One of the great ironies of world literature is that the sole extant novel by the Greek author Longus is actually quite short.
Okay, now that I've got...moreOne of the great ironies of world literature is that the sole extant novel by the Greek author Longus is actually quite short.
Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system ....
"Daphnis and Chloe" is one of the quintessential works of the Hellenistic period, and it's tempting to conclude with the classicists of the 19th century, reading this trifle, that Hellenism was a period of decadence in Greek culture. We've come a long way from Aeschylus and Homer, to this artful pastoral diversion written for city-dwellers who had never set foot in the country. In Longus' idyllic vision of the rural world, bees are all honey and no sting, and even the fearsome god Pan has been reduced to a character from the Beethoven sequence of Disney's Fantasia.
The plot, such as it is, involves the star-crossed lovers Daphnis and Chloe as they stumble their way into love's mysteries and each others' arms, faced with minor trials of sub-Herculean scope, such as not understanding how one is to comport one's self in satisfying the needs of the body.
I couldn't help but think of the glorious pediment statue of the Archaic precursor to the Parthenon, housed in the Acropolis museum - a vivid and enormous depiction of a lion bringing down a bull. It remains one of the most powerful images of religious art I've yet seen, and I can only shake my head at the decline of insight and intensity that wound Greek culture down from that searing encounter with the heart of nature to this mere ornament, which has the insight and profundity of one of Mozart's comedies.
I was strongly reminded of von Eschenbach's Parsifal in his fool state, reading of Daphnis' proclivity to burst into tears whenever frightened or confused, and his stone-dull inability to reason through the basic facts of life.
That said, it is a piece of its time, and reflects the anxieties and outlooks of the leisure class of late-period Hellenistic culture. It is one of the world's first novels, and it attempts a psychology of sorts which is more amusing than persuasive. I can't speak for the quality of the translation, other than to my ears it landed as vernacular and a little clunky throughout. If there is lyricism in the original, that's where it mostly stayed. (less)
Stopped reading this book on page 29, when I encountered this gem:
"Celt, Saxon, and Dane came over to slaughter or expel the inhabitants and settle i...moreStopped reading this book on page 29, when I encountered this gem:
"Celt, Saxon, and Dane came over to slaughter or expel the inhabitants and settle in their place, but the Romans came to exploit and govern by right of superior civilization. In this they resembled the Europeans in Africa rather than the Pilgrim Fathers in America. Yet the natives of Britain were white men, capable of adopting Latin ways more fully than most Africans are capable of adopting the ways of Europe."
Yeah, no thanks, I'll leave this in the dust bin of history where it belongs.
And you many Goodreads reviewers who awarded this book an average of four stars - there are histories of England out there that aren't permeated by racist models of the biological and cultural superiority of the white man. (less)
An interesting but disjointed and exceedingly uneven presentation of reminiscences by Oliver Gogarty, most often remembered as the inspiration for Joy...moreAn interesting but disjointed and exceedingly uneven presentation of reminiscences by Oliver Gogarty, most often remembered as the inspiration for Joyce's Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, but an intriguing figure in his own right. A brilliant and accomplished doctor, poet, and senator, Gogarty knew everyone on the Dublin scene, from Lord Dunsany to Lady Gregory, and famously escaped being shot by British soldiers in the 1916 uprising by jumping into the Liffey and swimming to escape.
This book is organized as a collection of topical vignettes in which he reflects on his encounters with various personages. Of chief interest to me is his self-defense against his presentation in Ulysses, which he entirely misunderstands. His extremely critical appraisal of Joyce's personality does have the ring of truth to it, however, and he excuses what Joyce would pillory as superciliousness in his character as his attempt to get the withdrawn and sullen genius to lighten up and stop being so Jesuitical about everything.
This book contains something for anyone interested in the period and milieu, though its wide and uneven range of concerns and the precious quality its prose will probably prevent most readers from calling it a classic. (less)
Kenner's focused and scintillating analysis of James Joyce's Ulysses is primarily devoted to an extremely close reading of the text, reconstructing th...moreKenner's focused and scintillating analysis of James Joyce's Ulysses is primarily devoted to an extremely close reading of the text, reconstructing the events, and analyzing how the language and style function to create the impression and experience of the book's universe. Even after several close readings of Ulysses with various commentaries, there were still some big surprises for me in this volume, simply on the level of the book's action, and for that alone the book is worth a read for serious Joyce enthusiasts.
I wish Kenner had spent more time - or any time, really - on the book's meaning. His analysis is somewhat narrow in scope, but the key difficulties that occupy my relationship to the book are on the level of what we are to make of its ambiguous actions. Central questions that Kenner does not address include "What is the sense in which the mythopoetic patterns of Homer govern the action in the book, and what was Joyce trying to say in using them? What is the sense of Stephen's breakthrough in the brothel, and how are we to take it? What degree of atonement occurred between Bloom and Dedalus? Why were the key moments of connection between the two central characters intentionally buried in obscure language?"
These questions don't seem to concern Kenner, but they concern me, rather more than knowing that the catechismic method of the Ithaca chapter was inspired in part by a popular Q&A column in Dublin daily newspapers.
I didn't know that it was possible, but at times I think Kenner actually over-thinks Ulysses, as when he theorizes that Dedalus has punched Buck Mulligan off-stage on the basis of his complaints of a hurt hand. Clearly this would fly directly in the face of everything we know about Dedalus and the weapons that he will allow himself: silence, exile, cunning.
So this impressive book does not precisely focus its considerable energies in the directions of greatest interest to this reader. It's still probably the best analysis of Ulysses that I've read. Probably worth noting in passing that despite the cover description, this book is in no sense an "introduction," and depends on thorough familiarity with the novel. (less)
It's difficult to assess Giblert's classic study of James Joyce's novel. On the one hand, one can't help but value its key role in the history of Joyc...moreIt's difficult to assess Giblert's classic study of James Joyce's novel. On the one hand, one can't help but value its key role in the history of Joyce scholarship. For decades, this was universally praised as the best-available work on Joyce's enigmatic masterpiece. It allowed two generations of readers to get enough of a foothold into its structure and method that they could derive pleasure from this mighty work. And some of its less-fortunate tendencies, such as Gilbert's proclivity for stringing together a great many very long quotations, result precisely from its age - modern critics must remember that it was first published in 1930, when the work that it treats would have been unavailable to most of the book's readership.
These excuses only go so far, however. This book belongs to a different age, and while we can still value his excavation of Joyce's schematic structure, we are still compelled to snort contemptuously along with Nabokov, who castigated Gilbert for his conspicuous over-enthusiasm for these schema, as though the deep meaning of the book is best recovered through decoding its most obscure and tangential Homeric parallels, or understanding that the organ symbolized by the Circe episode is "locomotor apparatus."
My rating of this book wandered throughout between two stars and five, depending on my mood. I inclined toward charity because of its historical role, but was forced to settle on three by the dispiriting and inept handling of the Penelope chapter that concludes the book. Even the most generous forgiver of the values of another era will be challenged by his imbecilic conceptions of the universal feminine as so masterfully rendered by Joyce, such as Gilbert's piquant observation that "The next phase of her monologue, equally feminine, reveals her cult of personal beauty and fine raiment and leads one to a characteristic homily on the nuisance a husband can be when one goes out shopping."
Suffice to say, Joyce himself uttered no such nonsense, and in fact showed himself to be constitutionally averse to theory mongering on the whole, preferring to show glimpses of the universal through the particular. His sense of that relationship was altogether more subtle than Gilbert's excavations would suggest.
Nonetheless, I would be an ingrate if I didn't note that he does make numerous exceedingly useful observations about various themes and ideas which I have not seen echoed in other commentaries. One such observation was his persuasive argument that the section of the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter which is universally described as a satire of Tacitus is no such thing. This misconception, he believes, arises from an early scheme Joyce described in a letter and subsequently abandoned, but anyone who has read both Tacitus and Joyce, as I have, can only be puzzled at this supposed relationship. The passage in question does not sound remotely like Tacitus.
All in all, I found it worth skimming for its gems, though the entire introduction and large portions of the commentary are useless and tedious to plow through. Still, its crucial role in the history of Joyce scholarship must be acknowledged and appreciated. (less)
This beautiful and haunting little book uses Budge's translation of the Egyptian "Book of Going Forth by Day," popularly known as the "Book of the Dea...moreThis beautiful and haunting little book uses Budge's translation of the Egyptian "Book of Going Forth by Day," popularly known as the "Book of the Dead," as a framework for exploring that which is eternal in human experience in the light of the individual and transitory.
While the BOTD instructs souls journeying to the afterlife on the visions they will see and the trials they must pass, Aiken makes an afterlife of this world, allowing objects and witnesses of the life of its titular character to bear witness to his experience from a perspective that seems strangely outside of time, much like the hieratic Egyptian figure drawings.
"It is a stage of ether, without space, -- a space of limbo without time, -- a faceless clock that never strikes;
"and it is bloodstream at its priestlike task,-- the indeterminate and determined heart, that beats, and beats, and does not know it beats."
Or take this bit from "Mr. Jones Addresses a Looking-Glass," possibly an echo of the classic Egyptian text "Dialog between Self and Soul":
how can you know what here goes on behind this flesh-bright frontal bone? here are the world and god, become for all their depth a simple Sum.
well, keep the change, then, Mr. Jones, and, if you can, keep brains and bones, but as for me I'd rather be unconscious, except when I see.
Voices speak with a curious lack of interiority, and the effect is one of depersonalization, and of dawning awareness of a more transcendent movement passing through life.
"and it is life, but it is also death, it is the whisper of the always lost but always known, it is the first and last of heaven's light, the end and the beginning, follows the moving memory like a shadow, and only rests, at last, when that too comes to rest."
A fascinating read, but sadly, rather difficult to find. (less)
It was a delight to re-read Joyce's novel, which I had come to think of as the gangly younger brother to Ulysses, but it's a masterpiece in its own ri...moreIt was a delight to re-read Joyce's novel, which I had come to think of as the gangly younger brother to Ulysses, but it's a masterpiece in its own right. Joyce evokes the experience of childhood with a force and immediacy that I doubt has been equaled in the last century since its appearance.
I'm more wary of the off-putting middle passage that dwells in extravagant length in Stephen's religious fervor, including a pair of full-length sermons on Hell and its torments. This marks the first important example of an odd tactic that Joyce would embrace in all of his subsequent work - taking certain passages or ideas and making them intentionally too long, as when, in Finnegans Wake, we plod with increasing disbelief through a seven-page list of book titles.
After this harrowing middle passage it reaches its pinnacle in lyrically rendering an image of Joyce's spiritual awakening in the light of his own artistic ideas, and his subsequent working out of his brilliant aesthetic theory. Anyone looking for the key to understanding his difficult later works simply must consult this work, for he lays it all out very plainly.
By the end of the book he has matured into a young man of genius, if also possessing a rather insufferable character. He is poised for the lessons of Ulysses, which will help him move past his shabby defense of his own ego and his ideas. (less)
It's a little hard to know what to make of this odd and intriguing short book. A "delog" is a shamanic visionary in the Tibetan cultural sphere who ha...moreIt's a little hard to know what to make of this odd and intriguing short book. A "delog" is a shamanic visionary in the Tibetan cultural sphere who has spontaneous trances in which they visit other worlds - particularly the heaven and hell realms. This particular book contains several brief testimonials of one Dawa Drolma, describing her experiences touring other realms, in which she saw the virtuous rewarded, and especially the non-virtuous punished, and was sent back by the Lord of Death to give crude didactic instructions to the living.
It's easy to see why teachings of this kind are characterized by Tibetan literati as teachings "for beings of lesser capacity." At essence, they land as very crude moral fables on a par with reading Dante's "Commedia," rewritten for naughty children, and with the moral of each canto clearly spelled out. For a reader of essentially European sensibilities, I also found it odd that the author is so consistently self-aggrandizing, speaking often of the praise she receives from the goddess/bodhisattva Tara and various other enlightened beings. I'm not altogether sure that's commonplace in this kind of visionary autobiography.
Most perplexing to me, though, is what relationship these testimonials have, if any, to actual experiences undergone by the author. That these visions are presented in crude literary terms, there can be no doubt. They are full of stock descriptions and expressions, and leave the reader with questions like "If this is truly an experience that you had, how do you know that there were 108 skeletons outside the doorway? Did you count them? And how did you know the sacred pool contained all eight virtues, instead of seven or six?"
So the reader may have their doubts. On the other hand, certain aspects of the experiences here described correspond closely to shamanic experiences reported over an enormous geographical region, and well-described by Professor Eliade in his "Shamanism." We have the spontaneous stupor of the adolescent, the magical flight, the initiation, and the tutelage that could just as easily be elements of a story told in Siberia or among the Native Americans of British Columbia.
So there's that too. Difficult to know what to make of all this.
As an aside, I was motivated to read this book, which had languished on my shelf for years, by Miguel Asin's classic study on Muslim and Sufi sources for Dante's Commedia. Asin takes as principle evidence for his theory the fact that prior to Dante, we don't have anything like a guided tour of the moral cosmos in Europe, except in Muslim Spain, where it's a major literary theme.
I was curious to see if this conception is perhaps an archetype of universal distribution, and for evidence I recalled this book, and confirmed that it does in many respects correspond to the basic structure of Dante's Commedia, despite being vastly inferior as a literary work. But we do have a tour of the ordered cosmos, which is divided into levels, organized by punishment and reward, and based around a cosmic mountain. Drolma's Tara is not so different from Dante's Beatrice.
Of course, Muslims have been in Tibet for a long time, so there's that on top of it. Some scholar could probably have a field day digging into the Tibetan sources to see where it comes from. I don't believe it is of Indic origin, though I may be mistaken. (less)
I'm rather disposed to like Wallace Shawn for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that I've seen "My Dinner with Andre" perhaps three dozen...moreI'm rather disposed to like Wallace Shawn for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that I've seen "My Dinner with Andre" perhaps three dozen times, and "Vanya on 42nd Street" two dozen. Despite being famous for his work as the world's most immediately-recognizable character actors (such as the homunculus of Woody Allen's "Manhattan"), his own plays signal the depth of his intelligence and insight, and suggest an artistic center more aligned with his stupendous collaborations with Andre Gregory.
When I learned that this book existed I was immediately curious. I've heard Shawn interviewed at length and knew him to be droll, acerbic, and perceptive. So I had to give it a shot.
The book contains a slender assortment of essays, many of which treat the politics of post-9/11 America. I'd say it is his autobiographical reflections on his own upbringing, and his own ambivalent relationship between his artistic work and the patronage that makes it possible, that is the primary driver of his political sensibility, which generalizes his sense of collective responsibility for all the various and terrible things that have been done by politicians and businesspeople during the dark years of the early 2000s.
He makes his case passing well and in thought-provoking terms, but I must say I don't share his strong sense of collaborative guilt. In my view, I'm not responsible for policies that I oppose, undertaken by politicians I didn't vote for for. In this sense, I could only participate to a limited degree in his exercises.
Shawn's sense of outrage was poorly served by a surprisingly flat interview he conducts with Noam Chomasky. Instead of his usual razor-sharp analysis, Chomsky indulges with Shawn in a lot of high-handed "Can you believe these people?" back-and-forth.
I was extremely impressed by Shawn's short essay on Israel's position in the world, which put the matter as well as it could be said.
The final third of the book focuses on literary matters, including a long interview he conducted with the poet Mark Strand. (less)
Spending time with this book is such an unpleasant experience, it nearly makes me rethink my enthusiastic admiration for Adès as a composer. I've foll...moreSpending time with this book is such an unpleasant experience, it nearly makes me rethink my enthusiastic admiration for Adès as a composer. I've followed his career with great interest and seen him perform and conduct several times, so I have to say that this book came as a real disappointment, and I don't believe he did himself any favors by taking part in its creation.
"I hate the word 'people,'" he tells us at one juncture. "When somebody uses it they're usually lying about something for their own benefit. 'People want' this or 'people want' that. It's always an alibi, an excuse for something bad, something cheap, a shoddy compromise. I write for humans."
The book is crowded with fatuous insights of this caliber. It lacks meaningful insight into his own creative process or the work of other great musicians.
His observations on Wagner are incoherent and hostile, which I don't love. "In Wagner every note is political and that to me is repulsive. Ethics are a distraction that an artist cannot afford."
Or try this on for size: "When I talk about Wagner's 'fungal' quality, by the way, I'm talking about something quite technical: his music isn't a tree, it's a fungus."
Ah yes - I see! Quite technical.
It consistently feels unrehearsed, and not in a good way - rather, unfocused, tritely conversational, and somewhat neurotic and catty.
I can't easily remember written work by a composer turning me off to a greater degree.(less)
I can't imagine even trying to read Finnegans Wake without this invaluable guide. The concept is simple - McHugh provides a running gloss to Joyce's m...moreI can't imagine even trying to read Finnegans Wake without this invaluable guide. The concept is simple - McHugh provides a running gloss to Joyce's masterpiece, concisely explaining the multilingual puns and obscure allusions in a layout that matches that of the Penguin edition, so the reader can easily scan from one work to the other.
This must have been grueling to research and assemble, and the author has my considerable gratitude. (less)
I tried to like this book, and there are bits that I found quite valuable, but on the whole I have to conclude it's untenable. I have two primary obje...moreI tried to like this book, and there are bits that I found quite valuable, but on the whole I have to conclude it's untenable. I have two primary objections, one interpretive and the other stylistic.
First and foremost, I reject the book's central interpretation, which I would describe as a strong reading of the dream hypothesis. That is, in Bishop's view this is ultimately and absolutely a book about HCE, who lies asleep in his inn and restlessly recreates various dynamics and events from his life. This is a counter-position to the mytho-poetic reading of Joseph Campbell, and instead of emphasizing the universality of his themes, he focuses on sleep and dream imagery, and on the book's various devices and techniques as distortions brought on by semi-obliviated consciousness.
I find that entirely unconvincing, in part because of my own conviction that this whole dream business is primarily an interpretive device that Joyce uses to allow him to do what he wants, which is to delight at genius wordplay, and to enter more deeply into an exploration of the symbol-using mind. As Joyce put it:
"(Stoop) if you are abcdedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left."
This kind of thing is untouched by the strong dream hypothesis. And what does he do with the fact that in one chapter, HCE wakes up? The language does not change.
Perhaps more importantly, I simply can't believe that the Wake represents Joyce's attempt to reconstruct sleep-consciousness in any simple sense, because nothing in it resembles any dream in the slightest. If there is one simple truth about dreams, it is that they express themselves in images. The images may not make sense, but they appear clearly to the inner eye. But there is scarcely one sentence in Joyce's Wake that can be visualized at all.
Bishop's close readings are often simply false, such as when Bishop explicitly rejects Campbell's reading of the voice of God in the thunder sounding with Finnegan's fall. There may be no fact about the book more clearly established, as anyone with a token familiarity with Joyce's use of Vico's historical cycle will know. Vico's aeon begins with the sound of God's judgement ringing through the thunderclap. For this reading of the Wake we have no less of an authority than Samuel Beckett, writing under the guidance of Joyce himself.
He left me with enough head scratchers of this kind that I began to question his common sense.
My other primary gripe - the stylistic complaint - is that he engages in a tedious tactic I'll describe as "arguing through concordance." That is, to advance his interpretation, he constantly strings together sentences composed largely of Joyce's neologisms, plucked willy-nilly from the book in its entirety, as if to imply by piecing them together without context or rationale will justify his readings.
To pick a sample at random:
"That big 'blank memory' that we have all 'recoil[ed]' from 'our own nighttime,' after all, did not simply vanish when night did; the roomily 'hole affair' lingers on vexingly, now, very much on our present minds."
The entire book is composed in this fashion. It's wearisome stuff that says very little, because context is everything in the Wake. (less)
An indispensable companion for any reader of Joyce. Ellmann's gargantuan mastery of Joyce's life and work is set forth in this terrific biography, whi...moreAn indispensable companion for any reader of Joyce. Ellmann's gargantuan mastery of Joyce's life and work is set forth in this terrific biography, which contextualizes and explains countless details of Joyce's relentlessly-autobiographical writing. At well over 700 pages, it feels short, so engaging and moving has Ellmann made his telling. Any reader of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake simply must read it, without question. (less)