Monday, August 11, 2014

melancholy moonbows

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
--James Joyce, "The Dead", Dubliners

I truly dislike it when writers put their poor characters through all sorts of seemingly pointless emotional gymnastics.  Friends, James Joyces' Dubliners is so sad. So, so sad. It is filled with all the elegant melancholy of a Russian novel. Except, Russian novels possess an aura of grandeur in their suffering, which makes all the torturous exploits the author writes his characters through somehow forgivable, precisely because they are so definitely inevitable.
There is something of this grandeur lacking in the small and squalid sufferings of Joyce's Dublin inhabitants. 
Par exemple:
In his story "Clay," Joyce gives us a portrait in miniature of Maria, a small woman who has very little in the way of material or relational happinesses, except her adopted son Joseph and his family. 
On All Hallow's Eve, she makes her way to Joseph's home, laden down with sweets for children (such as her modest budget can provide). On the tram on the way to Joe's home, she forgets the plum cake.
Just clean forgets it.
Was it in a different parcel than the other sweets?
Did the kind gentleman steal it from her?
And, here my frustration is pointed at the author: Dear Mr. Joyce, why would you make a poor servant woman forget her plum cake on the tram? The poor woman has nothing: it seems nothing but adding insult to injury to make her forget her cherished plum cake. The plum cake we spent a page and a half carefully selecting, purchasing, and glorying in the beauty of is now gone. And I do not understand why.
Seriously. Why did this poor woman forget the plum cake on the tram? Was there a dramatic necessity in this? Is there some great literary device/trope/point that I am missing? If so, could someone who is wiser than I and better-versed in the ancient art of the Literary Symbolism of Plum Cake enlighten me? ["Ahhh, yes indeed, the Plum Cake Motif. Its first appearance traditionally credited to Fragment XIII of the Canterbury Tales, usually located dead center in the Second Nun's tale. Valerian goes missing his plumcake, which creates such a spiritual disturbance within his soul, he is finally able to see his wife Cecilia's guardian angel. The second appearance of the PlumCake Motif is usually assumed to be..."]
 I am very upset about this plumcake. It is a very vexing thing. And a great deal of the vexation arises from my indecision over whether "plum cake" is a closed form compound word or an open form. 
Words, words, words.
So this is one of the first themes of Joyce's Dubliners that struck me: senseless sufferings enacted against unaware and helpless people (perhaps Joyce is making a point about what he thinks of the Creator). 
On the other hand, any time anything good happens to a character, it's almost worse.
When a character finds actual, glorious, beautiful intimacy with another human, when fortune smiles for a brief moment upon a young boy, when a man envisions something beautiful and noble in his future, you learn (after a few pages) to greet this glorious moment not with joy, but with dread. Oh, no, you groan. I know what's going to happen. He's going to cast aside the love of his life, he's going to get to the marketplace too late, he's going to settle for the cheap and comfortable squalor of his life rather than attempt to leave it. Even if he does attempt something better, he'll be doomed. I find it so cruel to get a man's hopes up and then dash them. I found myself wishing in the middle of one story that the good thing hadn't even happened. Thus, Joyce managed to inculcate in one of his readers that famous Irish pessimism.
For, it seems to me that I am much more able to grasp suffering in a story if it arises out of the characters. Goodness, with the way Anna Karenina carries on, you know that there's trouble ahead. Not because she deserves it, or she has merited more than you or I, but because we know that actions have consequences. And when we do ill on the small scale of our daily lives, we reap the consequences on the small scale of our daily lives. This is less about Divine Justice and Punishment for Sin, and more about Newton's Third Law of Physics. The scope of Anna Karenina's story is far grander than our daily lives, and thus so is the tragedy that the story begets.
I understand this sort of story-telling and this sort of suffering.
But there is this other sort of suffering I never quite am able to reconcile myself to: the senseless, "isn't the universe just cruel this way" sort that Joyce paints so poignantly in Dubliners.
 It is a rather pessimistic kind of fiction (realistic, I think Joyce would call it), that doesn't attempt to write until a happy ending comes along. It simply lays before it a brief moment in someone's life and says: well, here it is.
And while Joyce's prose is mournful and magical, I wonder, I really do, if that is all it takes to write a worthwhile story. Not to say that Joyce's stories aren't worthwhile, and beautiful in spite of themselves, but, rising from the ashes of a lost plumcake, one's optimism asserts itself anew and demands answers to all sorts of saucy questions. Such as: what makes art beautiful and worthwhile when its subject is the brutal ugliness of life?
Because, to bolster the argument of my optimism, there are certain authors who have decided that brutal realism is not for them.
Jane Austen, (whose name can never be invoked too frequently to please me) wrote: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest."
This, of course, does not seem to be at all realistic. Because unpleasant people don't get simply written out of your life or relegated to the fringes of your happily ever after. They usually stick around for a good while, and you must learn to deal with them with whatever charity and fortitude you can muster. This is called Building Character, and whatever else the inscrutable Author of Life thinks, He certainly finds this Building Character discipline an advantageous one for us, and writes into our lives many opportunities to practice it.
But, Miss Austen, whose life was not marked by any great and glorious happiness, and was actually marked by some rather larger unhappinesses, as well as many small and ordinary happinesses, determined that elusive grail of "happiness" was probably a euphemism for a well-ordered mind inside a body with well-ordered appetites, living in orderly harmony with others. And she was willing to end a story happily if a character met those qualifications. For, truly, what else could a character who possessed self-awareness and cared about others more than themselves end up with but happiness?
This, one might argue, is a philosophy that fits a sheltered life of a spinster in rural Georgian England, but does not account for those people who have suffered the ravages of war, genocide, and persecution. It may not speak for those who have endured starvation and discrimination, and have lived under the sway of forces outside of their control which have prevented in many ways their happiness.
Perhaps. But it seems to me that the point of telling stories is to not tell all stories in one fell swoop, but rather to tell your story. As much as we try to see with a catholic sort of viewpoint, if you write a piece of art that tries to be all things to all people, you sort of end up with not a piece of art.
So, perhaps, through these stories of men and women who use their sense and sensibilities to find happiness for themselves, we have learned from a spinster in rural Georgian England a little bit more of what happiness is.
By this same argument, through stories of young Irish rapscallions playing truant from school, or a young woman falling in love, or a young man taking advantage of her, or a young husband cradling his crying baby, Mr. Joyce has taught us a little bit more of how he sees his country.
He commented on his own uncompromising, Ibsenite realism, by saying:
I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.
I wonder if the looking-glass (a hyphenated compound word) is so very nicely polished, because our lives leave fingerprints and smudges, cracks and dents on our looking-glasses that we cannot erase and often distort or limit our view of reality.
It seems rather grandiose for any artist to champion his own realistic viewpoint as a perfectly polished glass rather than a lens whose curvature is the shape of his own experience.
Reality is a wild phenomenon who eludes all our attempts to capture it.

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