Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ulysses & me

For some reason or another, it’s been a long week, & a long (but nice) weekend following. A couple nights ago, deathly tired of grading papers & keeping up with the reading for my Bible as Lit course, I hauled down my copy of Ulysses and started re-reading, thinking this would set me in good stead for this spring’s Joyce seminar. I think I misjudged – or perhaps I’ve had too steady a diet of “big canonicals” these past weeks (I’ve been reading the Good Book, not merely for the course, but straight thru as well – in the middle of the Psalms now – been re-reading Paradise Lost for an upcoming Milton course, & re-scanning The Cantos at a leisurely 3-Cantos-every-few-days pace). Anyway, I re-read both Moby-Dick and Ulysses about this time last year, much of them over the week & a half of enforced, electricity-less leisure following Hurricane Wilma. I remember having great fun.

I think I could read Moby-Dick in almost any circumstances, & I used to think that about Ulysses. But the other night’s reading was hard, well-nigh painful: I found it difficult to force myself all the way thru the first chapter. It made me think about the book in relation to Moby-Dick, not least because they’re two works that I often tell my students (facetiously, mind you) they ought to read at least once a year. Part of what made me want to throw down Ulysses the other night was my standard revulsion at Stephen Dedalus’s sickly Paterianism; but I also found myself just bone-weary of reading books (mind you, I was just coming off of Book V of Milton) in which every line, every phrase is so absolutely weighted. It’s not like that with Melville, is it? I thought.

Much of what makes Moby-Dick so readable for me is that the writing is so wonderfully unbuttoned, happily & wildly rhetorical, sloppy and enthusiastic. In so much of the novel, you can simply let yourself be carried away by Melville’s rhetoric, swept away in the excitement of his story, & not worry about how each image or utterance fits into a grand pattern, as it does in Ulysses.

Or maybe working with poetry all these years has just ruined me for unbuttoned novel-reading. At any rate, Ulysses & I are best friends again – Leopold Bloom has just fixed his wife breakfast, eaten a kidney, & had a poop, & I can’t wait for him to check his mail, have his bath, & show up for that funeral.
I've only leafed thru Andrew Duncan’s The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003), but I can tell it’s going to be a wild ride. Whatever you say about Duncan, he hasn’t a mealy-mouthed bone in his body: “[JH Prynne] associated with Charles Olson, an American who, although he never managed to write any good poetry, had ideas which stimulated the torpid and politically intimidated American literary scene of the time” (123). Gosh, Andrew, what do you really think of Olson? Please, you needn’t be afraid of speaking your mind – after all, you’re not facing a tenure committee or applying for an academic post, two hurdles which seem to have neutered most American academic critics of their ability to say out-&-out whether they think something is shite.*

*Mind you, I'm not endorsing AD's dismissal of the Big O – just expressing admiration at his unbuttoned expression of critical opinion.


Norman Finkelstein said...

I'm currently teaching a course called "Redemption Through Violence in American Literature & Film," based in part on Richard Slotkin's Regeneration Through Violence. The line-up, in case anyone's interested, is Moby-Dick, Go Down, Moses, Blood Meridian and A Good Man is Hard to Find, punctuated by the movies "The Last of the Mohicans," "Unforgiven," and "Dead Man." Slotkin is superb on Melville; his work is a fine complement to Call Me Ishmael. So of course I'm interested in your comparison of Melville and Joyce. I'd say we're dealing with two very different attitudes toward art, toward the function of the novel (or prose epic), and toward nationhood. For better or worse, the shadow of Flaubert et al falls heavily across Joyce--for him, writing is a more refined and self-conscious business than for Melville, with his more purely Shakespearian exuberance. Add to the mix Joyce's ineluctable Catholicism (even in negation) vs. Melville's Protestant "Old Testament" vision, his gnosticism, his profound understanding of what Slotkin calls the "cannibal eucharist." Anyway, Poldy is a sweet guy, a real mensch, and I'm happy to hang with him in Nightown. But Ahab on the quarterdeck--that's my idea of real fun.

Anonymous said...

Re fits of Joyce-inspired book violence, the weight of it all:
"You're not only overcome by him, whether you know it or not, but obliged by him, and constrained to measure yourself against this overcoming. Being in memory of him: not necessarily to remember him, but to be in his memory, to inhabit his memory is greater than all your finite memory can, in a single instant or a single vocable, gather up of cultures, languages, mythologies, religions, philosophies, sciences, history of mind and of literatures. I don’t know if you can like that, without resentment or jealousy.”--from tonight’s assigned reading: “Two Words for Joyce,” Jacques Derrida

Good to see you and ’lysses are friends ’gain!


Ray Davis said...

I wonder if fear of stylistic tinnitus is why goofy "Eumaeus" and "Ithaca" have been my favorite episodes for so many years....

Henry Gould said...

My 1st wife's old boyfriend (got that?) used to read Moby Dick straight through every year on his birthday.