Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Modern myth-making

From the introduction by Declan Kiberd to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses:
The human need to make myths is very deep-rooted, since myths are symbolic projections of the cultural and moral values of a society, figurings of its psychic state. The French Revolution, which purported to put an end to all myth-making, instituted the myth of modernity, the notion of perpetual renewal which animated spirits as diverse as those of Ezra Pound ('make it new') and Leon Trotsky ('permanent revolution').

Standing on the verge of modernity in 1800, Schlegel [...] foretold the emergence of a new mythology, which would be less a radical act of creation than a 'collaboration' between old and new. Ancient myths embodied people's immediate response to their physical experience and were not seen as fictive by their adherents; but the new mythology would be abstract and aware of its own fictive status.
There is much more in Prof Kiberd's introduction which I find both interesting and useful (and some which I find simply baffling), but this part struck me as an excellent description of Alan Garner's work in Strandloper and Thursbitch. Strandloper even has what seems to me to be a self-referential line where one of the characters foretells the writing of the book, with an oblique nod to Garner himself.


I don't feel the reading of Ulysses is going too badly - seven chapters out of the way, though that only comes to about 150 pages. The more I read of it, and around it, the more I think I'm getting out of it; nevertheless, it feels less that one is reading it, more that one has engaged with it - or that it's moved in. I feel a little like Deep Thought - irrevocably committed to thinking about the ultimate question and unable to deal with anything else until the answer's been found. I am certainly finding that it changes the way you think and perceive, though I'm not sure I can articulate in what way. A Joycean way, I suppose. Whatever else, it's certainly an excellent whetting stone for the faculties - I'm reading Bleak House for light relief and finding that an absolute doddle by comparison.

Admittedly Martin Amis poses a good question - who on earth reads Ulysses? Not researches it, studies it, consults it - who actually curls up with it in bed?


Ulysses came top of the 1998 Random House Modern Library board's list for the 100 best novels published since 1900. A little pointy-headed, you might say, and I'd agree, but still preferable to the readers' choice of Atlas Shrugged. And if that gars ye grue, the non-fiction list is positively frightening. That's your argument in defence of pointy-heads and gatekeepers right there.


Joe said...

To be honest that echoes a bit what I have always felt, that Ulysses may indeed be a great book, a modern masterwork (and all the other cliched praise heaped upon it) but as an actual novel its a dismal failure. As an exercise in clever use of words and ideas, fascinating, but as an actual novel? No, its dreadful to read in terms of reading a novel.

The Silver Eel said...

As I'm in the midst of it, it's impossible for me to make more than a provisional judgement. On the one hand, I don't think one can approach it with the usual set of expectations regarding novels, because it's clearly not doing what other novels do (Rebecca West said that Joyce invented a form and exhausted its possibilities at the same time); on the other, all the things which are normally put at the service of story - theme, structure, allusion, reference, quotation, pastiche - are foregrounded to such an extent that the simple element of telling a story seems to be obscured. Nevertheless, one understands Leopold Bloom, one knows him, in fact, to a far greater degree than any of the characters in Dubliners, and meeting people one wouldn't otherwise meet is the other key reason for reading a novel, for me.

dovegreyreader said...

Well, I've found you and yes I am looking forward to reading this at last:-)

The Silver Eel said...

Um. Yes, I didn't think about meeting real-life people, but now you mention it...

[Pitches voice high like Gene Wilder in 'Blazing Saddles':] Good luck!

@ 4:34