Sunday, August 03, 2008

The very notion of wholeness

Of Kafka's story fragment "The Watchman", mentioned in the last post, Gabriel Josipovici also writes: "It is only a fragment in the way an aphorism is a fragment, that is, as a questioning of the very notion of wholeness." What does he mean?

In a short discussion over at Jacob Russell's blog, I echoed something I wrote in an earlier post. I said: "My sense of Modernism, before reading Josipovici, was that it was simply this moment in time in which new techniques expanded (or advanced) the modes available to writers. Since reading Josipovici, most references I see to Modernism appear to be based on the same conception." Jacob replied that "[n]ew techniques were more than a reaction to old techniques: they were reactions to modes of perception, to ways of conceptualizing the world" and that it seems that Josipovici is less "concerned with techniques in themselves, [than] with the broader agenda they were meant to serve". I've been a little uneasy diving into discussions about literary Modernism, primarily because my reading in the critical literature has been so shallow, outside of Josipovici. And yet, his work has struck such a chord with me, that I feel compelled to step into the fray, with him as my primary guide.

To return to this question of wholeness, I want to talk a little about Josipovici's take on James Joyce. Joyce, it seems to me, is for many people the quintessential Modernist. This is how I had viewed him in the past, and it was because of this view that I saw the Modernists as a whole as a particularly difficult group of writers. I was thus surprised and intrigued when I noticed, well over a year ago by now, a comment from Steve Mitchelmore (I don't remember whether it appeared at This Space or in comments elsewhere) to the effect that Ulysses was less the greatest 20th century novel (its customary panel-selected position) than the last great 19th century novel. If I looked at the idea long enough, I could almost feel as if I understood what he meant, though I'd yet to read Ulysses (and, in fact, have still not read it). Steve made a similar comment at least one other time, specifically referencing Josipovici. When I'd read Josipovici's On Trust, I had a better idea what might be meant by this idea, but he doesn't spend any time on Joyce in that book.

Recently, I asked Steve if there was an essay in which Josipovici writes specifically about Joyce. He referred me to an older collection, The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews 1977-1982. I promptly found the book for cheap online. The piece in question is titled, ironically enough, "The Last Great Book". In retrospect, it's a good thing that I wasn't hoping for a lengthy essay or interested in the book only for this piece. The review is only a few pages long and doesn't say a whole lot more than what Steve had already said (happily, the rest of reviews in the book are well worth reading). But there are some choice lines worth attending to. One of the books under discussion is Hugh Kenner's fine study, Joyce's Voices--which Josipovici calls "criticism of a very high order":
Nevertheless, a doubt remains. Not about Kenner, but about Joyce. No objective style, Kenner rightly insists, can be said to exist; no truth can be discovered by aligning so many words to so many things; every attempt to simulate such a Truth will, as in the case of Hemingway, itself quickly become a 'style'. 'The True Sentence, in Joyce's opinion, had best settle for being true to the voice that utters it.' Yet what Kenner fails to see is that in the end Joyce does, against his own deepest insights, cling to one unquestioned Truth, that of the complete work. If there is no True Sentence, then why is there a True Work? This, it seems to me, is a major weakness of Joyce, his refusal to recognise the vulnerability of the Muse, his insistence, against the evidence, that to make a book is itself a valuable activity.

Compared with Proust and Beckett, Kafka and Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Joyce presents a strangely rigid attitude; he refuses ever to let go, to trust the work to take him where it will. Every 'letting go' has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by his own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes.

[. . .] there is ultimately something cosy and safe about Ulysses: underlying it is the belief that the mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good. Far from being 'the decisive English-language book of the [twentieth] century,' as Kenner suggests, it is perhaps the last great book of the nineteenth.
Whereas we seem most often to be concerned with new techniques established by the Modernists writers, especially if we buy into progress, into advancement of the arts, here the techniques themselves are of less concern. I realize that this is one of the reasons why Ulysses has seemed so forbidding. Perhaps I get on better with the more exploratory, less domineering fiction of Proust, Beckett, Kafka, and now Woolf.

If we return to Kafka's fragment, we see ourselves, we overrun it, return to it. "It opens a space and lives in it, a space which we too can enter and in which we too can live. . ." So writes Josipovici, again in his introduction to the Collected Stories (itself collected, as "Kafka's Children", in The Singer on the Shore), in language recalling his remarkable essays about the Bible, including The Book of God itself. In the 19th century novel, the novelist takes over from God, controlling his or her created world, without doubting the justification for this move.

In the short piece on Joyce, Josipovici is reviewing what are, in effect, "reader's guides" to Joyce's writing. Such guides abound, of course, and point to another factor keeping Ulysses at arm's length for me. As Josipovici puts it, Joyce's "works cry out for explication, footnoting and the exercise of those crossword puzzle skills at which the academic mind excels." This, he suggests, is indicative of a weakness in Joyce's art. With Joyce acting as God, academics serve as the priests and Talmudists explaining and interpreting his every word. With this in mind, the first sentence of Josipovici's review is hilariously apt: "If Joyce had not existed the professors would have had to invent him."

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Jacob Russell said...

I do love Joyce.. and Ulysses, and have read many of the "guides to the perplexed" that attempt to comfort the afflicted.

My advice is always the same. Imagine a first visit to a strange city. You can't hope to take it all in, so you wonder here and there, absorb what you can, pick up a bit of the language. That's how to read Ulysses.

I think I disagree with Josipovici here. Ulysses is the last 19th century novel for critics, academics, pendants... and those too insecure in their own reading to not feel the need to fold their response into some warm authoritative pocket.

It may be that Joyce himself wanted to create just that effect. But I think he outdid his intentions.

How does anyone grasp the "unity" of a city? It's a trick that maybe fooled even the author... Ulysses has no "unity." The best confirmation is to read and hear it with the music. The real music. Listen to the songs that are mentioned. The best Bloomsday readings make good use of this. There's a book... mind goes blank here... of all the musical references in all of Joyce's work. Lyrics, music.

Screw the explicators. Listen to the music... the music of his prose, of his extraordinary ear for the vernacular spoken language... and the real music.

From Sea Side Girls to Yorkshire Lass to ...

The thing about the music, the musical references... it denies closure. It opens out beyond any possible "unity," turning Ulysses into a book of multi-voiced fragments... exactly what it becomes at those Bloomsday Readings, which are it's truest explication.

August 03, 2008 11:38 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks, Jacob. I've enjoyed the shorter Joyce. At this point, my reading of Ulysses is only a matter of deciding to take the plunge, and when I do so, I don't expect to be consulting "explicators". I like what what you say about Ulysses being "a book of multi-voiced fragments".

August 04, 2008 6:28 AM  
Anonymous Lloyd Mintern said...

I think Joyce saw himself (proudly) the way Steve Michelmore and Josipovici have assessed him: as the last of a tradition. The very structure of Ulysses, which hangs everything on two explicit structures, the highly contrived passage of one day, and the (tedious in my mind) analogy with Odysseus, is the sort of big project of which Josipovici speaks: an explicit monument. The fact that chooses to twist it, and also spit on this monument doesn't change the model he is using. Joyce was trying to play in the big leagues of literary tradition, and he still has scholars busy dissecting him. But he is nothing like the breath of fresh air that comes in with writers like Kafka, and Robert Walser (current favorite of mine), and even Joyce's own friend whom he championed, Italo Svevo (Confessions of Zeno). These are modern writers of the imagination, who find content by expanding ordinary consciousness inward, and finding limitless narrative there ...

I guess I betray a preference here; but I always found James Joyce insufferable, both trite in structure and (precious in detail. Right from the moment his genius alter-ego hero shows up carrying that pretentiously juxtaposed ashplant.

August 04, 2008 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Wes said...

Josipovici is wrong; he has a pedant's-eye view of the book. Maybe pedants put him off of it. Certainly he misrepresents it. Ulysses does not rigidly adhere to an idea of "the complete work." It very much addresses, and embodies, the illusory, the fragmentary nature of any attempt to capture truth. Its accumulation of detail is not posited as a good; it is just posited: "here is a world." Yes, Joyce could make one hell of a complete world, even as he acknowledged the impossibility of doing this. His "techniques" precisely show us that no amount of technique brings us closer to truth.

August 04, 2008 6:42 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

"I think Joyce saw himself (proudly) the way Steve Michelmore and Josipovici have assessed him: as the last of a tradition."

This remark, Lloyd, reminds me of that Tom McCarthy interview I linked to a while back, where he says:

"Here’s the thing, right, Finnegans Wake—Joyce thought it was the last novel. He thought this was the novel in which the destiny of literature would realize itself. It was the event that we have been waiting for all of these years. And he literally thought it would be the last novel. It would be (a) unnecessary and (b) impossible to write a novel, I mean a proper novel, a serious novel, after Finnegans Wake."

August 04, 2008 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Jacob Russell said...

I take seriously neither Joyce's meta-claims for Ulysses and FW, nor these two books (I really wonder if he meant them. I hear the same ironic voice he gives to Stephen in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man forging in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of the race. There's a delicious lightness in Ulysses that's easily missed coming to quickly from a reading of Dubliners... unless you make a point of ending with Ivy Day in the Committee Room--my choice for the best story in the collection.

I find the humor unhinges those oh so serious claims, frees the reader from the need to hold Ulysses to any sort of pre-Modernist aesthetic unity.

What is pre-Modernist, is the consciousness and lives of the characters and the world they inhabit. This is true. Svevo leaps into a new fictive universe; Joyce persists in representing a world already--like the music referenced--an anachronism. That's what remains 19th Century in sensibility. You can impose, or try to, a grand structure on Ulysses, but only after you've closed the book, outside of the reading. Once immersed in the reading, things don't just fall, they fly apart! Like shots off a shovel!

In my mind, the early "guides" and "companions" to Ulysses utterly spoil the reading... like seeing a city from the roof of one of those tour buses, the constant voice-over of a pedantic tour guide droning in your ear.

August 05, 2008 2:18 PM  
Anonymous Lloyd Mintern said...

Jacob, are you saying that Joyce didn't deliberately impose the two structures that hold Ulysses together (while, yes, allowing him to rip things apart at the seams in each section)? Those two structures being: the life of one day for Leopold Bloom, and the source-book of The Odyssey. Sure, the scholars go haywire, but it was Joyce who led them down the garden path.

We do agree that in Svevo there is a new fictive universe.

August 05, 2008 4:05 PM  

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