James Joyce, “Ulysses”

1922

The novel, probably the most famous ever written in the English language, was first serialized in The Little Review from 1918-1920 and published as a whole in Paris by Sylvia Beach in 1922 (the same year as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and McKay’s Harlem Shadows). It takes place over the course of a single day in Dublin (think Woolf, McEwan). Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, represents Ulysses, whom Joyce believed to be the “most complete man in literature” and “the only all-round character” because he is shown in all his contradictions of valor and vice. The novel is set on June 16, 1904, as Stephen Dedalus (almost 2 years after the end of Portrait) begins his day. The fourth episode brings in Leopold Bloom, and after Stephen and Leopold get drunk together, hallucinate, and reveal their subconscious in a soulful discussion, Bloom goes to bed with his wife Molly (having an affair with Blazes Boylon), whose 8-sentence “monologue” finishes the novel.

Joyce was born in Dublin and 1882 and left in 1904, never to return from the Continent, where he died in 1941. Ulysses was written from 1914 to 1918 – the period of the war (think of what Yeats was writing…). Variously banned on charges of obscenity. Among the first “stream-of-consciousness” novels, it mixes the real and the imagined to accurately, if confusingly, reveal the psyche of the narrators, so that “the symbolic aspect of the novel is at least as important as the realistic aspect.” Essentially, Stephen searches for a father (Simon Dedalus is artistically stunted and emotionally unavailable) and Bloom for a son (Rudy is dead). Note the correlations between Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus. Some of the novel’s many themes are of the underdog, the voyage/loss of home/exile, the crisis of faith, and everyday kindnesses. Parallax, an astronomical term that Bloom encounters in his reading and that arises repeatedly through the course of the novel, is a good word with which to relate the novel to faceting. It refers to the difference of position of one object when seen from two different vantage points, which is the project of the text. I am including plot summaries from Wikipedia for study in italics and then adding my own notes in plain text.

The opening: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:—introibo ad altare Dei” 3 (I will go in the altar of God).

The ending: “. . . and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” 644.

Joyce divided Ulysses into 18 chapters or “episodes”. At first glance much of the book may appear unstructured and chaotic; Joyce once said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant,” which would earn the novel “immortality” [reminds me of Nabokov].  The two schemata which Stuart Gilbert and Herbert Gorman released after publication to defend Joyce from the obscenity accusations made the links to the Odyssey clear, and also explain the work’s internal structure. The original text did not include these episode titles and the correspondences; instead, they originate from the Linati and Gilbert schema. Joyce referred to the episodes by their Homeric titles in his letters. He took the idiosyncratic rendering of some of the titles–– ‘Nausikaa’, the ‘Telemachia’––from Victor Berard’s two-volume Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée which he consulted in 1918 in the central Zurich library.

Part I: The Telemachiad

Episode 1, Telemachus – 8am

It is 8 am. Buck Mulligan, a boisterous medical student, calls Stephen Dedalus (a young writer encountered as the principal subject of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) up to the roof of the Sandycove Martello tower, where they both live. There is tension between Stephen and Mulligan, stemming from a cruel remark Stephen has overheard Mulligan making about his recently deceased mother and from the fact that Mulligan has invited an English student, Haines, to stay with them. The three men eat breakfast and walk to the shore, where Mulligan demands from Stephen the key to the tower and a loan. Departing, Stephen declares that he will not return to the tower tonight, as Mulligan, the “usurper”, has taken it over.
Stephen wakes up, like Telemachus, in a usurped tower (imagines himself as fatherless Hamlet). Buck Mulligan is not unlike Cranly of Portrait, more crass but personable than Stephen. Stephen refers for the first of many times to “agenbite of inwit, a religious term meaning the “remorse of conscience,” connected to his refusal to kneel at her deathbed (Mulligan calls him Kinch, meaning ‘blade’). Bannon refers to “the photo girl,” probably Bloom’s daughter Millie. Steven decides not to return to the place of the “usurper” that night.

Episode 2, Nestor – 10 am

Stephen is teaching a history class on the victories of Phyrrus of Epirus. After class, one student, Sargent, stays behind so that Stephen can show him how to do a set of arithmetic exercises. Stephen looks at the aesthetically unappealing Sargent and tries to imagine Sargent’s mother’s love for him. Stephen then visits school headmaster, Mr. Deasy, from whom he collects his pay and a letter to take to a newspaper office for printing. The two discuss Irish history and the role of Jews in the economy. As Stephen leaves, Deasy makes a final derogatory remark against the Jews, stating that Ireland has never extensively persecuted the Jews because they were never let in to the country. This episode is the source of some of the novel’s most famous lines, such as Dedalus’s claim that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and that God is “a shout in the street.”

Unlike the charioteer Nestor, Mr. Deasy inspires Stephen by negative example. He argues with Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitism, insisting we have all sinned against the light and saying that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” 28. But for Deasy history is teleology, moving towards “one great goal, the manifestation of God” 28. Deasy says Stephen is not a born teacher, and Stephen counters that he is “a learner rather” 29. Deasy gets one last jab in – “Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persectued the jews… Because she never let them in” 30. This idea of Ireland as a chaste female body plays interestingly against Molly and other women who “let them in.”

Episode 3, Proteus – 11 am

Stephen finds his way to Sandymount Strand and mopes around for some time, mulling various philosophical concepts, his family, his life as a student in Paris, and his mother’s death. As Stephen reminisces and ponders, he lies down among some rocks, watches a couple and a dog, scribbles some ideas for poetry, picks his nose and urinates behind a rock. This chapter is characterized by a stream of consciousness narrative style that changes focus wildly. Stephen’s education is reflected in the many obscure references and foreign phrases employed in this episode.
Stephen wandering on the beach: “INELUCTABLE MODALITY of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.”
Proteus is the mutable sea-god. Stephen’s thought is like the god, changing, shifting shapes, only to be captured by special cunning. His ideas move from inner thought and philosophical solipsism toward the material world in this section. Stephen’s first thought of the “ineluctable modality of the visible” counters Kantian idealism and Berkleyan immaterialism with the Aristotelian view tactile matter, though for Aristotle, we always see form or pattern, rather than the thing itself. The line has a postcolonial parallel in Rushdie’s “ineluctable superiority of northernness!” in Midnight’s Children, which may mean that the view is immutable, and based on a criterion of the visible: race. Like Prufrock, Stephen angsts about his personal appearance and habits, and like The Waste Land his thoughts at the sea are of drowning (a man has drowned, also). Ironically, the “word known to all men” (except Stephen?) here is love.

Part II: The Odyssey

Episode 4, Calypso – 8 am

The narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. Bloom, after starting to prepare breakfast, decides to walk to a butcher to buy a pork kidney. Returning home, he prepares breakfast and brings it with the mail to his wife Molly as she lounges in bed. One of the letters is from her concert manager Blazes Boylan. Bloom is aware that Molly will welcome Boylan into her bed later that day, and is tormented by the thought. Bloom reads a letter from their daughter. The chapter closes with Bloom defecating in the outhouse.

We meet Leopold Bloom (“people’s prince”/”flower”), whose bodily delights are a far cry from Stephen’s closed-eyed testing of the world, but whose imagination, though seemingly wasted on making advertisements, is alive and brilliant: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls… Kidneys were in his mind” 45. He imagines never growing older by traveling around the world fast enough. We feel his warm anticipation for breakfast, as well as the unity of “kidney” and “mind” here – the wholeness of Bloom. Calypso is the name of the half-goddess who keeps Odysseus on her island for years. Her name means “to cover or conceal,” and Molly here conceals her letters under her pillow, covering her affair. He watches the beautiful cat, relating as a fellow creature (Leopold has lion in it, too…). We begin to see the odd things in his pockets, as befit a ‘traveler’ – here a potato, later soap, a watch, and a pig’s foot. He brings breakfast to Molly and she asks him the meaning of metempsychosis – reincarnation which he explains to her through the concept of metamorphosis. He gets a letter from Milly, while Molly gets only a card. He reads the newspaper and defecates, wiping himself with it. He pities Dignam, who is dead.

Episode 5, Lotus Eaters – 10 am

Bloom makes his way to Westland Row post office where he receives a love letter from one ‘Martha Clifford’ addressed to his pseudonym, ‘Henry Flower’. He meets an acquaintance, and while they chat, Bloom attempts to ogle a woman wearing stockings, but is prevented by a passing tram. Next, he reads the letter and tears up the envelope in an alley. He wanders into a Catholic church service and muses on theology. He goes to a chemist where he buys a bar of lemon soap. He then meets another acquaintance, to whom he unintentionally gives a racing tip for the horse Throwaway. Finally, Bloom heads towards the baths.

This chapter introduces many of the recurring figures in the novel. The lotus-eaters are lazy and drugged, and so is Bloom here. He ends by imagining “the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower” 71.

Episode 6, Hades – 11 am

The episode begins with Bloom entering a funeral carriage with three others, including Stephen’s father. They drive to Paddy Dignam’s funeral, making small talk on the way. The carriage passes both Stephen and Blazes Boylan. There is discussion of various forms of death and burial, and Bloom is preoccupied by thoughts of his dead son, Rudy, and the suicide of his own father. They enter the chapel into the service and subsequently leave with the coffin cart. Bloom sees a mysterious man wearing a macintosh during the burial. Bloom continues to reflect upon death, but at the end of the episode rejects morbid thoughts to embrace ‘warm fullblooded life’.

The funeral makes Bloom think of his son Rudy, who is dead. He imagines the soil “quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails… of course the cells or whatever they are go on living. Changing about. Live for ever practically. Nothing to feed on feed on themselves” 89. This reminds me of Eliot.

Episode 7, Aeolus – 12 pm

At the office of the Freeman’s Journal, Bloom attempts to place an ad. Although initially encouraged by the editor, he is unsuccessful. Stephen arrives bringing Deasy’s letter about ‘foot and mouth’ disease, but Stephen and Bloom do not meet. Stephen leads the editor and others to a pub, telling an anecdote on the way about ‘two Dublin vestals’. The episode is broken up into short sections by newspaper-style headlines, and is characterised by an abundance of rhetorical figures and devices.

Aeolus is the god of winds, here compared to the media, who does not determine history, but records it. The “windblowing” of the media is false and often out of control here. The chapter is structured as a series of news pieces.

Episode 8, Lestrygonians – 1 pm

Bloom’s thoughts are peppered with references to food as lunchtime approaches. He meets an old flame and hears news of Mina Purefoy’s labour. He enters the restaurant of the Burton Hotel where he is revolted by the sight of men eating like animals. He goes instead to Davy Byrne’s pub, where he consumes a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy, and muses upon the early days of his relationship with Molly and how the marriage has declined: ‘Me. And me now.’ Bloom heads towards the National Museum to look at the statues of Greek goddesses, and, in particular, their bottoms. Bloom suddenly spots Boylan across the street and, panicking, rushes into the museum.
The Lestrygonians were giant cannibals. It’s an interesting allusion in this chapter, full of his thoughts about food. He stresses out about what to do about Blazes Boylan, shifting perspectives but too afraid to do anything. He ducks into the library and avoids him at the end of the chapter.

Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis – 2 pm

At the National Library, Stephen explains to various scholars his biographical theory of the works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, which he claims are based largely on the posited adultery of Shakespeare’s wife. Bloom enters the National Library to look up an old copy of the ad he has been trying to place. He encounters Stephen briefly and unknowingly at the end of the episode.
Scylla is a monster and Charybdis a whirlpool – Odysseus makes the mistake of trying to fight Scylla, much as Stephen, in his argument with Mulligan, gets too wrapped up in the battle. Odysseus must go nearer the rock of Scylla (Aristotelian material reality) rather than the whirlpool (Platonic essences and ideas). Stephen admits he does not believe his argument – he merely knows it. The chapter takes the form of a dialectic. They pass Bloom on the way out. Mulligan accuses him of being gay and Jewish. Stephen thinks his anti-Semitism comes from English boarding school.

Episode 10, Wandering Rocks – 3 pm

In this episode, nineteen short vignettes depict the wanderings of various characters, major and minor, through the streets of Dublin. The episode ends with an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant, William Ward, Earl of Dudley, through the streets, which is encountered by various characters from the novel.

In 19 vignettes in 35 pages, Joyce alights on over a dozen characters. This would therefore be an interesting section to compare to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. They are somewhat interconnected, but objects are not used as jumping points in the same way – there are divisions.

Episode 11, Sirens – 4 pm

In this episode, dominated by motifs of music, Bloom has dinner with Stephen’s uncle at a hotel, while Molly’s lover, Blazes Boylan, proceeds to his rendezvous with her. While dining, Bloom watches the seductive barmaids and listens to the singing of Stephen’s father and others.

The sirens were the singing creatures whom no man survived hearing. Odysseus got around this by having his men (their ears stuffed with wax) tie him to the mast of his ship. There is a lot of wordplay here “throw, flow, flower,” etc, like song lyrics, an experiment with the sound of language over its sense. The chapter begins by “tuning” and swells, then falls at the end to ppprfff, almost like an orgasm (foreshadowing Boylan’s?).

Episode 12, Cyclops – 5 pm

This chapter is narrated by an unnamed denizen of Dublin. The narrator goes to Barney Kiernan’s pub where he meets a character referred to only as the ‘Citizen’. When Leopold Bloom enters the pub, he is berated by the Citizen, who is a fierce Fenian and anti-Semite. The episode ends with Bloom reminding the Citizen that his Saviour was a Jew. As Bloom leaves the pub, the Citizen, in anger, throws a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head, but misses. The chapter is marked by extended tangents made in voices other than that of the unnamed narrator: these include streams of legal jargon, Biblical passages, and elements of Irish mythology.

This is the chapter of parody: of legal jargon, poetic language, and translation, even the parroting of the Bible by the average man. Cyclopean view is here related as narrowmindedness, and the citizen is “nobody” (what Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is), a short sighted nationalist. It is the only section in the first-person, but it seems to condemn that perspective as being narrow and limiting in many ways.

Episode 13, Nausicaa – 8 pm

Gerty MacDowell, a young woman on Sandymount strand, contemplates love, marriage and femininity as night falls. The reader is gradually made aware that Bloom is watching her from a distance, and as she exposes her legs and underwear to him it is unclear how much of the narrative is actually Bloom’s sexual fantasy. Bloom’s masturbatory climax is echoed by the fireworks at the nearby bazaar. As Gerty leaves, Bloom realises that Gerty has a lame leg. Bloom, after several digressions of thought, decides to visit Mina Purefoy at the hospital. The style of the first half of the episode borrows from (and parodies) romance magazines and novelettes.

Nausicaa is young and lovely, but also a kind of mother to Odysseus. A similar phenomenon is at work here – the chapter begins with Gerty McDowell’s novelistic gibberish about love and moves to Bloom sort of solipsizing her as he masturbates and the fireworks go off. It’s ambiguous how much is Gerty’s perspective, especially since Bloom is an expert with advertising language, but there are several facts of her personal life that turn out to be true and that Bloom could never know about. Interspersed with romantic language are pills and ads, as well as her “long adolescence” limited knowledge of sex. Phrases like “apple of discord,” “castle of sand,” “ivorylike purity” (purse) and “golden rule” suggest to me that Nabokov had this chapter in mind when writing Lolita – it is also a Sunday, there are magazine photos, and she identifies Bloom as a foreigner with “an intellectual face,” the “image of the photo” she had of a matinee idol. In turn, she is imagining herself as a picture cutout for him, “pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in the bed” 299. This is different because “she could almost feel him draw her face to his.” Again the golden and Os are like Lo. He animates her: “Mutoscope pictures in Capel street: for men only. Peeping Tom. Willy’s hat and what the girls did with it. Do they snapshot those girls or is it all a fake? Lingerie does it” 301, but the key here is mutuality: “Why me? Because you were so foreign from the others” 311. “Darling I saw, your. I saw all” 305. “I begin to like them at that age. Green apples” 308 – literal fruit vert! He calls himself a “murderer” for wanting to come back. Time is instated: cuckoo…

Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun – 10 pm

Bloom visits the maternity hospital where Mina Purefoy is giving birth, and finally meets Stephen, who is drinking with Buck Mulligan and his medical student friends. They continue on to a pub to continue drinking, following the successful birth of the baby. This chapter is remarkable for Joyce’s wordplay, which seems to recapitulate the entire history of the English language. After a short incantation, the episode starts with latinate prose, Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and moves on through parodies of, among others, Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Defoe, Sterne, Walpole, Gibbons, Dickens, and Carlyle, before concluding in a haze of nearly incomprehensible slang.

A midwife delivers a boy – no coincidence that this is where Bloom and Stephen meet! This is interesting in light of the idea of faceting. It is a kind of bildungsroman for the English language itself, and like Stephen in Portrait, it moves from the impersonal to the personal, the abstract to the concrete, through the spiritual to the political. It is a rejuvenation of language by dragging it through mud that also reminds me of Eliot and Stein. The unity of form and content on display here is remarkable (form is content, content is form – a Keats chiasmus like beauty is truth, truth beauty). The two men are both outcasts, and this is how they bond. The connection to Odysseus is his men eating the sacred cattle, which come back to life in distorted, zombielike forms.

Episode 15, Circe – 12 am

Episode 15 is written as a play script, complete with stage directions. The plot is frequently interrupted by “hallucinations” experienced by Stephen and Bloom—fantastic manifestations of the fears and passions of the two characters. Stephen and Lynch walk into Nighttown, Dublin’s red light district. Bloom pursues them and eventually finds them at Bella Cohen’s brothel. When Bloom witnesses Stephen overpaying for services received, Bloom decides to hold onto the rest of Stephen’s money for safekeeping. Stephen hallucinates that the rotting cadaver of his mother has risen up from the floor to confront him. Terrified, Stephen uses his walking stick to smash a chandelier and then runs out. Bloom quickly pays Bella for the damage, then runs after Stephen. Bloom finds Stephen engaged in a heated argument with an English soldier who, after a perceived insult to the King, punches Stephen. The police arrive and the crowd disperses. As Bloom is tending to Stephen, Bloom has a hallucination of Rudy, his deceased child.

Bella Cohen, the brothel mistress, is Circe, and all the men dogs. This is the section of “Gentleman of the jury, let me explain” and “the halcyon days” 373 – also like Lolita. Both men have sexual neuroses, which are mocked here. The chapter ends as Stephen breaks a chandelier, Bloom pays for it, and they leave. On the street, he “brushes the woodshavings from Stephen’s clothes with light hand and fingers” – like Prufrock 496. Stephen is mumbling abstractions and poetry in the fetal position. Bloom thinks of “the rough hands of the sea” and a figure appears: “BLOOM (wonderstruck, calls inaudibly) Rudy!” 497 (it’s interesting that it’s inaudible – something only the novel can do). Rudy is all dressed up and unseeing.

Part III: The Nostos 

Episode 16, Eumaeus – 1 am

Bloom and Stephen go to the cabman’s shelter to restore the latter to his senses. At the cabman’s shelter, they encounter a drunken sailor, D. B. Murphy. Riding in the cab, Stephen sings a spirited song by the Baroque composer Johannes Jeep, and he and Bloom bond over its misogyny. The episode is dominated by the motif of confusion and mistaken identity, with Bloom, Stephen and Murphy’s identities being repeatedly called into question. The rambling and laboured style of the narrative in this episode reflects the nervous exhaustion and confusion of the two protagonists.

Odysseus meets Eumaeus the swineherd when he returns home. He welcomes and feeds him. I’m most interested in this chapter for its confused identities – the different characters being mixed up is like Ellison, Woolf, and Pynchon. The chapter returns to an older, more classical narrative style. “So they turned on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love” 539. Bloom admires Stephen’s voice, nice like his father’s. He tells the boy Molly would like to meet him (this chapter also like a bookend to “Sirens,” also “My Little Carmen.”

Episode 17, Ithaca – 2 am

Bloom returns home with Stephen, who refuses Bloom’s offer of a place to stay for the night. The two men urinate in the backyard, Stephen departs and wanders off into the night, and Bloom goes to bed. The episode is written in the form of a rigidly organised catechism, and was reportedly Joyce’s favourite episode in the novel. The style is that of a scientific inquiry, with questions furthering the narrative. The deep descriptions range from questions of astronomy to the trajectory of urination.

This episode toggles between a kind of Socratic dialogue and the depressing idea of memorized doctrinal response, beautifully creating tension between information and emotion as the two sit up and talk (309 Q and R – think of To the Lighthouse!). We return to the theme of water as Bloom begins to make tea and Stephen reveals himself to be afraid of water. Odysseus is a hero at the banquet, but Bloom is an ordinary man, whose heroism is his kindness to Stephen. Bloom also forgives Molly, considering all the crimes worse than adultery. This is the last we hear of “narrator” and “listener.”

Episode 18, Penelope – 3 am or later – the infinity symbol

The final episode, which also uses the stream of consciousness technique seen in Episode 3, consists of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: eight great run-on sentences (without punctuation) describe the thoughts of Molly, Bloom’s wife, as she lies in bed next to her husband. Molly guesses that Bloom had an orgasm that day, and is reminded of his past possible infidelity with other women. She considers the differences between Boylan and Bloom, in terms of virility and masculinity. Molly feels that she and Bloom are lucky, despite their current marital difficulties. Molly recalls her many admirers, previous and current. She wishes she had more money to buy stylish clothes, and believes that Bloom should quit his advertising job and get better paid work elsewhere. Molly thinks about how beautiful female breasts are, particularly compared to male genitalia. She thinks of the time Bloom suggested she pose naked in exchange for money. Her thoughts return to Boylan and her orgasm earlier.

A train whistle blows outside, and Molly thinks of her childhood in Gibraltar. Out of boredom and loneliness, she had resorted to writing herself letters. Molly thinks about how her daughter sent her a card this morning, whereas her husband received a whole letter. She imagines that she may receive another love letter from Boylan. Molly recalls her first love letter from Lieutenant Mulvey, whom she kissed under the bridge in Gibraltar. She later lost contact with him and wonders what he would be like now. Her thoughts turn to her singing career, and Molly wonders what path her career could have taken had she not married Bloom. Molly senses the start of her period, confirmation that her tryst with Boylan has not caused a pregnancy. She gets up to use the chamberpot. Events of the day spent with Boylan run through her mind.

Molly climbs quietly back into bed and thinks of the times she and Bloom have had to relocate. Her mind then turns to Stephen, whom she met during his childhood. She conjectures that Stephen is probably not stuck-up, and is most likely clean. She fantasizes about having sexual encounters with him. Molly resolves to study before meeting him so he will not look down upon her. Molly thinks of her husband’s strange sexual habits. Molly speculates that the world would be much improved if it consisted of Matriarchal Societies. Thinking again of Stephen, and then of his mother’s death, evokes memory of Rudy’s death, whereupon she ends this line of thought as it is making her depressed. Molly thinks about arousing Bloom in the morning, then revealing the details of her affair with Boylan to make him realise his culpability. She decides to procure some flowers, in case Stephen Dedalus decides to come around. Thinking of flowers, Molly remembers the day she and Bloom spent at Howth, his marriage proposal, and her acceptance: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Helene Cixous cited this chapter of the novel as ecriture feminine, since “the body unfurls” in the woman’s voice here. (You could think about Woolf building a more structured and precise version of the in medias res “Yes because he never did a thing like that,” more drawn from Mansfield, perhaps, than Joyce). Part of her body unfurling is to consider her own beauty, greater than a man’s and to fart, proving women are not without scatological functions. As lovely as this chapter is and Cixous’ idea of it is, there is something troubling about the leaky chaos of Molly’s discourse – an infinity time free of the clock.

As Bloom, the modern man, is not the hero Odysseus is, so Molly, the modern woman, is not the faithful wife. Still, she is a storyteller, and she brings all of the ideas and passions to a close here in her eight runon sentences. (Penelope kept Odysseus alive through her weaving in the original story.) More materially, she will likely weave them together in reality – she thinks of offering Stephen the room upstairs “itd be great fun supposing he stayed with us why not theres the room upstairs empty and Millys bed in the back room… and if he wants to read in bed in the morning like me as hes making the breakfast for 1 he can make it for 2… Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent welleducated person” – and then turns right to shopping 641.

Strikingly, the stream of consciousness here is most like the Proteus chapter – Stephen and Molly get that concatenated, runon perspective more than Bloom. One of my favorite parts of the chapter is when she says she’d like to make a book of “Poldy’s” sayings. He called her “a flower of the mountain… one true thing he said in his life.” The repetition of O here connects it to the orgasms of the Nausicaa chapter, but the repetition of Yes reminds me of Bloom’s affirmation or choice of life in Hades. Like her husband, Molly chooses life, and this is the beauty between them, despite their problems.

 

Advertisements

Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

1952

Though it owes much to Richard Wright’s earlier Native Son, Ellison’s complex and subtle work supersedes the genre of protest novel and is one of the earliest examples of postmodern tropes in American literature. The repeated use of spectacle in the novel, the trickster-like cycle of stories, the flatness of characters who are overstated types and come and go, and the cryptically unnamed narrator and his bizarre underground life all point ahead to the literature that would take firmer hold in the 60s with novels like Pale Fire & The Crying of Lot 49. 

More than anything, Ellison’s novel represents a moving away from the binary or double-consciousness (Hegel, DuBois, the Marxist dialectic) and towards a more uncertain multiplicity. Ellison wrote to Wright that he wanted to expose the Communist Party’s abandonment of blacks in the novel, and to depict a man “who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic.” Part of his resistance to becoming a “type” is his constant movement, his search for self-knowledge, and his awareness of his own contradictions – like Langston Hughes’ speaker, this narrator, too, sings America and ‘contains multitudes.’

It’s interesting to consider women in this novel – the narrator champions women’s rights at one point, relates to a white stripper, has an affair with a white woman (its ‘rape play’ rehearses Birth of a Nation and Bigger and Mary, but also looks ahead to blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback). Unlike the “invisible man,” itself a rewriting of the “native son,” women do not have the luxury of remaining invisible in the novel; they are made into spectacle, as the stripper and raped daughter of Trueblood attest.

– The Introduction: The unnamed narrator squats in a basement at the edge of Harlem, “a border area,” sucking power off the grid to light it up brightly with filament bulbs, which are more expensive to run: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this sense, he siphons and ‘wastes’ the provisions of capital in a repurposed way. He listens to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” because Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” 8.

– The Battle Royal: The story begins 20 years earlier, when the narrator is a boy. He does not understand his grandfather’s advice to treat life as a war, to “overcome ’em with yeses…let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He is invited to give a speech to a group of white men in the town. There is a stripper there who “saw only me with her impersonal eyes” – as in McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” the woman’s eyes are vacant as she performs, moving outside her body (the kewpie doll is comparable to the Sambo doll here). The white men make the black boys fight for coins on an electrified rug, dehumanizing them before the boy’s speech. He wonders if this is not a time for “humility and nonresistance,” but is forced into battling the others. It is no surprise that his speech is largely a recitation of Booker T. Washington’s “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech. He is given a scholarship in a briefcase, and in a dream, he sees the paper as “To Whom It May Concern: Keep this Nigger Boy Running” 33.

– The university: The narrator drives the rich, white Mr. Norton around, who is obsessed with his own pure, dead daughter. He is fascinated by Trueblood, a local black sharecropper who rapes and impregnates his own daughter, supposedly in his sleep. Trueblood says he is in “the tunnel” in his dream (MattyLou’s vagina), and once a man gets himself in “a tight spot” like that, he “wants some more” 68. Norton gives him cash and makes the narrator take him to a black brothel, where he gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Homer Barbee lectures the narrator on how great the founder is and says he should have shown Norton an idealized picture of black life. He is dismissed from the college with 7 letters of recommendation.

– Harlem: The narrator learns from the trustee Emerson that he can’t get a job because the recommendation letters condemn his character. He gets a job at Liberty Paints making Optic White with Lucius Brockway. They quarrel because Lucius fears he is in the union. One of the paint tanks explodes and the narrator wakes up in a hospital. The doctors experiment with electric shock treatments on him, feminizing him as hysterical and bringing an element of madness in that also reminds me of the Beats. He recovers his memory, is released, collapses outside, and is taken in by Mary.

– The brotherhood: Brother Jack offers him a job as a spokesman for the Party after his impassioned speech at the eviction. He takes it to earn some money to help Mary. He associates with Tod Clifton and Ras the Exhorter (and sleeps with a white woman after a rally). The white Brother Hambro trains him in rhetoric, and he gives speeches.

– Clifton: Clifton sells Sambo dolls on the street and is shot for not having a permit to sell them. After the narrator holds a funeral, the Brotherhood is angry and lectures him. He turns against the brotherhood, as Ras has, but Ras also turns against him, since he blames him for the Brotherhood’s failure to use the momentum of the funeral for action. He is mistaken in a disguise for “Rinehart” – a pimp, bookie, and reverend. He confronts Brother Hambro, who has decided the Party is not interested in racial issues (here is where Ellison plays out his disillusionment with the Party, which he shared with Richard Wright). He sleeps with Sybil to try to play along with the Party, but she is clueless and only plays out her rape fantasy with him.

– The riot: Ras has started a full-blown riot in Harlem. The narrator participates, setting fire to a tenement house. As the police chase him, he falls down a manhole and has stayed there ever since, mulling over his own individual complexity and preparing to emerge again, which he says he is now ready to do. His conflict explores the complexity of self-articulation vs social struggle. (You could also read this against the simplifying films he discusses in “The Shadow and the Act.”)

Importantly, the narrator insists at the end, “I’m invisible, not blind” and that “white is not a color but the lack of one” (a reversal of the Freudian sex dynamic that feminizes white men?) 576. He observes the “spectacle” of whites becoming blacker and blacks becoming whiter without understanding each other. The stench in the air is “either of death or spring” 580. “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole… even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play… Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 581.

 

 

Eric Naiman, “Nabokov, Perversely”

2010

Naiman’s book is premised on the idea that “the ‘good reader’ of Nabokov must be alert to the hidden meanings suggested by all sorts of seemingly chance or inconsequential details in the text; he must work to distort the normal meaning of language” 2. One of the most refreshing experiences of reading Naiman’s book is the feeling of being liberated from the enslaving attitude of genuflection so many critics of Nabokov have indulged in over the years. Naiman reads closely, carefully, and responsibly, but he also reads Nabokov’s instructions to us themselves as riddles and contradictions, rather than as orders we must follow blindly. Still, Naiman says that his book is about “loving Nabokov as he wanted to be loved. It is also about why it is difficult to do so” 14. 

Nabokov invites us to read perversely, but also ridicules the too-close reader, placing our anticipation in a fearful and anxious place. Nabokov naturalizes “perverse” forms of reading. Lolita, for instance, is “a perverse book, if by ‘perverse’ we mean a book that induces readers to express symbolically and vicariously impulses they normally censor and suppress,” he quotes Sarah Herbold 10. Perversion in the Freudian sense is the lingering over intermediate objects or regions of the body that are not directly involved in genital sex – this is also, however, the erotic. 

The chapters of Naiman’s book exploit the Shakespearean resonance of “nothing” as female genitalia in Lolita and moves on to queerness and aggression in reading Pale Fire and the use of con and chat in Pnin, an argument that has defined my reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”

1936

Marx’s analysis of capitalist production was prognostic: that it would exploit the proletariat in new and intense ways, and that it would create the conditions for its own undoing. We must theorize art as it is under the conditions of production today. The dilemma seems to be between aestheticizing politics (fascism) or politicizing art (communism), and clearly Benjamin favors the latter.

Works have art have always been reproducible, but now they are more technically and accurately so. From the woodcut to engraving, lithography to photography, this process has rapidly improved. Photography finally “freed the hand” from the task of reproduction. In Benjamin’s idea of history, “Just as the illustrated newspaper virtually lay hidden within lithography, so the sound film was latent in photography” 102. Benjamin therefore undertakes the study of art as reproduction and the art of film as the two greatest influences today on art in its traditional form.

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place” 103. Authenticity thus eludes the whole sphere of reproduction – it concerns the object as the very same one throughout time, including its wear, its history, its owners, etc. 103. But whereas the reproduction made by hand can be called a forgery, 1) a photo can be reproduced to trick the naked eye. It can even focus in slow motion or zoom on objects “natural optics” would miss in the first place 103. 2) “Reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” 103. The work of art can meet the viewer halfway – music on a gramophone, a cathedral in a studio.

What is threatened here, for Benjamin, is the aura: the authenticity, the historical weight, the physical duration, the testimony of the object as it is here and now 103. (I have to say, this has always seemed like a bourgeois value to me!) “The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” – its aura “withers” 104. The most powerful “shattering of tradition” is film. Film is both positive and has a “destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” 104. (Abel Gance is cited – historical figures “await their celluloid resurrection,” he claimed.)

“The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history… And if changes in the medium of present-day perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social detriments of that decay” 104.

“What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” 105. [this is the opposite of trace, which is the appearance of nearness, no matter how far]

Mountains have an aura on a summer’s day, but the aura’s decay now depends on 2 factors: 1) The masses desiring to ‘get closer’ to things and 2) the masses desiring to supersede the uniqueness of a thing “by assimilating it as a reproduction” 105.

“Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image, or, better, in a facsimile, a reproduction. And the reproduction, as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image… The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique” 105 [internet memes]

Benjamin provides the increasing use of statistics as an example of this, and demonstrates that the alignment of “reality” and “the masses” signals a change in perception.

The earliest artworks with aura had cult value, and “the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function” 105.  (This model of binaries opposes uniqueness to reproducibility, aura to mechanical reproduction, ritual to political, and cultural value to exhibition value.) Photography is the “approach of that crisis which a century later has become unmistakable,” which coincided with the rise of socialism 105. This crisis has given rise to “a negative theology, in the form of an idea of ‘pure’ art, which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of a representational content” 106. For Benjamin, however, this crisis need not entail a loss.

“For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual… the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility… As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” 106. [I might think here about faceting as camp and this together.]

The first technology versus second technology divide is of cult/exhibition, human sacrifice/remote control, serious/play, and master culture/interplay of human and nature. Cult objects are hidden – paintings on walls or large sculptures, versus canvas paintings or busts made for exhibition 106. Cult made use of human beings, whreas exhibition “reduces their use to the minimum” 107. The scope of reproduction has quantitatively shifted towards the pole of exhibition: the work of art is a construct with qualitatively different functions 107.

Film is the perfect medium to study the center of the second technology: the means by which “human beings first began to distance themselves from nature… in play” 107. [think camp!] “The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity” 107.

“The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily… technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity’s whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free” 108.

“In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance…. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time” 108. [think Barthes, Camera Lucida]

But exhibition value wins out – it is superior, as photographs from which the human being withdraws will show. Captions direct our viewership in an ongoing evidence of history on trial, and in film, the sequence of images powerfully directs us as well 108.

The Greeks could not very well reproduce their art, so it had to produce eternal values 109.  “Film is the first art form whose artistic character is entirely determined by its reproducibility” 109 [not the novel?]. Unlike the singular artistic object, the film is amassed and asembled from a large number of image sequences edited and manipulated (a Chaplin film that is 3,000 meters but took 125,000 meters of film to make).

“Film is therefore the artwork most capable of improvement… linked to its radical renunciation of eternal value… the pinnacle of all the [Greek] arts was the form least capable of improvement – namely sculpture… all of a piece… the decline of sculpture is inevitable” 109. [again, literature?]

Early film and photography theories waste energy focusing on whether these media are art (Abel Gance called film ‘hieroglyphic’) 110. The focus should not be on whether they are, but how they are actually transforming art (the example of film that is marvelous or supernatural, rather than realist, is offered) 110. To photograph a painting or an actor acting is not art. Art is produced “only by means of montage,” says Benjamin 110. How does this occur, if the stuff of this art is not art? [faceting]. For Benjamin, it is in the repetitive takes, of which one is selected “as the record” 111.

“Film makes test performances capable of being exhibited, by turning that ability itself into a test. The film actor performs not in front of an audience but in fornt of an apparatus… Interest in this performance is widespread. For the majority of citydwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. In the evening these masses fill the cinemas, to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph” 111.

It would be interesting to compare this form of identification with Oudart’s suture or Mulvey’s gaze. The actor is a character to the audience, but he is himself to the camera. “For the first time – and this is the effect of film – the human being is placed in a position where he must operate with his whole living person, while forgoing its aura. For the aura is bound to his presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura” 112.  Unlike in the theater, where this can be sensed, “the camera is substituted for the audience” 112. The film actor must not overact, unlike the stage actor. “His performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances” 112. “Art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance,'” since the film actor can be startled by a gun and the sound edited out, or several shots of a jump out the window grafted to make the perfect scene 113. [pure artifice?]

“The representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a highly productive use of the human being’s self-alienation… the film actor’s estrangement in the face of the apparatus… is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror.. But now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable… To a site in front of the masses… It is they who will control him” 113.

[Is faceting looking at a broken mirror, trying to cathect onto something so fragmented it has no sense or unity – but this is like us, too? We are fragmented?]

For Benjamin, capitalist (Hollywood) film supplants the commodity as the cult of the star (sex and surfaces), whereas fascist (Third Reich) film supplants class struggles with a fantasy of the cult of the audience:

“There can be no political advantage derived from this control until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Film capital uses the revolutionary opportunities implied by this control for counterrevolutionary purposes. Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character, but its counterpart, the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses” 113.

[Eisenstein’s ‘dialectical collisions’ in his montages are a form of politicizing art against the unity of fascism. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s proposition here is more one of play – moving through pop culture rather than against it in the interplay of human and nature. For Benjamin, it is not so much about a worry over whether film can have aura as a distinction between cult value (embedded) and exhibition value (Chaplin)].

We have moved from a culture of readers to writers – from the few speaking to the many to the many engaging. Whereas Eisenstein and Vertov allow people to “portray themselves,” whereas “the capitalist exploitation of film obstructs the human being’s legitimate claim to being reproduced… to distort and corrupt the original and justified interest of the masses in film,” Hollywood manufactures the cult of the star 114-15.

“Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority… the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat” 115.

“Film offers a hitherto unimaginable spectacle. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed – the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew (unless the alignment of the spectator’s pupil coincided with that of the camera)” 115 [suture]

“In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure – namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice” 115.

The comparison here is of the distant magician (painter) to the penetrative surgeon (film) [think Lolita and penetration of her organs!] 115. The masses today are entitled to an “equipment-free aspect of reality… on the basis of the most intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment” – a paradox 116. The fusion of pleasure and expert appraisal in the masses is a progressive reaction to Chaplin; they have a backward attitude, on the other hand, to Picasso. Normally, the conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is shunned. Cinema is an exception. Cinema can present to a large collective audience having individual reactions that swell to collectivity 116.

“The most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus” 117. Film shows us the microscopic and the macroscopic: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow-motion, movement is extended” 117. Both add new information as well – unseeable details in the former, a gliding or floating quality in the latter. “It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” 117. Montage in cinema would create “figures of collective dream” 118.

Laughter is a medicine against psychosis that films exploit – if technology engenders a psychotic character in the masses, it can also inoculate them against the maturation of these disorders through catharsis [think Deleuze & Guattari: schizophrenia] 118.”Dadaism attempted to produce with the means of painting (or literature) the effects which the public today seeks in film” 118. The point of the dadaists was to explore “the uselessness of those works as objects of contemplative immersion… through degradation of their material… linguistic refuse… train tickets… a ruthless annihilation of the aura… which they branded as a reproduction through the very means of its production” [pop art] 119. Film has made this shock effect tactile and physical, rather than moral.

Masses create a different participation in art. They are accused of looking at art with distraction, absorbing it into themselves, (<) rather than concentration, or being absorbed (>). (Think about the gender/sexual difference dynamic here.) Architecture is an example of an art that, by necessity, has never not been 120. We approach buildings by use/habit (tactilely) and perception/contemplation (optically). Both are necessary. Film’s shock effects will mobilize the masses via reception in distraction 120.

Fascism wants to organize the masses without changing the material conditions of their existence. “The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life” 121. [We can think of the films of the Third Reich rallies; would Benjamin compare them to Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood?]

“All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations.” 121.

“Imperialist war is an uprising on the part of technology, which demands repayment in ‘human material’ for the natural material society has denied it” 121.

“Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” 122.

Miriam Hansen picks up on this in analyzing Benjamin’s footnote as an aspirational form of play. Benjamin writes, “What is lost in the withering of semblance, or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play. This space for play is widest in film.” She highlights Mickey Mouse, the total disappearance of the human subject, as a kind of Chaplin: “a cheerful barbarian countering the violence unleashed by capitalist technology with games of innervation.” Though he lost faith in this by the time of “The Storyteller” and others, but “the degree to which such practices have become naturalized” should encourage us all to “wage an aesthetics of play, understood as a political ecology of the senses, on a par with the most advanced technologies.”

T.S. Eliot, “Tradition & the Individual Talent”

1921

Published in The Sacred Wood, this is probably Eliot’s most famous essay. In it he puts forth the argument for poetic “impersonality,” wherein the poet is the platinum in a refining catalytic reaction – he removes himself from the art he creates (think David Mitchell vs. Vladimir Nabokov?). In essence, though art itself does not get “better”- there is no teleological progression – it is nevertheless alchemical in that its material changes to suit its time. The model of disinterestedness is in the tradition of Kant and Flaubert as picked up in Joyce (the artist paring his fingernails). Some excerpts:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Vivian Sobchack, “Carnal Thoughts”

2004

CHAPTER 3: WHAT MY FINGERS KNEW

Sobchack begins by acknowledging that while film reviews see film as a bodily experience, scholars often do not. Benjamin himself “speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of ‘tactile appropriation’ and elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s ‘mimetic faculty,’ a sensuous and bodily form of perception” 55. She cites Jonathan Crary and Linda Williams as exceptions, as well as Laura Marks’ “haptic visuality.” As Williams points out, we are uncomfortable with the extent to which the ‘low’ genres horror, pornography, and melodrama take hold of and manipulate us as viewers 57.

Our bodily response is unclear, however – “our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than ‘mere’ psychological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description” 58. Sensual description in film criticism is considered “excess” (again, think Williams!).

“Contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really ‘touched’ and ‘moved’ by the movies” 59.

“Film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” 60.

“We need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s ived body as a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and the objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception” 60. [re: the chiasmus as suture, the dialectic – what about multiplicity or faceting?]

“The lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning” 61.

Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano – in terms of touch: “my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen” 63.  “Those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as ‘these’ fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on” [suture] 63.

“Our common sensuous experience of the movies; the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air… smell and taste are less called on than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see… I did not think a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought” 65.

“Our lived bodies relate to ‘things’ that ‘matter’ on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and are localized” 65 [diffuse sensuality].

For Sobchack, then, we exist as both here and there, sensing and sensible, subject and object: “Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” [think Irigaray, Poulet] 66.

“Meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction. We might name this subversive body in film experience the cinesthetic subject – a neologism that derives not only from cinema but… synaesthesia and coenaesthesia” 67. [Nabokov, metaphors that cross senses]

“The cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen – able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen” 71.

Of course, as Ricouer points out in “The Rule of Metaphor,” this is not literal – but it represents a confusion of the senses “from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body” 73. Thus cinema is presentation and representation – a chiasmus [again, suture?] 74.

“Our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes vacillate… However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional trajectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible… my own subjectively felt lived body” 76.

“I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual, and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and in sum, sense my own sensuality” 77. [faceting – sex imbricated in this?]

“In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without thought… in this vacillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen… my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse” 77.

Thus the fabrics and feelings are “somewhat vague and diffuse… even as it may be quite intense… my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound diffusely on myself ultimately ‘opens up’  my body to a sensuality that is both literal and figural” 78. For Sobchack, touch is no longer a stretch in film, but a catachresis – not a proper metaphor in that it is a place we are forced to “confront and name a gap in language” like the arm of a chair or head of a pin, because we are supplementing linguistic deficiency 81.

“Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience engages in a form of sensual catachresis… it fills in the gap in its sensual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to reciprocally (albeit not sufficiently) ‘flesh it out’ into literal physicalized sense” 82. [think Lo-lee-ta]

“As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies” 84.

 

dir. Mary Herron, “American Psycho”

2000

Mary Herron’s production of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel expertly nips and tucks the 400-page novel and makes of it a neat and resonant feature film. Starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, Jared Leto as Paul Allen (Owen), Chloe Sevigny as secretary Jean, Samantha Mathis as Courtney, and Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn. The way in which the film renders the flatness of the novel is partly by Patrick’s monotone voiceover, as well as a successful integration of the kinds of intermittent repetition that typify the novel’s prose: reworkings of the same bogus, overdone, expensive foods at the latest restaurant, Patrick’s dull informative lectures on the discographies of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston and the emptied-out lyrics of their meaningless love ballads, and, perhaps most insistently, Patrick’s “I have to go return some videotapes.” These are interspersed with routine depictions of extreme violence (Herron often cuts from the initial stab to the aftermath, with slightly more dramatic elisions than in the novel). As Namwali Serpell points out, these repetitions do not so much build to a cathartic climax as build to more repetition.

Patrick’s splitting of the world into atomized parts, places, and strata extends to his extreme splitting apart of female bodies, but this seems only the final and most perfect realization of the American cinema’s own desire to use the male gaze to synecdochize the female body beyond recognition into a series of disjointed fetishes (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality”). It has been suggested that the film is a feminist reworking of the novel, but I think the novel is, in a sense, already feminist, at least in the sense that its baroque excess invites no other interpretation so much as parody. We are gagging with disgust, but probably also with laughter. The novel’s famous puns (“Mostly murders and executions” is heard as “Mostly mergers and acquisitions”) remind me of Nabokov’s misheard phrases as well (Quilty: “Where the devil’d you get her?… I said the weather’s getting better”). Herron plays these to great effect in a picture of American surface and corporate culture that is just overperformed enough (Evelyn’s party, where everyone says “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”)  to resonate as satire.

Her excision of certain key moments of violence is also a way of letting us feel our temptation to witness those missing reels of film – diegetically, too, since Bateman films all of his sexcapades and murders. In emptying out the film of portions of the sequences of gore, she also interrupts the suture of the horror film, and forces us to jump from one moment uncomfortably into another. Herron told Christian Bale to think of the character “not in terms of psychology, but rather as a collection of impulses and modes.” Like Foucault’s model of power, then, perhaps the best response to such horror is an art that is large and proliferative enough to respond in kind – a faceted one. She has said in an interview:

[Christian Bale and I] talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.

(In an interesting detail, in the novel, Patrick Bateman meets Tom Cruise in the elevator one day because he lives in the same building.) The eeriest aspect of both novel and film is not that Jason Bateman is secretly another person (one who either really kills people or really fantasizes about it all the time), but that he is openly so (at least in the imagined narrative he gives us), and that no one hears or sees him. Whether he has actually killed anyone or not, his thoughts irrupt the surface of his speech often enough to disturb. One of the cleverest shots of the film is the mid-range shot of Jason in the mirror after the opening sequence (knives and food), when he is detailing his morning cleansing routine to us. He describes his face mask and tells us that he is “simply not there.” As he says this, he peels a perfectly transparent mask from his face, encapsulating the way in which surface is content in this story.

The end of the film makes it even more tempting to see the murders as imaginary, perhaps because the special effects of the taxi murder scene are so familiar from Hollywood that we are prepared to read them immediately as false. As in Psycho, the facile psychological explanation at the end of the film does not ameliorate our horror in watching Mrs. Bates’ face dance over Norman’s and realizing that he killed those girls. In a similar way, the realization that Patrick Bateman (whose name carries the “Bate” of Bates and the “man” of Norman) may not have committed the crimes he describes is not enough to erase the ghastly experience of having imagined that he did  right alongside him. 

dir. Stanley Kubrick, “Lolita”

1962

Kubrick is a great director, but this is not a great film. There’s a cleverness to starting with Humbert’s murder of Quilty and there are some wonderful locations for the events (it was, after all, not so long after the 1950s in which the novel is set), but even allowing for the limitations of what the Hollywood production code deemed appropriate in 1962, the film sort of withers on the vine. Part of my resistance is undoubtedly a firm attachment to the novel, and I’m not sure you could make a great version of this film back in 1962 (the 1997 Adrian Lyne version, which I much prefer, has the advantage of contemporary production freedoms, to be sure). Still, if you’re going to change the story and its characters, why not write a new (even if similar) story of your own and call it something else? (This is also my beef with the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, though the TV shows are far better.)

Kubrick adds tons of dialogue, a ridiculous school dance scene, and a Lolita who slavishly adores Humbert – her reason for leaving at the end of the film is that she didn’t love him, a phrase that’s present in the book and other film version, but contextualized by the shadow of rape that must attend it. Here, it’s simply another thing she says before hoping she can “keep in touch from Alaska.” What? There’s a key materiality to Lo’s body (and the world around it) that’s just absolutely absent here – there’s no intimation that she needs to stop at the gas station after their first sexual encounter to do anything but make a phone call, and even her pregnancy (in a far too nice-looking house) is so slight that it barely alters her pretty frame from what it was before.

Not to mention the fact that everyone calls the child Lolita – even her mother! What America is this where middling white people name their daughters things like Lolita? What about the fact that his renaming her is a vital part of his violation? It’s less that Kubrick seems to be making deliberate artistic choices to compensate for what he can’t tell (because it’s not a novel) or show (because of the code), and more that it seems like he’s careless with the original work. Again, why not just write a new story then? By starting with the murder and jamming a maddeningly garrulous and neurotic Quilty (where did these traits come from?) into every other scene of the film, Kubrick twists the tale into a competition between two men over a girl who toys with them both, rather than the potentially hallucinatory revelations of a rapist justifying (and pleasurably reliving) his experiences.

The one scene I love is the fight scene at Beardsley, which is really almost as good as the 1997 movie. The other thing that’s nice is Kubrick’s repetition of what’s “normal,” and his demonstration of how desperately Lo wants normalcy over and above everything else (this reminds me of Lauren Berlant’s “imagined communities”). “You have a nice normal face,” Quilty even says to Humbert. Still, the issue with the film is that it is less about pattern than repetition, and this is an important distinction. Without pattern (repetition with a difference), the ways into Lo’s personhood are blocked – you can’t film this completely ‘flat,’ just as the novel can’t be as flat in its second half, as the image falls to pieces, as it is in its lovely and dreamy first half. This film falls flat because it’s shot too flat – not in a productive and interesting way, but one that misses the forest for the trees: the Lolita for the male leads.

Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

1981

The stories of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) kind of make you wonder if Silvan Tomkins was thinking about him when he wrote about shame as the most vital and pronounced affect (along with its counterparts humiliation, contempt, and disgust). Shame is a sort of engine driving Carver’s work, which has also been called “dirty realism” (like that of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Anne Beattie). He pursues the problems of ordinary working-class and middle-class Americans, as well as social outcasts and misfits (he’d be interesting to compare with Flannery O’Connor in this sense).  I’ll just be writing on the eponymous story of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, of which there are two versions – one more prolix, the other significantly cut down (by editor Gordon Lish) to something more muscular and streamlined (in other words, Carver:Lish :: Eliot:Pound).

It seems like Carver’s first version of the story, “Beginners” is concerned with the consciousness of the “real” vs. the “unreal,” in terms of both affection and phenomenological experience (“You’ve seen it in the movies even if you haven’t seen the real thing,” Herb says of the bloody accident). The flattening edits remove this consciousness from the prose, taking away, in turn, the characters’ consciousness of real and mediated experience – at least insofar as it is available for the reader to decipher. The depths are obscured, so that the edited story almost invites us to project (we can say this of Hemingway, Nabokov, Ellis, and a number of other “flat” writers as well). The main character loses, too, his cathartic moment of crying at the window, which is also the loss, to the second story, of the American pastoral. The tension between Terri and Herb is stronger than the original Laura and Nick.

Carver even talked about Lish’s edits in cardiologist’s terms – as a “surgery” Lish performed on his work, and worried that “my heart can’t take it.” Lish, for his part, seems to have wielded his higher class and more “literary” background over Carver and promised him that his edits would protect the writer from exposing too much, or appearing to lack craft. It is debatable which version is better; the original is more psychically complex, while the edited one has a sharper finish.

“BEGINNERS”

21 pages in length, the story begins in medias res in an odd tone that is both familiar and unspecific: “My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 927. Herb and Terri are the friends, Nick and Laura are the narrator and his wife. Terri claims her ex loved her so much he tried to kill her and ended up killing himself. Herb insists, “you know that’s not love,” and later “if you call that love, you can have it.” Herb’s example of true love, which he delivers as he gets drunker and tells Terri “Now just shut up for a minute. Okay?” is of an old couple badly injured in a car accident, which he invites the others to imagine based on the movies they’ve seen. They looked like “phony actors,” but this was “the real thing,” a parallel to the anxiety of performance surrounding love in the story as well 938. The old man says the last thought before the accident was the sadness of never seeing Anna again, and he is missing her in his recovery as well: “he pined for her. I nver knew what that word meant before” 940. As the couple are reunited, both Laura and Terri beg that the story end happily. They are both fine, Herb confirms as “The light seemed to be draining out of the room” 943. Herb’s desire to “carry off” Laura and his interest in vassals and knights demonstrates his confusion between chivalry and control, or perhaps the very fine line by which they are separated. Herb leaves to call his kids and Terri lets on that she’s worried about him because he’s suicidal. This reminds her of Carl, and she reveals that was once secretly pregnant with Carl’s baby, and that Herb himself performed the abortion. As Laura begins to comfort Terri, Nick pulls away to look out at the window, and we get an almost cinematic slow zoom outward: “I looked out… I looked past… I looked past… gate open… beyond… field of wild grass… another field… interstate connecting Albuquerque.” He sees the changed light and the blue sky like “the blue you see in tropical postcards.” His heart rate increases, then slows at Laura’s “penetrating” gaze when he turns around, which says to him “Don’t worry, we’ll get past this… That’s the way I chose to interpret the look anyway”. He looks back out, wishing there were horses to fix on: “I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.”

“WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE”

Cut down to just 12 pages, the edit of Carver’s original story switches to Mel (not Herb) McGinnis, and Terri’s ex is now Ed (not Carl). It begins: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin” 310. It’s interesting that the story is subtler about both women’s weight, but somehow Terri is vulnerable to abuse at least partly because she is “bone-thin,” it seems. Nick treats the question of whether he loves Laura much more plainly and flatly here, which actually makes it seem faker, paradoxically. When he begins the story of the old couple, Mel whispers, “Just shut up for once in your life,” which again seems harsher than the original. The story is shorter, and Mel is rougher with it:
He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? … the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife” 320. Mel’s thoughts about killing his wife here are also more equated to the violence of Ed – a stronger endorsement of the suspicion that he beats Terri. Mel doesn’t call his kids and the narrator’s heartbeat gets fast, but without resolution: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” This ending almost makes it feel like a stage play – we look at all of them as the lights dim, no resolution.