Saturday, September 13, 2014

His Story is a Nightmare From Which I am Trying to Awaken (with apologies to Stephen Dedalus)

I have my different phases with Joyce. I am often content to just sit back and admire his marvelous inventiveness, his sly humor, his virtuosity and, yes, I said yes, his genius. Other times, I feel both compassion for his suffering and admiration for his tremendous perseverance, feelings I definitely had in my recent reading of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin  Birmingham. But running along as another undercurrent to my Joycean musings I also frequently feel a sense of alienation. Every once in a while it comes  right up to the surface, as it did at our latest Wake reading the other night. Afterwards, I was trying to remember what set me off this time, and realized that it was his whole raven/dove dichotomy as related to the feminine. Frankly, it just bugged the hell out of me.

First off, I don’t really have a huge taste for these kinds of polarities. I don’t like ravens being the symbol for dark, the sinister, or any of the underworld side of things. Ravens are smart and resourceful and are a lot more like us than we probably realize, and it’s a bum rap to cast our own shadow on to them. Doves, despite being appropriated by Christian iconography are probably mean and vicious sometimes themselves. I get a little tired of doves, rabbits, lambs all being the symbols of innocence when they’re actually a bit on the dim side.

Anyway.  Joyce and women. I really don’t buy his take at all. I have virtually no empathy for Molly Bloom, patron saint of the affirmative way of life though she well may be, and find Leopold Bloom himself much more a kindred spirit than his lie-abed counterpart. I mean, don't we all? Isn't that why we read Ulysses in the first place? Leopold Bloom, c'est moi?

As far as the Wake goes, well, Izzy is all right, in her dovelike, lamblike, cloudlike way, but ALP, the river, the past present future, fecundity, etc., I don’t get her. I know she’s not exactly meant to be a naturalistic figure of course, but it’s exactly in Joyce’s mythologizing of the feminine where I tend to run afoul of him. It’s not just an ideological disagreement. It's more visceral. The best I can say is that I start to feel in a trap or a bind, like I’m caught inside his way of seeing, and I feel like flailing against the bars. I find myself wanting what is outside his mind. Reality as it is not known, or dreamt of in the philosophies of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. I want the feminine equivalent of Joyce to represent reality from her own point of view.  

I bring this all up not just to rehash my rant yet again, but because just now, today, I seem to have been presented with a partial possible answer to that. I came across a glowing Slate book review on a novel called A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, and if you think that the book owes a little bit to Joyce himself, you’d be right, as she had a quote from Joyce’s letters taped above her desk as she wrote it:

“One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”

A woman novelist’s response to Joyce in his own sort of vernacular? This is either a case of “Ask and it shall be given.” or “Be careful what you wish for.”  In any case, I’ve ordered the book. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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