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Entries in james joyce (4)


In Which We Profit Entirely By Conjecture



I believe in quantum physics, kind of. I don’t study it and I certainly can’t prove it, but like Christians in a casino or a child in a buffet line, I muse its most attractive theories.

Wormholes, for instance, are tunnels of negative space energy that link sets of any two points in the universe. The conjecture of Stephen Hawking and a handful of science fiction writers, wormholes can be visualized as a funnel between a two-dimensional surface that folds over a third dimension, allowing the two ends of the funnel to be however infinitely apart, yet connected. Black holes, the nihilist version of wormholes, have funnels with only one end that eventually tapers into nothingness.

Admittedly, I had to Google “wormhole” for its technical definition. I used to snooze through physics class except for when my teacher, a young, lanky Christian, born and raised in western Pennsylvania, would use words like “spacetime” and “exotic matter” to describe phenomena that he attributed to God.

Maybe it was Mr. Gardner’s sermon-like cadence or maybe I so desperately want to grasp onto some sort of cosmic enlightenment, but the notion of wormholes and dark matter stuck with me. At first they were just nice ideas to cogitate, theories with which to coyly embellish a conversation and to speak of with a tinge of irony. But certain things in life have a way of popping up and then disappearing, and as I encounter more and more strange, arbitrary happenings, I’m now willing to accept the mysteries of life as mysteries of the cosmos.

by vija celmins

Now consider this: I am a 20-year-old Chinese immigrant, a soon-to-be first generation American citizen and the daughter of a scientist. Having spent the first eight years of my life in Communist China — i.e., modern China — I didn’t have a conventional childhood.

In the first grade, my classmates and I were indoctrinated as junior comrades of the Party. We were sanctioned to wear red ribbons around our necks, which I thought at the time was to commemorate Mao Zedong’s favorite color.  In the second grade, I participated in a school-wide campaign against superstition and religion. The principal recited Marx over the intercom.

In the third grade, I found myself scrutinized by inquisitive faces, some with yellow hair and blue eyes, like the Chinese imitation Barbies I used to own. This was in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I spent my next five years learning about the English language, Harry Potter, chicken nuggets, the Beatles and eventually, about god.

I guess God could’ve been an easy fix for the perpetual cultural quandaries that ensued in my adolescence. If Chinese counterfeit Barbies had yellow hair and blue eyes, why didn’t I? And how could I have let my parents eat spaghetti with chopsticks in front of my friends?

by vija celmins

But I was the daughter of a scientist, a communist expatriate scientist for that matter. I was never sold on god. I had science and Marx, and I’d rather not elucidate upon the latter, though it’s probably in my blood.

Out of my white, baptized group of friends, I think I was the first to board the bandwagon of existential doubt (I was later reaffirmed by my uncanny keenness for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). They’ve caught on by now, of course. We are twenty-somethings, after all. But all of this — the communists, the angst, the James Joyce — leads me back to the notion of wormholes, black holes and dark matter.

Let’s, for a moment, forget about the grandiosity of existence. Forget about life and death and the meaning of it all. Let’s look at the little luxury of poetry and of language, a practical and tangible thing. For all intents and purposes, let’s consider it matter, because it exists in ink on paper and thus, it exists in some sort of fathomable sphere. Different languages, then, are the different states of matter and each meaning is like an element on the periodic table — it can differ in form but never in essence.

But that’s not how language works. Human communication does not follow the conservation of mass and energy. Take the Chinese word, 亲人, or “tsing ren.” The most direct translation in English would be “relative” or “kin.” But that’s far off from the literal meaning of the Chinese word, which in essence, means someone who is close to the heart. The essence of the word, therefore, disappears through translation — the same way matter disappears into the singularity of a black hole.

Likewise, emotions can be contextualized as matter or energy. Anger, apathy and happiness — among the infinite palette of human emotions — can be traced to a specific part of the insular cortex, i.e. the left side of the brain, induced by a specific sequence of nerves and receptors. Feelings, at the very least, are energies we utilize. But when a certain mental sensation is channeled into something else — say, a jog around the neighborhood, an act of revenge, a personal essay — its existence transcends the human body and recalibrates on another medium, separate yet connected to its origin in the mind.

by vija celmins

On the other hand, emotional energy without an outlet eventually dissipates and ceases to exist entirely.  In certain cases, caffeine might be a good remedy. But some, if not most, feelings fade, and nothing can change that. Not even caffeine can make love forever. Shakespeare knew that, though I didn’t believe him until I was 16 and on the receiving end of lost affections, adrift in the relentless gravitational pull of a black hole. I was the end of the funnel.

When we lose something in life, we’re told to let go. In order to grieve, we must eventually accept the dearth of a being that used to be. We quote Vonnegut and buy posters that say “live and let love” to hang on bare walls. We put up and put out. It goes against the circle of life, in which everything is supposed to be connected. And then at some point down the road, we must accept that Mufasa was wrong and that not everything exists in the paradigm of a beginning, middle and an end that leads to new beginnings.

It seems to me that the universe is full of contractions — of conservative Christian physics teachers, of irreconcilable languages and of parents who eat Italian pasta with chopsticks. I hear the universe is also constantly expanding, perpetually mobile, like a haphazard middle school dance with which the only way to keep up is to accept the fact that it’s supposed to be awkward and random and at times, tender. This, I believe.

A few months ago, I was reading 1984 on my commute to work. It was a typical rush hour El ride until I noticed that the lady standing over me was also reading 1984. It would’ve been a regular, serendipitous coincidence if it weren’t for the fact that she was holding the very same Signet Classic paperback edition, published 1950. Mine was a literary artifact that I borrowed from my roommate, who received it as a birthday present from his sister in 2004. To put this in context, there are more than 450 English editions of Orwell’s masterpiece, nearly 800,000 El passengers each weekday and approximately 145 different El stops in Chicago.  I’m not really sure what it meant or if it means anything at all. But in that moment, I was reminded of a particular day in AP Physics. I had woken up just in time before the class was dismissed to see Mr. Gardner drawing a worm poking out of a black circle on the white board.

“There are things in physics I can’t really explain,” he said, dotting two little eyes on the worm. And then the bell rang.

Cathaleen Chen is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her twitter here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Chopin.

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In Which Samuel Beckett Didn't Intend To Be A Writer

Someone To Walk With Him Before Dinner


The following recollection of James Joyce is collected from James Knowlson's interviews with Samuel Beckett, which can be found in a volume you can purchase here.

I was introduced to Joyce by Tom MacGreevy. He was very friendly – immediately, to the best of my recollection. I remember coming back very exhausted to the École Normale and as usual, the door was closed and I climbed over the railings. I remember that: coming back from my first meeting with Joyce. I remember walking back. And from then on we saw each other quite often.

I can still remember his telephone number. He was living near the Ecole Militaire. I used to come down sometimes in the morning from the Ecole Normale to the concierge and he used to say Monsieur Joyce a telephone et il vous demande de vous mettre en rapport avec lui. And I remember the concierge, he was a southerner. he used to say Segur quatre-vingt-quinze vingt. And it was always to do with going for a walk or going for dinner. I remember a memorable walk on the Ile des Cygnes with Joyce. And then he'd start his 'tippling.' And we'd have an appointment with Nora at Fouquet's.

beckett at greystone's, 1960sI was very flattered when Joyce dropped the 'Mister.' Everybody was 'Mister'. There were no Christian names, no first names. The nearest you would get to friendly name was to drop the 'Mister'. I was never 'Sam'. I was always Beckett at the best. We'd drink in any old pub or cafe. I dno't remember which.

He was very friendly. He dictated some pages of Finnegan's Wake to me at one stage. That was later on when he was living in that flat. And during the dictation, someone knocked at the door and I said something. I had to interrupt the dictation. But it had nothing to do with the text. And when I read it back with the phrase 'Come in' in it, he said, 'Let it stand.'

with thomas mcgreevey, 1934He was at the National University, of course, and I was at Trinity – but we both took degrees in French and Italian. So that was common ground. It was at his suggestion that I wrote "Dante... Bruno . Vico . . Joyce" because of my Italian. And I spent a lot of time reading Bruno and Vico in the magnificent library, the Bibliotheque of the Ecole Normale. We must have had some talk about the 'Eternal Return', that sort of thing. He liked the essay. But his only comment was that there wasn't enough about Bruno; he found Bruno rather neglected. Bruno and Vico were new figures for me. I hadn't read them. I'd worked on Dante, of course. And we did talk about Dante. But I knew very little of them. I knew more or less what they were about. I remember I read a biography of one of them. I can't remember which.

beckett's letter to cape townI remember going to see Joyce in the hospital. He was lying on the bed, putting drops in his operated eye. I don't remember having read to him though. I used to go there in the evening sometimes, when he had dinner at home. It was at the later stage when he was living in the little impasse off the long street. There wasn't a lot of conversation between us. I was a young man, very devoted to him, and he liked me. And he used to call on me if he needed something. For instance, someone to walk with him before dinner.

on the set of 'Film' in New York, 1964He was a great exploiter. Not perhaps an exploiter of his friends. In the Adrienne Monnier book, it's told how he did the translation of 'Anna Livia Plurabelle', Peron and I. And Joyce liked it. But he organised a committe of five, which used to meet in Paul Leon's house to revise it, including Adrienne Monnier (who was quite unqualified) so that he could talk about his septante, those five and Peron and myself. Why he wanted to talk about his septante devoted to him I don't know. I remember at Adrienne Monnier's a reading of our fragment of 'Anna Livia Plurabelle', Peron's and mine, as corrected, so-called, by the Joyce clan. But there was a reading of this with Joyce in Adrienne's bookshop, a public reading. I remember being there and Joyce was there, Soupault read it, I think.

in ireland after the war And I brought him home drunk one night, but I won't go into that. He drank a lot but in the evenings only. I remember a party. He was a great man for anniversaries. Every year he would celebrate his father's anniversary, "Father forsaken, forgive thy son." On that occasion, he would give me a note, in francs. I don't know how many francs it would be. A note. To give to some poor down-and-out in memory of his father. Towards the end of the year, in December, the date of his father's birth was celebrated and commemorated every year and I was given on several occasions, when I was available, this note to give to some down-and-out in memory of his father. "New life is breathed upon the glass," etc.

directing longtime collaborator Billie WhitelawIt's a poem of Joyce's. It's part of a longer poem but I remember the verse, "A child is born. An old man gone." When his father died, he was very upset.

I played the piano once at the Joyces'. I forget what I played. But he, when he had enough taken, at these 'at home' parties, receptions at home, with various friends, he would sit down at the piano and, accompanying himself, sing, with his marvellous remains of a tenor voice:

Bid adieu, adieu, adieu
Bid adieu to girlish days.

I remember myself accompanying Giorgio. When he was living with Helen. I remember accompanying him – in what? Ah yes. [He sings part of Schubert's Lieder, An die Musik]. Oh, by the way, I found the name of the street where Joyce lived when I first met him in Paris. Yes, it's a little street off the rue de Grenelle; this goes from the Latin Quarter to the Avenue Bosquet near the Ecole Militaire. It goes through the.... And just before it comes to the end of the Rue de Grenelle near the Avenue Bosquet, before it 'debouches' on the Avenue Bosquet, there' a little street on the right hand side. It was an impasse in those days. It still exists but it's a square. The Square Robiac. I remember it as an impasse. You go in to the right off the Rue de Grenelle. It was very short. And the right-hand side was the house where Joyce had his flat.

beckett with eva-katharina schultzI admired Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There was something about it. The end – when he is so self-sufficient in the end. He got pompous about his vocation and his function in life. That was the improved version; he reworked it.

with henri hayden in the early 60sIt was Maurice Nadeau who said it was an influence ab contrario. I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, subtracting rather than adding. When I first met Joyce, I didn't intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. When I found I simply couldn't teach. But I do remember speaking about Joyce's heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That's what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn't go down that same road.

Samuel Beckett died in December of 1989. You can find Whittaker Chambers' obituary for James Joyce here.

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with his cousins in 1959Why can't you write the way people want?

- Frank Beckett, in a letter to his brother

on the set of 'Godot' in Berlin, 1975


In Which We Piece Together The Last Months of James Joyce

If he was alive, James Joyce would have been 129 yesterday.

Silence, Exile & Death


Last week a little group of people got together in Manhattan in an atmosphere of unaccustomed awe. They were friends of James Joyce — editor Eugene Jolas (transition) and his wife; poet Padraic Colum and his wife; Robert Nathan Kastor, brother of Joyce's daughter-in-law; others. Fortnight before, a terse cable had announced that the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake was dead in Zurich. Joyce's friends were forming a committee to aid his widow, daughter and son.

To many a baffled reader of Finnegans Wake, the death of Joyce meant merely that the "cult of unintelligibility" had lost its chief prophet. To his admirers, it meant the loss of the greatest figure in European letters since Marcel Proust. To his friends Joyce's death seemed like some simple lapse in nature, grandly tragic and fitting. Joyce's writings had been the most massive, inclusive, eloquent statement of Europe's intellectual and moral chaos, a chaos now audible and visible in the falling walls of Europe's cities. And Joyce had died in the midst of this downfall — perhaps because of it. There was something about his death that suggested the great Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, dying at the close of the Roman world to the echo of Vandal swords against the city gates.

Bit by bit, Joyce's friends in Manhattan pieced together a picture of his last months. It was a picture of monstrous ironies. Joyce, the young man who fled from Ireland to live by "silence, exile and cunning," died a destitute refugee from Paris. The mind that thought history "a nightmare to which I hope never to awaken," was caught in the fall of France. The man who resented even minor Government interference with his affairs, was caught in the wartime red tape of three Governments. The mind that created the Miltonic rhetoric, the subtle architecture, the poly-portmanteau language of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, found its last peace in talking to an eight-year-old child.

lucia joyce by berenice abbott

The Joyces (wife Nora, son Giorgio) lived in Paris. His daughter Lucia, who suffered from a nervous disorder, was in a sanatorium near St. Nazaire. A devoted father, Joyce worried much about Lucia, spent a good part of the income left him by Admirer Harriet Weaver on Lucia's doctor and sanatorium bills. When war broke out, he hurried to St. Nazaire to see her.

Giorgio's son Stephen was at Mrs. Jolas' school at St. Gérand-le-Puy, some eleven miles north of Vichy. The Joyces were invited there for Christmas 1939, had a big party. Even then Joyce was suffering a good deal of pain. For ten or twelve years he had had a mysterious intestinal ailment, which did not trouble him as long as life went smoothly, caused him agony when life did not. During the last year, friends claim, Joyce "ate practically nothing."

After Christmas the Joyces rushed back to Paris. Mrs. Joyce hated the Paris alertes, but Joyce could not stand the tranquillity of village life. They returned to St. Gérand-le-Puy for Joyce's birthday (Feb. 2), remained until the end of March. Joyce took long walks, read Goethe's conversations with Eckermann, occasionally went to a movie. He also read all the newspapers, though he would discuss politics only with close friends. Shortly before the time the Nazis moved to Norway, the Joyces moved to Vichy.

On June 11 Mrs. Jolas phoned Joyce that she had found a two-room flat in St. Gérand-le-Puy, urged him to move there for safety. Joyce refused. He added: "Have you heard anything about that book* that I asked you to get me from the Gotham Book Mart?" Mrs. Jolas said she hadn't. "Well," said Joyce, "it wouldn't hurt to drop a postal card into the box." The Nazis crossed the Marne.

Two days later, Mrs. Jolas phoned Joyce again to say that the Gare de Lyon in Paris was closed. Joyce said that couldn't possibly be true because his friend, Irish Poet Samuel Beckett, had just come from Paris. He added: "Have you heard anything about that book that I asked you to get me from the Gotham Book Mart?" Next day Paris fell. Day after that Mrs. Jolas ran into Giorgio Joyce on the street in St. Gérand-le-Puy, with all the Joyce luggage, looking for a place to stay. So, by then, were hundreds of others.

Zurich in 1938

At 8 the following morning the James Joyces, forced out of Vichy when the army took over, arrived at St. Gérand-lePuy. Joyce was indignant; he was not in the habit of going out before 11. Said Mrs. Joyce of the general situation: "Did you ever hear of such nonsense?" Two hours later friends found Joyce happily listening to the radio. The Joyces were not even disturbed when the Nazis occupied the village for six days. Joyce was a British subject, but they did not arrest him. Friends urged him to go to the Irish Minister in Vichy and change his citizenship. Joyce refused: "It would not be honorable."

A fellow refugee was Paul Léon who had worked with Joyce for ten years. Every afternoon at 4 sharp, Joyce and Léon reread Finnegans Wake. Joyce would sit with his long thin legs wrapped inextricably around each other while he held the book close to his eyes, studied it through a thick lens. Léon read aloud. They would then make corrections. When Mrs. Jolas reached the U. S. last fall, she took 30 pages of typographical corrections for a possible second edition of Finnegans Wake. As she was saying good-by for the last time, Joyce paused, said: "Have you heard anything about that book I asked you to get me from the Gotham Book Mart?"

Joyce made frantic efforts to get an exit visa so that he could take his family to Switzerland, scene of his World War I exile, birthplace of Ulysses. Thanks to influential friends (especially in the U. S. embassy), he finally procured a visa from Vichy. But the Swiss Government was fussier. At one point it refused to admit Joyce on the claim that he was a Jew. Then it demanded a $7,000 bond. The mayor of Zurich got the sum reduced to $3,500, which some Swiss friends got together. But on the day the Swiss entrance visa arrived, the French exit visa expired.

James, Nora, Giorgio and Lucia in Paris, 1924

When Vichy finally granted a second visa, there was no gasoline for the drive from St. Gérand-le-Puy to Vichy. Defying police regulations, Giorgio Joyce bicycled to Vichy, begged every embassy and consulate for gasoline. Finally a bank clerk gave his last gallon of gas, which was enough to take the Joyces to the train.

In Zurich the Joyces put up at a small pension. They had almost no money. None of Joyce's cables to London for money was answered (even air mail from London to Zurich now takes a month). Moreover, the Germans had canceled the permission (obtained through the Irish Minister at Vichy) to remove Lucia from occupied France. Friends say that the thought of his daughter's spending Christmas in a bombed area intensified Joyce's intestinal pains.

ezra pound visiting joyce's grave

He brooded over what he considered the poor reception of Finnegans Wake. More & more his bitter day dreams took on the prolonged, chaotic misery of the night dreams in his last great book. (A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights?) And as the voices of the awakening children humanize the nightmare in Finnegans Wake, the voice of his eight-year-old Grandson Stephen became Joyce's chief solace. All day he would sit telling the boy (the child we all love to place our hope in forever) stories from Greek and Roman mythology, the Norse sagas, Shakespeare. But when only a small sum of money arrived from the U. S., scarcely enough to pay a part of their debts, Joyce collapsed from worry.

An X-ray showed a malignant ulcer on his duodenum. Joyce at first refused an operation because it would be too expensive. After the operation, he had to have two blood transfusions. He tossed around, worrying about Lucia. Then he had a last brief talk alone with his wife. During the night he began to lose consciousness. (My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. . . . Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!) Unlike the Finnegans, Joyce never woke up.

Whittaker Chambers' obituary of James Joyce appeared without a byline in Time.

james and nora on their wedding day in 1931

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