Category Archives: criticism

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.


Hughes, again

On Hughes’ literary ancestors: I’ve read more than one post attributing his  style to his Catholic education. I think he owed much more to the English satirists and essayists of the 18th century. His SoHoiad, a transposition of the Dunciad to the 1980s NYC art scene, is a brilliant exception to the rule that no Jesuit can become Pope.

Robert Hughes 1938-2012

This is more sad news. When young, my admiration for Hughes’ art criticism was immoderate – I used to tote around my copy of Nothing If Not Critical like a relic – and I can still remember the moment when I read this sentence (from a review of an exhibition of Renaissance drawings, I believe, and I’m quoting from memory, because my copy of the book is in the garage somewhere [ed. Not any more: it was a review of an exhibition of Hans Holbein the Younger, and the quote is corrected]):

No-one, we may confidently predict, will ever draw this well again.

Nobody, one may morosely predict, will ever draw the human face as well as this again.

…and realised that Hughes’ rhetorical talent allowed him to say things which were unfounded or silly (ever again? Why? And how could we possibly know?) but which would slide past the distracted reader while his ego was being stroked by that tone of magisterial complicity.

An early disappointment, well remembered, and I was never able to fully trust Hughes afterwards: agreeing with him is too delicious.

Hitchens, Vidal, Hughes: all authors who aimed at a patrician hauteur, with varying degrees of success; all known as contrarians; all safely members of the Establishment. There’s a somewhat tacky book on the twilight of the neo-Augustans in the offing.

The Stuffed Owl

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I read D B Wyndham Lewis’ anthology of bad verse in breaks from Empson. I needed the breaks, enfeebled by illness and laziness as I was, and The Stuffed Owl never fails to cheer me up. Both works were first published in 1930, and they both refer to Macaulay’s wonderful demolition of the pietistic Robert Montogmery’s The Omnipresence of the Deity. This is Macaulay, not Lewis:

“Oh! never did the dark-soul’d ATHEIST stand,
And watch the breakers boiling on the strand,
And, while Creation stagger’d at his nod,
Mock the dread presence of the mighty God!
We hear Him in the wind-heaved ocean’s roar,
Hurling her billowy crags upon the shore
We hear Him in the riot of the blast,
And shake, while rush the raving whirlwinds past!”

If Mr. Robert Montgomery’s genius were not far too free and aspiring to be shackled by the rules of syntax, we should suppose that it is at the nod of the Atheist that creation staggers. But Mr. Robert Montgomery’s readers must take such grammar as they can get, and be thankful.

Empson applies the last sentence to Shakespeare. Cheeky!

Which reminds me. Did I mention that Grace and her friends have become fans of Are You Being Served?

Seven Types of Ambiguity

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Empson casually draws an endless stream of double-meanings from his poetic texts, only to brush them aside as quibbles, as he then swans (that’s the only word for it) into the next chapter. The analysis of Crashaw in the final chapter is alarming and hilarious. I knew the Metaphysicals were odd but I didn’t know just kinky they could get.

Empson had the weirdest facial hair in the world, but that’s neither here nor there.

Obvious is the new black

Kevin Kelly, still immanentising the eschaton after all these years:

A major theme of this present century will be the pursuit of our collective identity. We are on a search for who we are. What does it mean to be a human? Can there be more than one kind of human? In fact, what exactly is a human?

Oh, I must have gotten old, because here is what the above quote made me want to do: the next ten times I read something which is urging me to question or problematise or somehow turn my brain inside out about something perfectly obvious, like “what exactly is a human”, I’m going to make a note of it, and also make a note of the commonsense version. And then continue to believe it, of course.

For example: there’s only one kind of human. Your kind, which is the same as mine, and everyone else’s. We can leave the question of transhuman identity aside for now, and probably forever, unless we are sf writers or Kevin Kelly.

The limit of ten is because this rhetorical strategy – the “everything you know is wrong” gambit – is so widespread that I’ve got to stop somewhere.

R.I.P. Arthur C Clarke: who could create a sense of wonder without such cajolery.

François Villon: a documented survey

D B Wyndham-Lewis

I have decided to stop kidding myself about going into Berkelouw’s on Oxford Street and “just having a look around before the movie.” What I will say from now on is that I am going to buy a very good secondhand book, because, Hume be damned, this is what has always happened in the past.

D B Wyndham-Lewis was the happy Wyndham-Lewis; not Percy Wyndham Lewis, the painter and novelist, but the light humourist and editor of the marvellous anthology of bad verse The Stuffed Owl. In this biography of the 15th-century French poet, he’s in a somewhat crankier mood, although nowhere near as stroppy as his near namesake – who gets a mention, I believe, in the book’s dedication, as “The Frothing Vorticist”.

The book is peppered with jibes at those of the author’s contemporaries who despised religion and the medieval; these give it a rather sulky tone at times. Wyndham-Lewis, like Chesterton and Belloc, was one of those belles-lettrestical defenders of the reputation of the Middle Ages and Catholicism against the contempt of the Modernist and the Whig. I don’t know if this movement has a name; I find it fascinating, and somewhat disturbing, mostly because Chesterton and Belloc could be hair-raisingly anti-semitic. Their apologists are always swift to point out that they were never anti-semitic in person – the “some of my best friends are Jews” defense, which is not in fact a defense at all. Wyndham-Lewis seems to be not altogether free from this prejudice, but in the Villon study he limits it to a completely gratuitous poke at Freud.

In his spare time from being a poet, Villon was a convicted thief and full-dress roisterer, and I found it impossible not to share Wyndham-Lewis’ enthusiasm for him, despite the fact that I can only pretend to read French. Because of this sad limitation, I can’t comment on the poetry, except to say that reading the Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis in this volume and following along with Swinburne’s English translation is the closest I’ve come to appreciating the beauty of a poem in another language. This is like being locked outside a stately home while a civilised entertainment, full of beautiful women and the aroma of fine wines and delicious foods, is proceeding within; but it’s better than nothing.