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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

In book review on July 13, 2009 at 5:38 pm

A prolific literary blogger (biblioklept) lists down five of his favorite father-child relationships in literature. He has this to say about the topic:

[It] seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon’s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance).

Among the few works dealing with the relationship between a biological father and his child, he includes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. See the full article here.

Related post:

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”.

Bhagavad Gita

In book review on June 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm

The Gita is part of the long epic Mahabharata. Some consider it as part of the Vedas, which are the oldest sacred texts of Sanskrit literature. Holy scripture or not, it’s one of the enduring sources of spirit in the spiritless conditions of our times. The Gita is in essence a didactic discourse which takes place in frozen time. The setting is a battlefield, and the speakers are the warrior prince Arjuna and the god Krishna. As the battle begins, Arjuna asks Krishna to place their chariot between two armies, and there the prince grieves because he has relatives and friends on two opposing sides. This petrifies his will. Arjuna declares that he would rather die than participate in the war. Like the dialogue between God and the Satan in the Book of Job, this serves as a prologue to discourse. Time stops and “even the flies are caught in midair between two wingbeats” (Introduction).

Gandhi says the gist of the Gita is the concept of renunciation of the fruits of action. It reconciles the necessity of action and of detachment through sacred duty. It echoes Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Player King in the play within the play:

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

The translator Stephen Mitchell calls the Gita a love song to reality and a psalm to life. The only code to live by is to “let go”. The Gita is comparable to Job, Ecclesiastes, and the dialogues of Chinese Zen masters. They all challenge a Zoroastrian moral world order, like the voice of God from the whirlwind in Job, which is echoed in the second book of Isaiah through an uncanny revelation:

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

This passage evokes Krishna’s declaration that he is a shatterer of worlds, but he cannot be considered evil for being such. At one point in the Gita, there is a terrifying theophany where Krishna shows his true form to Arjuna, with his billions of eyes and bellies, and all realities past, present and future existing in him. This reminds me of the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where Govinda sees in the face of Siddhartha all of space and time. In the Gita, all things live in Krishna, whether good or evil. Zoroastrian duality breaks down, anticipating Hamlet’s “there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and the Shakespearean evocation of Hamletist disinterestedness.


In book review on June 5, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Why read Macbeth, or why read Shakespeare at all? To magnify the horrific event which is the murder of King Duncan, the bard doesn’t say how Macbeth’s hand is full of blood; rather, he toys with the hyperbolic possibility that the bloody hand can stain the entire ocean:

…this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red

During the murder scene, there is a knock on the door of the castle, and the porter, who is unaware of the crime, proceeds to open the door, saying, “Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?” I don’t know about other readers, but when I reached this passage where the porter of Inverness is mischievously pretending to be the porter of hell, I literally experienced goose bumps. Here you have a couple who just murdered the king inside their own castle, and then suddenly the porter, who doesn’t know anything, starts role-playing as the devil in a rather lighthearted way. The humor becomes very dark, and the irony turns Inverness at the night of the murder all too real.

The events in Macbeth are still an enigma. One cannot locate a central and singular cause to Macbeth’s deeds. Is it simply because of “vaulting ambition”, the work of fate, or just some evil operation men do not know (e.g. Macbeth seeing a dark vision where the handle of a dagger seems to provoke him into executing the crime)? Nevertheless, we know that Macbeth has freedom to act, based from his soliloquies, where he confirms his own resolve to kill Duncan and everyone who becomes an obstacle to his ambition. What makes the ambivalence so appealing is that, on the one hand, you have the working of destiny, and on the other, Macbeth’s self-determination.

When I reached the following lines, I could not move on to the next passage because I was compelled by their remarkable beauty to have them memorized. Spoken by Macbeth after the death of Lady Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The negative wisdom here competes with Ecclesiastes.

I’ve read Macbeth more than a year ago, and rereading it now gives an entirely different level of wonder. When I was in first year, I watched a Filipino and comic adaptation of Macbeth in the College of St. Benilde. It was a bad production, but it worked! I left the play admiring lines such as “Stars, hide your fires” in Filipino, and I realize now that Shakespeare as Shakespeare had burst through, transcending the failed spectacle of the performance.