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April 8, 2003

Joyce's modernism

Continuing the theme of modernism from yesterday ... For six hundred years, English has been tinkered with until it has become a fine instrument for describing what's literally going on and what people are thinking. The vocabulary is famously huge, the syntax is supple, and there are narrative techniques for all occasions. As an example of perceptive modern prose, consider James Joyce's spare description of Leopold Bloom in a hearse:

Mr. Bloom entered and sat in a vacant place. He pulled the door to after him and slammed it shut tight. He passed an arm through the armstrap and looked seriously from the open carriage window at the lowered blinds of the avenue. Nose whiteflattened against the pane. Thanking her stars she was passed over. Glad to see us go we give them so much trouble coming.

We don't really know how the old woman talks or what she's thinking. Maybe she's a police informant spying on the house opposite; maybe she's a he. But Joyce has focused his lens so that only Bloom's mind shows clearly. Thus we learn about the objects that Bloom handles—the door and the armstrap—but only about their functions, because he is too preoccupied to note accidental features like material and color. His very name reflects his state of mind, for he experiences himself as "Mr. Bloom" when he rides in a hearse. We might like to learn more (for instance, what kind of buildings line the avenue?), but such information would ruin the realism. Thinking is perspectival, selective; and we know just what Bloom notices.

Modern literary English allows an author to choose almost any vantage point, any focus, and any depth of field. Why then does Joyce use so many other idioms? For instance, in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, he mimics every major prose style in the history of English. At one point, Bloom has just entered a house where a woman is suffering her third day of labor. He means to express his sympathy to the family, but he finds himself among callous drunks who are loudly discussing whether it would be better in the eyes of the Church for the woman or the baby to die. Bloom mutters vague abstractions to avoid expressing a view, perhaps because any opinion could be heard upstairs. Then ...

in Joyce's version ....

That is truth, pardy, said Dixon, and, or I err, a pregnant word. Which hearing young Stephen was a marvellous glad man and he averred that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was of a wild manner when he was drunken and that he was now in that taking it appeared efstoons.
But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb's wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon him his friend's son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with these wastrels and murdered his good with whores.

in a literal paraphrase ...

"That's the truth," said Dixon. "And a pregnant word, if I'm not mistaken," he added, when the thought struck him. Young Stephen roared at the pun and added sarcastically, "He who steals from the Lord lends to the poor." He was wild when drunk: his eyes shone and his voice was loud and shrill.
But Bloom was grave and quiet, for he still heard shrieking from upstairs. The sound of a woman in labor always moved him, and these particular cries reminded him of his wife Molly, who had borne his only baby boy. The baby had died (of accidental poisoning) after just eleven days. The doctors had said that nothing could be done. Molly was so grief-stricken that all she could do was to shop for the best little wool blanket so that their son wouldn't have to lie cold in the winter ground. Now Bloom watched brash young Stephen, his friend's boy, and grieved for his own dead child. But as much as he mourned the baby (a beautiful child, everyone said), Bloom was just as sorry to see Stephen wasting his life with drunks and his money on whores.

Joyce's prose resembles a thick but uneven hedge screening the literal truth. Here, we can just about cut through the fifteenth-century language to to see what's going on. In other places, it is impossible to make out even the basic narrative facts. For instance, we are almost never permitted to overhear Bloom's thoughts about what to do or where to go next. Much like Odysseus, he just shows up in episode after episode.

Frustrated by this and other omissions, we might say: If only Joyce would just tell the story! Why does he have to use a pastiche of past and present styles, so many of which are opaque?

The question assumes, of course, that there is a truth to grasp. But perhaps my "literal interpretation" above is simply one idiom, a product of its time, just as Everyman reflects the culture of England in 1500. In that case, Joyce has carried realism to its final stage. He doesn't describe the world or consciousness (either objectively or subjectively), because to do so would be to forget the fact that all seeing is from the point of view of a style. Instead, he describes some past and contemporary ways in which life has been described. As in one of Nietzsche's magic tricks, the real world—disappears! Literature, not life, is the subject of Ulysses; yet the book itself counts as literature (in Stephen's words, as an "eternal affirmation of the spirit of man"), because it is perceptive, tender, and humane.

This rare combination—a declaration of the End of Art that is also art—is characteristic of the greatest works of modernism. Note, however, that Joyce must deny that there has been progress in the history of English narrative style. The succession of idioms that he mimics does not evolve toward clarity. If modern English prose has somehow surpassed its predecessors, then Joyce would have no excuse to abandon it.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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