21 February 2012

ON TRYING TO WRITE LIKE JAMES JOYCE


I offer my thanks and apologies to those of you who suffered (or will suffer) through my two James Joyce sketches, Another Drossier from the Ministry of Finicking Walks (the parody) and Macaroni Swallowed (the pastiche).  I wanted here to explain my fascination with Finnegans Wake, and to discuss some of what I learned in writing these feuilletons.  I really want to talk about the pastiche, my attempt to write something original in a Joycean fashion, since the parody is little more than a shaggy Joyce story, patterned after some of the novel's better-known passages.  Anyway, if you're sorry you ever heard of Finnegans Wake, stop reading this now.  Consider yourself warned.

Auden once remarked that books read us, rather than the other way around.  I was first read by Finnegans Wake in my last year of high school, opened up to it by my beloved and mischievous English teacher, Mr. Cooper.  Later that year a group of Joyce enthusiasts at the University of Colorado took turns reading Finnegans Wake aloud, straight through, for the first time since it came out in 1939.  I had already made my European Lit. class listen to the actress Siobhan McKenna reading excerpts from the chapter Anna Livia Plurabelle, and I knew the text came through more clearly heard than read.  My friend John and I found out about the marathon reading a couple of hours before it began, and cajoled a parent to spirit us up to Boulder, making it just in time.  When the reading was over, we had sat through more of its thirty-two-and-a-half hours than anyone else in the audience, having taken an hour's break around 3 a.m. to gulp down some silver-dollar pancakes at an IHOP (or was it Denny's?).  The longer I listened, the more I seemed to understand, although I wish I'd read more than just the book beforehand--had studied a translation of the libretto, so to speak.  By the end of the reading, however, we felt as if we'd really lived through something important and splendid.  As one of our fathers was picking us up right afterwards, we couldn't accept the last-minute invitation to the cast party.  What a pity.  Some of the enthusiastic readers were really quite fetching, too...

That was all a long time ago, and while I remained seriously engaged with the book for a long time, it's been a few years since I spent any time with it.  I don't quite know why I was inspired--if that's the right word--to essay these ventriloquizzical (sorry!) exercises all of a sudden.  Joyce's birthday was 2 February--Groundhog Day or Midwinter Day, as you prefer--and perhaps that's what prompted me.  I don't think I would have considered such an ambitious foray until I'd done some other writing first, so maybe I was driven to write these sketches as I approached the first anniversary of The Library of Altered States.  And maybe it's just because I'm a paronomasiomane, as my children could tell you, if not by that neologism.  Well anyway, as you from puns would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.  All right, now that I've apologized, let me explain.

                                                                                   ***

As I began this corkscrewy experiment, I hoped to learn something about how Joyce actually wrote.  In retrospect I'd infer that my writing process involved a series of transformational steps, but that inference is to some extent a heuristic fiction, because elements of my text frequently presented themselves as a single gesture.  At any rate, this is the sequence: first came a narrative line and a tone of voice; then I thought of words to enact them (as one would for any piece of writing); then I substituted homophones for most of the words, so that reading them aloud would produce some approximation to the original text.  Too right, thus aweigh, assisi, and have it formal a swell, O diction.  Yes, that's right, "To write this way is easy, and habit-forming as well: addiction."  At this stage, there was little active selection among possible homophones, except that I hoped the new text might counterfeit normal syntax.  I mostly put down whatever offered first.  Exact homophony mattered less than a decent approximation of sounds.  As an extreme example, Tokarev the zounds intersensual ticker-off thumbs' elves is purely a string of unconnected near-homophonic substitutions, given coherence only by the quote from Alice they're embodied in: "Take care of the sounds and the sense'll take care of themselves."  (You may have noticed that "themselves" should have been "itself," but apparently I was nodding.)  This rudimentary level of substitution might be said to constitute the writing proper. 

Revision played a much larger part in the process than in most writing, and was an altogether more interesting process: the convergence of homophony (and other non-denotative aspects of language like onomatopeia, prosody, and rhyme) and substantive meaning.  As in any sustained act of bricolage--which is a defining characteristic of much High Modernist art, literary and otherwise--accident and purpose danced in a happy dialectic.  What counted in this stage was how successfully an acceptable range of denotations was suggested by the finished text.  Thus, the coinage meimeosas was meant to convey:  a) (most importantly for the sense) "mimesis;" b) "meiosis;" and c) "mimosas:" with such success as the reader may judge.  I kept reading the text over, looking for places where the substitutions didn't enrich the meaning of the text, and replacing them with other homophones.

As this recursive interrogation went on, the word-substitutions slowly assembled themselves into agglomerations which conveyed a significant meaning distinct from--and complementary to--that of the ur-text: meaning which echoed, commented on, subverted, modulated, or imposed parallax upon the original meaning.  Thus in paragraph four, Broth bountiful and trop (obstruct end o' days)? seems to ask, "What's too much?  Will I overwhelm the ur-text with too many extra meanings?  What are the limits of intelligibility?"  However, the ur-text asks, "Both Beautiful and True ([the] 'Abstract Entities' [of T. S. Eliot's Whispers of Mortality])?"  This is meant to ask, "How should this text be substituted so as to remain both true and beautiful to read?"  Put together, the different meanings are meant to suggest that excess (trop means "too much") might well carry all the virtues pertinent to a work of art, and even that it may fend off death--that personal apocalypse--much as we hope chicken soup would do.  I offer this as a Joycean riposte to Eliot's witty gloom ("And even the Abstract Entities/ Circumambulate her charm,/But our lot crawls between dry ribs/ To keep our metaphysics warm.")

Here is an example of the recursive process of composition, interrogation, and revision.  At the beginning of paragraph three, my narrative required me to enact a state of mind in which the narrator ("I") gives up trying to renounce Joycean wordplay and reconciles himself instead, with increasing enthusiasm, to figuring out the rules of doing it well.  I used the phrase "alea jacta est"--"the die is cast"--as Julius Caesar is supposed to have said when he broke the Senate's laws by crossing the Rubicon with his legions to advance upon Rome.  This first came out as aliyah jokester asked, a rendition firmly anchored in the Joycean denotation of jokester.

Later, aliyah snagged my eye, and what happened next took place almost instantaneously, but may be tedious to read.  One of my narrative conceits was that  "I" was being ridden by a Joycean loa, like a zombie.  Aliyah jokester weakly implied something like "go home, Joyce-loa," and so it survived the initial act of composition.  When it returned to my notice however, that implication struck me as far too flimsy to enrich the subtext.  More damningly still, its exotic color upstaged jokester, rather like a talking parrot in Elsinore.  Olio sprang to mind to replace it, and offered a precise reference to Finnegans Wake, since it means "hodgepodge."  Olio jokester, now put together, meant "the writer of Finnegans Wake," or "the imago of James Joyce inside my head," and jokester had been strengthened rather than attenuated.  All of this happened immediately upon my judging aliyah unfit to stay.

A day or two later, the word "glossolalia"--"speaking in tongues"--popped into my head as a perfect description of the Joycean project, and I decided I had to find a place for it.  Instantly, colossal olio presented itself as a fuller description of Finnegans Wake, which is a big book.  Colossal olio jokester asked is a bit unwieldy and weakens the integrity of "alea jacta est" slightly, but the enrichment of jokester with "glossolalia" was too good to pass up.

Where does this process of elaborative revision stop, and why?  A second later a new coinage appeared: "Panglossolalia," which might mean something like "speaking in all tongues," or "babbling like Pangloss," or perhaps "all is for the best in this mist of all possible languages."  Such sudden fusion of two distinct ideas into a new concept through a shared element was characteristic of this experiment.  For example, in the first paragraph, Judah spree day-scholier mixes "jeu d'esprit" with "esprit d'escalier," and offers precisely the image for my situation after publishing Another Drossier from the Ministry of Finicking Walks, that is, "longing to resume an episode of wordplay right after it ends."  "Panglossolalia" seemed like an excellent elaboration, but when rendered as Pancolossal olio--or even softened as pancolossal olio--it lost its charm: it weakened and confused colossal, it distracted the eye from jokester (much as aliyah had done), and it definitely overbalanced "alea jacta est."  If I'd thought of it, I might have tried out puncolossal olio jokester asked, which would still hint at Dr. Pangloss while intensifying jokester, but the same aesthetic considerations of balance would probably have led me to discard it.  If every tessera gleams too brightly, the grand design of the mosaic disappears under its details.  Parts of Finnegans Wake could certainly have used the kind of maieutic pencil-sharpener with which Ezra Pound shaped the rough-hewn Waste Land.

                                                                                 ***

Finnegans Wake is meant to be the longest dream-report ever.  The dream takes place in a single night, which is also all of human time; it recapitulates all of human cultural and political history as well as the central drama of the family.  Joyce's narrative is sequential and simultaneous all at once, and also circular--which is why it starts with a minuscule letter r.  As he had done with Ulysses, Joyce built his book like a construction project, a sort of schematic museum containing a vast array of allusions, specifically gathered and categorized in notebooks over many years.  This hyper-conscious architectural armature, however, is enveloped in a verbal tissue representing the texture of a dream before it is told: a language riddled with puns and jokes.  Joyce's gaudy and eccentric dream-mosaic bears clear analogies to dreams as described by Freud (whose name, in one of Fortune's especially lovely flourishes, seems a German version of Joyce).  The Interpretation of Dreams tells us that dreams abound in puns and "bad jokes" because they are formed through the action of 'condensation' and 'displacement' (see my earlier entry "A Dream Is a Rebus:" A Primer of Dream-Construction).

What struck me most in my own experience of writing was that significant meanings seemed to coalesce without conscious intention.  I only had to ask myself, "Is there a better choice than this?" for an usable replacement to appear in my awareness, clearly evoked by the demands of fitness to the narrative agenda of the moment.  This tendency went on well beyond the lifetime of the sketch (more esprit d'escalier).  For instance, as I wrote these words my pastiche of Mallarm√© (to pastrify the wards of the tribune) floated into my mind, and I instantly realized with chagrin that I had missed the chance to refer to the grand old man of French modern poetry as "Mallomar"--not quite a pastry, but damn near.  The word "Mallomar" had never occurred to me when the word pastrify presented itself, but I'm sure it would have sprung to mind automatically if I'd thought of mentioning Mallarm√©'s name.  I rarely had to struggle with the text to find the right substitution; it seemed to revise itself, if I interrogated it enough.  My difficulty was in deciding to stop revising, not in how to go on doing it.

The analogies between dream-mechanisms and my experience of writing seem quite clear.  Replacing the ur-text with homophones--the writing, as distinct from the revision--corresponds to the translation of dream-thoughts into images.  The subsequent process of revision used condensation and displacement to pepper the text with jokes, that is, to produce new and subversive meanings by further substitutions and elaborations.  The pruning which led to my ejecting the particle "pan-" from colossal olio jokester asked is a more conscious version of the final operation in dream-formation, 'secondary revision,' that is, revision for the sake of establishing or reasserting narrative continuity.  This level of revision might be thought of as focusing on how well larger assemblages of elements work together to carry through the narrative intention.  For instance, at a certain point I realized that the middle of my essay had assumed the form of an exchange between aspects of the narrator (the writer and an inner demiurge, so to speak), and so I recast it explicitly as a dialogue of Self and Soul: this might be taken as another example of 'secondary revision.'

So far so good.  But dreams are not jokes.  Dreams are produced because powerful repressed urges push towards consciousness, and do so more successfully during sleep.  They are not consciously willed (except for the uncommon phenomenon of 'lucid dreaming'), nor, unlike jokes, are they meant to be 'understood.'  However, my experience while writing and revising was that while jokes appeared instantaneously, as if they already existed in my unconscious mind, they were 'released' because I wished them to be.  It was the hope of clarifying that apparent paradox which led me to read Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which he published in 1905, five years after his dream-book, almost as an ancillary text in the study of unconscious thinking and its effects.

For Freud, there is a special pleasure inherent in producing speech that reaches back towards the nonsense of childhood, that plays with rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, homophony, and all the other non-denotative aspects of language which Joyce so reveled in.  Certainly, any time spent around children at their ease will demonstrate this pleasure in near-sense and pseudo-sense beyond a doubt.  While I was writing these I was in the grip of a pleasurable excitement verging on giddiness, an irrepressible ebullience of pun-making which for some days threatened to pervert everything I heard (I think I mostly kept this quiet, but perhaps I flatter myself).  When I heard something which engaged this process, a pun would come to me and I'd wonder something like, "Could that be understood to mean anything witty?"  In descriptions of untreated schizophrenia, this is called "klanging," the production of "klang associations" (meaning something like "associations based on sound" in German), although the process there is autistic rather than consensual, not aimed at achieving wit.  "Word salad," by the way, is also a term used to describe the speech of certain schizophrenics.

At any rate, my paronomasia brought with it an expansive mood (no longer present) which made me curious.  Clearly, it was entrained by constant punning, which was more extreme than anything I've indulged before.  As Freud describes joke-formation, a thought which arises preconsciously--that is, a thought which is outside conscious awareness, but not repressed--dips down into the repressed unconscious and is subjected to "the unconscious thought-processes...the one and only ones--produced in early childhood," namely condensation and displacement.  "The thought which, with the intention of constructing a joke, plunges into the unconscious is merely seeking there for the ancient dwelling-place of its former play with words...so as once more to gain possession of the childish source of pleasure."  Because of the special nature of such "primary process" thinking, the elements of the thought are taken apart, reassorted according to analogies both denotative and otherwise, and the reassembled thought then reappears in consciousness as a joke.  Because analogical thinking of this kind is simultaneous rather than sequential, it seems to take place instantly.  Freud does mention the high spirits which accompany punning, but sees them as loosening barriers against the unconscious, rather than as resulting from greater access to it.

Earlier in his book Freud says that 'tendentious' jokes, meaning those by which hostility or obscenity escape the usual censorship in disguise, produce more forceful laughter than 'innocent' ones.  While that observation makes sense (and is more consistent with the drive behind dream-formation), it doesn't quite seem to account for the gleeful energy that spurred on my written joking, which seems, by Freud's criteria, quite 'innocent' to me.  I know from experience that innocent but unexpected jokes sometimes provoke boisterous laughter, and of course the unwitting teller of an innocent joke often laughs in delight afterwards.

Still, the tone of both my pieces may offer a clue that their joking is not altogether 'innocent' despite the innocence of their content.  They both carry an air of impertinent mockery, a slightly jeering tone also found in plenty in Joyce's book.  No doubt some of that tone was acquired from those passages in the book, but Finnegans Wake contains many richly different voices, and the cynical voice is what drew me in first.  Perhaps my willed immersion in the joke-work--my prolonged exposure to the daemons of childhood--set free an element of grandiose, exhibitionistic, jocularly aggressive nose-thumbing normally kept in check.  If that's true, then I imagine Joyce had to learn to master it--to sublimate it--in order to evoke other emotional modes in that tendentious language of dreams and jokes.

Ultimately, at this 1905 stage of theoretical development, Freud could not answer the question of how or why the joke-to-be is drawn into the unconscious at the behest of consciousness, with the aim of producing pleasure.  He says, "we can...assume that the possible form of expression that involves a yield of verbal pleasure exercises the same downward drag on the still unsettled wording of the preconscious thought as did the unconscious purpose [i.e., the repressed impulse seeking discharge] in the earlier case [of a dream.  But]...I have no further proof of my view...Our knowledge of unconscious processes has scarcely begun."  Not a very satisfying answer.  I don't know yet whether he took up the subject of joking later, as his theory evolved. 

I suppose the real point is that play is another country: we do things differently there.

1 comment:

  1. You've opened my eyes to a whole new way of writing, even though my favourite author is, already, James Joyce.

    I enjoyed this post and I look forward to many more just like it.

    Chow!

    ReplyDelete