Streetscape: Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”

September 14, 2008

Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” offers a pessimistic if not unresolved look at gender relations and the status-quo-is-the-best-we’ll-get social construct. In it, the two characters—a married couple walking along a New York city street—are shown to have divergent reactions toward the sources and symptoms of extramarital affairs.

“Summer Dresses” is a short story at its best, showing action and narrative progress mostly by dialogue, taking full use of the nuances of everyday conversation, a perfect medium for The New Yorker of the 1930s. Almost all of the text is in quotation marks, and few descriptive that divide the sections of dialogue serve to set the place… a street corner, a table in a bar, a waiter.

As the story progresses, we see that the two are isolated. She wants to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and skate and see a French film and “have a nice Sunday.” He makes no objection, but for other reasons.

“Let’s not see anybody all day,” she said. “Let’s just hang around with each other. You and me. We’re always up to our neck in people, drinking their Scotch or drinking our Scotch; we only see each other in bed. I want to go out with my husband all day long. I want him to talk only to me and listen only to me.”
“What’s to stop us?” Michael asked.

Stopping Michael is his infatuation with other women, exploring the “other” or unfamiliar. Therefore, he stares, and this drives Frances crazy.

“—say, are you listening to me?”
“Sure,” he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style like a helmet, who was walking past him.
“That’s the program for the day,” Frances said flatly. “Or maybe you’d just rather walk up and down Fifth Avenue.”
“No,” Michael said. “Not at all.”
“You always look at other women,” Frances said. “Everywhere. Every damned place we go.”

Michael’s justification of this trait, and his inadequate attempt to console his wife, is what produces the story’s conflict. To him, admiring other women is natural, a release, a simple side-effect of his surroundings. In Michael’s words, “I casually inspect the universe.” And his immediate universe, New York City, is full of them. Location is a factor that even he admits.

He moved to the city from Ohio, and now has access to “battalions of women” who create a land where “everything is concentrated from all over the world into seven blocks—the best furs, the best clothes, and the handsomest women, out to spend money and feeling good about it.” Fifth Avenue comes to represent the nexus of visual pleasure for him.

Frances is confused about how to respond to Michael’s actions toward other women, but ultimately concedes: “You ought to see the look in your eye,” Frances said, “ as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue” … “All right, I don’t know why I started this. Let’s drop it. Let’s have a good time.” Perhaps she senses that this type of behavior will pass, like the symptoms of an adolescent mind. We see that this will tragically not be the case, however: “I’m a happily married man.” … “Example for the whole twentieth century…”

It’s obvious even to Michael that his staring habit is hurtful to his wife. But he doesn’t yield; she does. Possible future adultery (more serious than just looking) is passed off as out of his control.

“Aren’t you?” Frances asked harshly. “Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” Michael said. He moved his chair back again. “How the hell do I know?”
“You know,” Frances persisted. “Don’t you know?”
“Yes,” Michael said after a while. “I know.”

Frances seems to be able to accept this conclusion, as long as Michael doesn’t go too far. Both of them are guilty of participating in the façade, and alcohol becomes a way for both of them to swallow their pride:

“At least do me one favor,” she said.
“Stop talking about how pretty this woman is or that one. Nice eyes, nice breasts, a pretty figure, good voice.” She mimicked his voice. “Keep it to yourself. I’m not interested.”
Michael waved to the waiter. “I’ll keep it to myself,” he said.
Frances flicked the corners of her eyes. “Another brandy,” she told the waiter.
“Two,” Michael said.

Today, Fifth Avenue, which cuts up and down the heart of Manhattan, is considered to be a shopping paradise, a popular retail center. It traverses Central Park, passes the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum, and is the site of many parades.

Some images of New York’s Fifth Avenue during the time of Irwin Shaw:

New York’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd street, showing an crowd gathering in celebration of Armistice Day, November 11, 1937. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library’s Digital Collection; Wurts Brothers, photorapher; “Streetscape and Townscape of Metropolitan New York City, 1860-1942.”

New York’s Fifth Avenue and 44th street, May 13, 1938. By the clock, it appears to be about 1:30 PM. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library’s Digital Collections; Berenice Abbott, photographer; “Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott.”
1. Shaw, Irwin. “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” Short Stories from the New Yorker. New York: Simon and Shuster; 1967. 3-8.

George Eliot, the Stranger, and Narrative Form: Adam Bede Part 1

July 9, 2008

I am reading through George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and will be commenting on it in segments. Skipping the obligatory biographical information—for the moment—I’d like to get right to it.

The book follows the happenings of a cast of rural farmers, carpenters, preachers, and the like. It is ripe with pastoral motifs and, so far, deals heavily with the themes of romance, religion, and social/ecclesiastical structure, though I don’t know yet (in just these early chapters) how these are related.

For the first chapters of the book, I am principally interested in the curious example of a character being created to—as I see it—draw out the readers’ curiosity. I am referring to the nameless traveler.

The second chapter, titled “The Preaching”, has a young “prophetess” giving a passionate speech to some bystanders of the small town of Hayslope. Just before the scene, an unnamed character approaches:

…his thoughts were diverted by the approach of the horseman whom we lately saw pausing to have another look at our friend Adam, and who now pulled up at the door of the Donnithorne Arms.
‘Take off the bridle and give him a drink, ostler,’ said the traveler to the lad in a smock frock, who had come out of the yard at the sound of the horse’s hoofs.
‘Why, what’s up in your pretty village, landlord?’ he continued, getting down. ‘There seems to be quite a stir.’
‘It’s a Methodis preaching, sir; it’s been gev hout as a young woman’s a-going to preach on the Green,’ answered Mr Casson, in a treble and wheezy voice, with a slightly mincing accent. ‘Will you please to step in, sir, an’ tek somethink?”
‘No, I must be getting on to Drosseter. I only want a drink for my horse. And what does your parson say, I wonder, to a young woman preaching just under his nose?’

While the true identity of the man is not revealed here, I think he plays an integral part in this scene. Shortly after:

The traveler put his horse into a quick walk up the village, but when he approached the Green, the beauty of the view that lay on his right hand, the singular contrast presented by the groups of villagers with the knot of Methodists near the maple, and perhaps yet more, curiosity to see the young female preacher, proved too much for his anxiety to get to the end of his journey, and he paused.

At this point early in the novel, Eliot has described several characters in physical detail, and almost all are given names, including Adam Bede, Seth Bede, and Dinah Morris. Yet, the first ‘action proper’ of the story (if you discount the opening description of the carpenters) involves the horseman. In the scene above, Eliot provides a physical context, and suspends the moment briefly to allow for insight into the character’s thoughts. He “put his horse into a quick walk” and “approached” the Green, then is explained as being struck by a “curiosity” and “anxiety”. Finally, when the sermon is over, he leaves Hayslope:

…[he] now turned his horse aside and pursued his way, while Dinah said, ‘Let us sing a little, dear friends;’ and as he was still winding down the slope, the voices of the Methodists reached him, rising and falling in that strange blending of exultation and sadness which belongs to the cadence of a hymn.

And so, he makes a simple exit, not affecting anybody or influencing the plot. For the reader, he serves as a narrative buoy, a figure whose reference by the author might provide stability after what is an emotional sermon by Dinah. The term “cadence” for me brings to mind the sound of the horse’s hoofs as they tread away from the singing, perhaps an apt comparison to the reader’s leaving the scene behind (well, the chapter ends!).

What do we know about the horseman? He is described as “elderly” and as carrying a portmanteau (19th century suitcase). He is unfamiliar with the town, but recognizes its beauty. He does not talk like the citizens of Hayslope and the surrounding areas, as can be seen by the first quote, above (no, those aren’t misspellings). Mr Casson, with whom the stranger speaks at the onset of chapter 2, explains the native language of “this country”:

They’re cur’ous talkers i’ this country, sir; the gentry’s hard work to hunderstand ‘em. I was brought hup among the gentry, sir, an’ got the turn o’ their tongue when I was a bye. Why, what do you think the folks here says for “hevn’t you”?—the gentry, you know, says “hevn’t you”—well, the people about here says, “hanna yey.” It’s what they call the dileck as is spoke hereabout, sir…
‘Ay, ay,’ said the stranger, smiling. ‘I know it very well…’

Perhaps the horseman is traveling to the big city, where they don’t speak the “dileck.” Certainly, his own speech is not in line with this style, yet he is familiar with it, though this is unexplained. This being my first reading of Adam Bede, I think Eliot is going out of her way to make the distinction between the two forms. This separation is alluded to—if you subscribe to the notion—in the situation between Seth and Dinah: Seth and his tendency to say “I canna think” and “thee artna going” against Dinah’s seemingly unblemished speech. They are of different natural groups, perhaps.

My curiosity about the role of the stranger in this story is enough to keep me reading. He is like me: a curious onlooker anxious about the end result, but aware that the show must go on, just as Seth Bede is rejected by Dinah, yet the story continues on to perhaps new encounters.

1. Eliot, George. Adam Bede. New York: Oxford University Press; 1996.

The Chrysler Building: Art in Transition

June 29, 2008

During the late 1800s, as architects and structural designers were learning how they would incorporate the then-new advances in the composition of metal, the skylines of cities in Europe and America began to transform. The Chrysler Building came to be recognized as New York’s most recognizable skyscraper, conveying an optimistic look toward modernity through its use of new materials and visual themes which adapted to practical purposes.

Built in 1930, the Chrysler Building by William van Alen is a monument that represents art in transition. Unlike painting, literature, or music, architecture is practiced within the confines of real-use application, and depends the most heavily on science among the above-mentioned arts. When architects and engineers gained the ability (and desire) to build higher, for example, they had to keep human/social aspects of the use of spacing in mind. For example, New York adopted zoning rules which required super-tall buildings to be tapered at the top so that the street level wouldn’t be suffocated by the blocking of sunlight.

The Chrysler Building as seen in 1931. The building is placed at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 42nd street, Manhattan, New York. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

As I interpret it, the building clearly does not conform to its surrounding aesthetic, and neither does it convey the notion of clarity and logic through straight lines and industrious spacing that would characterize later works. To this extent, The Chrysler Building is a transitional piece. Ian Sutton’s contribution to the “World of Art” series, Western Architecture, places the building in such a context:

Between the purely commercial products of Art Deco, the Odeons and the Roxys, and the more serious, high-minded Modernism of Gropius and the Bauhaus, there is a middle ground which shares something of both. Like the latter, the architects in question also believed in the future (or at least the present), but for them ornament was no crime. The new materials, steel glass, reinforced concrete, were an opportunity, not a discipline. They favoured the curve rather than the straight line (the style was nicknamed ‘Streamlined Moderne’); it was chic, it was up-to-date, it was avant-garde with a touch of elitism, the perfect background to the jazz age.

Speaking of the jazz age, a few auteurs—notably Fitzgerald—come to mind. And actually, I can see how this building for some New Yorkers might have represented an embrace of futurism, technology, and success (even in the midst of the 1930s). For four months, the Chrysler Building was tallest building in the world (a title overtaken by the Empire State Building. (I am reminded of today’s climate in which the status of tallest building—whether in Taiwan, Dubai, Chicago, etc.—changes hands during and shortly after construction). The building is decorative, romantic, non-economical. Sutton describes the technological environment that made such buildings possible:

Three new inventions made it possible to build higher One was Elisha G. Otis’s perfection of his elevator, an essential requirement for tall buildings. Another was Sir Henry Bessemer’s new process of manufacturing steel, an alloy that provided greater strength with less weight and had tensile properties lacking in cast iron. Both these inventions date from the 1850s, but their effect was not felt until the 1870s. The third was the development of fireproofing for the iron (later steel) frame.

The Chrysler Building under construction in 1929. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

In the future, I will look at architecture characterizing periods before and after the Chrysler Building’s reign. Though, the building remains one of the tallest in New York City, which implies that such a reign never ended (if you are judging such things by height). Later buildings would be less decorative and seemingly more judicious in its use of space. It is possible that the spirit which inspired the building’s was stifled in part by the economy (the depression erupted in 1929), or other more “pragmatic” reasons for not producing such buildings.

1. Sutton, Ian. Western Architecture: From Ancient Greece to the Present. London: Thames & Hudson; 1999. 311, 322.

Identity and Symbols in Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”

June 24, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Ice Palace” deconstructs the assumptions, ideals, and tropes of contemporary society through symbols and parallelism. Specifically, the two geographies of South versus North symbolize stagnation versus progress, respectively, for both Sally Carrol Happer and Harry Bellamy. The two characters’ romance proves misfated, however, not because of any natural or inherent difference, but because of romanticized views on the part of each.

“The Ice Palace” appeared in the May 1920 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and represents an early Fitzgerald work. Here, the protagonist, Sally Carrol, is courted by Harry Bellamy to move from her town in “southernmost Georgia” to his “Northern city” as part of their eventual marriage. She is optimistic about life in the North, which she associates with intellectualism and personal/societal progress:

Clark stared straight in front of him at a bolt on the clattering windowshield.
“Sally Carrol,” he said with a curious intensity, “don’t you like us?”
“Us down here?”
“Why, Clark, you know I do. I adore all you boys.”
“Then why you gettin’ engaged to a Yankee?”
“Clark, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but—well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, Clark, I love you, and I love Joe here, and Ben Arrot, and you-all, but you’ll—you’ll—
“We’ll be failures?”
“Yes. I don’t mean only money failures, but just sort of—of ineffectual and sad, and—oh, how can I tell you?”
“You mean because we stay here in Tarleton?”
“Yes, Clark; and because you like it and never want to change things or think or go ahead.”

The Ice Palace

“The Ice Palace” as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Photo courtesy of The University of South Carolina Web site:

The first line of the story sets up the South as an antithesis (in line with popular assumptions about such things) to the North, and the ice palace, a physical construct which Harry Bellamy and his like-minded northerners seem to worship: “The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light.” This description of Sally Carrol’s environ as a geographical and visual opposite to the North is complicated by the graveyard, however, which serves—like the Ice Palace—as a historical/cultural ideal for the corresponding denizen:

“Margery Lee”, she read; “1844-1873. Wasn’t she nice? She died when she was twenty-nine. Dear Margery Lee,” she added softly.

“Oh, she was sweet, Harry! And she was the sort of girl born to stand on a wide, pillared porch and welcome folks in. I think perhaps a lot of men went away to war meanin’ to come back to her; but maybe none of ‘em ever did.”
He stooped down close to the stone, hunting for any record of marriage.
“There’s nothing here to show.”
“Of course not. How could there be anything there better than just ‘Margery Lee’ and that eloquent date?”

Here, Sally Carrol’s romanticization of the Old South is achieved through reminiscences of the Civil War, images of the setting that women held during that time, and the subsequent absence of men in the idealized Margery Lee’s life. The comparison between Lee and Sally Carrol is obvious: “You’re beautiful now, so I know she must have been”, Harry Bellamy claims. Regarding the unmarked graves, she comments, “…they died for the most beautiful thing in the world—the dead South.”

And so the two eventually rendezvous up North, where the climate (physically and socially is conducive to building ice palaces, “…the first they’ve had since eighty-five. Built out of blocks of the clearest ice they could find—on a tremendous scale.” The palace, as well as the North itself, is presented as industrious, bold, and building things “on a tremendous scale.” This is partly what Sally Carrol grasps in her initial assumptions of the place, though she underestimates the level to which the palace (and that which it represents) is adored by Harry Bellamy and company.

Thus, the misunderstandings and misconceptions ensue. In a definitive Sally Carrol moment, Fitzgerald hints that a separation between the two is taking place in the subtext of the story:

“I’ll tell you,” he said softly, “if you just tell me you’re glad to be here.”
“Glad—just awful glad!” She whispered, insinuating herself into his arms in her own peculiar way. “Where you are is home for me, Harry.”
And as she said this she had the feeling for almost the first time in her life that she was acting a part.

Leading into the climax of the story, the pair approaches the ice palace on a dark, snowy night. Sally Carrol “found herself repeating over and over two lines from ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’” The palace is the object of the Northerners’ blind worship, so I think that the allusion to Kubla Kahn is noteworthy in its adding to the dazed sensibilities that seem to overcome them during the moment when Sally Carrol becomes lost in the labyrinth of the building and traumatized. As the commotion grows…

Still no answer. The sound she made bounced mockingly down to the end of the passage.
Then on an instant the lights went out, and she was in complete darkness. She gave a small, frightened cry, and sank down into a cold little heap on the ice. She felt her left knee do something as she fell. But she scarcely noticed it as some deep terror far greater than any fear of being lost settled upon her.

With a furious, despairing energy she rose again and started blindly down the darkness. She must get out.

Throughout, there is reference to sounds, scenes, and the psychological effects of war, no doubt taking scenes from The Great War in Europe, another way in which Sally Carrol is linked to Margery Lee and her experience during the Civil War: “… chant of marching clubs.”; “… keeping time…”; “…a long column of gray-mackinawed figures… torches soaring and flickering as their voices rose along the great walls.”; “then came a long platoon of blue and white, of green, of white, of brown and yellow.” (A variety of colors here brings thoughts of the varying nation-states’ uniforms.)

This is amplified by the earlier quote of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn.” In his 1816 poem, the narrator describes the hallucinatory sense of being amidst an awesome yet brooding force. Here is some context for the quote:

…Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Ultimately, Sally Carrol returns home, and the final scene, back in Georgia, has so many parallels to the first—the laziness and seeming contentment and with the status quo—that the story seems to have either a really simple message, or a similarly complex one, requiring analysis of the deeper-than-skin components of the story’s structure. Commenting on the idea of the ending of “The Ice Palace” as expressing a complex ending (courtesy of Fitzgerald’s insight regarding the subtleties of cultural commentary, David W. Ullrich writes:

Fitzgerald encourages his Post readers to identify with Sally Carrol’s credo of enfranchisement through utility and her recognition that beauty is transitory. Such sentiments espouse a potent mix of Puritanism and industriousness endorsed by mainstream America in 1920. As such, Sally Carrol’s anticipated marriage would be read as uniting the separate economic mythologies and geographic regions of the agrarian Old South and industrial Gilded North. However, Fitzgerald’s social criticism states explicitly that, although Sally Carrol desired to incorporate these mythologies, neither geographic region offers her participation in these cultural practices. Her willingness to assimilate both local economic structures actually exacerbates her historical position as a modern woman, alienating her from the South/past and fostering naive fantasies about the North/future. In fact, Sally Carrol discovers that the material forces of culture operating in the North are almost identical to those of the South, and equally repressive.

I think this analysis accurately reflects the meaning at the end of the story. My instinct is to assume that Sally Carrol, as she stands at that same windowsill as is mentioned on the first page, is the same Sally Carrol as appears on that page. Ullrich puts forth—and I agree—that Sally Carrol is the 1920s every-woman; she is a person locked between the two worlds of past/stagnation and future/movement. Here, the protagonist has a desire to actuate the noble ideal, but is kept down by the realization (perhaps overstated, in that the ice palace experience was so traumatizing that she could not return and was compelled to sever ties to the North, including those with the person who purportedly convinced her there, Harry Bellamy) that she does not belong in that environment. Similarly, while Sally Carrol had her misconceptions about her present environment as it relates to her ideal one, so too had Harry Bellamy created an amnesia-inducing social construct.

The notion of paralysis (on both the individual and societal level) which so summarizes James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, here is powerful; however, I sense that there is a difference between paralysis as experienced by Eveline & company and the “not belonging” experience by Sally Carrol, perhaps only as simple as the fact that Fitzgerald is to early-century America what Joyce is to early-century Ireland. I look forward to exploring this comparison in the future.

Sally Carrol’s search for identity—complicated by romanticized notions—represents a larger theme which I know Fitzgerald to have explored in other works such as The Great Gatsby. What does the 1910s and 1920s mean for a country traumatized by war and just around the corner from more hardship? Embracing (or shunning) technology, engaging in the “modern” lifestyle, and exploring the concept of self advancement (by women, minorities, social classes, etc.) as a reaction to contemporary events are themes in this early Fitzgerald short story.

1. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Ed. S. Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006; 446-8.
2. Fitzgerald, F.S. “The Ice Palace”. Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.
3. Ullrich, David W. Memorials and monuments: historical method and the construction of memory in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”. Studies in Short Fiction 1999; 417-37.

Joyce, Suspension of Time, and the Inner Voice

June 19, 2008

James Joyce’s mixture of narrative forms in Ulysses is daunting, at least at first read. He presents his characters’ speech without quotations; the text fluctuates between real time and “thought” time; there’s a chapter given in screenplay format; the pacing alters from segment to segment; the story adopts multiple perspectives, from different characters; and the seeming fluidity of some of the text, when juxtaposed with experiments in form, can be jarring.

Eventually, though, all of this seems to become irrelevant. Over time, the format in which the symbols are suspended becomes less distracting, and we begin to take in the overall image. The list above is merely a way of describing the way the content is fixed on the page. Joyce as a writer and communicator of ideas has to effectively impress the meaning upon the reader. Does it matter how he does it?

I contend that, while I’m glad he does it effectively, I’d sure like to know how and why; we are benefited by exploring this. One aspect of Joyce’s style that really catches my curiosity is his presentation of plot and theme information through “internalized speech” or “suspended thought”, as I’ll refer to it. The characters’ private soliloquies, interspersed among references to other works, significantly contribute to the unique pace and texture of Ulysses.

One result of these moments is that there is less emphasis on plot or movement. (When this is the case, I am allowed to better appreciate the language).

An example of “internal speech” occurs at the beginning of the second episode (Nestor, if your comparing Ulysses to Homer’s The Odyssey). Here, Stephen Dedalus, whom we remember from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is now the mentor expounding wisdom to a group of young students. During the morning lesson, somehow Stephen Dedalus arrives at John Milton’s Lycidas, a section of which one of his students begins to recite:

—Tell us a story, sir.
—Oh, do, sir, a ghoststory.
—Where do you begin in this? Stephen asked, opening another book.
—Weep no more, Comyn said.
—Go on then, Talbot.
—And the history, sir?
—After, Stephen said. Go on, Talbot.
A swarthy boy opened a book and propped it nimbly under the breastwork of his satchel. He recited jerks of verse with odd glances at the text:

—Weep no more, woful shepherd, weep no more
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor…

At this point in the text, a literal and meta-structural ellipsis seems to imply that the boy continues reciting from Lycidas (1638), Milton’s pastoral elegy to his friend Edward King, who died by shipwreck in the “Irish Seas”. Joyce’s text, however, enters into an unspoken speech by Stephen Dedalus:

It must be a movement, then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquillity sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms.

And then Talbot seems to interrupt, continuing his recitation: “Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves.”

I intend to examine what is literally happening here. (1) The student begins reciting the poem at the request of the principal character and voice of this chapter: “Weep no more”; (2) The principal character is thinking/contemplating, and the image of the scene is now focused on this internal soliloquy; (3) The internal speech ‘comes out of the other side’ at the instant of “Through the dear might…”; So, the entirety of Stephen Dedalus’s thoughts occur here (staging wise) between “Weep no more/ … / Through the dear might…”.

It takes me approximately 25 seconds to read aloud this section of the poem. For the record, here is the Lycidas text in question (lines 165-173):

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead, / Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor; / So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, / And yet anon repairs his drooping head, / And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore / Flames in the forehead of the morning sky: / So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high, / Through the dear might of him that walked the waves…

But, the internal speech occurs after “watery (wat’ry) floor” (putting it between lines 168-173), which for me takes 16 seconds to read aloud. You can see where this is going. The Stephen Dedalus internal soliloquy takes me 50 seconds to read aloud, and 40 seconds to read silently (apparently I’m not a fluid speaker, but it’s the thought that counts, right?). Juxtaposing these two supposedly concurrent events, the internal speech is a tight squeeze if we are to take this scene literally.

Granted, these are thoughts that are going through Stephen Dedalus’s mind, not direct speech, but it still seems like quite a dense selection for a mere daydream.

Ultimately, it’s all intangible (and thus immeasurable). The reader gets whatever the writer wants to give. But the implication is too much for me to ignore. It’s as if time is suspended, at least from the perspective of Stephen Dedalus (and the author who pens the text) to create an impressionable moment. As spectators, we see the action and the accompanying commentary. Through the separation of the mind from the standard meter of the text, the author seems to have an advantage in conveying ideas.

Does this stretching of time really exist? I mean, on a personal level? I’d like to think that the mind is capable of stretching any moment to its limit, but every time I look at a clock, it seems to be moving at an uncompromising pace. In texts such as Ulysses (which purports to cover the timeframe of one day, yet is 780 pages long!), much of the achievement is done through the manifestation of the “inner voice” on the page.

1. Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961.
2. Milton, John. “Lycidas.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2000. 1790-6.

Introduction; Bloomsday 2008

June 16, 2008

Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, the annual celebration of Leopold Bloom’s odyssey through the city of Dublin as told in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The action is presumed to have taken place on June 16, 1904, though parts of the story were serialized beginning in 1918, and the completed book was published in 1922.

Ulysses is, of course, fiction. At the most, I would say it’s a fictionalization inspired by everyday events. This is what gives the story its appeal, in addition to the style of language in which it is written. It speaks to the everyman in us, convincing us that even our own thoughts can be poetic. Today, I woke up, made some toast, glanced at the morning newspaper, and caught a glimpse of a city skyline on my way to work. Each of these can be said to have some parallel to the types of events penned in Ulysses.

To coincide with this literary holiday, I am launching The Modern Dash, an online account of my exploration of Modernism, the movement which was defined by (and defines) James Joyce, among many other writers, painters, architects, musicians, and artists. I have seen fit to publish this blog in part due to my desire to enter into a discussion of the topic of Modernism as a movement and aesthetic (and literature in general), and to keep me accountable in learning about this topic.

I am not an expert on Modernism; however, I am convinced that studying it holds insight for anyone who is disciplined and thoughtful, and I believe that one can do literature by examining it in the context of our own lives, provided that we exact restraint in the conclusions at which we arrive (some meanings and interpretations, while sounding insightful or intuitive, may simply not be warranted).

This is also my experiment in offering a new type of blog as regards the blog-as-interface aspect of presenting information. I am fascinated by the concept of the hyperlink, and the ease of information proliferation that it affords. Data and commentary which can provide needed context—as well as pictures, videos, and other media—can be creator-directed to provide a user with a more fluid experience. However, it is possible for this power to be abused. Furthermore (and as stated above), it is important that one be judicious and exact in making statements.

Finally, I invite anyone who passes by to participate in the discussion. If you have a response to anything written herein, then add a comment, or respond on your own site and leave a quick note. This is a personal blog, but it is also topical, and I will not be writing posts on current events (except those related to the topic) or random thoughts that come my way. Please see the pages above for more information on the aim and rules of this site.

Happy Bloomsday!