.… when you type Finnegans Wake. I think with that little ditty as your guide, you can’t go wrong in anything you do or say.
James Joyce, by Djuna Barnes. 1922
It must have been remarkable, to sit in on the (off the record) conversation between Djuna Barnes and James Joyce. The author of the masterpiece, Nightwood, and the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m guessing there was more to it than the more famous meeting with Proust, wherein the two literary giants supposedly talked about their various ailments and nothing else. Paris as nexus, perhaps? Paris as the center of the literary world? How racy, bawdy, lofty and sublime it must have been to live through it and be a part of that nexus, that confluence of genius. How different from what we imagine it must have been. To know that difference, to know exactly how it was in the 20s, especially.
Djuna Barnes. 1905
For hundreds of years, the arts had been moving toward a new portrayal of the everyday, the mundane, the average. In painting, in poetry, in novels, things were moving away from kings and queens, high drama between nations, aristocrats and world shakers. Ulysses and Nightwood epitomize that, like the paintings of Vermeer, Manet, and Courbet. Simple things, simple lives, with moments of supreme beauty nonetheless.
Young Woman With a Water Pitcher. Jan Vermeer. 1663. The Met.
Told, of course, in a way far removed from “simple.” Utilizing every arrow in the quiver, every trick in the book, every possible angle and new ordering of time and space through language. Cubist, in a sense. It’s all relative, they must have said. Einsteinian, with a curveball thrown into the heady mix. Barnes once told Emily Holmes Coleman:
“There is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole.”
Modernism was often funny, too. Like Kafka, Joyce had a great sense of humor (Djuna, not so much). Ulysses is actually a very funny novel in parts, with lots of inside jokes and comedic character portrayals. Leopold Bloom, for instance, comes across as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at times. When read aloud, by the right person, I think this is even more evident, which leads to one of the great ironies in art:
Joyce eventually was the subject and recipient of reverential awe and serious scholarly attention, while he often laughed heartily about the whole thing and raised a pint or two with a wink. A tumbler of Jameson at times did the trick as well.
He once said:
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
But I’m forgetting the masks, too. And distance. And more distance. Perhaps because I just raised a pint of Guinness in his honor and am getting sidetracked. Well, okay. As I was saying … Art was moving toward the everyday, to be sure. But the artist didn’t want to completely succumb to it. Rather, he or she, especially if they were modernists, wanted to pay tribute to the ordinary by creating the extraordinary, and link all of it to a thousand things in the past, present and future. By connecting their work to great myths and classics of the past, they could elevate their ordinary citizens to new heights, form new relationships with the past, and put that past into special perspective, back light it, move it forward in time and space. That created new depth, chiaroscuro, drama and grad students.
In A Portrait, Joyce wrote:
“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Those same modernists — of which Joyce is perhaps the supreme example — were perhaps the first hypertext authors. They did what we now take for granted in the age of the Internet. Making a link between this and that, between what was previously thought unrelated or disconnected. A dizzying war of associations and references. A never-ending series of links. And they did it without computers and broadband.
The Republic of similes. The Republic of stones thrown into a thousand metaphorical ponds. We still feel the ripples, and Molly’s great Yes