SEIOBO THERE BELOW Laszlo Krasznahorkai trs. Ottilie Mulzet New Directions, 2013
In chapter 13, “He Rises at Dawn,” me meet a master carver of Noh masks. This story is a single sentence that contemplates the flow of his work routine. LK’s characters in SATANTANGO were vivid and grotesque. Here, it’s like his prose aesthetic has been taken so far that characterization as we think of it is not quite possible. The novel is pretty conservative about characters in the Aristotle sense: characters as vessels of action, which comes in the form of massive chains of words so intensely focalized on various aesthetic objects.
But with the various classical artists like this mask carver, we can glean all kinds of artistic values.
…if there ever even was, his master taught him in his youth — or rather fulfilling the prophecy of his master, his own experience taught him that if there is within him the desire to create an exquisite mask, then he will unavoidably and unconditionally create the ugliest mask possible, this is always, and it is unconditionally always so, hence for a long time now that desire has not been within him, to put it precisely, there is nothing at all within him, the thoughts don’t whirl around, his head is empty as if he had been stunned by something; only his hand knows, the chisel knows why this must happen… (153)
Humble and modest is the artist who empties their heart of desire. The mind is empty too but not inactive. It’s just that only the present moment matters; you need to stay in the moment in general, but also when reading Krasznahorkai lest you get lost in the current sentence.
In Chapter 3, “The Preservation of a Buddha,” a monk says that his temple’s sacred Buddha statue “is knowledge given form, but not knowledge itself” (85). I suspect that’s why the master carver is impatient with “Western curiosity-seekers” who want easy answers from him about the “essence” of Noh theatre.
There’s a high-modernist tendency in the book to look wistfully at the art of the past: it seems so perfect and unified, pure, uncommodified. Fundamentally bound with religion, they constitute a force of their own that devastates the very bodies of the spectators each story. There is a notion in Marxist criticism (but from who? Lukacs?) that it was the very material underdevelopment of the pre-modern societies that made such a unified art possible.
But then there’s chapter 34, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki,” about a Noh performer. It’s opening sentence is narrated by Seiobo herself; maybe master Kazuyuki is so good at Noh drama that she was intrigued enough to come down. Then she returns “back to the purity of the Heavens, to the sphere inconceivable — which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is,” which means she doesn’t exist in her home either (214). This infinite place beyond…we have to narrate our way to it. But its nature of being infinite means narrative is impossible — nothing can happen.
There is no improvisation to Kazuyuki’s work, not even in his work schedule or other prosaic matters.
…even if it seems that way, he never improvises, what happens is not improvisation, absolutely not in the everyday sense of the word, of that they are sure, since the sensei knows everything in advance, and knows it with dead certainty, and this is the general conviction, that’s why only to them does it seem like improvisation, because while it is true that he has a prescribed schedule for every given month, the sensei is eternally open, like a book, which means that in this direct contact with the Heavens, and for that reason he may suddenly be a bit unpredictable…(219)
He has stock narratives he tells the media. He has stories passed to him from his sensei, and “not even one single word may ever be altered, not even a single expression, no one may add anything to it, and no one may take anything away” (226). This is an aesthetics connected to the divine, conserving the absolute. Innovation is degenerate market modernism.
But what about Amoru-san, who describes her upbringing under this sensei:
I only love sensei because sensei is everything, and my father was a very hard man, he beat me every day, every single day, once I knocked over a porcelain vase, then he shoved my head into the iron stove, and he slammed the stove door against my head until I lost consciousness; in a word every single day was painful for me, every blessed day hurt, and I wanted to die, for a long time it wasn’t possible, and then finally it was, and I was already an adult when I first saw sensei, and I knew immediately that I loved him, but nothing was possible, so that is why I jumped in front of a car, and I lay in a coma for seven weeks, the blow had struck my brain, I was between life and death, the doctors said there was nothing they could do, but sensei knew, he knew that I loved only him, so as soon as he found out, he came to hospital and he called me back, I only now sensei and I only love sensei, don’t ask me about anything, so, well, sensei is my goal, before him there was nothing and after him there will be nothing, and I hope that he, too, will love me forever (241-42).
In all our desires for a lost whole, we shouldn’t forget: the anxieties of modernity is still preferable to absolute authority and the loss of the self, in my opinion.
But a lot of sacred art is unattributed, and a good thing too. Chapters 2 and 89 examine authorship, or rather its impossibility before modernity. (Foucault tells us the “author” is the function of a discourse based on private property.)
Because I’ve been hung up on the relation between fiction and nonfiction, I see another theme on this book’s back burner. There is a lot of factual stuff about the works of art and artists concerned, even citing modern scholarship and papers and whatnot. I hear LK is at work on a novel about Melville. This doesn’t shock me because I believe SEIOBO is encyclopedic in the way of MOBY-DICK.
Its’ been argued that the split between fact and fiction is recent and a-historical. The problem begins with Plato when he cast out the poets from his republic, thus turning philosophy into something that is not-literature. But Thucydides feels a lot more like creative nonfiction than traditional academic history. To borrow from Stephen Mulhall, philosophy and literature can be thought of as different kinds of “thoughtfulness” (more in a later post) but perhaps what I like about encyclopedic narratives is the “fusion” of these modes. My tastes go in this way.
Why re-read the mighty ULYSSES this year, when the centennial Bloomsday was back in 2004, or when we could wait til the anniversary of the book’s publication in 2022? It was because I’m Stephen Dedalus’s age this year. I’d like to go again when I’m 38, but I dunno, I don’t like Bloom all that much. Still too much of a nobody.
I resisted posting about it. There’s so much official commentary and unofficial posting already (a river of secondary text to match the sacred flow of language). God knows I was reading most of that shit (the CRITICAL ESSAYS edited by Clive Hart, Burgess’s REJOYCE, Ellmann’s ULYSSES ON THE LIFFEY, various anthologies and monographs) in order to put off the forbidding novel, but at least I didn’t dare think the commentary could supplement the actual work.
If anything we should be more like Beckett, stripping away the superfluous critical language (with more language, though?).
This time around I thought the Homeric parallels were overplayed. They’re not any more or less salient than the other systems at work: the organs of the human body, the rhetorical techniques, the color symbolism. Ulysses was not an uncommon name for boys in the 19th century, and every Ulysses of historical note gets mentioned in the book (like Ulysses S. Grant). So even that name is in a context of everydayness.
When I went into an MFA program I actually kept these lines from Stephen’s consciousness in chapter 2 on my phone for motivation:
Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?
So elegant to make fable a verb (but it has been a verb since the Renaissance, the etymology dictionary tells me). Stephen is teaching Roman history to some well-heeled boys in the brutal call-on for comprehension way, and catches one staring out the window. But of course history is a fabulation. And Joyce’s hero Blake, the outsider artist with so much insight into the 19th century, on which Joyce’s book is the capstone. (There’s still some time left for another encyclopedic novel to appear and capture the 20th century with Lovecraft as a lodestar of sorts.) “The ruin of all space.” An apocalyptic tone is laid down, which I had taken to be a lament for the loss of rational coherence, but is also linked by Joycean scholars to the political violence of the 19th century. Liberation struggle and mysticism mix together for Joyce as it does for Yeats.
I first heard about ULYSSES from the Modern Library’s top 100 list. I didn’t like high culture of any sort in my tweens and early teens. It was pretty much all comic books and anime, which still included great stuff like AKIRA or FROM HELL. It’s likely that those books, owing to the timing, when the window of purity was still open, will remain the biggest influences on me.
And sure enough it was the Modern Library’s edition I took at the public library, with the portrait of the author with the eyepatch, which was cool, and the big S which leads to “Stately, plump…” I didn’t know anything about modernism except that it was interesting. I got excited just by running my eyes over the text because it looked different. The emdashes for speech, the ornate sentences with their alliteration and iambs and vowel rhymes — sometimes it was really gaudy, deliberately so.
And I still tilt my head like a happy dog when I see a novel that simply looks different, like Burroughs or Barnes or Bernhard.
But back then I was one pretentious, socially absurd dickhead. I could only sort of parse out the first half of ULYSSES, when the second half, if more difficult, is way more interesting. I was monomaniacal and had a hard time talking about things other than my interests. I sunk at least a couple of years into Joyce’s transformation of Dublin.
What other literature was I reading at the time? Hemingway, sort of. No Vonnegut at all, unlike my friends — I wish I had read him instead of Joyce like a well-adjusted teen. I was peeking through anthologies rather than novels or collections, so I had a big dose of realist short fiction by white Americans, some of whom, like Faulkner, were close in time to Joyce and admired him.
The only naysayers (who I gave a shit about) were Woolf and Stein, who I couldn’t read back then but love to read now.
My Penguin Modern Classics version is what I bought for myself, just for the cover. Molly Bloom’s monologue down to the final Yes. Why don’t more books put the last page on the front cover?
It has a long introduction that’s probably very interesting, but otherwise I don’t recommend it. The print is large, which means this edition has like 200 more pages than the Modern Library version, which I think uses the same ’60/’61 version, which makes my Penguin version pretty useless since no one’s going by its pagination.
Other than a handful of phrases cut out and some extra attributions popped in, I couldn’t notice any major differences between my copy and the Irish radio broadcast in 1982. Did they use the Gabler edition? Perhaps the differences come from the production, which happens sometimes. But I read along as I heard it, and really enjoyed it. The sound effects and music were tasteful. There’s a huge cast of narrators, one for every character (I thought some voices were doing double or triple parts, but apparently not!), and a reverb effect is put on interior speech, which helps sort out a prose that seems undifferentiated on the page.
My arbitrary start-date for “modern art” is 1750.
Bloom’s streams of consciousness do feel like pointilism, as an Italian fascist critic once complained. Quite paratactic. Is the book sticking a net into a pre-existing torrent of atomized thoughts, or is it more like how Auerbach describes the narration style of the Odyssey in that other major text I read last month MIMESIS, where all the narrative elements are given a uniform externality above all other effects, like suspense or psychological realism.
He knows he will be cuckolded today. And lord who would have guessed the cuckoo meme would make a comeback thanks to the alt-right? Now you only have to think women are human beings and that philosopher kings and a CEO of America is a bad idea to be a cuck.
Bloom’s streams keep coming back to this sore point like a blister on the gum line but he keeps repressing.
When it comes down to it. Totally inaccessible and publishing poison, forced to self-publish with the help of two (inadequately celebrated) lesbians, thought to be a madman, and still cursed to this day. No one really wants to be James Joyce, living in borderline poverty with an insane daughter and a layabout son, quietly changing the world but very rarely, if at all, acknowledged for it. So completely out on the frontier his books were confiscated and destroyed by multiple governments.
No one’s made a pendulum swing like Joyce. From true avant-garde to the academic bureaucratic canon. Gass is right: vanguard art lives a short life, whatever its fate, be it recognition or obscurity. I once heard Stephen Wright, while reflecting on Melville’s poor fate, dying in the gutter when he had composed America’s gospel, that Thomas Pynchon had to be the luckiest writer alive. “To write books at his level and have the success he’s had…” But if your surreal door-stop masterpieces get published by Penguin Randomhouse, are they still avant-garde?
I used to get annoyed like the snob I am when writers like Ian McEwan get what I think is undue postmodernist cred. But even more annoying, now that I’m trying to be a writer, is every time an author or journal promises to be a bold experimentalist and it ends up being a posture. Everyone wants to play it safe while keeping up radical appearances. Literary fiction is more ossified a genre than epic fantasy. It’s not allowed to do much beyond entertain people with college educations. So perhaps the most artistically successful of the bunch are those without the delusions.
An entire entertaining realist bourgeois novel could be written in the style of chapter 10.
That’s how it is. Some great artists go broad, and some go deep. You have your Ozus, who in their late period seem to make the same film over and over, but it’s really more like each film is a slice of a metanarrative told with recurring stylistic motifs with incredible rigor. Or Bernhard, whose short novels could amount to a larger totalizing project.
But there’s also Weather Report: where every studio record seems to be exploring a new direction, and a later band could carve a career-long aesthetic out of one of them. And so too with Joyce’s stylistic exercises in each chapter. (Look what Beckett and Wallace did with chapter 16.)
Bloom lets out a fart while reading the last words of Ireland’s great martyr Emmet (the croppy boy of the song in the Sirens chapter).
Political blasphemy? The Joyceans say he read Bakunin and Proudhon with interest. He was anti-British and anti-nationalist. I’d call him an anarcho-pacifist, like Tolstoy but non-religious.
But Joyce is also about the modern, and one of the big crises of the modern, which Sterne also observed, is that without God, everything dissolves into sentiment. There’s a danger in repeating the ballad of the croppy boy so that only sentiment remains; not that useful for anti-colonial struggle.
But there are arguments to be had that the artist shouldn’t participate in that kind of stuff. Propaganda is fun to make, but can be awkward when you’re trying to do something poetic.
You may have heard the observation that Stephen represents Joyce’s fate had he chosen to stay in Dublin rather than exile. Dublin, provincial, bigoted, colonized Dublin.
And Stephen is depressed, snippy, a bit of a shit. But cut him some slack: he hasn’t eaten in like two days. He blows his wad on alcohol, including two absinthes, which is insane considering how empty his tummy is.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST is a bildungsroman, the purpose of which is to guide a boy’s way to bourgeois liberal subjecthood with a nationalist consciousness, which would be extra complicated for an Irishman. The bitter discussions with Haines who dreams of black panthers in chapter 1 reflects on this.
I cheered silently for Bloom as he tells off the anti-Semitic Citizen as he rides away. “Jesus was a Jew! Marx was a Jew!” A hooker yells out to him that his fly is down. Ireland and Israel will meet soon.
This chapter has long lists of names which devolve into absurdity, and it’s definitely worth hearing it read aloud in the radio play. There are also a lot of Wagner’s imagery and sensibility in this chapter, and everywhere in the novel.
How did the novel get attacked so much? Did people actually read it? How did they know there was shit and jizz as it happened? Was it rumors that got people outraged?
It’s not Bloom jacking off after getting an upskirt from young Gerty, very unseemly, that would offend the Duke University sensibility, but the incredible detail of lingering semen stains sticking his dick to his pants and messing with the foreskin. I also liked how exhausted he is afterward. Ah to be growing old.
Oxen of the Sun. Still far and away the hardest level. The audio was a big help here.
A latin invocation of the sun (“quickening and wombfruit!”), a midwife bounces a newborn boy (“Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!”), then a survey of English through time — it was good to read Auerbach concurrently or the actual writers being spoofed here would escape me.
Bloom has an incredibly self-loathing fantasy:
BOYLAN (bumps surely from the car and calls loudly for all to hear. ) Hello, Bloom! Mrs Bloom up yet?
BLOOM (In a flunkey’s plum plush coat and kneebreeches, buff stockings and powdered wig.) I’m afraid not, sir, the last articles…
BOYLAN (Tosses him sixpence.) Here, to buy yourself a gin and splash. (He hangs his hat smartly on a peg of Bloom’s antlered head.) Show me in. I have a little private business with your wife. You understand?
BLOOM Thank you, sir. Yes, sir, Madam Tweedy is in her bath, sir.
MARION He ought to feel himself highly honoured. (She plops splashing out of the water.) Raoul, darling, come and dry me. I’m in my pelt. Only my new hat and a carriage sponge.
BOYLAN (A merry twinkle in his eye.) Topping!
BELLA What? What is it?
(Zoe whispers to her.)
MARION Let him look, the pishogue! Pimp! And scourge himself! I’ll write to a powerful prostitute or Bartholomona, the bearded woman, to raise weals out on him an inch thick and make him bring me back a signed and stamped receipt.
BELLA (Laughing.) Ho ho ho ho.
BOYLAN (To Bloom, over his shoulder.) You can apply your eye to the keyhole and play with yourself while I just go through her a few times.
BLOOM Thank you, sir, I will, sir. May I bring two men chums to witness the deed and take a snapshot? (He holds an ointment jar.) Vaseline, sir? Orangeflower?… Lukewarm water?…
This is so funny and heart-breaking.
Stephen has an ashplant walking stick. How does a 22 year old carry a walking stick without looking like a douchebag?
In Bella’s house he uses his cane to smash up the chandelier, which in his absinth trip becomes the ghost of his mother. He screams “Nothung!” (Sounds like “no tongue.”) That’s the name of Siegfried’s sword in Wagner’s RING, which was buried for a long time under –you guessed it — an ash tree. (And the “ruin of all space” line gets a play back.)
It’s like being high on books.
I love this painting, and think it’d be a good choice for a cover for ULYSSES. That or Simon MacLeod’s “Sandymount Strand.”
Father and son united at last. But Bloom has a hard time connecting with Stephen, and like the narrator of this chapter, overworks himself to come off well. He’s as wrong about Stephen’s politics as he is about Shakespeare (all free-verse, he thought in chapter 8).
My favorite chapter. I love the slyness of the catechism format, the references to astronomy and geology.
Return to Ithaca is a useful metaphor for realist fiction. Reassuring foundation. Obstacles are overcome. The world is understood, and the hero understands himself. Joyce mounts up these ridiculous inventories of the Bloom residence, like a realist novel’s narration turned to 11. Of course, if you want to write realistically you need a good instinct for which details are pertinent to your story. Georges Perec did not have such an instinct, and was content to be exhaustive in his sociological listing — no wonder Joyce was such an inspiration for him, if not a revelation.
ULYSSES kills the 19th century, and in its heart of hearts it’s still in that realist vein. And so are the other great modernists of this period: Proust, Woolf, Mann and Musil.
Father and son sneak in, talk about culture, share old rhymes from their old languages. Joyce is at pains to avoid sentiment in this and the previous chapter, but all the same, it’s very sweet.
They look at the “heaventree of stars.” And they part.
And with Chapter 17 the novel ends. “Penelope” is not an ending but a slice of an infinite space which might actually envelope the rest of the novel we traversed.
I’m a little sad to put the book back on the shelf. And it’s very hard to read anything else, which sucks since I have a growing pile of books. It’s not necessarily that Joyce’s novel is so amazing (honestly, I’m over that guy at this point), but I had only just begun to get into its logic, and now anything else is too hard for me to comprehend.
I value how novels and paintings don’t have an instrumental value; I’m skeptical they even have an intrinsic value. And while I never got on board with Stephen’s notion of literature “affirming the spirit of man” or whatever, I do feel larger after this odyssey somehow. How grand we are this morning…
No activity on the blog this week. ive been chronically tired, that is exhausted, heavy head, foggy thinking, all the time regardless of how much i sleep or how well i eat. It happens pretty often. (It took a while to recognize this as one of the symptoms of depression since it’s not in the routine narrative.) Moreover, i actually dont have a lot to say about this reading set, even though it’s huge. i liked it quite a bit tho. Especially the brief history of advertising, involving some surreal and shocking art used to sell aspirin — these data dumps are my favorite strands by far. Forgive me if i just gloss over this section. i cant vigilantly address everything that happens all the time anyway.
This is the kind of madness grad school electives do.
This reading set took me to where Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod after another encounter with Elijah the prophet. And i already feel like im going to be converted into a Melville-ite. i really, really like the book so far; i like how weird it is. i dont like the edition i bought. These old Bantam books have such tiny and hard-to-read print. But this cover is lovely. Better than that image you see on the newer Penguin editions — too spectacle-driven. The empty churning sea-scape, the sickly green color. i love the desolation of it, and i think it’s closer to the tone. It’s beautiful in a way, and has something subtly unhinged about it. Which is that elusive quality i like so much about these Romantic novels (to think, SCARLET LETTER, this book, and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, three great novels in as many years, and Emily Dickinson composing in her room all the while, American Renaissance indeed).
This set of reading doles out various types of discourses, some funny scenes in the Tennis Academy, an absurd sort of dialog between two new characters, Marathe and Steeply, and a lot of gags, some of which are funny. There are math footnotes, essays, emails, normative scenes, but also shifts in tone that sometimes happen line by line. The novel has this literary personal that can go from one extreme register of high academic or bureaucratic sanitizing language, to another extreme of colloquialisms, sometimes in one sentence.
There are some patches of really great writing. There are other parts that i think are contemptible. This is a really dark book; its humor is pitch black. im only 14% in but the novel already has a great deal of violence which is given a cinematic treatment, that is, it’s the kind of violence you see in Tarantino or FARGO.
im not sure what the text is doing with the unseemly stuff that ill get into; are we supposed to be offended like those i-shouldnt-be-laughing-at-this “jokes” that are the trade of college liberal menz? Is the JEST an entertainment or an anti-entertainment?
David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST pp. 3-75 (notes 1-30)
This will be my first read-through, and boy am i glad i waited til finishing college to read it, as even in this first slice there’s so much weed culture that ive seen firsthand. im reading this novel with a book club in the grad philosophy department, and im at least as glad to be tackling it with company. So far it’s been easy going, mainly because ive already absorbed so much information about the plot and the characters, but i have no idea how this thing will unfold, or if it will have been worth it at the end.
If you’re a wanna-be writer in the millennial generation DFW looms in your landscape. It’d be absurd for me to deny it, and frankly i dont even like his work that much. But im still fascinated by his life, mainly bc of his severe depression and substance problems. i remember sitting in a high school classroom in 2008 when i heard he had hanged himself. i would make my first attempt on my life a year later — is that TMI? Sorry. Of course im in awe of his intelligence; no one’s going to be publishing my undergrad papers, even if i offed myself.
My reading of DFW thus far: i liked the nonfiction in SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING, and ive read the first two shorts in OBLIVION, which were excellent. im a fan of his open endings, which seem so abrupt yet land on the perfect enigmatic image — they also tend to stop just when Something is about to Happen. There’s a perverse glee to be had in shaking up sensibilities like that. The academic discourse was endearing in the essays but we’ll have to see about an IJ sized dose. (Of course im reading the endnotes. In my experience with wild texts from the 90s, the most important stuff is in the notes.)
Some members of our reading club (3 women, 3 men, and me) have had multiple false starts with IJ already, and everyone’s keen on getting through it just to say they have. But maybe we’re behind the game. If middle-brow magazine articles are to be believed, the people are turning on DFW.
Which admittedly isn’t a mark against the novel so much as its perceived lit-bro fandom. It’s par for the course for these maximalist pomo system-oriented ultra-long works to get a cult following. But it got really bad when the poor man killed himself and every scrap in his archive was getting printed — suddenly on the forums i lurked in DFW was given an apotheosis, turned into a celebrity guru imparting life lessons, everything that irritates me about mainstream literary culture — author as commodity. (That maudlin “This is Water” address, ugh. And the way people cant seem to resist aping his style in tributes and commentary, so embarrassing to read.) People wondering aloud how his suicide was the final text, since every socially odd, meticulous genius artist does every single thing deliberately as part of a grand inconceivable aesthetic system. Theories abounded for how his suicide was the key to decyphering THE PALE KING. My nutty theory: he killed himself because he was sad.
i was gonna have a Vocab section like my LOST SCRAPBOOK let’s read but gave up after filling a page with words to define. i love it when a 10 or 37 cent word gets dropped now and then, as long as it really is the right word to use. But is the bind between Orin’s head and his mother’s disembodied head in a freaky dream really best characterized as “phylacteryish, that is, pertaining to those black leather boxes that contain Hebrew parchments, or are you just showing off? (i was gonna do the Sparknotes style format as well, but that became exhausting to keep up in LS.)
It’s proven to be a wonderful and baffling and honestly inspiring novel to the very end. i think i’ll be returning to it soon and often, jumping around in the text, trying to figure out how it works. The conceit of bite-sized narrative blocks continues but the rapid-fire pace that climaxed the last section gears down to a steady pace. We witness a community’s powerlessness and marinate in corporate media while an ecological catastrophe unfolds. The Ozark corporation is sued by an oak tree, and it all culminates in a final six-page wall of text which might qualify as the most forbidding part of the whole read, but it’s still accessible, and loaded with significance.