Saturday, March 13, 2010

Waking to interpretation

Gerry forwarded two notes from a Finnegans Wake List, which draw on the difficulties of grappling with the Wake to address the larger question of how to read literature:

1. (From Jack Kolb) March 11, 2010
Finnegans Wake, Chop Suey

On this day in 1923, James Joyce wrote to his patron, Harriet Weaver, that he had just begun "Work in Progress," the book which would become Finnegans Wake sixteen years later: "Yesterday I wrote two pages -- the first I have written since the final "Yes" of Ulysses. Having found a pen, with some difficulty I copied them out in a large handwriting on a double sheet of foolscap so that I could read them. . . ." Though increasingly plagued by eye problems -- ten operations, and counting -- Joyce's lifestyle had improved from the Ulysses years, thanks to Weaver's continued support, and money given by Sylvia Beach against future royalties. He and his wife, Nora, were able to get new clothes, a new flat, even new teeth: "The dentist is to make me a new set for nothing," wrote Joyce to Miss Weaver, "as with this one I can neither sing, laugh, shave nor (what is more important to my style of writing) yawn. . . ."

Nora was not fond of her husband's style of writing, and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was "on another book again," just a year after the misery of Ulysses, she asked her husband if, instead of "that chop suey you're writing," he might not try "sensible books that people can understand." Although she did not tighten her purse, Weaver was also unimpressed by those sections of "Work in Progress" which Joyce sent her, and by his explanation that he was attempting to go beyond "wideawake language, cutanddry grammar, and goahead plot":

I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately-entangled language systems. It seems to me you are wasting your

Ezra Pound agreed with her -- "nothing short of a divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization" -- but Samuel Beckett did not:

You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read.... It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.

2. (From Richard Stack:) Many thanks to Jack for bringing this remarkable sentence from Beckett to light:

"You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read.... It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself."

Over the past year I have returned to teaching, and have become increasingly convinced of the truth of this view. My students have great difficulty reading poetry, and the reason, I have come to believe, is not that they read badly, but too "well", that is, too fluently, too habitually. Confronted by the difficulty of the poetic text, it is their fluency as everyday readers which becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle.

They seem to find rereading, pondering, working through a difficult text almost impossible to imagine doing. I have found myself trying to get them to imagine the text as great food - something to be chewed, savored, something which sets the mouth to work:

while the nigh thatch / Smokes in the sun-thaw;

(Coleridge Frost at Midnight)

rather than something to be merely "understood".

By the same token, I have found that the text of the Wake - or at least the handful of bits I know well - is best approached in the same sort of manner, not as something to be "understood" but rather as a wonderful piece of "music, something to be rehearsed, played, enjoyed, learnt by heart perhaps. I performed Anna Livia once, and by the time I knew it by heart I could not remember what it was that was supposed to be so difficult about it.


Can we relate their discussion to Milton, and more generally, to our experience of classic works? Below is a rudimentary first stab:

 Beckett's description, marvelous as it is, evokes the idea of the poem as end in itself - not unlike the tradition of "art for art's sake," which, since Kant, has brought to the fore the notion that art (poetry, sculpture, painting etc.) need not be about something - need not be burdened with a message that aims to inform, persuade, teach, or inspire. In Kant's memorable formulation in the Critique of Judgment, pure art stems from an activity that can be described as "purposiveness without purpose."

The idea of the art object as "autotelic" -- from the Greek, telos, cause or end -- is particularly associated with Modernism. In earlier periods, art was conceived to serve various purposes, and to bear various messages. For Aristotle, tragedy was a mode of medicine, a purgation of civic ills; for the Greeks, Homer was the teacher of civilization; for Lucretius, whose poems intended to teach the findings of science, his poetry was also a mode of medicine, in which beauty made more palatable the bitter truth:
Lucretius compares his work in this poem to that of a doctor healing a child: just as the doctor may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter wormwood (most likely Absinth Wormwood) believed to have healing properties, the patient is "tricked" into accepting something beneficial but difficult to swallow ... WP
The Old Testament similarly stages scenes that provoke, move, and entertain, but also dramatize the act of interpretation -- as when Joseph's life turns upon dreams and his explication of them, or when David, falling for Nathan's parable, discovers that the story he's been hearing works on a different level, and carries a potent bit of news aimed directly at himself.

These are texts that don't just invite interpretation; they incorporate acts of interpretation into their narratives. They demand it.

Where does Milton stand (or, fall) along this spectrum? Insofar as his stated aim is "to justify the ways of God to man," he's declaring his purpose. Yet the poem is also full of rich sound, structural complexity, allusive richness, varied levels of style, musicality, and rhythm. It's difficult to quickly absorb, or to read "too habitually." These lines too are "to be chewed, savored, something which sets the mouth to work."

We are considering the artistic meaning of Milton's poem, but what about art in Paradise Lost? One might well ask, as we join Satan on the backside of the Universe, what purpose is served by the glorious art of the gate of heaven:

 farr distant he descries
Ascending by degrees magnificent
Up to the wall of Heaven a Structure high,
At top whereof, but farr more rich appeer'd
The work as of a Kingly Palace Gate [ 505 ]
With Frontispice of Diamond and Gold
Imbellisht, thick with sparkling orient Gemmes
The Portal shon, inimitable on Earth
By Model, or by shading Pencil drawn. P.L. III

Milton evokes a rare image of a human artist making art in order to deny that what he's describing could be imitated; (interestingly, Dante also gives us a vignette of himself writing his poem at the very end of Purgatory -- and running out of space -- before he ascends to Il Paradiso) -- yet in the next "breath," we're given the vision of Jacob:

The Stairs were such as whereon Jacob saw [ 510 ]
Angels ascending and descending, bands
Of Guardians bright, when he from Esau fled
To Padan-Aram in the field of Luz,
Dreaming by night under the open Skie,
And waking cri'dThis is the Gate of Heav'n [ 515 ]

From the moment of seemingly pure, disinterested aesthetic beauty, the scene has shifted to something far more disturbing, even terrifying: the moment in Genesis 28 when Jacob wakes to the  shock of the meaning of his dream:

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful  (Grk: φοβερός; Latin: terribilis) is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

It's worthwhile remembering Jacob's terror -- at the advent of his dream's meaning -- as we observe Satan's apparent lack of interest at the foot of the ladder, despite the fact that
Each Stair mysteriously was meant

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