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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Odyssey of Life: More on Patterns

“Every reading of Ulysses,” writes Bernard Benstock,
...prepares us for a rereading, as we carefully stow away in our minds the bits and pieces that form various patterns which are assembled and reassembled. Ulysses exists simultaneously as the sum of it parts, that larger design that conjures up Homer and Dante and Shakespeare, Dublin topography and Irish history, and the inner design that concerns itself with fictional people and their lives. Yet, the constant that remains beneath cosmic significance and stylistic innovation is the story of Molly and Leopold Bloom, and of Stephen Dedalus, and of numerous minor Dubliners as well. It is a story skillfully told, although often obliquely told, and a story always worth retelling.

- Bernard Benstock, James Joyce (NY: Ungar, 1985)

I particularly like the opening line in this passage: “Every reading of Ulysses prepares us for a rereading....” As for the matter of patterns, Joseph Campbell had something profound to say regarding this book and human life in general. See if you agree:
There is a relevant thought expressed by Schopenhauer in one of the most wonderful of his many wonderful writings, ‘On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual.’ He observes that, whereas while living our lives we may regard the occurrences of many events as largely accidental, when we approach the end of our days and look back, our whole lifetime shows an order, as though composed like a novel by an author with a hidden plan. All that formerly seemed to be the product of mere chance is recognized in the panorama of years as having been required for the orderly unfolding of a structured plot. All those miscellaneous parcels come together surprisingly. Schopenhauer compares this not unusual experience to the effect of the once popular toy known as an anamorphoscope, whereby a picture, broken up and scattered on a page in such a way as not to be identifiable, is brought together by a conical mirror to compose a recognizable image.

That is the way this novel is composed. Throughout its pages appear the scattered figures of apparently tawdry, fragmentary lives, to which the magical composing mirror is the title of the novel itself: Ulysses. This applied, the apparently trivial, accidental incidents are seen as reflexes of the archetypes of classic myth: epic destinies of heroic quest, metamorphosis, and fulfillment.

- Joseph Campbell, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce, ed. Edmund L. Epstein (NY: HarperCollins, 1993)

That mention of an anamorphoscope tantalizes. Not a kaleidoscope, a toy whose name we recognize, but something from the past, a device, a toy, with rather the opposite function—not to break up but to bring together what has been broken up, a pre-existing unity.

Order, unity, disorder bring in, necessarily, the question of necessity. Are there, as determinism claims, inflexible laws beneath our level of awareness ordering our every action? “Backwards necessity” (not, please note, “backwards causation”) casts light from a different direction: It is not that laws determined my being here, now, as I am, but that my being here, now, as I am is only possible because of the path I have taken in my life. Henri Bergson, in the early pages of Creative Evolution, uses the analogy of a portrait painter’s work:
The finished portrait is explained by the features of the model, by the nature of the artist, by the colors spread out on the palette; but, even with the knowledge of what explains it, no one, not even the artist, could have foreseen exactly what the portrait would be, for to predict it would have been to produce it before it was produced—an absurd hypothesis which is its own refutation. Even so with regard to the moments of our life, of which we are the artisans. Each of them is a kind of creation. And just as the talent of the painter is formed or deformed—in any case, is modified—under the very influence of the works he produces, so each of our states, at the moment of its issue, modifies our personality, being indeed the new form that we are just assuming. It is then right to say that what we do depends on what we are: but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves continually. This creation of self by self is the more complete, the more one reasons on what one does. For reason does not proceed in such matters as in geometry, where impersonal premises are given once for all, and an impersonal conclusion must perforce be drawn. Here, on the contrary, the same reasons may dictate to different persons, or to the same person at different moments, acts profoundly different, although equally reasonable. The truth is that they are not quite the same reasons, since they are not those of the same person, nor of the same moment. That is why we cannot deal with them in the abstract, from outside, as in geometry, nor solve for another the problems by which he is faced in life. Each must solve them from within, on his own account.

We do not trace an already existing pattern but create our own by choosing, acting and living. At the end of Joyce’s novel, Leopold Bloom seems to have decided that he will remain true to the pattern of his married life, with all of its disappointments and limitations. Stephen Dedalus has rejected both his father and a willing substitute father (Bloom), choosing instead of journalism or music a creative literary career all his own, with an ambitious object: “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

And Molly? Is there a pattern to Molly’s life, and how and out of what has she created it? Her husband is proud of his wife’s voice and the career built on it. Men through the city of Dublin admire, as does Bloom, her physical charms. Through the book, we see Molly through the eyes of her admirers, and it is only in the very last chapter of Ulysses that we are admitted to her interior life. One question that might come to a woman reader’s mind (e.g., mine) is, Is this soliloquy believable, or is it a man’s fantasy of a woman’s thoughts? Someone else asked, Did Joyce understand women? Steve, our group leader, has an answer to the second question, which indirectly answers the first: “He understood Molly.” This is not, after all, the mind of abstract ‘Woman’ but of one very particular woman. And we believe Joyce’s portrait of Molly, as we believe in all the characters in this book.

--But Sarah thinks I've gone on long enough, so I'll stop here.


Lise said...

P.J., thanks for your comment on my blog today; I loved the story about your son and Make Way for Ducklings. I think I've read that one 500 times, too, but not yet to Lucy.

Unknown said...

Dear Pamela,

I'am so glad to see your blog again!
I know its adress, but you know that is not accessible from China. A reader of my blog gives me the adress of a site to which he is subscribed and who provides service to bypass the blockade. You see, it's not always easy to be an Internet user in China.
Your photos of winter are so touching.The country in which you live is one of those I dreamed of. Thank you.
Happy the end of the year!

Karen said...

What a great ponder. I am pondering it despite never having had the nerve to read Ulysses. Wondering if our love and use of patterns to impose reason is what makes us look back and find such in our lives. Or is there something to the idea that we are born with a spirit/daimon/guide/guardian angel and have a calling/fate from the beginning?

Mr G said...

Great post on Ulysses! June 16th, 1904, has been an amazimg day in the lives of Poldy and Molly. They both have had alot on their minds into the wee hours of the next morning. What will the next day bring?

P. J. Grath said...

Lise, good to see you here. I predict Lucy will love MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS very soon!

Neige, it's good to have you back. I knew about the block but have missed you and am glad you found your way to my virtual Michigan scenes. I love visiting your life in China very much, so thank you for that.

Karen, you can tell from my post that I think we impose the pattern in retrospect. Pragmatically speaking, however, most of the time one's view of this makes little difference, since we all look for meaning, wherever we think it comes from.

Steve, don't you wish we could go through June 17th with the Dubliners of whom we have grown so fond? I know I do.

Happy new year to you all!

P. J. Grath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
P. J. Grath said...

(No one is missing anything. I posted my comment twice by mistake.)

Anonymous said...

Ah, the pesky details of the blogly calling.

I saved this to read until I had a quiet mind and then decided to just go ahead anyway, as life is short. Optimistic, and quite cheering, to think it is possible to create one's fate day by day. Perhaps I will read Ulysses this year.

P. J. Grath said...

The best way to get the most out of reading ULYSSES is in a group--with a leader who knows and loves the material. Ty and Marilyn and I are infinitely grateful to Steve, our intrepid leader. He may take on a new group in 2010, as other people have expressed interest. Long way for you to drive, though, Gerry. Got a Joyce scholar on your side of the Bay?