On Friendship and Solitude

I still remember a colleague of mine years ago, who boasted proudly that she had given as summer holiday read Joyce’s Ulysses to her students, Italian  students of about 17 years old, actually. “And….are you sure, they will read it?” was my dubious reply. “Of course”, she said. She had no doubts, good for her. I always envy such decided people. I moved to another school then, so I couldn’t check the outcome of that educational choice, but I would bet nobody had truly opened Joyce’s book. An easy win, I dare say. In fact,  how could half ignorant adolescents enjoy the read of such a bulky, complex novel, when I …………had not. It is time to confess that I skipped many parts of the masterpiece, read only the last pages of Molly Bloom’s famous monologue and that I have reserved the same destiny to Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Yes , I did it and I don’t mean to make amend for it. That does not mean, for sure, that both novels are not good enough for me, but rather, I am not good enough for them. The global literary knowledge I should have  – my edition of Ulysses came with  another book twice as big as the original to enlighten us mortals about the numerous literary references and interpretations – and the experimental syntax craft are just too much for my humble person.

Yet, when you allow yourself to be touched inadvertently and unprejudiced by their words, you can never be indifferent. Never. In fact, I was recently conquered by following the passage during a lecture,  before knowing it was actually Proust the source of the unexpected pleasure. I had to dive into the ocean of “In Search of Lost time” for a while, actually, before finding the passage I wanted to share with you, and here it is: so modern, so real, so thought provoking. This is how Proust deals with the theme of friendship:

“People who enjoy the capacity—it is true that such people are artists, and I had long been convinced that I should never be that—are also under an obligation to live for themselves.”

So far nothing exceptional. He was a decadent, so he shared the idea that the artist was the superior being whose talent should not be contaminated by the taste of vulgar masses, but he goes a little further here, as in those masses friends are included:

And friendship is a dispensation from this duty, an abdication of self.”

Hence,  we understand that it is  wrong for an artist to consider friendship as a dispensation from that duty, as friendship is a sort of partnership in which you self is not free to expand itself, but must “abdicate” for the sake of that friendship.

“ Even conversation, which is the mode of expression of friendship, is a superficial digression which gives us no new acquisition. We may talk for a lifetime with-out doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute,”

These words may induce you to believe that Proust was a snobbish, solitary man, but he was not. He was a man who enjoyed society and much. In fact, Proust began very young to frequent the refined circles of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, thanks to the social and economic position of his family. He met illustrious writers, like Paul Valéry and André Gide, nevertheless, he found all that time spent in the habit of conversation useless and vacuous, an unpardonable weakness especially  in an artist:

whereas the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—though with more effort, it is true—towards a goal of truth. And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well.”

Only in the “bliss of solitude”  the artist can proceed into the depth of thought and avoid being kept at the surface by the  vacuity of light conversation and friendship works the same :

For the sense of boredom which it is impossible not to feel in a friend’s company (when, that is to say, we must remain ex-posed on the surface of our consciousness, instead of pursuing our voyage of discovery into the depths) for those of us in whom the law of development is purely internal….”

I was wondering, how often have you felt this sense of boredom at a dinner with your friends, for example,  even if you are not one for “whom the law of development in purely internal” or experienced that “vacuity of the minute” which repeats itself ? I am sure that you have and often. Hence:

that first impression of boredom our friendship impels us to correct when we are alone again, to recall with emotion the words uttered by our friend, to look upon them as a valuable addition to our substance, albeit…”

Here lies the danger, we tend to believe that  what a friend says, just because he is so, may in a way enrich “our substance”, but according to Proust this is impossible:

 “we are not like buildings to which stones can be added from without, but like trees which draw from their own sap the knot that duly appears on their trunks, the spreading roof of their foliage.”

No matter how clever, poignant or true the words spoken are, they are just like bricks and bricks cannot make a tree  grow. They are made of  different substances, after all. The living, creating sap may only come from within, and that must be the focus of an artist in particular and maybe men in general.

In short, the time used to cultivate friendships is not only useless but also unproductive. In the company of others we cannot be our real self  and constantly remain chained to what is superficial rather than go into the heart of things. It is a dynamic which does not allow the growth of a human being. I don’t fully agree with him, but if it is so, is  this monstrous society of “friends” connected worldwide in the never-ending practice of conversation allowing the growth of any sensible human being?

P.S. There is another question I would like to ask you and please don’t lie to me: “Is  there anyone out there who has truly read Ulysses from page one to page “too many” and enjoyed it?”

The Mythical Method

painting-penelopeWhen you are a child, you look forward to growing up and time never goes by. The future adult life is seen with the eyes of innocence: a wonderful, festive, harmless carousel, whose protagonists can enjoy their hard gained independence at last. However, once you eventually  find yourself in the world of maturity, that initial thrill that usually freedom gives, gradually fades away as your perception of time changes. What was formerly felt eternally slow starts to accelerate, till you realize that all that time that could be joyfully wasted once is actually finite and you start to look at the world that surrounds you with the alarmed eyes of “experience”, as Blake would say. Your certainties gradually crumble, and the future becomes less appealing than it used to be and if you look back, you cannot but have the impression that the past was ,after all, something warm, tranquilizing, bright;in a word: happy.

JoyceUlysses2This comforting vision of the past, can be found in many writers and poets, particularly  at the beginning of the twentieth century. Two world wars had brought death and destruction, the present was just like a “heap of broken images” (The Waste Land, T.S.Eliot) which left no room for hope.  Modern artists tried to express the consequent sense of loss, fear and paralysis that had pervaded those tragic decades in their works stressing this fragmentation and the impossibility of a future rebirth. Hence, they manifested a certain nostalgia for a past, which was seen as glorious, because it was vital and expression of universal values, while the present was fragmented and sterile.

ulyssesThe mythical method allowed those artists to show that gap between present and past. In Ulysses, for example, Joyce employs Homer’s myth of the legendary Greek king of Ithaca Odysseus, as the principle of unity of his novel. The three main characters of his novel are supposed to be the modern counterpart of Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope, except that these great figures have lost the power of their symbolic value. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who fought to have his family back. He stood up to his mother’s suitors during the long absence of his father, he sailed to inquire after his fate and he was by his side when he eventually came back to win his kingdom back. His equivalent Stephen Dedalus is the artist who has actually rejected his family. Molly Bloom , differently from  Penelope has put away her loom and is unfaithful, in fact she is having an affair after ten years of celibacy within the marriage. Odysseus is her husband Leopold Bloom, a middle-age Jewish advertising canvasser, who wanders around Dublin as Ulysses wandered around the Mediterranean sea on a series of inconclusive errands during which he meets the young writer Stephen Dedalus.

Once emptied of their symbolic meaning, the three characters show all their complexity and fragility. The fragments of their thoughts and experiences are included in the 18 chapters, which represent the 18  hours of the day the novel is set (16 th June 1904)  and 18 episodes of the Odyssey. Once again the myth helps the writer give order to the chaos of thought. Each episode, in fact, seems like a drawer whose function is to keep together all the pieces of the characters’ soul. Hence, the past provides a semblance of unity but it cannot cure the wounds of the present, leaving those souls desperately broken.

The Labyrinth of the soul

labyrinthThere are moments in life when you can see no way out. Responsibilities, troubles, duties seem to absorb the very essence of your being leaving no room for comfort, hopes, joy. The world that surrounds you, thus takes the form of a labyrinth that seems to engulf any desperate effort to escape. The fear of the “Minotaur” weakens any sparkle of determination to find a way to break that crystallized state of the soul and you believe yourself hopelessly doomed to misery. And yet, any labyrinth has a way out; you’ve got see it, otherwise the “Minotaur” will be there, waiting for you.

daedalus_smallJoyce‘s labyrinth was Dublin restricted society, which didn’t allow him to be what he really wanted to be: an artist. He thought that his only chance was, what he called, self-exile, that is, going  away, no matter how hard it was to leave the people who knew you, crush your family’s expectations, thus turning your back to the past in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life “(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). That’s why he chose as his alter ego in  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses the character of Stephen Daedalus. In that name there is his fate of freedom (not necessarily happiness). Stephen’s first name recalls the first martyr of Christianity – he was stoned to death for blasphemy – just to remark that he felt himself the martyr of the Irish society, in juxtaposition, his surname recalls to the mythological figure of Daedalus, who was both the inventor of the Labyrinth and the wax wings that allowed his son Icarus and himself to escape the island of Crete (his maze) and the dangerous Minotaur. Just like Daedalus, he would be brave enough to flee from the labyrinth/Dublin to find a better fortune. For one who did it, there is another one who just couldn’t escape the monster who was devouring her will: Eveline.

minotaurEveline, was only nineteen and her life had always been marked only by responsibilities, frustration, hard work and grief. Her mother had left her alone too soon and now she had to work, look after her younger brothers and protect them and herself from their violent father. She had made her mother a promise right before dying: to keep their family united as along as she could. She felt that she could, or better, should have done something to escape her maze, maybe accepting to leave with her lover for Buenos Aires to be married and have her chance to happiness; but for her and the other protagonists of the Dubliners that solution seems to be impossible. Joyce called his protagonist Eveline, to stress her fate of failure. Her name is, in fact, the combination of two words: eve and line. An ” Eve” is the day before an important day or a celebration, while “line” symbolizes life. Therefore Eveline’s destiny will be that of living in constant eve: she will never be able to act, to enjoy the feast of life.

MirandaFrom the very beginning of the short story Eveline seems to be unable to act. It is the night she has planned to leave, but there is neither emotion nor joy in her words, but rather that night that represents very likely, her only chance to leave her maze, is felt like an “invasion” of her inner self. She has been sitting at the window for hours and only when she recalls the image of her mother the night she had died, she realizes  that “that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” would have been also her destiny, not only her mother’s. For an instant she finds the strength to disentangle from the tentacles of her monstrous fear and quickly leaves her house to meet Frank, her lover, at the station. But when they reach the quay and she sees the ship that will take her to her new home, her hidden Minotaur surfaces and gradually devour her weak firmness. For her the boat becomes a “black mass”  even if its portholes are illuminated, and its whistle seems like the whistle of death : “mournful“. A sort of mist start to confound her mind and she feels like drawing. Her Minotaur has won. She will remain in the labyrinth forever “like a helpless animal“.

Oh father, father

Father

Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown“, advocates the centrality of the character in modern novel, aiming at representing its complexity, incoherence, vulnerability: a”flesh and blood” character rather than a puppet in the hand of its maker. On this purpose a new kind of psychological realism was required to make that puppet fresh and alive, hence the chronological time sequence of narration was dismissed to experiment a new psychological perception of time which proved to be more suitable to represent the consciousness of the character. A clear product of this technique is Joyce‘s Eveline from Dubliners. Eveline is a young girl on nineteen at a crucial moment of her life: she is about to leave her family to go with her lover to Buenos Aires, but she is paralyzed by the burden of doubt and responsabilities.For two third of the story she is stuck at one window pondering about her past, present and future. Following her thoughts we share her fears, uncertainties but at the same time we try to put together the pieces of her life whenever the important figures of her world show up in her mind. But how long had she been staying at the window lost in her thoughts?  Chronologically only eleven words:”She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue“; psychologically much more. We can notice the alliteration of the “w” at the first part of the sentence and the alliteration of the “v” in the second one, thus pointing out the passage from day to night . This passage is also stressed by the sound of the vowels which grow darker and darker word after word. When “she sat” there was still daylight but at “avenue” it was night. They key word of this sentence from a psychological point of view is “invade“: that is the night she had planned to go, but nothing makes us think of it as a happy moment, it’s an invasion: a violence on her true self. Even her concerns about her father seem to weak her determination to leave. But  why? Is he a caring, loving  kind of  father? Nothing of  kind, or better, we don’t know. The first time we bump into him in one of Eveline’s thoughts, he has a “blackthorn stick” in his hand, thus evoking a sense of fear ( black) and danger (thorn): he must be a violent man. Our intuition seems to be legitimized when she tells about his continuous threats that have worn her out giving her also “palpitations“, even because now she is alone, as her mother had died, and has nobody to defend her. But this father figure refuses to be entrapped in the stereotype of the violent man. In fact we are puzzled as she remembers some episodes of her life when his father appears to be a different kind of man: caring, tender even funny sometimes. Besides he is aging and is growing weak. Therefore whenever she feels like going, her minds evokes sad memories as to confirm the rightness of her choice, but when she feels strong enough to make her first step toward a different or better future, her determination is undermined by the opposite perception of her father’s nature. Being unable to manage the different forces of her soul, she will remain, defeated, with her father.

Epiphany

epiphany2

I guess everybody is familiar with the old story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. After a long, tiring journey, the Magi seemed to have lost their way, but they eventually succeeded in reaching their destination thanks to the help of the comet star that had lighted up and pointed them the right direction. At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is a moment of a sudden revelation. We can actually give that narration a non-religious interpretation, as the journey of the Magi may also well represent the crisis of the modern age, where men seem to have lost all their certainties and desperately need a focus, represented by the divine illumination of the comet, to direct them to that truth they need to give meaning to their uncertain lives. James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ” a sudden spiritual manifestation” which may be provoked by “the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself“(from Stephen Hero), it is a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would sayJoyce experimented the epiphanetic kind of writing especially in his early production and particularly in Dubliners to abandon it gradually. In Dubliners each character experiences one or more epiphanic moments, but Joyce seems to say that this is not enough to awake them from the state of paralysis that dominates their minds, they are all destined to fail. Eveline, for example, the very night she has to leave with her lover, hears an air that reminds her of the last day her mother was alive. She suddenly understands that she has to abandon any hesitation and escape(claritas) if she doesn’t want to end up miserably like her mother(quidditas). When Eveline arrives at the docks,  the illuminated ship that would take her to Buenos Aires for her is a black mass (claritas)  and the joyful whistle of the boat becomes a mournful lament (claritas), she feels that if she left the sea would engulf her(claritas), therefore overwhelmed by a paralyzing fear she refuses to leave (quidditas) and prefers a hopeless present to a hopeful, even if uncertain, future. She just couldn’t do it.