Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Notes on Parataxis (Moretti on Joyce's Ulysses)

Franco Moretti's chapter on Joyce's Ulysses in The Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez is not arranged as a singular argument so much as a series of provocative buzzwords: advertising as flirtation rather than adultery; passivity (consumption) rather than activity (production); parataxis rather than linear narration; absent-mindedness as a modernist aesthetic (“Bloom is perhaps the most absentminded character in world literature); accumulation of thoughts rather than epiphany-transcendence; the novel as an “epic of socialization.”

Moretti identifies a rough homology between the constant stimulation of modern urban life and the logic of advertising – expressed through metaphors and stylistic elements. The first (and perhaps most memorable) metaphor is the turn from modern life as seduction (in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a nineteenth century novel) to flirtation (in Ulysses). What is unique about bourgeois urban life is the emphasis on the things one desires (imagines), but doesn't touch. Moretti thinks of this as flirtation (we could also call it window-shopping). If advertising and commodity culture produce a measure of intoxication and disorientation, it is a newly mild form – not a strong neurosis. The experience of shopping in the big plazas of Paris or London at the beginning of the twentieth century was novel, but not in the sense that it led to neurasthenia (the way working on an assembly line sometimes did) or hysteria. Moretti questions a study by Dubuisson that seemed to suggest that an overload of consumer-oriented stimuli is leads women to become kleptomaniacs:

It is like moving from the world of adultery . . . to that of flirtation. Because advertising does, to be sure, conquer the customer, but it does not dishonour her. It weakens the resistance of the super-ego, and the reality principle; but it does not produce that army of 'real mental cases' described by Dubuisson.

Moretti frequently refers to a literary device known as “parataxis” (placing ideas side by side with no grammatical connection), and poses it as a way of describing of Joyce's method in Ulysses – a term that is more precise than “stream of consciousness.” Parataxis is for Moretti the chief stylistic innovation of the novel, and it is designed as an structurally 'weak' response to the flood of language produced by modern advertising:

Words words words words. It is a bombardment that no one expects, and that nineteenth-century grammar is incapable of withstanding. Attention, clarity, concentration: the old virtues are worse than useless. Instead of harmonizing with advertising, they perceive it as an irritating noise. A different style is required, in order to find one's way in the city of words; a weaker grammar than that of consciousness; an edgy, discontinuous syntax: a cubism of language, as it were. And the stream of consciousness offers precisely that: simple, fragmented sentences, where the subject withdraws to make room for the invasion of things; paratactical paragraphs, with the doors flung wide, and always enough room for one more sentence, and one more stimulus. (134-135)

Throughout, Moretti's analysis borrows terms from the early sociologist Georg Simmel, whose “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) is a classic of urban sociology. But he argues that Bloom demonstrates a response to the challenges of urban life that is quite different from what Simmel envisioned:

Bloom notices everything, but focuses on nothing; a glance, then on again. It is the metropolitan way: the way to avoid being overwhelmed by the big world that is concentrated in the bit city. But what has it made possible?

The brain, Simmel answers: the life of the intellect. Joyce, however, suggests the opposite: not an 'increased awareness' but instead an increased absentmindedness (Bloom is perhaps the most absentminded character in world literature), but has also changed its function. Instead of being a lack, an absence, it has become an active tool: a kind of switchboard, simultaneously activating a plurality of mental circuits, and allowing Boom to pick up as many stimuli as possible. (137-138)

Bloom picks up stimuli, but rarely (or never) acts on them. If this is an “epic,” it is an epic where the hero does virtually nothing but walk around all day. But this passivity can also be characterized more positively:
But in a dramatic change of function [from the paralysis of Dubliners], Joyce places Bloom under the microscope, and discovers that in his passivity there is not just in-activity and lack of action. There are also positive quantities: receptivity, variety, openness to the world. In Bloom, as we have seen, absentmindedness itself is a mobile, active force: even if it does not 'produce' anything in the strict sense, it nevertheless enables him to find his bearings in a very complex situation, and to organize it. (143)

Moretti argues that the fact that Joyce continued to add content to his book in revision after revision is a function of the use of parataxis. What Joyce added (one can compare the early Little Review versions of the chapters with the final, Gabler edition) didn't extend the action of the book so much as create new eddies of thought within the extant episodes. The additions are effectively involutions, and they could go on forever:

Great is Joyce's delight, we might repeat with Spitzer, in multiplying dependent clauses – except that those clauses are clearly not dependent. Even where a degree of subordination can be glimpsed . . ., Joyce's parataxis functions to the opposite effect: it constructs separate, independent sentences. Nothing is 'in its appropriate place,' here: or rather, the appropriate place for things and thoughts is no longer, as in Proust, a matter of 'precedence or subordination,' but always equal and independent. (151)

More links on Moretti and Parataxis:

The Complete Review, on The Atlas of the European Novel.

An article by Moretti in New Left Review, "Conjectures on World Literature" (2000).

There was for awhile a journal called Parataxis, which focused on Modernist literature. I've never read it, but it seems pretty serious.

And here is a reviewer in the Guardian using "parataxis" in describing Don DeLillo's style in his novel Underworld.


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