Continuing the theme of modernism from yesterday
… For six hundred years, English has been tinkered with until it has
become a fine instrument for describing what’s literally going on and
what people are thinking. The vocabulary is famously huge, the syntax
is supple, and there are narrative techniques for all occasions. As an
example of perceptive modern prose, consider James Joyce‘s spare
description of Leopold Bloom in a hearse:
Mr. Bloom entered and sat in a vacant place. He pulled the door to
after him and slammed it shut tight. He passed an arm through the armstrap
and looked seriously from the open carriage window at the lowered blinds
of the avenue. Nose whiteflattened against the pane. Thanking her stars
she was passed over. Glad to see us go we give them so much trouble
We don’t really know how the old woman talks or what she’s thinking.
Maybe she’s a police informant spying on the house opposite; maybe she’s
a he. But Joyce has focused his lens so that only Bloom’s mind
shows clearly. Thus we learn about the objects that Bloom handlesthe
door and the armstrapbut only about their functions, because he
is too preoccupied to note accidental features like material and color.
His very name reflects his state of mind, for he experiences himself as
"Mr. Bloom" when he rides in a hearse. We might like
to learn more (for instance, what kind of buildings line the avenue?),
but such information would ruin the realism. Thinking is perspectival,
selective; and we know just what Bloom notices.
Modern literary English allows an author to choose almost any vantage
point, any focus, and any depth of field. Why then does Joyce use so many
other idioms? For instance, in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode,
he mimics every major prose style in the history of English. At one point,
Bloom has just entered a house where a woman is suffering her third day
of labor. He means to express his sympathy to the family, but he finds
himself among callous drunks who are loudly discussing whether it would
be better in the eyes of the Church for the woman or the baby to die.
Bloom mutters vague abstractions to avoid expressing a view, perhaps because
any opinion could be heard upstairs. Then …
|in Joyce’s version ….
That is truth, pardy, said Dixon, and, or I err, a pregnant word.
Which hearing young Stephen was a marvellous glad man and he averred
that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was
of a wild manner when he was drunken and that he was now in that
taking it appeared efstoons.
But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still
had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their
labour and he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne
him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died
and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous
stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on
a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock, lest he
might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst
of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild
for an heir looked upon him his friend’s son and was shut up in
sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him
failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real
parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for
that he lived riotously with these wastrels and murdered his good
Joyce’s prose resembles a thick but uneven hedge screening the literal
truth. Here, we can just about cut through the fifteenth-century language
to to see what’s going on. In other places, it is impossible to make out
even the basic narrative facts. For instance, we are almost never permitted
to overhear Bloom’s thoughts about what to do or where to go next. Much
like Odysseus, he just shows up in episode after episode.
Frustrated by this and other omissions, we might say: If only Joyce would
just tell the story! Why does he have to use a pastiche of past and present
styles, so many of which are opaque?
The question assumes, of course, that there is a truth to grasp. But
perhaps my "literal interpretation" above is simply one idiom,
a product of its time, just as Everyman reflects the culture of
England in 1500. In that case, Joyce has carried realism to its final
stage. He doesn’t describe the world or consciousness (either objectively
or subjectively), because to do so would be to forget the fact that all
seeing is from the point of view of a style. Instead, he describes some
past and contemporary ways in which life has been described. As in one
of Nietzsche’s magic tricks, the real worlddisappears! Literature,
not life, is the subject of Ulysses; yet the book itself counts as literature
(in Stephen’s words, as an "eternal affirmation of the spirit of
man"), because it is perceptive, tender, and humane.
This rare combinationa declaration of the End of Art that is also
artis characteristic of the greatest works of modernism. Note, however,
that Joyce must deny that there has been progress in the history of English
narrative style. The succession of idioms that he mimics does not evolve
toward clarity. If modern English prose has somehow surpassed its predecessors,
then Joyce would have no excuse to abandon it.