quinta-feira, março 30, 1995

Leopold Bloom, A Man For All Time: "Ulysses" by James Joyce



I started off thinking Ulysses was a pile of incoherent drivel, even though I'd never got past the first page. At 20 I would sit in the uni bar getting pissed and slagging off literary types and lecturers who mentioned it (some of them were pretentious posers; some of them weren't). At 30 I decided to put up or shut up by actually reading it so that I could explain why it was incoherent drivel. The result was that I was drawn into it and have read it five times cover-to-cover. Like a lot of challenging literature, it requires a bit of life experience to get into.

The funniest bit in 'Ulysses' is when he's browsing a second hand book store for a book for his wife. As nice as she is, Bloom obviously knows she's not really on his intellectual/reading level. He decides to look for the kind of romance, Mills&Boon, type books for her. In the whole novel of course, the narrative style has it that the description of action, his thoughts, what he's reading, and his speech are all rolled together in the same syntax. So it's funny when he comes across a book, flicks to a random page and it says something like 'and she wore her finest gowns for him, she would do anything, for Raoul', and he just pisses himself, deciding there and then:

This is it. This is the book. This one.”

Then a few pages later, the quote crops up again in his mind (much like things come back to us after a while when doing something completely unrelated) and he laughs about it again. A very interesting outline of the psychological process.

Random thoughts:

- Interestingly enough, Joyce was very influenced in on the porno-lit side, by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz. Joyce was a diagnosed schizo, which disease, at the beginning, made for one of the world's great Kustwerke, Ulysses, but in its way-out stages made for his garbled nonsense, "Finnegans Wake", as well. There is, really, too much of a good thing. Too much mouse running up your clock, jumbles up your hickorydickory beyond comprehension;

- To me "Ulysses" is still the #1 laugh-out-loud novel of all time, worth every minute of effort---and the best critical intro is still Ellmann's relatively small but high-impact "Ulysses on the Liffey." Read that first and you'll instantly enjoy 90% of the tough parts. Still laughing about the Irishman dragged away for setting a cathedral on fire. "I'm bloody sorry I did it," says he, "but I declare to God I thought the archbishop was in there."

- How could you not love Leopold Bloom? He talks to his cat. He eats with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls, which "give to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine". He wonders if it would be possible to cross Dublin without passing a pub. He surreptitiously observes the marble goddesses in the lobby of the National Museum to see if they have anuses. He buys pornographic novels for his wife, masturbates on a public beach without getting caught, and picks the winner at Ascot without even trying. The most endearing character in all literature.

sábado, março 25, 1995

Causabon's Key To All Mythologies with Guinness and Opera: “Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce



"We'll meet again, we'll part once more. The spot I'll seek if the hour you'll find. My chart shines high where the blue milk's upset."

In “Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce


Joyce could really write. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is exquisite, and Ulysses” is a masterpiece. I see Joyce as a product of his 'modernist' era, certainly, but a sincere one. He was reaching for something, a kind of synthesis of prose and poetry that came close to the true language of the mind. It's remarkable how much of Finnegans Wake is comprehensible, in spite of the fact that Joyce's words don't actually exist; we know what he means, or we can guess at it, which would be impossible if it was just gibberish. The question is whether it's worth the trouble. So much of what goes on in our minds is just noise, and really, who wants to read a transcription of mental static, no matter how impressive the act of having transcribed it? I've never finished Finnegans Wake, and I'm not sure whether that's my issue or Joyce's. To paraphrase Rossini talking about Wagner, Joyce's writing has some wonderful moments but some terrible quarter-hours! I got the idea that I was missing things, and hallucinating things of my own accord; I found it not very fruitful. Can't remember it that well, either, much like some of my own teenage years, then...On a sentence level is makes little sense - or if it does, thought it's so angular. On a wider level, structurally, it's like The Divine Comedy - Joyce created his own mythological cosmos - and typically for him he based it on a normal family. Or it reminds me of Ovid and his Metamorphosis or Blake's prophetic poems... it's that kind of work.

I agree that bits of it are sublime, but in my experience it takes real determination to get to them. It was the act of a very large ego to write something that assumed people would take the time to wallow in someone else's unconscious over an extended period. I think that life is short, the world full of difficult books and you need to be selective. I think I'd rather re-read Middlemarch or Odysseus; they're more comprehensible and I feel better reading them than I do with the Wake.

Ulysses certainly changed the English Language but "Finnegans Wake" didn't. A waste of time, a beautiful waste of time; it’s a case of Causabon's Key To All Mythologies with Guinness and Opera.

quarta-feira, março 22, 1995

Addled Knight Goes Looking for Trouble and Finds It: "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes


“El que lee mucho y anda mucho, ve mucho y sabe mucho.”


In "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is one of my favourite novels, exasperating though it is at times with all those stories within stories knockabout humour and cruel practical jokes. Simply because it’s so complex, we both admire and laugh at Don Quixote. When he speaks we are inclined to share his world view. And then Cervantes reminds us of what a ridiculous figure he is and undermines the effect. Until Quixote opens his mouth again. This happens again and again - until we end up seeing the novel - and the world - in two incompatible ways at once. And the relationship between Quixote and Sancho is one of the most beautiful friendships in literature. And then there are all the meta-fictional or postmodern tricks. There’s just so much to talk about.  

Violent slapstick isn’t to everyone’s taste and four hundred-year-old Spanish satire, where you have to read the footnotes to get the punch line, is … tricky. There is not in all the world’s literature, and that of the universe, as far as we know, and if you follow positivist logic, being as no other life has as of yet been detected, two palsy and yet hierarchised figures whose genial, sharp, philosophical and jocoserious dialogue, and whose philosophical adventures, bring them so endearing and humanly close to each other as the “Distinguidos” Señores Alonso Quijano and Sancho Panza. It is worth it to learn Spanish and travel the entire peninsula, which Alberti said looks like the hide of a bull, just to appreciate the impressive genius with which a writer can glean and reproduce in words the soul of his land.

Cervantes also proves being a misogynist does not preclude great literature. Nor does being a violent, macho hypocrite. Hemingway sends his regards.

sexta-feira, março 10, 1995

Willing Suspension of Disbelief: “The First Lensman” by E. E. Doc Smith


(My own English Edition bought in 1999)


"Nobody does anything for nothing. Altruism is beautiful in theory, but it has never been known to work in practice."


In “The First Lensman” by E. E. Doc Smith


In many or most written SF, certainly in SF films, the canny audience member engages in a willing suspension of disbelief. The question for me often comes down to just a couple considerations--is it a bridge too far, just too many stupidities of too gross a scale for me to be able to buy-in? And am I enjoying myself on other levels--is it just so fun or cool or exciting, or are the characters and story just so damned compelling, that I can't help but have a good time? So, if I'm not offended by the stupidity, and the work in question as a narrative, then I'm happily able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy it.  

Ok. it's only SF but..

Kimball Kinnison, gains a “sense of perception,” allowing him to perceive nearby objects without using the standard five senses.  He can “see” through solid objects, for example.  That does involve interaction with inanimate matter, of course; but the interaction is all one way—he can’t affect the things he perceives.

...is Kimball Kinnison’s quantum data idea perceiving nearby objects without using the standard five senses that far fetched? Kimball can “see” through solid objects, for example.  That does involve interaction with inanimate matter, of course; but the interaction is all one way—he can’t affect the things he perceives. Too bad we don’t have any Black Holes. Imagine if you had a pair of entangled photons, kept one and sent the other off to the black hole, then the remaining one would "resolve" itself - it's wave-function would collapse - when the first one reaches the horizon. And that could give you some information about the horizon. But if the first photon passes through the horizon without incident, then you could get information from within, which probably violates several important theories about this kind of stuff. Maybe. What I’d give to read what Doc Smith would make of Back Holes...

Anyway, some of treatments I’ve been reading in contemporary SF books dealing with Black Holes have no excuse. Nowadays the theoretical body of knowledge is vast. It’s difficult to find a SF novel dealing with the latest views about black holes related to Planck objects and compact surfaces. There’s where the meat is. There is nothing inside a black hole, everything gets smeared on the surface. So no wormholes and no quick jump to another planet, just a kind of file compression for matter and energy.

(*someone-waving-in-back-and-shouting: “you lost me at OK!”*)

(*another-one-waving-in-back-and-shouting: “Wouldn't work - entanglement would break down as the photon fell into the back hole. Nothing other than Hawking radiation gets out, including light. At best what you'd get would be an entangled photon that forever seemed to be frozen in space, doing nothing. Remember, Einstein's relativity.”*)

Me: “And how many photons would you need to entangle to get useful information from the edge of a black hole anyway? Billions?

(*another-sceptic-snoozing-in-back!: ZZZZZzzzzzzzzz...........*)

(*the-same-another-one-waving-in-back-and-shouting: “Only kidding..! Wish I could grasp some of this malarkey as all I seem to be able to do at parties to empty them is turn my eyelids inside out and gurn.

Me: “I agree. But then I'm as thick as a Planck, Constantly.

(*another-one-waving-in-back-and-shouting: “I like the idea of zooming off into space, accelerating to near the speed of light for a few days, then coming back to Earth to find that several hundred years have passed and that your 100 euros invested in Nat West is now worth 10 000 000 euros. Or not.*) 

(*the-one-snoozing-in-back-just-woke: “Thanks for spoiling the fun, Manuel! You're the frigging scientist, but I always thought the better means of space travel was going to be something like the Spacing Guild of "Dune" uses where they "fold" space. Are any scientists working on that?”*)

Me: “I am in NO way a scientist, but can't someone here work out a formula for this? Mix in entertainment factor over reality over production investment over other 'sciency stuff'. See, I told you I was no scientist, but I love those mad looking scrawls on blackboards...*)

(*another-one-waving-in-back-and-shouting: “Wait, so there's no benevolent aliens who might have parked a wormhole besides Saturn so we crazy, self-destructive primates might find another planet to exploit as capitalism rapes and ruins Mother Earth? That sucks.*)


Nb: For those of you who don’t know, “First Lensman” was the last one to be written.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, março 04, 1995

Realistic Sounding Nonsense: "Triplanetary" E.E. "Doc" Smith

(my own English edition bought in 1999)


"Immediately before the Coalescence began there was one,and only one, planetary solar system in the Second Galaxy; and, until the advent of Eddore, the Second Galaxy was entirely devoid of intelligent life"

In "Triplanetary" by E. E. "Doc" Smith


There are only three real approaches to physics in SF:

1. Absolute hard core real physics with speculative aspects;
2. Realistic sounding nonsense;
3. Unrealistic sounding nonsense.

(bought in 1999; cost = 1980 Portuguese escudos, around 9.88 euros in today's European currency)


I am personally a fan of approach 2. This gave us stuff like "Triplanetary", "First Lensman", etc.

In response to those suggesting that dissecting the science in SF novels is redundant and possibly silly, I would argue for a dichotomy. On the one hand, you have SF that are just that, fiction (in case of "Triplanetary", crap fiction). Importantly, they do not claim to be more. They could be set in the distant future, use blatantly non-existent faux-physics terms to drive the plot (e.g. "dilithium" crystals, inertialess drives, colliding galaxies (*), etc.), not address time-travel paradoxes etc. That's fine... they stay within the realms of their claim and no-one expects them to be accurate. On the other hand, there's stuff that claims to be based on what we currently know about space and physics (e.g. Apollo 13, Gravity, Interstellar). I think this category of SF needs to get things right as much as possible. When truth and fiction are mixed, it is important to be able to tell which is which. As a parallel, I do know that "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is not a historically accurate biography.


If a film made the claim that it was a Lincoln biography, I would expect it to be broadly accurate. Otherwise, I would be misled. Yep, it is silly to suggest that Apollo 11 did not land on the moon... having said that, Apollo 13 also reached and successfully landed on the moon (not shown in the film). This was never disclosed because the secret world government does not want you to know that that's when we first made contact with aliens. This tripartite agreement for secrecy between the world government, the Bush family and Elvis representing the aliens, came about because humanity is not yet considered ready for alien contact. Furthermore, the aliens do not want you to know that tin-foil hats are indeed the best defense against their mind-control weapons. One day, the truth will come out thanks to people like me writing reviews and trying not to make derogatory comments on Doc Smith's "science". This story was published in serial form in 1934 ffs, more than 80 years ago! What did we know about science in the 30s when it came to Astrophysics and Cosmology! Nothing!


PS. (*) Galaxies do actually collide, within local clusters and superclusters, just because of gravity. It's only on the very largest scales that they are all moving apart. So, Doc Smith was not that far off...


NB: Read in 1985 for the first time. Re-read in 1995.


SF = Speculative Fiction