Friday, January 5, 2007


Today I received a rejection of my essay on Molly Bloom. The letter enclosed what seemed to be a cut-up version of one reader's report. Most of the specific objections to the argument don't amount to anything more than cavils: matters that could easily be downplayed, or statements that could be altered in revision. But for two points:

My effort to sustain a workable version of what polysemous reading is -- based on three different systematic approaches to fourfold interpretation (Dante's, Frye's, Jameson's) is dismissed by "wow, what a Melvillian crew that is!!" -- an interesting figure that suggests that all three are "aboard" at once, rather than recognizing that each of the systemizers captures a certain cultural nexus, each providing a way of discussing what it means to interpret a truly polysemous work like Ulysses. Which is to say it requires holding, for my purposes, four different fourfold schemes in mind at once to see how they interrelate (the first being the Bible which is always at the back of this kind of exegesis). I'm told the argument "begins to read like a personal hobby horse." And there I plead guilty, bearing in mind dear Uncle Toby, and conceding that this material is part of a longer argument that got shoe-horned into the Molly paper. Though I contend that literary criticism is nothing if not a hobby horse anyway, I can accept that my particular version isn't worth riding.

But this brings me to the most insightful bit of criticism in the whole harangue: The lead-off comment that this is "a thoughtful and sometimes penetrating essay. It is also at times a wild and infuriating one, and the writer has to get serious now about his/her problems in getting ideas into prose."

The hobby horse of the thing, really, is something in the tone of the essay itself, I surmise, a sense that it isn't "serious," that, in fact, it is ironic toward its own effort to enunciate this interpretation and that quality is "infuriating" to this reader. I can accept that, though I had aimed at entertaining the reader, albeit a reader who would appreciate its irony.

Later, I was reading Andrew Shields' blog about a Robert Frost poem which contains this line: "all the fun's in how you say a thing." Andrew argued that this "fun" is the basis of poetry, which is true and which is at least part of what Frost is saying, but what do we mean by poetry? To my mind, some aspect of poetry entails "saying what is not." In other words, poetry is the supreme fiction, it is speaking "as if" what is being said is true of a world outside the poem, when in fact the poem only "applies" to the world of the poem. The poem is a world configured in its own terms, and so "the fun" of how you say a thing is the whole purpose of writing poetry.

But to admit that "fun" into other forms of writing is to create irony. An irony toward both the world "as in itself it is" (whatever that may be) and toward any world language constructs. To say that what I say of Ulysses is true of Ulysses is to me insipid, because it fails to do justice to what is simply too slippery about the relation of any reader to Joyce's language. Anything I can say is only true "in a manner of speaking" about Molly's manner of "speaking." My Melvillian crew steps in to help delineate what has happened at various times in the ongoing allegory that is literary interpretation, and that may be too much for the essay to sustain, but I think what ultimately tabled the argument is some sense that irony is being brought to bear on the argument itself, or on the venture of literary interpretation in general. Infuriating.

And I take that criticism to heart because its insight that I don't take the venture seriously -- or put another way, that so much of literary criticism forgoes any "fun" -- says a lot about why it's such a chore to write and read the stuff in the first place.

But, by'r Lady, 'a must build churches then, or else shall 'a suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is "For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot!"--Hamlet


Andrew Shields said...

I keep coming back lately (for various reasons, both positive and negative) to Peter von Matt's "Die verd├Ąchtige Pracht." Von Matt describes two important characteristics of poems: they want to be beautiful, and they want to be immortal.

Neither of these desires necessarily has anything to do with meaning or with interpretation. Frost's "The Mountain" marks how the desire for meaning is, in a sense, derivative—always preceded by a desire for pleasure.

But as you suggest, Don, that does not apply to literary criticism. I have often considered "quality" to be the cat that criticism does not want to let out of the bag, but there are two cats in there: quality and pleasure. If they get out, then the project of criticism is ironized, as you suggest, and the critic becomes insecure and rejects the work that has let those cats out.

Von Matt's book is interesting in this respect, too: whenever he begins to do hard-core close reading, he apologizes to his audience, asking them to bear with him while he does a necessary bit of "philology." This allows him, as a friend of mine suggested, to maintain his status as "the one in the know," his professional status. He lets the cats out, but he still wants to hold the bag.

Donald Brown said...

"Von Matt describes two important characteristics of poems: they want to be beautiful, and they want to be immortal.

Neither of these desires necessarily has anything to do with meaning or with interpretation."

Initially I concurred with this, then I questioned it, then I came back to kind of agreeing, but with a change in terms when addressed to "literature" rather than "poetry."

I want to agree that poems don't care about interpretation, that a work of art exists to be itself -- which we can say as "wants to be beautiful." But I decided to go along with your explication, after Stevens, and say: "it wants to give pleasure." This is equalizing, I realize: any writing can aspire to give pleasure (so then Von Matt is right that poetry "wants to be beautiful" because that sets it apart from all other writing).

Ok, so, in lit crit or any writing, pleasure can be present, but not beauty. This means that my ironic stance is out of place (as if my essay has a bumpersticker: "I'd rather be writing poetry").

"Immortal" I caviled at too. What does that really mean? Well, ok, I know: it wants to defeat time, and that is clearly any art's desire.

But during my interrogation of the word I came up with "it wants to be significant"; the idea being that significance endures and opens the door to interpretation as the means of demonstrating significance, or of determining "what is signified." The play of signification in lit theory is the challenge to older ideas of significance as inhering in someone saying something "significant."

So, in my essay, the idea there is A significance in Joyce is treated as somewhat beside the point (even though I do engage with those who ascribe a significance I find questionable and I do show the variety of significance in the representation of Molly's body).

The larger question is what the signficance of the significance one finds in Ulysses (or literature generally) is. My reader and I disagreed on that; I believe Joyce constructed levels of significance to measure up to Dante as the supreme challenge, but that he did it playfully (one might say ironically) rather than earnestly. My reader felt this made Joyce too much a systemizer.

What it comes down to is that I didn't demonstrate sufficiently the signficance of allegorical reading. Why it is significant to me is that essays I write tend to be allegories. That's the problem.

Andrew Shields said...

The bumpersticker is hysterical!

To put it in crude terms: you think Joyce is Perec, the puzzlemaster who prepares ever little detail as a trap for the interpreter (see the introductin to "La vie, mode de l'emploi"), but your reader does not want Joyce to be Perec. He wants Joyce to be stern, not Sterne.

Donald Brown said...

Well not exactly Perec, no. I don't think Joyce prepares "traps" -- which strikes me as more Borgesian or Nabokovian, i.e., the manipulation of material to create enigmas that the reader might "solve" mystery-story fashion, except the mystery is generally metaphysical (Borges) or psychological (Nabokov). Joyce "simply" loads everything with associative meaning because of the way he cross-references his material.

The reader accused me of making "anything mean anything," but in fact I was sticking to what Molly means on the page, but my task was to delineate what kinds of associations were packed into the four words and body parts that JJ himself claimed as "the four cardinal points" of the chapter.