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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 3

InfiniteJest

One of the signs of a great writer is the ability to use multiple voices and to make them sound fluid and natural. Wallace certainly accomplishes this. So far, I’ve been very impressed with his ability to shift voices and styles. One great example of this is when a junkie is describing his friend dying from shooting heroin that was laced with Drano. The language is real, and the scene is viscerally gut-wrenching. When I finished reading it, my heart was racing. I had to stop reading for a little while to process it. As I was reflecting on what I read, I could not help but wonder whether Wallace had witnessed something like this. Is it possible for a writer to describe something so vividly and realistically without first-hand knowledge? I don’t have the answer to that.

Anyway, the passage had such an impact on me that I figured I would include it in the post. Let me know if you find the writing as powerful and intense as I did. Be warned; some might find this disturbing.

Laced. It started the instantly C undid the belt and booted up we knew allready, yrstrulyI and PT thearized it was Drano with the blue like glittershit and everything like that taken out by subservant slopes it had that Drano like effect on C and everything like that it was laced what ever it was C started with the screaming in a loud hipitch fashion instantly after he unties and boots and downhegoesflopping with his heels pouning on the metal of the blowergrate and hes’ at his throat with his hands tearing at him self in the most fucked up fashions and Poor Tony is hiheeling rickytick over over C zipping up saying he screams sweety C but and stuffing the feather snake from his necks’ head in Cs’ mouth to shut him up from hipitch screaming in case Bostons’ Finest can hear involvment and blood and bloody materil is coming out Cs’ mouth and Cs’ nose and its’ allover the feathers its’ a sure sign of Drano, blood is and Cs’ eyes get beesly and bulge and hes’ crying blood into the feathers in his mouth and trying to hold onto my glove but Cs’ arms are going allover and one eye it like allofa sudden pops outof his map, like with a Pop you make with fingers in your mouth and all this blood and materil and a blue string at the back of the eye and the eye falls over the side of Cs’ map and hangs there looking at the fag Poor Tony. And C turned lightblue and bit through the snakes’ head and died for keeps and shit his pants instanly with shit so bad the hot air blowergrate is blowing small bits of fart and blood and missty shit up into our maps and Poor Tony backs offof over C and puts his hands over his madeup and looks at C thru his fingers.

(p. 134)

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“On Political Correctness” by Umberto Eco

TurningBackTheClock

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and explores how political correctness has influenced language. It’s an interesting topic and one I find pertinent, since language is always evolving and the words we use to identify groups or individuals affect our collective views on these groups or individuals.

As our culture strives to become more tolerant and accepting, society tries to avoid using labels that have negative connotations associated with them. This is a good thing and a step in the right direction, in my opinion. But Eco points out something that is worth considering. He claims that by changing the labels that we use to identify people, we are essentially creating a loophole that allows society to skirt the real social issues that need addressing.

The point here is that politically correct decisions can represent a way of avoiding unresolved social problems, disguising them with a more polite use of language. If we stop calling people in wheelchairs handicapped or even disabled (they are differently abled) but fail to build them access ramps to public areas, we have clearly—and hypocritically—got rid of the word but not the problem. The same may be said of the replacement of unemployed with involuntarily leisured.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 90 – 91)

Eco also points out another issue with political correctness, that some people see it as an infringement on free speech. This is a can of worms and I am going to stay out of this argument, but I felt it was worth including just as something to think about.

… from the start PC caused a violent reaction in conservative circles, who see it as a case of left-wing bigotry and a curtailment of free speech. Reference is often made to Orwell’s newspeak and (sometimes directly) to the official language of Stalinism. Many of these responses are equally bigoted, and in fact there is a right-wing form of PC, just as intolerant as the left-wing brand. Think of the abuse hurled against those who talk of the Iraqi “resistance.”

(ibid: p. 94)

Eco closes his essay by asserting that we should all strive to avoid using words that make others uncomfortable or cause others to suffer.

And let us stick to the fundamental principle that it is humane and civilized to eliminate from current usage all those words that make our fellow beings suffer.

(ibid: p. 96)

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“To Lord Byron” by John Keats

Keats

Byron, how sweetly sad thy melody,
Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
As if soft Pity with unusual stress
Had touch’d her plaintive lute; and thou, being by,
Hadst caught the tones, nor suffered them to die.
O’ershading sorrow doth not make thee less
Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
With a bright halo, shining beamily;
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are tinged with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
And like fair veins in sable marble flow,
Still warble, dying swan, —still tell the tale,
The enchanting tale—the tale of pleasing woe.

Keats wrote this sonnet when he was just 19 years old. In my opinion, it’s not a great poem, but having said that, it is worth reading because we can see the beginning of what will later develop into his poetic genius.

Keats is expressing his admiration for Byron, particularly Byron’s ability to express sorrow through beauty, something Keats would later excel at. Byron is clearly an inspiration to the young poet, and you can learn a lot about artists by understanding where they drew their inspiration.

There are some truly gorgeous images conjured by this poem. My favorite is the image of the veiled moon that Keats describes as golden instead of the usual silver.

As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are tinged with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,

Where this poems falls short, in my opinion, is in the language and the structure of the verse. It feels forced when you read it and the lines do not have a natural flow and rhythm. I found it very difficult to get a sense of the cadence. Still, for something written so early in his life, it’s pretty good. Certainly better than any poems I wrote at that age.

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“Hollow City” by Ransom Riggs: Myth and the Subconscious

HollowCity

Hollow City is the second book in Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series (see my review of the first book: Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs). This novel picks up where the first on left off and follows the adventures of the peculiar children as they race through World War II London in an attempt to save their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine (an ymbryne is a person who can shape-shift into a bird and has the ability to create and maintain time loops). They are hunted by wights and hollows. Wights are amoral beings who seek to exploit peculiars to gain their strengths, while hollows are Lovecraftian creatures who feed on peculiars.

As with the first book, this novel’s greatest strength is the inclusion of abundant photographs. These photos drive the story and augment the mental imagery that the writing evokes. They are all black-and-white photos and could easily be included in a surrealist art exhibit. While I appreciate vivid colors in art and photography, there is something eerily evocative about black-and-white pictures. Maybe it’s the shadowy texture or the dreamlike quality. It’s also very likely that they tap into memories of watching old black-and-white sci-fi and horror films on Saturday mornings as a kid. Regardless, the illustrations in this book work really well for me and I think the story would suffer if it did not have the pictures.

There are two other topics that are explored in this book which I found interesting: myth and the subconscious. They are both subjects that fascinate me and are incorporated into the story in a creative and engaging manner.

“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breathe with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”

(p. 64)

Great art and literature often seeks to express things that cannot be conveyed through traditional communication, hence the use of symbols and metaphor to express the ineffable. The use of symbolism is also a way to mask ideas that may be dangerous to either the writer or the reader. Hence, our literary history is filled with works that contain knowledge which is not visible on the surface, but requires decoding on the part of the reader. In fact, as one of the characters in the book points out, there are some things that can only be expressed through myth and symbolism.

“Yes,” said Addison. “Some truths are expressed best in the form of myth.”

(p. 98)

The book also explores the subconscious in some creative ways. One part that stood out for me is when Jacob was having a dream, which in and of itself draws on the symbolism associated with Jacob’s dream in the Bible, where he ascends to Heaven and wrestles with God. In this story, Jacob also wrestles in his dream, but with his personal fears. What I found most intriguing, though, was that while Jacob is dreaming, he is talking in his sleep. His words are incomprehensible to his friends, because the language of dreams is all symbol and taps directly into the subconscious. There is no way to adequately express in words the realm of dreams.

I bolted upright, suddenly awake, my mouth dry as paper. Emma was next to me, hands on my shoulders. “Jacob! Thank God—you gave us a scare!”

“I did?”

“You were having a nightmare,” said Millard. He was seated across from us, looking like an empty suit of clothes starched into position. “Talking in your sleep, too.”

“I was?”

Emma dabbed the sweat from my forehead with one of the first-class napkins. (Real cloth!) “You were,” she said. “But it sounded like gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand a word.”

(p. 189)

A shift into the subconscious, or any altered state of consciousness, is often symbolized by a descent into a dark place. In this book, the characters descend into a crypt using a ladder, which again ties in to the biblical myth of Jacob. This entry into a dark and subterranean space represents a shift to the shadowy realm of one’s consciousness.

The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.

(p. 240)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. It was exciting, fun, and it also contains “secret knowledge” that one can discover if one reads carefully. I look forward to the third book. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 14

Tibaldi

Tibaldi

This episode corresponds to the oxen of the sun section in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s men slaughter the sacred cattle of Helios for food. In Joyce’s novel, the scene takes place in a hospital maternity ward where the men there are having an unruly discussion about pregnancy and childbirth. Essentially, they are profaning the sacred act of creating life, similar to the way Odysseus’s men profaned the sacred cattle by using them as food.

So far, this was the most challenging section to read, but also brilliant, in my humble opinion. I felt validated though when I found out I was not alone in seeing this as the hardest part of the book.

The style of Episode Fourteen, one of the most difficult in the novel, consists of imitations of chronological stages in the growth of the English language, beginning with Latinate and Middle English prose up to the chaos of twentieth-century slang. The progression of language is, in turn, meant to correspond to the nine-month gestation period leading to human birth. The imitations of the styles of different time periods and prominent writers seem parodic because the styles are somewhat exaggerated (some more so than others). The ultimate effect is to drive home the point that has been made more subtly in Episodes Twelve and Thirteen: narrative style contains built-in ideology that effects what is reported and how it is reported. Joyce shows this by allowing each different style to gravitate toward its normal subject matter.

(Spark Notes)

Throughout the episode, Joyce employs lots of imagery and metaphors associated with childbirth and cattle, solidifying the connection between this episode and the one in Homer’s epic. There are so many and they are embedded in such dense text, I could write a small book just exploring them. As such, I decided to just mention them and leave them to you to explore and interpret as you read through the episode. Instead, I want to use the rest of this post to look a little closer at two paragraphs that really struck me. They are long, but I’m including them here for those who need.

The voices blend and fuse in clouded silence: silence that is the infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the soul is wafted over regions of cycles of cycles of generations that have lived. A region where grey twilight ever descends, never falls on wide sagegreen pasturefields, shedding her dusk, scattering a perennial dew of stars. She follows her mother with ungainly steps, a mare leading her fillyfoal. Twilight phantoms are they yet moulded in prophetic grace of structure, slim shapely haunches, a supple tendonous neck, the meek apprehensive skull. They fade, sad phantoms: all is gone. Agendath is a waste land, a home of screechowls and the sandblind upupa. Netaim, the golden, is no more. And on the highway of the clouds they come, muttering thunder of rebellion, the ghosts of beasts. Huuh! Hark! Huuh! Parallax stalks behind and goads them, the lancinating lightning of whose brow are scorpions. Elk and yak, the bulls of Bashan and of Babylon, mammoth and mastodon, they come trooping to the sunken sea, Lacus Mortis. Ominous, revengeful zodiacal host! They moan, passing upon the clouds, horned and capricorned, the trumpeted with the tusked, the lionmaned the giantantlered, snouter and crawler, rodent, ruminant and pachyderm, all their moving moaning multitude, murderers of the sun.

Onward to the dead sea they tramp to drink, unslaked and with horrible gulping, the salt somnolent inexhaustible flood. And the equine portent grows again, magnified in the deserted heavens, nay to heaven’s own magnitude, till it looms, vast, over the house of Virgo, And, lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer! It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus.

(p. 414)

So there is a lot going on here. First off, we see liberal use of oxen imagery and allusions to birth. These are then connected to cycles, particularly cycles of rebirth, or metempsychosis. This is all connected to the collective unconscious, represented by the sea and also the heavens. The bull imagery is likely an allusion to Apis, the Egyptian bull deity who served as an intermediary between humans and Osiris.

Apis is named on very early monuments, but little is known of the divine animal before the New Kingdom. Ceremonial burials of bulls indicate that ritual sacrifice was part of the worship of the early cow deities and a bull might represent a king who became a deity after death. He was entitled “the renewal of the life” of the Memphite god Ptah: but after death he became Osorapis, i.e. the Osiris Apis, just as dead humans were assimilated to Osiris, the king of the underworld.

(Wikipedia)

We also have a lot of goddess symbolism woven into the section. Virgin birth and Immaculate Conception are hinted at, as well as the goddess Venus (represented by the daystar) and the Jewish Shekhinah from the kabbalah, who is the veiled and hidden aspect of the godhead.

Finally, the section is full of clear zodiac references. These tie into the overall theme of the cycles of birth and regeneration while strengthening the connection between human existence and the divine cycles as reflected in the heavens. Life and consciousness, like the zodiac, is an eternal cycle, and is sacred. The zodiac represents our spiritual and psychic connection with the universe. Joyce draws on all these various symbols to emphasize how sacred life is, and how childbirth is a key part of the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

zodiac

The next episode is the longest in the book, approximately 180 pages. It is written in the style of a play script, so it should go fairly quickly, but it may take me a little longer to finish that section and get a post up. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section14.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apis_%28god%29

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“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

HenryV

Asheville’s local Shakespeare company, the Montford Park Players, are getting ready to open their 2014 season with Henry V. Since I make it a point to attend all their plays, and since I have never read this one before, I decided to squeeze it in amid all my other reading.

Overall, I liked this play, although I confess it was not one of my favorites. Still, there were some great parts and it is certainly worth reading. I think what was a bit of a let-down for me was the chorus, which appears at the beginning of each act. While I have nothing against the inclusion of a chorus part to provide background to the plot, the chorus in this play essentially pleads to the audience to overlook the shortcomings of the play, which basically is that it is impossible to put on a huge spectacle on a small stage. I have to be honest; it sounded a little pathetic to me.

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat and unrais
èd spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.

(Act I: Prologue)

Now that I have that out of the way, I can say that as a character, I liked King Henry. He is depicted as strong, just, and merciful, all qualities which are requisite for a good leader. It is expressed that the citizens of England were happy under Henry V’s rule.

Never was monarch better feared and loved
Than is your Majesty. There’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heartgrief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.

(Act II, scene ii: lines 25 – 28)

In Act II, scene iii, we are told about the death of Sir John Falstaff. Although Falstaff does not make an appearance in this play, his death is mentioned. When the question arises whether he is in heaven or hell, the hostess of an inn asserts that she believes him to be in heaven.

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. “How now,
Sir John!” quoth I “What, man! Be o’ good
cheer.” So a’ cried out “God, God, God!” three or
four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’
should not think of God; I hoped there was no need
to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So
a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

Another thing that I found very cool about this play is how Shakespeare captures and incorporates different languages and dialects. There are numerous sections written in French, which, since my French is limited to a handful of words, I basically skipped over. But the dialects are excellent. For a great example of this, look at Act III, scene ii. Here we have dialog that includes a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scot. It’s very witty and Shakespeare plays with the words to capture the subtleties of the language. It works very well and I found it interesting to read, imagining the sound of the words in my mind. I look forward to seeing this scene performed. It’s too long to post here, but definitely take a look at it on your own.

I think for me, though, the high point of the play was King Henry’s speech in Act IV, scene iii. He is speaking to his princes as they are preparing to fight the French army, which greatly outnumbers them. It’s a great speech, but the part that really struck me was a section where he talks about memory, and that it is the stories of their actions that will live on after they die. All things pass away, but it is the story and its connection to memory that lives on. As long as the stories are retold, then we never really perish.

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

In conclusion, I suspect that this is a play that works better on stage than on the page. That said, it is still very good and worth the read. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!!

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