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Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 5

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’m on Spring Break this week, so I’m taking a vacation from schooling and blogging. Since most of my creative energy over the past several weeks has been academically oriented, I’m leaving you with a half-semester’s worth of my thoughts on James Joyce. Seriously: I really am. Have fun with it!

DublinersI tried to read Portrait once, several years ago. I was working in a used bookstore in North Carolina, and a lovely paperback edition from the ‘60s came in (wonderful cover; echoes of Soviet poster art). I bought it, and, as I said, I tried to read it, but I had to stop. I couldn’t get past the sermon on hell.

I’m a heathen, and the child of heathens. My grandma did take my dad to tent meetings and revivals, but only because they were free entertainment. And my great-great-grandfather did preach Jesus to trees and to animals (given his Pentecostal background and scanty education, it’s highly unlikely that Grandpa Jordan knew that St. Francis got to the animals first), which turned my great-grandmother into a weird-but-sincere kind of Baptist, but her faith just gave me the creeps—much like her maudlin alcoholism and fondness for organ meats. My point is that I was not raised to believe in any particular god—and hell has never had any power over me. It’s the priest’s repeated invocations of eternity that get me; and, once he has me staring into that abyss, I find myself strangely receptive to the idea of gnawing worms and unimaginable stench. Hell’s dark fire makes me particularly woozy, as it reminds me of Paracelsus’s light-in-darkness, an image that had a profoundly disorienting effect on me when I first encountered it, and which I still can’t contemplate for long without starting to sweat.

I don’t often “identify” with characters in novels, but I felt an intense pang of sympathy when poor little Baby Tuckoo’s noggin was troubled by thoughts of infinity, because my own infant mind was blown by similar contemplation. While I’m sure that analysis would show that my unconscious depths are roiling with all kinds of unresolved traumas, the first angst I remember is the problem of infinity and my place in it. I would go so far as to say that is my ur-angst, the one that lies at the root of all my other persistent worries.

I decided to take a class on James Joyce because, having tried to read Portrait, having tried to read Ulysses, I was pretty sure I was never going to actually grapple with Joyce if I didn’t have an expert guide and a grade attached. The sermon on hell still makes my hair stand on end, and I’m quite confident I would have tossed Portrait aside and picked up a nicely diverting historical novel or even retreated to the comfortable pleasures of an old favorite if I hadn’t felt externally compelled to get through the sermon and onto the rest of the story. All I can say is, it had better be worth it.

SPRING BREAK WITH JAMES JOYCE
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

March 11, 2005 | Permalink

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