Streaming Joyce


I often find myself wondering, as someone’s talking to me, what the inside of their head would look like if it was a room in a house. Some people have minds that are so light-filled and clean and orderly that I wish I could take up residence there. And yes, I’ll admit that other times, I wish I could get in there with a feather duster, a garbage can, and a nice set of file folders.

Which brings me to Joyce, who must have spent a lot of time wondering what was inside people’s heads too, because he spends a lot of time showing you what he’s discovered in there. My guess is that he wasn’t drawn to the room in a house thing.

I’m only at about page 100, but even this early on, it’s pretty clear that Joyce thought of the brain’s activity as a sort of streaming audio, one that doesn’t always come in clearly or in your own language, an audio that’s been transcribed by somebody who really, really hates punctuation.

Still, despite the weird transcript of the inside of the heads of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, Ulysses has a coherent (in fact beautiful) narrative voice, one that’s not so different from the voice of the narrator of the The Dead. And so the beginning of this book is quite engaging.  And when you emerge from the free fall you go into every time the narrative voice falls silent for a minute and you find yourself disconcertingly, maddeningly and often confusingly inside somebody’s head, you find the narrator is still there, and still sane.

If you allow yourself to relax, and decide that it’s not necessary to understand everything you’re getting from the insides of these heads, you see that Stephen Dadelus’s head is quite interesting.  For one thing, it’s crammed full of languages. One minute it’s Latin, another it’s French. There are lots of allusions to things you think you might have read sometime, but you have no idea when or what. And sex, sex is never far away, which is fine, because at least you know a little bit about that topic, though you have no idea where the hell the bit of poetry Dadelus is ruminating over comes from.  Still, if you’ve relaxed, it doesn’t matter.  The worst thing you can do, I think, is read a book like this with a concordance.  I don’t like my literature to resemble a quiz.  If a book is going to work for me, it pretty much has to work from within its own pages.

As for Bloom’s head — well it’s quite different from Stephen Dadelus’s.  For one thing, it’s easier to follow, and a lot more fun, because he tends to be interested in sex and food, two subjects I do think about myself.  He’s an interesting, arresting fellow, and I’m not unhappy to be in his head.

And there are indeed plenty of ill-bred moments, involving the sorts of material (snot, flautulence, to name two) that form the basis of many jokes in our house. It seems that inside the heads of grown men, the seven year old self is strong. I know there’s more to Joyce than what I’ve just said, something more grand and summing up, but I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I can do that.  I’ll be posting on some other subject next (maybe sex or food, come to think of it), and then when I get to the end of Ulysses, I’ll let you know what else that might be.  It might be April when I do that, but I’m guessing every single one of you can probably wait.

Not-Reading

I’m well into Ulysses (which means, I’ve started it and have yet to run shrieking from the room) and might even have some things to say about that in a day or so or more.  But I also have two other books underway and wanted to tell you about them because of one simple fact they have in common: I’m not actually reading either one of those, if by reading you mean holding a book in your hand and sitting down with a cup of tea and maybe a cookie, or just sitting on a train with the book on your lap which, if you don’t know by now, are the two ways I read.

The first book I’m not reading is The Aeneid. Although Virgil wasn’t an oral poet like Homer, (I looked that up to make sure I wasn’t just manufacturing that statement — here), it’s a poem that’s written in the oral tradition and is well suited to being read aloud. So I went over to audible.com and discovered that there’s an audiobook of the Fagles translation I got for Christmas and I listened to the sample, and on came this guy with one of those wonderful, delicious British voices that could make a reading of the California Code of Civil Procedure a thing of wonder and mystery and before I knew it I was a lifetime member of audible.com, and the head of delish Brit’s fan club. And yes, it’s true, when he starts talking I find I can barely breathe. I wish his name wasn’t Simon Callow, though, but if I think of him as Delish Brit, I’m okay.

So far, I’ve gotten up to the point where Aeneas makes it to Carthage, and Dido is about to fall in love with him. Poor Dido. The whole thing is quite wonderful. I listened to it yesterday while I was on a walk around our neighborhood, and although I would sometimes drift off into a weird reverie induced by the beautiful voice of Delish Brit, I believe I was really only absent from the story for a moment or two because I do know what happened and I have some coherent thoughts forming about the gods, and about the structure of the story. There are hours to go, and I’m so glad, because I don’t ever want to say goodbye to Mr. Delish Brit.

And then there’s DailyLit (or litbit, which makes it a sort of cousin of delishbrit, see paragraph above). I read about DailyLit today on the 9rules blog. You probably already know about litbit, because it seems tailor-made for bookish sorts, but basically, they slice up great books (the ones that aren’t under copyright anymore and so can be sliced up) and email them to you in tiny, daily packages. I considered doing that with Ulysses for about ten seconds — until I saw that it would take about 322 days before I finished. I think I can read (and skim) faster than that.

But I did see something I liked the look of, something that’s a perfect marriage of the efficient litbit form and the book itself, somthing that looked like too much fun to pass up — an early 20th century self-help book, Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (which is actually part of a larger Bennett project called, simply enough How to Live).

And so today, I received my first bit of Bennett on the question of how to live on 24 hours a day, which is actually this question: how do you get a really huge number of things done every day. And the answer? You’ve got to stop sleeping so damned much.

Turns out (no surprise to me, but maybe he found it surprising), lots of people think they can’t do that. And in 1925, when he wrote this book, the biggest problem people had with getting up early was this: “I couldn’t begin [the day] without some food, and servants.”

Ah. Servants. Now, food, I’d have guessed, but there aren’t any servants around at 5 a.m. was not on my list of the top ten reasons why I can’t get up early. Still, Arnold Bennett has the answer for this problem of how on earth we can get up early if there aren’t any servants around and it turns out to be a pretty good answer, and one I’m going to try to implement myself:

“Surely, my dear sir, in an age when an excellent spirit-lamp (including a saucepan) can be bought for less than a shilling, you are not going to allow your highest welfare to depend upon the precarious immediate co-operation of a fellow creature! Instruct the fellow creature [in my case, I suppose this would be my husband], whoever she may be, at night. Tell her to put a tray in a suitable position over night. On that tray two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches and a spirit-lamp; on the lamp, the saucepan; on the saucepan, the lid– but turned the wrong way up; on the reversed lid, the small teapot, containing a minute quantity of tea leaves. You will then have to strike a match–that is all.

“In three minutes the water boils, and you pour it into the teapot (which is already warm). In three more minutes the tea is infused. You can begin your day while drinking it. These details may seem trivial to the foolish, but to the thoughtful they will not seem trivial. The proper, wise balancing of one’s whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea at an unusual hour.”

I’d like to repeat this and put it in bold italics because it strikes me as the most important thing I’ve heard yet this year: The proper, wise balancing of one’s whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea at an unusual hour.

Okay, I’m with him. I do indeed believe that a lot of things depend on tea. (In your case, this might be another beverage, and I am perfectly fine with that.) And if tea could be arranged at, say 5 in the morning, I might, just might, drag myself out of bed and read some more of Ulysses. Especially if there’s a nice tray already set out and waiting for me with a biscuit or two on it. Who knows, with tea and a biscuit or two I might even finish Ulysses before 2008.

The Madeleine Project: Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a quiz for you: name one contemporary politician who inspired you to read a poem in its entirety.

For me: Ted Kennedy. It’s not a route to poetry I’d taken before (or since), but Kennedy’s invocation of Tennyson’s great dramatic monologue, Ulysses, at what was a clearly a watershed moment in Kennedy’s life, made a huge impression on me when I was twenty years old.

It was Tennyson to whom Kennedy turned in his keynote speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, a speech in which it was clear he would never be president, having failed to gain his party’s nomination. This is what he said:

“And someday, long after this convention, long after the signs come down, and the crowds stop cheering, and the bands stop playing, may it be said of our campaign that we kept the faith. May it be said of our party in 1980 that we found our faith again.

And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:

I am a part of all that I have met
Tho much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are –
One equal temper of heroic hearts strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

I know there are a lot of things you can say about Kennedy, but when I was twenty I didn’t know anything about his many weaknesses. When I heard him speak, I understood that he was bidding farewell to some idea of himself and embarking on a new course, one he both welcomed and feared. And I think I also knew even then that I was listening to one of the last political figures who could comfortably refer to a long-dead poet in a significant speech. That he did so without apology or fanfare, as though this was the proper way to go about explaining himself, is something I have never forgotten. When I was twenty, one of my fears was that I would not be a good enough reader, surrounded as I was by a university full of practiced, confident readers. Kennedy seemed to be saying that one need not feel that way. That poetry belongs in a lot of places, not just in the academy. And from this, I came to see that we can trust our reactions to poetry; that there is no reason why we may not find our own meanings in what we read, without fear that we are not sophisticated enough to read properly.

Tennyson wrote this poem after the death of a loved friend. And it’s possible to hear, in the voice of Ulysses, Tennyson’s own struggle with loss and death. It’s also possible to misread the poem as nothing more than an exhortation to “carry on” in the face of sorrow. But there’s more than that going on. Ulysses is old and his life is nearing its end. His son is carrying on business in Ithaca. That all voyages take you closer to death is something Ulysses understands quite well. And he knows his next journey won’t take him back to Ithaca. He welcomes it anyway, celebrates it even — knowing that this is what it means to be human, hard as that can be to bear. And I think the poem suggests, and certainly it suggested to Kennedy, that although we leave behind ambitions and loved ones, they are still part of who we are.

What I found, after reading this poem, quite slowly, because that’s how you have to read it to really get it, is that the poem moves me still. Twenty years ago, the poem was about something I didn’t quite understand. Now? Well, it makes me want to read the Odyssey again. And it makes me admire Ted Kennedy, a terribly imperfect man, who’s held fast to some things that matter to him, including Tennyson and poetry’s power to console us and teach us how to behave in life’s difficult moments.

Here’s the poem:

Ulysses

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vest the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all to little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads- you and I are old;
Old age had yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1842)