Stephen Hero and the pitfalls of heartless brilliance

After seven pages of drafts from my notebook, I decided to scratch all those and just write. After all, this isn’t a literary publication or a research paper: it’s just a place to share my insights and reflections on different objects or people in my life.

James Joyce has been an intermittent topic in this blog. I was introduced to him during my first year of university, in my literature class. We were then tasked to read and analyze ‘The Boarding House.’ Truth be told, I wasn’t too impressed with the story: it was only later when I found out that he had authored two of the top five novels in the 20th century as ranked by critics and editors. It was during this time that my madness for Joyce began: what else could it be called, really? In today’s world, would any young adult willingly dare to read his later works without being a little mad himself?

I have no regrets whatsoever, because reading ALL of his major works gives me the privilege to lambast his works without any hypocrisy. I did read them, after all, so I’m free to hate on them. This is not to say that I think Joyce was talentless as a writer: in fact, I think he remains to be brilliant. Many critics regard Dubliners to be one of the greatest short story collections ever written, and I’m wont to agree with them: ‘The Dead’ alone can make up for the rest of the collection, but the other stories are no pushovers. ‘Araby’ is a great coming-of-age tale, and ‘The Boarding House’ wasn’t too shabby.

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man was also quite good. It wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it belongs to the category of books I have read more than once, so I have much respect for it. My respect for Joyce has increased after I finished re-reading Stephen Hero: before Portrait came to be, it had Stephen Hero as its predecessor. Instead of the stream-of-consciousness writing that Joyce started to apply in Portrait, Stephen Hero was written linearly, and more formally. Despite being an apocrypha, it does still remain part of his major prose works; in actuality, I prefer it to the rest. While SH is more languid than the leaner Portrait, it explicates upon the philosophy that encompassed Joyce’s life. Because Dublin could not accept him, he had to follow silence, exile, and unbelief. Instead of focusing on the characters, SH focused on the progression of ideas within the plot, and I liked that.

I liked that because it posited questions more directly, and a lot of these were quite thought-provoking. Why, indeed, would Christ be tempted to be the ruler in a kingdom of idiots? I’m just saddened at how his later works turned out, because I frankly believe Joyce could have been universally celebrated. Had he instead focused on writing intriguing and potent stories without relying on gimmickry and the invention of a new language only he could understand, he would be more respected. As it stands most contemporary critics mock his Finnegans Wake: yes, I think it’s utter shit, too.

I think works in general, after all, are only brilliant when they possess some heart in them. Tatami Galaxy was a kaleidoscope of ideas, but it was all about finding oneself despite being thrown into an unwelcoming world; Steins;Gate was, beyond all the science and physics, ultimately a series about filial piety and love. Had S;G been all about physics, I doubt it would have maintained the attention of its viewers until its final episode. It was more about sacrifice for the ones you love and care for.

What would the use of coalescing the languages of the world be if no one understood what you were writing? What would be the use of being so brilliant and yet ultimately soulless? Soullessness, after all, was Joyce’s fatal flaw. His stories had heart prior to Finnegans Wake, although they had become lesser and lesser as he got older. This is an example series should follow: it’s all right to be technically mediocre. Maison Ikkoku was indeed that. It’s a lot more important to tell a story that appeals to the soul of people: the rest will ultimately follow.

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6 Responses to “Stephen Hero and the pitfalls of heartless brilliance”

  1. Angelus Says:

    Given that I disagree profoundly with your assessment of Finnegans Wake (and also your assessment of its critical assessment), my previous post here has turned out to be more than a little prescient…

    I used to joke that it took me as long to read Finnegans Wake as it took Joyce to write it, which was only really true in the sense that I finished it at the age of 17 and it was 17 years in the writing. I started off reading it in fascination, and finished it in delight as I realised it was cyclical and I could start over again without breaking the continuity. It was as if Joyce had created a little, eternally-recycling “bubble” of time, rather like the one in Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time trilogy. I see it as following on in the long tradition of the “chaos” novel (if I might borrow a term from anime and manga criticism) that I would assert includes such works as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

    Its use of language is at once both outrageous and astonishing. It can be seen as outrageous in two senses. Firstly, surely the English language already has enough words without needing to invent new ones – as the writer and gamer James Nicoll put it, English has “pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. I would counter this by simply pointing out that languages are always adding new words (don’t forget that every word was new once) – English dictionaries typically add a few thousand new words a year, but the count balloons to over 100,000 a year if you include scientific terms and trademarks. Secondly, it is outrageous in that it stretches language almost to breaking point, even beyond breaking point in the opinions of some, including Umberto Eco. But that is not to say Eco found it without meaning – far from it.

    The language is also astonishing. Astonishing because, unlike its initial appearance of being the result of a dictionary subjected to a Will It Blend infomercial, every word is actually an intricate, fully working part of what Eco describes as a “complex machine” that is “capable of operating beyond the original intention of its builder”. As readers, we operate that machine, and each produce our own results. Some of these results are deterministic, but others are random or counter-intuitive – Irish Times writer Davin O’Dwyer has even likened the process of reading it to the collapsing of a probability wave, just as in the Schroedinger’s cat thought experiment. In addition, Joyce has turned up the linguistic “noise level” so high that we may hear Raudive voices in it and thus find references to things that Joyce did not actually intend or could not possibly have known or even to events that took place after it was written.

    For example, take the word “mastabatoom”, an onomatopoeia used for the sound of Tim Finnegan falling over. You can analyse this in many ways, extracting words such as “mastaba”, “tomb”, “Atum” (the hermaphroditic primordial Egyptian deity who gave birth to the other gods after copulating with himself), “masturbation” (connoting the potentiality in the act of both mortal sin and life itself), or perhaps even see it as a combination of “stabat mater” and the authentic onomatopoeia “boom”. At the tender age of 17 these were the only ones that I could see, but of course there are several others. Back then I had only a passing familiarity with the theories of Giambattista Vico and so didn’t spot the depth of references to his theories on the cyclical nature of society that the word (and indeed the work as a whole) contains, and neither did I realise that “toom” is Anglo-Saxon for “teem” (as in “teeming with life”), so we have that syllable at once being a symbol of both death and rebirth, a microcosm containing Finnegan’s entire story and also keying via “stabat mater” into Jesus and his death and resurrection. It isn’t for nothing that Derrida prefers to describe words such as this as lexemes!

    In the end, it comes down to what you believe a novel is for. I don’t regard one of the obligations of a novellist as being the telling of a story that “appeals to the souls of people”. Of course this is important if an author ever hopes to make any money, but really a novel need only appeal to one soul, and that is the soul of the author themself. Even if you cannot tease such a story out of it, Finnegans Wake stands as a turning point in modern fiction. It drew richly on the corpus of history, science and literature of its day, and has repaid those borrowings many times over in its inspiration of later generations of writers. For example, the science fiction New Wave writers who often transformed its utopian dreamscape into a dystopian “drugscape”, hence my earlier reference to Moorcock.

    Anyway, I must stop here as it’s way past my lunchtime. I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said so far, but if after that your position still hasn’t changed we can agree to differ and carry on as before ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Michael Says:

    I have a lot of things to be grateful to you, Angelus: aside from the monetary help which really aided me when I was in a bind, you’ve also been a reader of my site for quite some time already, and have remained even when the rest disappeared.

    I’m amazed. I read the Wake when I was already 20, and I didn’t like it one bit. Now, I know that the portmanteaus of words possess a microcosm within them, and there are a lot of them within the novel: it’s just that it didn’t really appeal to me as a story, which is what you’re arguing towards in the end.

    Your points are very well-said. I would be the first to admit that the novel is deviously inventive, and its cyclical nature is one of its attractive aspects to some. I think I was turned off by the fact that it utilized and synthesized words beyond the English language, because I believe that there’s really little necessity for that – as you’ve said, the English language balloons with new words every year. Admixed with scientific terminology, it amounts to thousands of words added to the lexicon every year.

    Your knowledge of Finnegans Wake is quite broad. Did you by any chance study this novel in university? I was content to finish the novel; after the first 100 pages the novelty of the words became lost on me, and I was just content to finish the novel. I do agree that the Wake is a turning point of modern fiction. It remains to be one of the earliest postmodern novels as well as a swansong for modernism, standing between the moribund movement of modernism and the infant movement of postmodernism.

    I should seek to re-read it in the distant future, but I honestly respect your opinion and find it quite salient and cogent. Thank you for that input. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Angelus Says:

    I studied Computer Science at university – it was either that or Music, and I cynically figured that I could make more money from computers than I could from chords.

  4. Michael Says:

    That’s why I was wondering why you knew so much about so many things. Then again, I’m a medical student, and I still read a lot of non-medical books …

    I wish my parents were rich so that I could pursue literature. It won’t make me monied, but I’d sure as hell enjoy it.

  5. Ryan A Says:

    Love the post, and plenty of food-for-thought. I’ll have to read Joyce when I settle in a bit more; I’ve only acquired Portrait, but I think that is a good start.

    Cheers.

  6. Hana Says:

    โ€˜Arabyโ€™ is a great coming-of-age tale… Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man was also quite good. It wasnโ€™t exactly my cup of tea… Had he instead focused on writing intriguing and potent stories without relying on gimmickry and the invention of a new language only he could understand, he would be more respected…

    Gosh, that exquisite frustration at the end of ‘Araby’! Probably my favourite story from Dubliners, at least out of the first half of the collection. Portrait is the only other of Joyce’s works (some essays/ non-fiction aside) that I’ve completed, and it sounds like I had a similar experience with it. It’s not one of my favourite novels, but I am fond of it and I’ve read it a couple of times and I’m certainly drawn to it as a Modernist Bildungsroman. In particular, that early use of the stream of consciousness style, that’s still firmly rooted in a linear storytelling tradition, is what I like about it most. And to make comparisons with anime, I think this is also the reason why I like slice of life anime so much, at least the type of series that focus on ‘the moment’ and conveying characters’ thoughts and development in similarly subtle ways.

    I guess the co-out answer to the question of why Joyce chose to abandon more linear forms in favour of more experimentation (or ‘gimmickry and the invention’) is that he just wasn’t interested in being more ‘respected’, as opposed to being seen as a visionary and an inventor. I guess I’ll have to finish at least Ulysses before I can offer anything more useful to the debate, though I’m probably now more inclined to read Stephen Hero first!

    Thanks very much for the read, Michael (and Ryan for recommending the post). ๐Ÿ™‚

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