Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, June 16, 2007

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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