Category Archives: bloomsday

Milkman / Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain

One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.

After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.

The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.

Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.

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Hush! Caution! Echoland!

It’s a cliché to speak of Ulysses as an endpoint, the culmination of the nineteenth century novel, finally bled dry of plot and incident and to a certain extent character (we only feel that we know Stephen and Bloom so well because we spend so much time with them) and erupting into a monstrous growth of period detail and stylistic parody. It’s not the last station on the line, but at least, unlike with Finnegans Wake, one can still pretend it’s something like a readable work of fiction.

But Ulysses was my gateway into mainstream literature: before that, excepting what I was forced to read for educational purposes, I’d only read science fiction and fantasy. Literature was too boring, just a bunch of normal people doing grown up stuff. Ulysses was different: the first handful of chapters were pretty slow and contained a great deal of matter relating to Thomas Aquinas which I let slide by in peaceful incomprehension. But once the newspaper headlines started in the seventh chapter it started to get fun, if not easier to understand.

So for me, it’s always felt like a starting point, not a conclusion. It’s not exactly a friendly introduction to the Western canon, but there’s a lot of writers I first heard of, or was exposed to parodies of, under its influence. And its attitude of “hey, keep up with this if you can”, the sense you get of being complicit with someone taking everything they knew about every book they’d ever read for a dance, is exhilarating.

This post started out as another very short science fiction story, which is what I usually post here on Bloomsday, but it felt like it was getting into territory I’ve covered too often: a sort of dystopian scenario where after the Singularity, or some parody thereof, the AIs really do reconstruct Dublin from Ulysses, and put a bunch of human consciousnesses in it, and it’s terrible, like being trapped in a Bloomsday costume party for all eternity. I gave it up because, for one thing, I was unconsciously plagiarising part of a short story by Ian Watson from the 80s called, I think, “The Bloomsday Revolutions”. (I thought of Ian Watson for the first time in years the other day. He’s a good writer, look him up if you get the chance.)

The other reason I stopped was that I’m weary of science fiction being about computers and AI. I think that the real event underlying the Singularity is the collapse of the sf imagination into the computational. Too many of my own attempts to write longer pieces of fiction have gotten stuck or faltered for the same reasons.

I was remembering Jorn Barger, the guy who coined the word ‘blog’ and had a kind of internet celebrity which then dissolved into anti-Semitism and silence. Barger was an autodidact Joyce fan and had a site called “IQ Infinity”, the central thesis of which was that in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce had solved AI, that through sheer brainpower he’d comprehended how the human mind worked. I don’t remember, if I ever really understood, exactly in what sense Barger thought that the works themselves constituted artificial intelligence: could one create the personality of “Leopold Bloom” from the text if it were somehow transformed into software? As another Joyce fanboy I can understand Barger’s reverent awe — without sharing it to that extent. And looked at dispassionately, it’s a ridiculous and self-infatuated idea: if only everyone else loved my favourite author as much as I do, they’d understand how consciousness works, too.

I was also thinking of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project, the origin of the term ‘hypertext’: I’d known about it for decades, and based on what I’d read of his writing at various times, I thought of him as a crank, embittered by the success of the web. Xanadu proposes a much more complex way of linking and embedding documents within one another, with links that go both ways, and an elaborate system of building a top-level document from a variety of sources. Having come across this summary by a recent participant made me sense, in an obscure way, the allure of this vision of a global network of interpenetrating words. But in another way, it feels nightmarish.

In my mind, Xanadu’s “transclusion” is a codified and rigid version of the sort of association of ideas which the reading mind does in a flexible way all by itself. All writing depends on this, but it’s essential to a text like Ulysses, and even more so Finnegans Wake. Rather than narrating, “Stephen thought about Aquinas’ doctrines of sense perception as he walked along Sandymount”, Joyce interpolates “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and so on, all those weird terms I didn’t understand the first time, leaving it to the reader to either follow the echoes, if they are aware of the reference, or, if not, to fold the unusual texts into their own memory, to be echoed later or in other texts.

I love this process: to some extent, what I’ve just described is what being literate means to me. But I enjoy doing it with my own mind, or letting my own mind do it for me, and the thought of it being made explicit, with coloured markers joining the texts in different columns, makes me queasy, as do the very few working xanalogical demos.

I should add that sometimes just reading Joyce gives me the same feeling of vertigo. There’s a central image, or nightmare, behind these different incarnations, a cousin of Borges’ total library, the idea of mind as a sort of infinite glossary. It makes sense that my imagination, in trying to come up with a response to Ulysses as Bloomsday comes around each year, would return to the machines with which I work, and the fantasy that one day they’ll be able to read our favourite books so well that they’ll bring them to life.

I often get the same feeling reading blogs from the rationalist and AI risk communities. I suspect that these are not so much a school of philosophy as a literary genre, in which people with a very particular form of intelligence — discursive, articulate, fond of numerical arguments, insistent that any discipline can either be reduced to economics or physics, or is empty or misleading — imagine, with the same kind of self-infatuation, that magnified forms of this form of intelligence will either save or wreck the world. Earlier this year, I got so compulsive about reading this kind of thing that I had to use a site-blocking extension to stop myself.

I console myself with the idea that Joyce, had he lived in our era, would have been very bad (one imagines with glee his towering contempt and exasperation) at using computers.

Neural Streams of Consciousness

Style-extraction algorithms having reached the level of popular smartphone apps which could take the small-scale features of Hokusai’s wave or a Lichtenstein cartoon and apply them to a picture of one’s pet, it was only a matter of time before the technique was successfully applied to textual, rather than graphic, works. These first neural networks were mere mimics, more sophisticated versions of elementary Markov chains, which could produce plausible but nonsensical imitations of existing texts with no semantic content.

A breakthrough came with the Antal functor, which used a form of iterated adversarial machine learning algorithm to extrapolate multiple versions of a given text along many dimensions and then aggressively prune this ramifying cluster of words into “fixed points”, an unfortunate piece of mathematical jargon for what could be quite subtle and profound features of the source material. (The story of the functor’s use in extracting “virtual characters” from apparently objective and non-fictional texts, and the subsequent effects of this discovery on journalism and politics, have been told elsewhere.) Once this basic technique had been mastered, it could then be applied in an analogous way to that used in vision, sorting the qualities of a text on an approximate scale which ranged from such minutiae as idiosyncrasies of spelling or word frequency, to the characteristic syntactic patterns employed, and then on, with decreasing accuracy, into such large-scale qualities as extended metaphors, symbolic structures and plot.

The most famous application of this technique was the urDay service. The user registered his or her various social media accounts with urDay and allowed it to apply a battery of neural functors to the texts and images which flowed from them, taking these as a modern and technologically-mediated version of the stream of consciousness which had been pioneered in literature by Woolf and Joyce. The abstract versions of these could then be expressed in any number of ways: to generate wry or amusing animations with a cast of adorable algorithmically-generated mascots; inserted into an ever-changing roster of movie clips and viral videos as sarcastic commentary, witty cameo or heartfelt dialogues.

A set of textual plugins had been provided, more out of the curiosity of some of the development team and a sense of pride in their antecedence than any hope that urDay would have any serious impact on literary studies, much less kindle in its users a love of high modernism. With these, one could project the narration of one’s life in a kaleidoscope of styles and voices, just as Joyce had done in Ulysses: a cursory description of an annoying planning workshop or visit to a supermarket could be recounted in the language of high fantasy or science fiction. Use and abuse of these textual plugins became popular in certain literary circles, all the more because of the occasional thunderings against this digital prostitution of the art and craft of writing which came from the stodgier journals: although their output was, if anything, too facile and polished to really be groundbreaking as generated textual art, their use signalled that one was not above a certain populist bravado.

As is only natural, after a few years such collaborations seemed painfully dated, and the professional writers abandoned the field to those amateurs who enjoyed running an autoblog which gathered up and retold the output of their various encounters and days in the manner of, for example, a noir detective story, or an epic battle across frozen tundra, or a stylish psychodrama.

Their remained the matter of what became known as “the puzzles”. Certain scholars who had shifted from collaborating with the urDay plugins to analysing their outputs claimed that motifs and images seemed to be following patterns which, though elusive, could neither be attributed to the social media inputs, nor to the literary models used to generate the various styles. (The use of functorial analysis allowed this to be done with a degree of confidence.) For example, a week-long sequence from a university student’s autoblog, which alternated between a somewhat archaic translation of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Patti Smith’s memoirs, showed a striking affinity with certain of Pound’s Pisan Cantos, a work which neither the student nor her chosen electronic amanuenses had any connection. An archaeologist’s field notes, transformed into an elaborate science-fantasy scenario, spontaneously revealed a correspondence between certain ruins on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the galactic coordinates of active pulsars. Once one began looking for such patterns, it was said, they began to emerge everywhere, and perhaps it was this sense of ubiquity which explained the somewhat tepid response with which these demonstrations were greeted. While happy enough, at least in some circles, to let the false leads and teasing traps laid down by a legitimate genius like Joyce keep them busy for centuries to come, literary scholars saw the apparently limitless sea of neural “puzzles” as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of their computational origin, as uninteresting to them as the technical details of the programming languages used to create their word processors or functorial analysers.

Eventually, the “puzzles” became the hunting ground of that even more prolific realm of amateurism, the conspiracy theorists, to be added to their never-ending roster of patterns and coincidences, world without end.

Usylessly

Instead of my usual blog post, this Bloomsday I made a Twitter bot, @usylessly, which posts the output of a neural net trained on the text of Ulysses. There’s a bit more information about it on the bot’s website.

Worldbuilding

My guests, at that time, were greatly interested in literature and displayed a marked predilection for works of fantasy, especially those composed in English during the twentieth century. I informed them that such works, although they had always had their defenders, were not held in high regard. It was difficult enough to make my meaning plain without insult, for the very things which captivated my guests – the maps, glossaries of invented languages and scripts, annals of kings and migrations of peoples that never were, or which were cobbled together from mythologies or revived notions of the historical past – were exactly those which seemed to the eyes of literary criticism to be trivial and childish. Once I had politely pointed out that Tolkien and his epigones, despite their popularity, were not ranked among the foremost writers, my guests (employing a grammatical mood of their language which I had always found somewhat slippery and which indicated, I think, in this case, that the question was in fact sincere in spite of its superficially seeming to be a mere act of politeness) asked for examples from the higher literary traditions of this period which would be would be more worthy of their study. I spoke of the revolution in acceptable subject matter and style which came with Modernism; of the importance of literature which allowed itself to slip the confines of suburban morality and deal with subjects hitherto barred by prudishness from serious writing. Without concealing my personal tastes, I suggested that the works of James Joyce epitomised this artistic revolution.

At our next conversation, my guests, who had absorbed the works in question with that speed and comprehensiveness which was one of the disquieting reminders that they were not, despite appearances, human, were full of enthusiasm for Joyce and particularly for Ulysses. (I did ask them, at a later date, for their opinion of Finnegans Wake, but confess that I could not grasp it, and was left with the same feeling as I have always had when an aficionado of cryptic crosswords attempts to induct me into their cult.) We talked of the stylistic brilliance and daring of the work, on the initimacy of characterisation made possible by the stream-of-consciousness technique, and of the relish which the author had for the least details of quotidian life. “And the world-building!” said one. “We now percieve that our admiration for Tolkien was ill-placed. How could one compare Minas Tirith with the marvellous city of Dublin, where the evidence of millennia is present at every turn? How delicately Joyce’s exposition hints at a whole world beyond its borders! We marvel at the subtlety and skill of his creation.”

Somewhat taken aback by what I took to be a display of naïveté, I objected that Joyce’s Dublin was no fictional creation: on the contrary, like Proust’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, or Flaubert’s Rouen, it was a transfiguration of the marvellous reality of an actual time and place into a great work of literature. I was rebuffed with what I understood to be one of my guests’ rare attempts at humour.

“Why, then, Joyce is no mere genius, but a thaumaturge of rare power, able to create real persons, a real city, an entire country with its painful and bitter history! These cities of which you speak, Paris, St Petersburg, Dublin: do you imagine that even the most obsessive novelist could represent but a shadow of their true immensity? For all that Bloom’s Dublin has an original in what your race are pleased to call ‘reality’, it is nothing more than a finely wrought tissue of words. But with such great artistry, it is understandable if you forget that even Joyce has given us only appearances.”

—from Hearn, The New Arcana Cœlestia: A Memoir of My Time with The Visitors

Ulysses: Alternate Endings

Ulysception

“What is this place?” asked Stephen. Eerie monuments stalked off to a fog-shrouded horizon: many were like trees and standing stones. Here and there were more disquieting shapes, like broken fragments of limbs or tremendous statues with blurred features. Voices seemed to murmur all around them in a hundred accents and languages.

“It’s a dream I shared with her,” replied Bloom. “We were happy here, for many decades. But it is too deep: too close to Limbo, the formless chaos behind all dreams.”

The murmuring voices rose around them, and with them a tide of dark river water. “A MacGarath O’Cullagh O’Muirk MacFewney sookadoodling and sweepacheeping round the lodge of Fjorn na Galla of the Trumpets!”

* * * * *

Stephen gasped on the floor of 7 Eccles Street, his head doused in cold water. “A bit of a turn,” said Bloom, “Syncope. Cold water the best remedy,” gesturing awkwardly with the chipped enamel basin he held.

“Mgkranow,” said the cat, as the ceiling caved in under the weight of a torrent of syllables.

* * * * *

“The fuck is this,” said the reader. “Hello there,” said Bloom, at his elbow. A crubeen span and continued to spin upon its trotter, tottering, trottering, teetering, tottering…


Hey Hey It’s Bloomsday

Standing outside Paddy’s Markets, a quartet of AUSTRALIANS wearing blackface, comically oversized leprechaun hats and hoisting pints of green Guinness and blocks of Coon cheese shout “Top o’ the morning to ye!” at passers-by.

MULLIGAN (aside): Stage Irish.

BLOOM: Come on now, that’s a bit much.

THE AUSTRALIANS (sobbing and exposing their stigmata): WE DIDN’T KNOW, WE CAN’T BE RACISTS, WE’RE NOT BRITISH/AMERICANS, STOP CENSORING US, WHERE’S YOUR FUCKING SENSE OF HUMOUR, &c.

They are impaled on a huge steel I-beam which slips from the crane of a nearby construction site.


Stephen Hero

—But Stephen, gasped Mr Deasy, what about our history?

Stephen grins and puts on a pair of sunglasses.

—History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.

He walks towards the camera as the school explodes.

Tales of Louchébem

In that time (so Master Borage relates) the makars of the city took such great delight in the precise description of the material circumstances of their tales that they durst not leave these to their own invention, holding that to do so were to pollute the purity of an history with the rank and egotistical sentiment of its creator, so as to bring it to the level of a mere tavern-ballad. In a sarcastic phrase that became notorious, one of these bards sneered, “How fortunate that the tempest should be such a punctual guest to the wrathful castle, and the downpour faithfully attend the hero’s funeral!” Whether this poet was, in fact, the first to consult an accurate record of the weather over a period of several years, and, willy-nilly, apply it to his own story, that his characters be subjected to the same happenstance of the elements as his readers, is not known. Certain it is, though, that the attested works of this period acquired a steadily greater encrustation of accidental detail, such as tide-tables, paradigms of dead tongues, minute descriptions of the city and the surrounding country, lists of the virtues of herbs and precious stones, annals of the heads of minor noble houses, folk songs, descriptions of military engines, fortifications and strategies, catalogues of the works of earlier poets, miracles of saints, monstrous births, horoscopes, laundry lists, bills of sale and merchants’ books of accounts, and so on, leaving the substance of the narrative as a mere footnote. It was not uncommon for the action of a poem in fifty cantos to be an event as trifling as an exchange of pleasantries between friends or the purchase of a heifer, swollen to great length by the intricate, skilfully versified and, as far as may be determined, accurate accumulation of incidental facts.

The apotheosis of this fashion was that bard who, not being satisfied with erecting a veritable encyclopædia as the background to his characters, was determined that their own lives be subject to the same stern rigour of verisimilitude, and sought to apply the then novel mathematical technique of probability to their fates. With the aid of a cousin versed in the arts of chance, vast tables were derived from the lists of births and deaths in the royal archives, and lots were faithfully cast. (It is said that the cousin went on to found the Insurer’s Guild.) The results of this endeavour are, of course, well known: the developing love triangle between a lord, his lady, and an equerry, which is abruptly cut off in the third stanza by the deaths of all three in a freak falconing accident, followed by the narration of their burial, the disposition of their household and a minor legal dispute over the succession to certain tenant farms. The bulk of the work is then occupied by an hundred and forty-seven stanzas in which the slow growth of grass about the noble tomb and over the simple churchyard plot of the servant is described in exquisite and beautiful detail, to the undying gratitude of Louchébem’s literati and the equally eternal exasperation of its schoolboys.