James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist, Sitting

For most of 1928, James Joyce’s attention was unequally divided among many projects and complications: He was keeping a wary watch over German and French translations of “Ulysses,” his 1922 novel; readying sections of his next novel, which was still officially titled “Work in Progress” (published as “Finnegan’s Wake” years later, in 1939); defending “Work in Progress” from negative reviews and letters from friends who were urging him to quit his experimental writing; explaining to his patrons when new sections of “Work in Progress” could be expected so that he could have an income; and losing his eyesight.

He was 46 years old, living in Paris with his partner, Nora, and their two children, and life was complicated. He was engaged in writing the novel that became “Finnegan’s Wake,” and his artistic ambition for it and its effect on him were both unsparing. “Ulysses” tells a story of a single day, June 16, 1904, in a particular place, Dublin, using as many types of storytelling and modes of rhetoric as he could use. Joyce intended “Work in Progress” to do the same thing but for the idea of nighttime; it is entirely inside the sleeping and dreaming mind of some unknown person, and it is written in a sort of pidgin English animated by puns.

His letters to his patrons tended to obscure matters even further and made it more challenging to continue funding his project. In one 1927 letter to his most important supporter, Harriet Shaw Weaver, he wrote something with “the intention of enlightenment,” as his biographer Richard Ellmann cheerfully puts it, but what he sent read:

I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes, of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I’m driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mooks and the grapes. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square. (Ellmann, 597)

Weaver tried to get in the spirit of his constant riddling and urged him to square the wheel, a suggestion for which he thanked her but further explained that he was doing something different than that. By 1928, financially and artistically discouraged, he declared to one friend

Critics who were most appreciative of “Ulysses” are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly, without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these twenty pages now before us cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit.” (Ellmann, 598)

Thus, Weaver traveled from London to Paris in 1928 to see for herself how things were going, on the occasion of Joyce’s 46th birthday. The visit reassured both parties and later that year he received word of an advance payment from two American publishers.

This is the James Joyce captured in Berenice Abbott’s famous portrait of the artist: At rest and a bit more confident in his world. The left lens in his eyeglasses is shaded, evidence of the ongoing battle to save his sight. It is one of the two or three most famous photos of the author, the one fondly parodied on the album cover for “If I Should Fall From Grace with God”:
Pogues

james-joyceAbbott was an American who became more famous in later years for her portraits of New York City during the Great Depression. She spent the decade of the 1920s learning her craft, working with the photographer Man Ray, and opened her own studio in 1927. She had photographed Joyce before, in 1926, and that photo session saw the author wearing an eye patch after surgery (and a soul patch under his lower lip):

 

 

joyce sans hatJoyce apparently liked sitting for Abbott, as there are several other photos from the 1928 session, without the stylish fedora and cane, but obviously from the same session, as he is wearing the same striped necktie. I think the one at left captures Joyce with more feeling; perhaps without the protection the hat and cane afforded him he let his guard down. The iconic photo of an iconic literary figure is followed by a photo of a weary, but not wary, momentarily confident, 46-year-old artist.

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James Joyce died 74 years ago today, January 13, 1941.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 13 asks, “Pick a random word and do Google image search on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.” When one searches Google Images for images of the great author, the famous Berenice Abbott photo, the one at the top of this column, is number 11.

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‘A tomar las armas compañeros’

I do not often write until I am certain—or self-deluded into thinking—that what will come out will present my thoughts clearly. When I gush, I feel embarrassed that I am using anyone’s time with an indulgence of self when others deserve a reader’s time more. I don’t deserve a reader’s time just because I’m here on a soapbox. Feel free to move on …

Sometimes I am confused. Are there are too many soapboxes in this world and not enough people reaching out to help people up and expand understanding, or are there too few soapboxes from which to proclaim love, describe help, and attempt to expand understanding?

You already know what took place today in Paris. The fact of a soapbox was addressed with state-less mass murder. It was a terrorist attack on the right to write, to publish, to think, to feel, to love. The right to be jerks, which the cartoonists who were killed today declared for themselves. Each of us, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, has a soapbox from which we can expand understanding, even by expressing shock, revulsion, confusion.

Today is not a day for pretty sentences and confidence in metaphors; it is a day for assuring one another in plain terms that there is a right to write, a right to love, a right to be shocked and confused. A right to hate hate.

The idea that an idea, a clever cartoon, a spoken sentence, is to be met with bloody murder is one that can only be addressed with more ideas and sentences, because the attack is bizarre proof of power of the written word. Murderers are murderers, but murder is not an idea. It is not a political statement. It is not criticism. It empty and totalitarian. Anyone who believes that their God demands blood to defend him/her/it does not understand their own God, and any God that truly can not defend itself from a mere human’s verbal insult isn’t much of a God.

The universe is indifferent and entropy is a reality, but alongside entropy, the universe possesses—or was given—creativity. There is no indifference in creativity. Totalitarianism, of whatever stripe, pretends to be political, but it is a political declaration of being pro-entropy, which is an untenable stance.

We live in an increasingly neurotic era, globally. America, my home, has spent more than a decade (some would insist the number is more like six decades) attempting to strong-arm the world into agreeing with our own self-regard. No one will be taking me and my cane from my desk for typing that sentence and hitting publish.

Murder is murder. It is not an idea. It is a vacuum, and vacuums are totalitarian in their lack of purpose. History teaches us that ideas fill the vacuum, the murderous vacuum. More ideas, please. Love is stronger than hate. That’s one.

The photo-cartoon above is by a Chilean cartoonist named Francisco J. Olea. I cried when I saw it. The caption, “A tomar las armas compañeros,” can be translated to, “Grab your weapons, friends.” More ideas, please. Write them and draw them and hit publish. More ideas, please.

The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War by soldiers on the nationalist side, the Francoists. In “Fable and Round of the Three Friends,” he foresaw, in his surrealist fashion, his own end:

When the pure forms sank
under the cri cri of daisies
I understood they had murdered me.
They searched the cafés and the graveyards and churches,
they opened the wine casks and wardrobes,
they destroyed three skeletons to pull out their gold teeth.
Still they couldn’t find me.
They couldn’t?
No. They couldn’t.
But they learned the sixth moon fled against the torrent,
and the sea remembered, suddenly,
the names of all her drowned.

More Lorca for a sad day:

City That Does Not Sleep
In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the
street corner
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the
stars.

 
Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of a dry countryside on his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

 
Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth
or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead
dahlias.
But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist;
flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths
in a thicket of new veins,
and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever
and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.

 
One day
the horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the
eyes of cows.

 
Another day
we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats
we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.
Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention
of the bridge,
or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes
are waiting,
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.

 
Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is sleeping.
If someone does close his eyes,
a whip, boys, a whip!
Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.
I have said it before.

 
No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the
night,
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.
—translated by Robert Bly

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 7 asks, “A sanctuary is a place you can escape to, to catch your breath and remember who you are. Write about the place you go to when everything is a bit too much.”

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Glass Houses

There is a wonderful show business saying that if a performer is a great enough talent, “you could put him or her behind a brick wall and they will still find a way to entertain.” While I believe this to be true in idealistic theory, I also think that not putting him or her behind a brick wall would be profoundly helpful to their cause. If a website is going to be worth a visit, publicity is going to help get that visit.

I have gone viral approximately not once, so I have some expertise in the field of not being at all famous.

Some of you may not remember that last March I was almost on the verge of getting on line for the waiting room to visit the Land of the Almost Known. My “About.me” page was featured on that website’s “popular” list, and my page, which usually receives about 150 views per day, was seen by 3051 other About.me users, 2000 within the first hour of being listed. Another 1300 visited the next day.

Three thousand. I know, I know. I have lived in at least one building that had a larger population.

What does fame feel like? Living in Philip Johnson’s “Glass House.”

The Glass House. Located in New Canaan, CT, it was built in 1949.

The Glass House. Located in New Canaan, CT, it was built in 1949.


 
This post will be number 192, I think, on this website. There are a handful of columns that I am proud of having written and published, and they are these:
1. The several pieces I have published about my life with adult spinal muscular atrophy. I even explain the duck on my website. Here, I will group them together in one package: Spinal muscular atrophy.
2. A Conspiracy Theory of Conspiracy Theories
3. Guilty of White
4. Requiem for a Sponsor
5. Two appreciations of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band and its leader, Vivian Stanshall
6. A column about the Baseball Hall of Fame
7. An appreciation of one of my favorite places, Opus 40
8. Comedy: The ‘Fish-Slapping Dance’
9. A column about W.H. Auden’s character: “Auden’s Decency”

As a self-publicist, I am not certain I would hire me, but I was the only person to apply for the job. On Twitter, there are a handful of people who profess to like what appears here and even share selected pieces. That amazes me, and I am speechless.

There are also people on that service who use unpleasant names (I was called the B word recently, which was a surprise) or offer strange advice (when I shared a recording of T.S. Eliot the other day, the fiftieth anniversary of his death, one person took the time to explain what drugs I ought to get a prescription for, and that he could help). In the name of publicity, I should never block anyone, but I did in both of those cases.

No glass house for me.

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Please visit some or all of the above columns, follow me on Twitter, and please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thegadabouttown. Thanks.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 6 asks, “Your blog just became a viral sensation. What’s the one post you’d like new readers to see and remember you by? Write that post.”