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San Xavier del Bac.

Trip yesterday to the Mission San Xavier del Bac. (Click on images to view full-size.)

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James Joyce: The Critical Writings (Mason and Ellmann, Eds.).

The first thing to know about this book is that its title is deceptive. A collection of 57 essays written by James Joyce between c1896 and 1937, it’s not so much “critically-important” reading for Joyceans, but Joyce engaged in writing critiques and critical essays. But is it essential reading for Joycean completists? Inasmuch as anyone who gets as far into Joyce as Ulysses generally becomes a completist (excepting some few who are scholastically-compelled to read it), the answer is probably yes. That doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself returning often to this book, even if you happen to be a professor who specializes in this author.

These essays are something of a mixed bag. You can certainly trace flashes of the evolution of Joyce’s critical thinking here, from childhood on. This is a matter of interest, of course: we garner new insights from a direction external to his fiction. Some of the journalism he produced which is reprinted here is so topical that it’s hard to relate to it now, and it’s probably not worth the amount of legwork that would be required to do so. Likewise for many of his book reviews of now forgotten works, and which he usually panned: no need to exhume those sub-literary corpses.

Still, there are occasional gems to be unearthed from the surrounding clayey strata. Joyce’s early preoccupation with the drama of the stage and his relegation of fiction to second-class status is made abundantly clear. We start getting to the “good stuff,” specifically to the “Aesthetics” section (1903/04), about half way through. Here we’re given access to entries from his Paris and Pola Notebooks in which he originally set down his aesthetic theory, featured prominently especially in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (There are some distinctions, but in truth most of this is laid out in that novel and is probably more readily digested there.) In 1907’s “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages,” we begin to understand (as if we didn’t know already from his fiction) just how deep Joyce’s knowledge of Irish history and society extended. Later, some of his suggestions about Fenianism suggest we might revise our assumptions about Joyce’s celebrated pacifism; at a minimum we must conclude that Joyce-the-man was more complex than Joyce-the-myth. As of course every person is. “From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer,” from 1932, is rather fascinating, as it is written in a style which might be dubbed Finnegans Wake-lite: a charming piece which by any other author’s standards hardly constitutes “lite” reading at all.

If you are a Joycean completist, and if you’ve bothered looking at this review then I’m sure you are, by all means you’ll want this book. You’ll probably be surprised to discover, even despite my review here, that it won’t be what you’d imagined it would be.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights Explained

Here the description from YouTube:

Published on May 22, 2013

Adam McLean analyses and explains this important painting by Hieronymus Bosch in great detail in a series of four videos lasting for a total of two hours.

McLean looks at the painting through an artist’s eyes. He does not impose some external interpretation as most other commentators do, but instead forensically investigates the structure and the imagery used by Bosch to form his painting.

McLean thus, perhaps for the first time, has been able to cut through the seeming enigmatic nature of this painting, and shows that it is structured around a coherent pictorial narrative. Each symbol, each group of figure, the strange forms and metamorphosed animals are shown to fit into this narrative which McLean has found in the structure of the work.

These four videos provide a clear explanation of the painting based on its internal structure, without recourse to importing external interpretations.

Adam McLean is currently creating a facsimile copy in oils of The Garden of Earthly Delights. This will take thousands of hours of work and will not be completed till late 2014 at the earliest.

My comments:

Mr McLean makes a valid point about the projection of modern misperceptions upon this painting resulting in anachronistic interpretations; however, in my opinion he overemphasizes the degree to which scholarly consideration has been negligent in this regard. Nevertheless, this is his primary thesis from which all his arguments spring, and as his arguments unfold, one cannot help recognizing the pertinence of the claim.

The rhetorical technique of Mr McLean’s verbal performance strikes one as artificial and, indeed, annoying . . . at first. However, as his exegesis unfolds, his slow pacing, coupled to the magnificent visual presentation of enlargements from the painting, steadily work their magic. The story that slowly emerges becomes completely compelling, and we become thankful for Mr McLean’s larghetto presentation, which allows us to take in the entire work at a pace conducive to a new understanding and appreciation.

What emerges is an understanding of The Garden of Earthly Delights much more as if one were encountering the characters in a novel rather than the figures one is accustomed to dealing with in a painting.

While I was watching this series of videos, toward the end I began thinking that in this age of special effects, someone could easily bring The Garden to life in the form of a full-length feature film that would be utterly fantastic: imagine something like a combination of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful as well as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hybridized with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Someone should do this right away.


James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays (Hart and Hayman, Eds.)

A few years ago some Twitter wit, I forget whom, suggested that the eighteen episodes comprising James Joyce’s Ulysses might be conceived of as more-or-less independent scrolls; that the compounded tome represents a collection of said scrolls compiled in a manner like unto how Homer might have aggregated The Odyssey from the efforts of pre-existing raconteurs, imparting his own authorial stamp to the collective work. While I’ve no indication that such was Joyce’s intent, I’ve ever since found the mental image of a disheveled pile of scrolls to be a useful model for thinking about Ulysses and its (in)famously radical shifts of style and emphasis from one episode to the next. This could also account for Joyce referring to said independent components as episodes rather than the conventional chapters.

Taking on Ulysses episode by episode, James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays, edited by Hart and Hayman, is so stuffed with invaluable insights that never before in my life have I filled up a book with so many Post-It notes for later review. Having already been though Ulysses about seven or eight times in the last few years, and beginning ― so I innocently believed ― to acquire a certain panoramic vision and appreciation of its sweeping narrative and vast multitude of characters, Hart and Hayman humbled me, revealing that in some ways I am only just beginning to break down through the superficial crust of the book and to plunge into the true and unexpected allusive ocean of dimly-lit psychopoetics which broods beneath. Some of the episodes I now must fundamentally rethink; others I now suspect I perceive only through the darkest glass most obscurely.

Of course this is the great fun[1] of reading James Joyce, and what you find in no other writer: as soon as the words “I understand” occur to you, the solid earth crumbles from beneath your feet. It’s not so much a matter of coming to understand Joyce’s stories as it is learning how to read, and reconsidering what the act of reading is, or can, or may be.

Some of the eighteen essays to be found in Hart and Hayman ― one essay for each of the episodes in Ulysses ― are more mind-blowing than others. Robert Kellogg on Scylla and Charybdis is something of a revelation. Clive Hart on Wandering Rocks is nothing less than astonishing. Jackson I Cope is a most helpful guide through the musicality of Sirens, providing a number of useful guideposts. David Hayman shows us how the text of Cyclops is nested in a way I hadn’t picked up on before, and also here sets out his critical Arranger theory of narration throughout Ulysses, which by itself makes this particular essay a vital one. Likewise while JS Atherton may not be the last word on Oxen of the Sun, he probably comes close; at a minimum, Atherton’s essay is unquestionably required reading.

Reading and carefully reflecting on Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated and Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study are of secondary importance only to successive re-readings of Joyce’s original text if one hopes to begin to garner something approaching a respectable comprehension of Ulysses. James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays is likewise an important reference work, though perhaps a bit less so for the layman than for the academic scholar, but only a bit. If Gifford and Gilbert and Joyce were required reading for a 400-level course, then you’d expect to encounter Hart and Hayman in a graduate course. It’s not too much for the layman to come to terms with. I am myself such a layman, and I find this book to be masterful and helpful in the extreme.

[1] Some might object to my use of the word “fun” here . . . until they’ve made their first conceptual breakthrough and acknowledged that Joyce’s conception of fiction is unlike anything they’ve encountered before.

Ernie & Bill: Mayday.

Faulkner’s little 1929 book called Mayday languished unknown for half a century before its popular trade edition was finally published in 1976. Carvel Collins’ introduction is almost as long as Faulkner’s text. Which is okay.

Collins’ writings about Faulkner are not always satisfactory, as we saw in his 1962 introduction to William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry. He tends to drop more ramshackle hints here and there about his subject’s life than he provides a chronological and connected accounting of the biographical information that would be most useful to know. On the other hand, when he does finally settle down here, the thoughts and ideas he’s trying to convey about Mayday are interesting, albeit they are not always strictly creditable.

Collins’ main theme, when he eventually finds it, is that Faulkner used Mayday as a kind of template for his composition of the last section of The Sound and the Fury, which we may refer to as Quentin’s soliloquy. Indeed Collins does cite some intriguing parallels between the two texts. The metaphor can easily be extended beyond the breaking point, however. I recall an argument advanced in Faulkner in the University, for example, that The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying must be closely connected because they both feature a girl with serious life-problems, the girl has three brothers, and the parents have pressing concerns of their own ― a terminally pressing concern in the case of Addie Bundren. Collins makes a parallel argument here. He tells us that, as we find Quentin Compson’s case to be in The Sound and the Fury, the protagonist of Mayday, Galwyn of Arthgyl, is suspended between two brother-figures, the red design of Pain and the green design of Hunger (e.g., Jason and Benjy), while he pursues into futility his idealized woman-figure with long shining hair who reminds him of hyacinths in spring and honey and sunlight (Caddy). Now it’s true that we can look at these fundamental and recurring relationships as some kind of prime pattern that Faulkner kept exploring. But, we may also reflect, a small handful of characters like these are relatively easy for both reader and writer to keep track of and invest with plausible soul and dimensionality. It’s possible that we, or Collins, might perceive connections, or parallels, where no connections or parallels exist. Both perspectives are sound. I am not fully persuaded by Collins’ point of view, but I do find the notion intriguing.

I’m more skeptical when Collins goes on to apply Freud to The Sound and the Fury and extends this dubious theory backward into Mayday, however. Collins asserts that Benjy represents the id, Quentin the ego and Jason the superego. If Jason represents the superego, then either Collins or I have a fundamental misunderstanding of what that term is supposed to signify. I don’t have any problem with a critic analyzing a work from a Freudian perspective, or from a Marxist perspective or from a feminist perspective; I do find it laughable, however, to think that Faulkner deliberately concocted the characters of The Sound and the Fury to represent well-partitioned Freudian chambers of the mind. Nevertheless, it may be that Collins’ theory does make a little more sense in the case of Mayday, which after all is something frankly akin to a medieval allegory, or fairy tale. And yet even here the task of assigning Freud’s terms to Galwyn and his red and green design-companions is hardly a self-evident exercise; indeed, the red and the green are so interchangeable it is in fact impossible to know which one is more like Benjy and which one is more like Jason. Connotations associated with the words Hunger and Pain are probably helpful, but the characteristics (i.e., traits deriving from their characters) of these two bit-players cannot be said to map easily onto their alleged counterparts in that other book.

So Collins does dredge up a few ponderables in his introduction, but what is probably most important is his information concerning the degree to which Faulkner’s text leans heavily on the works of the Virginian James Branch Cabell; so heavily, Collins insinuates, that I feel a bit remiss talking about Mayday without tracking down and reading Cabell’s The Line of Love, and perhaps one or two other novels of his as well. But so be it. The theme of The Line of Love, Collins tells is, is that of the illusions of idealized, romantic love being inevitably overthrown by disillusioning reality. This theme is central to Mayday: I have no dispute with that.

Here I leave Collins for Faulkner.

It’s helpful to know the debt Faulkner owes to Cabell, because absent that knowledge this little book appears to be a real enigma. In style it is nothing like either the hapless poetry we’ve seen before now or the more well known Southern regionalist prose that is soon to come. Mayday is a curiosity, not a text we would expect to find under Faulkner’s name. It’s a rather bizarre fairy tale of uncertain interpretation. It is true that our hero Galwyn appears to be on a quest for the perfect woman ― for his soul mate. One by one, as he effects short-lived liaisons with fetching ladies, Galwyn is disillusioned as the unobtainable is obtained. Each would-be leading lady proves far too human and therefore tedious to him. One by one he leaves them behind. His accompanying sidekicks, Pain and Hunger, seem to offer very little support or insight during the quest: perhaps they should be seen less as sidekicks than as hangers-on. Pain and Hunger are the companions we all have during our various trips through the world, through life.

Bracketing the action of the tale are a pair of curious settings and encounters; or rather, more probably, the story is not linear but circular. Galwyn returns finally to his point of origin, and encounters again the same warden of the quest, Saint Francis, who was there at the beginning. Saint Francis stands as a tree by the River of Life wherein all the history of the world is recorded. Reading of this river I could not keep from conjuring up visions of a similar river in Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha. In the space of these few handfuls of pages it seems that Galwyn has passed his entire allegorical life, moving away from birth and toward death. If for no other reason then with reference to the Canticle of the Sun, Faulkner has selected Saint Francis as the warden of the adventure in order that he may identify the final object of Galwyn’s life-quest as “Little sister Death.”

I must note that while Collins, coming at Faulkner’s allegory from a Christian tradition, makes much of Galwyn’s despair and suicide, I find neither here. Instead, Saint Francis requires Galwyn to make a choice, which strikes me as not being too Christian a concept. One path Galwyn may choose is to undergo an act of reincarnation in which he will retain no memory of his most recent life and its various disillusionments. He will start afresh at birth a tabula rasa. To know what experiences he can expect, one need only return to the first page of Mayday and start reading again. Presumably Galwyn has already made this choice many times at the ends of many previous lifetimes. The alternative path before Galwyn is to put an end to the endless cycling by finally merging with his romantic ideal. I see weariness in our hero, yes, but neither despair nor suicide. Instead, Galwyn chooses to put an end to the karmic cycles of rebirth and, according to another tradition, he achieves nirvana.

My question now is this. Having read Collins’ speculations, and having arrived at tentative conclusions of my own, when next I re-read The Sound and the Fury, will I see Quentin’s choice through the filter of an Eastern tradition?

Tucson Springtime, 2015.

Short hike at the end of Campbell Avenue, 29 April 2015. Every palo verde in Pima County is in bloom for the moment. Also many of the cholla and prickly pear. All images can be clicked on for larger size displays; back arrow to return. HINT: clicking on images is strongly recommended!







































Ernie & Bill: Faulkner in the University: a Review.

So far I’m just a dabbler in William Faulkner, although I’m engaged in a Great Project which involves reading as much of his works, along with those of Ernest Hemingway, all simultaneously and in chronological order. By rights I should have come at this volume close to the end of that Great Project, but I was on a trip through Georgia and a tiny part of Tennessee and I bought this little book somewhere ― I think it was in Chattanooga. I bought so many books on this trip that I had to ship them home, but I needed something small and portable to bring back on the plane, and this was it.

Now when a celebrity is interviewed, say a rock star or an actor, it’s often pretty iffy when the questioner veers off into any area outside the celebrity’s immediate bailiwick. That is, why should celebrity status confer a legitimacy to one particular individual’s private opinions which should influence how we think or feel about global politics, say? Of course I admit the interest may vary quite a lot depending upon the insights, knowledge and wisdom of the person being interviewed ― rare enough qualities within the entertainment industry ― and sometimes the interviewee will offer a refreshingly original point of view which we haven’t heard before. That said, mostly this book is a long series of transcripts of various Q&A sessions conducted at the University of Virginia in 1957-1958, which finds Faulkner more or less at the height of his creative power; he had received his Nobel Prize in 1949. The book generally covers three areas of interest: Faulkner on writing, Faulkner on Southern history, and Faulkner on unrelated matters.

A book such as this may help us to understand Faulkner-the-man, or Faulkner-the-writer. Of course we always have the nagging question: Do we care about the works themselves or about the author who created them? Those are two different Things. Here we are afforded an extended view of Faulkner-the-man interacting with the public on a small scale, so we can hope that his expressed opinions are more candid and unguarded than they might be if he were writing an essay for publication. This is why I feel this book is of value.

So. Faulkner on writing. This is the concern that interests me most. Unfortunately, Faulkner has little insight to offer concerning his writing process. Mostly he gives us a few pat clichés again and again. An author writes from three sources: what he’s read before and steals, from personal experience and from imagination. Faulkner also asserts repeatedly that he is uninterested in writing about ideas but only about characters. This seems to mean he has no conscious ax to grind in a story or a novel, perhaps barely a theme, that if themes or symbols seep in, it is via an unconscious process which readers and critics only infer later, and which he almost always disavows. He also states a time or two that he believes all good writers write like he does, concerning themselves far more with characters than with ideas. I think this assumption of his untrue, although it provides him a useful barometer for comparing himself to other writers: if they write primarily about characters, they are “good” writers. Well, an important writer need not be brilliantly articulate about the writing process. If we wish to learn about how Faulkner writes, I don’t think we’re going to learn much listening to him talk about it.

I’ll skip ahead to Faulkner on unrelated matters, his answers to questions that don’t involve writing or Southern history but instead might be said to follow the form: Sir, you’re a celebrity, so how do you feel about subject X which has nothing to do with your writing? It might be seen as a sort of hero worship. What bothers me most about Faulkner’s handling of such questions is that he never once prefaces his replies with: Well, you know, I’m no authority on subject X, but . . . Instead, he answers these questions as seriously as any other question put to him, which at least implies that he feels that his celebrity status does confer on him some authority to hold forth on any question at all put to him. This is off-putting, but it also reveals how Faulkner sees himself  and his relevance to society. Examples of answers to these questions include Faulkner’s opinions about how Europeans view Americans based on his trips overseas, and what America should do to encourage the rest of the world to like us more. It’s all faintly ridiculous. Maybe not even faintly.

It turns out that the most important part of the book is concerned with Faulkner on Southern history. This can be found in smatterings throughout, but the prime section is toward the end when Faulkner reads an essay titled “A Word to Virginians”  on 20 February 1958. We must consider the date so we can put his words and thoughts in context as best as we can. These were trying times especially in the South as the Civil Rights Movement was well underway but still revving up. So far there had been Brown v Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Central High School at Little Rock. Now, throughout the book, Faulkner comes across as being more liberal than the mean for his region, as we might say. In his fiction he shows equal empathy for white and black, and he is no apologist for the Confederate cause in the Civil War nor preacher of the Lost Cause. One thing his fiction teaches us is how inadequate words like racist and racism and white supremacy and the like can be. It’s not that these words are illegitimate, but we have too few words to try to cover an enormous spectrum of attitudes and behaviors arising from a multitude of causes and personal and shared experiences. And yet . . . And yet. In this essay Faulkner calls for “mother” Virginia to offer leadership to the other Southern states through these trying times. Clearly he seeks for some form of progressive leadership, but just what that leadership role is to be he doesn’t say or really even hint at. One thing he’s not advocating is integration, which he predicts the South won’t “accept” for another fifty (!) years. Sadly, to depict the situation of uneducated blacks living among white Southerners, Faulkner compares them to a herd of wild horses cut loose and raising havoc in the town. He then claims this was a poor analogy he put in his essay, but after all the only reason he is present at the University of Virginia is because he is a respected writer, so this mea culpa is a non-starter. Most sadly of all, he states multiple times that “the Negro doesn’t want to mix with white people any more than white people want to mix with the Negro.”  In the end what Faulkner appears to fear most is that segregation is going to be terminated by the federal government and not by Southern states, and in effect he calls for Southern states to find a solution to this problem before segregation is ended and integration is thrust upon them. And he never offers any notion of what such a solution would look like beyond educating blacks , as he puts it, to stop thinking like Negroes, and by inference to learn to think like respectable whites.

I’m not overly concerned with what Faulkner’s attitudes were for the sake of his personal reputation. I am, however, definitely surprised that his words do suggest such an extraordinary naiveté about the aspirations of black American Southerners who have been his neighbors and subjects of his fiction for his whole life. In fact I think this essay can only be read as professionally embarrassing, as it undermines our faith in his ability to understand the South which he wrote about. And if we start to doubt his grasp of what was going on in the South in his own day, then it may be that we begin to question how representative of authentic Southern history his body of work is.

Not that I necessarily do question this. But my take home lesson from this book is that Faulkner demonstrates at great length that he has little of use to say about writing, that he is profoundly unaware, even ignorant, of the historical tides about to sweep over the South, and that he has no qualms about pontificating on any other matters in which he has little or no expertise. None of which tells me anything about how well he can write fiction. This is a valuable and helpful book for anyone who, like me, is trying to understand Faulkner, in spite of its frustrations. Faulkner in the University paints a portrait of a fellow who was as a rule not a deep thinker; he might well be called a poseur. The greatness of his fiction, if it is great, we must try to comprehend by reading the texts themselves, not by looking to their author for any help.


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