John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

Humbug, or "If You Don't Understand It, It Must Be Art".

The Childlike Empress (or someone who looks like her) takes me to task for my condemnation of James Joyce's ULYSSES. Here are the comments in full:

I will stick up my hand in defense of "Ulysses". First off, you HAVE to read an annotated version, or read the Cliff's Notes along with it. Otherwise, yes, it will read as though it's a piece of junk that makes no sense to anyone. However, people were far better educated when Joyce was writing, and he intentionally wrote it with many, many layers of meaning and insight so that it could be unpacked for centuries afterwards, thus gaining himself literary immortality.

Lest you think that the height of conceit, read on. Joyce was one of the key players in the incredibly important struggle for Ireland to regain and rebuild her national identity, which was at the time outlawed and strangulated by British imperial control. All the people in America who love Ireland and are proud of being Irish? HA. There would be no "Irish" had these people not done what they did. Just as O'Donovan Rossa fought for Irish political identity and independence, just as W. B. Yeats dug up the old Irish folktales and breathed into them new life, Joyce made it his life's work to provide Ireland with new Irish literature it could claim as its own.

If you try to read "Ulysses" without assistance, you might as well read the text of the Tridentine Mass in Latin, knowing *nothing* of scripture - or Latin, for that matter. At least most of "Ulysses" is written in English. Joyce references other classical texts constantly, and even works in the voices of other authors who have been part of the classic canon of great literature.

One chapter is written as though by Shakespeare, for example; another as Dickens, and on through history. One chapter is written as a literary fugue, and if you don't know that - or know how a fugue works in music - then yes, it'll be gibberish, what with the chapter beginning with short lines and subsequently using those lines to begin and end certain sentences. You NEED to understand the underpinnings and mechanics of how the book is written to fully enjoy it, or to know what's going on. It's dense and complex, and its apparent simplistic nonsense is a beguiling concealment for the depth of meaning beneath it. You have to WORK at this book, since the modern man is woefully under-equipped in the cultural knowledge department to understand it on his own power. Joyce's education far outstrips the education of even men considered well-read today, and he puts his entire arsenal on display for his future readers.

Other techniques abound, including "stream of consciousness" for which Joyce is most famous, the majority of them completely groundbreaking in literature. "Ulysses" is not a book to read, digest for a few hours, and pronounce one's determination of it. My aunt works at Ridgeview Classical School, one of the top-rated schools in the nation, and she belongs to a book group made up of some of the teachers at that school, and they have spent a couple MONTHS on this book, and still have not finished it.

If you have given it up after reading it on your own, expecting all its beauty to be on its surface and readily available, after only fifty pages, then the poverty of mind is only your own. It is especially reprehensible to presume enough knowledge of a piece after such a paltry glance at it that you can say anything at all about it, much less denounce it as you have.

If you ever bother to read his easiest novel, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", which is mostly autobiographical, you'll find Joyce is a highly polished man, deeply concerned with matters of correct morality, and even retains his Catholic sensibilities despite his tragic falling away. I dare to say, you even might wind up begrudgingly admiring him. His is not the task of destroying what is good and beautiful - but restoring it to a people on the brink of extinction.

=^.^=
My reply:

"First off, you HAVE to read an annotated version, or read the Cliff's Notes along with it."

First off, the first thing writers first learn firstly is to be clear, and to communicate with the reader. I do not mind learning Greek to read Homer, but I do mind learning an author's private language he makes up in his own head.

I am a learned man, a scholar, in fact. I can read Milton without Cliff notes because I can catch the references: I know who it was who plucked the flowers at the fields of Enna, before being carried off, or which shepherd it was who penned the account of creation. I myself have the type of old fashioned education you correctly say is lost elsewhere.

I am actually taken aback by the suggestion that someone of my education would need Cliff notes to read a book. Are you kidding me? I can read the Iliad in Homeric Greek.

In your analogy, you are like someone urging a Jesuit Latin scholar to listen to a Tridentine Mass in atonal modern experimental music, and then pretending it is because he does not speak Latin that he does not get it.

Education has nothing to do with it. "Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler...." is still a stupid sentence. Indeed, my dizzying education allows me to use bigger words to describe how stupid it is: the sentence is hebetudinous.

If your argument is that I do not understand ULYSSES because I lack education, all I can say is that you have made one of the two classic blunders. The first is never get involved in a land war in Asia. The second, only slightly less well known, is not to challenge the education of someone who graduated with honors from Mortimer Alder's "Great Books" program when death is on the line. I do not mind allusions in writer. I use them myself frequently. Some of them are obscure, or come from movies or comic books, as well as from classical literature. But being deliberately obscure is masturbation. It pleases oneself for a time and produces no fruit. A joke that you have to explain is not a joke. An allusion that you have to look up in Cliff Notes is not an allusion.

"Joyce references other classical texts constantly, and even works in the voices of other authors who have been part of the classic canon of great literature...."

I have read and studied the classical texts. I can assure you as a scholar of solid credentials that there obscurity and pointlessness of the text in Joyce is not a sign of allusion to finer things.

This is an anti-novel, not a novel. All of the normal poetical mechanisms of a novel are either inverted or ignored. Joyce was attempting to thumb his nose at everything good and fine in life.

"Joyce was one of the key players in the incredibly important struggle for Ireland...."

And Virgil wrote an important poem for Imperial Rome in her first days after the Republic died. While it might be interesting to comment on Joyce's role in history as an historical figure, this has nothing at all to do with the merits of the book I criticized. Indeed, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN had even more of an impact in history, but no one holds up that work as one that rewards re-reading.

Good books change peoples lives for the better. I know a man who said he decided to be chaste because John Carter, Warlord of Mars, in the pulp sciffy adventure book PRINCESS OF MARS acted like a perfect gentleman. So there is one person, at least, whose soul was improved by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Who was ever bettered by Joyce?

"Other techniques abound, including "stream of consciousness" for which Joyce is most famous, the majority of them completely groundbreaking in literature."

Mark Twain did it first, and did it better. Both scholars and schoolboys can read of the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with pleasure and edification.

"My aunt works at Ridgeview Classical School, one of the top-rated schools in the nation, and she belongs to a book group made up of some of the teachers at that school, and they have spent a couple MONTHS on this book..."

And scholars have spent centuries on Homer and Virgil and Dante, all of whom are in truth what Joyce is only pretending to be.

Do you see what a trick Joyce has played? He has drawn a Rorschach blot and we think we see patterns in the meaningless design.

Dante actually draws a design, one of the most mannered and Gothic designs ever, and there are layers of meaning to it. Dante can be enjoyed both by schoolboys and scholars. Scholars each time they look into Dante can find another and deeper level of meaning in the poet's work, and there is a good chance the poet or his muse actually put the meaning there: and the meaning is about the truest, deepest things in life.

Let us compare: "He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation. The visible signs of postsatisfaction? A silent contemplation: a tentative velation: a gradual abasement: a solicitous aversion: a proximate erection."

Hm. Now for another poet, one who also rewards study:

"Now a soft kiss—
Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss,
An immortality of passion’s thine:
Ere long I will exalt thee to the shine
Of heaven ambrosial; and we will shade
Ourselves whole summers by a river glade;
And I will tell thee stories of the sky,
And breathe thee whispers of its minstrelsy."

Joyce impersonated the accidental characteristic of great art, namely, that further readings are rewarded with deeper meaning, saw that great art requires work from the reader, and designed a book that merely is obscure trash, and pretended that there was great art behind it.

Because great art requires study does not mean that whatever requires study is automatically great, or even good. This is the error of the excluded middle.

There is not only not great art behind it, there is anti-art, a glorification of what is quotidian and ugly. Some of the ugliness is hidden behind humor, but that makes it worse, in my mind, not better. Joyce's point was to undo the greatness of Ulysses by contrasting it with the unheroic smallness of daily life.

"It is especially reprehensible to presume enough knowledge of a piece after such a paltry glance at it that you can say anything at all about it, much less denounce it as you have."

You do not need to drink a bucket of urine to the last drop to appreciate its savor. I can quote the first line of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or Paradise Lost, or even Lord of the Rings, and hear the beauty in those opening chords of the symphony that follows.

The maneuver of saying that only those who have read and studied the book in depth have the right to judge it is a clever maneuver: because then when someone who has read the whole thing denounces it, you can always come again and say he did not read it carefully enough.

But that is humbug. You seem to assume I have some sort of doubts about my learning or my judgment. I do not. My judgment is sound. The emperor has no clothes.

I have, of course, read Joyce: THE DUBLINERS comes to mind. I found them sentimental at best. Nonetheless, Joyce's other works are superior to the monstrous fraud and madness of ULYSSES. He can write well when he puts his mind to it, in the same way Picasso can paint well when he puts his mind to it. But their philosophy points them toward modernism and postmodernism, which is both ugly and evil.
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