Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.

McCarthy’s Parataxis

September 17, 2010

So, it’s been almost two weeks since I posted. Oops. Anyway, I’m drawn back here by the most recent post on this blog written by a fellow UD student. It argues that Cormac McCarthy is a bad prose stylist; as anyone who has read this site over the last four months knows, I have no choice but to disagree with that. I’m not going to try to defend McCarthy’s style generally, but I do want to talk about why one particular sentence that was picked out as egregiously flawed is actually, in my mind, quite brilliant.

The sentence in question is this, excerpted from The Crossing:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

The charge is that it makes gratuitous use of repetition in an attempt to sound “literary” without actually communicating anything. This charge is based on the idea that the reptition used here serves no real purpose. I intend to argue that this is false, that in fact, it reflects an important part of McCarthy’s aesthetic of human action.

What this sentence communicates, and what would have been impossible to communicate without such repetition, is how complex a seemingly simple action really is, and thus how much skill is required to do even simple things. McCarthy could have said “He finished his breakfast and thanked her,” and that gets across the same idea, but it abstracts the various actions involved in finishing the breakfast into just “finished his breakfast.” By listing all of them, McCarthy gets across how non-trivial even that most trivial of actions really is.

At the same time, however, McCarthy links each of the actions by “and,” but only mentions the subject once — he doesn’t say “He ate … he wiped … he ate … drank …,” but rather “He ate … wiped … ate … drank …”. This makes us still feel as if we are witnessing a single agent performing a single action, even as we see that action broken down into its constituent parts. McCarthy is making us see “eating breakfast” in a new, strange light — ostranenie and all that. And he’s not doing it just by describing it in a completely nonsensical way; there’s actually a log behind the way he’s using parataxis to say something about how we can abstract a sequence of complex actions into one single action.

So McCarthy is stylistically modifying our understanding of the action of “eating breakfast.” So what? Why is strange-ifying breakfast a literarily intelligent thing to do, rather than just an author trying to fill dead space between interesting scenes? Well, I’d argue, it has something to do with the emphasis McCarthy places throughout his work on everyday life, and how even manual labor can exalt, rather than degrade, the human spirit. He turns the same paratactical trick to turn various complex tasks performed while training horses into single actions. It’s logical effect is the same in both instances, as is its emotional effect, which is to slow us down and make us appreciate how much skill is involved in what we are witnessing.

Therese also complains in her post that “one of the things that rapidly turned me off about the novel was just how banal and quotidien the dialogue was.” Well, yeah. It’s the same thing going on here. The dialogue itself isn’t epic because the characters are not in fact epic; it’s how McCarthy presents them that makes them epic. McCarthy lets their dialogue be mundane because he wants to prove to us that the insigificance of what someone says should not be taken as proof that they are insignificant people. This interpretation is supported, I think, by the very subject matter of the book. The Crossing is in large part about how what the world views as significant is not always what is actually significant. The main character, after all, is not Clyde in the novel’s Bonnie and Clyde couple — he’s Clyde’s brother.

I could go on about Cormac McCarthy’s style, but just say this: while he sometimes goes over the top in his descriptions, I don’t think he attempts anything for pure “literary effect” — every “trick” he pulls is trying to accompish something specific. Also, punctuation is extraneous.

Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

September 4, 2010

I’ve recently gotten into the music of The Decemberists. Genre-wise, Last.Fm classifies them as “indie/indie rock/indie pop/alternative”; my listening to them is thus partially a result of my having picked up Andrew Bird over the last year or so. But in a lot of ways, I think, the Decemberists are closer to the rest of my music library (i.e. various flavors of metal) than they are to Bird. I’ll try to make the argument for why, though again, since I’m not a musician, I don’t feel qualified to talk about musical style; I’ll primarily be looking at lyrics in this post.

While Bird concerns himself with the inherent limitations of science, language, and reason generally, the Decemberists are interested in much the same things as, say, Kamelot; their songs are love songs, for the most part, generally failed loves, and often have a strong historical or literary bent to them. Kamelot’s best work is their two-album-long interpretation of Goethe’s Faust; the Decemberists’s three “The Crane Wife” songs are twenty minutes of music about a traditional Japanese story, and “The Island–Come And See The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” is from what I can tell about Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The Decemberists also bear resemblances to Dream Theater, another prog metal band. Both are strangely literary for musicians; they constantly allude to poems and poets, and try to capture the emotional state of characters from stories. Dream Theater quotes Frost and James Joyce in some of the songs off Awake; the Decemberists seem to reference Coleridge in “The Island (&c)”, with lines like “The rivers roll down to a soundless sea,” and the song “The Legionnaire’s Lament” always reminds me of Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues,” though perhaps only because of the word “legion.” Songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “When the War Came” are historical, not literary, but show a story-teller’s eye for history, just as Dream Theater has songs about AIDS (“Learning to Live”) and 9/11 (“Sacrificed Songs”).

These may seem like facile points, that I’m pointing out similarities of the sort that exist between any two musicians. But I don’t think that’s it. The main point is that the Decemberists, unlike Andrew Bird, are predominantly story-based. They’re not trying to capture a mood that one arrives at upon contemplating the world (which is what Bird does most of the time, I think), but rather to show how emotions work as one acts in the world — primarily in the most emotional of activities, falling in and out of love.

Anyay, this all brings me to the song I started this post wanting to talk about, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect.” I’ve been listening to this constantly over the last week or so. Though it’s a great song, I’m not here really to talk about how it functions musically; mostly I want to point out the verse in which the title appears.

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

I find fascinating how similar, and yet different this is to Andrew Bird’s stuff. It’s using so much of the same language, the same ideas. It’s more abstract than most Decemberist songs; the reference to architecture makes it necessarily meta-artistic, and we have to think of language as architecture, as a building, words used to build and to cage. The line “even though my work is unparalleled” is the kind of mathematical pun I think Bird would love. But while Bird would use these words to talk about the failings of science when it tries to understand the world, the Decemberists use them to show a failed romance; even when dealing in abstract ideas, they come back to concrete human interactions — to life, not thought. An interesting juxtaposition.

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