Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Messy Modernism. James Joyce. Ulysses.

About  35 (million) years ago I was writing a dissertation on modernism.  For those of you who are outside the academy, modernism was, in the 1970s, a hot topic.  Modernism was understood as a historical period, between roughly 1890 and 1940.  But not everyone who wrote during those years were modernists; instead, modernism contained a group of writers who were thought to share certain characteristics.  Figuring out what those characteristics were and who displayed them was a major critical concern.  Modernism seemed to include a concern with style, an exploration of consciousness, an attitude towards symbol, and new patterns of organization.  And, generally, the canonical modernist writers were Joyce, Pound, Woolf, and Eliot.  But what about other great writers during the period?   Particularly what about Lawrence and Yeats?  They were two of the most influential writers of their time, and they shared many modernist qualities.  But there was something different about them.  Should the concept of modernism be redefined in ways that would include them?  Or was modernism simply not a helpful way to understand the literary achievement of the period?  That, in a nutshell, was my (600+ page) dissertation.

Thankfully, my dissertation—as well as the questions it explored—is in the past.  I published dissertation chapters as articles to get tenure.  And I occasionally taught courses that included modernist writers.  But I left research about modernism and turned my attention elsewhere. 

This summer I have returned to modernism, not as a scholar but as a reader.  I have decided to re-approach the great modernist works that were once so important to me.  But I want to read them not as a scholar looking for an argument, but as someone who reads novels seriously.  The first modernist novel I re-read this summer was James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Joyce was not a major topic in my dissertation, but he was there; generally acknowledged as the quintessential modernist novelist, he was functioned as a kind of foil for Lawrence. 

If you have not read Ulysses (and truly most people who are not “English majors” have not), then you may not know how incredibly complex (and complicated) it is.  It covers a day in Dublin (June 16, 1904).  It is filled with allusions:  to Dublin, to Homer’s Odyssey, to history—ancient to modern—and to myriad other texts.  Almost everyone (generally people reading Ulysses as teacher, student or scholar) approaches it through the lens of other texts.  It is impossible to identify, much less understand, all the allusions without references. 

This summer, over a course of several months, Tony and I read Ulysses.  We occasionally turned to annotations, but we really tried not to scaffold our reading with criticism.  Instead, we wanted to  read it directly, to the extent that was possible.

The first challenge we encountered was whether or not Joyce even intended anyone to read it this way.  Surely no one, not even Joyce’s contemporaries, could have caught all the allusions.  Some of the Dublin allusions are so specific, you literally would have had to be there.  Many of the historical and literary allusions are arcane and demand an education and reading history that could hardly have been duplicated even by Joyce’s most enthusiastic advocates.  Furthermore, to read the bookeven superficially, requires one to read it through the framework Joyce himself (in laying out the Homeric parallels to Stuart Gilbert) provided.   

Tony and I did occasionally turned to annotations, particularly when we felt we were not understanding enough even to understand what was happening.  But we tried to read, as much as possible, without supplementary material.  At any rate, we discovered that allusions to texts or historical events we had never heard of (much less read ) were only of limited use; they sort of helped us “get it.”  More powerful were the references to texts and history we already knew, e.g., Shakespeare, Homer; they resonated for us and illuminated Ulysses in much more powerful ways than simple annotations.  Moreover, we used each other’s knowledge.  Tony knows much more about Latin and Catholicism than  I do; I know a very little more about early 20th century Irish poetry than Tony.

In the end, we realized that there were huge chunks of Ulysses we didn’t get, and that we could live with that:reading Ulysses was not going to be a project of our lifetimes.  But there were many parts that we read for the pleasure of the text.  We both loved the exploration of Bloom’s consciousness—its richness and diversity.  We loved (as do most readers) Molly’s interior monologue.  We liked Stephen’s argument in the Library about Shakespeare.  We were in love with NausicaƤ.  We were stirred by Cyclops. 

We read chapter-by-chapter; discussing each chapter in turn.  For the most part, our talk was a list of the things we admired or were moved by in each chapter.  A kind of list of textual pleasures.  But out of that detailing of textual pleasure, argument arose.  We could not read Ulysses except by taking critical stances. Our claims about the text would not be sufficient for teaching or writing about or even “studying” Ulysses.  But our experience did make us wonder what would it mean to encounter such a book in a classroom and to begin by talking about the things we liked, rather than the things we didn’t  understand.


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Images of Fall--Now that it's over

The trees are almost all bare, and the days lately have been gray.  Restaurants are closed, and only year-round people are living on the lake.  We are moving into the pre-winter season.  Here is a little glimpse of the autumn that preceded it.  This is a famous spot for fall-leaves.  People come from all over the area to view what was in our little neighborhood.
Lake Baily

The part of US 41, right before our house, we call The Windings

From the hammock

Brockway Mountain from the Lodge golf course.

Frimodig Road

#LakeMedora #AtumnLeaves  #FallColor  #Keweenaw

Thursday, October 15, 2015

We Had So Much Fun! Susan and Me in Chicago.

Last weekend, I met my good friend Susan Griffin in Chicago.  Susan and I have been friends since 1988 when I first came to University of Louisville and we had offices next door to one another.

We were only there a day and a half, but we had so much fun, it seemed longer.  Friday we ate at Eataly and then went to a movie, She let me pick (the selections were pretty limited) since I don't have as much chance to see movies here.  The choice was between Martian, Blood Mass and Sicario.  I chose Sicario since it had gotten SUCH great reviews.  Neither one of us really liked it at all, but we agreed at every point and thought the reviews weren't right.

The next day we had breakfast at Pain Quoitidian, then went to the Chicago Historical Society to see an exhibition of Vivian Maier's pictures of Chicago. We both thought the exhibition was oddly put together and not very well displayed.  But again, we were in perfect harmony.  We then shopped (mainly browsed) and went to a matinee at Steppenwolf, East of Eden.  We both liked it and thought the set was interesting but we didn't think the characters were very well developed.  Again, we were of one mind.  We had a great dinner at Chez Moi and the next morning went to the airport and said good-bye.

Susan and I seldom agree about EVERYTHING.  Indeed, part of our friendship is that we don't agree on all topics.  But we were so in synch last weekend, it made everything particularly splendid.  It is wonderful to have such a friendship.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Summer in the Keweenaw Part 2

Prosciutto with fresh peaches
Now that it's October I must officially declare summer in the Keweenaw closed.  Anything else that happens to come along will be "Indian Summer."  The second part of summer featured FOOD!  Fruits and vegetables this far north have a very short growing season.  And all the good stuff I am used to eating from June on in Louisville are only really fresh here in September.  So we ate it with gusto.

We ate tomatoes--all the kinds we could get and in every dish we could manage:

Fresh tomato pasta

 Big salads with tomatoes, peaches, melon.

Now everything is almost over and we're back to more labor-intensive food.  (With fresh fruits and vegetables, all you really do is slice.)

I have spent a bunch of time trying to work on my book.  However I had a big glitch.  I had installed DropBox a while ago and was trying to get rid of it. I had uninstalled it and resigned from the site.  But it still looked like my Desktop was somehow inserted in DropBox.  I tried to delete the desktop from DropBox, figuring it was just a mirror.  But it was a BIG mistake.  I deleted my desktop--all the files that is--permanently.  Mostly this was copies of pictures I had photoshopped for my picture book, and I was able to recover a lot of them.  But I lost my Blurb files as well.  So I have to rebuild the picture book from scratch if I want (and I do) to revise it.  This, plus trying to figure out how to compose text so that it's in the right format for Kindle and a tradebook, has taken up a lot of time.

Finally, September ended with a total eclipse of a blood, super moon.  (Not sure what all that means but it was huge.)  My pictures of the eclipse itself are pretty mediocre.  e.g., 

But I got up a few hours later and wandered into the living room.  It seemed like morning.  The moon itself was bright, you could almost read by it.