Letting Go

Steve Mitchelmore finds this while making a broader point about Joyce vis a vis modernism:

Compared with Proust and Beckett, Kakfa and Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Joyce presents a strangely rigid attitude; he refuses ever to let go, to trust the work to take him where it will. Every ‘letting go’ has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by his own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes.

It is perhaps a weakness of Joyce and not just a fact about him that he is such a godsend to the academic community. For there is ultimately something cosy and safe about Ulysses: underlying it is the belief that the mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good. Far from being ‘the decisive English-language book of the [twentieth] century,’ as Kenner suggests, it is perhaps the last great book of the nineteenth.

These remarks strike me at an interesting time, wherein I’m re-reading Pynchon and not finding him wholly to my liking. I think there are certain similarities with Joyce. Pynchon’s way of “letting go” is always situated within a certain set of ideas he wants to get across. Some stretches of Pynchon’s work are quite brilliant, so brilliant in fact that one is encouraged to just break them out of the novel and enjoy them on their own, since, in the context of the larger work, they always end up reducing themselves back to that grand design.

This, I think, gets back to my main critique of David Foster Wallace, who also seemed unable to let his work simply be. (Perhaps there is something to these massive novels of information. I would say that, like Joyce, Wallace and Pynchon harken back to the 19th century more than people who are obsessed with reading them as postmodernists seem to think.) Infinite Jest succeeds, in my opinion, on the fact that it got away from him despite his best efforts to pin it down to certain certainties he wanted to express.

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That’s an interesting distinction, one similar to what Wood applies to Bernard/Kraz in his New Yorker piece.

I don’t, however, see one way or the other as a superior idea. It’s possible free-floaters do more to expand what our language can do, and the more grounded show us new possibilities of attaching language to real life experience. For me, Joyce is great precisely because he not only does both of these things, but he’s the best at both.

I think this is a staggeringly wrong-headed comment of Steve’s. Joyce is the ultimate in letting go. He lets any idea superimpose itself on the structure and content of his final two works, allowing all thoughts, schemata, and systems to conjoin in contradiction with one another, such that the work grows beyond the limits of Joyce’s own thought. I am convinced this was his intention, but it being conscious and concerted does not make it any less open-ended. Proust, Beckett, and Woolf are far more “closed” in their admission of meaning than Joyce, and I say that as a great lover of all three. (Kafka is as open-ended, in his own way, while I can’t count myself a huge admirer of Eliot.)

Oh drat, I meant to link to this explication of Joyce as an example of what I’m talking about: The Linear and the Circular in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

To be fair, the remarks about Joyce, wrongheaded or not, are Josipovici’s, not Mitchelmore’s.


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