Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gravity's Rainbow impressions

I'm struck, as anyone must be on reading this odd, odd novel, by all the narrative detours it takes. Without much provocation or build-up, the story will shift to another place and focus on a different character, only to flit somewhere else a few pages later. Thank goodness, for all this hopscotch, there's still a main character in the book.

What's even more interesting about this technique, though, is that not all of the sidetracks are of the same nature. One class is simply a shift to another, more or less contemporaneous scene. Another class is a flashback. A third class is something like a hallucination -- I'm thinking of the passage where Slothrop goes down the toilet (pp. 64-7) -- though the narrative in this class quickly becomes so bizarre as to actually transcend the description of an actual clinical fugue and become something totally different, purely textual and completely aware of its own artifice. [Kind of reminds me of my Circe paper (see below).] Finally, a fourth class verges on the unclassifiable, for it merges two or more of the other classes.

GR in general is not narrated in a traditional way, with partitions blocking first, second, and third person and, by extension, prohibiting certain information that does not relate to the "real" characters. In GR, much that is peripheral is forefronted, like the little sidetrack into the death of Etzel Olsch by exploding cigar (p. 302). GR also makes a lot of use of the second person. Zak Smith in his foreword to the excellent Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow takes all the yous at face value, meaning when the book says you he draws himself. I read the yous a bit more impersonally, translating every "you feel" into "one feels."

Narrative that peaks inside several characters' minds -- as opposed to just one -- has been around since Dostoyevski; but here we have narrative that isn't simply telepathic, so to speak, it's also chronopathic. That's a word I just made up, using the Greek roots for "time" and "feeling." Here and there crop up touchstones where the narrative kind of falls through the slipstream and into places other fiction simply does not go. These scenes are like flashbacks, but they're external to the characters with which they are associated. In other words, we're glimpsing a past that has not been glimpsed by the characters we're reading about. Sometimes we glimpse a future that will not exist, and probably does not exist in the minds of the characters either (e.g. the spaceport passage that stretches out from p. 296). Any other text that needs to reveal something to the reader but not the characters does not use such methods. It's always some other device: a prologue, a new chaper: something clearly marked off from the 'A' story.

The only thing I have to compare this to is the "object reading" skill from Blue Rose, where an adept can actually glimpse significant events in an object's past by touching it. For instance, an adept who finds a knife used in a murder is able to witness the moment that knife plunged into the victim's back. This seems to operate on the theory that momentous events leave some kind of psychic residue.

In GR the setting, far beyond just being described, is also shot through with the stories of past events and significant figures. Then again, the long-dead Laszlo Jamf appears in a number of places but though not at his own mausoleum. The novel must not contain ghosts then, or even necessarily psychic echoes. Something else. In a novel focused so intently on its hero's paranoia, it's strange to have these sidetracks so externalized, that is, distanced from Slothrop and the other characters, rather than sprouting from their "ethical pressure-points and faultlines" as in Ulysses. Not quite sure what to make of it yet.

A coincidence: on page 303 appears a reference to what but the Marie Celeste...

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Austin, loose ends

Photos are finally online, here.

And my opus, "Circean Aerodynamics", is done too. It has an appendix.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Joyceans and the copyfight

Saturday's plenary concerned Carol Loeb Schloss's epic struggle with the Joyce Estate over access to Joyce's Finnegans Wake notes and Joyce's daughter Lucia's writings for her biography of the latter. The Estate -- and by synecdoche Stephen James Joyce, the author's grandson and Lucia's nephew -- did their level best to prevent the biography's publication, relying heavily on a tenuous understanding of copyright law.

The Estate's tactics as Schloss described them were ferocious: they tried to get SUNY Buffalo to deny her access to its store of Joyceana, and later sent at lawyer to the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin to peruse some documents she had used, this in order to argue that the documents were of no value to scholarship. Beyond that, Schloss said, the Estate got personal tried to discredit her as a scholar, brushing aside as worthless dross all of her published works in Joyce studies. A great anecdote: the law firm representing the Estate in this case, Jones Day, also represents Halliburton.

Schloss eventually did publish her book; but her publisher, Farar Strauss Giroux, insisted huge chunks of quotations from Joyce and Lucia be omitted; and this, she said, greatly dimished her work's credibility. The biography was subsequently savaged by reviewers.

Late last year, the Estate essentially settled with Schloss, who had brought a lawsuit against them alleging copyright misuse, when it ended up filing a "covenant not to sue" Schloss for copyright infringement. This -- alas, too late -- granted Schloss permission to use what she wanted. Schloss said Saturday there aren't any immediate plans to release a complete text; however, all the excised parts are available online -- another happy consequence of the settlement. Meantime, the two parties are still arguing over whether the estate should cover Schloss's legal fees. Whether or not they do (from what I could tell) will be of no consequence to Schloss, because she was represented pro bono by the Stanford University Fair Use Project, whose mission it is to go after copyright abusers.

Stephen Joyce, Schloss said, always chalked up his resistance to the biography to the family's right to privacy. Schloss said she took the question of family privacy very seriously. But, she asked, was it SJ's place or right to assert her biography would violate that? She went so far as to suggest SJ cared not for his aunt, and was actually scornful of her because of some slight in the terms of her will. And, contrary to what the Slate reviewer asserts, Schloss wasn't in it to get at salacious details about of a dysfunctional family. On the contrary, she said, her whole purpose was to investigate how Lucia inspired the writing of Finnegans Wake.

(Bit of a tangent: SJ famously criticized Richard Ellmann for publishing Joyce's letters, saying it had stripped the family naked, or words to that effect. Apropos of Schloss, Christine van Boheemen-Saaf centered her paper the previous day around the 1909 "dirty letters" Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora. Van Boheemen-Saaf assertied the letters marked a pivotal development in Joyce's fiction writing -- at the time he was reworking _Stephen Hero_ into _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ -- in their rapid vascillations from the lyrical and wholesome to the obscene and back.)

Schloss's victory proved mostly a moral one. Because the case never went to trial, there's no judge's verdict and therefore no precedent set, no case law to pave the way for other Joyceans butting heads with the Estate. One of Schloss's lawyers, Robert Spoo of the San Francisco law firm Howard Rice, said it's still to early to assess whether the settlement has weakened the Estate's position or put an end to its copyright misuse and attempts to block other scholars digging behind published texts and into early manuscripts, letters, and diaries.

Another of Schloss's lawyers, David Olson of the Fair Use Center, said the pending decision on whether the Estate should cover the legal fees will be important for similar copyfights to come. Most scholars don't have the means to mount such legal challanges, and most law firms aren't willing to proceed with them on a pro bono basis. But if Schloss succeeds in having the Estate pay legal fees -- thus establishing that the Estates of artists can be held to account for interfering in scholarship -- it could make other firms more receptive to mounting legal battles of this sort. Earlier in the day, Bill Brockman, noted there are something like 1,500 unpublished Joyce letters out there, meaning there's still a bit of scholarship left to be done in the area.

Further reading: The New Yorker has two articles on Schloss and Stephen Joyce.

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Austin, day four

Bloomsday CIII kicked off with eight panels all at the same time. One of them was mine, natch, and so there were about five people there to listen to us, natch. Two of the audience members were panelists' girlfriends.

No matter, for the panel was, if I do say so myself, damned interesting. "Joyce and Science" began with my own paper, one I'd been working on since the end of the last North American Joyce Conference in Ithaca, N.Y., in 2005, where I read this paper. I'll provide a link to this year's paper once I've made a few corrections.

Also on the panel were Michael D. Rubenstein from UC Berkeley, who gave "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Urban Planner" and Sam Schwartz of the University of Arizona, who interrogated "Ithaca and the Discourse of Popular Science."

Rubinstein's was one of those oddball looks at a very peripheral topic in Joyce's work -- in this case, public utilities -- that turned out to be pretty intriguing. He pointed out how Stephen begins to learn about the physical world through utilities like the gas jet and the hot water tap (seeing the word "hot" makes him feel hot). "Bildung" (as in Bildungsroman), Rubenstein quipped, is linked to "building." About the time of "The Dead" and _Ulysses_, Dublin was in transition from gas to electric light, and the quality of the light, especially in the short story, often takes the forefront. Dublin at the time contained some of Europe's worst slums, and, Rubenstein noted tangentially, there's a good deal of emphasis on public utilities and infrastructure modernization in other literature about or originating from slums.

Schwartz's paper had to do with nausea as it is experienced in the face of difficult reading, whether technical and scientific or (post)modernist. On Bloom's bookshelf in Ithaca is Robert Ball's _The Story of the Heavens_, an early attempt to bring scientific discourse to the masses. (Curiously this paralleled in language a poster rolled out by a publishing house in concert with an early edition. The poster urged potential readers [read: buyers] not to let the critics confuse them.) The talk was in fact just a primer for a larger book project on scientific discourse in literature. Schwartz said he plans to look especially at _Moby Dick_, with its alternating chapters on the practice of whaling, and _Gravity's Rainbow_, with all its detail on German rocketry. He also broached the subject of why modernist literature MUST be difficult, pointing briefly to Leornard Diepeveen, who apparently gives the question a more satisfying answer than old T.S. Eliot.

The very last panel of the conference was a romp, with trivia-stuffed papers by John Gordon and Jesse Meyers.

Meyer's paper, as a listener pointed out during Q&A, was a bit of an overreading of Nausicaa, focusing minute attention on repeated grammatical constructions and hundreds of purported arcs splattered throughout the episode. But, as Jorn Barger suggests, and Gordon reiterated, it's perilous to imagine Joyce didn't already think the thought you're now thinking as you read him; so it's difficult to tell what an "overreading" could be when Joyce is involved.

Gordon went after the "Mystery ship of Ulysses," the "Marie whatchacallit" Molly thinks of fleetingly. Like Jim the Penman, a whole mythology grew up around this ship, actually called the Mary Celeste, which was found adrift in 1872, perfectly intact but with all hands missing. Molly recalls another ship towing the derelict into the harbor at Gibraltar when she was a child. Echoes of the ship's mystery crop up in Eumaeus in the narration of the old sailor Murphy -- he's perfectly willing to talk your ear off about anything BUT Gibraltar. Turns out Arthur Conan Doyle, in an unsigned work, spun a few of the scant facts of the case just enough to, in 1884, revive the Mary Celeste legend.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Austin, day three

Friday we actually capered around town a bit in the evening, taking the bus over the bridge and working our way to Stubbs BBQ, then looping back through East 6th Street, where all the clubs are at. There's a lot of 'em.

Conference panels Friday began with one in the Ransom Center, where so much Joyce ephemera is stored, with a talk on "Archival Joyce." Finn Fordham, among the other three panelists, took a genetic look at Circe, arguing how the obscenity trial of the Little Riview, which had been publishing Ulysses chapter by chapter, changed how Joyce wrote. In two turns of phrase I especially liked, Fordham pointed to the episode's "ethical pressure-points or fault lines" as the prompts for all the episode's weirdness, and described Joyce as a one-man band, seeming to play the instruments of his text with different parts of his body, creating "an only-just coherent multiplicity."

In the morning plenary, Vicki Mahaffey dug into the mythology of Jim the Penman, the infamous check forger whose nickname is echoed in Shem the Penman, Joyce's obliquely autobiographical character in Finnegans Wake. She titled her talk "A Portrait of the Artist as a Sympathetic Villain: Forgery, Melodrama, and Silent Film" or "Joyce's Hand."

John Bishop more or less ad libbed his afternoon talk, but was, as always, brilliant. The panel's focus was on the senses and sensation, and Bishop rattled off different philosophers' concepts about the human sensorium, from John Locke's primary ideas/sensory impressions to Samuel Johnson's splitting perception and thought to Giambatista Vico's continuum of feeling without perceiving, perceiving and thinking, and reflecting. At one moment Bishop pointedly remarked about how people at conferences so often cite the philosophers everybody else is currently citing instead of the philosophers Joyce would have read. Then on to sensation as it is depicted in Joyce's works, referencing Benstock's catalogue of Leopold Bloom's every sniff and the gnosis/noses punning in Finnegans Wake. Likewise the prominence of water in the Wake, a reflection of how humans are mostly water, and how our experiences are mediated by water, like the film and vitrious fluid of the eyes to the cerebral fluid surrounding the brain. Finally, he said, with so much visual information before us, he see what we choose to see. Stephen, gazing at the ocean, sees a bowl of his mother's vomit and ships with men puking over the railings; Bloom, gazing at a ticket stub left by Boylan, sees a "larcerated scarlet" ticket, the words here connoting blame and shame, as opposed to a plain and neutral "torn red" ticket. In an earlier discussion Bishop pointed out that _Dubliners_ seems not to contain a single insect, where A Portrait and subsequent works are replete with them. This, Bishop suggested, shows a developing realism in Joyce's writing.

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Sean Walsh: luminary or wanker?

The last event of the day Friday was a talk by Sean Walsh, who made the second and latest film adaptation of Ulysses, "Bl,.m." I wrote this review after seeing it on the big screen in Dublin in 2003. It's not glowing; and my regard for it has actually depreciated after having re-watched it last week on DVD. Nonetheless, Walsh is himself a very funny and charismatic speaker. A reader who takes a decidedly non-academic approach to the novel, he was somehow not totally out of place at this academic conference. His mission throughout, he said, was to bring this "unread book" to the people -- a goal he said he's succeeded in to some degree. While in theory the de-mystification of Ulysses is certainly something I can get behind, in his practice, I can't.

Never having read the novel past page 30 in the novel, Walsh one day in 1993 started daydreaming about how making a film version of Ulysses could make him "a few quid." He wrote to the Joyce estate, who proposed a number of hoops he would have to jump through and retained final yea or nay power, setting the bar, Walsh said, "somewhere beyond infinity." Nonetheless he proceeded with making a promo for what he at first envisioned as a series of 12 televion episodes. Nobody, including Oregon Public Television and the BBC, wanted it. The next year, the Joyce Estate threatened to sue. In the meanwhile he did read the book dilligently, and had some tutoring from a Joycean friend.

In 1998 and 1999, having decided to proceed instead with a feature film, Walsh began casting. Steven Rea was his no. 2 choice for Bloom, behind somebody I've never heard of. Joseph Fiens, fresh off the set of "Shakespeare in Love," wanted to play Stephen Dedalus. That didn't pan out.

In 2001, Walsh started preproduction and was three weeks in when a major funding source dried up, essentially killing the project. It started back up again in 2002, filming taking six and a half weeks and editing taking six months, with some reshoots taking place in the middle of winter -- including the Howth Head scene, where Bloom and Molly are supposed to be basking under summer sun among the rhododendrons.

One of the stark errors, if you want to call it that, of the film is the fact that Stephen isn't wearing his black mourning suit. Walsh said he chose to dress Stephen in brown because it would have been trite, or something, to have both the heroes wearing the same thing. Perhaps in a movie this would be true; but in his novel Joyce evidently didn't find the coincidence overbearing.

Two odd tidbits: Preparing for his role, Rea went to a voice coach and worked out how a middle class Jew living in Dublin would have spoken. The Martello Tower used in the film is not the one on Sandymount Strand but rather on Dalkey Island, the only tower extant today that's not surrounded by cars and office buildings and convenience stores.

From viewers, Wlash said, "The most common thing I hear is 'I never thought Ulysses was like that." Many have told him they now want to go back and read the novel beyond the first 30 pages -- especially for the dirty bits.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Austin, day two

The conference was held at the University of Texas at Austin's student union, with a small Joyce exhibit a few blocks away at the Harry Ransom Center where, somewhere deeper inside, exists a respectable amount of Joyce's papers, so I hear.

The first panel I attended was on Scientific Joyce -- seemed a sort of precursor to my own panel two days hence -- which included discussions of Oxen of the Sun's embriological references, a discussion of nerves and fatigue as relating to Eumaeus, and a charting of the comet Bloom imagines himself in Ithaca.

Next was a panel on "indeterminacies" where most discussion centered on Margot Norris's paper about Stephen's anti-Semitic ballad, the story of little Harry Hughes who is chopped into pieces by a Jewess. Norris suggested Stephen's singing this in front of Bloom might have been an escpe mechanism -- Stephen, fearing entrapment in the Jew's house, tries to distance himself. But in fact Bloom hasn't yet extended his invitation at the moment Stephen sings; and also in fact, it was Bloom who invited Stephen to sing. It seems to me, and another listener suggested, that Stephen is singing his ballad with tongue in cheek. Of course Stephen was much earlier shown to be resistant to anti-Semitic stereotypes ("A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear, Jew or gentile," he tells Mr Deasy); then again, it's easier in theory than in practice to avoid bigotry. [And something to check up on -- Stephen actually appears in Kiernan's while Bloom is out and calls him a "perverted Jew," echoing Buck Mulligan who earlier warned Stephen that Bloom had his eye on him. This purported exchange happens in Cyclops, so I reckon that if it is Stephen who says this, it's not revealed unambiguously.]

After lunch a good panel where, in epistulary form, Erin Hollis and Aaron Schmidt unpack and unpack some more the very, very brief scene in which Bloom is revulsed by the sloppy eaters at Barton's and decides to take his lunch instead at Davy Byrne's. Bloom is normally such a deferential fellow, so whence this sudden disgust at his fellow man? Very cleverly the panelists wove in the nearby reference of another building near the Barton, the former Harp theater, now the Empire pub. Bloom once turned his back in the same way on a rowdy crowd at the Harp, and now this indigenous venue has been appropriated by "empire." So something vaguely anti-nationalistic going on, perhaps, and probably a manifestation of Bloom's otherness as a born Jew in Catholic Dublin.

In this panel and the next were very interesting discussions of Gabriel Conroy's insecurity in "The Dead." Marian Eide described how Molly Ivors, an intellectual woman (whom Joyce professed to hate), challenges Gabriel on politics, leaving him for the rest of the evening to contemplate what his comeback should have been, so stupefied was he by this woman who dares match wits with him. And in his toast he actually presents his comeback as a declaration against becoming too educated and losing the human quality -- in fact how he'd like to see women remain, uneducated and homebound. Finally, at the hotel, as if to placate himself further, he seeks a surprising brutal kind of sexual solace in his wife, Greta.

But no luck there either, for Greta is in a brown study about her childhood suitor, Michael Fury, who supposedly died from his love for her. Gabriel's domestic frustration likely goes deeper than this, suggested Tara Prescott, who elucidated a pervasive double entendre behind the golloshes Gabriel insists on wearing and which Greta refuses to wear. Greta, Prescott suggested, is resistant to using a condom and, perhaps, stifling Gabriel's hunger for casual sex.

Also in the day's last panel was a fascinating look at a whole genre of circus-slave potboilers underlying the fleeting mention in Ulysses of a book called _Ruby: Pride of the Ring_. Joyce seems to have conflated several books of this genre into one for the purposes of his own novel, argued Jennifer Burns Levin. According to her, these texts were not intended to be pornographic, but they do pay a heck of a lot of attention to what we understand now as masochistic fetishes: the circus girls' beatings at the hands of the ringmaster are minutely detailed, with descriptions of every whip crack and welt. Molly Bloom is dissatisfied with _Ruby_, telling her husband, who picked it out for her, "There's nothing smutty in it." Bloom, however, probably would have thought there was.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Austin, day one

So I flew out to Austin today to take part in this year's North American James Joyce Conference at the university here. It officially started today, though my love and I stayed south of campus to check out our temporary digs on South Congress Avenue and swim at Barton Springs. "SoCo" is quite the trendy strip, with a very /in/ lodge, the Hotel San Jose, where my love insisted we stay; Jo's coffee and grub stand nextdoor; and plenty of posh shops and restaurants. Looking to the left out the hotel entrace gives a nice view of the downtown, with the statehouse smack in the middle, flanked on the right by the blue giant, the Frost Bank Tower and One Congress Plaza and One American Center.

A whole day has gone by and I've heard but a few southern accents. Granted, I'm in a touristy section, but really...

So far the list of things I forgot to pack includes toothpaste and the cable that would have allowed me to connect camera to computer and share with you all the photos I took today and will take throughout the trip.

Our three-and-a-half-hour flight was taken up listening to two men behind us chattering incessantly about selling real estate. Sleep and reading, thanks to them, was impossible. A small blessing: toward the end of the flight they had stopped calculating the maximum man-hours it should take to sell a house and moved on to the refreshing topics of 401(k) plans, health insurance, and legacies. Once the pilot announced our imminent landing, one said, "Wow, that went by quick. Good conversation!" I could have murdered them.

At the Hotel San Jose, everything (except, as it happens, our room) is superlative: from the patio (where positively everyone is hanging out right now and some DJs were spinning away, first something like Herb Alpert but much hipper, and now some post-soul ambiance) to the (microscopic, bathwater-warm) pool. The drink of choice at San Jose seems to be some ungodly concoction involving Negra Modelo, tobasco and Worcestershire sauces, ground pepper, and who knows what else -- all in a glass whose rim is encrusted with lime juice and salt a la marguerita. It's perfectly terrible, but those in the know seem to have developed a taste for it. Luckily there's no shortage of Corona and even my beloved Paulaner Hefe-Weizen in these parts.

Barton Springs is apparently the swimming hole of choice in the city, and it was very well attended indeed by families, bikini-clad 20-somethings and buff dudes wading cum backwards hats and Oaklies. Positively everyone had tattoos, and at least one woman felt at ease enough to go topless (and here I thought I'd nixed plans for a trip to France). The springs in question are not hot but cold, and the water that emerges from it, filling the creek turned community pool, purportedly stays 68 degrees year round. Here pigeons are vastly outnumbered, and squirrels entirely replaced, by grackles -- birds whose call, to these virgin ears, sounds rather like an car alarm.

Tomorrow the conference begins in earnest with a program I haven't yet begun to peruse. I'll be delivering my own paper on Saturday morning in a panel titled "Joyce and Science." I'm looking forward to reconnecting with some acquaintances I made at the Joyce conference two years ago in Ithaca, N.Y., where I gave this paper. But presently I must figure out how I'm to catch a bus and travel the three miles or so from 1316 South Congress to the University of Texas campus.

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