Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sticking to one's guns

James Joyce as a Question MarkLinkI've reached the last third of Richard Ellmann's James Joyce. The time is after World War I. Joyce, who spent most of the war in Zurich, is back in Trieste. He is working to complete Ulysses, which he wrote episode by episode, with the style and narrative effect different for each. It didn't occur to me until just now, but what Joyce was doing in the writing in that sense must be similar to what Picasso was doing with his painting - depicting simultaneity yet from different perspectives. That necessitated the style changes and the underlying issue Joyce was tackling to change with each episode.

But Joyce was not very productive in this period. He lived in a cramped flat with 9 other people, his family, his brother, and another family. There was rampant inflation and scarcity of food and places to live. He needed new clothes but couldn't afford them. He had an anonymous patron who sent him funds regularly, but they were insufficient. He had a nominal job at the University teaching English but it didn't pay much and it took away time from the writing. Ultimately he quit that so he could focus on the writing. His work was high minded and while it appealed to aesthetes it didn't sell particularly well so didn't generate a lot of royalties. He could have written more popular stuff. He had the opportunities. His name was then well known. But that would have been time taken away from working on Ulysses so he declined those opportunities.

Ellmann gives us some rather fascinating correspondence between Joyce and Ezra Pound, who is his intellectual booster and go between to the world of the literati. Pound, in discussing Joyce with others, reports that Joyce had a deserved reputation of being difficult to get along with, but in most instances regarding the crux of the argument Joyce was in the main right. And in the absence of these disagreements Joyce could be affable and charming.

I have been scratching my head the last few days on whether it is only the artist who can resist compromise to get on with matters, the art the justification for the purity of thought, or whether the rest of us should too. If you juxtapose reading about Joyce with reading about the negotiations on raising the debt ceiling, I have been making those juxtapositions since they seem inevitable to me, how can it be to so admire Joyce and yet hold the Grover Norquist acolytes in such low regard? Here sticking to one's guns seems an irresponsible vice. Vin Weber is making compromise look like the higher intellectual form. What is the principle that determines which is better?

Yesterday I got back my teaching evaluations. I will write a post later dedicated just to them. But here I simply want to note that my intermediate something I've written about earlier. My students found my tests very difficult and they judged my teaching inadequate because it didn't prepare them to score well on the exams. I should note that as a teacher Joyce was a very harsh grader, but was very informal in his lectures and somewhat disorganized in his instruction. In this respect, he is similar to me.

Can the teacher afford to take on the mindset of the writer?

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