Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Epiphanies in Dubliners

I concur with the conventional literary historians who credit Chekhov and Joyce for developing the modern short story that does not rely on highly dramatic events but finds greater meaning in the depiction of the something that looks like a typical tranche de vie. The stories in Joyce’s Dubliners not only lack remarkable characters and highly dramatic incidents, they are written in a finely crafted but generally ordinary, slightly elevated style mixed with colloquial dialogue with none of the idiosyncrasies of Ulysses (not to mention Finnegan’s Wake).

One might justify the presentation of open-ended narratives of what could pass for “ordinary” people by simply noting that a life is defined more by its mundane, oft-repeated routines than by the few dramatic intrusions of drama such as combat or crime. Yet this approach is not what Joyce had in mind. His own rationale was based on his ill-defined notion of “epiphanies,” or revelatory moments which may occur either during life crises or during days that seem outwardly unremarkable.

Joyce’s concept of epiphanies recurs in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, as well as in a list he kept of such moments, but the fullest exposition occurs in Stephen Hero. There Stephen tells his friend Cranly that the artist must be ever watchful for “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” To him the “spiritual eye’s is always “groping” “to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised.” With his Thomistic training, Stephen identifies “claritas” which is “quidditas” with the moment of epiphany. [1] The “thing which it is,” the whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.”

In this form the epiphany could be suggested by anything at all, just as Zen masters identify the Buddha indifferently with a staff, a flower, a hedge, or a shit-stick. Yet often readers discount the incidental details and seek an epiphany in a story’s climax (though the conflict may be primarily a psychomachia). Thus, to some a Joycean epiphany is a moment of unusual insight or realization, the turning point, perhaps, of a life. Even this second definition has two forms depending on whether the insight occurs for the character or for the reader.

Yet the notes in fact labeled “Epiphanies” and eventually published with Joyce’s Poems and Shorter Writings, while they are clearly raw material for his fiction [2], fit none of these three definitions well. Most of the moments he recorded in his list labeled are to some extent vague and confused, fragmentary and obscure, seemingly a far remove from claritas. Though Joyce made use of many of these brief notes to enhance his fiction’s verisimilitude, none indicate any revelation to the people observed.

This range of possible definitions might, however, all be suggested by stories in Dubliners. For a majority of the narratives, the characters experience no clear self-realization. Little occurs in “The Sisters.” The story is centered not in Father Flynn’s death itself but in the tone of unease, paralysis, and corruption. Surely the boys’ experience in “An Encounter,” while it doubtless struck them as odd, made little impact. “Araby” likewise might be a day little differing from the average in the protagonist’s life. Frustration over the bazaar seems only too routine to the protagonist. This daily repeated disappointment is in fact the theme. Nothing will change. “After the Race” is fundamentally a sketch of the absurdity of Jimmy’s social climbing. The dawning of the day is accompanied by no new realization on Jimmy’s part. For him even his remorse is already discounted, part of the price he will pay for what seems to him classy company. The two very unchivalric young men of "Two Gallants" are surely acting as they habitually do. The evening is representative rather than exceptional. In “Clay” the loveless Maria who sings “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” is unchanged in her pitiful isolation, the church being her only solace against death. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” describes habitually time-serving political operatives for whom this election is little different from those past and yet to come. The struggle of “A Mother” describes what is surely habitual behavior for Mrs. Kearny. In all of these, as in Becket, the lack of movement is the point. It is the very absence of an epiphany from the point of view of the characters that is significant. The reader may see their paralysis plainly, but for the participants the narrated episodes bring nothing new either in circumstances or in self-consciousness.

In others the story does retain something of a traditional narrative arc, including a dramatic crisis though still often without suggesting much potential of insight for the main characters. “The Boarding House,” for instance, represents a competition of venality, in which Mrs. Mooney ‘s self-interest wins out over Mr. Doran’s irresponsibility as Polly sits by passively. There is a decisive moment, albeit just after the story ends, implying a lifelong marriage marred from the start, but there is no indication that the view of any of the characters is broader or more accurate as a result. “A Little Cloud” depicts Chandler’s fecklessness, too shy to read poetry to his wife, and his envy of his more successful literary friend Gallaher. He does seem to have some measure of self-realization at the end when, Byron even having failed him in his attempt to kindle warmth from his wife and he bursts into tears at the end. Farrington in “Counterparts” seems as though he may have “hit bottom,” though the reader cannot tell whether this descent may have been repeated often in the past. At any rate the wretched clerk seems as gripped by his self-destructive patterns at the end as at the start. In “A Painful Case” Duffy nurses “unacted desire,” holding back from an affair only to regret it when his would-be lover dies, perhaps a suicide. Here one might guess that his reflections lead to some sort of reevaluation, though whether it is to be productive remains uncertain. The intervention of Kernan’s friends to bring him to a retreat in “Grace” carries no guarantee of change and the glimpse the reader has of it provides little basis for hope. The likeliest case for an epiphany in the sense of an awakening to self-knowledge is perhaps the poignant tale of "Eveline." When the title character falls back in fear and fails to follow her suitor abroad, she may perhaps know herself better, though only in defeat.

"The Dead" I believe to be in a class by itself, since it is longer, more complex, and concludes with a substantial interior monologue and a bravura rhetorical flourish. Gabriel, unlike most of the characters in Dubliners is clearly processing his thoughts, seeking equilibrium in the face of his wife’s lost love for another, while retaining generosity toward her, unlike most of the petty or weak characters of the other stories. In this story the main character and the reader find weighty meaning in events that, to a casual observer or outside of a work of literature), might seem unexceptional.

Yet surely for most readers to overwhelming impact of Dubliners has little to do with individual psychology or anyone’s insights. The strongest effect of the book is its tone. Virtually all of the characters are weak, selfish, incompetent, blinkered, depressed, caught in a meaningless repetition of activities that fails to exercise their abilities or humanity. The oppressive weight of the church and the British government merely add new layers to the purgatorial existence they have built for themselves. Joyce’s tone would be nihilistic in its lack of values were it not so deeply sympathetic to the city of the damned the reader encounters in Dubliners. The Magi were greeted with a glorious epiphany, but for Joyce that Christian confidence is lost, and the twentieth century epiphanies he offers are ragged epigones and hardly epiphanies at all.

1. Though there was no direct influence, this notion is strikingly similar to the ”haeccittas” Gerard Manley Hopkins derived from Duns Scotus. Another parallel is Aldous Huxley’s report of his experience on mescaline of what, following Meister Eckhart’s usage, he calls “Istigkeit” or “Is-ness.”

2. See Ilaria Natali, “A Portrait of James Joyce’s Epiphanies as a Source Text,” Humanicus #6, 2011.

Every Reader's Hopkins

This is the seventh in my series meant to introduce or reintroduce major poets through presenting a few of their best-known works with some details of their lives but without footnotes.

Much poetry today in the USA is written in vernacular conversational American English. Recoiling with horror from rhetoric which had long been the science of the artful use of language, writers seek to sound like the guy next door. Those who employ highly stylized, “artificial” language are viewed with suspicion, though more thoroughly dehumanized word collections are acceptable in avant-garde contexts. Yet poetry has always been, among other things, about beautiful, melodious language, artfully distinguished from everyday usage. And few writers could construct verbal music like Gerard Manley Hopkins. His sprung rhythm worked quite wonderfully for him (though imitators fail) and his orthodox Catholicism glitters with sufficient mysticism to make it not just universal but exciting.

Born to an affluent, educated, and pious High Church Anglican family, Hopkins admired the pre-Raphaelites and studied art. Yet spirituality claimed always his first allegiance. Even in secondary school he pursued experiments in asceticism, on one occasion consuming no drink until he collapsed. While a classics student at Oxford he met Newman and converted to Roman Catholicism, eventually becoming a Jesuit.

Acceptance of Roman Catholic orthodoxy did not bring him resolution and the study of Ignatian discernment left him still conflicted. His poetry reflects his lifelong ambivalence, passionately embracing life yet feeling that self-denial is inherently superior. This contradiction led him to give up poetry for Lent, to destroy much of his poetry when he was ordained (declaring that he meant to write no more except by order of his superiors, and to ask that his largely unpublished body of work be burned after his death. The contradiction between his delight in the world and his aspiration to leave the physical behind reached crisis in his homosexuality, most clearly expressed in his youthful infatuation with Digby Dolben whom he had met at Eton.

One concept through which Hopkins sought to harmonize his joyful celebration of the creation with his taste for self-denial was “inscape,” a notion he derived from Duns Scotus' haecceity or “thisness.” Hopkins would have agreed with the author of the Gospel of Thomas whose Christ says “Split the stick and I am there” (not to mention Zen practitioners and others to whom a gaze sufficiently deep into any object will lead to the divine).

In “Pied Beauty,” a shortened (or curtal) sonnet, Hopkins focuses not on the unity but the variety in which he finds the numinous. His afflatus carries the reader with ease through his idiosyncratic syntax and insistent alliteration.

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Yet his sense of the presence of the divine did not bring Hopkins serenity. Toward the end of his rather short life, he suffered from ill health, his duties that seemed sometimes onerous, and he found himself living in a sort of exile in Dublin. Combined with his lifelong depressive tendency and the fierce inner conflicts in which it manifested, he experienced what since St. John of the Cross has been called “the dark night of the soul.” His “terrible sonnets” or “sonnets of desolation,” dramatize the suffering he felt at his failure to connect with God. He tastes the mood of the damned and confesses the “selfyeast” of original sin. The deity is “away;” his worst “scourge” is simply “to be.”

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Hopkins was doubtless strikingly original, but few today feel as his first editor Robert Bridges did, a need to apologize for the poet’s “Oddity” and “Obscurity.” One need not enter into Hopkin’s elaborately devised and even more meticulously executed ideas on meter, derived in part from his knowledge of Old English and Classical poets, to relish his lines as pure sensual experiences. Stylistically unique they may remain, but their abstruseness generally vanishes with reading out loud while their music is thereby intensified.
The accent marks in “Spring and Fall” might seem mannered and recherché at first, but they lead the read to such melody that their role is clear to most readers.

Spring and Fall
to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Though this poem has little of the wondrously inventive descriptive imagery of “Pied Beauty” (apart from “wanwood leafmeal”), it has instead the eloquent elegance and simple profundity of sentiments like this passionate couplet:

Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder.

And the concluding two lines are sufficiently pregnant that Christianity itself might be largely reconstructed as a commentary. Though Hopkins himself may have felt self-indulgent in his art and insufficiently devout in his spiritual practice, to most readers his work is profoundly satisfying in both its aesthetics and religion. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his racking himself with doubt, his work is outstanding in conveying the jouissance of both the pure beauty of sound and the mystical celebration of the world.

The Paraklausithyron Blues

Paraklausithyron, a “lament by the door,” is a topos in classical Greek and Latin poetry. Though a great deal of variation is apparent even in ancient examples, the typical early paraklausithyron in Asclepiades, Callimachus, Tibullus, and Horace was the complaint of a would-be lover, shut out from his beloved, often garlanded and drunk from a komos earlier in the evening. [1] Shorn of these specific cultural details, the motif of the exclusus amator is universal. Most love poetry is speaks of love-longing, not of fulfilled desire. The literal dramatic situation of a man lingering outside the door of his love-object occurs in fact, and the frustrated wish to enter vividly expresses is a wish for emotional or intimate access. The convention appears in medieval Occitan poetry and modern American popular song. A particularly rich vein of paraklausithroi emerges from the distinctly American love poetry of the blues.

An analysis of the use of the paraklausithyron in blues lyrics has two significant implications. First, the wide distribution of the trope demonstrates the fact that many literary conventions from genre to specific devices such as rhetorical figures or images have arisen world-wide, even when no avenue of influence is plausible. People have hit upon the same verbal technologies to express the same human feelings.

Secondly, like all literary conventions, the paraklausithyron is far from static. It is in fact highly dynamic, transforming instantly into a panoply of possibilities. Indeed, in the earliest recorded use of the word [2], it is used to challenge Greek gender assumptions by asking why a female lover might not demonstrate “the height of a passionate affection” with such a song no less than a man. Plutarch’s question might be followed by another asking why the voice might not come from within, and a third suggesting that the voice might be either accepting or rejecting the other’s love. With this simple schema, three bipolar oppositions generate eight possibilities [3] based on the male/female, inside/outside, acceptance/rejection dualities.

As a matter of fact, virtually all of the theoretical possibilities in this array are found in early blues. [4] The locus classicus must be Perry Bradford’s 1928 “Keep A Knockin’ an You Can’t Get In” though enough earlier analogues exist to label the song traditional [5]. In this most popular group of versions the speaker is within, refusing access to the knocker. In several early versions including the popular recording by Louis Jordan (1939), the speaker refuses the caller admission due to being occupied with another lover. In Little Richard’s very popular 1957 cover, he therefore suggests “come back tomorrow night and try again.”

This is hardly the only form the paraklausithyron assumes in the blues. The male speaker inside may, as in the instances cited above, reject the woman as he does also in Marshall Owens “Try Me One More Time” (1932), Kokomo Arnold’s “Busy Bootin’” (1935) or “Your Ways and Actions” (1938) or Big Bill Broonzy’s “Skoodle Do Do” (1930). On the other hand, he may receive the knocker with open arms as in Smoky Harrison’s “Iggly Oggly” (1929) or Sammy Hill’s “Needin’ My Woman Blues” (1929).
The persona inside is female and may reject the man outside as in Anna Bell’s “Every Woman Blues” (1928). A woman in the same position may also welcome him as in Ethel Waters’ “Memphis Man” (1923) or Huddie Ledbetter’s “My Friend Blind Lemon” (1935). A woman outside is rejected in Lil Green’s “I’m Wasting My Time on You” (1942).

Many other variations may arise from the same convention. In Lonnie Clark’s “Broke Down Engine” (1929) the speaker complains in spite of being with his lover as his “yellow woman” knocks, causing him to exhort his companion to greater efforts on his behalf. In Blind Willy McTell’s 1931 version of the same song the speaker is knocking and this is merely one of a series of details indicating his depression. In “Hurry and Bring It Back Home” by Robert Hicks (Barbecue Bob) 1928 the knock at the door brings him the news of his lover’s departure. The list of variations is limited only by how tightly one defines the convention.

The blues use the same resources as other poetry and often resorts to similar conventions. The laments of a frustrated lover, excluded by his beloved have resounded around the globe and through the centuries. Just as language depends on a tension between what one has heard said by others and the unique content of every specific statement, poetry likewise is always a product of earlier poetry, though every utterance is new. The paraklausithyron was effectively employed by many artists who would have found nothing but mumbo-jumbo in the term just as Classicists would be unfamiliar with portions of the rural Southern vocabulary. Yet the early blues singers deployed the resources of language with a subtlety and expressive power equaling that of any Roman elegist, Provençal troubadour, or Elizabethan sonneteer.

1. See Asclepiades GP 11 HE = AP 564, Callimachus 64, Ovid Amores 1.6, Catallus 67, Horace Odes 3.10 and 3.26, Tibullus 1.2, Propertius 1.16, Ovid Amores 1.6.

2. Plutarch, Amatorius 8.

3. This is, of course, two to the third power.

4. For the most part I used again the excellent concordance of pre-war blues lyrics posted by Michael Taft at http://www.dylan61.se/michael%20taft,%20blues%20anthology.txt.WebConcordance/framconc.htm.

5. This song, recorded by James “Boodle It” Wiggins enjoyed considerable popularity though other versions, including one by Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band were recorded at about the same time. Earlier versions existed such as Miller and Lile’s “You Can’t Come in” (1921), Sylvester Weaver’s “I’m Busy and You Can’t Come In” (1924) and Irene Gibbons “You Can’t Come In” (1924). Stuart Berg Flexner cites a 1912 “Bawdyhouse Blues“ with the words “I hear you knockin', but you can't come in/ I got an all-night trick again.” (Listening To America, New York: Simon and Shuster: 1982, p. 454). Including the later variant titled “I Hear You Knockin’” attributed to Bartholomew and King, the song was recorded by many artists including Mississippi John Hurt, Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and The Everly Brothers.