Thursday, February 21, 2013

to satisfy his literary as well as his criminal aspirations

I continue with Finnegans Wake, attempting to ride along the Joycean river Liffey, looking at those things to which Joyce points and names, misnames, renames; hearing those snatches of conversation which Joyce quotes, misquotes, paraphrases, rephrases, reshapes, deforms, rebuilds. The landscape becomes the action becomes the characters becomes the mythos becomes the prose itself and much of it exists for me just beyond the limit of intelligibility but the rhythms and sounds continue to draw me in, draw me on, draw me forward. So it’s going well, I think. Am I reading a novel? I don’t think so, though I’m certainly experiencing some sort of story, amn’t I? Yes I am.

This morning on the bus I was thinking about the music of Kristen Hersh, especially her early albums with the band Throwing Muses. One of the hallmarks of that band was opacity; there was no way to immediately interpret Hersh’s lyrics, ostensibly written in English my mother tongue, but the combination of free-associative poetry and Hersh’s amazing glossolalia resulted in a music full of dark and dense areas of impenetrability. There was no way of knowing what those globules of opacity really contained or hid or revealed, but I realize that it was those very points of unknowable stuff that made the music so valuable to me. I realize that I am drawn strongly to art which cannot be easily and immediately understood. There’s a theory forming in the back of my mind somewhere that these masses of opacity in works of art function as negative space into which the imagination of the audience can move. The audience has the opportunity to inhabit the work of art, to crawl into it here and there in a way that isn’t possible with more easily understood texts. There are lots of interesting things that can happen when a reader begins to inhabit the negative spaces within a text. Connections are made between reader and text that aren't possible when a reader remains on or against the surface of a text. So perhaps "opaque," yes, but "impenetrable" no. I'm not sure.

This resistance to immediate (or any) interpretation is not a function of complexity, either. The techniques of opacity used by Joyce in Finnegans Wake are pretty easy to see. He network of allusions is complex—possibly in the end it grew beyond even the understanding of the author himself—but the craft he used is straightforward. This is all interesting to me. I have no idea how to apply it to my own work. I don’t think I want to write something that mimics Finnegans Wake in terms of form or surface. Certainly the idea of texts resisting interpretation is not a new one, either; the best of Shakespeare’s plays ask more questions than they answer, even while seeming to wrap up all the action in the fifth act.


  1. Hello Scott! I like what you say about the opacity being negative space. That's true in my experience sometimes. I find, though, that I first have to judge the material (which pulls me out of the story) before I decide whether or not I trust it. If I trust it, then that negative space is available to me.

  2. Yeah, there are some texts you don't really want to inhabit, aren't there? And it's likely that the opacity of a text varies from reader to reader, too.

    And hello, Mister Davin! Where have you been?

  3. I've just been overwhelmed with work, Mr. B. Some weeks tire my brain so. I started a blog post a few days ago and haven't managed to finish it yet.

  4. I know that feeling. I figure I have three weeks worth of work to do next week. I expect to be tired a lot. And cranky. I still haven't mailed out copies of the novel. But tomorrow I will go to the USPS! I will, damn it.

  5. Do it, Mr. B. Your readers want your book, and the USPS needs your business! :)