Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 15, James Joyce

A Brief Introduction to Modernism.

Modernist authors are responding to the shock of the new—some embrace it or at least see it as inevitable and therefore a situation with which we must come to terms, while others are rather Carlylean in trying to fashion a “useable past” in spite of the odds against doing that. What we mean by modernism depends on geography—Continental movements like surrealism and Dadaism and, in a different way, futurism, have a different flavor, and a different attitude towards past history, politics, and culture than do “Anglo-American” modernists like Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf. It’s as if the Dadaists want to throw away the past and really make a fresh start, as the modernist catchphrase has it: “make it new.” And Marinetti’s futurists embrace the machine age and take it for a new model of humanity, no regrets. Others would perhaps like to do that, but aren’t at all sure it’s possible, if that phrase is taken to mean, “forget everything and start over.” Eliot, Pound, and Joyce in particular are constantly taking the ruins of past history and culture and making new things—new forms for art, new ways to think about history, politics, and the individual’s relation to these realms.

But what I called “the crisis of authority” in referring to romanticism still applies—maybe what people mean by modernism is just that the sense of living in unprecedented times when everyone is tied to the railroad tracks while Carlyle’s vast, conductorless Steam Engine Universe barrels onward. It would be fair to say that the romantics and Victorians often speak apocalyptically enough about this sense of “newness” and “speed,” but Modernism has the memory of World War I, at least after the ‘10’s, standing at the gates like Michael guarding the lost paradise of utopian ideals. You can’t go back to Kansas anymore, if you ever could. Worse yet, now you can’t even think you can go back to paradise, at least if you want anybody to take you seriously.

The art of the period from 1910 or so to at least the 1930’s shows a sense of the human subject’s and the world’s bewildering complexity, with part of that history consisting in previous attempts to make sense of it all, whether in art, philosophy, or religion.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The earlier, fragmentary version of this novel was entitled Stephen Hero, so if Stephen is a Modernist hero, what can we say about that kind of animal? If anything describes Stephen’s progress towards artisthood, it is the feeling of being different and yet trapped by old cultural scripts or stories, old personal memories, conventional images, words, human ties, the cynicism and stupidity of others. Stephen keeps trying to forge sense and order from chaos, keeps trying to separate himself from his relatives—especially his mother and father—and his surroundings so he can strike out on his own as a true original “author” with his own ideas and an unfettered future. But that turns out to be rather difficult—his youth is a pretty good figure for a lot of modernistic art: magisterial in its pretensions to aloof autonomy, yet constantly forced to generate that same autonomy through recognition of the things that get in the way—little things like history, social demands and conventions, past art, religion, your family and nation and race, and even your personal experiences and characteristics. For Stephen, the way forwards seems to lie through all these things. If you want to see him as a hero, part of the heroism would consist in the willingness to confront the obstacles in his way, realizing that he will probably not be able to do away with them or get entirely free of them, that they have largely determined his path in the first place.

Look at the way Stephen’s own words inflect the imperative to “make it new”: he says that he will go forth and, having experienced the same things others have experienced many times, forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. None of this goes towards the assertion of some “romantic” integral identity: Stephen’s responses and experiences are not original, any more than utterance of words making up your particular language system makes you original and unique. The Blakean rhetoric about imaginative creation suggests the “forging” of an identity (and note the connotations of “forge” here) and a new kind of art, but the end-product is something more porous and harder to pin down than iron or steel. Stephen’s language has a romantic, youthful exuberance about it, and it’s hard to see how Joyce could have sustained that fiery enthusiasm—he is after all writing about a fictionalized, immature “past self.” Stephen’s attempt involves deforming and rendering fluid all his past experiences and understandings so that he as an “artificer” can create something new. That isn’t the same thing as simply leaving everything behind and making a fresh start.

So to leave things at Stephen’s “I’m going to be my own father and maker” level would be too easy. Critics often say that Modernism shows a profoundly “subjective” turn in response to the mechanization and rationalization inherent in modernity itself. That’s probably true, but the kind of subjectivity posited is by no means in opposition to the forces against which it is posited. Modernism isn’t a “rage against the machine,” either in terms of ideas or in terms of literary form. Pater gave the cue as early as 1867—he says the aim of life and of our interaction with art is “the fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Intensity, speed, complexity—we need to be able to embrace these factors in life and derive our satisfaction or sense of meaning from them, gathering, as Baudelaire puts it around the same time, “the sense of permanence from the evanescent”—the beautiful face or object glimpsed momentarily in the faceless crowd, in the ephemeral productions of fashion, etc. (See The Painter of Modern Life.)

The point is, becoming an artificer or artist is a complex process, and in fact only someone who experiences deeply the play of the conventional and anachronistic within himself has any chance of getting there, whatever scars or limitations result from the process.

Stephen’s consciousness is formed by, subjected to, powerful conventions in all areas of life. What the Ikea people treat light-heartedly (the ability to manipulate emotions—being sad about “ze old lamp” because cleverly combined film-noire images and stock narrative force us to anthropomorphize the lamp and treat it as if it had feelings), poor childish and then adolescent Stephen Dedalus suffers with all the agony of a martyr being gnawed at by hungry lions.
His early sexuality, for instance, is informed by Jesuit teachings about the body’s fallen condition—so when he begins to think about women, spectral Superego Jesuit Fathers take him by the collar and force him to interpret it all as a surefire ticket to hell, where, as we know, the very walls are four thousand mils thick and the fire is expressly designed by God, the great artificer, to punish sinners. The Director’s sermon on the physical and spiritual pains of hell is an Ikean tear-jerker, it’s an Ignatian “fear-jerker.” Read the Spiritual Exercises, and you’ll see that Ignatius counsels meditation on these very things. Joyce is superb as a stylist—in Ulysses, he makes fun of just about every C19 literary style. There’s even a parody of Carlyle in the book. Here we can see him not so much paring his nails, but snickering (nervously?) at Stephen’s jejune and entirely predictable response to an entirely predictable sermon by an utterly predictable Jesuit Father.

To what extent does this color our understanding of the amount of originality that can come from experiencing the same things others have experienced, as the novel’s final words claim? Joyce is a good example of the meta-contextuality of much modernist art: we should remember that the modernist Joyce is out there somewhere “paring his nails” while all this happens to his young modernist hero. So to what extent does Joyce snicker at Stephen, to what extent does he see himself in the at times callow, brittle intellectual lad whose soul is riven by powerful, guilt-inducing erotic impulses? Joyce is somewhat like Stephen, but he is not Stephen—he’s implicated in Stephen’s limitations, and knows it….

Well, this fear leaves its mark even though Stephen abruptly rejects the narrative of sin along with the call to the priesthood, with all its suspiciously temporal powers. Stephen seems to be unwilling just to find himself a nice girl like Emma and get married—he rejects the pull of conventional love and ordinary fatherhood in order to go off and become an artist. There are babies, and there is art: the two stand for different and perhaps permanently separated orders of reality. Art and the world—are they in fact commensurate? How can we know? A good modernist question since they’re always insisting that they can create new worlds with their words and other artistic media.

His relations with his father are ambivalent in an almost Freudian way—Simon Dedalus has never really grown up. He’s a gentleman, but not far beneath the polite veneer is a squirming bag of appetites. Simon isn’t as grown up as he makes himself out to be with his old stories and social pretensions. He’s something of a failure, really, and yet he only hopes Stephen is “half as good a man as he is.” Well, isn’t that how most young men see their fathers—as a potential threat to their own sense of independence and masculinity? There’s some competition here—the father resents the son’s intellect, and the son resents the father’s prior achievement of manhood and his unspoken setting forth of a model Stephen must follow. Part of that model is Simon’s Irish nationalism, pro-Fenianism, and so forth. This is something Stephen desperately wants to avoid: he doesn’t want to become yet another ordinary Irishman whose sense of honor binds him to the struggle for national independence from the English. Stephen sees that as a loser’s game, a millstone around his neck—yet he also feels guilty about his need to leave Ireland behind, as you can tell from the bitterness of his pronouncements on Ireland.

In the end, one can’t simple reject one’s personal past or the broader cultural past, it seems. Modernists like Joyce create something like montage—the Daedalus legend would be a good example because Joyce has gone back to a classical legend, ripped it from its original temporal setting (if there are such) and its context, in order to make it function in new ways, to fashion something new and defiant, forwards-looking.

Being different entails alienation, separation from one’s fellows. This is largely true of Anglo-American modernist literature: it seems mandarin, unapproachable, brittle, yet says in so many words that it is of our eternal salvation to understand it. You must come to these works and humble yourself before them—get out your dictionary, look up that reference about Parnell and Kitty O’Shea or Bishop so-and-so. They don’t accommodate you; you accommodate them. That’s probably healthy, but it’s a difficult claim to make about the relationship between art and life.