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Spring Break with James Joyce: Day 3

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!

I spent most of 1993 struggling with Jesus. I was writing my undergraduate thesis, an attempt to explicate the difference between divine and human language in the Gospel of Mark.

Reading the Mark made me feel like my head was on fire. My friend Kate took a much more rational, analytical approach to her thesis (she’s a doctor now, and she’s always tended in that direction). She wrote something quite brilliant, elegantly structured, and seemingly quite dispassionate on Bakhtin and Paul, and she won the thesis prize for our year. Kate has always felt like the plodding member of our dyad, and, in my youth, I adored her for her other virtues, but I secretly agreed with her. As an adult, though, I have acquired a sincere admiration for her ability to get things done (nothing will knock the mad genius out of you quite like several years in middle management). I’ve also realized that, just because she’s organized doesn’t mean she’s not creative—and, in fact, her outward calm and cool presentation almost discourage the observer from noticing the astonishing originality of her thoughts.

DublinersSo, I’ve been reflecting on all this as I try to pull together my first paper for class. I considered several ideas, looked for places where Joyce’s project and my interests overlapped. I thought it might be fun to pull together a clever, but tidy, little paper on the uncanny—as in, unheimliche—in Dubliners. I quickly realized that this was a bit ambitious, so I decided to focus on one story instead. Why not work with “The Sisters”? It’s the first story in the collection, it anticipates the rest of the collection in a variety of thematic ways, and it has a corpse and a ghost. Perfect!

Now I feel like my head is on fire.

When I was reading Mark, each reading led to another reading. I believed that the story contained powerful secrets—secret truths—that I could unlock if I just found the key, and the key could only be found in the text. I have realized that, in order to write my wee paper, I have to stop reading, and, in fact, I have to winnow my questions and commentary in order to pull together a coherent short paper. Following are just a few extracts from my potentially infinite notes:

Why is a priest who left his parish—a priest who dropped an empty chalice, a priest who laughed, alone and in the dark, in the confessional—discussing theology with a boy? Does he believe what he teaches? He know longer practices what he preaches.

What does his ghost confess to the boy? How is he a “simoniac”? There is no indication that his sins—or his disappointments—are financial. The priest has his beef tea and his High Toast and his warm fire, but not much more, nor does he seem to need or want much more. He does have a pupil, an acolyte, a disciple, though. Is this his simony: the exchange of spiritual wisdom for worship? “I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true” (9); “an idle chalice on his breast” (18): idle = unmoving, pointless, worthless = idol: an invalid object of worship?

How does the boy feel about the priest? The first half of the story—up until he visits the “house of mourning”—is suffused with an uneasy feeling. He certainly shows an interest in the priest, and his uncle suggests that he will be saddened to learn of his death, but the boy himself displays only a slightly obsessed ambivalence. His vision of the priest’s ghostly head is ghastly and frightening. It’s only on being convinced that the priest is dead, and when he wonders at his sense of freedom, that the boy seems to care for the priest—but this is an ambivalent moment, too.

As the children say, wtf?

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Day 2
Day 4
Day 5

March 9, 2005 | Permalink


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