Friday, June 27, 2014

Too clever by half

Tim Finnegan's encomium:  Halfway through.

The last two sections of Part I of Finnegans Wake arguably take on, to a more noticeable extent than before, the overt character of dreams.

Readers of Ulysses quickly catch on that each chapter has its own "gimmick;"  that is to say, each chapter takes on a distinctive narrative method.  For instance, the chapter conventionally called the "Oxen of the Sun," proceeds from an initial union of Old English and Latin through the stylistic stages of English over the centuries, mirroring the gestation of an unborn human child.  Finnegans Wake follows something of that kind of pattern in its unnumbered breaks within the four parts.

"Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob."  So begins this next section, and the conventional wisdom calls Shem one of the sons of HCE and ALP.  It's an embarrassing section to read when the meaning, in parts, leaks out.  Freud notes that sometimes, in dream experiences, "man habe sich dessen gar nicht geschämt."  Shameless himself here, Shem can indeed be said to shame us in the central action of this section, which I'm hesitant to summarize.  It's more infantile and scatological than anything else, and, when we get to the very point of the action, Joyce switches to a partly intelligible Latin, punctuated with parenthetical bursts of English to assist the Latinfree.  It brings to mind an old English translation I used to own of Kraft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.  Whenever the text described an unusually disturbing activity, it would switch to Latin, to protect the unlearned.  I imagine that Joyce is here following (or parodying) such procedure.

I don't mean to imply that Shem's actions are entirely clear.  There is as always a deliberate obfuscation, bringing to mind the Freudian observation that dreams veil as much as they reveal.

Section I ends with the washerwomen and the dirty laundry, in the form, mostly, of a dialogue beside a river. These are HCE's and ALP's bed sheets being scrubbed, Joyce continuing his unflinching navigation of the detriments of bodily life, calling to mind some of the less sparkling testimony at the Oscar Wilde trial.

(Here, for the first time, entirely divorced from the action, I realized that, translating "ALP" into Hebrew letters produces "aleph," the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an appropriate moniker for she who may or may not also be "Chava," "Eve," the mother of all living (as whiskey, which revives poor Tim Finnegan at his wake, is Irish for "water of life."))  (Humiliatingly, then, I find I can do nothing comparable with HCE). 

Part II begins with a relatively clear reference to a playhouse, and a playbill with some recognizable characters or players:  Seumus, Sean, Ann, Hump, an Izod who may become Isolde.  Sometimes it's followable, and sometimes it seems to sink into randomness, and I want to cry, "For God's sake, Joyce, give me a break! throw me a bone!"  Eventually it ends with "Upploud!" and oddly liturgical phrases:  "O Loud, hear the wee beseech of thees, of each of these thy unlitten ones!  Grant sleep in hour's time, O Loud!"  La comedia e finite, the little ones are put to bed, and peace/sleep solicited in the approximate language of compline.

Now since I'm reading the Wake in a pristine, new, and rather costly edition, I am loathe to write in the book itself.  But the thing screams out for annotations--to translate the silly puns into sentences, to see if any themes are emerging, to pat myself on the back for "getting something." 

Then, lo and behold, a new section starts up with annotations (of distinct character) in the left and right margins, and copious footnotes, all of which are as nonsensical and nonsequetrous as the text, and my relative satisfaction at having managed to sail the opaque prose--not with understanding, perhaps, but with relative dispatch--is upended by suddenly having to look left and right and below.

This new section looks first like a journey, then like a lesson.  It veers into math ("While on the other hand, traduced by their comedy nominators to the loafer's terms...."), then to a geometry problem ("O unbox your compasses.  I cain but are you able?").  Now I may be oddly mistaken, but the center of his figure of two intersecting circles reminds me of the rules of proportion governing the classical nude, and the text following suggests coitus, especially from the suggestion of an identification of the lower triangle of the figure.  We are back at the beginning, as man knows woman and Cain and Abel follow, and generations are generated.  And we end the section with epigrams associated with the eminent.

I've mentioned Freud a couple of times in this post.  His Traumdeutung, published about thirty years before Joyce began the Wake, was still, I think, a powerful influence in Joyce's day.  The meaning of dreams, per Freud, was often sexual, fundamentally irrational, but always disguised.  For all Freud's follies I do think he was right that dreams form and function as symbols, in a surprisingly non-random, sophisticated way.  But their meaning is for the sleeper alone.  There can be no encyclopedia of dream meanings; they are individually symbolic.  If I dream of Rudyard Kipling addressing a roomful of Tweedle-dees, the meaning for me is different from what it would be for you.  So, again, if I peep into Joyce's dream, or HCE's what meaning am I to glean from it? It becomes as much mine as his.  Hence the strangely personal experience of this peculiar book.

Just before the halfway point a new section starts.  I think it may be a tavern.  I will report later.

Thucydidean Reason

Given the unparalleled misery, pain and death of war, how can we see it as anything but irrational?

Roughly thirty years ago I read an English translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.  I had trouble following it.  Part of that stemmed from my profound ignorance of eastern Mediterranean geography--seems like most of the time I didn't know where anyone was.  But a greater part stemmed from the paucity of what I expected in a history of a war between Athens and Sparta:  big battles between Athenian and Spartan armies.  Unlike the Persian wars narrated by Herodotus, there is no Marathon, no Thermopylai, no Salamis.

Late last year I thought I'd try to go through it again, slowly, in Greek.  My geography is much improved.  I have some idea what not to expect.  Even so, now that I've reached the end of book I, I find that what I most forgot was how much talk there is in the book.  Much more talking than fighting.

War stories go back a long way.  The war-ballad is one of the first products of almost any literary culture, from the Iliad to the Chanson de Roland to Beowulf.  Accounts of war are commonplace in world literature and history.  But Thucydides, I think, has the distinction that his account is the first where center stage belongs, not to wrongs revenged, or deeds of heroism, or the praiseworthy leadership of the chieftain or the king or the general,  but to the careful, reasoned exposition of calculated advantage.

Τῆς μὲν γνώμης, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, αἰεὶ τῆς αὐτῆς ἔχομαι, μὴ εἴκειν Πελοποννησίοις.  So, at the end of Book I, begins Pericles, "ἀνὴρ...πρῶτος Ἀθηναίων," in a long speech advising war, and weighing the factors that will determine its outcome.  It is an appeal neither to honor nor justice, but a careful consideration of the land superiority of the Spartan army, the countervailing utility of Athenian sea power, the relative vulnerability of Attica and the Peloponnese to marauding armies, the capability of each side to remedy their current weaknesses, the relative wealth of Athens, the availability of mercenaries, and the greater reliability of Athens' allies.  The speech has a surprisingly familiar feel to it (perhaps because we, in far different circumstances, and with distressing frequency, continue to publicly discuss going to war).  But it is here merely the last in a series of appeals for help, complaints about interference, and solicitations for alliance.  By and large these speeches deal very little with right, or the will of the gods.  Rather, they weigh the advantages and disadvantages of organized violence.

In Thucydides war is rooted in reason.  And reasoned discourse, that for which we most honor the Greeks, doesn't always get it right, as Pericles, hedging, acknowledges.  And as Thucydides, knowing his readers know the outcome of the war, shows without comment.  As noted by another ancient,

כִּי לֹא לַקַּלִּים הַמֵּרוֹץ וְלֹא לַגִּבּוֹרִים הַמִּלְחָמָה

The race is not always to the swift, nor the war to the mighty.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

New Guinea and the Philippines

My dad died almost thirty-five years ago.  I was born in the mid-fifties, and the fact that my dad served in the second world war was, to me, the most unremarkable thing about him--at that time, pretty much all my friends' fathers had so served.  It was a fact as common as having a black-and-white TV or riding your bike to school.  I was supremely uninterested.  Not hostile, not defiant, neither ashamed nor particularly proud--just uninterested.

My dad had two "war stories," the guy who would yell, "Hand grenade!" in his sleep, and the time they stumbled across a banana plantation and made themselves sick gorging on fresh bananas.  My parents had about fifteen record albums, one of which was "Songs of the U.S. Armed Forces," and my dad particularly liked "Those Caissons go Marching Along," since he was in the field artillery.  Beyond those facts, and his having been in the Pacific rather than in Europe, I knew nothing, and really cared nothing.

In every way he was the least military of men.  He never owned a gun, never swore, rarely drank, took us to church every Sunday, and had no temper.  All the kids in the neighborhood loved him, and, unlike almost every other father I knew, he didn't have us say "yes, sir" and "no, sir."

When my mom died a few years back I found, among her papers, a service record she kept for my dad, recording a very few facts about his time in the military.  Most of the record was left blank, but there was enough from the itineraries to show that he participated in the 1944 New Guinea campaign and the "mop up" operations in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in the spring and summer of 1945.  He would have been around 28, 29 years old, just a little older than my son.

It being far too late to ask about any of this, and really knowing very little about the war in the Pacific, I came across, and recently finished, Stephen Taaffe's MacArthur's Jungle War:  The 1944 New Guinea Campaign.  Though I have absolutely no military experience, I enjoy reading war books, accounts of battles and campaigns.  Part of that is the vicarious pleasure taken in reading about terrible things you will never have to experience--climbing Mount Everest in a snowstorm, crossing the Arabian desert with supplies running low.  But, in addition, the practice of war, horrible and irrational as it is, is a large part of human history and human existence.  We don't know ourselves unless we know It--even those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape its direct terrors and atrocities.

But here there was a third perspective, not only the secondhand thrill of hardship not experienced, not only the awe of a massive endeavor of an emerging Western power to destroy the geopolitical threat of an emerging Eastern power, but also the consciousness that, in the middle of this maelstrom of destroyers and battleships, amphibious landings, firefights, bombardments, jungle and hilltop and swamp and cave assaults, heat and disease, my poor dad was slogging along with the rest of them, making the best of it.

And pretty much keeping it inside when he came home.

My mom notes that he looked awfully thin when he got back home toward the end of 1945.  She described him as "attabrine yellow," something which puzzled me until I learned in Taaffe's book that attabrine was something the soldiers were given as a preventative against malaria.  It tended to turn your skin yellow.  And when I asked one of my mom's sisters about it, she told me something I never knew:  dad came back from the southern Pacific with malaria, and never quite shook it his whole life.

So much there, so much I blithely overlooked.  So much stoicism, so much love.

Happy Father's Day, dad.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

According to Doyle

I've been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I was a kid, and have been an enthusiast, not only for the fiction of Conan Doyle, but for the variations on the character that have almost obscured the "real Holmes."  Of the film treatments, I always appreciated Jeremy Brett's "orthodoxy," and I think I liked "The Seven Per Cent Solution" more for its swashbuckling Sigmund Freud that for its Holmes.  I thought George C. Scott was awfully good in "They Might be Giants"  (I assume, until corrected, that Joann Woodward's Mildred  was the first female Dr. Watson).   I have very much enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch's "high functioning sociopath," though his characterization owes a little too much to the revived Doctor Who.

Still, it's fun to go back to Doyle, as I recently did in completing The Valley of Fear.  

The Holmes novels have always been less prized that the stories--with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  That's probably because, unlike The Hound, they spend a lot of time away from Holmes.  In The Valley of Fear the first half of the novel covers the murder, Holmes' investigation, and the solution, a satisfactory if (by cinematic standards) low-key resolution involving a missing dumbbell, a hidden bicycle, and the taking of a single, inner ring from a finger of the victim.  There's even a bit of Professor Moriarty, mostly as window dressing.

The second half of the novel is an entirely different story, explaining the background and motivation of the killing.  It's set in America, and it's just "wrong" enough to give the story an interest entirely separate from the plot.

I once had a friend who returned from a trip to England with a trove of English comics.  One dealt with the adventures of a certain "Dead-Eye Dick," the cover of which afforded us endless amusement.  It portrayed a saloon, someplace in the Rockies, I think.  A gunfighter has burst in through the swinging half-doors, and our cowpoke hero has risen from his poker game, fire in his eyes, and exclaims, "Whatever do you mean by this intrusion??"


The second part of the book is set in a rough American mining community, terrorized by an organization call the "Scowrers."  Doyle apparently didn't make up the scenario out of whole cloth; he based it on a book he read extolling the Pinkerton private detective organization, and a Pinkerton is, in fact, the eventual hero of the tale.  The Scowrers are members of what is equal parts fraternal organization, labor union, and Murder, Inc. Whether anything like this in fact existed I'm not able to say.  The enemy seems always to be articulated as "capitalists," but murders are committed by request, no questions asked, ruthlessly and frequently, often of wholly innocent workers.  Hence, The Valley of Fear.

As a stand-alone novel I would guess that it has Holmes alone to thank for it's still being printed.  And as a picture of American life and labor relations, it seems to fall into the seriously "wrong" category.  But as a period Edwardian melodrama and a window into the way that Englishmen of that period saw America, it has its interest.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Vocatio Contra Mundum

I have begun to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Nachfolge. 

When I entered college in 1973, liberal arts schools had begun offering, as the freshman introduction to writing and research, an elective on a fairly narrow topic (a practice that my daughter's school still follows).  I chose a course in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and we read The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics and portions of the Letters and Papers from Prison.  As a kid with a serious Protestant (Presbyterian) background, and an inchoate interest in theological/philosophical matters, it was a good beginning, even if, now, I wonder that I could really make head or tail of it at that age.

Bonhoeffer, of course, has an appeal beyond that of academic theology: around 1940 he became involved in a conspiracy seeking to assassinate Hitler and negotiate an armistice.  Bonhoeffer's role was to establish communications through ecumenical contacts (an effort that came to little due to the skittishness of the English).  He was arrested on unrelated charges and held in various prisons with some hope of release.  When, however, his connection with the conspiracy was established, he had little chance, and was hanged, with Allied troops just weeks away from liberation. 

Bonhoeffer was far from unknown when living.  He spent time in America at Union Theological Seminary, and collaborated with Karl Barth on the formation of a "Confessing Church" when the Nazis were working to create a more loyal Reichkirche.  But he became more widely known after his death, and, given the end his commitment led him to, it should come as no surprise that his 1937 book, Nachfolge ("Discipleship"), was given the English title, The Cost of Discipleship.

In retrospect it seems surprising that, at that time and place, the book was publishable at all.  It is not overtly political.  (How could it have been?)  But it focuses on the call to follow, to act more than to believe.  In doing so Bonhoeffer ran up against the common understanding of the sole decisiveness of faith in Lutheranism, which condemns all saving imperatives to act as "works-righteousness."  In response Bonhoeffer asserts that answering the call to follow--that is, obedience-- is not a "work," in Luther's sense, nor, alone, fully a salvific act, but a break with one's former life that only, itself, makes possible the faith that saves:  "Der Ungehorsame kann night glauben."  "The disobedient cannot believe."

In Nachfolge Bonhoeffer identifies "Weltlichkeit" as the central problem of contemporary Christianity:   "Worldliness."  He takes issue right away with the conventional portrait of Luther as the one who left the cloister for the world.  No, says Bonhoeffer, "Luther mußte das Kloster verlass und züruck in the Welt, nicht weil die Welt an sich gut und heilig wäre, sondern weil auch das Kloster nichts anderes war als Welt."  Luther fled the cloister because it had become more worldly than the world.  Christian life begins with the answer to a call to discipleship, against the call of the world.  Grace has a cost, unspoken, perhaps, but undeniable.

In his later Letters and Papers from Prison Bonhoeffer talks about "the world" somewhat differently; we must live "etsi deus non darentur," as if there were no God.  "Nicht der religiöse Akt macht den Christen, sondern das Teilnehmen am Leiden Gottes im weltliches Leben."  Paradoxically, it is the worldliness of a world without God which God calls us to.  "Die mündige Welt ist Gott-loser und darum veilleicht gerade Gott-näher als die unmündige Welt."  The absence of God in a mature world makes him nearer than formerly.  Bonhoeffer's later ideas were appealed to by the "Death-of-God" theologians of the sixties, but his focus was much more on God's co-suffering-with, not a resulting fully-blown "secularity."

I may try to explore this contrast with time.  But I have a certain hesitation, because, though these are undoubtedly "theological" works, their aim is not, primarily, the understanding.  "Nachfolge" can, indeed, be translated "Discipleship," but it can also be understood as a verb in the imperative:  "Follow!"  When I look back on my earlier reading, I see how imperfectly I understood the implications of Lutheran theological notions.  But I also have to look at how I did, or didn't, respond to the call.

It reminds me of the last words of Jesus in the last chapter of the last gospel.  He utters some rather enigmatic statements about the fate of Peter and John.  It is noted that the statement about John was initially misunderstood.  It is, genuinely, a fascinating theological exegetical exchange.  But what are Jesus' final words?  

τί πρὸς σέ; σύ μοι ἀκολούθει.

"What is that to you?  Follow me."