November 30, 2019

Literary ordeals: thoughts on finishing James Joyce's Ulysses

Irish author James Joyce, 1882-1941

Sometimes I enjoy a challenge, like setting a goal and working through it. The goal might be something physical, like a marathon or trail run, or something like trying to learn a language or a musical instrument (one of each in my case).

Some of these challenges are literary, like reading War and Peace and such. Lately I completed a literary endurance run, to wit James Joyce's long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness rewrite of the Odyssey, titled Ulysses. 

(I think the unreadable French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was right in this at least: a myth includes all its variants, as in Freud's ideas are as much a part of the Oedipus myth as Sophocles' tragedy. Ditto Joyce and Homer.)

I thought about it for a long time, but every time a picked up a copy and flipped through it my head began to swim. I also wasn't a big fan of his earlier work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young  Man, which introduces the aspiring author Stephen Daedalus, who is also a kind of self portrait of the author. 

To be honest, when I read that early book, I sometimes wanted to reach out and shake the narrator, especially the parts where he was too precious to attend Easter mass with his mother. I mean, would that have killed him?

Daedalus shows up in Ulysses as a stand in for Odysseus' son Telemachus. The main protagonist of Odysseus of the story is Leopold Bloom, a non-practicing Jewish resident of Dublin who sells newspaper advertising for the living. He's a married to Molly, from whom he has been physically estranged for ten years since the death of their infant son. She's the unfaithful counterpart to Odysseus' steadfast wife Penelope, although the ten year thing might have something to do with that. The whole action of the book takes place in one day and night in 1904, with most of the Dublin action reflecting some episode of the Odyssey.

It was pretty exhausting, all in all. I don't think I would have made it through by reading it, but was fortunately (maybe) able to listen to all 30+ hours of it on my smart phone thanks to the local library. I'm also glad that I'm fairly up on literature, philosophy, mythology and such, since the book is ate up with all the above. Otherwise I would have been totally lost. I still relied on a commentary to get through it.

My final verdict (not that I'm a judge): it really was quite an achievement, packing all the references and ideas he did into an imagined 24 hour period. His stream of consciousness style of writing does a pretty good job of capturing what Buddhists call our "monkey mind," which skips from object to object like the critter moving from branch to branch.

The term "stream of consciousness" can be traced back to William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, who wrote about "the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life." His style influenced many later writers from William Faulkner to Jack Kerouac.

So there's that, anyway. As the saying goes, it was real and it was fun, but I can't say it was real fun.

I guess I'm glad I did it. It was kind of like completing a difficult and long trail run in the summer: I enjoy having done it more than the actual process of doing it.

But next time I revisit the Odyssey story, it'll probably be Homer's original.

November 24, 2019

Random scary movie rant

I'm all about messing with kids' minds. In a good way. My family certainly messed with mine...or allowed it to be messed with.

When I was little, my dad read Edgar Allen Poe's stories and poems to me. They seemed pretty real when I would visit the ancestral farm in a dark hollow in Tazewell, Virginia, complete with an old family cemetery on the hill.

The torch was then passed to my brother, who pretended to call the Plutonian shores and ask for the Raven to come get his little brother Ricky.

I bugged my mother to read Dracula out loud to me when I was pretty small. Watched all the old movies.

When I had kids, I messed with them in a similar fashion. There's something fun about scary stories and movies, obviously. Otherwise they wouldn't be a billion dollar industry.

Come to think of it, many of the well known traditional folk and fairy tales that have been told for hundreds or thousands of years are pretty scary too. I think they serve functions of which we may not be fully conscious.

To paraphrase a well known saying, a mind is a terrible thing not to mess with...up to a point.

Sometimes, though there's a fine--or not so fine--line between the good kind of scary and the bad kind.

I though of this yesterday when I went to see the movie adaptation of Stephen King's Doctor Sleep.

I grew up on Stephen King. I can go for years without reading him, then go on massive binges. This  was one of those binge years, with nine of his down so far, usually in audio form and consumed while driving, running, walking the dog, or mowing. They vary widely in quality, by his own admission. And in...intensity.

Doctor Sleep was one of the most intense ones when I listened to it on CD a few years back.

As in, damn.

 It's the sequel to the "honey, I'm home" 1980 classic The Shining that featured Jack Nicholson as the father from hell..

The sequel is kind of about childhood trauma and the after effects. The main character is Danny Torrance, who was the little kid in the original. As a grownup, he's had to deal with addiction, self-destructive behavior, and inner demons.

This isn't a spoiler, but the main conflict in the book has to do with a group of people (at least they used to be people) who abnormally prolong their lives by feeding on the pain and fear of young children, especially children with special abilities.

The way they do it in the book--and especially the movie--is extremely graphic and disturbing. The movie version is even worse than the book.

I mean, really.

When I got to the theater, I was amazed that people brought very little children with them to see it.

I wondered if they even know what the kids were in for. If they didn't, it seemed kind of irresponsible to me. But if they did know, that seemed worse.

Don't get me wrong.

I'm pretty libertarian about cultural issues and hate censorship in any form. I tend towards the free range theory of child rearing. I think overprotective helicopter parenting is a disaster. I think a certain amount of adversity, discomfort and challenge is good and necessary for a child to become a functional adult.

But there are limits. And not everything is good for every age. Entertaining terror for teens and adults might not be just the thing for preschoolers.

As the biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, "to everything there is a season."