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Marilyn reads Joyce

Was James Joyce the Greatest Mind-Scientist Ever?

Was James Joyce the Greatest Mind-Scientist Ever?

I bought a Kindle recently, and excitedly downloaded free stuff: Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (not as good as I remembered), stories of H.P. Lovecraft (like a parody of Poe, but good for bedtime) and, finally, James Joyce’s Ulysses, released in full (a journal published chunks beginning in 1918) in 1922. I trekked through Ulysses in college 30 years ago under professorial guidance and wanted to revisit it to see how it holds up.

 It holds up just fine. In fact, I’m digging Ulysses so much that I must foist an appreciation of it on you. Joyce did something that still feels fresh and revolutionary, although it has inspired countless imitations. He put us inside the head of another human, in a way no one had done before. We eavesdrop on someone’s thoughts as though they are being telepathically transmitted into our brain. Joyce was not a theorist of mind but he was an exceptional observer of it, far more so than any scientist. He helped us become more aware of our awareness.

I’ve written about the problem of solipsism, how each of us is trapped in a hermetically sealed chamber of his or her own subjective awareness. Joyce knocks a hole in the prison of our selves so that we can peer into the mind of another person. We can never really know what it is like to be a bat or cat, but thanks to Joyce we have a better idea what it is like to be a human being.

Joyce had scientific precursors. William James, in the late 19th century, drew attention to the weird nature of consciousness. It is not a train—a collection of objects moving through space—but a stream, James said. And thoughts are not like atoms or protons, uniform and durable; they are evanescent, ever-changing, slip-sliding into each other. Another precursor of Joyce was Freud, who held that deep down we are nasty, horny creatures, much more so we realize or care to admit.

James and Freud merely told us these things about ourselves. Joyce showed us, dramatizing the scientists’ hypotheses about the nature of mind. Joyce’s novel has the vivid immediacy of a first-person video game, with extra screens for memory and fantasy. Joyce immerses us in the streaming thoughts of his characters, thoughts that swirl, cascade, eddy, ebb, rush onward, colliding with and swerving around the hard facts—the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people and places—of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

Joyce’s characters—Stephen Dedalus, a young, intellectually pretentious teacher and would-be writer (modeled after Joyce himself); Leopold Bloom, a Jewish ad salesman, father and husband; Molly Bloom, his cheating, songstress spouse—are in many respects exotic, idiosyncratic, especially to an American reading in the 21st century. And yet these fictional humans feel real and universal.

Joyce reveals—revels in—the animality of his characters. Bloom pisses, poops, gobbles, swills, haggles, preens, cringes, lusts, jerks off. Joyce was a taboo-buster not for its own sake but in the service of truth, of reportorial accuracy. Unlike gloomy, judgmental Freud, however, Joyce was fond of his fellow humans, in spite of all our flaws. Bloom, my favorite character, is timid, scheming, lecherous, gluttonous, but also noble, brave, generous, loving, dignified. He’s tragic and comic, brooding one moment about the suicide of his father and the death of his baby son and the next hungering for a piece of cheese or ogling a babe on the street.

Joyce reminds me of comedian Louie C.K., whose jokes about masturbation and farts segue into riffs on death, heartbreak and loneliness, and whose overall philosophy seems to be: Life sucks sometimes, but it can be pretty great, too, and so funny! Real wisdom should put a smile on your face.

Joyce achieved a kind of hyper-realism, rendering the experience of ordinary awareness so faithfully that other depictions seem quaintly artificial, like medieval paintings before artists mastered perspective. Ulysses accomplishes this feat while constantly reminding you of—even rubbing your face in—its artificiality, its existence as an elaborate literary composition, like Hamlet or the Odyssey (which provided Joyce with a template for his work).

As Joyce would be the first to admit, the mirror that he holds up to nature is distorted, blurred, cracked, as all representations—whether scientific or literary, fictional or factual—must be. Joyce’s mirror is made of words, and some intuitions, intentions, desires, anxieties flit through the gaps between words. They are inexpressible, or ineffable, to use James’s term.

Also, Ulysses ain’t everyone’s cup o’ tea. Virginia Woolf, another modernist master, was unimpressed, once complaining, “I don’t know that [Joyce has] got anything very interesting to say, and after all the pissing of a dog isn’t very different from the pissing of a man.” Some feminists view Molly’s sexy soliloquy, which concludes Ulysses—and which I consider to be a masterpiece within a masterpiece–as an all-too-male fantasy of a female mind.

But to my mind, Joyce exemplifies Noam Chomsky’s dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science. In the 90 years since Ulysses was published, scientists have not progressed much toward a theory of consciousness. Hence the persistence of creaky old paradigms like psychoanalysis and even behaviorism, which assumes, absurdly, that mind doesn’t matter. Although Joyce didn’t offer a theory of consciousness, he gave us a better sense of what consciousness is, and for that we should be grateful.

Postscript: Joyce has been in the news lately. Louis Menand just wrote a fine piece on Joyce in The New Yorker, as did Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books. And mega-bestselling author Paul Coelho recently suggested that he is a better writer than Joyce, provoking a British blogger to call Coelho’s work “a nauseous broth of egomania and snake-oil mysticism with slightly less intellect, empathy and verbal dexterity than the week-old camembert I threw out yesterday.”

Oscar Wilde

Paulo Coelho: James Joyce's Ulysses is 'harmful' to literature

Brazilian writer dismisses modernist classic about a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as 'pure style'
James Joyce's Ulysses has topped poll after poll to be named the greatest novel of the 20th century, but according to Paulo Coelho, the book is "a twit".
Speaking to Brazilian newspaper Folha de S Paulo, Coelho said the reason for his own popularity was that he is "a modern writer, despite what the critics say". This doesn't mean his books are experimental, he added – rather, "I'm modern because I make the difficult seem easy, and so I can communicate with the whole world."
Writers go wrong, according to Coelho, when they focus on form, not content. "Today writers want to impress other writers," he told the paper. "One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce's Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit."
Coelho's spiritual novels and books – his latest, Manuscrito encontrado em Accra, is set in 1099 Jerusalem as the Crusaders prepare to attack – have sold more than 115m copies in more than 160 countries. Ulysses, Joyce's 265,000-word modernist novel about a day in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, was first published with a print run of 1,000 copies in 1922. Those first editions now sell for up to £100,000, and the novel is celebrated every year on 16 June around the world, the day Bloom wandered through Dublin.
Although Ulysses frequently tops best novel lists, Coelho is not the first to criticise Joyce's masterpiece. Roddy Doyle said in 2004 that the novel "could have done with a good editor", and doubted that people putting it in the top 10 books ever written "were really moved by it".

Maeve Binchy dies

Maeve Binchy, a former teacher and journalist, didn't publish her first novel until the year she turned 42. She soon became a best-selling author.
Maeve Binchy, who was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed authors in contemporary Irish literature, selling more than 40 million books, died Monday at a Dublin hospital after a brief illness, according to Irish media. She was 72.
"We have lost a national treasure," said Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
A former teacher and journalist, Binchy didn't publish her first novel, "Light a Penny Candle," until 1982, the year she turned 42. Like many of her books, it was set in an Irish village and follows two girls growing up in the aftermath of World War II. When it became a commercial success, the author compared it to winning the lottery.
It was the first of many best-sellers by Binchy, who joked that she could write as fast as she could talk. Although her novels were marketed as romances, many reviewers said her realistic and complicated approach to storytelling made them transcend the category.
Her 18th novel, "A Week in Winter," is scheduled to be published later this year.
The depiction of human relationships and their resulting crises was a familiar theme for Binchy, and she addressed them in two of her better-known books, "Circle of Friends" (1990) and "Tara Road" (1999). Both were made into films, as was a short story, "How About You."
"A hallmark of a Binchy book is a cast of characters Dickens would relish," Mary McNamara wrote in The Times in 1999, "all pairing and sundering, congregating and dispersing in an operatic minuet. Plots and subplots surface and submerge" in a story that invariably ends in "acceptance and growth."
Binchy considered herself a writer of escapist works popular with people going on vacation.
"I was just lucky," she told the BookReporter website, "I lived in this time of mass-market paperbacks."
The eldest of four children, she was born May 28, 1940, in Dalkey, a village outside Dublin, to attorney William Binchy and his wife, Maureen, a nurse.
After a childhood in Dalkey that she always described as happy, Binchy graduated from University College in Dublin in 1960 and went into teaching.
At 23, she visited an Israeli kibbutz and wrote letters home describing the experience. She returned to discover her father had persuaded the Irish Times to publish them.
She taught until 1968 and then joined the Irish Times as women's editor before moving to England in the early 1970s as the paper's London correspondent.
Just when she was thinking "it was a bit too late," she told The Times in 1999, she met broadcaster Gordon Snell and married him, in 1977. He is also a children's author.
The couple soon moved to the village where she grew up. She had already written her first play, "End Term," and increasingly turned toward novels. She continued writing for the Irish Times until 2000.
Two of her novels were made into TV productions: "Echoes," about life in a small Irish town, was a 1988 miniseries, and "The Lilac Bus," about characters on a bus headed to Dublin, was turned into a 1990 television movie.
In 2000, she announced that the 560-page "Scarlet Feather" would be her last novel but later said she was retiring from writing "big, major novels" that required promotional tours. Binchy made millions a year and said she wanted to slow down to enjoy her wealth.
Another novel, "Quentins" appeared in 2002, the year she was hospitalized with a serious heart condition. The rhythms of the hospital inspired another Binchy novel, "Heart and Soul" (2009).
Her books reflected the positivity with which she lived her life.
"I don't think you're happier if you're thin or beautiful or rich or married. You have to make your own happiness," Binchy toldAustralia'sIllawarra Mercury newspaper in 2000. "My heroines do not become beautiful elegant swans, they become confident ducks and get on with life."
In addition to her husband, Binchy is survived by her brother, William, and her sister, Joan

A leading light for contemporary writers

The warmth and kindness in Maeve Binchy’s novels and her understanding of human nature and its myriad frailties account for her enormous international success
BEFORE THE resounding success of her first novel, Light A Penny Candle (1982), Maeve Binchy published three short story collections, Central Line, Victoria Line and Dublin 4.
With the later dominance of her novels, these collections became somewhat overlooked, but they were my introduction to the brilliance of Maeve’s writing and her empathy with the characters she had created.
It was clear that she would ultimately leap from the short story into the novel and expand her relationship with the characters she had created, but in those first stories there was a warmth and kindness about her writing that I had never encountered in a published work before.
That warmth and kindness followed her into her novels, which makes it easy to see why they were internationally successful.
Maeve Binchy didn’t simply observe her characters on the page and inform us of what was happening to them. She lived their lives with them, following them on their journey and wishing them well, even as she was plunging them into the depths of despair by facing them with unexpected pregnancies, illness, bereavements or families that didn’t understand.
What Maeve brought to her writing was a richness in her cast of expertly drawn characters, coupled with a gentle familiarity in her dialogue; both delivered with a quiet understanding of the complexities of life and how it affects us all.
But more importantly, for the generation of Irish women writers who followed her, Maeve set her novels in Ireland and wrote about the country as it was becoming, rather than the Ireland it had been.
Although many of her stories are set in small towns, they are not the small towns of squinting windows, but small towns where people have big ideas and where there is as much talk about the future as there is of the past.
This was no mean achievement. Even now, much of Irish literature deals resolutely with times gone by. Two years ago, Julian Gough, writing in the Guardian suggested that in Ireland “novel after novel (is) set in the 1970s, 60s, 50s. Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn’t know television had been invented. Indeed, they seem apologetic about acknowledging electricity.”
Whether Gough has a point now (and I believe he has), there was an even greater obsession with writing about the past in the 1980s.
It seemed that to write about Ireland you had to write about an inward looking country, rooted in age-old divisions about land and politics, where love was never joyful and sex was always guilt-ridden.
Although Light A Penny Candle had its origins in war-torn England, the story follows two young girls through their lives so that it ended up being a contemporary novel, perfectly pitched, with writing that seemed to envelop you, so that inevitably and inexorably you became part of Aisling and Elizabeth’s lives and you rooted for them through every page.
It was Maeve Binchy’s ability to make her characters real, rather than stereotypical caricatures of people who ought to populate novels, that elevated her books to the bestseller lists and found her a whole legion of fans. And it was the fact that she was writing about issues that were important to life as we were living it, that brought people to her books. She regularly described herself as a storyteller and that is what she did so brilliantly.
Her love of telling that story shone through every single book she wrote. Maeve’s voice, breathless and excited, resonates as the words tumble on to the page, hurrying to get the story down, wanting you to understand the characters, their motivation and the challenges that they faced. That those challenges were ones so many of us have also had to face only made them all the more urgent, all the more believable.
The Queen of Irish Fiction was a title often bestowed upon Maeve, along with National Treasure, which she truly was. Reviews of her books tend to focus on their warmth and cosiness without usually acknowledging the difficulty of writing novels that are so very easy to read.
The fluidity of the language, the observational touches, the exuberant descriptions are often passed over, as though the very ease with which Binchy wrote is unnecessary to praise. And so, although she did receive many popular accolades, she probably never received the highest regard in literary circles that she undoubtedly deserved.
When it comes down to it, Maeve will not be remembered for the delights of her prose, even though she had a wonderfully light touch with the written word and an unparalleled ear for dialogue. What she will always be remembered for is the joy and humanity she brought to her writing and her understanding of human nature and its myriad frailties.
She will also be remembered for making it acceptable for many other Irish writers (myself included) to set contemporary novels in Ireland. To write about a country that is not imprisoned in some literary vision of the past. To write about families and friendships and relationships, and allow them to be an important part of our lives.
She will be remembered for writing books that encourage people to read, books that make you feel as though she is sitting across the table talking to you, telling you about someone else’s trials and tribulations and allowing you to wonder how things will turn out. She will be remembered for writing books that were as generous in spirit as she was herself and books that always tried to see the good even in bad situations.
She was a brilliant writer and storyteller and her legacy will live on, both in her own work which will remain relevant for years to come, and in the works of the writers who have followed her.

Review: Non-fiction: The Irish Novel: 1960-2010 by George O’Brien

Saturday July 28 2012
What is it with literary academics and the English language? In the 1980s, George O'Brien wrote two lovely memoirs, The Village of Longing and Dancehall Days, the first about his boyhood in Co Waterford and the second about his youth in Dublin. But then he went to America, became a teacher of literature and ends up writing prose like this:
"The novel is premised on a tissue of comparative relations between wreckage and restoration, happenstance and design, imbalance and stability, an ensemble of gestures and engagements signifying the restless need to venture human capital."
That's one of his observations on Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, which I thought was about a group of people living in New York and trying to find a meaning to their lives.
Or here he is on the retrieval of a pikestaff in Colm Toibin's The Heather Blazing: "Such a move ratifies the historical dimension's inherently symbolic value while at the same time enclosing that value within a very specific contemporary cultural setting and assigning to it a limited cultural utility."
I have no idea what that sentence means and nor, I'd surmise, would many of Professor O'Brien's students at Georgetown University in Washington. Indeed, it's little wonder that so many literature undergraduates grow to dislike the very books that attracted them to such courses in the first place.
"As learned commentators view in Homer more than Homer knew" -- that was Jonathan Swift's sardonic response to academics of his own day, and it's even more true now of a critical approach that seeks obscurantist language to convey obscure thoughts about books ("texts") that are regarded as mere fodder for whatever fashionable theory prevails.
In the case of Prof O'Brien's book, this is all the more a pity because the brief he set himself, to write 51 brief essays on 51 Irish novels (one for each year since 1960), promises an absorbing overview of how the Irish novel has changed over the last five decades.
And change there's certainly been. Patrick Kavanagh once sardonically referred to "the standing army of 20,000 Irish poets", though nowadays an observer of the literary scene might note the standing army of 20,000 Irish novelists, all of them insistently making claims on our attention.
It wasn't always so. Indeed, although the stir that Edna O'Brien and John McGahern created in the early 1960s was about the supposedly scandalous content of their books, it also had to do with the fact that so few Irish novelists were being published at the time they were almost lone figures and thus subject to special scrutiny from our official moral guardians.
Much has happened in the intervening 50 years to change the stature and the lot of the Irish novelist, not least the dismantling of a censorship system which had sought to persuade the public that writers in general and Irish writers in particular were a degenerate species unworthy of our national ideals and nationalist purity.
There were other factors, too, that led Irish writers to believe they had something to say and the effrontery to suppose that others might want to hear them saying it: greater access to higher education, increasing engagement with the outside world, popular culture's undermining of artistic hierarchies, and the gradual but irreversible erosion of all the old pieties -- religious, social, sexual and political -- that had been imposed on us since the foundation of the State.
Along with all those elements came the global rise of the author as a celebrity who might also make a lot of money, so that writing came to be seen as an exciting and lucrative career option rather than merely a holy calling, with a bracing bank balance as proof that one had made it.
In his introduction to the book under review, Prof O'Brien alludes to a couple of these changes in the lot of the Irish writer, but he doesn't really address them. Nor does he address other developments.
Although he notes in passing the current high profile of Irish crime fiction and of popular women's novels, he clearly has no time for them. Indeed, he doesn't consider any of them, even as a phenomenon.
This is a serious failing, with no analysis (or even mention) of such authors as Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, Declan Hughes or Tana French, all of whom have achieved admiring international reputations and impressive sales.
But even among the more "literary" authors favoured by O'Brien, there are strange omissions. It's commendable that he gives space to such neglected writers as John Broderick, Michael Farrell, Maurice Leitch, Dorothy Nelson and Mary Leland, but it's perverse that among his 51 selected books he can find no room for anything by Molly Keane, Clare Boylan, Neil Jordan or Christine Dwyer Hickey, to name just a few startling absences.
But it's the dogged academicism and the frequently impenetrable prose that are the real killers here. Indeed, this handsomely produced book, which could have been a worthy successor to John Cronin's unpretentious and enlightening 1992 study, Irish Fiction: 1900-1940, would hardly have been approved by the former Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral.

Irish Authors' Corner features literature of Emerald

Six authors will write the first chapter of literature at the Dublin Irish Festival.
As the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary Aug. 3-5 in Dublin's Coffman Park, the event will have its inaugural Irish Authors' Corner.
Dublin Events Administrator Mary Jo DiSalvo said literature is often a part of other Irish festivals the events staff has visited.
"We noticed last year at the Milwaukee festival that they have a nice author's area," DiSalvo said.
"People liked getting to talk to them about Irish literature and their books and getting their books signed.
"Literature has always been an important part of Ireland. We thought we wanted to bring that part of Irish culture to the event for the 25th anniversary."
The Irish Authors' Corner will offer a more intimate experience than the storytelling area of the festival.
"It will be like book stores where you go and meet the author, buy a book and have it signed," DiSalvo said.
A partnership with the Columbus Metropolitan Library has the work of the authors that will be a part of this year's festival displayed at local libraries. Festival guests will also have a chance to purchase a book at the event.
"They'll have an opportunity to purchase books on site," said event assistant Sara O'Malley, noting that German Village bookstore The Book Loft will be on hand at the festival.
Authors for the new festival addition were chosen through research, DiSalvo said.
"We just started with big names," she said, noting she contacted an author who appeared at Scottish Corners Elementary School years ago and Mary Higgins Clark.
"We found authors we thought would have a mass appeal," DiSalvo said. "We picked books for all ages, an academic book about the history and other interesting novels."
Authors chosen include Rockin the Bronx, Liverpool Fantasy and Green Suede Shoes author Larry Kirwan, who is also the lead singer and a guitar player for a festival-favorite band, Black 47, that will also be performing this year; Arthur Cola, author of books including The Brooch, The Leprechaun King and The Stone Cutter Genius; The Irish Americans: A History author Jay Dolan; Mary Carter, author of The Pub Across the Pond; John O'Brien, author of Festival Legends: Songs and Stories, the People Who Made the Music that Defined a People; and Kevin O'Hara, author of A Lucky Irish Lad and Last of the Donkey Pilgrims.
Carter's book, The Pub Across the Pond, features the Dublin Irish Festival and the event is the vehicle that allows the main character to win a pub in Ireland.
"It's a great coincidence," Carter said. "I'm originally from Ohio.
"When I was writing my book, I knew all about the festival. I think I was there once when I was a kid, but I thought it would be the perfect way for her (the main character) to win the pub in the novel."
Carter, who lived in Kent and Columbus before moving to New York after high school, said she's looking forward to checking out the festival when not at the authors' corner.
"I can't wait to see all the bands and booths," she said. "I have friends from Ohio that are coming to see me, too."
Carter has a few other titles under her belt, but The Pub Across the Pond is her first Irish book. The Irish festival will also be the first she's appeared at as an author.
Barb Burkholder, who has also helped put together the Irish Authors' Corner, said those chosen to attend range from children's authors to people on the New York Times best-sellers list.
Burkholder is currently reading O'Hara's work.
"It's hysterical," she said of Last of the Donkey Pilgrims.
"His other book won the Kennedy award," Burkholder said.
"I feel that we have a good cross section of people coming," DiSalvo said.
The authors' corner could take on a different format after festival visitors and authors are surveyed this year, but DiSalvo said it should return beyond the 25th anniversary.
"We like to do things and see how it goes and see if there is demand," she said. "This is a soft introduction to literature."