Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Poetry of Rowan Williams


Rowan Williams delivers the twelfth John Rylands Poetry Reading last year

 This is a paper given by Philip Harvey in the Hughes Room at St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne on Sunday the 6th of December as one in an Advent series on religious poets. The original title of the paper was ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’.

Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift.

By that I don’t just mean he writes poetry, I mean he engages with the life of words, their meanings, ambiguities, colours, their playfulness, invention, sounds. We find this in those writings of his that deliberately don’t touch both sides of the page, but also in his sermons, meditations, exegeses, his essays, disquisitions, lectures. His poetry is a way of finding expression for things that he could not say as effectively by any of his other writerly means. And, at least for me, his poetry is a distinctive and distinctively different voice, mode, vehicle to his other forms of writing.

We find this in the first poem we discuss today, ‘Advent Calendar’ (PR 31), where our usual ways of describing the coming of Christ are reversed challenged problematised:

He will come like dark
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

We customarily appreciate Rowan Williams as being a priest, bishop, theologian, an academic, thinker, leader. But his vocation as poet is increasingly on show in a public way. He seems to have found a way into making poetry that suits the register, tone, confidence of his own speaking voice, the grip, presence, depth of his own thought. Even now he is Patron of the T.S. Eliot Society in England and apparently has written a play called ‘Shakeshaft’ in which William Shakespeare meets the Jesuit Edmund Campion. Perhaps he will put to sleep once and for all the view that Shakespeare was a secret Roman Catholic. Perhaps he will shake it up.

In last year’s Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Rowan took on the virtually insuperable subject of God and Language. The results are at the more abstruse end of the Williams’ spectrum of verbal display, but nevertheless well worth the effort of reading. On the matter of the vocation of the poet he states, “The poet is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another; the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness.” (EW, 131) In other words, he sees the poet (himself included) as someone who knowingly writes in ways that are not the common everyday manner of communication. Reader, as well as writer, know they are playing a game, albeit a game of considerable importance, even at its most light-hearted, unserious, feigning. Not only that, this is a routine, it is a cultivated developed practised habit.

He says of words in poems, “… they act none the less as warning signs that this discourse will be something distinct from the usual exchanges of a culture: it will invite us to set aside for this listening period our assumptions about identity, about the solidity or closure of our perceptions.” (EW, 132) We think of this as a modern or post-modern description of poetic engagement, but was it any different for Elizabethans hearing Shakespeare or Greeks hearing Homer? I think we are invited to read overcome appreciate Rowan’s poetry in just this way. Words and phrases are forced into action in this poetry, used to vary double triple in meaning, taken from their basic etymology and improved by memory’s definitions. “This is indeed language under pressure deployed as a means of exploration, invoking associations which may be random in one way, yet generate a steady level of unsettling alternative or supplementary meanings in the margin of the simple lexical sense.” (EW, 133)

His reading of ‘star’ and its complex implications in Jewish and Christian history in the poem ‘Yellow Star’ (OM 44) is just one straightforward example of how Rowan employs “warning signs”:

Take down the star from the treetop:
after these two millennia, it is jaundiced,
scorched, its points still sharp enough, though,
to draw blood. When it first shone,
it lit the way to killing fields. It has not
lost its skill.

Rowan offers another philosophical position about poetry, his own and others, when he says in the same lecture, “It [poetry] is, at the first level, an invitation to see one thing through the ‘lens’ of an unexpected other. But then, at a deeper level, it is a reminder that we are always seeing ‘through the other’, that we never see anything in its own isolated terms, and that we cannot rule in advance which ‘others’ are acceptable and which unacceptable in the business of extending and enlarging our perception.” (EW, 133) Personally I find this helpful when we think we have to understand a poem and cannot. He is assuring us that far from having to ‘get it’ straight off, we must give ourselves the benefit of accepting our role as early explorers of this word object, this unusual way of talking. It is also helpful, this definition, in acknowledging that our identification with the feel aim meaning of a poem is still our own business as we come to terms with a voice often very different from our own. We enter the world of Rowan Williams and it can be very different, much stranger than we had first expected. But doesn’t this go for all our encounters with others? It’s always a process of getting to know someone who, on first encounter, does not fill us with instant hope understanding recognition.     

Rowan has given leads in other writings as to how we might read his own poetry. The preface to his latest book, ‘The Other Mountain’, states that many of the poems have as their presence the landscape of Wales. He wants, he says, “to acknowledge all those who have … helped to shape the inner landscape that goes with that particular outer one.” Much of his poetry is concerned with and found in landscapes, in places very particular to his own experience. We find this, for example in the series set in Jerusalem, his lovely sequence celebrating Cambridge, and the three poems memorialising Constantinople. Like Wordsworth and others, it isn’t landscape alone, but his own personal experience inside that landscape is the real subject.

Then he writes of one of those ‘inner landscape shapers’, Waldo Williams, as a poet who “imagined his own work as a form of quiet but unyielding resistance to a hectic inarticulate violence in the mind, the feverishness that overflows in personal aggression as in wars and pogroms of all kinds.” (OM 8) Rowan here speaks of poetry as resisting such forces and this is a useful guide into the cause of his own poetry, in fact of his own Christian witness in many areas of life. He concludes, “the question is to do with what words resist butchery; what has to be said if manic violence is not the last word.” Where political and poetic language are debased (see CI 41) “one of the most substantial gifts that our tradition has to offer to [the] wider Christian conversation” is this privileging of a poetic engagement. We observe this central concern of his, most recently, in his public criticism of media that would seek to demonise and dehumanise the radical jihadists of Islamic State, his point being that it is when we forget that they too are human that we can justify our own revenge and cruelty.

His translation of poems from the Welsh of the same Waldo Williams says this well, as in the refreshing catechism that becomes the poem ‘What is Man?’ (OM 63):

What is believing? Watching at home
till the time arrives for welcome.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.

When Rowan Williams spoke here at St Peter’s in 2002, as guest of the Institute for Spiritual Studies, he wished to foreground remind celebrate how Anglican spirituality is rich in poetry, how our tradition gives license to all the people (clergy and laity) ways of speaking of God and our life in God through new words and new metaphors. In the first lecture he spoke of what he called ‘contemplative pragmatism’, “an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you are in.” (CI 17) While saying this is of course not unique to Anglicanism, this virtue influences inspires inculcates so much of the literature of the church. He speaks of looking “long enough and hard enough for God to come to light.” We find this ‘contemplative pragmatism’ in the poems we read today, sizing up a situation, not using hasty religious language and not exaggerating or getting enthusiastic, in the 18th century meaning of that word. Rowan writes his poetry very conscious of this tradition. It informs how he proceeds.

Later he offers another definition of ‘contemplative pragmatism’ as “that sense that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become attuned.” (CI 35) This is relevant in the context of reading poetry for Advent. Even his self-trained use of conditional terms, like ‘somehow’ in that last sentence, is a poetic manoeuvre, an avoidance of dogmatic propositions, that keeps open the possibility for further discovery. This is an observable Williams’ manner in all his verbal expressions.

In the second lecture he talks of Anglicanism at the Reformation being capable of accommodating “a mixture of opposite extremes” (CI 19), what could be called a way of accepting very different forms of Christianity together, and we see this in the poetry, as he makes other traditions inclusive to the conversation. Russian Orthodoxy, for example, is a time-honoured concern of this poet, as we find in his poem ‘Rublev’, about the holy icon maker (PR 51):

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

He talks of the Anglican imagination that “seeks to discern God in unexpected places, and to see the world itself as a kind of sacrament of God,” things that assist in our reading of much of Rowan’s own theology and poetry. Again, he starts from a particular place, even when that place is the whole world. We find just such a discernment in the poem we just heard, ‘Yellow Star’, and in ‘Rublev’.

This view is expressed again in the lecture, which was given from the step of the sanctuary next door, when talking about the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne. Traherne exemplifies “Platonism through autobiography, reflection on childhood, and poetry, and emphasized there very particularly, not just the sense of God pouring through the ordinary perceptions of the child and of the adult, but … that wonderful remark, ‘the Nature of the Thing confirms the Doctrine’: language is true when the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. You simply point to the beauties of the world and don’t map it out as a system of things owned by some people and not by others.” (CI 23) Poets are often regarded as narcissists, there to give you their own self-reflection. But here Rowan praises autobiography that is outward directed, not possessive of its own findings, sharing the world in kind.

When we hear the poem ‘Dream’ (PR 63) we meet someone who not only well knows self-deprecation, if not outright self-mockery, but also someone who is highly conscious of the roles he must play, public and private, and the cost of that:

                                  What I remember is two speakers,
one cropped and harsh: I find it hard
to formulate my question. One bearded
articulate and reasonable, talking of victims,
tragedy, the pathos of God trapped in a world
of risks. He sounds like dense stringed music.

Lastly in this condensed introduction, I draw attention to the conclusion of this lecture at St Peter’s in 2002, where Rowan Williams talks of the battle against the confinement of God. The priority is on “divine freedom and divine initiative, God’s capacity to be anywhere and everywhere. And if that is so, it is also God’s freedom to show how who and what God is, not in religious places but in the stuff of human relation, and in the stuff of the material world.” Such relation will necessarily include our efforts to communicate in poetry.

Works by Rowan Williams quoted in this paper:

Christian imagination in poetry and polity : some Anglican voices from Temple to Herbert. SLG Press, 2004 (Fairacres publication, 144) [CI]
The edge of words : God and the habits of language. Bloomsbury, 2014 [EW]
The other mountain. Carcanet, 2014 [OM]
The poems of Rowan Williams. Eerdmans, 2004 [PR]

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Charles Brasch and Dante


Unexpectedly, as he draws to the end of the steadfast and beautiful autobiography of the first half of his life (‘Indirections: a Memoir 1909-1947’, pages 412-413), the New Zealander Charles Brasch introduces from out of his reading time, Dante Alighieri. The timeframe is the immediate end of the second war, as he calls it, and Brasch is returning from wartime life in Britain to his homeland.

Reading just then the early cantos of the ‘Inferno’, suddenly for the first time I felt I understood what inspired the ‘Commedia’ and what it is all about. It is a vision of the terrible reality of good and evil, and of the inescapable consequences of human action, which is the exercise of free will. The vision begins significantly in that dark wood between youth and middle age, where Dante implies that he had lost all sense of purpose and of right and wrong and that the life he was living was an unworthy one – unworthy of him. All at once he saw what he was in danger of becoming, and by contrast what he could become if he willed. The vision was a warning to him: unless he mended his life he would end up as one of the damned, bound for ever in the torment of a spiritual state, the inward being of those physical states the ‘Inferno’ shows; for right and wrong, good and evil, his own sin and the truth and beauty which he had first seen or imagined in Beatrice were real, overwhelmingly real. To make the torment worse, he would be self-condemned, for it was in his power to live ill or well, as he chose.

Dante’s account of states of the soul which may be said to be true for all men in all ages is given in terms of the theology and cosmology of his own age; but what he is essentially concerned to say is plain enough, and simple enough: men are, spiritually, what they wish to be; they judge themselves by what they think and say and do, and judgement is now and all the time, for they are all the time faced by choices between right and wrong, or better and worse. Purgation there may be, if sin has not bitten too deep, but annulment never: what is done is done for all time. So, for those who are damned, “Nulla speranza li conforta mai”; for the good there is the “Oh sanza brama sicura richezza!” of Paradise. To speak of Dante’s cruelty is thus to miss the point. He does not condemn men to the punishments of the ‘Inferno’, on the contrary he is urgently warning them by showing the degradation and torment they condemn themselves to by evil living, by not caring, by indifference.

Here is Brasch at the midpoint of his own life journey pondering the midlife change brought by Dante into the light of day. Brasch’s ‘Indirections’ (the title comes from Hamlet’s line, “By indirections find directions out”) is a sustained memory of Dunedin childhood, youth and early adulthood, in which he honours the many people who brought him to a place where he could learn his own direction in life, in his case to be a writer and founder of the pre-eminent New Zealand journal Landfall. The first to advise that he is not Dante, Brasch all the same repeats the Dantesque process of composing a work that, by describing the lives of those he remembers in his own life, both living and in books, comes to a point where he can now explain, in all senses of the word relief, his understanding of life, and even something of that mystery, Charles Brasch himself.

It is refreshing to read Brasch’s experience of Dante as a sustained exercise in retrospection. Those who read anything as though it were happening in real time now, and many Dante readers judge him on this count, have yet to develop the sense, essential in reading, that the ‘Commedia’, as with most writing, is retrospection. This is especially true of such a distillation of life’s experience as we find in Dante. The drama is forward moving, happens in the present tense, and is about people who are no longer among the living. Which only causes us to marvel at Dante’s preparation for his poem, meditating at depth on the views he has of all of those in the ‘Commedia’, whether fictional or from his own lifetime, or history. Yet Brasch also grasps the essential drama of moral choice that we all encounter at times in our life, usually after rather than before we understand how choice arises.

To see the ‘Commedia’ as a warning is pivotal for a reader: the poem is spoken to the individual listener, you or I. It may be a drama involving ancient great poets, but each episode, each canto, confronts us with the deadly sins that we have every freedom to indulge in ourselves. It is not as though we don’t have the choice, and this is Dante’s point, we know what he’s talking about, almost certainly. This could happen to us, and that goes for all three places described in the poem.

Brasch is to be recommended for his observation that the essential meaning of the ‘Commedia’ is in the lives lived, not the cosmological structures (strange as they would have seemed even in the fourteenth century) or the, for us, curiously rigid hierarchy of the afterlife, reflective of feudal society. That we may be judged at every moment of our lives seems a restrictive existence until we appreciate that Brasch is saying what Dante is dramatising, we live in the here and now alive to what we have done and have not done. There are readers of Dante who would resist the permanence of the states his people find themselves in, whether infernal, purgatorial, or paradisal, who find this an unreal completion of their lives. In the fixity of the storyline this may be so, but then it is just that, a story, made to confront us with our own life of choices. It is a useful exercise to test which episodes we, as private readers, are drawn to, those from which we recoil, and those that leave us indifferent. We will find, as we do when reading books of personal development, that conditions we identify with are intrinsic to our own personality and dilemmas.

“By indirections find directions out” is shorthand for the state the character Dante finds himself in at the opening of ‘Inferno’. It raises the question of when is the right age to read Dante as, for some readers at least, the poem is one of experience, of the condition of looking both backward and forward in time, unable to make very much sense of either. While this is a helpful check, a reminder that it is a poem set in mid-life, indeed erupting out of that state, it is helpful to remember Dante’s own message in the poem, that judgement is in the here and now. If that is so, then mature reading age is as good a place to start as any. Anyone in late teens or their twenties will encounter in some of these cantos glimpses of life as a reality of desires and choices. Even to do nothing is a choice and there is a special place in ‘Inferno’ reserved for them as well.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

From the Archive: Bloomsday in Melbourne 2010

On Mon, Jun 21, 2010 at 12:46 PM, Koan <koan@alphalink.com.au> wrote:
Thank you for entry into the inner rooms of our psychic otherworld.
 
Once more Melburnians were privileged to see and hear the Joycean words exposed, turned over, made multi-dimensional and amplified in whole new ways. We absorb the words as though for the first time. Sometimes I really do wonder if any other Bloomsday or Joyce theatre comes close to the variety and depth of the Melbourne brand, still going strong after seventeen years. It extends the novels in ways that continue to be original, provocative, informative, and fun.
 
Circe is one hell of an episode, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, and burlesque is an ideal vehicle. I liked the way the audience was taken from the comfort zone of the bar room and its jolly sing-song atmosphere into the sudden uncertainty of the madhouse, as witnessed in the ballroom theatre. Disintegration of identity is a fright, but Carnival of Vice implied that this is happening in a society that cannot or does not take responsibility for its own hopelessness. The opening scenes make the brothel itself not only bearable but an actual oasis of sanity, even though we are left with the unsettling sense that these worlds connect intimately.
 
The phantasms seemed real enough to me. The guards are down in Tyrone Street Lower. What was in denial earlier in the day walks across the centre of the stage in Nighttown. When it doesn't crawl. Despite appearances sometimes, the actors were on a tight lead. 
 
Bloom is central and the Director did well to keep him literally in the centre of the stage for most of the show. Everything happens to him, but he also makes things happen. Tingwell was a sympathetic Bloom, able to play the changes well. Part of the genius of this character is how Joyce can make his sublime moments ridiculous and his ridiculous moments sublime. He can be knowing and naive, wanton and wistful, but always with his full emotional life available to the viewer. By keeping Bloom's state before our eyes, the rest of the action could never go out of control or lose momentum. I enjoyed all the performances, there was clearly a great deal of fun in production. The show revealed just how much Joyce uses all his human resources to further accentuate Bloom, everything leads in one way or another back to him. Van Oosterom played the most juvenile Stephen I have seen in Bloomsday, someone quite at odds with his surroundings and its implicit and explicit menace. It was an interesting and useful contrast to the Stephen we sometimes meet, the university student who is altogether too clever by half.     
 
The whole show was a great success. Congratulations to all for a well-conceived version of Circe that is highly memorable.
 
This year's seminar was very well received. Joy Damousi gave us a superb encapsulation of the movement of thought in and around the time of Ulysses regarding sexology and its even more sophisticated outcome, psychoanalysis. This dovetailed well with Frances Devlin Glass's paper on the literary mechanisms of Circe and Joyce's interest in and resistance to the new sciences of the mind. An informed and confident audience contributed many further ideas to the mix during Questions. There followed a delicious dinner at La Notte, where readings on sensuality became increasingly more salacious. Then it was back to the Trades Hall for the evening performance of the main piece.
 
Some people just can't get enough.
 
Thanks again for a great day.
 
Please forward to committee and performers.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

David Denby and Dante : Reader Response Criticism


In 1996 David Denby, the New Yorker writer, published an account of his return to university, after thirty some years, to sit in on Literature seminars at Columbia University. This sit-in was not a protest against the canon and all it stood for, rather an older man’s attempt to observe, and maybe learn from, what students in the early 1990s made of major writers found in said canon. Reviewers at the time were divided over the worth of such a venture (Great Books : My Adventure with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. Simon & Schuster, 1996) and we read the book now as a snapshot of the American zeitgeist at the end of the Cold War.

Chapter 16 is where Denby and his fellow literature students tackle the first book of the Dante’s Comedy. That the course doesn’t have time for the other two books proves in itself to be a fault in what follows, as the students judge the Florentine solely on what he creates in Inferno, without chancing what happens next, namely Purgatorio and Paradiso. For some of us, Inferno is virtually impossible to read meaningfully alone. A large part of its meaning hinges on what Dante reveals in the last two books. Some would say Inferno is a dead end.

The class didn’t go so far, going on to Boccaccio the following week. Boccaccio would have had his own terse opinion about such an approach to Dante’s masterpiece (it was Boccaccio, not Dante, who called the poem Divine, because it ends with the sovereignty of the good) but be that as it may, the seminar conversations recorded by Denby in his own book prompt further responses, some of which are recorded in what follows.

The first criticism levelled at Dante by these students is that he is a hater who puts into Inferno people he wants to “get at”. He seems obsessed with the people he places there and the tortures they endure. He even seems to get pleasure from this, though Denby is unforthcoming with evidence for this from the text itself. While we know Dante uses the stories of people he knew from life and literature, how far we judge Dante’s choices as personal vendettas will remain open to conjecture. While it amuses us that bad popes end up down there, it is the sin itself that is the reason from them being there. The students read the situation as being one of people tortured against their wills, as one might do who reads the story outside of its purpose of the possibility of hope. But those in Inferno choose to be there, this is the result of free will. The people Dante selects for Inferno are the best examples he can think of. Their transgression (lust, betrayal, anger) is an example to us, the witnesses who read the poem, and a warning. If Inferno were no more than Dante’s way of getting back at his enemies it would have enjoyed a short life as a popular poem. He is showing us the consequences of sin without repentance.

We also have to keep in mind that Dante is repeatedly shocked by what he sees in Inferno. It is cause of distress and disbelief to see many of these people in such a place. He cannot credit it and has to be assured by Virgil, or the characters themselves, that what he is seeing is for real. Dante’s reactions to what he sees in Inferno are one of the important indicators of meaning in the poem. Even at the literal level, where Dante the poet is read as Dante the lost traveller (or later, pilgrim) in the Comedy, we have to concede that a simple equation of hatred vindicated has limited traction in the Comedy. Dante’s main concern is not the person but the sin. In Inferno he learns the hard way that he can do nothing for those he may wish to be compassionate about. The moral issues at stake in each circle of Inferno are Dante’s primary concern. It is these that he presents to his readers not as a lecture in ethics but as a series of retold stories for our own judgement.

Another unusual claim made by David Denby is his view that, in his arrogance, “Dante the poet made himself the hero of his trip to the underworld.” If Dante is a hero in his own poem, what kind of hero are we talking about? That the poem is egocentric in some ways may be admitted, it is certainly about the life and world of this particular 14th  century Florentine. But the Dante character spends most of his time behind his guide Virgil, usually in a state of dread as to what might happen next. He is not put forward as a hero in any medieval sense and as the poem proceeds we develop a reliance on Dante and see things through his eyes, as how else can we hope to understand anything that’s going on? Dante has little idea, we have less. In fact, Denby’s view raises questions in our mind. Just exactly how do we describe Dante? What is his role in the poem? Is he simply the trusted authorial voice? Or do we follow his part as pilgrim later in the Comedy as a form of conscience for how we should act in each circumstance put in the way by the poet?

The most revealing misconception in Denby’s essay comes when his teacher mentions in passing “that the Romantics and the Victorians had disapproved of Dante because they believed in mercy, not judgment.” This simplistic reduction not only skews the picture of 19th century reception of Dante, it is a misrepresentation of Dante himself. But to know why requires you to read Purgatorio, where mercy gradually is introduced as the beginning of any way out of the dead end of sin portrayed in Inferno. Indeed, only to read Inferno in isolation from the other two cantiche is not only to miss the essential thought of Dante, it is to miss a large part of the meaning of Inferno, a place understood in retrospect better than by first encounter. It is for this reason that Denby’s report of his Dante class becomes increasingly frustrating: the students read Inferno as a document of terror and violence, unmediated either by Dante’s art, or the rest of the Comedy. One wishes they had started at the centre of Purgatorio, where Dante explains how everything lives according to its self-awareness of innate good.

  

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Osip Mandelstam Tristia No. 92

Osip Mandelstam Tristia No. 92

 Sometimes titled ‘Taurida’


What is the stream of golden liquid that pours from the bottle? It is the given, the proportion of riches that time has brought us, now being poured forth just when the world is in upheaval. Madame Vera Sudeikina, for whom the poem was composed, said the liquid was honey, but translators have theories, one calling it ‘cordial’, another ‘mead’. Honey and mead are the same word in Russian. Everything is slowed down and summery, so that her words, when they come, may be timed by the flow of the honey. She who has invited us into this special world uses words of misfortune – sad, bored or dull – to warn us that she and her friends have known better times. Their expectations are high, but their lives have been reduced by circumstances she cares not to describe. We will not be bored, and feel not the least bit dull, as though that were a rule of life. Who is she talking to but we, her guests in the future, reading the words that fate has provoked, that time has provided? She warns and yet apologises: she stands on her dignity. The words are also spoken to herself, reminding her of the unwritten rule of keeping interest. Having done this little ritual the hostess then looks over her shoulder, whether at us in the future or at the past that she cannot retrieve, we do not know. Maybe both.

 The poem was written between the two revolutions of 1917, so what do we make of the fact that everywhere there are the rites of Bacchus, as if the world is “only watchmen, dogs”? For while we may judge this world scene benignly, the poetry gives rumour to wild savagery, uncontrolled lust, mad frenzy. Is it only a rumour? The hostess at home observes that we will not meet anyone around here and the days roll by peacefully “like heavy barrels”, the same barrels containing the wine that could drive people to one kind of excess or another. The only voices we do hear are far off in another dwelling, a hut in fact. That we would not understand these voices implies they are foreign words and that we are living in a foreign place, somewhere removed from wild upheaval. Watchmen are needed, for we seem to be somewhere where nothing happens but could happen violently any time soon. When we know Madame Sudeikina is living in the south, and the poet composed the poem in Crimea, we become aware of a code: for all of the classical imagery of the poem, it is also an evocation of the mood in the Russian provinces during the first revolutionary year, waiting for something to happen, whether it will or not. People will wait and see what happens. It could be all very exciting, it could be nothing to speak of, out here in the provinces.

Taurida, or Tauris, is an ancient name for Crimea. Now the classical allusions of place inform us of its almost elysian qualities, as well as its status as a land of exile. In ten years time to use the same classical allusions will be proof enough of bourgeois tendencies to qualify the poet to exile in quite a different direction: political exile to Siberia. It’s late summer, when the grapes have ripened. Translators agree we are visiting a great brown garden, as though trees and flowers were worn by the strong sunlight. Such is the peaceful siesta-drowsiness of the place the windows are like closed eyelids. The hills are sleeping, and only we seem to walk together through this landscape of white columns and air translucent as glass as though through a heatwave. All time and thought have gone. Reality and unreality are alike immaterial in this place of heightened intensity.

Then we are suddenly spoken to by the poet, as in a classical Chinese poem where half the poem describes the scene, before he speaks. He compares the shapes of the vine to long–ago battles, its leaves like horsemen flourishing at one another, as though the vine were one long living tableau of ancient war. This testimony to peace though is reminder of Greece and its relationship to Crimea, for while there is peace in Crimea it is always at the cost to some greater strife fought out elsewhere. That Crimea will be at the centre of other nations’ battles for power is not far from the poet’s mind, even as we enjoy the scenery of golden acres and extended vintage. His analogy of the vine with an ancient battlefield betrays the awareness of battles being engaged even now to the north (Russia) and the west (Germany) and south (Turkey), though not spoken of, and with outcomes impossible still to predict in the summer of 1917. Only here is there some sense of peaceful tranquility.

This vast silence and peace, not torpor or tedium, continues inside the house as well, even as late as the penultimate verse. The white room stands like a spinning wheel, we are told. The room smells of paint, vinegar and wine cooled in the cellar. Work is happening somewhere, even if we do not witness it first hand. When all at once the poet asks a direct question. Do you remember in the Greek house the wife everyone loved? In Mandelstam’s life this is Madame Vera Sudeikina, an actress who would later marry the composer Igor Stravinsky, in a place very far from Crimea. For in literal terms, the poem describes her house, its gardens and views. But in the legends invoked by Mandelstam the wife loved by everyone is Penelope, who sits spinning and unweaving a garment, giving her suitors the flick while she waits for the return of her husband Odysseus from the Trojan War. The poet makes it clear we are not talking about Helen – the woman everyone loved, in the sense of desired – but the woman at the other end of that vast military epic, the one who welcomes home, who makes home. One translator says it was “time she embroidered”, and how say in a few words what Homer makes implicit throughout the Odyssey, that Penelope’s handiwork is a more accurate teller of time passing than any clock? Because it is she, or rather the virtue of waiting and patience introduced at the opening of the poem, whom we have been observing the whole time, unidentified. That this is going on in Crimea and not Ithaca is not an issue, as the abiding woman is fulfilling the same role wherever and whenever.

Rapidly Mandelstam ramps the crescendo. He beseeches the whereabouts of the Golden Fleece, where are you? He declaims on the thundering of the sea voyage and the weight of the great waves carrying men home. He gives the image of the head of the ship leaving that vessel at last, its canvas worn-out on the seas, and there he is: Odysseus came back, filled with time and space. In a reversal of convention, the two main characters of the poem are introduced at the very end, Odysseus in the last line. Because “time and space” are what he has been living through for the entire length of the poem, through all of its denial of boredom and efforts at philosophy. As have all of us, there in the provinces of uncertainty and lost opportunity and easy living. He arrives at the end filled with all the life that we through the rest of the poem have been wondering could even exist. Where is the life? What lives have they been living, have we been living? asks the poet, by implication. Both parties are crucial to the meaning of the poem: those who wait and those who may, without warning, finally arrive unannounced, their one desire to see again those they have been travelling for years to see. The revolution, when it arrived in all its true brutality, was not the promised relief from inertia we see embodied in Odysseus. Barbarism and more war came to Taurida, as elsewhere. Mandelstam’s poem reminds us of the hope of change alive in revolutionary years, even as the very language he uses goes out of fashion, or is condemned as anti-revolutionary. The woman who inspires the poem herself must escape the country into further exile, with little hope of ever returning. And the poet himself will be sent into exile just for the trouble of being known as a person who writes poetry.

Versions of No. 92

Lines online were noted that can not now be sourced.
Three print versions were before me:
Clarence Brown. Mandelstam. Cambridge University Press, 1973
Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin. Osip Mandelstam : Selected Poems. Atheneum, 1974, in Stravinsky in pictures and documents, by vera Stravinsky & Robert Craft. Hutchinson, 1979
James Greene. Osip Mandelstam : Poems. New rev. and enlarged ed. Paul Elek, 1980


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

“Titles, stills, magic, fantasy” : Afterthoughts on Bloomsday in Melbourne 2015, The Reel Joyce



 The Blooms at Eccles Street and Howth Head. 
Two stills from Joseph Strick’s film Ulysses, made in 1967

The general conclusion of both theatre and seminar this year was that a film of Ulysses is unrealisable. But that doesn’t mean we cannot realise theatre pieces about the novel and film. The ruse was that James Joyce and Charlie Chaplin planned to make a movie together, but ambitions, or egos, or artistic integrity, or time, or other projects, or love interests even, got in the way. Out of this unexpected, but not entirely unlikely, meeting of creative minds came a Bloomsday theatre piece of considerable insight.

The new timber of the Docklands’ Library sent the aromatic fragrance of a recent work site.

This is the most fully realised portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man that the script committee has yet created. The reason is obvious: the Joyce character has a natural opposite, a larger-than-life contrasting counterpart up against whom he has to test his ideas, his personality, and his achievement. They don’t get much bigger than Charlie Chaplin. We are allowed to see Joyce at home with Nora, or on outings, in his natural environment. This humanises him, makes the remote artist more accessible to an audience, and believable. Chaplin too is an irrepressible fountain of ideas, but his art is vaudeville impressions, slapstick routines. This will never sit easily with the subtlety and expansiveness of Joyce’s art and conflicts inevitably ensue. For every great Ulysses film scene concept they come up, there is another where Joyce’s eye for aesthetic excellence or Chaplin’s nose for popular entertainment get in the way and lead to clashes. Chaplin’s consecutively attractive French secretaries do not help either. They interfere with their own opinions, the most ludicrous being she who would have Stephen Dedalus expunged from the film on the grounds of her personal distaste for his unwashed character. Joyce and Chaplin’s mutual admiration society continues undiminished, even as they discover their faults and foibles, all of which they laugh off, as people who understand human nature will do. Ultimately it is never going to work. The Tramp may morph into other personalities, but not the new womanly man, Leopold Bloom. Chaplin and Joyce part amicably, to pursue their Muse elsewhere: Charlie goes back to California to make The Gold Rush, Jim stays in Paris with Work in Progress. This is Bloomsday’s Much Ado About Nothing and Chaplin rounds off the comic good-humour by singing “Easy come, easy go.”

Through the library windows the lights of the Bolte Bridge gleamed in the cold tranquil night.

Other characters in this twenties fantasy enhance our understanding of the Irish novelist. For me, the part of the Parisian avant-garde composer Erik Satie is especially helpful. Satie was an eccentric recluse. He punctuates the play with solo appearances, wearing a green satin dressing gown and nightcap, broadcasting gnomic sentences through a stupendously large red megaphone. Satie prefigures the theatre of the absurd that would inspire Paris after the next War. Joyce is fascinated by the artistic courage of Satie, but we observe their essential contrast too. Satie is a loner, someone who works without collaborators or ‘sounding boards’. Joyce craves conversation, the endless flow of words, the better to hear everything that is going on, to test his own ideas. Joyce will never just walk around his work alone before setting it before his public.

The agile troupe commanded the tight interior of polished moveable furniture. 

Another lightbulb moment is provided by that lightbulb Mae West. While only angling for a part so far as Chaplin is concerned, Joyce is impressed, in a letter received, by her worldly way and humour. Joyce and West have something in common: they’re both scriptwriters. They know what it means to put together words that land them in trouble. They could end up in jail for telling the truth as they see it. The chances of Ulysses not being transferred into another medium (or even through the customs at New York) could have less to do with challenges of form, than moral content that offends the wrong people. They share an ambition to go to the edge. Mae argues persuasively with Jim that, especially on the subject of sexuality, though she doesn’t “want to take the credit for inventing it” she did “in a manner of speaking rediscover it”, and in a different way so has Jim in Ulysses.  

Giant cement mixers and construction lorrys line the street near the next pyramidal highrises.


The verdict of public opinion, the critics, and Joyceans is that none of the known films of Ulysses do anything to represent the richness and depth of Ulysses, the life found on every page. The films, whether in back-and-white or colour, are pale. Their conventional narrative techniques turn a novel in which nothing happens into a film in which nothing happens. A book that creates the appearance of parallel activities at one time, that describes in intense detail the experience and ideas inside people, that deliberately utilises varieties of style and device, that is in itself, in a word, cinematic, seems to have defied every film interpreter’s efforts.


Sleeping yachts clinked at steadying moorings inside the ‘moreblue’ marina.

Chaplin, in the play, knows what he’s up against. When Joyce chides him for a scene that seems “a little theatrical … rather than just happening naturally,” he reacts: “Don’t give me that old Naturalism cant, Jim. Actors with their backs to the audience just for some kind of naturalistic effect. I want to be free to use whatever I believe will do the job … titles, stills, magic, fantasy … The Naturalists hate all that.” Chaplin knew the true potential of film, but even in the Bloomsday script he plays his own kind of cinematic artist, with his own limitations, the loudest being silence itself, as Joyce points out. How make a movie about language with no sounds?  “Titles, stills, magic, fantasy” are some of the permanent things with which great movies of Ulysses could be made and in this Chaplin offers a fresh challenge to our thinking. Film-making today is readily available to everyone with an interest. Films can be made by anyone anywhere, without the demands of studios and box-office audiences. Films of Ulysses could be put together by individuals or collectives with the same artistic freedom depicted in the Paris twenties of the The Reel Joyce. Some of the best Joyce moviework is found online, rather than in the catalogues of World Cinema. Furthermore, if Chaplin’s  “Titles, stills, magic, fantasy” is Joyce’s variation of “Parallels, correspondences, epiphanies, monologues” then both artists are showing how any artist has the materials to make something multi-layered and rich out of the material. But do they have the means and will? When a composer (from memory the American George Antheil) wished to make some music based on his work, Joyce was most enthusiastic about the ideas that pushed the extremes of musical form itself, not with those where the rendition succeeded, but with no lasting effect. This tells us a lot about the constant creative questioning and expectation of Joyce’s own artistic mind. It tells us why worthwhile movies of Ulysses are possible.

Computer galleries and ping-pong rooms fell silent when the Library closed at nightfall.

My concluding afterthought is about Ulysses readers. There is no great Ulysses movie because not one director gets to where Joyce’s readers find themselves already, at the outset. The story can be repeated on a wiki-stub, its main details reduced to a few sentences. It’s reducible, whereas readers know Joyce because of the consciousness that he creates in them. Seeing Dedalus on the Strand in a film is a world away from being inside his head walking into eternity, the way they do in the book. Bloom’s hot experiences at the hands of Bella Cohen may raise an eyebrow at the movies, but in the book the reader has been through the full monty by reading every in-and-out of Nighttown. Molly is comely enough in her jingling bed in a movie, while in the book the reader has already gone everywhere imaginable with her, and is carrying the memory around in their head, until next time. The really impossible thing for a filmmaker is to meet the level of consciousness of character, time and place that James Joyce has instilled in his readers through the techniques at work in his separate episodes.




Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan at Sandy Cove Tower. 
Still from Joseph Strick’s film Ulysses, made in 1967

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Optic Nerve : Seeing James Joyce Seeing



A paper written by Philip Harvey for the Bloomsday in Melbourne seminar held on the feast day, 16th June 2015. Read at Library at the Dock, Docklands, Melbourne with Philip reading the Harvey bits and Liam Gillespie reading the Joyce bits (marked thus >>).

The Optic Nerve 1: 1914-1922 (Ulysses)

James Joyce was near-sighted. He suffered eye problems from early childhood. Most photographs and portraits of Joyce have him wearing glasses. Richard Ellmann says that nearsightedness became part of his personality, for rather than staring or putting on glasses, he assumed a look of indifference. James Joyce had strong prescription glasses all his life.

>> Had he performed any special corporal work of mercy for her?
He had sometimes propelled her on warm summer evenings, an infirm widow of independent, if limited means, in her convalescent bathchair with slow revolutions of its wheels as far as the corner of the North Circular road opposite Mr Gavin Low’s place of business where she had remained for a certain time scanning through his onelensed binocular fieldglasses unrecognisable citizens on tramcars, roadster bicycles, equipped with inflated pneumatic tyres, hackney carriages, tandems, private and hired landaus, dogcarts, ponytraps and brakes passing from the city to Phoenix Park and vice versa.

Joyce spent much of his life “scanning though his onelensed binocular fieldglasses”. When we read Ulysses an observable majority of visual descriptions are close-ups. Long distance is often a blur and with landscapes Joyce turns to parody and other literary forms, more often than not, rather than trust his own powers of observation.

>> Why could he then support that his vigil with the greater equanimity?
Because in middle youth he had often sat observing through a rondel of bossed glass of a multi-coloured pane the spectacle offered with continual changes of the thoroughfare without, pedestrians, quadrupeds, velocipedes, vehicles, passing slowly, quickly, evenly, round and round and round the rim of a round precipitous globe.
In Trieste James Joyce suffered intense attacks of inflammation of the iris. Sometimes he had to rest his eyes for a month, the attacks were so bad.

>> Houses of decay, mine, his and all. You told the Clongowes gentry you had an uncle a judge and an uncle a general in the army. Come out of them, Stephen. Beauty is not there. Nor in the stagnant bay of Marsh’s library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas. For whom? The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close. A hater of his kind ran from them to the wood of madness, his mane foaming in the moon, his eyeballs stars. Houyhnhnm, horsenostrilled.

Attacks of glaucoma and synechia threatened blindness if not attended to. Blindness, the fear of going blind or imagining oneself blind, hover at the edges of many jokes and passages in Joyce’s writing. “Shut your eyes and see.”

Ulysses is a supreme act of memory of anything in Dublin Joyce saw and remembered. It is a sustained work of visual memory, written at some distance from the locations it so lovingly describes, perfected in time by right placement of the right words.

>> Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hissing up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds. Day by day: night by night: lifted, flooded and let fall.

Ulysses is from the opening line a creative testimony to how the eye sees the world. Stately plump Buck Mulligan is not just a signal of the rampant comedy to follow, it is a description that causes us to see the character instantly, due to the incongruous juxtaposition of the word ‘stately’ with the not very stately epithet ‘plump’. The whole book brims with visuals, almost invariably in surprising forms.

Ulysses is especially notable for close-ups, the sort of appearances a near-sighted man would see, whether in the immediate here and now of Trieste where the book is being written, or in endless memories of Dublin, recalled at will and with extraordinary verbal accuracy.

>> The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable … Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.

Ulysses is run through with visual descriptions of the world and of the people in the world. We know that Joyce uses Ulysses as a celebration of all the senses and this includes the most immediate and powerful of the five senses: sight.

>> What a time you were, she said.
She set the brasses jingling as she raised herself briskly, an elbow on the pillow. He looked calmly down on her bulk and between her large soft bubs, sloping within her nightdress like a shegoat’s udder. The warmth of her couched body rose on the air, mingling with the fragrance of the tea she poured.
A strip of torn envelope peeped from under the dimpled pillow.

Stephen Dedalus’s morning walk down Sandymount Strand is Joyce’s main deliberate and overt description of the experience of perception.

>> 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.

This is a rehearsal of St Thomas Aquinas’ theory of vision, which Joyce would have learnt from the Jesuits at school.

>> Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time … Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.

Ulysses is a huge casebook of the psychology of perception, “thought through my eyes”. Joyce’s pet theory of epiphanies goes exponential as he cunningly arranges words to make us see the everyday objective reality of the city, so that it becomes a main character.

But epiphany is only one method of revelation of the visual.

The stylistic variations that constitute Ulysses cause the creation of many more kinds of visual effect in words than are found elsewhere in a work of fiction. The opening of the Sirens episode at the Ormond Hotel on the River Liffey is an extensive soundscape of aural and visual effects, a beautiful cacophony that draws us siren-like into the interior drama to follow. It is a picture poem, one of the great poems of modernism.

>> Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Imperthnthn thnththn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue Bloom is on the
Gold pinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castile …
A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.
Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.
Horn. Hawhorn.
When first he saw. Alas!
Full tup. Full throb …
The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the?
Each and for other plash and silent roar.
Pearls: when she. Liszt’s rhapodies. Hissss.
You don’t?
Did not: no, no : believe Lidlyd. With a cock with a carra.
Black.

While all of this visual description helps toward the verbal recreation of one day in Dublin, it serves other purposes as well. It serves to confirm the shared sense of the universe. It creates the sense of a complete physical world in which the action, what there is of it, takes place. It operates mimetically to affirm the reality of the world as being looked upon.

>>  What did Stephen see on raising his gaze to the height of a yard from the fire towards the opposite wall?
Under a row of five coiled spring housebells a curvilinear rope, stretched between two holdfasts athwart across the recess beside the chimney pier, from which hung four smallsized square handkerchiefs folded unattached consecutively in adjacent rectangles and one pair of ladies’ grey hose with lisle suspender tops and feet in their habitual position clamped by three erect wooden pegs two at their outer extremities and the third at their point of junction.

Joyce presents his visuals without comment, hanging there as it were, or erect as it were, leaving the reader to see anew.

>> What did Bloom see on the range?
On the right (smaller) hob a blue enamelled saucepan : on the left (larger) hob a black iron kettle.

And revelation through the visual, “thought through my eyes”, raises our sense of the states of the characters. By the time we reach Molly Bloom’s monologue we have experienced many different kinds of visuals, and Molly herself is not backward in coming forward.

>> I love to see a regiment pass in review the first time I saw the Spanish cavalry at La Roque it was lovely after looking across the bay from Algeciras all the lights of the rock like fireflies or those sham battles on the 15 acres the Black Watch with their kilts in time at the march past the 10th hussars the prince of Wales own or the lancers O the lancers theyre grand

Molly’s monologue is a sustained exercise in memory, reliant for its impact on countless visual cues.

James Joyce endured pain from his eyes his whole life, but half way through the composition of Ulysses, in Switzerland in 1917, he suffered an attack of glaucoma so serious that his ophthalmologist decided to operate. The doctor performed an iridectomy on Joyce’s right eye. Richard Ellmann says: “As so often happens, the exudation from the eye flowed over into the incision and reduced the vision permanently.”

Years later Joyce would joke that a person can see as well with one eye as two, but the reality of being half-blind affects him for the rest of his life. Eye operations of different kinds become common. He would argue with friends about how many operation he had had, no doubt making a point.

The Optic Nerve 2: 1922-1941 (Finnegans Wake)

In 1922 Joyce was confronted with a challenge: what to do next?

What does he write to follow something as vast, new, and different as Ulysses?

>> It would have diverted, if ever seen, the shuddersome spectacle of this semidemented zany amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles, editions de ténèbres …

Ulysses and FW are alike in their uniqueness, unalike in their literary intentions.

The two novels are similar in their scale of ambition, dissimilar in palpable verbal appearance.

Ulysses is an extended conversation. FW is expression at cross-purposes.

Ulysses would wish to escape the book. FW has its face pressed close to the page.

Ulysses is a narrative storybook about the physical place Dublin and the intimate lives of a handful of its citizens. FW is a non-narrative book, where Dublin is locus for an allegory about all human experience and history.

Ulysses is an extended exercise in cross-reference. FW tests our bearings on every page.

Ulysses goes outward. FW dwells inward.

Ulysses is written by someone opening his eyes to everything in existence. FW is written by someone who is going blind.

Ulysses is a new Odyssey written by another blind Homer. FW is a new Paradise Lost, written by another blind John Milton.

The novel he writes for the next seventeen years is again set in Dublin.

>> What Irish capitol city (a dea o dea!) of two syllables and six letters, with a deltic origin and a nuinous end, (ah dust oh dust!) can boost of having a) the most extensive public park in the world, b) the most expensive brewing industry in the world, c) the most expansive peopling thoroughfare in the world, d) the most phillohippuc theobibbous paupualtion in the world: and harmonise your abecededd responses?

Answer Dublin, though the landmarks of the city are not easily recognisable nor named as directly as in Ulysses. One landmark described in some detail is the Book of Kells.

>> Starting with old Matthew himself, as he with great distinction said then just as since then people speaking have fallen into the custom, when speaking to a person, of saying two is company when the third person is the person darkly spoken of, and then that last labiolingual basium might be read as a suavium if whoever the embracer then was wrote with a tongue in his (or perhaps her) cheek as the case may have been then; and the fatal droopadwindle slope of the blamed scrawl, a sure sign of imperfectible moral blindness; the toomuchness, the fartoomanyness of all those fourlegged ems: and why spell dear god with a big thick dhee (why, O why, O why?) 

These passages tell us a lot about the visual world of the author. He is fixed on words, his eyes are close up to the words, he lives inside them, they in him. He lives in the world of the page. This is not surprising when we consider that FW was written using only one eye, usually inside with sunlight and lamplights, in small apartments, bookshops and libraries. He wore a white jacket while writing, better to reflect light onto the written page. And what he does in FW is transform words. They transmute, compound, elongate. There are puns and inventions and linkages. And we are made to look at these visual things in order to decipher them and see their meanings. All words become objects to re-organise into new shapes and appearances. Joyce plays around with letters, makes endless pun with many languages, turns words and letters into actual characters in the story. Joyce makes us look at words.

>> Wipe your glosses with what you know.

They are themselves characters with a life of their own, certain to grow and change, put on appearances, act out roles. And their visual shapes, not just their singular musical sounds, are a matter for constant creative play. Joyce’s daily business of writing, that ancient human art, is tested and questioned, is visualised into life and even put back to bed.

>> The use of the homeborn shillelagh as an aid to calligraphy shows a distinct advance from savagery to barbarism. It is seriously believed by some that the intention may have been geodetic, or, in the view of the cannier, domestic economical. But by writing thithaways end to end and turning, turning and end to end hithaways writing and with lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down, the old semetomy place and jupetbackagain from tham Let Rise till Hum Lit. Sleep, where in the waste is the wisdom?

Joyce extends this, takes the visual inventions of the modern and turns them into modes of expression, be they newspapers, telephones, recordings. He takes the essentials of that most popular form of twenties entertainment, the silent cinema, and utilises them for his own ends.

>> The movibles are scrawling in motions, marching, all of them ago, in pitpat and zingzang for every busy eerie whig’s a bit of a torytale to tell.

FW is packed with slapstick Keystone Kops smash-up language. The hundred letter thunder words that punctuate FW remind us of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin falling down a staircase.

>> Bothallchoractorschumminaroundgansumuminarundrumstrumtruminahumptadumpswaultopoofoolooderamaunsturnup!

Chaplin himself is mentioned several times, if you are watching closely.

>> Now there can be no question about it either that I having done as much, have quite got the size of that demilitery young female (we will continue to call her Marge) whose types may be met with in any public garden, wearing a very “dressy” affair, known as an “ethel” of instep length … when she is not sitting on all the free benches avidously reading about “it” but ovidently on the look out for “him” … or at the movies swallowing sobs and blowing bixed mixcuits over “childe” chaplain’s “latest”.

“It’ in that passage a reminder of The It Girl, Clara Bow. The book’s characters are archetypes, typical of those in silent movies. And Joyce borrows the essential key to silent movie acting – mime – in several sequences of FW, including The Mime of Mick, Nick, and the Naggies.

>> Time: the pressant. With futurist one-horse balletbattle pictures and the Pageant of Past History worked up with animal variations amid everglaning mangrovemazes and beorbtracktors by Messrs. Thud and Blunder. Shadows by the film folk, masses by the good people. Promptings by Elanio Vitale. Longshots, upcloses, outblacks and stagetolets by Hexenschuss, Coachmaher, Incubone and Rocknarrag … Jests, jokes, jigs and jorums for the Wake lent from the properties of the late cemented Mr. T. M. Finnegan, R.I.C. … Accidental music providentially arranged by L’Archet and Lacorde. Meliodiotiosities in purefusion by the score.

FW is Joyce’s book of the night, just as Ulysses was his book of the day. It is a dreambook, and dreams are when our eyes are closed and then see. James Joyce needed sleep a lot, in his state of half-blindness and mental stress.

>> But, vrayedevraye Blankdeblank, god of all machineries and tomestone of Barnstaple, by mortifisection or vivisuture, splitten up or recompounded, an isaac jacquemin mauromormo milesian, how accountibus for him, moreblue?

Because the night is dark, where we do not see things clearly, where things change appearance, where we see everything in a new way.

>>Oasis, cedarous esaltarshoming Leafboughnoon!
Oisis, coolpressus onmountof Sighing! …
Oasis, phantastical roseway anjerichol! …
Oisis, plantainous dewstuckacqmirage playtennis!

Although the pain caused by his eyes must have been unbearable inside his head, incessantly and repeatedly, Joyce wrote all his life. As he and his family travelled from one city to another, famous now but still largely reclusive, he would put his own problems aside by referring to himself as “an international eyesore.” The particular French white wine he drank most evenings is now believed to be only secondarily for the purposes of getting tipsy but because it was the one wine he knew that effectively anaesthetised the eye.

There is no end to FW, it starts and ends anywhere in the book, but the printed version handed down to us through the generations ends with the river Anna Livia Plurabelle returning to the sea.

>> O bitter ending! I’ll slip away before they’re up. They’ll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.

“The near sight of the mere size of him.” In conclusion Liam will read a fascinating family portrait of someone called ‘A Dayfather’. This man works in the newspaper office’s of the Freeman’s Journal, where Leopold Bloom sees him sitting setting galleys. This brief picture could be of James Joyce himself, in Paris writing FW every week, his eyes fixed on making new words out of old letters.

>> (Liam, read this very slowly) A DAYFATHER   He [Leopold Bloom] walked on through the caseroom, passing an old man, bowed, spectacled, aproned. Old Monks, the dayfather. Queer lot of stuff he must have put through his hands in his time: obituary notices, pubs’ ads, speeches, divorce suits, found drowned. Nearing the end of his tether now. Sober serious man with a bit in the savings-bank I’d say. Wife a good cook and washer. Daughter working the machine in the parlour. Plain Jane, no damn nonsense.