Notes about literature

June 25, 2014 permalink

He Wanted People to Read Novels As Carefully As

He wanted people to read novels as carefully, as ardently and as sleeplessly as they would read dirty letters sent from abroad. It was one of modernism’s great insights. James Joyce treated readers as if they were lovers.

September 5, 2012 permalink

Eff the Ineffable

Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

From Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I’m reading again for the first time since the eighth grade. It’s weird reading it now, knowing that it was originally written as part of Dr. Who series!

June 30, 2012 permalink

What Do You See when You Read

In this way we are backwards phrenologists, we readers. Extrapolating physiques from minds.

From Jacket Mechanical’s nice mini-essay on the difficulties of visualizing characters from novels, how our minds fill in the textual lacunae with broad brushstrokes of personality over literal physical features.

“Call me Ishmael.” What happens when you read this line? You are being addressed, but by whom? Chances are you hear the line (in your mind’s ear) before you picture the speaker. I can hear Ishmael’s words more clearly than I can see his face. (Audition requires different neurological processes than vision, or smell. And I would submit that we hear more when we read than we see). Picturing Ishmael requires a strong resolve.

(Via Coudal Partners)

June 24, 2011 permalink

Herman Melville on the Nature of Color

From Moby Dick, chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale”:

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

July 3, 2010 permalink

James Joyce Synthetic Cell

To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.

The above quote from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was inscribed as a watermark into the DNA of the much-discussed synthetic cell created a couple of months back by Craig Venter’s team. From The Loom:

The scientists who produced the new synthetic cell copied the genome of a microbe, letter for letter, and then inserted the synthetic version into a host cell. To determine that their experiment worked, they needed a way to tell the genomes of their synthetic cells from the natural genomes that were their model. So they inserted “watermarks” into the artificial genome. These sequences of DNA (which spelled out the work of Joyce and others through the genetic code) sit in non-coding regions of the microbe’s DNA. As a result, these watermarks cannot disrupt any essential protein-coding genes or stretches of DNA that are vital for switching genes on and off.

May 6, 2010 permalink


And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

On daydreaming as a means to get past the terror of the blank canvas. From Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

April 18, 2010 permalink

Softening the edges

The first such Disney film I ever saw was Snow White, which added considerably to my experience of wonderful fear and terror, even though its heroine was a doll. This, I have been told, was because it was made by German refugees who had a sense of the darkness of the old stories. The film Bambi diminished the sense of real forests and creatures I had found in the book. The unbearable thing was the filming of the Jungle Books. Disney cartoons use the proportions of human baby faces – those wide eyes, those chubby cheeks we respond to automatically. The black hunting panther, the terrible strong snake, the wolf pack and its howl, the cringing tiger became dolls and toys like Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, and some crucial imaginative space was irretrievably lost.

From AS Byatt’s essay in the Guardian about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-glass, which offers some great insight into the difference between Lewis Carroll’s imagined spaces and narrative and those of other popular (later, 20th Century) fantasy stories for children.

September 12, 2009 permalink

On “Goo goo g’joob”

One widely circulated tidbit is that Lennon was inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake while writing the song. This would fit nicely with the Lewis Carroll homage, since Humpty Dumpty figures in Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece as well. (Finnegan’s fall from a ladder resonates with the fall of Humpty Dumpty and the Fall of Man.) According to Beatles lore, “goo goo goo joob” are “the last words uttered by Humpty Dumpty before his fall.” This was a popular notion among the conspiracy theorists who were convinced that Paul McCartney had died in a mysterious accident and looked for clues to his demise in Beatles lyrics.

The only problem with the Joycean theory is that “goo goo goo joob” does not actually appear in Finnegans Wake. The closest approximation in Joyce is “googoo goosth,” which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There’s also no evidence that Lennon was actually reading Finnegans Wake at the time, so the imprint of Joyce is not nearly as clear-cut as that of Lewis Carroll.

From: Celebrating the Beatles: Goo Goo Goo Joob!

The other tidbit that folks use to tie I Am the Walrus to the Wake, not mentioned here, is that the book’s protagonist Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker / Haroun Childeric Eggeberth / HCE, is described as a walrus of a man, for both his girth and his mustache. And that’s about it. Again, nothing particularly convincing, so I’m glad to see a good debunking. More interesting in this article is the speculation about which came first: “goo goo g’joob” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “coo coo cachoo” (or is it ‘boop oop a doop’)?

December 5, 2008 permalink

Comenius Begins His Story with a Pilgrim Who Is

Comenius begins his story with a pilgrim who is given mystic spectacles. But the lenses are cursed, ground by Illusion, rims hammered by Custom. Optical gimmicks were pervasive in many churches and theaters by 1622. Perspective could be accelerated or decelerated by tilting floors, narrowing walls, adding a deep focal point. Special effects were featured on ceilings: trompe l'oeil, accelerated perspective, anamorphosis – to induce a moment of wonder – a “vertigo” when the lid of a building simply dissolved. To many, these phantasms were progress, practical advances. But to Comenius, they might be the serpent’s eye.

Indeed in Labyrinth of the World, the spectacles distort God’s nature. To quote Shakespeare, the are “almost the natural man … [but] Dishonour traffics with man’s nature.” They are a prosthesis upon the eye, as McLuhan would say. To Comenius, they are an evil, not a cheerful global village. They make true distances vanish; ugly turns beautiful; black becomes white. However, luckily for Comenius’s pilgrim, these demonic spectacles do not fit properly. He can sneak looks below the rim, see the human labyrinth as it really is. If this were film, I would call what the pilgrim finds beneath his spectaceds Baroque noir, the town with no soul.

Norman M. Klein, in Scripted Spaces and the Illusion of Power, 1550-1780. From The Vatican to Vegas, 2004 p112. Describing a story from Comenius’s The Labyrinth of the World.

October 7, 2008 permalink

Suspicious As a Generator of Disquiet May Be Found

Suspicious as a generator of disquiet may be found in certain contemporary paintings when a simple house, seen in an ambiguous light, and isolated against the landscape, becomes haunted and takes on a threatening and malign air […] The Kafka of The Trial was a master of suspicioun, but sometimes (as in Metamorphosis) what is uncanny is not so much the horror that is shown and described 9a man wakes up to find he has been transformed into a disgusting insect), but the fact that his family take the event as embarrassing yet entirely natural, and we suspect that the story is really talking about our acquiescence in the face of the evil that surrounds us.

Umberto Eco, On Ugliness, p323.