Friday, 23 April 2010
James Joyce: Wrapping up, and a nod to the Wake
Of course, this is the right way to write. It’s better to add ‘it seems’ to the sentence ‘the author is saying such and such’ because you can never be sure of what the author is saying. But as long as the nature of the interpretation remains untouched, it remains pure rhetoric. Brilliant theories expressed in anti-intellectual rhetoric (Nietzsche, Baudrillard) remain every bit as influential. Whether you are respectful or not, whether you add ‘it seems’ or not, is almost completely irrelevant, because all the ethical weight of the idea is carried by the way and extent to which said idea changes the world around you. You may be ostracised by the intellectuals if you don’t follow their rhetoric and write like an unsubtle oaf (see Terry Eagleton’s response to Dawkins), or you may be called an incomprehensible snob if you do follow those conventions, but the personal reputation of the speaker (i.e., which ‘club’ he belongs to) is not the measure of the idea’s value. If the idea is useful and finds its applications, it will exert influence in ways which are not necessarily in harmony with the rhetoric used to express it. In other words: if you’re willing to pass for an idiot, you can really change the world.
For what it's worth, and if anyone has failed to notice, I’ve been writing in exactly the above style for all of these meditations.
The type of rhetoric employed has no bearing on the validity of an argument. You can employ intellectual rhetoric and be wrong, and you’ll still be an intellectual. But then, in the humanities, where propositions lack verifiability, there is no such thing as being right or wrong. There is only the power of your statement and position, and the degree of said power.
The virtue of saying ‘I don’t know’ is humility. But we must be careful here: there is a very important difference between humility and what is only the rhetoric of humility.
And so we may go back to our old friend:
The correct answer is D. You do not ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ Ulysses. You belong to it, or you do not. You belong to the culture, the education, the preparation which allowed for and are simultaneously the product of Ulysses. And that’s what you’re really answering when you say ‘I like…’ (Besides, going by my personal memory of it, if I had to choose an adjective to describe the novel it would be neither ‘beautiful’ nor ‘outrageous,’ neither ‘boring’ nor ‘clever'. I think what I’d go for would be ‘bizarre’ – very bizarre. Maybe that will count for something).
According to Rorty, Kant did the same thing before Joyce but in another discipline, because you could no longer claim to be a professional philosopher if you hadn’t mastered the first critique. He institutionalised philosophy.
I should close this long sequence of meditations with the great absentee from all of my discussions: Finnegans Wake. Did I like it? Well, I have not yet read this one. I’ve been asked whether I’ll ever deign to read it. Why wouldn’t I? Not because it’s hard work, because I’ve already undergone that preparation, and not out of lack of interest, because it looks like a really intriguing text. In fact, I probably will read it, but not in the near future, and this for a reason very different from my not wanting to. The actual reason is, much more simply, that it has some tough competition to get on my reading list. Finnegans Wake, like Ulysses, belongs to a genre we may refer to as the Great Classics, or the Great Bores – those books which are simultaneously pillars of our culture and also very long and very hard. I am estimating that there’s fifty to one-hundred and fifty such books in Western literature, depending on how strict your categorization is, of which I have read perhaps ten. Now all of these books are very well publicised and all of them elicit my interest, so the question for me is not ‘should I read Finnegans Wake,’ because my answer is an unconditional yes. My question is, ‘when should I read it, and why should I read it before its peers?’ Unfortunately, there’s a few Great Classics/Bores which have been given more and better publicity than the Wake, and the ignorance of which leaves greater holes in my general intellectual culture. Consider me a consumer convinced by the competition, then, because Joyce’s masterpiece is going to have to wait. If you support this book, then maybe you should reconsider your sales policy.