Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sin against Fate

On the whole I take a benign view of gibberish.  I've read actual articles arguing that Heidegger's Sein und Zeit has no discernible meaning.  I've sympathized with the view that Hegel's Phaenomenologie des Geistes is just a circle of self-referring generalities.  Accepting those views as at least supportable, it is nonetheless undeniable that such philosophical gibberish has changed our civilization, has trickled down from the Olympian heights of the lecture room to politics and religion and the general outlook of the most philosophically indifferent, transforming the way we see our world.

Something of the same can be said of at least some modern painting, and of some modern literature.  I think of Pound's Cantos, whose sentences are intelligible enough, but whose overall impression can be a puzzled disorientation.  But real gibberish?  For that we have to come to the one, true master, the archetype, the undefeated champion of the world, the subject of this post, the work that even Pound thought too unhinged from meaning:  Finnegans Wake.

I haven't read it.  I haven't even started it.  I don't even have my hands on it yet.  The question addressed here is whether it is even sane to consider getting involved with the thing.

The occasion is the book's publication this spring by the Folio Society, which I've been a member of these past 25 years.  Folio's books are rarely bargains, but they are handsome and sturdy, and though they often rely on older, established texts and translations, in this case Folio is publishing  a new text which, like many new texts, was rolled out in a super-deluxe, super-expensive edition by a more exclusive luxury press a few years back.

I have always had a fairly conventional appreciation of Joyce.  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses I read in the mid-1980's, and "The Dead" regularly re-read.  But so many who hailed those as definitive works threw up their hands at the Wake.  Is it worthwhile finding out why?

Age is probably an advantage here.  Yes, I already own more books than I can finish in my lifetime.  But a lifetime of reading--history, fiction, philosophy, theology, geography, mythology (and yes, being a Catholic undoubtedly helps)--even if it only slightly intersects with what Joyce crammed into this last book, it's frankly put me into a position to have the best chance ever to appreciate the thing, compared to when I was twenty, or forty.  And at eighty I will probably be too cranky.

I did, in fact, on the occasion of thinking this thing through, pull out my old Ulysses, and went to some of the more difficult passages, and found that, yes, there were things there that I would have just skimmed over at thirty.  But it wasn't the better ability to do the puzzles that decided it for me.  I remembered how Joyce can break your heart.  I end this post with an excerpt from the second chapter of Ulysses.  Yes, it has references beyond the schoolroom scene.  But alone, all alone, it demonstrates why even a Joyce going off his head may be worth a listen:

Sargent who alone had lingered came forward slowly, showing an open copybook. His thick hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading. On his cheek, dull and bloodless, a soft stain of ink lay, dateshaped, recent and damp as a snail's bed.

He held out his copybook. The word Sums was written on the headline. Beneath were sloping figures and at the foot a crooked signature with blind loops and a blot. Cyril Sargent: his name and seal.

—Mr Deasy told me to write them out all again, he said, and show them to you, sir.

Stephen touched the edges of the book. Futility.

—Do you understand how to do them now? he asked.

—Numbers eleven to fifteen, Sargent answered. Mr Deasy said I was to copy them off the board, sir.

—Can you do them yourself? Stephen asked.

—No, sir.

Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail's bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

Sitting at his side Stephen solved out the problem.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The read and the stack

Most of my friends who are "readers"--that is, people who read regularly for the simple pleasure of it--have someplace a stack or a stash of unread books that were purchased with the intent that they would eventually be reached.

It is a melancholy fact that there are not enough years in one's life to read all the good and worthy books (not to mention the sensational, silly and trashy ones that can't be resisted).  So it is always noteworthy to decide to re-read a book, thereby necessarily consigning another to the Neverland of the never read.

These thoughts come to me, having recently completed Stendahl's Le rouge et le noir.  It was not a simple re-read.  Some twenty years ago I read it in an English translation, and didn't much like it.  I didn't care for Julian Sorel, the main character.  I thought the two liaisons around which the two parts of the book revolved were contrived.  I thought the great impulsive action that brought on the novel's crushing conclusion unconvincing.

But when I chanced on a French paperback edition I immediately bought it, and almost against every inclination began reading, with no intention of finishing the thing, and soon I was hooked in a way I never was the first time through.

What I wonder is whether the difference was the re-read, or the language.  Anytime I am reading something in a language other than English it's a slow, difficult process, but, for that very reason, it's almost always a more rewarding experience, perhaps because of the effort.  I have to think more about what I'm reading because part of what's going on is my having to figure out what I'm reading.

On the other hand, a simple re-read in English is almost always a revelation.  I'm frequently astonished about what I've forgotten (yes, I've re-read who-done-its by Raymond Chandler where I've entirely forgotten the identity of the culprit).  Familiarity, though, with the overall arch of the story, and, even generally, with the end-point of the narrative, makes the setting, the details, the characterizations more striking than the first time through.

This second time through Le rouge et le noir I found that I liked and sympathized with Julian.  His hypocrisy and ambition are little different from those of the less innocent characters he meets on his way up in the world.  Though he is contemptuous of others, he isn't cruel, nor does he hurt those he uses to rise (perhaps Madame Renal is an exception to this assertion, but the harm is considerably mitigated by the mighty, faithful love he has and retains for her--even when closing in on this marriage to Mathilde).  The post-revolutionary, post-Napoleonic, post-restoration society of France, with its strata, its intrigues and anxieties, is rendered beautifully, both the provincial world of the newly-wealthy manufacturing class, and the returned Parisian aristocracy personified in the Marquis de la Mole.

In between those episodes is Julian's sojourn at the seminary, where his talents win him nothing but the hatred of his fellows and his masters.  The corruption of Christian humility into a smarmy, studied mediocrity is painful to witness, and again makes Julian's own hypocrisy almost benign.

And though I certainly can't share Stendahl's (and Julian's) admiration of Napoleon, the novel reveals poignantly what the figure of Napoleon meant to the next generation, and how the Emperor's vices and virtues play out in a smaller, more squalid world (and in a considerably less ghastly manner than when applied by Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment).   

To be and not to be

It surprises me still that so many current interests can be traced to hints and suggestions planted many, many years ago, often at college.

When I was a sophomore I took a class in medieval philosophy, and our reader contained a short selection from John Scottus Eriugena.  I remember that I found him quite difficult, but was intrigued by the task he set himself:  explaining how a thing can both be and not be, at the same time.  I spent a few hours, late one night, pouring over it, slowly, and sometime between eleven and midnight I got it.  Rushing back to the dorm, almost intoxicated with this new insight, I excitedly tried to explain to a few friends still hanging around the fooz-ball table how a thing could both be and not be at the same time.  They were amused, uncomprehending and uninterested.  I went on to bed, and the next morning I had pretty must lost it.

So, run the clock forward about forty years.  I come across John, again, in a piece from the Classics of Western Spirituality volume, Celtic Sprituality.  Now John's only certain connection with Ireland is his name, and, whatever his origin, his surviving work was all done on the continent, in the first century of Charlemagne's reconstituted Holy Roman Empire.  He was a strikingly original thinker, conversant not  only with the Greek language, but with the Greek Fathers and the few scraps of pre-
Christian Greek philosophy still extant in the West.

So, my interest piqued, I then come across an outfit called the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, which seems to have two primary foci: the cutting edge of particle physics and Celtic studies.  And, lo and behold, they have published four of the five volumes of John's Periphyseon, his magnum opus on the divisions of nature.  I have now acquired the first volume.

It is a strange and fascinating book, but apparently one that had very little long-term influence, owing to its susceptibility to charges of pantheism.  And thereon hangs a tale.

I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate.  The professor from whom I took the standard introductory sequence on the history of philosophy, Jim Ware (blessings and peace be upon him), had a theory about the history of philosophy being primarily the spinning out of central explanatory models.  Ancient philosophy develops around the idea physis, nature.  By contrast, medieval philosophy, developing an idea of a transcendent creator God from the Jewish and Christian religions, has recourse to a new model, the supernatural, an idea distinct from, but not independent of nature, and infused with the Christian notion of grace.  Whatever the merits of this development-- this division of "all that is" into a divine and creatures, a natural and a "graced," a "spacial-temporal" and an eternal--its establishment takes God unambiguously out of the "nature" category.

Meanwhile, back in the ninth century, our friend John Scottus  Eriugena, is trying to make sense of things, and he hits upon this idea that the notion of "creation" provides a helpful means of analyzing things.  He begins, though, with what exactly it is that is to be analyzed: "nature," which he unexpectedly defines as "omnium quae sunt et non sunt," "all things that are and that are not."  That's broad.

This nature, then, divides into four parts, using the category of "creation" as a knife:  (1) that which is uncreated and creates, (2) that which is created, and creates, (3) that which is created, and does not create, and (4) that which is uncreated, and does not create.  Division one is God, division two, roughly, the Platonic Ideas, whose participation in the world brings individual beings into existence, division three is us creatures, and division four--well, I'm not so sure yet.

The point is that John begins with nature as such a broad category that it includes God. And even though, in his schema,  the orthodox insistence on the initial radical division between creator and creature is rigorously observed, the later, near-universal understanding of "nature" as "creation" makes his putting God into that category suddenly suspect...which makes me wonder about other "suspected" pantheists, from Eckhart to Spinoza.

Not that I've gotten that far.  Actually, the above came to me at page one, of volume one.  Not a lot of progress.  But a fruitful beginning.