Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Carry me along"

Worked late tonight, so it was dark as I rolled into Madison along John Nolen Drive past the Alliant Energy Center and the Dane County Fair. Hung a last-minute left on Rimrock, parked momentarily and illegally, and snapped some pictures with my trusty standy, my good old 2-megapixel Minolta Dimage X that's always with me. What was that line from James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" that night views of carnival skylines always remind me of?
Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair.
It's an absurd association. The line comes near the end of the book, has nothing to do with the Dane County Fair, and as nearly as I can make out, is set in the daytime. But it's always there, ready to jump out at me like a jingle fragment I can't get out of my mind, every time I see carnival lights. Go figure.

Bonus Link and Serendipitous Digression: Ever wonder what it would have been like to be reviewing "Finnegans Wake" on deadline for The New York Times when it first came out -- and what you would have said? While checking the quote on Google, I came across this 1939 review by Padraic Colum.
How, in two thousand words or less, is one to review a book which even a cursory examination shows to be unprecedented, a book of considerable length by a thoughtful and tremendously equipped man who has spent sixteen years writing it? The only thing one can do is to indicate the value of the work and to show a way of approaching it with lessened perplexity. I say lessened perplexity, for a certain perplexity cannot wholly be removed from a reading of it and the present reviewer freely acknowledges that there is much in the book that he is still seeking explanation for.

Language, nothing less than the problem of conveying meaning through words, is the first term we have to discuss in connection with "Finnegans Wake." Let us get away from the book for a moment and begin by saying that writing today -- I mean what can be described as imaginative writing -- is dissociated from the value-making word: that is, it is writing, passing from the brain through the hand to the paper without ever coming out on the lips to be words that a man would say in passion or merriment. I am not speaking now of magazine writing, but of the writing of authors of status -- John Galsworthy, for instance. As I write this sentence I see the title of a moving picture before me: it is "The Lone Ranger"; I think that there is more verbal creation in these words than in chapters of Galsworthy's. "Ranger" is a real word, holding a sense of distance, suggesting mountains; "lone" beside it makes the distance inner. There are great writers today who do not put us off with destitute words: Yeats's "The dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea" are value-making words.

The problem of the writer of today is to possess real words, not ectoplasmic words, and to know how to order them. They must move for him like pigeons in flight that make a shadow on the grass, not like corn popping. And so all serious writers of English today look to James Joyce, who has proved himself the most learned, the most subtle, the most thorough-going exponent of the value-making word. From his early days Joyce has exercised his imagination and intellect upon the significance of words, the ordering of words. We have the youth of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" meditating upon a sentence he has read:

"...A day of dappled seaborne clouds."

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colors? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the gray-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colors: it was the poise and balance of the period itself.
"The problem of the writer of today is to possess real words, not ectoplasmic words, and to know how to order them" -- I love that. It's a great start, and Colum continues in a similar vein. Check out the entire review HERE. He has some interesting insights -- and his review neatly refutes the stereotype that critics never understand revolutionary new art.

No comments: