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A Portrait of the Artist as a Dung Beetle, in Oedipal Amber

Before I add another post to this weblog I want to thank Andreas for his great big post, and Josh for his many comments, and for everyone who has been reading along with us, especially since the book turned out to be a deeply solitary and lonely story, soaked in so many shades of black, as well as so many echoes and allusions to the great literary tradition, clustered I suppose around Joyce, that also so often preached a cold, clear eye in the face of death and meaninglessness.

I leaned pretty heavily on the pageant in the first part, and the myth of Persephone, Hades, and Demeter; the last section of the book is fully invested in the myth of Osiris and Isis, and the rituals of the Book of the Dead.  It’s worth asking ourselves if the myths in a long novel from 2010 about 1900-1923 can possibly function in the same way as myths functioned in the novels actually written in 1900-1925.  Joyce cites myth, ironically yet as a structuring principle; does McCarthy do exactly same thing, or is he “citing Joyce citing myth,” i.e., is he writing a novel about how the gods have recently fallen silent, and our memories of them rebuke us in our daily grind, or is he writing a novel about how people back then used to think things like that, and it’s sort of local color and an expectation that he decides he will meet, to build such things into his literary artifact?  Is he being profound, or too clever by half?  In this last part of the novel, the mythology in question is Egyptian, which, despite the all-mythologies-are-one remarks by Falkiner and Alby (“Beneath the cross, the ankh” (354) and Moses as Osiris), has never seemed to me to be in any kind of organic relationship with everyday Western art and life, as Grecorroman mythology does.

[One riposte to my feelings about this would be to say, So it’s not in an organic relationship, so what? We’re talking about death here, the fall into the inorganic  The whole point of Benjamin’s interest in the baroque, in allegory, and in the hieroglyph is that they are all the language of death, refuting the way romanticism and the symbol give the illusion of living presence in the act of speaking.  It’s even an advantage that a reader is going to need more exposition about the story of Isis, Osiris, and Thoth than she will about Persephone; have the people who give that exposition become increasingly inorganic themselves, first Petrou [= Stone] as a sort of tour guide praising the syncretism of the Ptolomeids, then Falkiner as a drunkard (you know, like Faulkner) reciting endlessly from The Book of the Dead, and then Laura reciting mythology and archaeological data like a robot.]

There is a long tradition of treating the conflict of WWI as ultimately meaningless; because I’d never seen a version before, I really loved the last section’s depiction of the English’s Egyptian colony as likewise meaningless (I’m so ill-informed that I had to google the year of Egyptian independence, a few pages before the book told us it was 1922). The riff on the unintelligibility of Middle East factions in ch. 11, section iii, is practically at the level of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only with many real names of people and groups.

The trip up the Nile also participates in a kind of literary mythmaking of the modernists, again removed from its potential initial meaning:  the journey up the Congo in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Conrad, Marlow of course witnesses violence and brute racism in the context of soulless capitalism (“The horror! The horror!”); McCarthy sees much lower stakes.  His multi-imperial boatload of scientist-spies constantly reminds us that people have been engaging in tomb-raiding and other acts of plunder –and the local underclass has been plundering the tombs of the local aristocrats– for three thousand years, so the British Empire is demoted in importance even as it is departing; and anyhow, they’re staying to run the telegraphs: McCarthy has staked much in this novel on foregrounding communication over military might in the infrastructure of European hegemony in the 21st century.  And classifying, classifying, labeling:  not Marx but Foucault and Marshall MacLuhan.  Or Picasso and Poincaré:  As they go upriver the landscape dissolves into abstract shapes for a while, like a Cubist painting or mathematical formulae, until finally the “ungeometric” desert becomes the only landscape left.

But if there is so little at stake, compared to Heart of Darkness’s failed search for a justification for imperial rule, then the better comparison remains Joyce, who spent 900 pages on an unimportant day in the life of an unimportant man.  A very typical way to read/teach Joyce’s Ulysses (Josh and Bret may remember that this was more or less the tack I took for it, following Leo Bersani’s 1992 book The Culture of Redemption (p.s., he’s against it)) is to say that Joyce builds up in his first eight or so chapters the deeply imagined fictional portraits of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and the city of Dublin, only to dissolve those portraits into literary experiments that emphasize the literary artifice of the novel, its linguistic games, its gestures towards the Odyssey, its parodic imitation of romance novels or of an Irish bigot’s voice, the Q.and A. chapter, etc., “redeeming” the story of Leopold and Molly in her soliloquy at the end of the book which is fully readable only because the novelist has taught you how to read her monologue fully.  Before the Molly chapter, Bloom and Stephen risk becoming the author’s metafictional playthings (p.s., Bersani is all for this).

Well, I must say that there is a real air of metafictionality creeping on the novel by its end, beyond the abstract shapes of the Nile.  The constant repetition of meaningless sex in dirty or underground connections reaches its, umm, lowest point with sex with Laura in the tombs (I’m sure she’s named this in honor of Petrarch’s Laura, but I kept on thinking of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider), although I thank Andreas for reminding us that as a POW Serge volunteers to do tunnel work so that he can masturbate in the dark underground, too.  It is supposed to be a kind of fulfillment of the incestuous coupling between Isis and Osiris, although the sense of violating a taboo is associated with Oedipus, rather than Osiris, in part thanks to the tick bite on the ankle (Oedipus in Greek means swollen foot), and Serge’s death is far less glamorous than Cleopatra’s death by an asp, narrated by Petrou in ch. 11.  [I admit that I’m never really impressed by brother-sister incest as a motive for tragic behavior; if Sophia concludes that Widsun is not only biologically Serge’s father but also her own father, and that Widsun is more or less aware of it, I guess that might drive you a bit to suicide; but brother-sister incest happens in a lot of myths of various cultures with little opprobrium, as well in some important stories by Thomas Mann.]  The truly wonderful phantasmagoria Serge has during his fever dream (375-77) partly involves his turning into a scarab beetle, hence an object used as a sign and symbol; he also begins to turn into carbon paper (damn, can’t find the page citation), and his playing with the rubber stamp as a child in Widsun’s office becomes the point in which he recites “that in black ink/ My love may still shine bright” (383).  These sound great in their contexts as folding him into the pattern set out for him when he was born with a caul, but they also sound to me like small direct homages to Ulysses’s Nighttown chapter, and to the moment when at the end of the catechism chapter the novelist presents his entire novel, his characters and all the people of Dublin, as a little period.

Bloom and Dedalus and Molly were, at least somewhat, historical fictions, in that the novel was published in 1922 but took place in 1904, suffused with the nostalgia of pre-WWI innocence (but also the politics of the full coloniality of the Irish condition) ; the distance this novel travels is much greater, back a full century, and it risks trivializing –or observing from a standoffish distance– an event we agree is an important part of world history.  But it’s true to its own aesthetic, sending out from the past a self-consuming artifact, where the only continuity between then and now is not the children of any Carrefax family saga, but the communication infrastructure, and the uses we can put inorganic nature and ever more inorganic mythologies to describe our own standoffish distance from the present.


July 29, 2015 - Posted by | C

1 Comment

  1. Im glad one of us literature/former literature professors knows his 20th C stuff. This Pat is just fantastic commentary. Perhaps you are right that myth has become in the 2000s a metafictional game of metareferentiality. Let me write more once I’ve thought some more about the meaning of this game with meaninglessness

    Comment by adkriefall | July 31, 2015

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