Thursday, 22 April 2010

James Joyce: Ulysses and teleology


On a simpler level, a difference between Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the reason why I prefer the novel by Marquez, is that the latter makes its teleological statement through canons which are far closer to the traditional way of reading the novel – the old ideas of adventure novels, or romantic novels, or war novels. The stories within One hundred years, if enucleated from their original text and stylistically re-polished, could well become the substance for works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas or Emily Bronte. From this point of view, Marquez’s masterpiece does exactly what I am looking for in a novel, as it takes me to lands and times I could never imagine and showers me with constant wonders. Perhaps this accounts for the ease and the success with which magic realism has been picked up in South America. From Allende and Esquivel to Sepulveda and Coelho, I have yet to read a South American novelist without finding the fingerprints of Marquez everywhere. Notably, these authors are also very successful, and their books are international bestsellers (not always deserving their honours, in my view, but then the same is true of many acclaimed writers).


Mark Harkin asks, ‘What about the spawn of Ulysses, the fiendishly difficult novels that came in its wake decades after, those which weren’t really worth the reader’s effort?’ This is a funny comment – I’ve never encountered these novels that he is talking about. I know of writers who have clear debts with Joyce, but these are people whom I very much enjoy (Faulkner) or who are held in very high esteem (Gadda, Pynchon). That said, if the above statement is true, then it makes for a very obvious point of divergence between Marquez and Joyce – as I mentioned above, One hundred years kicked off a golden era for the South American novel, with astonishing peaks of popularity in the ‘offshoots’ of his writing. I’m not sure what to make of this difference either way.


Besides, there is no doubt that Ulysses kicked off a golden era for literary and academic criticism. Again, much like the Divine Comedy.


I mentioned that ‘what binds [Ulysses and the Divine Comedy] is the teleological intent, the writing of a text that includes all possible texts, and is therefore final.’ Of course, the Divine Comedy was anything but final. It inaugurated Italian literature in every way that matters, including the fact that Dante chose to write in the vulgar tongue rather than in Latin. Now this was seen as scandalous only because it grated with the teleological intent (and the apocalyptic power of this choice must have been apparent even back then). When the Divine Comedy is the final text, the language in which it is written becomes the final language. This officially sanctioned the death of Latin.


One hundred years and Ulysses are both ‘final’ texts. They represent landmarks, simultaneously ending and inaugurating literary seasons. But One hundred years does not compel you to respond. You do not hear undergraduates ranting out loud about ‘who’s crazy enough to read One hundred years from cover to cover’ or wondering why Marquez can’t just write ‘about the simple life, about expressing his feelings’. There are two possible reasons for this. 1.) Obviously, the fact that One hundred years is a novel in the more traditional sense, one which can be read by a child, and arguably an easy and entertaining read throughout. It’s not ‘hard work,’ so what is there to rant about? 2.) More likely, a cultural question. The ‘responsibility’ of Ulysses is far weaker outside of the English-speaking world. Students in France feel a greater compulsion to respond to Proust, for instance. It is plausible to imagine that One hundred years is expected reading in the intellectual world in South America, albeit with lower resistance on account of not being such hard work.


Ulysses is a story which includes all possible stories. This is, of course, what makes it hard to criticise it: your criticism is already included in the novel.


The thing is that Ulysses brings together specification and generalisation. It includes specific rhetorical registers which seem to ‘say’ something, but it immerses them in a generalised collection of voices. This means that none of the voices in Ulysses is the ‘final’ voice, the authoritative one. This is what makes the novel itself final. Any ‘final’ statement made by another novel will be included, as a possibility, in Ulysses, while any other ‘collection of statements’ will be no more than a repetition of Ulysses. Naturally this is only theoretical; the novel doesn’t actually say all that can be said, but it stages singularity on a neutral plane (specification/generalisation), and this act of ‘staging’ is what makes the novel final. Ulysses is the final stage where all voices can come and play out, even the ones which are potentially not included in the novel.


And the specification/generalisation duality makes any final judgment on the novel impossible (or ‘rash,’ as we put it in ii.). I am using ‘judgment’ as a loose term to refer to acts of categorisation. Whatever you say about it (or against it) cannot be conclusive, because the novel includes the opposite of itself. It is at once mundane and heroic, modern and classical, constitutive and satirical, normative and destabilising, idealistic and pragmatic, romantic and cynical, transcendent and immanent. This is what makes it so difficult to say ‘I don’t like Ulysses’. Because you cannot possibly qualify such a statement: whatever you bring up against it, it can be pointed out to you that the novel is saying (or doing) the opposite.


More: saying ‘I don’t like’ a novel is usually just a form of qualifying your taste. But saying ‘I don’t like Ulysses’ is never a neutral comment. It is a statement of ideology. The undergraduate who says that this novel is ‘rubbish’ is so adamant and pejorative because he is identifying his ideological position – he is waving his flags. As we said, one is for or against. There is no innocent position.


Ulysses compels you to respond. Virginia Woolf famously bashed the novel after she finished it (the prototype of the undergraduate). But the question is, why did she finish it? Depending on your edition, Ulysses is 700 to 900 pages long. Usually, if you find a book as intolerable and worthless as she claimed it to be, you don’t go on beyond the first 100 pages – not when it’s so uncompromisingly bulky, anyway. Her story is common. It is not surprising that, when the novel was published, it was given some very scathing reviews. What’s surprising is just how many reviews it was given. In their numbers, they are simply not commensurate to a novel as bad as the reviews almost concordantly claimed it to be.

Part 4 coming tomorrow. Yep, I'm still not done.

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