Words & Music

"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Edgar Degas

Thursday, April 26, 2018
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

James Joyce and the wild heart of life


There are things we don't know and things we will never know. But as long as we live, we keep trying to figure them out. Great writers are one of the sources we turn to for answers or, failing that, insight. Here is James Joyce giving his insight into the fall, and the temptation preceding the fall.

The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard; and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling, but not yet fallen, still unfallen, but about to fall.

The fall may or may not be inevitable. None are immune to temptation. Some overcome it, or believe they do, and some find the solution in the prescription of Joyce's fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde:

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

The fall of James Joyce was softened by the muse that came to him in gentle words. 
  
He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:

-         A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?


Behind the veil of those words was the full experience of life: love and lust and something between and beyond those feelings, something living and dying in the sights and sounds of a girl on the edge of the water at the wild heart of life. 

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea-harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.

        A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, was bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish; and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

        She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.

-        Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

James Joyce and Interior Monologue


There are a few individuals within each generation of athletes and artists who operate on a higher level than others, leaving their competition scratching their heads in amazement. James Joyce is one of those. His mastery of the interior monologue device begs for closer scrutiny. Take a look under the magnifying glass and see what I mean:






He had not died but he had faded out like a film in the sun. He had been lost or had wandered out of existence for he no longer existed. How strange to think of him passing out of existence in such a way, not by death but by fading out in the sun or by being lost and forgotten somewhere in the universe!






Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust.


Reading Joyce is like watching TV with my thumb hovering over rewind. I keep stopping at the end of a paragraph, or in the middle of one, to make sure my mind absorbed what I had just read, astounded and inspired to learn that humans are able to craft such fantastic cages to capture our thoughts. Like these observations of sexual awakening:

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded: and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them.

As he crossed the square, walking homeward, the light laughter of a girl reached his burning ear. The frail gay sound smote his heart more strongly than a trumpet blast, and, not daring to lift his eyes, he turned aside and gazed, as he walked, into the shadow of the tangled shrubs. Shame rose from his smitten heart and flooded his whole being. The image of Emma appeared before him, and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry?
 
If that's not poetry, it's close enough for me.
Monday, April 23, 2018

James Joyce and Young Love


James Joyce is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. His novels and short stories, as well as his life, continue to fascinate more than 70 years after his death. Like all good Irishmen the tales of his life are clouded by legend. 

The groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung, who was treating Joyce’s daughter Lucia for schizophrenia, said that father and daughter were both heading to the bottom of a river, except that James was diving and Lucia was sinking.

His wife Nora told this story:
“I go to bed and then that man sits in the next room and continues laughing about his own writing. And then I knock at the door, and I say, now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing.”

My favorite story about Joyce concerns his legendary struggles in producing his astounding art. From Stephen King’s highly recommended book On Writing:

According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.
        “James, what’s wrong? The friend asked. “Is it the work?”
        Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?
        “How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.
        Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): “Seven.”
        “Seven? But James…that’s good, at least for you!”
        “Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is…but I don’t know what order they go in!”


Joyce’s first novel was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and contains glorious prose like this, from one of the young man’s memories:

Eileen had long thin cool white hands too because she was a girl. They were like ivory; only soft. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory but protestants could not understand it and made fun of it. One day he had stood beside her looking into the hotel grounds. A waiter was running up a trail of bunting on the flagstaff and a fox terrier was scampering to and fro on the sunny lawn. She had put her hand into his pocket where his hand was and he had felt how cool and thin and soft her hand was. She had said that pockets were funny things to have: and then all of a sudden she had broken away and had run laughing down the sloping curve of the path. Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold. By thinking of things you could understand them.


One of the feats a great writer can perform is the shock of recognition, when a character reveals traits that readers thought was unique to them. This description of youthful anticipation about first love should be recognizable to anyone who cares to remember that tender time of life:

Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes [his school], that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
        He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.