In my last blog post I was a week away from the Just Off Broadview Music Festival and more or less losing my mind with trying to control its outcome. If you recall, my friend Mary-Ellis had counseled me to do something else, to think about something else. I did. I started reading the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ latest collection of essays, Missing Out. One of his essays speaks to my ongoing project of reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. The essay is called “On Not Getting It.”
All through this essay he tantalizes with the idea that we assume there is something to “get.” We may not know what “it” is but we seem to know when we are without it. Even when we have “it,” we may still not know what it is. Whatever “it” is, we want it because we don’t want to be left out.
Cliff notes and Sparks notes exist so students can all have a shot at being in the group that “gets” a piece of literature, and not incidentally the passing grade. However canned or scripted an interpretation, we assume it is valid because someone in the group we aspire to: the ones who “get” it, said so. Do this often enough and you, too, can be an English major. The task becomes not so much to experience literature as to not humiliate ourselves.
I am a middle-aged woman, former English major with a blog, living in a culture where it’s commonplace to humiliate oneself on the Internet, and who wants to read Ulysses for the first time and probably write about the experience whether I “get” Joyce or not. Along comes Phillips who wants to know what is available if the project is “to not get it.” He suggests that to “get some things. . . is to misrecognize their nature; to pre-empt the experience . . .by articulating the meaning.” We can, he says, be “oddly enlivened by the perplexity of not getting it.”
This reminds me of the anxiety I sometimes see in my voice students when they manage to try something new. A student plays with vocal sound in a new way (and kudos to her, by the way) and I hear new dimensions to her voice, but she laughs sheepishly and says, “I know that’s crappy singing.” In that statement she has misrecognized and preempted the experience of singing by articulating a meaning.
Phillips invites us to “consider what it would be to live a life in which getting it is not always the point, in which there is nothing, to all intents and purposes to get.” In adult life this can be “when we are lost in thought, absorbed in something without needing to know why we are absorbed or indeed what we are absorbed in; or when we dream.”
I can’t imagine a less threatening approach to reading Ulysses, which I never thought I could just pick up and read without taking a class. Phillips says there is a “difference between reading something intelligible and reading something that has a powerful effect; between words as procurers of experience and words as consolidators of knowledge.”
“Words as procurers of experience” seems to be the approach I and my reading compatriots have adopted. We all bring to this project a lifetime of our own idiosyncratic reading and there are a few English teachers among us. We’ve got a user-friendly guidebook to grab in case of existential panic.
I like the idea of having an initial experience that is all my own, but I wasn’t three lines into Ulysses before I was itching to look something up. Buck Mulligan descends the stairs holding aloft a bowl of shaving lather crossed with a mirror and his razor. “Introibo ad altare Dei,” he intones. “I will go to the altar of God.” Later there’s another image of him slapping down 3 plates of eggs saying, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,” which I did not have to look up. Oh goodie, I thought, religious humor. It was a good start.
It turns out that Buck Mulligan is the sophomoric, wise-cracking, comic relief character. He’s the one with all the fart jokes, the masturbation references, and the sac-religious reenactments. The other characters actually fart, masturbate, defecate, void, pick their noses, and do things that will send them straight to hell, but they don’t make comic productions of them. It’s interesting that I want to back away from, say, the non-comic scene where Leopold Bloom reads a magazine while defecating in the W.C. and we get a plop by plop account of it. This is something we all do every day and we all have a sort of intimacy with it. But unless you’re in the medical profession or the mother of young children, you don’t talk about it. It’s so intensely private, we require humor to air the subject, so to speak.
So I “get” the sophomoric humor. Then every so often Joyce leaks out an epigrammatic expression:
*Pier. . . a disappointed bridge.
*“You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.”
*“You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought.”
*“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
So much for what I “get.” I don’t know that I have read any other writer besides Shakespeare where I have so received “words as procurers of experience.” Some of these expressions had me putting down the book and following whatever daydream the words suggested:
*The scrotumtightening sea.
*Clammy slaver of the lather
*dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.
*Ineluctable modality of the visible. . . signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreeen, bluesilver, rust.
The third episode, “Proteus,” was difficult. Stephen Dedalus takes a long walk on the beach, musing about the signature of all things, the ineluctable modality of the visible and the ineluctable modality of the audible interspersed with his own mundane stream of consciousness. His thoughts roam in fragments. We are inside his mind only it’s not such familiar territory as inside our own minds. Since we are not such experts on our own minds it’s amazing to me that Joyce would attempt to reproduce the activity of a mind, let alone that any reader would expect to “get” it.
Interspersed with paragraphs of “interior monologue” were descriptions of the sound of Stephen walking in the beach: damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats. . . unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles. . .”
That’s what reading Ulysses is like for me: I am lost in an experience of words and images. Then something grounds me, something I “get”—a walk on the beach or a fart joke.
And by the way, The Just Off Broadview Music Festival was a ripping success.