn being the most vaudevillian stumble.) In his case it backfires. If allusions are typically used to expand the world of the work, his allusions contract it. By comparing his works to those of mythic resonance, he only reveals how little resonance his own works have and how he has replaced profundity with mere cleverness of a sordid nature. This is to say that I don't love Joyce because he uses allusions, but because he successfully uses those allusions to amplify the world of his book unlike others we could name. In fact we just did. Go us.

The second footnote, or caveat, is that the kid-like impulse to track down allusions and references in hopes of Understanding the World can be just as easily used for the forces of banality. At the same time that the joys of Plato were being hinted to this impressionable 7th grader, I was also taken with my cooler peers referencing Saturday Night Live catch phrases and pop songs I didn't know. This led to me staying up late to watch T.V. and listen to the radio in hope of achieving a complete understanding of the world. I did kind of like Paula Abdul "Vibeology" and some Prince I guess...anyhow the thirst for knowledge that is particularly strong when we're kids is undirected and can be used to all sorts of ends. That's all.


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