Roland Barthes

The philosopher, semiotician, literary theorist—the writer—Roland Barthes died 35 years ago today.

Reading him (well, a good translation, usually by Annette Lavers or Richard Howard) as a teenager was one of my formative experiences; it was my first conscious experience of my brain expanding with the simple idea that everything is worth notice and consideration. Everything produced by a culture is a signifier of at least that culture itself. His most popular book, Mythologies, is about common aspects of civilization, the items and ideas that make up our modern mythology of ourselves: plastic, toys, striptease, cruises, soap and detergents. Other writers and cultural critics have followed Barthes; perhaps the fact that the job title “cultural critic” exists is attributable to Barthes’ work. Almost every television, music, and film reviewer owes Barthes a debt, but his studies went far deeper than the popular everyday items.
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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”:

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.

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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Daily Prompt: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …’

(Some thought-fragments about art with a small a and Beauty with a capital B.) (Or vice versa.)

The title is from the final lines of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which the poet ends by telling us that the centuries-old vase he has been describing serves as a reminder that, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'” Earlier the poet also says, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter … .”

The ones I can not hear, because I am a mere mortal and what I hear on Earth is all I need to know, those are the sweeter ones. O, vile mortality!

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Some experiences are almost universal: without sharing a common language, audiences will laugh at many of the same things. A person slipping on a banana peel. The fish-slapping dance. Analysis of comedy kills comedy (unless one is making fun of analyzing comedy) because laughter is more than a feeling, it is a reaction; when honestly expressed, it comes in an instant. Conversely, some experiences are unique to each one of us: all of us experience physical and/or emotional pain, but the best any of us can do is talk around it in an attempt to almost come close to describing it. Pain management specialists present their patients with a chart of a series of faces and ask the patients to circle the grimacing face that “matches” how they feel. It is simplistic, but it does something important in that it asks us to leave language, which can be misinterpreted, aside.

Language. The most vile and hateful sentiments can be expressed in sentences that might sound pretty when they are spoken. There is probably a language in which the sentence “I am going to kill you” would make me swoon just before I got shot.

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What makes me laugh might make you cry (if you were the person who slipped and fell) and what makes me cry might make you laugh. There is much ugliness in this world and someone somewhere finds harsh and violent things funny.

I find the sentence on that poster at the top, “We all have within us our own …,” which is a piece of typical Facebook inspiration-stuff, a poster that is designed to elicit a hopeful gaze or something, to be clunky and, worse, empty. Sunsets are nice and all, but why put words all over one? (I would rather the Kadampa Center had just put a picture of their temple on there.)

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To the best we can tell, birds are singing shopping lists to each other. “Seeds over here, seeds over here; nice sturdy branch I’m standing on.” The most boring and necessary stuff, but pretty to our ears, a sweet unheard melody to Keats.

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alainWe teach each other what we find beautiful. The cartoon at right captures, without words, something of this. Artists in a class learn to depict reality, but what about the world made Egyptians in the era of the pyramids and pharaohs depict things and humans as they did? We look the same now as we did then, but the art seen in the ancient (and beautiful) monuments does not look like our twenty-first century reality. Did life in the ancient world look all that different to eyes that are biologically identical to ours?

Certainly not. The same cartoon could be drawn about art classes from other eras: the flat crowds with identical faces in Giotto’s scenes, the extraordinary gowns and suits that probably rendered most people who wore them immobile for longer than the time it took to to sit for just the start of a portrait.

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Someone might bring up the Cubists, Picasso specifically. At different points in the cultural history of art, the visual and the performing arts diverge from mass notions of “pretty.” They always seem to reconvene, usually when the mass notions of pretty start to include the works of art the masses once rejected. Rocks were thrown at the orchestra during the debut performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” because it sounded so odd. You might hear snippets of it in television ads during NFL games now.

I can tell you that for me, Picasso’s drawing line is voluptuous and his color scheme, well, beautiful. And the intellectual challenge the Cubists presented themselves and attempted to conquer: to include time and time’s passage in a static form, painting (which is why two eyes will appear on the same side of a human head—think of any photo you have taken in which someone turned away just as the camera snapped); I find the intellectual challenge and game and the attempt to meet and match it exciting and, well, here is that word again: beautiful.

Here is one of David Hockney’s “joiners,” a type of photo-collage that he explored in the 1970s and ’80s. It is made of 77 Polaroid photos of a swimming pool taken as the sunlight shifted through the day, photos taken over the period of time that it would take to make 77 Polaroid photos with one camera and one artist. Pretty as a sunset but with time added as a design element as important as color in the image. It is a Cubist sunset. It is a beautiful attempt at one. hockney-sun-on-the-pool

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 16 asks, “We’ve all heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Do you agree? is all beauty contingent on a subjective point of view?” The answer is a definite and thus easily questioned simultaneous yes and no.

There is a famous “Twilight Zone” episode that I am sure someone else has referenced in their response, titled “The Eye of the Beholder,” in which a world that culturally dictates notions of physical beauty sends away people that we Americans of a certain era might find beautiful. We live in neither a world of only sunsets and platitudes and easy listening music nor in one in which we force one precise, single idea of beauty on one another, and that, that in itself, is beautiful. (Sadly, this is not true in every country, not right now; in some countries, Rod Serling’s script might seem to present a pretty good idea.)