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Posts Tagged ‘Goethe’

Notes on Ulysses

In book review, literary on July 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

This is only the beginning of what is to become a series of notes on James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hailed by many as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I like the brutishness in positing superlatives; they do not only appeal to the certainty and integrity of critics, but also to an almost religious testimony that what I am about to behold is borne of the sublime.

A primer: by now, the reader is already familiar with some modern masterpieces. I know nothing yet about what scholars have to say about the author and his works, preferring to get a taste of the work before the commentaries. Arthur Schopenhauer said that we must at least attempt to think on our own before reading what others have to say about the subject — otherwise their commentaries will stain our original thought, and we will be tempted to merely replicate the opinions of others. Ralph Waldo Emerson echoes this advice in Self-Reliance.

I’ve tried to read Ulysses three times in the past, and I failed. Eccentricity is god in this book. But after reading the first 50 pages, I felt extremely gratified. Reading bits of Aristotle helped, but only marginally. It was probably Shakespeare and Borges who led me on, so I delighted in passages like Buck Mulligan’s “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father”, referring to Stephen Dedalus’ idea of Hamlet.

I love passages that seem to leap out of the page because of their universality. For example:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too.

The appeal is metaphysical. “Who chose this face for me?” The mirror is held out not only to Stephen but also to the reader. The passage leaps out and transcends the page, so that we gain the same impression when we hear Goethe’s Mephistopheles say, “And we, when all is said and done, / Depend on creatures we have made”. It is true that while Mephistopheles is referring to Wagner’s homunculus in the Part Two of Faust, we are tempted to read more into it and think about the creatures we have made in our lives.

Another example is when Stephen Dedalus speculates how events in the here and now annihilate their infinite possibilities upon reaching actuality.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been killed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

I love almost-philosophical speculations on the naked reality of things — I am contented with “almost” because I’m not really after the dialectics behind them. What I am looking for, instead, is an erotics, not a resolution, of metaphysics, pretty much like Susan Sontag’s erotics of art in place for its interpretation.

Another striking passage is how the narrator demonstrates Dedalus’ state of mind by juxtaposing the “snotgreen sea” with the bowl of his dying mother’s bile.

The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

Its effect on the reader’s imagination is astounding! As Dedalus’ mother is projected by the sea’s immensity (conversely, the sea is miniaturized into a bowl of bile), we suddenly feel her monolithic and haunting presence on his memory.

Related post:
Ulysses Seen

Paradise Lost

In book review on July 12, 2009 at 7:05 am

Like Goethe and Dante, Milton was canonized singlehandedly through his best work. Paradise Lost has that line by line virtuosity that Borges praised in Virgil. In describing hell, the poet does not report the uttermost degree of gloom, but instead says “darkness visible”. Instead of saying that the rebel angels mined precious metals, he says they “Ransack’d the Center”. He sustains analogies across many pages; in Book 1, he describes a hill to be “undoubted sign / That in his womb was hid metallic Ore”, then in Book 6, “These in their dark nativity the deep / Shall yield us, pregnant with infernal flame” (emphasis is mine). He describes the formation of angels as being “in hollow Cube” because the cannon lies concealed at the empty center. He convinces us of the fallen angels’ heroic disposition when Satan speaks, “Hail horrors, hail / Infernal world and thou profoundest Hell / Receive thy new Possessor”.

But I think what distinguishes it from other artificial epics is its cognitive capacity to demonstrate the kind of thinking that we see in Emily Dickinson, John Donne and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is nothing more than the Prince’s “There is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. The cognitive capacity is one that treats the external world a mere stuff of clay for the mind. We see a very fine and calculated weighing of terms, and the poet’s subtle logic is usually expressed in Satan’s speeches. One example is how he justifies fallenness to be better than remaining in God’s grace:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same
[…]
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell

Then many pages later, the poet has Satan say, “I myself am hell”.

Paradise Lost has already anticipated the poststructuralist notion of differance. The design of the epic revolves around how we gain knowledge about death, choice, and a sense of good and evil. What ensues is an argument that concepts cannot be construed with a positive term — they must always rely on other concepts, often their opposite. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit because the consequence is death. But how can they make sense of death if it has not yet been introduced in the world?

We are thus in a situation where nothing can be known without experiencing it first. The Fall gives us knowledge. To know they are capable of choice, the angels must choose the other term (disobedience), because to remain obedient cannot possibly give rise to that knowledge. The editors of the Oxford World’s Classics version of Paradise Lost were right: “We fall with the best of intentions”.