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.

 

David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas”

2004

David Mitchell’s novel is probably the best thing I read all year. It was inspired by the interrupted narratives of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but completes all its stories in a nested cycle. This arrangement of narrative, like an onion sliced in half, seems to thematize a postmodern collapse of history and boundlessness of space, forcing us to move first from history to the present to the future, and then back again. Far from being a negative quality, however, Mitchell seems to explore this as a means of creating a story so large that even he, the author, cannot make all its pieces match up (vs. Nabokov). This reminds me of Auerbach on Woolf – the characters being beyond Woolf’s authorial scope, and I want to compare this to The Waves & The Golden Notebook as British novels in 6 voices.

The novel’s complex nuanced overlaps of the pages of the atlas Mitchell creates remind me of the opening critique of the hysterical realist novel by James Wood: Several of the main characters have the same distinctive birthmark, like a shooting star. Mitchell has said,

Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..

Genealogy is also present throughout the text. Adam Ewing’s son Jackson edits the journals and is the person for whom Ewing wants to improve the world (he becomes an abolitionist). Luisa del Ray is rescued by her father’s friend. Zachry’s son ends the “Sloosha’s Crossin'” tale. Yet it is never a safe origin point, but rather a Foucauldian arrival point of results – it feels temporally lateral, and many  bonds are of affiliation rather than filiation, as in The Waves.

Another theme is the cloud atlas itself. Zachry ends his tale with “Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds” 308. Frobisher critiques Ewing’s journal for being too neatly structured (like Benito Cereno, but also Hawthorne’s birthmark theme?), but he doubts his own ‘gimmicky’ “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey receives the letters, but the novel she appears in is fictional in the world of Timothy Cavendish. His narration, later made into a film, is an actual film when Sonmi sees it. Finally, Zachry believes in Sonmi as a god, but his son watches her on the recovered orison and doesn’t understand her language – she is just “beaut’some, and she ‘mazes the littl’ uns an’ her murmin’s babbybie our babbits. Sit down a beat or two. Hold out your hands” 309. (A ‘babbit’ is an unthinking middle-class man, as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 novel, the same year as Ulysses). This central “ending” questions the whole enterprise of narrative – it is both a force so powerful that it leads us to bind all these lives together, and something so fragile that time can erase its legibility completely.

The structure of Cloud Atlas:

1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849 – American in Pacific Islands) – journal
2: Letters from Zedelghem (1931 – Englishman in Belgium) – epistolary
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1975- American in LA) – detective novel
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2000 – Englishman in UK) – film script
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2200? – clone in Korea) – interview
6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic – islanders in Maui) – oral story
5: An Orison of Sonmi-451 – Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi; Zachry’s son’s children watch her orison.
4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – Sonmi watches archived film version
3: Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – Timothy Cavendish reads and critiques novel
2: Letters from Zedelghem – Sixsmith keeps them and Luisa Rey finds them
1: Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – Frobisher finds in Ayrs’ library and figures out Henry’s plan (Melville)

Doris Lessing, “The Golden Notebook”

1962

The Golden Notebook, often considered one of the great works of second-wave feminism (though Lessing thought it came too early for that and claims she had no such agenda) tells the story of the writer Anna Wulf and her friend Molly Jacobs. Molly has been married to Richard, from whom she has Tommy. Anna has been married to Willi/Max (she met him while in Rhodesia in the 40s) and has a child, Janet, with him. She also has a long affair with Michael, who does not requite her love, and Saul, a brash American who opens her writing up to new levels, but ultimately disappears and gives way to the next man in line.

Much of the work is a treatise on various social issues, despite Lessing’s insistent claims that this was a “misreading” of the novel. Anna and Molly continually try to reintegrate themselves to Party life, only to find themselves disenchanted and leave again. It’s hard to consider it a misreading when all of this is so plainly spelled out at every turn (‘this is what women are experiencing today’), and this is where the wonderful novel is at its weakest. It engages in gender essentialism, national and political stereotypes (mostly about Americans, Brits, communists, and ‘liberals’), and overstatements of feeling and thought that verge onto D.H. Lawrence’s sometimes overblown “novel of ideas” style.

 

Indeed, the opening scene shows the two alone, discussing marriage, relationships, and themselves as “free women,” restaging the beginning of Lawrence’s Women in Love. In fact, The Golden Notebook restages modernism in a variety of ways. Anna’s concern with representing her bodily functions (unisex and particularly female) resonates with Joyce’s Ulysses, as does the Molly/Marion pair who have both been married to Richard. Richard, a real square and a businessman who cannot express emotion, is reminiscent of Richard Dalloway, and Anna’s surname (Wulf), as well as Molly’s (Jacobs [Room?] can be no accident. Instead of the 6 voices of The Waves, we have 6 parts of Anna and her life.

The splitting of the self that the novel insists on seems to stem from Woolf’s persistent attempts to represent the female splitting and gathering self in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the passage in A Room of One’s Own where Woolf insists that to write as a woman is always to write multiply. Anna herself tells Tommy that she cannot write in one notebook because it would be an overwhelming chaos.

The novel has 6 component parts: the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks, the golden notebook that tries to combine them, and the interspersed metanovel segments called “Free Women.” The four notebooks are in first-person by Anna (except the yellow one, where she is called Ella and Molly Julia). They each appear 4 times in the cycle, while the metanovel “Free Women” has 5 sections, and the golden notebook has just 1 section, which is the penultimate of the book and corresponds as a sort of “5th” occurrence of the other 4 notebooks, since it combines them.

The structure of the novel as repeating cycles seems to mimic both political waxings and wanings, the rhythm of everyday domestic life in motherhood, and the female body. Around the middle of the novel, Anna gets her period and continues to mention its inconveniences, pains, and awarenesses for several days’ worth of entries.

I’d like to think about this novel as an extension of the crisis of faith concerns in the works of Waugh, Greene, and Murdoch, but here the faith in question is, ironically, Marxism. I therefore want to experiment with aligning them with sections of the gospel and Eliot’s The Waste Land. The notebooks:

Black: Anna’s memories of her past in Rhodesia, as well as her record of finances (money/sources). (MARK: earliest source, travel, heroism, death) (Burial of the Dead – the difficulty of memory and prophecy, the struggle to express meaning.)

Red: Anna’s diary of her involvement in the Party. (MATTHEW: history, law, based on Mark, written to Jews) (A Game of Chess – sex as strategy, disappointment, disillusionment, concerned with matters of class and gender.)

Yellow: Anna’s own novel about Ella and Julia. (LUKE: longest, most evangelical and poetic, emotional and metatextual) (The Fire Sermon – a cleansing but collapsing of society as we know it.)

Blue: Anna’s diary, largely made up of dreams and fantasies, as well as day-to-day conversations and occurrences. (JOHN: visionary, salvatory, erratic) (Death by Water – the mystical possibility of death and rejuvenation in one).

Golden: Anna’s attempt to bind the other 4 together. (The Holy Gospel as an imbricated text.) (What the Thunder Said – combining fragments against one’s ruin, trying to revivify spirituality and love.)

I think it’s worth considering how this presages the narrative levels in Byatt or many of the “hysterical realism” novels. It also seems to me the first venture into postmodernism, except maybe Naipaul. It certainly implants the fragmented subject firmly in the British literary tradition where it does not seem to have existed before – would also be worth comparing with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. 

Virginia Woolf, “To the Lighthouse”

1927

To the Lighthouse is widely regarded as Woolf’s most structurally perfect novel, with its three parts – “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” standing as testaments to temporal experimentation in the novel. The first section, “The Window,” is 186 pages in length, and covers an afternoon in which two people are engaged, Mrs. Ramsay knits a stocking, Mr. Ramsay worries, Lily Briscoe begins a painting, and a dinner party occurs. “Time Passes” switches from the jumping subjectivity of the first section and takes on an object-oriented view, giving only bracketed attention to the major events of the family (Andrew and Mrs. Ramsay’s death and Prue’s marriage and death). Ten years pass in less than 30 pages. The final section, “The Lighthouse,” 120 pages in length, returns the Ramsays to the old house, revisiting a grown Cam and James, and considering Lily as she “finishes” the painting begun so many years ago. The leaps in this section are fewer and further between, with less on characters reading one another, per se. (Kent Puckett says the novel has a “sartorial omniscience,” put on and taken off alternately).

In “The Brown Stocking,” Eric Auerbach examines the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s free indirect discourse at the start of the novel at some length. He points out that the time taken to describe or read it is longer than the time it would take in the experience. His point is that the richness of the characters’ consciousness unfolds in Woolf’s lingering over the everyday. He also examines how things are never described objectively, except in the very self-conscious “Time Passes.” For Auerbach, this shows Woolf’s interest in presenting herself as no greater an authority on her characters than the reader, versus the Victorian narrator.

There are a few passages in this novel that interest me especially. The first are the opening lines, so much like Mrs. Dalloway in their in medias res quality: “‘Yes, of course it it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay. ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added” 9. She is cutting figures from a magazine on the floor with James, while Mr. Ramsay discourages his hopes about the lighthouse trip. Mr. Ramsay is a terribly linear and literal man, as his concept of greatness demonstrates. He evaluates his own “splendid mind” as an alphabet – he has reached Q, but not R. This is not only like a “Question and Response” with himself, it is also a failure to arrive at R – the letter of his own name – the failure to arrive at himself. Furthermore, Ramsay is conflating levels of signification – he treats an arbitrary semiotic sign (a letter) literally, as though it were a signified (an object itself), when it is not even a signifier (a word).

In the face of his weakness, Mrs. Ramsay gathers herself as Clarissa does, in this novel more clearly to serve the endless needs of her insecure husband: “here insensibly she drew herself together, physically, the sense of her own beauty becoming, as it did so seldom, present to her” 64. Lily’s painting, in which Mr. Bankes cannot see

“What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’? he asked. It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James. She knew his objection – that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness… if there, in that corner, it was bright, here, in this, she felt the need of darkness… Mother and child then – objects of universal veneration [a contradiction in terms?], and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty – might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow without irreverance” 81.

Lily counters that the painting is not of them, but a tribute to them. Rather than prioritizing the bounded form, later filled with color as ornament (a Kantian ideal), Lily prioritizes the balance of color and shade first, only adding the definitive line (we don’t know if it is vertical or horizontal) in the last moment of the novel:

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was – her picture [reminds me of Clarissa!]. Yes, with all its greens and lbues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush with extreme fatigue [post partum], I have had my vision” 310.

In the end, Lily’s painting brings discourse and reality together. Mrs. Ramsay’s art is to bring things together as well – not only people, but things and their figurations, metaphors (a game, people blind, etc.) that will bind us as readers to the experience she is having that,like the embedded painting, we cannot actually see.

Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”

1925

Probably Woolf’s most widely-read novel, Mrs. Dalloway is a response to Joyce’s Ulysses in its multiple subjectivities, its urban exploration, and its one-day setting. As opposed to the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is usually described as hinging on free indirect discourse. This allows a jumping and flowing between subjectivities, but with an emphasis on the ambiguity of the third-person intercostal phrases that occur as mutually observed objects become nexus points for multiple viewers.

To me, it seems that while the object is the occasion for memory or perspectival change in Woolf, it proliferates in Joyce. That is, whereas the surfaces of Woolf’s world are points of contact with other people and with a deep store of memory, in Joyce, even for the more worldly Bloom (let alone the philosophical Stephen), they are occasions to ruminate and multiply associations. One of the most profound set of images for this in the novel comes with the connection between Clarissa and Septimus, who never meet. Both of them imagine connectedness with other people through trees – materially rooted and reaching at the same time, but imagine loneliness and depression through silent seas – not present but in the mind. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa goes to the window, she is able to imagine his death with her body first – a visceral giving on to his subjectivity in a wonderful moment of genuine sympathy, sadly absent between many characters who actually do know each other.

Woolf’s free indirect discourse also gives itself over to the characters in a sort of democratic consensus. On the novel’s first page:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when… 3.

This is echoed again in the last line, as Peter’s perspective opens outward: “What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was” 194. The continuous present of Woolf’s past tense, as well as the lack of chapters, encourages the reader to process the novel as an accumulation of thought, of the “atoms as they fall,” as Woolf writes in “Modern Fiction.”

E. M. Forster writes of the “shimmering fabric of mysticism” in the novel, “required like most writers to choose between the surface and depths as a basis of her operations, she chooses the surface and then burrows in as far as she can,” perhaps a reference to Woolf’s own imagining of her characters as caves with tunnels connecting them. I’m also interested in the nascent split subject in this novel, especially Clarissa. Woolf and other modernist writers point to women, specifically, as always split. I will conclude the passage where Clarissa pulls the parts of her self together in the mirror alone:

“That was her self – pointed; dart like, definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together, she alone knew how different, how incompatible and composed so for the world only into one centre, one diamond, one woman who sat in her drawing-room and made a meeting-point, a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives” 37.

D.H. Lawrence, “Women in Love”

1920

Originally of a set with The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love exerted a major influence over later British novelists and critics alike. Lawrence rewrote the novel throughout the war, and its setting is largely that of Europe in crisis, even if we only see it at the level of philosophical thought, rather than physical danger. The characters themselves are types of the war, but they were also all to personal for Lawrence’s contemporaries, and he was sued for libel by Ottoline Morrell (Hermione) and others.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald’s estate, Gerald’s sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon Gerald’s coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. After the funeral, Gerald goes to Gudrun’s house and spends the night with her, while her parents are asleep in another room. Birkin asks Ursula to marry him, and she agrees. Gerald and Gudrun’s relationship, however, becomes stormy. The four vacation in the Alps. Gudrun begins an intense friendship with Loerke, a physically puny but emotionally commanding artist from Dresden. Gerald, enraged by Loerke and most of all by Gudrun’s verbal abuse and rejection of his manhood, and driven by the internal violence of his own self, tries to strangle Gudrun. Before he has killed her, however, he realizes that this is not what he wants—he leaves Gudrun and Loerke and on his skis climbs ever upward on the mountains, eventually slipping into a snow valley where he falls asleep, a frozen sleep from which he never awakens. The impact on Birkin of Gerald’s death is profound; the novel ends a few weeks after Gerald’s death, with Birkin trying to explain to Ursula that he needs Gerald as he needs her—her for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald for the perfect relationship with a man.

Though Lawrence is sometimes read as antifeminist, I treasure his novels because they explore female desire and sexuality at a wonderfully bodily, rather than symbolic, level. They also call attention to the vitality of female friendship and sisterhood, which accords with Woolf’s projects and with Doris Lessing’s, who begins The Golden Notebook with a reworking of Women In Love’s opening scene.

Like Howards End, Women in Love is a novel of ideas. Gerald, often read as an Ezra Pound or high modernist, is an idealist, whereas Rupert Birkin is more of a phenomenologist (or more Burkian?), not indulging sensuality as a hedonist, materialist, or aesthete, but suspending judgment for the sake of experience.

What I most noticed rereading the novel this time was the preponderance of the figurative language “like,” but especially “as if” – sometimes eight or ten times in a single page! Here are some examples from just a page:

[Hermione sang] in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun… [Ursula laughed], because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?… [Hermione] spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business” 31.

To be sure, these linguistic figurations are hesitant similes, rather than sure, embodied metaphors, but they are also a clearer laying bare of the imaginative acts of thinking and writing. They form a kind of treatise with the reader, inviting engagement with the idea of the suspension of belief itself. This is compounded by Lawrence’s compound words and kennings – “mystic-real,” etc., highlighting language as an imaginative act as well.

The language even seems to infect reviewers – Walter Kendrick of the New York Times writes that the novel ends “as if Lawrence were annoyed with himself for failing to settle it.” In fact, the ending repeats the phrase as part of its imaginative inconclusivity:

“You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” “It seems as if I can’t,” [Birkin] said. “Yet I wanted it.” “You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered 473.

The mode of this figuration would stretch from metaphor (it is) to simile (it is like) to fictionality (as if), which seems to me one step away from the subjunctive storytelling of writers like Pynchon. In this way, they give on to a sort of utopian ideal, a fantasy of artistic hope, more than any actual belief that change will really occur. In this way, Women in Love exchanges one kind of idealism (Kantian or aesthetic, killed off in Gerald) for another (sociopolitical, still alive in Birkin).

Zadie Smith, “This is How It Feels To Me”

“THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO ME” – The Guardian, October 13, 201

The byline of Zadie Smith’s piece, “Last week James Wood blasted modern fiction, calling for a return to feeling from self-conscious cleverness in the wake of the terrorist attacks,” promises a bolder and braver response than the young Smith delivers. Though she explains her point of view, she says later that this interaction shaped and changed her writing – her later novels are far more “modernist” and “realist” in tone (NW is a “London novel” in the olden sense). Here is Smith’s self-effacing beginning:

The critic James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called “hysterical realism”.It is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention. These are hysterical times; any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped – this was Wood’s point, and I’m with him on it. In fact, I have agreed with him several times before, in public and in private, but I appreciate that he feared I needed extra warning; that I might be sitting in my Kilburn bunker planning some 700-page generational saga set on an incorporated McDonald’s island north of Tonga. Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.

At least she’s funny. Here Smith begins to explore with a bit more nuance some of her issues with Wood’s critique:

The first is this: any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna. You cannot place first-time novelists with literary giants, New York hipsters with Kilburn losers, and some of the writers who got caught up with me are undeserving of the criticism. In particular, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth beast Infinite Jest was heaved in as an exemplum, but it is five years old, and is a world away from his delicate, entirely “human” short stories and essays of the past two years, which shy away from the kind of totalising theoretical and thematic arcs that Wood was gunning for. If anyone has recently learned a lesson about the particularities of human existence and their separation from social systems, it is Wallace. But even if this were not true, frankly, literature is – or should be – a broad church. Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned, I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise; the very books, in fact, which have cast such a tremendous shadow over two generations of American and English fiction.

What Smith points to again is a kind of multiplicity at the intertextual level of readership that her own novel seeks to create in a world she has written:

I read Flaubert and Nabokov for the varicoloured intimacies of life; I read Zora Neale Hurston to hear the songs of love and earth, and I read White Noise to experience, yes, a Frankfurt school comedy, in which every boy, girl, man, woman, black, white, lesbian, Jew and Muslim speaks in exactly the same way: like DeLillo.

Here she does the same move as Wood on what writers “can” and “cannot” do, which I don’t love:

We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. Which leads me to my second point: writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.

She discusses the pains of writing, the resistance to encyclopaedic knowledge, the call to arms in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for “a look to power sources.”

Except… er… it turns out that the plot is horrendously simple. It has to do with things like faith. Revenge. Poverty. God. Hatred. So what now? Does anyone want to know the networks behind those seeming simplicities, the paths that lead from September 11 back to Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and then back to Israel, back further to the second world war, back once more to the first? Does anyone care what writers think about that? Does it help? Or shall we sing of love and drawing rooms and earth and children and all that is small and furry and wounded? Must we produce what you want, anyway? I have absolutely no idea.

But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense. Bellow’s Seize the Day, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Nabokov’s Pnin – works that stubbornly speak and resonate, even in these image-led, speechless times. But it is a trick of the light that makes us suppose these books exist in soulful opposition to more recent examples of “dialectical devilry”. These books are works of high artifice, and there isn’t a decent novel in this world that isn’t; their humanity derives from their reverence for language, their precision, their intellect and, more than anything, from their humour.

It’s all laughter in the dark – the title of a Nabokov novel and still the best term for the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.

But he might see even that question as too intellectual in approach. I think Wood is hinting at an older idea that runs from Plato to the boys booming a car stereo outside my freaking window: soul is soul. It cannot be manufactured or schematised. It cannot be dragged kicking and screaming through improbable plots. It cannot be summoned by a fact or dismissed by a cliché. These are the famous claims made for “soul” and they lead with specious directness to an ancient wrestling match, invoked by Wood: the inviolability of “soul” versus the evils of self-consciousness and wise-assery, otherwise known as sophism.

Thus Wood’s advice to Smith is “be more human… I wonder what to do with that one.” This becomes the strongest part of Smith’s response – how she demonstrates the way in which these novels are working with cultural materials in exciting ways Wood does not see:

I want to defend the future possibility of some words appearing on pages that will be equal to these times and to what I feel and what you feel and what James Wood feels; that is, this fear that has got us all by the throat. He argues against silence and against intellectual obfuscation. He says: tell us how it feels. Well, we are trying. I am trying. But as DeLillo dramatised (again, in White Noise), it is difficult to discuss feelings when the TV speaks so loudly; cries so operatically; seems always, in everything, one step ahead. Yet people continue to manage this awesome trick of wrestling sentiment away from TV’s colonisation of all things soulful and human, and I would applaud all the youngish Americans – Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Moore – for their (supposedly) small but, to me, significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation – brain and heart – present in their fiction.

Even if you find them obtuse, they can rarely be accused of cliché, and that – as Amis has argued so well recently – is the place where everything dies… I truly hope they are not cowed by these renewed assaults on “clever writing”, calls for the “death of irony”, the “return of heart”. There was always a great deal of “heart”, of humanity, in these writers.

Smith seems to give a credit to American tradition, rather than accusing it of corrupting her work: “Sometimes it seems purely an American trick, this ability to draw the universe, as Carver and Fitzgerald did, into a circumscribed artificial, yet human, space.” Smith considers whether the novel itself still has value as a genre, something 9/11 has made her think about:

Most mornings I think: death of the novel? Yeah, sure, why not? The novel is not an immutable fact of human artistic life, after all, just a historically specific phenomenon that came and will go unless there are writers who have the heart, the brain and, crucially, the cojones to keep it alive.

She turns to the shorter novel (reminds me of what Woolf says about women’s writing!): “Personally, I find myself more and more struck by controlled little gasps of prose, as opposed to the baggy novel… Which seems the exact opposite of the American/ English instinct: I must cover the world in my shit immediately.” Her conclusion is uncertain and multiple, for which I am grateful. She speaks to Wood, but she is also speaking back:

Is it this reverence, this care, this suppression of ego that Wood wants to see from us? It is what I want to see from myself, but whether I will manage it is another matter. It will take sympathy – a natural instinct, a sentimental reflex – but it will also take empathy, which I still contend is largely a matter for the intellect. Your brain must be up for it, for making that necessary leap. At the moment, my brain feels like catfood. So I may never prove to be much of a writer – a real writer, the kind I like to read – but then again, maybe I will. I’m not sure how much it matters any more. But we shall see.

 

 

James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”

1903

DuBois’ famous tract establishes a number of key concepts for American black writers – the “double consciousness,” the “talented tenth,” and a sense of “worlding” that diminishes American power in the duree. Du Bois’ more radical stance on immediate political change clashed with the more conservative tactics of Booker T. Washington. Thus we might posit Du Bois in a tradition with McKay and Hughes, whereas at times it seems Cullen falls more into Washington’s steps.

CHAPTER 1 – Du Bois’ sense of the double consciousness is developed from Hegel (he was a student of William James’). In one sense, it is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” and is negative, but it is also the power of seeing oneself seeing the world, and it ties in with cosmopolitanism as a virtue for that worldview (disinterestedness?) instead of primitivism.

CHAPTER 3 – Here Du Bois critiques Booker T. Washington’s stance on reform. Washington asks blacks to focus on “industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South,” rather than political power (the vote), civil rights, and higher education. This is disenfranchisement, legal inferiority, and the condemnation of black education for Du Bois.

CHAPTER 9 – the most talented ten percent of blacks and whites are likely not in contact because of segregation, which is a loss to culture (recall what Stendahl and Woolf say about women).

Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble”

1990

1999 PREFACE:

It is in sexual practice that gender is destabilized because “policing gender is sometimes used as a way of securing heterosexuality” xii [Foucauldian?].

“The sexist claims that a woman only exhibits her womannes in the act of heterosexual coitus in which her subordination becomes her pleasure… a feminist view argues that gender should be overthrown, eliminated, or rendered fatally ambiguous precisely because it is always a sign of subordination for women” xiv.

While we assume that gender is “an interior essence that might be disclosed,” this is “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates” xv. This Butler stages as “metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself” xv. The notion of performativity Butler advances is “a repetition and a ritual… a culturally sustained temporal duration… the gendered stylization of the body” and “an hallucinatory effect of naturalized gestures” xv. This narrativization of performance also interests me in terms of duree. (Interestingly, Butler also asks us not to transpose the theory onto race unproblematically, but to consider what happens when it performativity tries to come to grips with race.)

In a way, this is an advocation of surface reading, for if we see a person in drag and take their assumed gender as the opposite of their performed one, we give the first one priority and call the second one “mere artifice, play, falsehood, and illusion” xxiii [Blade Runner]. Butler’s goal is to explore the vacillation of reading between categories as “the experience of the body in question” xxiv.

“To the extent that gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real,’ they establish the ontological field in which bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible. Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be” xxv.

While this implies a history of symptomatic reading (the surface belies depth), it also values surface. It is neither pure surface, self-invention, language, or theatricality xxvi. “Those who are deemed ‘unreal’ nevertheless lay hold of the real” xxviii.

1990 PREFACE:

If woman is mystery for de Beauvoir, it might stem from the “trouble” Sartre locates in her ability to return the gaze xxx. For Butler, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender” xxx. In a Foucauldian genaeological approach, Butler will look at gender as a set of effects, rather than causes.

“Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real. His/her performance destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” xxxi.

1: SUBJECTS OF SEX/GENDER/DESIRE

Rather than feminism based in identity politics, which glosses over issues of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and individuality, Butler invites us to consider a coalitional feminism (rather than a universal basis on identity politics, which, as bell hooks suggests, already confronts issues of race) that would undermine the term “woman” and upset the patriarchal linguistic binary. In fact, gender is multiple and unstable 4.

The split between sex and gender is false for Butler, since both, and not just gender, are constructed: “gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” 10. If de Beauvoir sees men constructing their gender against woman’s lack and Irigaray holds that it is One phallogocentric gender that cancels woman altogether, Butler questions the idea of “being” a gender at all, as well as the necessity of being represented as such.

“Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition, then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure” 22 [Foucauldian, Deleuze & Guattari]

Gender, instead, is performative. “Intelligible” genders uphold “coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire 23.

“The identification of women with ‘sex,’ for Beauvoir as for Wittig, is a conflation of the category of women with the ostensibly sexualized features of their bodies and hence, a refusal to grant freedom and autonomy to women as it is purportedly enjoyed by men. Thus, the destruction of the category of sex would be the destruction of an attribute, sex, that has, through a misogynist gesture of synecdoche, come to take the place of the person, the self-determining cogito” 27 [Isherwood!]

Institutional heterosexuality has created this, since “gender can denote a unity of experience, of sex, gender, and desire, only when sex can be understood in some sense to necessitate gender” 30. [But where does that leave us now, since we can’t all drag and still get laid?] Another issue is language – Wittig claims it is only problematic in its applications, Irigaray in its content. Wittig ends up making polymorphous perversity a “telos” of human sexuality rather than its former state, however. “Woman itself is a term in process” 45.

 

Gender’s acts of “expression” constitute, rather than reflect, gender [vs. symptomatic reading! Here surface is content.] Both genders are open to resignification. This is where she calls for “gender trouble,” performance that troubles the binary: “a proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” 46.

2: PROHIBITION, PSYCHOANALYSIS, AND THE PRODUCTION OF THE HETEROSEXUAL MATRIX

In this section, Butler challenges a utopian “pre-patriarchal” ideal as it appears in much feminist literature. Structuralist accounts, such as that of Levi-Strauss, depend on an idea of the transformation of sex into gender by means of the incest taboo, which creates a kinship structure around the exchange of women. Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic approach claims femininity is a masquerade to hide masculine identification and lesbian desire. Finally, Freud’s theory on mourning and melancholia posits cathexis as identification, as the traits of a lost loved one are incorporated.

Butler challenges all three. In the case of incest, she argues that it is the presence of the taboo that incites incestuous desire. In Riviere, mimicry are the essence of gender, not an outward concealment of it. In Freud, we actually internalize the prohibited object via melancholia as we construct our own gender. This involves homosexual cathexis, but “heterosexual melancholy is culturally instituted as the price of stable gender identities.” Heterosexuality depends on homosexuality for its existence (is it Sontag who says this?). Approved heterosexuality and subversive homosexuality only exist after the law, which is generated and regulated via the incest taboo [Foucauldian]. “Not only does the taboo forbid and dictate sexuality in certain forms, but it inadvertently produces a variety of substitute desires and identities that are in no sense constrained in advance, except insofar as they are ‘substitutes’ in some sense” 103. Incest incites desire for the mother or father but also displaces that desire: “the notion of an ‘original’ sexuality forever repressed and forbidden thus becomes a production of the law which subsequently functions as its prohibition” 104.

3: SUBVERSIVE BODILY ACTS

In this section, Butler addresses Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Recalling Kristeva’s argument that the feminine surfaces in language via the semiotic (vs the symbolic), Butler challenges the notion of writing and womanhood as reclamations of the body, but not homosexuality: “the unmediated cathexis of female homosexual desire leads unequivocally to psychosis” 117. On motherhood: “Kristeva conceptualizes this maternal instinct as having an ontological status prior to the paternal law, but she fails to consider the way in which that very law might well be the cause of the very desire it is said to repress.” In a Foucauldian argument, she claims that ideas of maternity themselves are products of discourse and power. “The female body that is freed from the shackles of the paternal law may well prove to be yet another incarnation of that law, posing as subversive but operating in the service of that law’s self-amplification and proliferation… If subversion is possible, it will be a subversion from within the terms of the law, through the possibilities that emerge when the law turns against itself and spawns unexpected permutations of itself” 127 [faceting!].

Butler examines the journals of the hermaphrodite Herculine who committed suicide when forced to live as a man. Prior to this, Herculine lived in “nonidentity.” Butler sees this idealism as a sort of “confessional” on Foucault’s part of his own (silent) homosexuality, since the idea contradicts what he argues for in History of Sexuality: namely, that there is no sex “prior” to power, and that sex is not a solution to discourse but part of it. “S/he is ‘outside’ the law, but the law maintains this ‘outside’ within itself… the law’s uncanny capacity to produce only those rebellions that it can guarantee will… defeat themselves” 144.

Sex is produced by compulsory heterosexuality – compulsory reproduction. Therefore, the binary of gender only exists in “the heterosexual matrix” and are naturalized there to conceal and reproduce it 150. Butler examines and agrees with Wittig’s formulation of lesbian sexuality. Wittig argues that women carry the burden of sex because they are always identified with/as sex. Thus sex is a way to designate the non-male by absence, and the synecdochic division of the body into parts (which we now feel is fact) fragments what is really a whole. “The body is itself a consequence of taboos that render that body discrete by virtue of its stable boundaries.” In lesbian sexuality, partners might multiply and proliferate signifying parts of the body. Lesbian sexuality must not posit itself all too radically outside heterosexuality, lest it consolidate that hegemony 174.

In the last part of the chapter, Butler asks why bodies are the surfaces on which gender is written. We enforce the boundaries of the body as a means of establishing taboo (thus AIDS being equated with anal sex – a threshold being crossed). Drag is a way to playfully exaggerate and undercut “original” gender.

“If gender attributes, however, are not expressive but performative, then these attributes effectively constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is crucial [since the former implies truth, but the latter implies there is no prior truth]… Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible” 193.

It’s interesting to use the word incredible – unbelievable – here. It ties this to fiction and narrativization, which she has done all along. )It is also, again, a form of surface reading, at least insofar as it makes surfaces count.)

4: CONCLUSION: FROM PARODY TO POLITICS

Butler tries to imagine a feminism free of the binary – the us/them or object/subject divide, as many feminists have thought before, is itself problematic and hegemonic. The subject is formed by repetition as signification (think of Stein!) Drag and other forms of parody destabilize and make apparent hidden assumptions about the “ontological locales” of gender (like Adorno on Beckett!) Butler hopes to have demonstrated how “the signifying practices that enable this metaleptic misdescription remain outside the purview of a feminist critique of gender relations” 202. We have no choice but to repeat the terms – the question is how or “to repeat, and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” 203 [how multiple is gender already, before this, I wonder?] Feminism’s foundationalist frame “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate,” in an “internal paradox” 203. The task is to “redescribe those possibilities as they already exist,” but in “unintelligible and impossible domains” 203. Gender’s “present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness” 203.