June 16, 2012
FROM THE ARCHIVES: THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BUT ME:
It's Bloomsday today, when a bunch of trend-sucking dilettantes pretend to have read and enjoyed James Joyce's notorious excrescence, Ulysses. You can pretend also by checking out the much less painful Ulysses for Dummies. Or, you can learn why it's in no sense worth the effort to assay Joyce by reading the following, which oddly enough is to be found in a mystery novel:
It begins with Joyce and the novel of competence. In spite of what I just said bout him in a negative way--since we must smash old idols in order to raise new--Joyce was a man of undoubted imminence, great imagination, deep learning, and a brilliant intellect, none of it more obvious than in the manner in which he 'plotted'--and I mean that in the strategic, not simply tactical way--all of his works, but in particular Ulysses, which, to continue the military analogy, was his breakthrough book.
About words he once said, 'Why own a thing when you can say it.' And since with his intellect and astounding facility with languages, tongues, stories, and myths, he could say most things, it therefore followed that he--James Joyce, impoverished émigré son of a Dublin idler--owned not only the things he could name in the contemporary world, but many other things from all
recorded time. That was step one in the grand stratagem to become the modern Shakespeare.
Step two was to analyze the novel. Some critics contend that Joyce decided that the novel was the ideal literary art form of bourgeois society, in which, of course, people define themselves by the things that they own. The novel then is like a container--first word to last, beginning to end, front cover to back cover--that contains things or at least words that are references to things.
It follows, then, that that novel is best which, within the established limits of the container, includes the greatest number and type of things. Joyce decided he would set the limits of a single day in Dublin and write a book about it. He chose the sixteenth of June, 1904, the day that he first walked out with Nora Barnacle, the shop girl from Galway, who later became his wife.
But he would tell every thing about that eighteen-hour period, such that he would give (and I quote), 'A picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.' And so he poured the names, places, events, streets, buildings, race horses, tram schedules, tides, prices, advertisements, weather, a dog, a dead man, a birthing hospital, a cemetery, music, the theater, pubs, songs, murder, mayhem--you name it--along with the story of the day for two men who, although only partially acquainted, are like father and son. They are like the hero Ulysses himself, lost and wandering and trying to make their way back to impossible homes. Hence the mythic element.
Of course, how Joyce wrote the book was also new, an attempt to weave the actual verbal texture of Dublin--the specific whatness of Dublin verbal things--into the container. Ulysses is so perfectly constructed that it takes exactly eighteen hours to read aloud, the amount of time that one would have been awake on such a day.
Joyce said, 'If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of every city in the world. In that particular is contained the universal.' [...]
With the Wake Joyce decided to write the ultimate novel. Instead of exhausting the possibilities of some other day--or a year or a decade or a century--in dear, dirty Dublin, he expanded the container to its final extension. For setting he chose nothing less than the world entire. For
characters all people, speaking all voices, who had ever lived. Time? All time, past, present, and--since there is a belief that certain combinations of words can sometimes serve as prophecy--perhaps even future time as well. In conception, at least, it was an impossible project.
But he made it all into the simple tale of the dream of a Dublin pub owner. Finnegan, like Jung claimed all of us can, establishes touch with the collective unconscious of the race of man. And his mind, wandering forward and back in time, touches upon all symbol, myth, and history from the hieroglyphics on ancient tombs through Vedic and Norse myths, the Bible in its several forms, sagas and passion plays and verse, and on to modern literature, right up to Beckett himself, who was often sitting across the room from Joyce, and so appears in the Wake.
During the twenty years that it took Joyce to write the Wake, he had a team of readers--the literary groupies of his day--scouring the Bibliotheque in Paris, reading all the great books he suggested. They would synopsize each and include a few representative pages of text so that Joyce could then add both statement and word to Finnegan's dream.
With a few dozen minds and at least one, perhaps two--here I mean Beckett--indisputable geniuses working on the Wake, it became the ideally competent novel that the ideally erudite reader might peruse for the rest of his life and still never appreciate in all its ideal complexity. In other words Joyce, within the assumptions of his aesthetic, exhausted the form of the novel of competence. Another novel more complete probably could not be produced, since it would require another Joyce, greater scope, a larger vision, more and better help, a second Bibliotheque Nationale.
And since the form of the novel as written from Richardson to Joyce was exhausted, Samuel Beckett turned around and attempted to exhaust the form in its 'negative' image, as it were--the novel of incompetence. By incompetence Beckett does not mean novels written by incompetent authors. He means that, unlike Joyce, he cannot assume the possibility of communication among human beings, much less between human beings and the collective unconscious.
For Beckett words don't work. They are an imposition, given us by others after our births; they really can't describe our own particular experiences in our own individual terms. Also, when we speak words, we need somebody else to hear and acknowledge them. A witness. In other words, we can't say us in our own terms for anybody's ears but our own. And if we were to try,
say, by speaking out all the words of the Others once and for all, we would find that there's nothing to say, since Western civilization assumes that we are no more than what we were when we were born--a tabula rasa, a void, un neant, a nothing. And nothing can only be described by silence.
There--that takes care of Beckett too.
[originally posted: 6/16/04]
IT'S CONSUMPTION, TAX IT:
It's the dirty not-so-little secret of online and catalogue shopping: Buy from a retailer that doesn't have a physical presence in your home state, and you avoid state and local taxes on your goods at the time of purchase. Technically, if I buy Mass Effect from Amazon (AMZN), I'm required to send my $4.20 to New Jersey's coffers on my own. Yeah, right. Plenty of people don't even realize they're supposed to be sending that money in -- I didn't before I wrote this column. (Amazon collects taxes in only five of the 50 states.) Ask any tax expert or economist what percentage of these taxes is ever collected from consumers, and he will tell you it's virtually zero.It's a great bargain for shoppers but a huge, unfair advantage for the online retailers, which have been beating up their brick-and-mortar counterparts for years. And it's a double whammy for state tax coffers: Not only do the online retailers not collect sales taxes on what they sell, but they are helping put chains like Borders and Circuit City out of business, shutting off what was once a spigot for state and local revenue.This brawl over the collection of local taxes has been brewing for more than a decade, but it matters now more than ever. Online sales are expected to total about $226 billion this year and soar to $327 billion by 2016. States and municipalities are losing out on about $25 billion a year in uncollected tax revenue, the National Retail Federation estimates.
IF JIMMY CARTER COULD BLANKET PARDON THE DRAFT DODGERS...:
President Obama's executive order to the immigration service to cease deportations of immigrants who came here without documentation before they turned 16 has gone as far as a president can go without bringing Congress along with him. A president can't change the legal status of the undocumented by himself, but he can issue orders to Homeland Security, which is precisely what Obama did.
WHEREAS IF THE ITALIANS WERE PLAYING YOU WOULD KNOW THE GAME WAS FIXED:
Italians fear a Euro stitch-up between Spain and Croatia in the final round of Group C matches.A 2-2 draw in the Spanish match on Monday would see Italy knocked out, no matter what happens in their simultaneous match against already-eliminated Ireland.
PUNCH BROTHERS, NO PUNCH BACK:
Punch Brothers makes its third appearance on Mountain Stage, recorded on the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown. Initially categorized as a group that inserted bluegrass instruments and sensibilities into the structure of modern classical music, Punch Brothers' third album (Who's Feeling Young Now?) finds the quintet reaching out to territories whose nearest sonic neighbors might be experimental rock bands like Radiohead.
THEY'D HAVE TO WASTE A BILLION DOLLARS ON ADS....:
Nine of the 12 people gathered in Denver on Tuesday voted for Obama in '08, but only three lean toward him at this point. They are a cross-section of America, working in real estate, health care, IT, and sales, and they're torn between a president whose performance they say has been underwhelming and who doesn't deserve reelection, and a challenger they know very little about beyond the fact that he's a rich and successful businessman.When Democratic pollster Peter Hart probed for their thoughts about Bain Capital, the private-equity firm that Mitt Romney headed, nine of the group opted out, saying they didn't know enough to talk about it. Of the three who ventured they knew "a little," one said "Mitt ran it," while another said "He did well," three words that sum up the Obama campaign's challenge as they try to tarnish what Hart has called Romney's "halo effect" on the economy. They aren't biting on Bain.
HECK, OUR OLDEST WOULD PLAY IT FOR TEN YEARS IN THE SAME PAIR OD UNDERWEAR:
Sid Meier, the creator of the Civilization game franchise, tells Mashable there was no way for his team to test a game that spanned 10 years -- a scenario that Reddit user Lycerius posted about on Tuesday."I can't say that we ever thought anyone would play a game of Civ for that long," Meier says.Lycerius posted earlier this week that he had been working on the same Civilization II game gradually for a decade. While the game ends at year 2020 A.D., Lycerius continued playing to 3991 A.D. He described the resulting world as a "hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation," where nuclear war between three superpowers had wiped out most of humanity.The post was simple, but the response was explosive on Reddit. The subforum created just for this saved game now has hundreds of posts as Redditors create fiction, songs and interpretive dances. It's also inspired many to fire up the 16-year-old game and try to solve Lycerius's post-apocalyptic situation -- or recreate their own.
YOU CAN'T BE CHRISTIAN AND NATIVIST:
A diverse group of evangelical leaders gathered in Washington this week to announce the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, which cast immigration reform as a moral imperative and establish "ground rules" for a policy solution. The signatories include Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's "morality and ethics" arm and a prominent figure on the religious right, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the left-leaning evangelical organization that has long advocated for more humane immigration policy. One signatory seems to have come as a shock even to the other evangelicals: Focus on the Family, a group that has been seen for years as aligned with the most right-wing elements of the Republican Party. The statement was also endorsed by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.The arrival of the Christian conservatives at the immigration-reform table might seem like a surprise, considering the high tensions surrounding the issue on the right.
EXCEPT THAT HE HAS A PLAN READY TO HAND:
I had high hopes for President Obama's speech on the economy. But instead of going to Ohio on Thursday with a compelling plan for the future, the president gave Americans a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy.The falsehood is that he has been serious about cutting government spending. The fallacy is that this election will be some sort of referendum that will break the logjam in Washington.
IT WAS ABANDONING DEMOCRATIZATION, IN FAVOR OF THE LEAGUE...:
Throughout his campaign, Obama had proclaimed that he would not follow in George W. Bush's footsteps in foreign affairs. But he has proved to be no less an imperial president than his predecessor. Specifically, "he was sending American forces," Mann says, "into military conflict without going to Congress under the provisions of the War Powers Resolution. In doing so, he arguably asserted presidential power in warmaking beyond even the claims of George W. Bush."Such are the vicissitudes of foreign affairs. Obama, like not a few presidents, has found himself saying and doing things that are at violence with his statements as a candidate, a source of perplexity, vexation, and even fury to many of his supporters, some of whom have become erstwhile ones. Meanwhile, the champions of democracy promotion abroad have despaired about what they see as his gelid realism when it comes to Syria, where, as Ryan Lizza, speculates in the latest New Yorker, he may soon have to decide whether or not to employ American military might. Obama has opened himself up to the charge of hypocrisy. For the most part, however, he gives every sign of trying to muddle along. To expect him to control events would be to endow him with a power that no president has possessed. Even Ronald Reagan, credited on the right with singlehandedly bringing down the Soviet Union, saw it occur only two years after he had left office.But are clarity of purpose and a clear strategic vision always desirable in conducting American foreign policy? A good case could be made that, more often than not, they constitute the road to disaster. Consider Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a crusader whose aims could not have been clearer or more noisily enunciated. He wanted to make the world "safe for democracy." But in endorsing the Treaty of Versailles and supporting the League of Nations, he ended up creating the very conditions that led to the rise of Hitler and World War II.
WE ALL KNOW HOW THIS ENDS:
As the Syrian conflict escalates to new levels of sectarian strife, Mr. Assad is leaning ever more heavily on his religious base for support. The Alawite core of the elite security forces is still with him, as are many Syrians from minority groups.But interviews with a dozen Alawites indicated a complex split even within their ranks. Some Alawites are frustrated that security forces have not yet managed to crush the opposition, while others say that Mr. Assad is risking the future of the Alawites by pushing them to the brink of civil war with Sunni Muslims.Mr. Assad's ruling Baath Party professes a secular, pan-Arab socialism, but Sunnis, who make up about 74 percent of the population, have long bridled at what they see as sectarian rule by the Alawites, who are nominally Shiite Muslims and make up only 13 percent of the population.People like Mr. Abboud say they feel stranded in a no man's land. Blackballed by their own Alawite community, they find that the Islamists who dominate parts of the armed opposition regard them with murderous suspicion. A few with opposition credentials have been killed.On the other extreme are Alawites who criticize Mr. Assad as being too soft, saying that his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad, would have quashed the threat by now.With Alawite youths dying by the hundreds to defend the government, voices are raised at funerals and elsewhere asking questions like, "Why is the government not doing enough to protect us?" according to the Alawites interviewed.There were also anti-Assad chants in Alawite neighborhoods like Zahra in Homs, like: "Bashar became a Sunni!" (Mr. Assad's wife, Asma al-Akhras, comes from a prominent family of Sunni Muslims from Homs.)