Saturday, 29 September 2012

Book City (Vitezslav Nezval)

There are times in our life of reading where the book seems more than the squarish paper object that presents the information. Times when the book, through the transformative process of intent reading, becomes something other, something strange or new or mysterious or intensely desirable, simply through its effect on imagination. Times when awake world and dream world merge in the process of reading the book, so that where we were before and where we might be afterwards have been suspended by the experience of reading. Such is the effect being elucidated (if that is the word) in the wondrous poem ‘Book City’ by the Czech poet Vitezslav Nezval. Without the book we could not enter into the other world that the book evokes.

Then also, the very existence of books is a reality of our world. Books confront us with their presence. Books are objects of desire. Books meet us with their own beauty, their own possibilities and demands. Their very existence tests our self-awareness, our psychology, our own thoughts and actions. They can arouse us, inspire us, amaze us. They can stand as silent judges. Books are physical entities in the same way everything in our world of animal, mineral, and vegetable is physical entity. We may see the book in terms of those entities, and vice versa. Books are touched, smelt, listened to, and looked at, just as they are read; we even talk of ‘devouring’ a book, so taste is there too. A book may become very close to us, as close as our feelings about the city wherein we live our lives. Prague is that city for Vitezslav Nezval, and all these physical effects of the book are promulgated in his poem ‘Book City’. There seem to be no boundaries.

The city and the book are juxtaposed. In so doing the poet proposes their inherent symbiotic relationship. How shall we understand the existence of one without the other? Each is explanatory of the other. Yet there is a third person, the poet, involved here too; it is a love poem. We can see that the poem is two poems, two attempts to say the same thing in different ways. In the first poem a series of analogies describe the beloved, the book city that is also the city within its books, while the second poem describes both the beloved’s pursuit of the reader, i.e. the poet, and the beloved’s surrender to the reader. Evocative words about the object of love in the first poem are followed by the short story of the relationship, in the second. So here is the poem ‘Book City’ by Vitezslav Nezval (1936):


There are mysterious cities and books bound in leather
Like naked women in forests
Like mulatto women with silver tattoos
Like water nymphs on subterranean paths
Like encounters between the eyes of wild pansies and men
Like preserved red currant in the beak of a storm
Like periwinkle valleys with the song of shepherds
Like flakes of snow and wild geese
Like anger of the womb
Like the touch of the fingers of night and burdock
I love them and forever seek them as I seek you, Prague in your libraries exposed to the rain


There are days when the book city pursues me
I’d like to describe it
It’s book bound in green leather
Like naked women in forests
A book that’s a nocturnal moth
Or a book that’s a lake
It surrenders to my hands
Like a centifolia rose
It phosphoresces in the night
Like Prague under the full moon

Peter Demetz in his masterful history ‘Prague in Black and Gold’ (1997) describes the reign of the extraordinary Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia during the later Renaissance, and how “The legend of ‘magic Prague’, prepared by English, German, and American writers on their grand tours in the nineteenth century, richly cultivated by Czech and German writers of the fin de siecle, and later renewed first by French surrealists and then by Czech dissidents under neo-Stalinist rule, largely rests on diffuse clichés about Rudolf’s life and his court.” This is what is happening here. Nezval’s poetry runs riot with the sense of ‘magic Prague’, a place of natural and alchemical transformations, of strange visions from the past that seem infused in the present. Religion and the occult mix together, with the sense that new and wondrous discoveries will happen, happily and inevitably. ‘Magic Prague’ is also a place of books. It exists because of books and books are its origin and continuation. The two go together: the city and the book are interchangeable.

Although reference works define Nezval as a Czech surrealist, a more useful clue to his motives is expressed in the purposes of Poetism, the movement he helped instigate in Prague in the 1920s, “a movement which aimed to combine life with art.” Nezval was an original with forms who happened to encounter surrealism during its formative poetic phase, but it was only one of the means to his poetic ends. While the book is “like periwinkle valleys with the song of shepherds”, an exotic image we would expect a French surrealist poet to project onto Bohemia, this and the other book images in the poem are the poet’s own personal landscapes, his array of mysteries that only manifest themselves because of Prague, his own library of special histories of this unique city. He is poet first, surrealist by an accident of time. One of the real wonders of Nezval’s poetry too, it must be observed, is how the work of this man of his time, a Czech Communist, survived the clampdowns on art judged to have “bourgeois tendencies”.

Only a Czech speaker can appreciate all the word play and sound effects of the original ‘Book City’. The rest of us stare at this poem, wondering at the simple first level of meaning in the translation. As I say, the city and the book are juxtaposed in the poem, the poet proposes their inherent symbiotic relationship. The ‘silver tattoos’ remind us of Bohemia’s historical reliance on its silver mines. ‘Flakes of snow and wild geese’ speak of Prague’s central landlocked place in Europe. When the book ‘phosphoresces in the night’ we are reminded of the alchemical and scientific experiments simultaneously encouraged in the reign of Rudolf II. Elements of Prague memory rise from the unconscious, reminders that may or may not be Nezval’s intention, but that nevertheless have a life of their own. The book itself is a rose, an object of mystery and also the gift given, entire unto itself, more than enough. 

The version here of ‘Book City’ by Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958) is Ewald Osers’ translation, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009. It comes from his celebrated collection ‘Prague with Fingers of Rain’(1936).

Friday, 14 September 2012

Prague with Fingers of Rain (Vitezslav Nezval)

When reading histories of Prague the modern poet named more consistently and enthusiastically than any other is Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958). His 1936 collection ‘Prague with Fingers of Rain’ in particular seems to have a hold on the people of that city and its historians. Fingers are the subject, object and verb of the opening poem, ‘City of Spires’:

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician
With the intoxicating fingers of women lying on their backs
With fingers touching the stars
On the abacus of night

Nezval is reminding us of all those, living and dead, who have lived in and built Prague, in keeping you might say with the ideological and literary expectations of his socialism. However, nature and its product the city also have fingers:

With fingers deformed by rheumatism
With fingers of strawberries
With the fingers of windmills and blossoming lilac

So that by the end of his long paean we are left with the sensation of Prague and the whole of existence reaching out, creating, working, going about its business, admonishing, flexing, resting. Past and present are active together about the same things and their place is this city, at once romantic and pragmatic, startlingly unique and then dully Sunday afternoon, euphoric and then plunged into doubt. Prague in all its beauty and contradictions, this city of dreams and disappointment, friendships and betrayals, grows real through the splendiferous lines of Nezval.

Passionate love sees everything it wishes to see, but the lover will learn to appreciate the different moods of its desire, if that love is to last. So it is with Nezval and Prague.

Nezval has been called a surrealist. He knew the surrealist poets in Paris and acquired some of the risqué and confrontational methods of contrast for which that movement is famous. He even called himself a surrealist. But I find this only one clue amongst many to the art of Nezval. Here is the short poem ‘Panorama of Prague’, for example, that on first sight uses the tricks of surrealism:

Like berets hurled into the air
Berets of boys, cocottes and cardinals
Turned into stone by the sorcerer Zito
At the great feast
Berets with Chinese lanterns
On the eve of St John’s Day
When fireworks go up
Yet also like a town of umbrellas opened skyward as a shield against rockets
All this is Prague

Leaning over a wall
I want to break this twig of wonderful blossoms

My eyes drink in the lights of the great merry-go-round
Whose ringing chimes call home
All its barges and stray horses
Whose ringing chimes call home
All sparks of light

All the domes and spires and towers and turrets of Prague were built with the same joie de vivre as throwing your hat in the air, or opening your umbrella. Nezval plots out the wonders of the skyline, while playing with mythic history. This is not so much a game of surrealist chance as finding home. The branches of blossom themselves beckon someone who knows he can never be more at home than in this place. To break the twig is to reach back through generations of time. It is to be in touch with all those who have wanted to lean for a sprig of blossom in springtime Prague. The lines synthesise modern change and old ways through a magical sense of song. So he is surrealist, but a classicist also, an ecstatic philosopher, a residual romantic.

At midnight the balcony is a widow
Playing a game of chess with someone above the city
She’s standing naked lamp in hand
A nightmare comes to her like a pocket mirror
A key tinkles against the pavement
A bud falling someone has scattered a handful of diamonds
The balcony rises up like an empty dress
The wind fills its empty glove with jasmine perfume

This verse from ‘Balconies’ conjures the city of defenestrations, the city of those pulled apart by circumstance. With the tinkling of the key we even hear the far future of the Velvet Revolution (1989), if we wish, when the citizens celebrated the arrival of the new freedom of the republic by all tinkling their keys together at the renowned mass gatherings. It makes sense of Vitezslav Nezval’s remarks at the time of the book’s publication:

“Poetry that was written in the past doesn’t continue to mean exactly the same as it did when it was first written. Even if its structure stays the same. Even if the poem itself remains the same, some of its components come to stand for different things. Poetry is like a moon which appears each night slightly altered in the ever-changing sky of history and time.”

His poems name the Castle, Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, the Church of Our Lady of Tyn, and many other old familiar places, but Nezval’s Prague is also one of covered markets, shop windows, obscure hotels, and deserted cemeteries. He gives the same caring attention to ‘The Suburb’ as he does to the city’s great libraries and revered river vistas:

The suburb is a bright straw hat
With an unfinished card game
The suburb is a removal van
Everything’s in it chairs and wickerwork
The buildings are badly wrapped cheese
And also a cheap cloth cap
The suburb is smoking like a youth with a tatty whodunnit

These poems appeared at what at the time must have seemed a renaissance in Czech writing, as in society itself. They evoke a city that is alive to its own possibilities. Yet 1936 is a false start, a grand fanfare of nationalist sentiment that cannot anticipate the Munich Agreement or everything that followed: occupation and control from outside its borders for fifty years, first by the Germans and then the Russians. Poets live for the moment and when they do can capture that moment before it disappears into the horrible and disfigured future no one wants, but enough can imagine.

Friendship and betrayal are to be Nezval’s lot too, as they were for so many Czechs, caught in the middle of successive hot and cold wars. It is hard to believe that the man who wrote these loving odes to the breadth and depth of Prague history would, before his death in 1958, have written poems in praise of Comrade Joseph Stalin, simply in order to survive in changed circumstances. Or is it hard to believe? Several of his 1936 poems depict people who must choose the way of cruelty and betrayal, while others conclude with painful expressions of evil accepted, faithlessness recognised, and loss endured. The cost of love for Prague increases as time brings change.

Intimations of what is to come to Prague breathe in some of the lines. ‘If ever, Prague, you are in Danger’ is the title of one poem that recommends the city hold fast should something happen, neither capitulating nor surrendering. It is noticeable that these lines seem to have informed the title of the Prague historian Peter Demetz’s history of the German occupation of the Czech capital. Too soon everything was to change drastically.

Nezval writes a number of poems about the Jewish history of the city, including a moving tribute to the 16th century rabbi most closely associated with the legend of the golem, but it is this four-line verse that speaks directly of the anxious state of mind in Bohemia in the mid-Thirties, living on borrowed time between the end of the Habsburgs in 1918 and the takeover by totalitarian states. The poem is called ‘The Clock in the old Jewish Ghetto’:

While time is running away on Prikopy Street
Like a racing cyclist who thinks he can overtake death’s machine
You are like the clock in the ghetto whose hands go backwards
If death surprised me I would die a six-year-old boy

All lines of poetry quoted here are from Ewald Osers’ translations, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009. Nezval’s words about poetry (“Poetry that was written in the past …”) are taken from ‘The verbal acrobatics of Vitezslav Nezval’, a broadcast on Radio Prague produced by Rosie Johnston in April 2005.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The O-seal-that-so feature

The only thing better than reading a good poem is re-reading a good poem. Listening to the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins is to encounter in a small space a mind eager to make us aware of marvels. Aware, more aware, totally aware.

It should be the hallmark of any writer of ecology that they reveal marvels. For although skyscrapers of scientific data should be enough to activate humans to protect the natural world, a more certain cause is to instil wonder.

In his diary for April 8th 1873, Hopkins wrote, “The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed anymore.”

Inscape was one of his coinages, typical of a man who developed private theories to assist his thinking and writing. It means the thisness or whatness of anything, Duns Scotus called it quiddity, those characteristics of colour, shape and body that make anything unique and special. When we read ‘Binsey Poplars’, a poem emanating from a similar experience, inscape has also come to mean life itself, both the thisness and what could be called the is-ness.

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled.

He laments the loss of “a fresh and following folded rank,” saying, “O if we but knew what we do when we delve or hew.” The more we value the beauty and meaning of creation, the deeper the feeling of loss. Hopkins evolved a method of description that is praise and thanksgiving. We find it everywhere in his writing, a close attention to object and word sounds, a substantial pleasure. ‘Dappled’ became a Hopkins word, as in ‘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 …

While in the opening to ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, described by the poet as “the longest sonnet ever made”, we sit up when we read of sunset:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, volumninous … stupendous
Evening strains to be time’s vast, womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.

Over-familiarity with Hopkins may lead us to overlook a driving purpose of this poetry. He is asking us to see the whole created world – physical, sustaining, alive – in the same way as in his poem. It is not just that small is beautiful, but that everything in ordinary is a microcosm of the great world. It is there to be marvelled at, protected, and perpetuated.

‘Nature poet’, ‘Romantic poet’, ‘Religious poet’, ‘Language poet’, ‘Love poet’, ‘Beat poet’: these terms, trotted out like job applications, are a way to put people in their place, a mark of literary journalism. Hopkins fits all of these jobs and, like all poets, spent his life filling out the application form. Some may quibble with Language poet, but he is one of the great forerunners of that mode. Others will say it is anachronistic to call Hopkins a Beat poet, but I use it in the sense Jack Kerouac gave, that it is about beating out the words and is short for Beatitude. There is no Victorian poet more deliberative about the beat of the words, which he called ‘sprung rhythm’, and his intended resting place after the poetic act seems to be a state of beatitude.

Hopkins’ writing is an ecological testament, in which every animate and inanimate thing has its own purpose, and everything lives in a state of relationship. Then, virtually every poem asserts, acknowledges, gives praise, or questions the Creator God. Such landmarks of our literature as ‘The Windhover’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ have this two-fold composition, with an opening representation and a closing address to the Maker. They are testimony and psalm, revelatory praise and then doxology. For all the effect of immediate inspiration, Hopkins’ poems are in fact very carefully constructed sets of images and exclamations, done to expose the essential bind in our awareness between ecology and the reverence due to that which made creation, ourselves included.

Because for Hopkins the world in all its beauty can never be appreciated fully without awareness, acknowledgement, access to God. He is an inheritor of the Keatsian view that beauty is truth and truth beauty, a creed devoutly followed by many ever since, a motto that sent some of his fellow Englishmen bonkers, but he asks

To what serves mortal beauty – dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood – the O-seal-that-so feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to?

and answers in conclusion

What do then? how meet beauty? Merely meet it; own
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, God’s better beauty, grace.

It is the very being of the tree that we mourn, not simply its admirable beauty, and how we see that? Nature itself is corruptible and only truly beautiful while a sign of the beauty within its being. However we may take the word, for Hopkins the real answer is grace.

The Victorian cult of beauty was not enough. Another way in which Hopkins thought contrary to his times was in word use. He wrote to a friend criticising what he called Lord Tennyson’s Parnassian English, by which he means the Laureate’s ability to turn on the poeticisms at will, to remain in a show-off elevated state of expression for ages of pages without making any memorable impact. Perhaps this is why almost all of Hopkins’ work consists of short poems. The high-flown was not for him, and in this he is closer to the modernists. To use a favourite word of Seamus Heaney’s, Hopkins writes a pressured line, he packs everything he can into a sonnet without causing it to explode or fall apart. Hence the surprise effects but also the close two-fold structure, where God and creation necessarily exist together. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Walk (Seamus Heaney)

This poem was read aloud at Janet Campbell’s funeral in Hamilton in Victoria in December 2006. Janet was a great lover of poetry all her life, a great reader of poetry, and she read everything of Seamus Heaney. Indeed, when she worked in Melbourne or London bookshops Janet would grab hold of Faber pre-publication copies of Heaney if they came into the backroom, and disappear for days, copying lines onto postcards for her friends, transferring lines into her lifetime of diaries. Diaries that were also a lifeline. Janet read everything, but Heaney was one of the regulars.

Seamus Heaney keeps a tight line. He is rarely though completely opaque and the way into this poem is the word ‘longshot’. We only find in the second of the two poems that we are being asked to look at two photographs. Or, at least, poems that are like photographs. Or, better still, strong memories that have taken on in the mind the nature of longshots. The two poems in one are reminders of close relationships. One is in broad daylight, a positive image; the other is called ‘a negative’, the other side of a relationship, involving struggle and fire and survival. (Even this trope of the positive and negative photograph dates the poem and its subject, now when we live in the age of the digital camera.)

Although it is important to the poet who these people are, and it is important to us as readers in so far as we recognise our own experience in the words, it is not important who these people are. They live their relationships in the poem and we may see them through the simplicity and complexity engendered by the words.

It seems too easy to explain the poems as songs of innocence and experience, yet how else do we start? The poet is attending to the reality of what he knows now that he didn’t know then, or rather knows now and had only intimations of previously. The conclusion goes further, saying that it is not over yet and there will be more to know. Intimations are everywhere, and what are we to make of them? The adult relationship of the parents in the first poem will be played out again by the grown child in his own intimate life, depicted in the second poem. The adult, the poet, sees the child who will in turn become who he is now. There is even the knowledge that the love that “brought me that far by the hand” will be the strength he is given to meet the love demands of his adult life.

‘Longshot’ possesses too the meaning of chance, a fair amount of risk, a choice taken that no one at the time could be fully sure of success. A relationship that involves commitment will, one could say, always have at least an element of comedy. Some see marriage (and friendship and relationships generally) as indeed the source of the comedy of life. The poet here is saying that longshots work, against all the odds. The two poems play out the results of that commitment.

Another word that pitches the poem at a noticeable level is ‘glamoured’. We don’t usually associate the country roads of Ulster with glamour, nor generally those who live on those roads. Yet in the eyes of the boy seeing everything for the first time ‘everything’ is glamoured, possessed of charm and allure and wonder. Heaney is aware of the medieval sense of the word also, glamour as the temptations of this world, the wondrous illusions of temporality. When medieval moralists warn against glamour they are keen to help us to see through the false show of this world, to get toward self-knowledge. There is no way we are not going to be innocent at certain times of our lives, of the ways of this world, yet experience shows us to value our former innocence, even as we move on. The poet will learn to live with glamour, differentiating as he goes innocence and knowledge.

One photograph and one poem are filled with light and colour, though notice the poet never actually names a colour. Then, one photograph negative and one poem are filled with darkness and flame, the side of a relationship that is best appreciated at the survival end of the experience. In both poems Heaney is in his fabled pedagogical mode, by which I mean he presents us with the lessons and then leaves us to think about the bigger meanings, always in a manner that is gentle-voiced and caring of his listeners. 
The Walk

Glamoured the road, the day, and him and her
And everywhere they took me. When we stepped out
Cobbles were riverbed, the Sunday air
A high stream-roof that moved in silence over
Rhododendrons in full bloom, foxgloves
And hemlock, robin-run-the-hedge, the hedge
With its deckled ivy and thick shadows –
Until the riverbed itself appeared,
Gravelly, shallowly, summery with pools,
And made a world rim that was not for crossing.
Love brought me that far by the hand, without
The slightest doubt or irony, dry-eyed
And knowledgeable, contrary as be damned;
Then just kept standing there, not letting go.


So here is another longshot. Black and white.
A negative this time, in dazzle-dark,
Smudge and pallor where we make out you and me,
The selves we struggled with and struggled out of,
Two shades who have consumed each other’s fire,
Two flames in sunlight that can sear and singe,
But seem like wisps of enervated air,
After-wavers, feathery ether-shifts …
Yet apt still to rekindle suddenly
If we find along the way charred grass and sticks
And an old fire-fragrance lingering on,
Erotic woodsmoke, witchery, intrigue,
Leaving us none the wiser, just better primed
To speed the plough again and feed the flame.

Seamus Heaney

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Death of the Author (James Joyce)

The Death of the Author
Lately Written by the Author for Three Voices:
Obituarist   OB
Ulysses  UL
Wakese FW
Collagist: Philip Harvey
Performed at La Notte Ristorante in Lygon Street as part of the Bloomsday in Melbourne celebrations on 16th of June 2011
[The MC will explain during the Introduction that in this reading questionable statements in the Obituary passages will be followed by a gong. Straight factual errors will be followed by the blowing of a paper whistle. Typos in the original text will be underscored by the soft playing of a music box. Patrons are asked to pay close attention for these occasions. A musician plays gong, paper whistle, and music box, as directed in the script.]
OB: The New York Times, January 1941.
Zurich, Switzerland, Monday, Jan 13- James Joyce, Irish author whose "Ulysses" was the center of one of the most bitter literary controversies of modern times, died in a hospital here early today despite the efforts of doctors to save him by blood transfusions. He would have been 59 years old Feb. 2.
Joyce underwent an intestinal operation Saturday afternoon at the Schwesternhaus von Rotenkreuz Hospital. For a time he appeared to be recovering. Only yesterday his son reported him to have been cheerful and apparently out of danger.
During the afternoon, however, the writer suffered a sudden relapse and sank rapidly. He died at 2:15 A.M. (8:15 P.M., American States Eastern Standard Time). His wife and son were at the hospital when he died.
UL: A team of horses passed from Finglas with toiling plodding tread, dragging through the funereal silence a creaking waggon on which lay a granite block. The waggoner marching at their head saluted.
Coffin now. Got here before us, dead as he is. Horse looking round at it with his plume skeowways. Dull eye: collar tight on his neck, pressing on a bloodvessel or something. Do they know what they cart out here every day? Must be twenty or thirty funerals every day. Then Mount Jerome for the protestants. Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute. Shovelling them under by the cartload doublequick. Thousands every hour. Too many in the world.
OB: The status of James Joyce as a writer never could be determined in his lifetime.
OB: In the opinion of some critics, notably Edmund Wilson, he deserved to rank with the great innovators of literature as one whose influence upon other writers of his time was incalculable.
UL: Are you bad in the eyes? the sympathetic personage queried.
Why, answered the seafarer with the tartan beard, who seemingly was a bit of a literary cove in his own small way, staring out of sea-green portholes as you might well describe them as, I uses goggles reading. Sand in the Red Sea done that. One time I could read a book in the dark, manner of speaking. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment was my favourite and Red as a Rose is She.
OB: On the other hand, there were critics like Max Eastman who gave him a place with Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot among the "Unintelligibles"
FW: Shem is as short for Shemus as  Jem is joky for Jacob. Shem’s bodily getup, it seems, included an adze of a skull, an eight of a larkseye, the whoel of a nose, one numb arm up a sleeve, fortytwo hairs off his uncrown, eighteen to his mock lip, a trio of barbels from his megageg chin, the wrong shoulder higher than the right, all ears, an artificial tongue with a natural curl, not a foot to stand on, a handful of thumbs, a blind stomach, a deaf heart, a loose liver, two fifths of two buttocks, a manroot of all evil, a salmonkelt’s thinskin, eelsblood in his cold toes and a bladder tristended. Shem was a sham and a low sham.
OB: And there was Professor Irving Babbitt of Harvard who dismissed his most widely read novel, "Ulysses," as one which only could have been written "in an advanced stage of psychic disintegration."
UL: Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.
He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.
OB: Originally published in 1922, "Ulysses" was not legally available in the United States until eleven years later, when United States Judge John Monro Woolsey handed down his famous decision to the effect that the book was not obscene. Hitherto the book had been smuggled in and sold at high prices by "bookleggers" and a violent critical battle had raged around it.
"'Ulysses' is not an easy book to read or understand," Judge Woolsey wrote. "But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of "Ulysses" is therefore a heavy task.
UL: Mr. Bloom turned over idly pages of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, then of Aristotle’s Masterpiece. He read the other title: Sweets of Sin. More in her line. Let us see. He read where his finger opened.
All the dollarbills her husband gave her were spent in the stores on wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him! For Raoul!
Yes. Here. Take this.
You are late, he spoke hoarsely, eyeing her with a suspicious glare. The beautiful woman threw off her sabletrimmed wrap, displaying her queenly shoulders and heaving embonpoint. An imperceptible smile played round her perfect lips as she turned to him calmly.
OB: Judge Woolsey contined: “The reputation of 'Ulysses' in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.
UL: Ask for that every ten minutes. Beg, pray for it as you never prayed before. Here. Kiss that! Gee up! A cockhorse to Banbury cross. I’ll ride him for the Eclipse stakes. The lady goes a pace a pace and the coachman goes a trot a trot and the gentleman goes a gallop a gallop a gallop a gallop.
OB: "If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry... But in 'Ulysses," in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic."
On the passages dealing with sex, Judge Woolsey paused to remark that the reader must not forget that "the characters are Celtic and the time is Spring." His decision was hailed as one of the most civilized ever propounded by an American judge.
[Music box played during the next paragraph.]
After he had admitted Ulysses to the country, there was a rush to buy the almost immediately available authorized and uncensored edition published by Random House. Since then the book, unlike many another once banned by the censor and then forgotten, has been read widely; less for the passages once objected to than for the book as a whole.
Although Joyce appeared in many of his writings as Stephen Dedalus, many details of his life are missing.
The writer was born Feb. 2, 1882, in Dublin, the son of John Stanislaus Joyce (The Simon Dedalus of "Ulysses" whom Bloom hears singing in the Ormond bar) and Mary Murray Joyce. His father supposedly had one of the finest tenor voices in Ireland. James Joyce had an equally fine voice.
UL: Boomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War! The tympanum.
A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.
Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.
Horn. Hawhorn.
When first he saw. Alas!
Full tup. Full throb.
Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.
Martha! Come!
Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappyclap.
OB: The Joyce family was not prosperous and it was large. James stood out among his brothers and sisters and, at the age of 9, is supposed to have written an attack on Tim Healy, the anti-Parnellite, which was printed but of which no known copy exists. Since he was literary it was decided to give him an education and he was sent first to Clongowes Wood College, then to Belvedere College, also in Ireland, and later he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the Royal University in Dublin.
He was an amazing scholar, and an independent and solitary figure. When he was 17 he read Ibsen's plays and wrote an essay for the Fortnightly Review about the author of "The Doll's House." Dissatisfied with the English translations, Joyce learned Norwegian when he was 19 years old so that he might read his literary god in the original. At the same time he was reading and studying Dante, all the Elizabethan poets, St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle.
UL: What is your idea of Hamlet? Haines asked Stephen.
No, no, Buck Mulligan shouted in pain. I’m not equal to Thomas Aquinas and the fiftyfive reasons he has made to prop it up.
He turned to Stephen, saying as he pulled down neatly the peaks of his primrose waistcoat, “You couldn’t manage it under three pints, could you?”
It has waited so long, Stephen said, it can wait longer.
It’s quite simple, Buck Mulligan said. He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.
What? Haines said, he himself.
The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedalus, said Mulligan.
OB: In those days, according to Padraic Colum, Joyce was a tall, slender young man with "a Dantesque face and steely blue eyes," who sauntered along the street in a peaked tennis cap, soiled tennis shoes, carrying an ashplant for a cane. Stephen Dedalus carries a similar cane in "Ulysses" and frequently talks with it! He loved to sing and recite poetry in his fine tenor voice, but he spoke harshly and used "many of the unprintable words he got printed in 'Ulysses.'"
UL: Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot, Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.
Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money.
He took the hilt of his ashplant, lunging with it softly, dallying still.
OB: Conceit and arrogance were his characteristics. When he first met Yeats he remarked: "We have met too late; you are too old to be influenced by me." AE (George Russell) recognized his "keen and cold intelligence," but told the young man, "I'm afraid you have not enough chaos in you to make a world."
[Paper whistle]
FW: Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk, talk! Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffey-ing waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head falls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun, the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem and stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
[Music box played during this paragraph.]
OB: Joyce was in continuous rebellion against Ireland and its life and said: "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight." The words are Stephen Dedalus's in "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," but it was Joyce speaking, and, at the age of 20, he left Ireland for Paris where he intended, and for a time pretended, to study medicine.
UL: But do you know what a nation means?
Yes, says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
By God then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
What is your nation?, asks the citizen.
Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.
OB: At this time he started the stories that were eventually published as "Dubliners" (this book was later publicly burned in a Dublin public square) and started his first novel. This, the "Portrait of the Artist," was ten years in the writing. His first published work- except for the forgotten attack on Tim Healy- was "Chamber Music," a collection of Elizabethan-like verse, which were printed in 1907. It was at this time that he met Nora Barnacle, "a sleek blond beauty" from Galway, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Healy Barnacle.
UL: of course he’s mad on the subject of drawers that’s plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete that one in the cream muslin standing right against the sun so he could see every atom she had on when he saw me from behind following in the rain I saw him before he saw me however standing at the corner of the Harolds cross road with a new raincoat on him with the muffler in the Zingari colours to show off his complexion and the brown hat looking slyboots as usual
OB: They soon went to the continent to live (their marriage was not regularized until twenty-seven years later, when they visited a London registry office to legalize the status of their two children, George and Lucia). In Trieste, where they settled after some wandering, Joyce taught English at the Berlitz School and the Commercial Academy. He knew seventeen languages, ancient and modern, including Arabic, Sanskrit and Greek.
FW: For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wicker-churchwardens and metaphysicians in the row and advokaattoes, allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz where would their practice be or where the human race itself? Over country stiles, behind slated dwellinghouses, down blind lanes, or, when all fruit fails, under some sacking left on a coarse cart?
OB: In 1914 Dubliners was published in London. In the same year he also finished his novel "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."
When war was declared Joyce and his wife, who were British citizens, were in Austria. He was forced out of his job as a teacher, and the couple moved to Zurich.
While living in Zurich Joyce began to suffer from severe ocular illness and eventually underwent at least ten operations on his eyes. For years he was almost totally blind and much of his later writing was done with red crayon on huge white sheets of paper.
[Paper whistle]
FW: Have you heard the one about Humpty Dumpty
How he fell with a roll and a rumble
And curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple
By the butt of the Magazine Wall
            Of the Magazine Wall,
            Hump, helmet and all?
OB: "Ulysses" was begun under this difficult situation. Much of it was published by Margaret Anderson in The Little Review, the magazine which Otto Kahn, New York banker, once subsidized for his Greenwich Village friends. Chapters appeared between March, 1918, and August, 1920, when the Society for the Suppression of Vice had The Review stopped by court order.
After the war the Joyces returned to Trieste, where they lived with Stanislaus Joyce, the author's brother. Then, in 1919, they went to Paris, where they made their home until the next war sent them again to Zurich to occupy the house they had known in 1914.
UL: Could Bloom of 7 Eccles street foresee Bloom of Flowerville?
In loose allwool garments with Harris tweed cap, price 8/6, and useful garden boots with elastic gussets and wateringcan, planting aligned young firtrees, syringing, pruning, staking, sowing hayseed, trundling a weedladen wheelbarrow without excessive fatigue at sunset amid the scent of newmown hay, ameliorating the soil, multiplying wisdom, achieving longevity.
OB: In 1922 Joyce's greatest book, "Ulysses," was published in Paris. Great Britain, Ireland and the United States banned the book. For many years after "Ulysses" was done Joyce worked on what he called "Work in Progress." Much of it appeared in Transition, the magazine published in the Nineteen Twenties in Paris by Eugene Jolas. [Gong] In May, 1939, it was published as "Finnegan's Wake," a book "distinguished" by such "words" as Goragorridgeorballyedpuhkalsom, to name one of the simpler ones, and many puns. In it Mr. Joyce suggested the book was the work of "a too pained whitelwit laden with the loot of learning."
FW: The proteiform graph itself is a polyhedron of scripture. There was a time when naïf alphabetters would have written it down the tracing of a purely deliquescent recidivist, possibly ambidextrous, snubnosed probably and presenting a strangely profound rainbowl in his (or her) occiput.
OB: During all his years as a writer Joyce was carefully protected by his wife, who once said she cared for him despite (quote) "his necessity to write those books no one can understand." His conversation was clear, never anything like his writing, and his wit as keen.
Joyce's son, George Joyce, married the former Miss Helen Castor of Long Branch, N.J. They had one son, Stephen James Joyce. James Joyce and his wife made their home with his son for many years before the present war.

Playing with Thistlewords (James Joyce)


A theatre piece and reading of Finnegans Wake, written by Philip Harvey and delivered by Juliette Hughes at Bloomsday in Melbourne, 2006.

[Lecturer, model and graffitist. Lecturer speaks from podium. Model represents the anatomy, and his features are pointed at by the lecturer with her pointer. Graffitist can be on far end of stage, or somewhere, spray-painting the name of each feature onto huge sheets of butcherpaper as the feature is named. The titles of each section are not read out; they simply serve as eye cues for the lecturer.]

For the Clearer of the Air from on high has spoken in tumbuldum tambaldam to his tembledim tombaldoom worrild and, moguphonised by that phonemanon, the unhappitents of the earth have terrerumbled from firmament unto fundament and from tweedledeedumms down to twiddledeedees.

Which brings us straight to the point. Today I intend to explain, by circuitous means in these manifest circumstances, how language works. And the first port of call is The Ear. [Places pointer dangerously close to the model’s ear.] Your main text today for this anatomy of language is that unspeakable novel that must speak its name, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. This speakable novel that invites silent reading. This text that, unlike Ulysses, no authorities have ever called ‘dirty’, probably because they wouldn’t read it.

One seekings. Not the lithe slender, not the broad roundish near the lithe slender, not the fair-sized fullfeatured to the leeward of the broad roundish but, indeed and inneed, the curling, perfect-portioned, flowerfreckled, shapely highhued, delicate features swaying to the windward of the fair-sized fullfeatured.

Was that in the air about when something is to be said for it or is it someone imparticular who will somewhereise for the whole anyhow?

Which brings us soon enough to The Brain, situated up here in the attic, underneath the thatch-work. [Circles braincase with pointer.] Where would we be without it? Well, for starters, grammar would be out the window. Which came first, my words or granma’s? Joyce replies to the question:

Soon jemmijohns will cudgel about some a rhythmatic or other over Browne and Nolan’s divisional tables whereas she, of minion’s novence charily being cupid, for mug’s wumping, grooser’s grubbiness, andt’s avarice and grossoper’s grandegaffe, with her tootpettypout of jemenfichue will sit and knit on solfa sofa. Stew of the evening, booksyful stew.  But all is her inbourne. Intend. From gramma’s grammar she has it that if there is a third person, mascarine, phelinine or nuder, being spoken abad it moods prosodes from a person speaking to her second which is the direct object that has been spoken to, with and at. Take the dative with his oblative for, even if obsolete, it is always of interest, so spake gramma on the impetus of her imperative.

 I don’t need to remind anyone here of the neurobehavioural model of dyslexia. Poor memory of movements is called dysnemkinesia. Poor phonics processing is dysphonesia, while dyseidesia is poor visual memory for symbols. Connections are hard to make. Words can sound ten ways and words can be written round the wrong way, in incorrect order or compounded. Words and sounds come out differently, even when we know the words. The Wake adds these ingredients to the cake. And let me make this emphatic before you start thinking the life of the Brain is the life of Brian, the same is true for the complex intersections of dyslexia we each have encountered in our time, even if we didn’t recognise them: dysnemeidesia, dysnemphonesia, dysphoneidesia and dysnemphoneidesia. 

James Joyce was not dyslexic. For example, listen to this:

There is comfortism in the knowledge that often hate on first hearing comes of love by second sight. Have your little sintalks in the dunk of subjunctions, dual in duel and prude with pruriel, but even the aoriest chaparound whatever plaudered perfect anent prettydotes and haec genua omnia may chance it in spite of all your tense accusatives whilstly you’re wallfloored. It’s a wild kitten, my dear, who can tell a wikling from a warthog. For you may be as practical as is predicable but you must have the proper sort of accident to meet that kind of a being with a difference. Flame at his fumbles but freeze on his fist. Every letter is a godsend, ardent Ares, brusque Boreas and glib Ganymede like zealous Zeus. the O’Meghisthest of all. To me or not to me.

Another way of appreciating The Brain in this context is given on page 123, where Joyce connects language-making with love-making, meanwhile satirising psychoanalytic literature of the day:

Duff-Muggli, who now may be quoted by very kind arrangement (his dectroscophonious photosensition under suprasonic light control may be logged for by our none too distant futures as soon astone values can be turned out from Chromophilomos, Limited at a millicentime the microamp), first called this kind of paddygoeasy partnership the ulykkhean or tetrachiric or quadrumane or duck and drakes or debts and dishes perplex (v. Some Forestallings over that Studium of Sexphonologistic Schizophrenesis, vol. xxix, pp. 2-555) after the wellinformed observation, made miles apart from the Master by Tung-Toyd (cf. Later Frustrations amengst the Neomugglian Teachings abaft the Semiunconscience, passim) that in the case of the littleknown periplic bestteller popularly associated with the names of the wretched mariner (trianforan deffwedoff our plumsucked pattern shapekeeper) a Punic admiralty report, From MacPerson’s Oshean Round By the Tides of Jason’s Cruise, had been cleverly capsized and saucily republished as a dodecanesian Baedeker of the every-tale-a-treat-in-itself variety which could hope satisfactorily to tickle me gander as game as your goose.


[Lecturer gives seven very deep breaths from the bottom of the lungs before continuing, at the front of the stage. Model follows suit.]

Breathing. God it’s good for you! And so long as we have breath, inspirited we ask the question:

And how war yore maggies?

Answer: They war loving, they love laughing, they laugh weeping, they weep smelling, they smell smiling, they smile hating, they hate thinking, they think feeling, they feel tempting, they tempt daring, they dare waiting, they wait taking, they take thanking, they thank seeking, as born for lorn in lore of love to live and wive by wile and rle by rule of ruse ‘reathed rose and hose hol’d home, yeth cometh elope year, coach and four, Sweet Peck-at-my-Heart picks one man more.

After Joyce’s death, his wife Nora took visitors to the cemetery in Zurich, which adjoins the zoological gardens, and there she would say, “My husband is buried there. He was awfully fond of the lions – I like to think of him lying there and listening to them roar.”

[Very, very loudly, all]: ROAROTORIO.

The turbulence of her husband, and his keen pleasure in sound, were her dominant recollections of him.

Sounds are regulated and modulated through The Larynx. [Points pointer at the neck of the model, whose Adam’s apple is bobbing up and down nervously.]  It is sobering to consider that every word, every phrase, every page of Finnegans Wake was spoken aloud, sung aloud, recited and tested again and again day and night  till Joyce was sure that the sounds were right. Listen to this description of the interior of The Haunted Inkbottle, no number Brimstone Walk, house of Shem the Penman, latterly known as Famous Seamus. Imagine the intensity of concentration over the sound of every word:

The warped flooring of the lair and soundconducting walls thereof, to say nothing of the uprights and imposts, were persianly literatured with burst loveletters, telltale stories, stickyback snaps, doubtful eggshells, bouchers, flints, borers, puffers, amygdaloid almonds, rindless raisins, alphybettyformed verbage, vivlical viasses, ompiter dictas, visus umbique, ahems and ahahs, imeffible tries at speech unasyllabled, you owe mes, eyoldhyms, fluefoul smut, fallen lucifers, vestas which had served, showered ornaments, borrowed brogues, reversibles jackets, blackeye lenses, cutthroat ties, counterfeit franks, best intentions, curried notes, upset latten tintacks, unused mill and stumpling stones, twisted quills, painful digests, once current puns, quashed quotatoes, messes of mortgage, seedy ejaculations, limerick damns, crocodile tears, spilt ink, highbrow lotions, kisses from the antipodes, presents from pickpockets, glass eyes for an eye, gloss teeth for a tooth, war moans, special sighs, longsufferings of longstanding, ahs ohs ous sis jas sos yeses and yeses and yeses, to which, if one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego a nightlong a shaking betwixtween white or reddr hawrors (may the Shaper have mercery on him!) writing the mystery of himself in furniture.


Wash quit and don’t be dabbling, says the washerwoman to the washerwoman, tuck up your sleeves and loosen your talk-tapes.

The talk-tape, [directs pointer toward the tongue of the demonstration model, which is jutting out as far as is humanly possible] languorously and lubriciously located in the oracular orifice, learns its lessons well. Elsewhere the mouth is named:

The Old Sot’s Hole that wants wide streets to commission their noisense in. And my waiting twenty classbirds, sitting on their stiles! Let me finger their eurhythmytic. And you’ll see if I’m selfthought. They’re all of them out to please. Wait! In the name of. And all the holly. And some the mistle and it Saint Yves. Hoost! Ahem! There’s Ada, Bett, Celia, Delia, Ena, Fretta, Gilda, Hilda, Ita, Jess, Katty, Lou, (they make me cough as sure as I read them) Mina, Nippa, Opsy, Poll, Queeniee, Ruth, Saucy, Trix, Una, Vela, Wanda, Xenia, Yva, Zulma, Phoebe, Thelma. And Mee! Then everyone will hear of it. Whoses wishes is the farther to my thoughts.

Boys and girls come out to play with, lo and behold, an alphabet. Tongue-wagging, tongue-twisting, tongue-thrusting, thus they speak, and as one word enters another, sounds remake the language, life-giving lingo. Eeny-meeny-miney-moh, new words for old, alternative eternities.

For his root language, if you me whys, Shaun replied, as he blessed himself devotionally like a crawsbomb, making act of oblivion, footinmouther! (what the thickens else!).

For example, get your tongue round this!


The hundredlettered name again, last word of perfect language. But you could come near it, we do suppose, strong Shaun O’, we foresupposed. How?

Peax! Peax! Shaun replied in vealar penultimatum. Tis pebils before Sweeney’s as he swigged a slug of Jon Jacobsen from his treestem sucker cane. Mildbut likesome! I might as well be talking to the four waves till tibbes grey eves and the rests asleep. Frost! Nope! No one in his seven senses could as I have before said, only you missed my drift, for it’s being incendiary. Every dimmed letter in it is a copy and not a few of the silbils and wholly words I can show you in my Kingdom of Heaven. The lowquacity of him! With his threestar monothong! Thaw! The last word in stolentelling And what’s more rightdown lowbrown schisthematic robblemint!

All of which brings us to the issue in hand: Writing.

[Points pointer at model, whose hands are alternately, in mime, typing on a keyboard and inscribing copperplate across the air.]

Important characters in this book are the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who have their own composite character named Mamalujo. Forget the commentators! One crucial means to an understanding of Finnegans Wake is the celtic gospel-book, The Book of Kells. Follow the patterns and links in Kells and you will see how Joyce’s book is constructed. Pages are spent in excruciatingly detailed description of Kells. Again, Joyce explains language by his own circuit:

Note the cruciform postscript from which three basia or shorter and smaller oscula have been overcarefully scraped away, plainly inspiring the tenebrous Tunc page of the Book of Kells (starting with old Matthew himself, as he with great distinction said then just as since then people speaking have fallen into custom, when speaking to a person, of saying two is company when the third person is the person darkly spoken of). Note the droopadwindle slope of the blamed scrawl, a sure sign of imperfectible moral blindness; the toomuchness, the fartoomanyness of all those fourlegged ems: and why spell dear god with a big thick dhee (why, O why, O why?) : the cut and dry aks and wise form of the semifinal; and, eighteenthly or twentyfourthly but at least, thank Maurice, lastly when all is zed and done, the penelopean patience of its last paraphe, a colophon of no fewer than seven hundred and thirtytwo strokes tailed by a leaping lasso – who thus at all this marvelling but will press on hotly to see the vaulting feminine libido of those interbranching ogham sex upandinsweeps sternly controlled and easily repersuaded by the uniform matteroffactness of a meandering male fist?

Two may play that game, so Joyce as easily portrays, or betrays, the inheritor of this thing Writing, Shem the Penman. What I have written, I have wrotten, Joyce seems to be saying:

You see, chaps, it will trickle out, freaksily of course, but the tom and the shorty of it is: he was in his bardic memory low. All the time he kept on treasuring with condign satisfaction each and every crumb of trektalk, covetous of his neighbour’s word. Without one sigh of haste, like the supreme prig he was, he spent his whole lifelong abusing his dead ancestors wherever the sods were and one moment tarabooming great blunderguns about his farfamed fine Poppamore, Mr Humhum.  Unconsciously he explains, with a meticulosity bordering on the insane, the various meanings of all the different foreign parts of speech he misused and cuttlefishing every lie unshrinkable about all the other people in the story, leaving out, of course, foreconsciously, the simple worf and plague and poison they had cornered him about until there was not a snoozer among them but was utterly undeceived in the heel of the reel by the recital of the rigmarole.
When I read these texts aloud you hear songs and speeches and clichés all turned into poetic rush. Meanwhile, everything I have just recited in this lecture also has double meanings, puns, and word plays only observable with the eye.

[Points pointer at model’s eye, narrowly avoiding a terrible accident.]

In this regard it is easy not to quote the groundbreaking work of Wilhelm Wilson of the University of Oxford, in particular his recent article ‘The discourse of Rubicon : subconceptualist materialism and postdeconstructive cultural theory.’ I quote:

In the work of Yeats, a predominant concept is the concept of semantic truth. The subject is interpolated into a precapitalist demodernism that includes consciousness as a whole.

“Language is intrinsically meaningless,” says Marx. It could be said that Sontag promotes the use of subconceptualist materialism to challenge society. Conversely, Derrida states, “Class is part of the economy of consciousness.”

However, according to Hubbard, it is not so much class that is part of the economy of consciousness, but rather the rubicon, and some would say the paradigm of class. Therefore, in Dubliners, James Joyce affirms the cultural paradigm of consensus; in Finnegans Wake he reiterates postdeconstructive cultural theory. If the subsemioticist paradigm of narrative holds, we have to choose between subconceptualist materialism and neocapitalist narrative.

However, the premise of patriarchal materialism suggests that discourse comes from the collective unconscious, given that truth is interchangeable with art. Any number of narratives concerning not situationalism, as Sontag would have it, but subsituationalism may be revealed.

In a sense, the subject is contextualised into a subsemioticist paradigm of narrative that includes reality as a reality. The characteristic theme of the works of Joyce is the defining characteristic, and eventually the meaninglessness, of postcultural sexual identity.

Thus, an abundance of discourses concerning postdeconstructive cultural theory exist. Finnis holds that we have to choose between Baudrillardist simulacra and the dialectic paradigm of context.

Stating in conclusion: If the deconstructive paradigm of reality holds, we have to choose between the subcapitalist paradigm of context and cultural deconstruction. The characteristic theme of the works of Joyce is not theory, but pretheory.

And if anyone wants a citation to the full text of that article they can see me after the lecture.

We don’t want Wilhelm Wilson to have the final say, though he does unconsciously raise an important issue: how do we read Joyce? This paradox of the hand writing and the eye reading may best be encapsulated by Jim himself. Let me conclude this linguistic anatomy with the question asked on page 143:


Now, to be on anew and basking again in the panorama of all flores of speech, if a human being duly fatigued by his dayety in the sooty, having plenxty off time on his gouty hands and vacants of space at his sleepish feet and as hapless behind the dreams of accuracy as any Camelot prince of dinmurk, were at this auctual futule preteriting unstant, in the states of suspensive exanimation, accorded, throughout the eye of a noodle, with an earsighted view of old hopeinhaven with all the ingredient and egregiunt whights and ways to which in the curse of his persistence the course of his tory will had been having recourses, the reverberation of knotcracking awes, the reconjungation of nodebinding ayes, the redissolusingness of mindmouldered ease and thereby hang of the Hoel in it, could such a none, whiles even led comesilencers to comeliewithhers and till intempestuous Nox should catch the gallicry and spot lucan’s dawn, byhold at ones what is main and why tis twain, how one once falling, the nimb now hihilant round the girlyhead so becoming, the wrestles in the womb, all the rivals to allsea, shakeagain, O disaster! shakealose, Ah how starring! but Heng’s got a bit of Horsa’s nose and Jeff’s got the signs of Ham round his mouth and the beau that spun beautiful pales as it palls, what roserude and oragious grows gelb and greem, blue out the ind of it! Violet’s dyed! then WHAT would that fargazer seem to seemself to seem seeming of, dimm it all?


A collideorscape.

Awkward Reverence

Awkward Reverence : the Little World of Philip Larkin

Article written by Philip Harvey for the ANZTLA Newsletter and first published in 2005

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a large round man with a round bald head and large oblong spectacles. He is about one of the most well-known English poets of the reign of Elizabeth II, and although not as accomplished as the most well-known poet under Elizabeth I, will be in the anthologies as long as English poetry survives. He was a member of a writing circle in the 1950s called the Movement. Its literary values, agenda even, is put well in a letter of the time: “For my part I feel we have got the method right – plain language, absence of posturings, sense of proportion, humour, abandonment of the dithyrambic ideal – and are waiting for the matter: a fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day, and not only on Mediterranean holidays financed by the British Council.”1 This has sometimes been called kitchen sink literature. Philip Larkin’s other job was as a librarian.

Larkin was in personal dispute throughout his life about his own career choice. He ends one poem with the blunt warning “Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap.”2 Not a view one would expect from an authoritative university librarian. Not a good opener for a reference class. When we read the preceding lines though, we see why such a person could get so cranky. Life starts well,

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

But the experiences of life fill him with a disillusion that literature cannot equal:

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store,
Seem far too familiar.

This is an elegant reiteration of the proverb, or even perhaps cliché, that life teaches you everything you need to know, who needs books: truth is stranger than fiction. This struggle, both with the worth of literature and with his own public employment, finds expression in many of Larkin’s perfectly cadenced poems and can, like so much poetry, be sourced to hidden sufferings. One of the poems most popular with English readers begins,

Why should I let the toad work
   Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
   And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
   With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
   That’s out of proportion.

It’s hard to believe that ‘Toads’ 3 was published when Larkin was 32, with most of his working life still before him. Somehow though he must have found solutions to “the toad”, or found solace in work, as he proceeded to have a successful career as University Librarian of the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull. In a letter later in his life, Larkin wrote that when he took over responsibility for running the Library in 1955 it was “a nice little Shetland pony,” which under his guidance had turned into “a frightful Grand National winner.”4 A steadier, hopeful acclamation of the value of librarianship can be sensed behind the words of this short poem, ‘New eyes each year’5, written in the year before his death. It gains added depth when we know that he died in harness.

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new ones, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.

The Australian poet Peter Porter once described himself as an agnostic Anglican. There are a host of such people and they would make up a large percentage of what Bishop John Spong calls the Church Alumni Society. Philip Larkin’s work displays several of the characteristics of an agnostic Anglican. Like Porter, for example, a favourite pastime was to spend his holidays visiting English country churches. Once he passed by a church on his bicycle, commemorated in that famous poem and school exercise, ‘Church Going’. 6 It is worth observing that this is a personal visit and that the whole poem is missing what most of us would think of as essential to a church, the people who attend.

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

The poet plays a dichotomous role, as one who questions the purpose of this church, only then to find reasons of his own that are much more than “tasteless Common Sense” 7 or sentiment. On the one hand he asks, was it worth stopping for, only to answer himself

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for …

His feeling about being there moves from uncertainty and unease (“Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence …”) slowly toward a reconciliation with his doubts (“But superstition, like belief, must die…”), before he comes to acknowledge that

               …though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

What makes him change? “Awkward reverence” holds the clue, for he learns that such reverence is possible and a reality, even though it has to be said in a mildly irreverent way – by removing cycle-clips thus, he mimics the act of bowing or genuflection to the altar familiar within the Catholic traditions of the church. What changes him, or converts him even? The presence and silence of the church itself and all of those who have used it, including the “many dead” who “lie around.” Then too, his own need, his own potential for acceptance rather than denial,

Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in …

The poem says much about the ambivalent attitudes so many English people, not to mention people in general, have toward churches and church. Doubt, questioning, questing and some sign of hope are described as a process in the verses of ‘Church Going’.

Another very direct handling of the subject of religion is the poem ‘Water’ 8:

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

What would you do if you “were called in to construct a religion”? At first glance Larkin’s assignment seems a puzzling, even eccentric game. But if we are prepared to take him seriously then first we must acknowledge that water is the source of all life as we know it. Belief, in fact certainty, in water is to be affirmed, especially in a country like Australia where it’s presence has become a matter for restrictions and futures. How can we have meaning, or begin to make meaning, without water?

Judaism employs water everywhere in its scripture, most unforgettably in its creation myth at the start of Genesis. And the Christian religion inherits the understanding of water as maker and life-giver. Indeed, the sign of water is the definition of a Christian and even though verse three might even sound comic on first reading, it is a fair description of how baptism is often performed. ‘Water’ sets us thinking about religion. It also makes us wonder about the poet. After all, Larkin is setting up a rational discourse on the subject, while we know from ‘Church Going’ that he would be quite sceptical about holy wells, river gods, and other aqueous manifestations of the divine. When, in the final verse, he raises his glass to the east “where any-angled light would congregate endlessly,” it instantly reminds us of Larkin’s hard rationalist philosophy. It mocks religious symbolic action while simultaneously celebrating existence through such action. The poem remains unsettling, maybe because of the very impersonal nature of the religion espoused. Another Australian poet, Bruce Beaver, puts it well in his poetic attack 9 on Larkin and the Movement:

Nothing was ever intended to be
extraordinary. The exceptional automatically
is suspect. Anything that can’t be measured
weighed and completely self-satisfiedly
categorised as useful in a wholly
functional fashion is out. So are you.

For all the celebration of beauty and small pleasures that we find in his poetry, Philip Larkin himself seems to have been a difficult and even disagreeable individual. Private correspondence is where we find a person at their best and worst, unbuttoned if not actually unwashed; Larkin in this respect is full of the philistine opinions and anti-intellectual attitudes of a Little Englander. His letters, and his biographies to seem extent, disabuse us of any romantic image of the poet-librarian.

Each of the thin volumes published in Larkin’s lifetime is packed with background knowledge, proving Samuel Johnson’s saying, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” 10 Larkin’s output dwindles as he gets older. Some readers have explained this in terms of his work, that library commitments made it harder and harder to find time to write and read; we all know a librarian somewhere who no longer has time to read, they’re so busy with books. Larkin’s slowing up can be traced to problems in his own life, but there are also mundane explanations to consider, such as he had nothing more to say, or that he couldn’t be bothered. As happens so often with artists who are highly popular in their own lifetime, the demand of the fans far exceeds the interests or abilities of their idols.

Larkin was largely a social poet, his themes the mistakes people make, and human fallibility generally. His worldview was formed by the experience of wartime England and the resulting hard-eyed realism of austerity England. Samuel Johnson also said that literature helps us better to enjoy life, or better to endure it, a position that Larkin probably shared to judge by his passion for it in the Letters. A rounded reader, Larkin identifies “the priest and the doctor” as prerequisite in his poem ‘Days’. 11 Their presence in this poem can be interpreted as the reader wishes and some see them as grave forebodings or impractical interferences in the real business of life. A more generous interpretation would argue that their mention is quite essential for Larkin, that their presence here is necessary, unavoidable, meaningful, and even salvific:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but in days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.


  1. Selected letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. by Anthony Thwaite, Letter to Robert Conquest, 28 May 1955, p. 242.
  2. ‘A study of reading habits’, in Collected poems (CP), Philip Larkin, ed. with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite. Marvell Press & Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 131.
  3. ‘Toads’, CP, p. 89.
  4. Quoted by Anthony Thwaite in the Introduction to CP, p. xviii.
  5. ‘New eyes each year’, CP, p. 212.
  6. ‘Church going’, CP, p. 97.
  7. Beaver, Bruce, ‘On re-reading Amis, Wain & Larkin’, in The long game and other poems, University of Queensland Press, 2005, p. 91.
  8. ‘Water’, CP, p. 93.
  9. Beaver, Bruce, op. cit., p. 92.
  10. Johnson, Samuel, quoted in Boswell’s Life, 1775.
  11. ‘Days’, CP, p. 67.