Thursday, February 25, 2016

Joyce’s Celtic Knot

Sometime in the last year I read – I think it was in Lewis, but it may have been William James – that stream-of-consciousness writing isn’t realistic. Once I’m aware of my stream of consciousness, that awareness itself becomes the stream of consciousness; the regular stream dries up and is replaced by the deliberate thought of myself trying to think outside myself thinking. I get glimpses of my own thought stream, but only about as long as the glimpses I might get of the refrigerator light being off.

I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness (although I actually like it better – or dislike it less – than the interior monologues that have become a staple in popular-fiction narrative). But here I am in the middle of the Mississippi of streams of consciousness: Joyce’s Ulysses. (If I understand correctly, and I certainly may not, I have to reserve the name “Amazon of streams of consciousness” for Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.) It’s amazing to watch the steam roll by and run to the Irish Sea. Connections get fragmented and reconnected. Sentences get fragmented, sometimes ending with “the.” Then words get fragmented and recombined, then parts of words. Bits of Homer, body-part themes, characters going about their business in the streets of Dublin, songs, opera lyrics, rhymes, homonyms, and nonsense syllables all whirl and meet and fly apart again in a giddy Celtic knot of twisted prose. I’ve read three sources that try to sort out all the references, and they certainly help. But I haven’t come across anyone yet who wants to say what they get out of the novel other than this mesmerizing web. Is any reader inspired by it to live a better life? Does anyone admire the book as an honest presentation of human truth executed with expertise? Is anyone entertained? Do they laugh, or cry? I’m about 40% of the way through, and so far, I’d have to say it has struck me like an large, elaborate word-search puzzle with a clever network of themes, but as nothing more.

Oh, sure, there are the two main characters: Stephen Dedalus with a mind that wanders though puns in different languages and theories of Shakespeare, and Leopold Bloom, whose errant thoughts stumble through poorly understood science but mostly gravitate toward sex. Stephen is too esoteric to be inspiring. Since all his heady thoughts keep breaking up over the rocks without ever reaching a stable conclusion, I’m sure he isn’t meant to be a model, anyway; he appears to me more as a portrayal of the futility of intellectualism. Joyce’s mode of presentation of that idea is new, but it’s said done before and – in my lonely view – better by Solomon, Erasmus, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and others. Leopold, on the other hand, only shows me that people are animals. So, no, so far I’m not getting anything more than a puzzle.

I thought Ulysses would be terribly difficult to read because of all the references. But I found quickly that knowing the references only makes the work – again again, this is only the point of view of one man, a man who teaches young people how to spell chords for a living – more complex, not deeper. At one point Bloom thinks about a man having a “base barreltone” voice. OK, I’m a musician, so I got that one myself: he misspelled “bass” and morphed “baritone.” So is Joyce telling us that the human voice, far from being an echo of the music of angels, is just a base croak? A noise as lifeless as the wooden slats and iron hoops in a barrel? Or is he just showing us that Bloom doesn’t know what he’s talking about . . . er, thinking about. I could probably read more in all those secondary sources and trace twenty other hidden references on that page only to find that I now know twenty things better than Leopold Bloom does, which would tell me that after all my hard work, I don’t actually know any more about Bloom himself. Or I could find that Joyce has simply found twenty other ways of telling me that man is an object and life meaningless. I’m trying to think of a way to express that summary more eloquently. Let’s see. Oh! How about this? Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Does that express it clearly?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One Case of Karma

Once again, after four years, I have given myself the daunting task of commenting on my brief reading in the literature of Buddhism. I can’t entirely agree with what I’ve read in the last few days, and yet such sources provide the basis of virtuous living for multitudes, including some who have been among my best friends. I don’t entirely understand Buddhism (a gross understatement), and yet I find inspiration in some of its practices and views. I’ve read several passages, and yet I’ve only scratched the surface of Buddhist scripture, and I must even confess my ignorance on what schools of Buddhism (if any) revere the particular selections I’ve read. So I hesitate because I don’t want either to defend or offend, either to ignore or to misrepresent. I just looked over my previous blog post on Buddhism, and it puts one more impediment in my way: I know I can’t treat the subject as well today as I did then. Perhaps the Siddharta Gautama would tell me to escape the illusion of this dilemma by not writing at all. But once again, I find I foolishly persist.

It has become common to hear people talk about “spirituality” rather than “religion.” I sometimes hear or read someone to have said that he or she is spiritual but not religious. The cultural shift comes, I think, with growth of the thought that all religions are essentially the same, or at least that what they all have in common is what’s really important. I suppose that if one looks at the world’s major religions and sees that they all encourage humility and benefiting others by good acts, they start to look more alike. And where the Buddhist writings I just read exhort me to humility and selfless acts, I find a point of contact, familiar ground, even inspiration.

But religions also make claims about the nature of reality, especially about the reality that we will experience after death, and these claims generally conflict with one another. (And the claim that the person disappears after death so that there is no experience to be had conflicts with the claims of most religions.) I’ve just read that the thought that "some particular form of existence will prove to be the cessation of misery" is an illusion. Do I want the cessation of misery? Yes. But I also want to experience that cessation, which I can only do if I exist. My Lord tells me He’s preparing a place for me where I can live forever with Him in happiness and glory. So if the Buddhist is right, then I’m wrong. Buddhism and Christianity are most definitely not the same, and if I want to be spiritual by following one of these paths, I must be “religious” if “religious” means that I am devoted to or belong to one religion rather than another.

So I wanted to establish this clear difference before admitting that I found a surprising connection between the truth claims of Christianity and of Buddhism in the doctrine of karma. The passages I read made it very clear that, in the Buddhist view, what is reborn after a conscious being dies is not the same being and not the same consciousness. I got no sense from what I read that a person could, with the right form of meditation, remember past lives. But the life of one being causes, at its death, certain aspects of a life yet to be born. The forest fire, I read, is not the same as the flame on my torch, but it may cause the forest fire; and so it is with life. What is passed from one life to another is not consciousness or identity but karma: the tendency to right or wrong action and the merit or guilt that calls for reward or punishment. Now doesn’t the Christian believe that, while he is not Adam, he has inherited both Adam’s tendency to sin and his guilt? I was actually astounded at how right these Buddhist passages on karma sounded to me when I read them as explanations of original sin.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Mysteries of Edwin Drood

No one who ends up reading Dickens’s great unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, can come away from it without ongoing thoughts, questions, and theories. I thought so much about it after finishing the interrupted classic last week, I read one book about possible solutions and half of another – and then read Edwin Drood again in two days (far faster than my usual mode of reading). If no one has found a smoking gun in the 146 years since Dickens’s death halfway through writing the novel, it seems certain that no one ever will. We are left, then, with theories and conjectures that can never be proven. And we just have to be happy living in that state.

But for the record, let me list what I think are the main questions left unanswered and then provide my speculative answers on some of them.
• Is Edwin dead, or has he just disappeared?
• If he is alive, is he hiding deliberately or against his will?
• If dead, who killed him?
• A related question: would Dickens have lied to his loved ones about who killed Edwin?
• What does John Jasper’s opium addiction have to do with anything?
• What caused the scream that Durdles heard on Christmas Eve one year earlier?
• What does Sapsea’s crypt have to do with anything?
• How is the ring found?
• Why does Jasper have to go to the roof of the cathedral to do whatever it is he does?
• What actually happens at the Christmas Eve dinner party?
• Who is Dick Datchery?
• Who is the figure in the lantern light in the artwork of the title page?
For people who haven’t read the novel but are still reading this post for some reason, let me offer a brief outline. Everyone in Cloisterham says John Jasper, the cantor at the cathedral and a secret opium addict, loves his nephew, Edwin Drood. Edwin comes to Cloisterham to see his uncle and his fiancée, Rosa Bud. On his first night back in town, he meets hotheaded Neville Landless, who has fallen for Rosa just enough to be offended by Edwin’s careless attitude toward her. It turns out that Jasper is also infatuated with Rosa.

Then on Christmas Eve night, during a great storm, Edwin disappears, and two pieces of his jewelry are found at a dam on the local river. But most characters don’t know that Edwin has also been carrying a ring that he considered using in proposing marriage to Rosa. In the stonemason’s yard is a pile of quicklime, which will dissolve clothing, flesh, and bones but not metal or gems, so presumably the ring was to have been found in the lime later in the book either to complicate or to reveal the mystery. Dickens does everything he can in the book to make Jasper look guilty; Jasper does everything he can to make Neville look guilty. The author described to his artist what pictures should adorn the title page, so they probably hold some clues. Friends and family asked for spoilers as the monthly numbers came out, and Dickens, if he said anything at all to them, told everyone that Jasper strangled his nephew with a scarf.

Now here are my conjectures. Most readers think Jasper killed Edwin. A very few think Neville killed Edwin. But I haven’t come across anyone else who proposes what I imagine: I think that Neville killed Edwin but did so unwillingly and even unwittingly, under Jasper’s control. Let me explain. Jasper has various powers of persuasion. He clearly uses laudanum to drug people at various moments in the parts of the story that we have, and he appears to have powers of telepathy or mesmerism, as well. Everyone in town keeps saying that he has such great affection for Edwin in almost the same words, and I can’t help thinking about The Manchurian Candidate; it seems to me that Jasper has brainwashed the whole town in order to deflect suspicion from himself when he finally does away with his nephew. So I think Jasper used his drugs and his paranormal powers to manipulate Neville into doing the deed. It appears in the existing text that he drugged the two young men in order to orchestrate the original fight between them. In a later scene in which Jasper hides behind a wall and intently watches an unsuspecting Neville, I think he mystically plants the plan in Neville’s mind. Then on Christmas Eve, when Edwin and Neville were to meet, supposedly to shake hands and let bygones be bygones, I think Jasper drugged them both again and controlled them once more for his foul purposes, getting rid of Edwin and making all the evidence point to Neville, thus killing two birds – i.e. rivals for Rosa’s affections – with one stone.
Jasper goes out of his way to get the key to Mr. Sapsea’s crypt, so supposedly he would have hidden Edwin’s body there. But why bother checking out the roof of the cathedral? It’s possible Jasper only meant to give Edwin a scare at first and then lock him alive in the crypt. Edwin may have slipped (those roof tiles on the ground the next morning might not have come from the storm!) and been caught in Jasper’s scarf, suffocating as he dangled from the top of the cathedral. One way or another, I think that Jasper had a plan that in Dickens's scheme was to go awry when an opium fit came on, and that Edwin died in a way Jasper didn’t expect.

Dickens’s sense of poetic justice and his penchant for life on the boards both make it obvious to me that Datchery is Bazzard. Bazzard is melancholy because he can’t get his play produced, but in disguising himself as Dick Datchery, he finds theatrical success after all. It’s the perfect Dickensian character resolution. I have no idea what Durdles heard or who the lamp-lit figure in the artwork is. But I do have an idea that Dickens may well have led his loved ones down false paths with his private hints. Both secondary sources I read said Dickens wouldn’t lie to these people. But would it really be a lie even if untrue? Telling a story is in a sense a lie, and Dickens did that all the time. Couldn’t he merely have been trying to prolong the fun for those near him? Of course, if he did say what he said in order to throw friends and relations off the scent, then Jasper didn’t kill Edwin after all, and my whole hypothesis is gone. But we’ll never know for sure, so I choose to think that I’m on to something.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Oh, What Could Have Been!

It is arguably the greatest mystery story ever written, if “greatest mystery” means “most mysterious because still unsolved.” It is most certainly the greatest mystery story ever half written. For Charles Dickens died halfway through writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If someone had written the historical events as a fictional story about an author writing a story, it would sound too contrived to be enjoyable.

Consider the situation. Charles Dickens is the most popular English author of his time. For thirty-five years he has made a practice of publishing his novels in monthly installments – at times, weekly installments. His fans all read his books together, a bit at a time, month by month as the numbers appear. In between issues, all of England (and America, for that matter) talk about it and speculate on what favorite characters will do next or how the poor orphan hero will get out of the current scrape. Everywhere the Great Man goes, his adoring public besieges him with questions: “Is Little Nell Alive?” “Who will Esther marry?” And the love affair is mutual; the author finds energy and inspiration in his readers’ ongoing reactions to his unfolding tales. Given this scenario, it was almost bound to happen. At some point, every Dickens novel was half finished. Approximately nineteen months out of every twenty during his career, Charles Dickens’s death would have left the world wondering what was supposed to happen next in their latest favorite.

But in 1869, the Father of Pickwick and Micawber decided to write a mystery: the kind of book in which everything –  every character, every plot point, every mundane object someone picks up or carelessly drops – points to the end. And then almost exactly halfway through it, he died, leaving the greatest mystery in the history of mystery. Not only are we unsure who killed Edwin Drood, we don’t even know that he has been killed. Does a plausible scenario exist in which Dickens anticipated his death (his doctors had been telling him he needed to slow down) and planned the ultimate cliffhanger?

What a book it would have been! As it stands, every paragraph is entertaining, every page provides what seems to be a clue that sets the reader thinking and trying to anticipate the revelations of the penultimate chapter, even knowing that the penultimate chapter, and hence the revelations, departed the Earth forever with the fertile mind of Charles Dickens. From the setting, the mystery, and the characters Dickens bequeathed to us, it’s clear that it would have been one of his best. But Edwin Drood will never be a favorite, because mysteries need endings so very badly. I've been raving about the book to my wife, but she said she thought she could never read a book knowing the ending would never come. I’m so sorry that she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

My favorite character is Mr. Grewgious, attorney at law and guardian of the marriageable Rosa Bud. Let’s just start with the name itself, the perfect Dickens name: absolutely and without a doubt a possible combination in the English language, and yet never heard before or since. Mr. Grewgious has too much neck at the top and too much ankle at the bottom. His face gives the odd impression of being an unfinished work of art (like the book he appears in!), and on his scalp sits a knot of yellow stuff that doesn’t look like hair and yet couldn’t be a wig because no sane person would ever willingly top his head with anything so unattractive. He is awkward in physique: he constantly apologizes for himself for being too “Angular” (with brilliant Dickensian capitalization). He is awkward as well in sociability: conversations come so unnaturally to him that he must make a list of points and mark them off one-by-one, starting with asking about his interlocutor’s well-being and ending with saying “Good-bye.” Almost anything is possible in a mystery novel: the seemingly most virtuous character can turn out to be a habitual killer. But surely Dickens predestined Mr. Grewgious to righteousness. For one thing, he works with Minor Canon Crisparkle to aid Rosa in her distress, and the name “Crisparkle” must in the Dickensian world indicate a man who bears the sparkling light of Christ. I may not be 100% sure who the murderer is, but I know Mr. Grewgious is among the heroes who will bring him (or, with a probability of roughly 1.06%, her) to justice.

This past Sunday, on Charles Dickens’s birthday during year 10 of my ten-year plan, I finished rereading all of Dickens’s novels. I saved Edwin Drood for last the first time, and I saved him for last the second time. I wanted to savor the full effect of the abrupt ending to the career of the greatest English novelist. Like standing at the edge of the Cliffs of Dover and looking out over the empty sea with the knowledge of all the blessed plot of England behind me, I wanted to step to the edge of Edwin Drood (which, if one includes the “Sapsea fragment” found posthumously among Dickens’s papers, ends midsentence) and take in the view with Scrooge and David Copperfield and Captain Cuttle and Magwitch and the Boffinses and the whole blessed cloud of unforgettable characters behind me. I could pine: Oh, what could have been! But this way it’s easier to rejoice: Oh, What Is!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Simplified History

I’m teaching the History of Western Music Theory this semester. It’s a difficult class to teach and to take, but one that I love. The story of music theory draws a thread through the sweep of western civilization that ties together the histories of mathematics, science, philosophy, aesthetics, education, politics, and economics. It covers so much ground and involves so many complexities, no one person has ever tried to write a comprehensive book on the subject. So to understand it and to teach it, I have to simplify. As if taking a rich super-HD picture (those nature videos on the TVs at Costco look pretty amazing) and pixelating it to a vague outline that makes sense if yu squint hard enough, I try to back-burner a lot of the details and round off most of the dates. I know that the true story is more complicated than what I memorize, but I also know that I wouldn’t remember it if I tried to assimilate all the messy details into my basic mental picture.

Sometimes I find out that my simplified history of some particular topic focuses on the wrong detail. I first learned about the date 1453, for instance, in my History of Theory course during my doctoral study. (You can read about my relationship with that date here.) I held on to that date as a watershed moment in the history of religion, political borders, scholarship, and philosophy for thirty years and then found out that 1439, the year of the Council of Florence, was perhaps the more important year in that story. Thank you, Will Durant! I’ll be teaching both dates and their significance to my class in just a couple of weeks, and then I’ll remind them that the real picture is more complex than this simple collage of just two snapshots. But still, I’ll emphasize 1439 as the date for them to remember.

Every once in a while, I teach a simplified vision of some historical development and discover a better view in time to tell the class about it. But I don’t remember this ever happening in a single day before. Just this past Monday, we discussed a chapter on medieval music theory that said, “In a civilization that could all too easily have taken a turn” toward censorship, Augustine validated the study of pagan literature and philosophy. In explaining that line, we discussed what medieval Christian Europe was like and how influential Augustine was (and is). The simple tale I offered explained that the Empire became officially Christian and fell at essentially the same time (according to my loose system of round dates), which also happened to be the time of Augustine’s writing. Since the Fall of Rome ushers in the Middle Ages in my Simplified History (TM), and since in that same blocky view Augustine’s influence enjoyed universal and immediate acknowledgement, Christian Europe just accepted ancient Pagan writing with no qualms.

That very day at lunch, I started reading this year’s selection from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There I read that in the span between the decree of Theodosius making Christianity the official religion of the Empire (in 391) and the appearance of the first parts of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (397), Christians displayed a triumphalism over paganism that made me quite uncomfortable. For instance, where Theodosius was happy simply to ban sacrifices to Jupiter and his pantheon, Christian bishops – including Augustine’s mentor, Ambrose – led a crusade to destroy the temples themselves. In Alexandria, they sacked the library, an act of vandalism that Gibbon found especially lamentable. So the messier truth is that Christian Europe did in fact take that turn for a few years. It seems obvious now. Augustine didn’t start saying that all truth is God’s truth and that Christians should accept whatever good they find in the eloquently written classics just on a whim. He didn’t promote his view in response to a couple of polite questions from the more studious members of his congregation. No, he wrote what he wrote in an attempt to halt a continent-wide, fear-fueled campaign of senseless destruction. We can be thankful that his efforts met with success.

Coincidences like this one (if not always quite so spectacular) meet me often on the journey through my reading plan. Yesterday, in listening to a biography of the sixth President of the United States, I learned that John Quincy Adams read Gibbon’s masterwork while serving as U. S. Ambassador to Prussia. Like a traveling lover buoyed by the thought that he and his beloved are looking at the same moon, I enjoyed thinking I that the book I had read that very day linked me with this most learned of American Presidents. But then I heard that he read it at a clip of fifty pages a day, and I had to stop my private back-patting session. It takes my entire lunch hour to read only six pages.