Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On Difficulty

Hegel, Heidegger, Joyce

Come October, the leaves--such as they are--browning up, the sun suddenly reluctant to rise and eager to set, the mornings less hot--the new, post-climate-disaster iteration of autumn--my thoughts naturally turn to metaphysics.  No one brothers about his soul in summer, or worries about where ideas come from in lusty May, but with winter now looming I want to put my house in order, sort out what I know from what I surmise, and locate my Self in History. But mostly what I want more than anything is to understand the three writers who have flummoxed me for the past thirty years. I dust them off just around now, at the moment Columbus makes annual landfall on the wrong continent, open my notebooks to jot down any insights I might have into their--my authors'--inscrutable prose, and go to work.

First up is the most impenetrable book ever written, Herr Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. This time around, armed with Terry Eagleton's brilliantly concise and lucid summery of this philosophical classic (in Literary Theory, An Introduction), I felt confident, even cocky, as I approached page 294*, not many leagues beyond the point at which I pooped out last autumn: "The ethical Substance kept the antithesis confined within its simply unitary consciousness, and preserved this consciousness in an immediate unity with its essence. Essence has, therefore, the simple determinateness of mere being for consciousness, which is directed immediately upon it, and is the essence in the form of custom."

What constitutes difficulty in reading? The difficult in life is usually something that exceeds our physical, intellectual, or moral capabilities--running a marathon in old age, understanding Hegel, or loving our enemies. But difficult books, aside from difficult philosophy books (that is, all philosophy books), impenetrable poems and hopelessly obscure novels, shouldn't be out of the reach of a determined reader. Hegel reproduces the birth of the Spirit in History--nothing less--so he was pretty much obliged to concoct a language worthy of the metamorphoses of thinking into pure Thought, time into History, and living into Being. If we reach for the metaphysical, for the eternal and transcendent, then it is only fair that we face up to, and surmount, hellacious interpretive difficulties. Heck, if it were easy to read Hegel, everyone would do it. But fiction, however disinterested in the conventions of what can be, in all honesty, a rather tedious realism, must nonetheless come back to earth, to the mundane and ordinary. All right: not always (list your favorite exceptions here). But for the most part a talented reader can figure out what orbit an obscure novel belongs to, where to put it in the history of novels. But just knowing that Finnegan's Wake "reproduces" a night of dreams roughly complementary to Ulysses's day of wanderings hardly opens FW to our understanding. Can't I, with a dictionary and Don Gifford as helpmates crack Joyce? Yes, I've read Ulysses, once (perhaps in hope of a Catholic miracle) in Dublin itself, but I haven't surmounted the difficulties--not by a longshot.

So, Joyce. No walk in the park to be sure. Don Gifford's essential Ulysses Annotated is as long as the novel, untangling each of the thousand allusions lost to those who haven't read "Hamlet" or the Odyssey or the Mabinogion or Irish history, or everything else Jim crammed into his twenty-year-old brain sitting in the Trinity Library. But then, compared to Hegel, Joyce, even at his most difficult, should be smooth sailing. Take this passage from the Proteus episode (Stephan killing time before his aborted noon meeting with Buck Mulligan): "Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler's will. From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever." Without a background in Catholic theology and in Joyce's life story even this short passage is difficult; of course we delight in the language itself. in the delirious cadences of Joyce's prose, in the brilliance of his invention, but still--who is the "coupler?"

Joyce's great genius was structural--making a novel out of shards of the Western canon--but it was also poetic and elusive, Catholic and agnostic, high culture and low. A difficulty far different from Hegel's, a difficulty rooted in the body, in the incomprehensibility of ordinary life. When we read Heidegger in Being in Time, that "Being is always the being of a being," we smile at the tautology, but when we read Heidegger with Joyce, at least a few of the difficulties of each writer vanish into the greasy air of Sandycove. Difficulty comes not from the language used, or from (to mime Joyce) the ineluctable fact of our being, but from what I think of as "mimetic yearning," that is from the desire to capture in language pure Being (Hegel or Heidegger) or unmediated consciousness (Joyce). It can't be done, of course, but the conceit of modernism in philosophy and in literature was that it could, that fragmented consciousness, the incoherence of history, the content of the unknowable unconscious mind could be reproduced--more: that reproducing these things was the entire point of thinking and writing, the highest aspiration of human genius.

 Hegel's impenetrable Phenomenology does, after all, have a plot, and Joyce, for all his allusiveness, yearns toward meaning by claiming the history of literature as his structural model. The most difficult writing is that which invents a new form through which to reproduce the conscious intentions of the writer--obviously--but the difficulty of writing and the near impossibility of reading** must also be seen as residing in language itself, in the shortcomings of words when faced with the opacity and in-communicability of our Being. This deep idea of Heidegger's is one that I think I get. For Hegel, Being unfolds in history, and in keeping with the romantic propensity toward wrapping homely truths in clouds of glory, this Being turns out to be Christianity itself--nothing new there, just the insight that History and Self-Consciousness, when blended with a heady dose of Germanic prolixity, yield precisely the same insights found in St. Thomas or Plotinus. But Heidegger takes us further by showing that reality is language, a truth he might have gathered from Joyce, had he read him.

*Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford, 1977.
**This apocalyptic pronouncement must be taken with a shaker of salt, but owes something to a month of reading Terry Eagleton and one page of Jacques Derrida.

George Ovitt (10/8/14)

No comments:

Post a Comment