Saturday, 22 July 2017

Getting Up James Joyce’s Nose

 Bloomsday in Melbourne went to new extremes in 2017, in short, the nose. Here is my review of the main show for the journal Tintean.

Many photographs of James Joyce show the author with his nose in the air. This mannerism is interpreted as otherworldliness, or arrogance, or as a symptom of his manifold eye afflictions, though who is to say Joyce is not simply avoiding the down draught of the photographer’s noxious fart?

Ulysses is famously an exposition and celebration of the five senses. Rarely in literature had the sensory, sensual nature of all human experience been given such constant immediacy in a novel. The sight, sound, feel, and taste of Dublin is worded up on every page. But of all the precious five, smell is the most challenging to turn effectively into words. How to transform a list of smells into theatre requires in-depth knowledge of the Ur-Text, or perhaps that’s the Ewww-Text. This was the challenge set for the Bloomsday in Melbourne committee a couple of years ago: how to write about smells.

Getting Up James Joyce's Nose is the result, a new play that began life as an ungainly database list of smelly references in Ulysses, before the committee turned those random lines into Joycean theatre fit for performance, and inhalation. The polymathic nature of the book makes such theatre possible, as we were reminded at the pre-show dinner by Melbourne’s own beloved polymath, the Honourable Professor Barry Jones. Joyce has put enough conundrums into his book to keep even the sniffiest scholar for years with his nose to the grindstone.

An artwork created according to a restrictive rule forces the artist to devise new ways of presenting the material. We know this with Ulysses itself: a gargantuan novel all set on just one day caused Joyce to write out the experiences with ever more elaboration, and further elaborate rules. Likewise with this play, where the rule of ‘smells only’ inspired otherwise unimaginable conjunctions. The scripting team were an olfactory factory.

Handed such a whiffy text, director Wayne Pearn took a deep breath and turned it into a play piece of encaptivating ingenuity. Steampunk, a retro fashion that owes much to the Victorian and Edwardian encounter between industrial production and big dress sense, was a brilliant choice for costuming, not to mention outlandish props that made the point all too well. Likewise, the choice of the Melba Spiegeltent in Johnston Street, Collingwood, was a natural setting for the circus and vaudeville modes that carried the show.

The result was a poetic flow of effects, a fantasia of 1904 Dublin seen and heard through the words of the book. There were theatrical episodes, but no normative Joycean narrative, no book sequence. The smells took centre stage, you might say, raising to the big top many ideas about smells and questions of class, of decorum (“Immorality has a stench”), and literary convention, and a direct and comedic confrontation with early 20th century sexology (“Source of life mansmell”). This loose set of episodes was held together by the Brisbane comedy vaudevillian troupe The Tatty Tenors, who sang period songs with straight faces. This was particularly hard to do with the sacrosanct Bloomsday piece ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’ when the refrain went “Love’s old sweet pong”, but then Bloomsday in Melbourne has never been averse to sending itself up, or subverting the dominant cliché.

James Joyce (Steve Gome) has been portrayed in the past as the obsessive scribbler, the feminist scourge, the egotistical exile, and the misunderstood desperado, but in a circus he is the ring-master. This was Joyce at his most commanding, totally in control of his characters as they smelled the roses or put up with the horseshit. This was Joyce the extreme risk-taker, ready to push both his troupe of characters and his ideas to the limit, and beyond. He held the whip-hand, could not get enough of Molly’s teases, laughed with glee during Bloom’s morning dump, and went too far this time with his desecration of hallowed Robert Emmet’s execution speech. It was the Joyce who smells mischief in every situation. He was the impresario of this ode to odours.   

Leopold Bloom (Silas James) was more like the long-suffering homme sensuel than the urban Odysseus of comic pathos. “The smells are taking you back” we were told. Bloom’s most affective madeleine moments were very much the same as Molly’s, redolent of their paradise lost, and maybe soon to be regained. The disappearance of the wending street odyssey of 16th June was especially noticeable in his case, now that perfumes, scents, stinks, and reeks pervaded our present tense. For this was, indeed, theatre of the now moment, just as smells transmit their transitory meanings, then pass.

It could be said of all of us that “We Blooms live in our bodies”, but Molly Bloom (Christina Costigan) has special ways of reminding us of this ample truth. Costigan trains in aerial hoop, which means Molly hung by a thread for much of the play, while managing to send the verbal messages and body language her fans know so well. If Molly’s whole existence is a balancing act, this was taken literally this year, as she performed suspended from the centre of the Spiegeltent. Hers was a sustained work of figurative beauties, both verbal and physical.

A standout feature of this year’s Bloomsday was a character with the handle Nose (Steven Dawson), an escapee from commedia dell’arte who seemed to live each smell as though it were his last. This luminous dong moved about the stage, at once comically intrusive and spookily spectral. This is the sort of character to give Freud nightmares, as if Nikolai Gogol has come back to life, sticking his proboscis into every nook and cranny of the text. Dawson was made for the part, responding unforgettably to each new smell that wafted past with the Sturm und Drang of the supersensitive nostril.

And there was Matthew Dorning, a versatile actor who played the great unwashed Stephen Dedalus, not to mention Blazes Boylan, Nosey Flynn, a waiter, and the nymph Poulaphouca, the kind of costume-changing clown requisite in any self-respecting circus. His expansive repertoire put one in mind of some of the hallucinatory sections of the nighttown brothel scenes, sometimes known as Circe. As indeed did the whole show, in a space where the limits of the daily world had been temporarily let go. The show must go on!

Getting Up James Joyce's Nose was a treat for the seasoned Joycean, who can pick up the trail in a jiffy, though my one query later was what a neophyte to Ulysses would make of all the glancing references from the book, many of them given no prior context. That said, Bloomsday in Melbourne proved once again that it is the pre-eminent international festival of its kind, capable of remaking itself, testing startling new ideas, and coming up with the latest takes on one of world literature’s greatest comic novelists, and Ireland’s greatest.      

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘Pied Beauty’, ‘Carrion Comfort’, and ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’

Newman House, University College Dublin, facing St. Stephen's Green

On Thursday the 27th of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the second part of my contribution to the evening.
Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

At its most immediate ‘Pied Beauty’ is a poem of praise to God, deriving its form and purpose from the psalms of the Hebrew Bible. It is a hymn, in that the words are directed to God, speak of God’s good works, recognise him in all things, and are “lost in wonder, love, and praise”, as Charles Wesley would have it. It uses the sprung rhythm that the American poet Robert Hass says transcends the “easy fit” to “give the feeling of overmuch.”

It is, though, not a conventional praise poem. Rather than listing the many beauties of creation, as we find in that opening hymn of the Bible, in Genesis chapters 1 and the start of 2, Hopkins goes into select and very detailed description of some favourite features of the English countryside. Only then to say that “all things”, by extension, meaning the whole of creation, pied as it all is, deserves our praise. “All things counter, original, spare, strange” is everything. Hopkins takes very particularised effects – “a brinded cow”, “finches’ wings” – as examples of how the whole universe in fact is “pied beauty”. The shift from the particular to the general, an elementary strategy of essays and debates, happens between the two verses, thus making the poem a miniature exercise in rhetoric; the rhetoric beloved of Oxford dons and Jesuit orators.

The poem is also an invitation. How do we read the final lines? “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.” While we hear this as praise to the maker of all things, the poem is also asking us to praise him. It is stating that we too may engage freely in the expression of praise, in our own words, our own somewhat unique and human way, in our own time. Hopkins has just shown us how to do it, and how to do it if you are Hopkins. He ends by saying it is your turn to do this, in your way.

‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ is the motto of the order that Hopkins joined: ‘To the greater glory of God.’ He would have seen this motto frequently,
probably written in chalk at the top of blackboards in tutorial classes: it is a reminder to offer everything to God in God’s Name. We sometimes think of the Jesuit dedication as austere and absolute, which is why ‘Pied Beauty’ is such a release. Instead of cautious reserve the poem comes from a personal state of joyous, even ecstatic, bliss. Instead of the kind of ‘us and them’ Catholic language we find in Hopkins’ letters sometimes, here the poem is all-embracing, almost delirious over the marvels of difference, one could even say ecumenical in its divine understanding of the world.

Hopkins, who took a huge interest, like Robert Bridges, in English word history, knew that ‘pied’ is Middle English for ‘black and white’ or any marked colour on white. In other words, blemished or marked, as distinct from unblemished. The acceptance of the world as blemished, as fallen from some perfect state, seems to exist consciously or not, behind the poem ‘Pied Beauty’. While this is a tentative argument that cannot be pushed too hard, we have to remember that Hopkins has been given a thorough grounding in the reality of sin, in his own life as well as in the seminary, and that his poetry is the verbalisation, in various forms, of that awareness.

We also have to remember that Hopkins was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, someone who proposed challenging ways of understanding nature, some of them at odds with conventional religious thinking. ‘Pied Beauty’ is a nature poem. The examples it gives of God’s ‘fathering-forth’ are nearly all from nature and Hopkins, through his condensed language, teaches us to look upon nature with new eyes. He would have us see the wonders of nature in their own right, not simply as products of a process of unremitting natural selection. We are being placed in the reflective mode that respects the inscape of each individual being.

This leads to my final way of reading ‘Pied Beauty’, which is that we see the living world glorified in its physical presence and ongoing existence, albeit mortal in its passage. In some ways the most important clue to the poem is not in the famous words like “dappled things”, “fickle, freckled”, or “rose-moles all in stipple”, but in the very plain English word “change”. Everything he talks about is open to mutability, will alter and age with time. Only God does not change and yet it is only through God that we may see the true wonder of what God has made possible. His “beauty is past change.” As happens frequently in poetry, the last line is the one that shares the underlying meaning, and makes us read it again.

‘Pied Beauty’ shows how this style of rhythm and stress render an argument effective. A simple theology lesson is transformed into a living hymn of praise, a universal sermon, urging us to see the world anew. It is theopoetic before the fact. Yet Hopkins discovered that his style could serve internal dramatic monologue as well. He takes the conventions of prayer and expands the results into a present drama.

Carrion Comfort

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

We can hear ‘Carrion Comfort’ as a stark testament to the state of ‘fight-or-flight response’. Each temptation to give in to despair, “to avoid and flee”, is quickly countered by the alternative, to stay, meet, and overcome. Each phrase details a new part of the internal contest. Grammatical sense is pushed to breaking point in order to include all the vying forces of emotion and reason. The second half of the sonnet reveals what has already been implied, that this is a struggle with God, whom he both addresses directly and speaks of as the one he wrestles.

While it is useful to know the poem was written during an Ignatian retreat using the Spiritual Exercises, and is therefore an acute expression of his soul at the time, our interest is only secondarily in biography. As in all his poetry, the form Hopkins invented is utilised to depict a spiritual experience, a struggle, an epiphany, a revelation. It is we who cry ‘I can no more’ only to counter with ‘I can’. The slow overcoming of despair is imitated in the poetry. He uses biblical images – ‘I wretch lay wrestling with my God’ – but this is secondary to their use as meaning to his, and our, own shared experience of learning God’s will.

The last years of his life were hard. He wrote to Richard Watson Dixon that “Liverpool is of all places the most museless,” a despondent state that changed little after he took up the offer to teach in Dublin. The so-called ‘terrible sonnets’ evidently written in a state of spiritual turmoil and crisis, keep his unique eye for nuance and fine detail while shifting in their directness of speech closer to the Metaphysicals like John Donne. This change in composition will always leave us wondering what other changes may have occurred if Hopkins had lived as long as Robert Bridges. Here he is, near the end of his life, taking his cue from the prophet Jeremiah:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.


Hass, Robert, quoted in a review by Scott Esposito of his ‘A Little Book of Form’, San Francisco Chronicle, 19 April 2017

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected with an introduction and notes by W.H. Gardner. Penguin, 1953

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Selected letters, edited by Catherine Phillips. Oxford University Press, 1990