Thursday, April 26, 2012

A thought-tormented post

Inaugurated at the beginning and carried throughout is a sense that some implicit reality in "The Dead" is being read against-- by Gabriel, of course, but also by the reader, who is sort of helplessly dragged along by an inconspicuous but intentional narrator. I have always felt that the first two or three lines of the story are sexually misleading-- a young girl is tirelessly helping men men undress in a little, hidden pantry? I think the narrator is playing with us here-- but in such a way that we are relatively helpless in the matter, until we read further on. In a sense, Gabriel is similarly helpless to his own misreadings of the world. This is made evident in his false construction of his wife while she listens to the piano (211)-- perhaps false is not the right word here, but it is distinctly off; he is as helplessly blind to her here, as he constructs his imaginary painting of her, as he is when he imagines her to be as lustful and impassioned as himself in the hotel room. This seems to be characteristic of Gabriel-- to be not quite aligned with the reality of the story (a reality that, it should be noted, we are not quite aligned with, either, as I assert the narrator is constantly playing with us).

I was vaguely reminded of Wittgenstein's "the limits of our world are the limits of our language" as I read Gabriel's speech. It appears to be an almost ritualistic gathering of phrases and words that had been scattered throughout the beginning of the story: he admonishes the "new generation" as he did Miss Ivors on the dance floor; he borrows the word "thought-tormented" from his review on Browning ; "...will not willingly let die," the endnote tell us, is taken from Milton; the Three Graces are, of course, taken from mythology, but also from the preview of his speech we are offered earlier; and I'm sure there are many more instances I'm missing. Similary, the story itself seems to be a gathering of pieces: actual, geographic locations in Dublin, certain biblical names, and Irish slang. I think this points to the layered and collective nature of humanity; those gathered experiences that differentiate us also serve to set us into our own seperate realities which never quite align, an idea which we saw in Emerson's "Experience" and which we see here with Gabriel and Gretta.

But there is a hopefulness at the end-- well, perhaps not a hopefulness, but I don't know how else to describe it-- as the snow falls uniformly, covering everything over in whiteness, turning everything into a "grey impalpable world." This, of course, counteracts what I said in the previous paragraph; this points toward something which is universal, which is common to all, living and (fascinatingly) dead. I don't know what this is, or that it can be talked about ("whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent," and all that). Anyway, it's brilliant. That's all I have to say.


  1. Your sense that there are "misreadings" at stake here echoes against Kristen's post: she is also interested in the story's foregrounding of interpretation, reading. I have to think more about that--at least with regard to the reader and the narrator. With the exception of the end, I don't find the story particularly hard to read; I don't find the narrator particularly cagy. Just reticent--
    "inconspicuous," as you say--and often falling into the idioms of characters--Lily at first, Gabriel throughout.

    I really like what you say about the limitations of language here. Like Flaubert, Joyce was acutely aware of the limitations of conventional language--and so I think we are meant to read Gabriel's speech as limited--like the newspaper article in "A Painful Case" or the review Little Chandler imagines in "A Little Cloud." What does that mean, though, if you are a writer, for your own style? What are the possibilities for a non-degraded style?

    Joyce said that the late episodes of Ulysses were about "the futility of all style." I don't think that is the approach of Dubliners. But you can see a glimpse of it in what you notice here.

  2. I didn't necessarily find the story difficult to read; I just felt, at times, particularly vulnerable to the narrator's whim. I'm thinking of the moment during the dance when "they had to go visiting together." And then, of course, there is the end and the beginning. I once expressed my confusion about the first two lines to Kyle, who then told me I was a fool, so perhaps the trouble lies in me.

    The idea of "the futility of all style" really interests me. It seems a "non-degraded" style would require something of a private language, which, according to Wittgenstein, is a myth, and, according to Rorty, would never catch on in the public vocabulary. Rorty did mention (in "The Contingency of Selfhood") sort of a loophole for poets. Was Joyce, by any chance, a poet as well? I would certainly consider something like Finnegans Wake to be as close to poetry as to prose, but I'd say it's only arguably a success of style. (I don't mean that as an insult! I haven't even read beyond the first two pages.)

  3. Advice: Don't listen to Kyle, under any circumstances.

    Gloss: "Go visiting"-->a move in the dance, where one couple moves over to another couple's space; still in use in square dancing.

    Answer: Joyce was indeed a poet--began as a poet, writing tiny, austere poems, trying for a sort of purity of lyrical language, almost completely contentless. The poet AE, after hearing them, said, "Mr. Joyce, I am not sure you have enough chaos in you to make world." Kyle thinks they are terrible, fwiw.