Saturday, August 05, 2006

On passing moods

It is strange how little we seem to devote our thoughts to the structure of our experience in the world, the texture of it - to the essence of our being, the still point. There surely are people who get honourable mentions, Joyce comes to mind, Virginia Woolf, maybe Heidegger and some other philosophers, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche; but even these really are not in any essential sense realistic.

I would think that this is due to a very simple matter: the immediate experience (yes, a controversial term) and language are two separate things. A word fixed on paper is an analogy, not a failed attempt at copying. Joyce's stream of consciousness knowingly attempts to catch something for ever uncatchable. Maybe you could say that consciousness, experience, is another language that we only partially know. The situation is complicated with the fact that we continuously mediate and shape this strange, this other language with the everyday one: thinking and feeling seem to be at times seemless, at times quite disjointed mixtures of the two. This observation goes against the grain of many postmodern interpretations which deny any separation: for them language is all. To me this gets it backward - I would say consciousness, the immediate experience, is all, and everyday language a partial and in many senses failed attempt for controlling it.

This is what makes prose seem like a variety of poetry and all analytic thought an almost impossible task. The things we try to refer to are forever hidden behind a veil. This complexity is mind numbing, paralyzing. And it makes us ruled by our passing moods, a passionate being in the world we have: it is our wild, cruel, exhilarating inheritance.


helsinkian said...

Hi, did you know that Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) used stream of consciousness in her novels before Joyce did? I've never read her and only very recently learned that she beat Joyce to it. After all, being first is a key criterion when it comes to measuring classic status in literary history. It's not just how you do it but also how innovative you are.

This is very interesting since Joyce's technique has often been called feminine. So I thought it is kind of interesting that a man actually invented it in that way. However, apparently Dorothy Richardson not only did it first but she wrote a whole series of thirteen novels called Pilgrimage using it. The first novel in that sequence is called Pointed Roofs (1915) and it was the first novel in English to use stream of consciousness.

Another thing that I didn't know was that May Sinclair (Mary Amelia St. Clair, 1862-1946) coined the term "stream of consciousness" and Dorothy Richardson disliked it, preferring "interior monologue". May Sinclair, a writer herself, reviewed Richardson's work and that's how she came to coin that term. I have to confess I had never heard of either Dorothy Richardson or May Sinclair until very recently indeed.

But I guess there is a lot for me to know about this whole World War I period. It's one of your favorite periods in history, isn't it?

helsinkian said...

Dorothy Richardson also has commented (in a letter to Henry Savage) the femininity of her writing:

"Monstrously, when I began, I felt only that all masculine novels to date, despite their various fascinations, were somehow irrelevant, & the feminine ones far too much influenced by masculine traditions, & too much set upon exploiting the sex-motif as, hitherto, seen & depicted by men."

So perhaps Richardson started a feminine tradition with Pointed Roofs and this was then something that Joyce continued and perfected in his work? Kind of comical that Dorothy Richardson would have felt feminine novels being too influenced by the masculine ones. But I guess it wasn't just her, the time was pretty obsessed with putting these "masculine" and "feminine" labels. Such labels of course used today as well, but there's more of an awareness that some women write masculine stuff and some men feminine stuff (as Joyce indeed has been credited for depicting a woman's thoughts in a convincing manner, which many people who say it's impossible for a man to do that, conveniently forget).

stockholm slender said...

Most interesting - I must confess being quite ignorant of Dorothy Richardson before this. I suppose you could call the technique "feminine", certainly there is a kind of sensitivity in it that has traditionally been seen as a more of a feminine quality. It is interesting that modern novels for the most part are not very innovative technically - I would not call postmodern techniques any more innovative. Novel writing has a quite a conservative character these days.

Yes, English (and European) history from 1870-1950 has a certain archetypal quality to me with one of the most central events being the 1st World War. Our present culture has been deeply affected by that cataclysmic and tragic time. In many ways we are its children.