Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shameless Literary Tourism in Dublin: Bloomsday 2009

It’s rather striking how much of a commodity James Joyce is in Dublin; there’s nothing comparable to it in any American city. You hear mentions of Bloomsday activites on Dublin radio stations, and see events described in some of the newspapers. There are two Joyce museums in the city, a proper statue to Joyce on one of the biggest commercial streets in the city, and plaques on the ground and on buildings all over the place. Every other pub has a picture of Joyce or Yeats somewhere; there is even something called a "James Joyce Pub Award" (for "being an authentic Dublin pub"). On Bloomsday there are performances at big as well as small venues all over the city related to Ulysses. We saw a flyer for an actress doing a solo show as Molly Bloom, and we even saw something about a reenactment of a brief dialogue between Ned Lambert and J.J. O'Molloy at St. Mary’s Abbey (from "Wandering Rocks"; a rather minor incident in the novel).

That said, some of the events not involving pubs didn't seem to be all that well attended. And while there were a fair number of knowledgeable readers of Joyce on the two tours I went on (many of them American college students, interestingly), there were plenty of people who just came because their guide book recommended it as something to do in Dublin.

The only dissenting voice I heard on James Joyce was in a pub in a village called Bunratty, north of Limerick. There, at a pub named "Durty Nelly's," I was accosted by a rather inebriated Irishman who wanted to tell me all about his time at the Kumbh Mela in India. When Joyce came up in the conversation later (this man knew a fair bit about literature), he scoffed: "Joyce was a lackey, he was nothing but a lackey." I didn't have the presence of mind to ask him why he thought so, and now I wonder what exactly he meant.

As an intellectual exercise, I'm not sure whether there was much value in spending a day walking around Dublin with Joyce-tinted glasses on; it's admittedly tourism, not scholarship. But it certainly was fun to see Dublin this way.

1. Sandycove and Howth

On the morning of the 16th, I took the DART train out to Sandycove early in the morning, leaving Samian asleep at the hotel in central Dublin. It’s a pretty long ride from Tara Street Station in central Dublin, which surprised me a little in itself; I had always envisioned Sandycove, where Buck Mulligan is staying in the novel, in the Martello Tower, and Dalkey, where Stephen has been teaching, as a relatively short hop to central Dublin. In fact, it’s a forty minute commute at rush hour, even in a fast subway train. How long would it have taken by tram in 1904?

I was pleased to see a handful of people, men and women, bathing in the water by the tower, now a James Joyce Museum. There were people in period costume, though not many who were identifiably a particular character in the novel (elsewhere, we did see people dressed as "Leopold Bloom" and "Stephen Dedalus"; the Molly Blooms, I'm guessing, stayed home).

A Dublin-based actor and writer named Barry McGovern did a brilliant reading from “Eumaeus” at the top of the tower, with about twenty people crammed in around the small circle. I thought the choice of passages was great – it would be tempting to just do “Telemachus” at the top of the Martello Tower in Sandycove, but in fact the dialogue between Stephen and Bloom in Eumaeus walking through Dublin on their way to the cab shelter has some really poignant moments; it works especially well as a passage for recital. In terms of seeing Ulysses as a living text, this was the high point of the day for me.

Incidentally, if you watch this slideshow of the event at the Irish Times, you'll see a picture of me along the way, and hear a little of Barry McGovern reading. Proof that I was there!

I decided to forego the “Bloomsday Breakfast” (focusing on pork kidneys, and “snotgreen soup” – really) at a local restaurant in Sandycove. I didn’t have all that much time, and anyway, 18 Euros is a little too steep for me for breakfast.

All in all, things were pretty quiet out at Sandycove. I noticed a couple of families with young children at Sandycove’s little beach (i.e., the actual cove at Sandycove), playing in the sand, as I walked back toward the train station. They were there for the beach on a warm, sunny morning, not related to Bloomsday. There was a serious-looking man in a black turtleneck who spoke halting English in an Eastern European accent there, frequently consulting what appeared to be a Polish or Russian translation of the novel, and another man (a nurse by profession) who had flown in from Leicester, England, that morning, just to participate in Bloomsday.

A week earlier, we had gone to Howth, on the north side of Dublin Bay. In fact, it was an accident – not literary tourism, but plain old tourism. (We had been given, as a present from relatives, a gift certificate for dinner at a nice seafood restaurant called “Aqua,” on Howth Pier –a gift given with no connection whatsoever to Joyce.) Howth is a pretty little fishing village, with some upscale restaurants, working fishing boats, and a few places selling takeaway fish and chips a bit more cheaply. The view of Ireland’s Eye to the north is pretty spectacular at sunset from the “Nose of Howth.” Here is what happens in Ulysses at Howth:

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun's heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion's head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you'll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

It's a memory both Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom hold fondly and come back to at various points in the novel, as representing the emotional core of their relationship. The scene is very, very intimate. After seeing the place, all I can say is: I hope they were warmly dressed; to us, it felt a little cold and desolate out there. (Perhaps it was just a windy day.)

2. Daytime in Central Dublin

We decided to skip the obligatory lunch of a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy at lunch, though half the pubs in the Temple Bar district were advertising it as a special, including of course, Davy Byrne’s, on the 16th of June. (I think people don’t really realize that Bloom, though he had an intense reaction to the Burgundy, didn’t really respond much to the Gorgonzola Cheese.) Instead, we had a much more satisfying meal at the Joy of Cha on Essex Street East, near Meeting House Square.

The biggest crowd we saw was about 200 people at noon, at Meeting House Square, where there were readings and performances related to Ulysses for three hours in the middle of the day. We walked in on the tail end of an operatic performance of one of the Italian songs mentioned in Joyce’s novel (I couldn’t quite figure out which one), but after that the various speakers weren’t particularly exciting. After a little while, they turned it over to audience members to come up and read favorite passages from the novel. Unfortunately, it seemed like people were reading quite badly, and without explaining why such-and-such passage might be important for themselves personally. The adjacent Irish Film Institute was screening John Huston’s film version of “The Dead” on the night of the 16th, but it was sold out. We moved on.

Later in the afternoon, we did the Bloomsday walking tour that starts at the James Joyce Centre on North St. Georges Street (just a couple of blocks from Eccles Street, on the north side of the city). The guide presented himself as Stephen Dedalus, and in his opening spiel he announced, I thought quite cleverly, that while he was going to show us around some of the landmark sites in Ulysses, it wasn’t really his favorite book by Joyce. (Obviously, if you’re Stephen Dedalus, your favorite book should be Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) He also made an appropriately irreverent comment about the deification of Joyce as follows: "we’re here to celebrate the author James Joyce, the creator of everything, the father, the son, and the holy ghost..."

The spots in Ulysses on the Bloomsday tour aren’t really that thrilling to see, unless you’re the kind of Joyce reader that obsesses over the little details in Joyce’s novel. The spot that would have been Dlugacz’s butcher (always a fictional store, but a real address), is now a dry cleaners’ – wow, thrilling. Still, to see the church clock tower, and be able to visualize the streets and topography does help give a better picture of some of the key events in the book. The red light district (“Night-town”) is completely gone; today, that neighborhood has a big bus station and a train station. I also found, at several points in the Bloomsday tour through north central Dublin, that the mundane activities of the city – passing buses, construction work, routine traffic – overwhelmed our tour. If it was anything like this in 1904, Dublin at mid-day was a loud, busy place in which to walk around.

For me, the most poignant shift between the Dublin of Joyce’s day and the present moment entails the disappearance of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street, mentioned particularly in connection with the "Parable of the Plums" in the Aeolus episode. In 1966, the IRA blew up the pillar, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising. Dublin has replaced what was once a symbol of British Imperialism with a 500 foot tall, abstract metal spike, which now stands anomalously (and ominously?) above the rest of the skyline of central Dublin.

On the tour, I met two Chinese women carrying the Chinese translation of Ulysses with them. The mother was a big Joyce fan, while the daughter seemed to be cramming a little bit to try and understand what the fuss was about. I asked them what the translation is like – is it full of neologisms, words borrowed from other languages, and so on? But they didn’t seem to understand the question; they simply said they’d never looked at the original in English, so they couldn’t make a comparison.

3. Evening

Davy Byrne’s was too crowded in the early evening with people in period costume eating cheese sandwiches, so we went to the Duke, across the street. All of the action is at Davy Byrne’s, since it’s still there, but people generally neglect to mention that Burton’s, the first pub Bloom had walked into in the same episode of the novel, is now a travel agency.

We ended our evening with the "Dublin Literary Pub Crawl," as part of a group of overwhelmingly American tourists. The actors who run this popular evening tour do really good (and funny) short bits from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” James Plunkett’s “The Risen People,” and a winningly fey enactment of one of Oscar Wilde’s letters from America (the letter they used was Wilde writing from Leadville, Colorado). They also pepper their anecdotes about literary Dublin with quotes and references to a number of Irish writers and historical figures. Some of the people cited that I can remember included Brendan Behan (the "drinker with a writing problem" quote), Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, and the labor activist Jim Larkin.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

'I Hope You Feel Better Soon': Hello From Ireland

We've been in Ireland for a little holiday. Some of it is a little bit of long overdue literary tourism around Dublin (about which I might have more to say in a few days), but we also spent several days in some of the beautiful western counties, doing some cycling and hiking, and checking out live music in village pubs. For the most part, it's pretty homogeneous -- sizeable South Asian, eastern European, and East Asian immigrant populations have emerged in Dublin, but rural western Ireland hasn't changed quite as much. A lot of little villages have Indian restaurants, but that's about it.

Our best night in terms of live traditional Irish music was in a town called Clifden, in County Galway -- and it was also the night where we had what you might call a 'desi moment'.

The band was very good -- the fiddler was brilliant, and one of the singer/percussionists had a lot of entertaining, if rather corny, jokes -- and a strong rapport with an audience of upwards of 50 people in a smallish space. The audience was a mix of locals from around Galway, and international tourists, speaking Swedish, German, and of course "American." There was even a woman from Uganda in the audience, and I somewhat regret that I didn't get to ask her how she ended up at a pub in a remote town in western Ireland. Then again, there were clearly a number of people in the audience who were eyeing us, a Sikh couple, and wondering the same thing. By chance, we had gotten seats right in the front, which we were really happy about until the point in the evening I am about to describe.

During one break, the jokester/storyteller in the band, a jolly elderly man, asked the Swedish women in the audience how you say "cheers" in Swedish. He ran through "cheers" using the word from every language he could think of, including, now, Swedish. Then he turned to me: "And how do you say it in Sikh?" I couldn't think of the Punjabi (and no, I didn't bother to correct him on that) off the top of my head, so I just threw out "Balle Balle." ("Vadaiyan" might have been more correct). He liked "Balle Balle," and said it several times, relishing the sound, and even getting the Punjabi tonal inflection pretty much right. He even got several people in the back of the bar repeating it as they raised their glasses: Balle Balle! Balle Balle! Balle Balle!

A little later, he got bolder, and told the following story:

"Seeing this gentlemen here [gestures at me] reminds me of a true story, and I hope no one gets offended. One time I was riding a late night bus in London, home from work. It was the last bus of the night, and there were four people angling for just one standing spot in the bus. The driver was a Sikh gentleman in a white turban. From the group trying to get on the bus, he gave an old lady, clearly weary and not very well-to-do, the remaining spot, and told the others there wasn't room. When she reached to her purse to pay, he shooed her away, saying he wouldn't hear of making her pay. When she finally reached her stop, she stepped down from the bus, and said, 'Thank you very much sir, and I hope you feel better soon!'"

[Get it? She thought the white turban was a bandage.]

The joke killed with the audience in the pub. I was blushing, but I smiled weakly and sort of shrugged it off the way one does: no worries, my friend, I'm not going to ruin your good time by taking umbrage. (But could we get back to the music, please?)

During the next little instrument tuning break, Samian got up from her chair and approached him. Without a word she picked up the drum brush he had been using, and batted him lightly on his bald head with it. She then said, "thank you very much sir, and I hope you feel better soon!" He loved it -- I think he must have known he'd crossed a line earlier -- and I certainly felt a lot better all of a sudden.

Our evening out in Clifden ended on a high note. And the locals, including our friend in the band, are likely to remember the random Sikh couple who came in one night, to hear the traditional Irish music.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Teaching Notes: "Ulysses"

[Below is a modified version of a wrap-up lecture I used in an undergraduate class last week, closing out our unit on Ulysses. The class is titled "James Joyce and Modern Ireland," and it is aimed at senior English majors.]

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I took a class on Ulysses with a senior Joyce scholar who, in a pretty egregious example of a pedagogical faux pas, "required" us to buy two of his own books on Joyce and modernism from the bookstore. He also told us, via the course description, that he expected us to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before the beginning of the term, which none of us ended up doing. I bought both of the professor's books and never read them (recently, I finally threw them out). I also didn’t read Portrait of the Artist until around the time of my Ph.D exams several years later; my loss, for waiting so long.

Though my reading of Joyce was a revelatory and entrancing experience that fall, the class itself was somewhat of a disaster. For one thing, the in-class dynamic was quite tense, particularly around questions of gender in Joyce’s novel. As a rather radicalized, “politically correct” college student of the early 1990s, I was offended by Stephen Dedalus’ tortured relationship to women, a problem my professor wasn’t interested in (I didn't have the tools to see that Joyce disagreed with Stephen as well). I was also bored by Joyce’s “mythic method,” and didn’t really know what to make of the dense grid of literary allusions and parodies in the novel. Early on, I got into some heated arguments with the professor in class, and then retreated into defiant (Stephen Dedalus-like) silence as the semester continued. By the end of the term, I had silently vowed that Ulysses was not going to be my “thing”; I ended up writing my senior thesis the following year on Salman Rushdie, and worked with another professor, who had taught me, brilliantly and engagingly, Borges, Barthes, and Octavia Butler.

Fifteen years later, the roles are reversed. Is it possible to do Ulysses with undergraduates, and get it right? That is to say, without boring them and overwhelming them with an endless proliferation of mythology, religion, and authorial hagiography? (The people who come to heap praise on James Joyce may not realize that they are in fact unwittingly burying him: Death of the Author by deification. Or should I say, deifecation?)

Just as one joins one’s second rock band to show up the first, when you start to teach as a college professor, you often hope to correct what you think your own professors got wrong, while also preserving, if possible, what they got right. My goal this fall was, first of all, to try and teach Joyce in such a way that my students would enjoy him on their own terms, and be organically (rather than academically) interested in his works. Doing that requires inserting just the right amount of background, including 1) a sense of the trajectory of Joyce’s career, 2) sufficient explanation of Joyce’s relationship to Irish nationalism and the British Empire, and 3) some background on Joyce's relationship to contemporaneous aesthetic modernism in Europe in the 1910s. We started with Chamber Music, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist, and (briefly) Pomes Penyeach, and we’ll be closing out the term in the next couple of weeks with a small dose of Finnegans Wake (where I am admittedly utterly dependent on Joseph Campbell). I have also been encouraging my students to engage, head-on, the questions about Stephen Dedalus’ seeming hatred of women, and anxiety about women’s bodies, while also adequately identifying and embracing Bloom as a “womanly man,” as well as Molly Bloom’s position of control (if not dominance) in their marriage.

My most direct reversal of the way I was first taught Ulysses was my choice to directly underline and foreground Joyce’s use of the body in the novel, with as much directness as I could muster without embarrassing either my students or myself. So: yes to nose-picking, defecation, urination, masturbation, voyeurism, exhibitionism, menstruation, decaying corpses, sado-masochistic play, cannibalism, drunkenness, and fat. Yes, yes, yes.

To give a specific example. As an undergraduate I remember getting “shushed” by my professor in the first weeks of the term, after he lectured us about the end of "Proteus." The professor had a great deal to say about the literary, philosophical, and theological allusions in the following passage:

Come. I thirst. Clouding over. No black clouds anywhere, are there? Thunderstorm. Allbright he falls, proud lightning of the intellect, Lucifer, dico, qui nescit occasum. No. My cockle hat and staff and his my sandal shoon. Where? To evening lands. Evening will find itself.

He took the hilt of his ashplant, lunging with it softly, dallying still. Yes, evening will find itself in me, without me. All days make their end. By the way next when is it Tuesday will be the longest day. Of all the glad new year, mother, the rum tum tiddledy tum. Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet. Già. For the old hag with the yellow teeth. And Monsieur Drumont, gentleman journalist. Già. My teeth are very bad. Why, I wonder. Feel. That one is going too. Shells. Ought I go to a dentist, I wonder, with that money? That one. This. Toothless Kinch, the superman. Why is that, I wonder, or does it mean something perhaps?

Ah yes: Lucifer, Tennyson, the Nietzschean superman – all topics I knew next to nothing about at the time. The professor also found the Christian imagery at the very end of the episode (the “threemaster”) especially important. He was, however, completely uninterested in the part in between, where Stephen picks his nose:

My handkerchief. He threw it. I remember. Did I not take it up?

His hand groped vainly in his pockets. No, I didn't. Better buy one.

He laid the dry snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock, carefully. For the rest let look who will.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t get away from it. Huh -- Is he really picking his nose? It was the first time I had ever seen an acknowledgment of this “shameful” bodily act in print. Can’t we read Stephen’s picking his nose as a kind of satirical counterpoint to the weighty literary and theological allusions that surround this event? My professor’s answer: no. No nose-picking, not in this class.

Fifteen years later, here I am: students, what do you make of the fact that Stephen Dedalus, near the end of this dense cerebral episode on the nature of sensory perception, Aristotle and Aquinas, urinates into the ocean, and picks his nose? What do you make of the fact that Leopold Bloom wakes up with the thought of the “inner organs of beasts and fowls,” cooks a pork kidney for his wife, and then goes to the privy to defecate?

In my own approach to Joyce’s novel, I have drastically downplayed the “mythic method” and the framework of reference to The Odyssey. The Greek epic shapes the novel mainly negatively, and we don’t need to say that much about it (in my view, the most interesting use of The Odysseyin Joyce's book are actually the lyrical riffs on Homer's style, not so much the specific plot parallels). In The Odyssey, when Odysseus returns home after his 17 years abroad, the suitors who had attempted to woo Penelope in his absence are all slaughtered. In Ulysses, by contrast, Bloom decides against violence, confrontation, and divorce (leaving open the possibility of exposing the affair using some machination, and perhaps through that, making Boylan go away). Instead, he kisses his wife on the rump when he finally enters the bedroom, makes up some stories about what he did with his day, and then, before going to sleep, asks for breakfast in bed the next morning.

Bloom’s actions and travels during the day parallel Odysseus’, but represent a modern consciousness and an urban, cosmopolitan sensibility. Instead of killing the Cyclops (“Citizen”), Bloom merely tells him off. (Richard Ellmann suggests that the cigar he holds throughout episode 12 is the blunted modern echo of the spear Odysseus uses to blind the one eye of the Cyclops in Homer’s epic.) By reversing the pattern in this way, Joyce was making a point about what is intellectually interesting and important to people who live in the 20th century. Like Virginia Woolf, he’s especially preoccupied with what goes on in a complex individual’s mind, especially as that person deals with complex problems (“My wife is cheating on me. What do I do? This young man, who has not been particularly nice to me, looks like he could use a hand. How do I handle it?”).

That said, Bloom is still somewhat heroic in some key ways; he doesn’t just roll over and accept what life seems to have in store for him. For one thing, he’s constantly hustling to make and sell ads – even though the novel ends without him having made the sale on the Keyes ad he had been thinking about in the early episodes. He responds to direct insults when he hears them. He is incredibly generous throughout the day – as he gives money several times to help those in need, and most importantly, when he helps Stephen Dedalus survive a series of encounters with treacherous “frenemies” like Buck Mulligan, as well as the dangers of the red-light district of Dublin (“night-town”) in Episode 15.

Bloom grosses some people out, and indeed, we have to acknowledge that his tastes are pretty idiosyncratic and peculiar. He has a thing for women’s drawers, and buttocks. He really likes the “inner organs of fish and fowls,” which are not widely eaten today (except perhaps by Anthony Bourdain), and takes special pleasure in kidney, because of the faint tang of urine. In a novel full of incapacitated alcoholics, he doesn’t drink much, though he does savor a glass of wine in Episode 8. He seems to know a little bit about a thousand things, including biology, astronomy, philosophy, literature, and religion – though sometimes he misremembers what he thinks he knows.

That said, Joyce’s point seems to be that Bloom’s idiosyncrasies don’t make him extraordinary, but a normal, modern man. What’s extraordinary is the degree to which he seems to be able to be self-conscious about his particular tastes. (Molly has her own unusual tastes, as we see in Episode 18.) It might be that for suburban Americans at the beginning of the 21st century, the intensity and directness of life in Joyce’s Dublin seem a bit too extreme. Most American cities no longer have “red light” districts, as prostitution is now a different kind of business; most Americans do not buy fresh meat at a butcher shop, and as a result are at somewhat of a distance from the process by which meat is produced (we don’t see the blood). And of course, you will never see a group of medical students getting drunk on their off hours at the maternity ward today (perhaps that’s for the better!). And those are just three examples. Does the fact that most of us live more contained, sanitized lives mean that we are somewhat less interesting people than Leopold or Molly Bloom? Perhaps, though even in the “Purell” version of life, odd, unpredictable, and very physical things still happen – though perhaps not quite as often. (You encounter fewer people when you’re driving a car instead of walking, and there’s less room for random or impulsive choices, like Bloom’s sudden decision to spend a few minutes in a church early in the novel.)

Of course, the most overwhelming part of the novel is Joyce’s endless stylistic improvisation. Every chapter is slightly different, stylistically and thematically. Starting around Episode 7, the stylistic inventions become quite obtrusive, sometimes reaching such an extreme (Episode 14) that the text itself becomes impossible to read without constant reference to annotations (or, let’s be honest, a certain amount of skipping and skimming).

We could dismiss this as virtuosity run amuck – Joyce had too many ideas, and too much access to information he could pour into his book. Some readers, like Virginia Woolf, have thrown up their hands over the years at this aspect of Joyce’s writing, finding it irritating, self-indulgent, and boring.

That said, the hyper-inclusiveness of Ulysses can also be defended, as a particular facet of modern life. We do have access to tons of information – things are constantly entering our minds, getting processed, and then getting spat out. Advertising, popular music, television images, and the news, are all fodder for our brains, and if we were to give a true portrait of what goes through an average urban person’s mind over the course of an average day, it would probably include a fair amount of that disposable material.

[And here, a hint for students writing papers on the novel] The encyclopedic quality of Joyce’s novel does pose somewhat of a problem for people who write about Ulysses. There is simply too much there, too many examples, too many variations on the major themes. The best essays on Ulysses tend to take a narrow theme as a focus, and use the development of that theme as a way of finding an angle or a reading of the novel. A classic structure is to take a theme that interests you, and show how it develops in three stages (possibly, amongst the novel’s three major characters). For instance, if you were interested in cooking and food, you could take a look at the food that is cooked at Martello Tower in Episode 1 (where Stephen does not eat), one or more of the episodes involving Bloom eating through the middle part of the novel, and finally Molly’s own references to food and eating at the end. The goal, of course, is to find an argument that shows some sort of movement or growing awareness relating to food, as described through these three glimpses into Joyce’s characters’ minds.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fall Courses

I'm teaching two courses this fall, a graduate seminar called "Literary Theory and Anti-Theory," and an advanced undergraduate class on James Joyce.

Here are the descriptions for the courses; I may post excerpts from lectures from time to time (if I have my act together).

Literary Theory and Anti-Theory

This course introduces students to several important paradigms in literary theory, including Jacques Derrida's deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, contemporary feminist theory, Edward Said’s postcolonial theory, and the emerging field of “science studies.” However, alongside some of the most influential theoretical arguments of the latter part of the 20th century, we will also engage with critics and skeptics of these theoretical approaches, who wonder if there is any "there" there. So alongside Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, and so on, we will read essay-length critiques by J.R. Searle, M.H. Abrams, Martha Nussbaum, Noam Chomsky, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Stephen Adam Schwartz, Valentine Cunningham, Denis Donoghue, and others. Some of these theory skeptics would prefer a return to an earlier era and traditional methodologies, but others disagree with the premises of certain recent theories for reasons that might be seen as non-ideological. The larger goals of the course are 1) to help students decide for themselves whether given theoretical approaches are valuable, and 2) to enable students to use literary theory as a tool in shaping their research. A vigorous climate of debate will be encouraged; no previous experience with literary theory is required.

And here is the course on "James Joyce and Modern Ireland":

James Joyce and Modern Ireland

This course will survey the major works of James Joyce, one of the 20th century's greatest writers. The course begins with Joyce's earlier works, including Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, where he developed the seeds of an experimental prose style. We will also discuss the historical and cultural background out of which Joyce emerged, and consider the influence of the Irish relationship with England, the status of the English language in Ireland, and Joyce's struggle with the Catholic Church. Much of the semester will be spent with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the two longer works through which Joyce effectively reinvented the modern novel. The range of topics raised by Ulysses alone is quite vast, and includes the changing relations between men and women in the early part of the 20th century, the representation of sexuality and the body, the advent of advertising and mass culture, the status of Jews in Ireland and Europe, and the changing philosophical understanding of the "self" in modern society. This course will give students the tools to decode Joyce's obscure referents and find threads of meaning in Joyce's work. We will also work closely with reference texts so that reading this so-called difficult author becomes an enjoyable and stimulating experience.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Two Passages Briefly Compared: "Ulysses" and "To the Lighthouse"

This spring I'm teaching a course on Modernism, and I have many things I've been hoping to post about.

One topic we discussed might be described as "comparative stream of consciousness," though I generally don't emphasize the term "stream-of-consciousness" very much, since it is virtually impossible to define satisfactorily. In-class, I gave students two passages relating to the sea, one from Joyce's Ulysses, and the other from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

Here's a passage from the end of Section I of Joyce's Ulysses ("Telemachus"):

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. It lay beneath him, a bowl of bitter waters. Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery.

Where now?

Joyce caresses the music of the "wh" sound; this is virtually poetry. (Incidentally, at the end there, Stephen is beginning to remember the death of his mother.)

And here’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that. And as happens sometimes when the weather is very fine, the cliffs looked as if they were conscious of the cliffs, as if they signaled to each other some message of their own. For sometimes quite close to the shore, the Lighthouse looked this morning in the haze an enormous distance away.

‘Where are they now?’ Lily thought, looking out to sea. Where was he, that very old man who had gone past her silently, holding a brown paper parcel under his arm? The boat was in the middle of the bay.

This comes from near the end of To the Lighthouse, after Mrs. Ramsay's death. Lily has been working on her painting near the Ramsay's summer house, while Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James have gone on a day-trip to a lighthouse that is distant, but visible from where Lily sits. Augustus Carmichael has remained on shore with her, and figures here as the "very old man who had gone past her silently."

Both Woolf and Joyce aim to find meanings and moods in the landscape that are psychic rather than objectively descriptive. Both short passages also contain some kind of emotional or subjective turn, leading to a question ("Where now?"/"Where are they now?") But the two passages also show important differences in Woolf's and Joyce's respective styles, along the lines of sentence structure, theme, and sound of the prose.

Both Woolf and Joyce trade in moods, animating nature with reflections of human emotion. But Woolf's aim is to create a singular image (a "fabric") of grandeur, while Joyce seems more interested in doublings, pairings, and rhythm. Woolf meditates on the disappearance of the other through distance, while Joyce weaves the music of spoken language with the sound of water: "wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide."

Other interpretations? Are there parallels (or telling dissimilarities) I've missed?

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