Sunday, January 18, 2009

On Fascination with the Ordinary and the Curse of Reading Between the Lines

As a Joyce fan, any mention of Joyce is bound to grab my attention and Woolf's mention of Ulysses in "The Pastons and Chaucer" did exactly that. However, the context to the mention rather surprised me: "Nor can we believe, with Mr. Joyce's Ulysses before us, that laughter of the old kind will ever be heard again," (p.15). Wow. That statement, regardless if the laughter that Woolf is alluding to is tasteless or moral, declares that Ulysses could be the definitive end to any sort of continuation of Chaucer's humor. It also emphasizes that Ulysses, and, thus, much of modernist literature, is too self-conscious to treat life realistically and approach humor in a natural way. Being an animated reader, this surprised me so much that I physically frowned and pouted.

I can think of numerous instances in Ulysses where the mundane and everyday is presented in such a way that most people wouldn't call it self-conscious. Wasn't it Joyce's own mother who, upon receiving one of the few original copies of the first publication of Ulysses, refused to open it due to its profane accounts of gorging on food and (gasp!) details of its digestion? Ulysses is shocking because it presents the everyday with all its natural functions as an Epic. Also, depending on one's sense of humor, it can make you laugh: Bloom, passing by a Church, decides that the Latin inscription "INRI" is an English acronym for "Iron Nails Ran In."

However, I have to admit that Woolf is right.

All of Joyce's accounts of the everyday do not exist as they are. Rather they are metaphors or integral parts to some larger metaphor; Ulysses, in itself, is an allusion to the Odyssey, which about as far from human reality as literary prototype can get.

To Chaucer, a bar maid is a bar maid. Perhaps she goes to church everyday, perhaps she is promiscuous, but Chaucer's bar maid is definitely not some device inserted into a literary work to represent a Siren. Chaucer is considered the father of vernacular literature and "The Canterbury Tales," along with the Bible, were illuminated with gold thread, yet he definitely did not shy away from blunt potty humor. A friend of mine who recently took a Chaucer class dedicated his final paper to an analysis of flatulence as key plot-changing device. Perhaps it wasn’t the most profound topic but he managed to write ten pages on it and earn an "A-."

Woolf, fascinated with people's ordinary and mundane habits, sees a truth in Chaucer's work that modernist experimentations do not capture. Instead, one must read in-between the lines to see that a rustle of bushes and a disapproving glance from a priest are meant to allude to copulation. Perhaps implied humor and witty allusions actually distance a writer from reality. Perhaps some writers want to distance themselves from their, or any, reality. Woolf, however, does not. She seems to almost long for the ability to write without self-consciousness.

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