Monthly Archives: August 2015

J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and the unteachable graniteness

The trouble, if it can really be named as such, for many contemporary authors is the baggage that comes with national identity. For many, to think of them as separate or divisible from their nationality would be an impossibility. There are some who seem born into the role as elder statesmen or cultural ambassadors, one thinks of Seamus Heaney and his sublime speech to the Nobel committee. 

There are others who seem far more ambivalent or unwilling to engage in the role, such as J.M. Coetzee. His quiet personality, supposedly ascetic lifestyle (discussed, I think, because of its congruencies with the tenor of his prose), moral vegetarianism and reticence to publicly engage with others features so prominently in reviews of his work probably because of his withdrawn qualities, demonstrating the media’s dogged determination to do away with the mystique that accrues to particular authors, not realising that these investigations will result in the dispersal of exactly that same mystique that marks these figures out as being interesting in the first place. Oh, the media. This is partially why I look forward to reading Here and Now, a collection of correspondence between Coetzee and Paul Auster, one author famed for his lack of public participation just as much as the other relishes it.

One of my favourite classes during my undergraduate degree was one on contemporary Irish fiction. Apart from having an improbably high density of my favourite ever novels written by my favourite ever novelists, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Anne Enright’s What Are You Like? and Hood by Emma Donoghue, it also introduced me to some less well known novelists, no less adept, no less deserving of being discussed in the classroom, such as Glenn Patterson’s The International (class) and Deirdre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness (definitely worth reading). The class had an arc, a clearly defined direction which, while the conversation varied in many ways, (how could it not, when the novels were such an eclectic bunch says you) the point was that the allegorical reading of Irish fiction, the movement from colonised state to rapidly proclaimed republic, to an improbably conservative Catholic country which gradually transformed itself into an apparent economic and information technology powerhouse, before running headlong of a fiscal cliff in a car driven by (what else) a soundly sleeping regulator was a well-worn one and well worth re-conceptualising. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding myself to be chronically bored by international media comment pieces about Ireland that begin with descriptions of the practices of exploitative landlords in the 1850’s. This is where the Irish obsession with land began, the reporter often intones, in a piece about the prevalence of ghost estates, as if Isaac Butt was in any way relevant to the discussion. Irish historical baggage is a gateway drug to horrendous metaphors and nightmare clichés, green tigers, tribunal about tribunal about tribunal and *REDACTED*

The point of the course was that these allegories are stifling in the extreme, and that this allegorising of literature obscures the presence of interpersonal relationships and more subtly embedded social networks that consist in the violation of national identities. For better or worse in a globalised world, national narratives should (in theory) matter less. This much is true, at least, on the level of cultural interchange, if not in the political sphere.

This post has had very little to do with Coetzee’s novel, so I’m going to try and bring it back around in the last paragraph.

Waiting for the Barbarians details the experience of a magistrate on the frontier of a colonial state, surrounded by an inscrutable enemy with whom colonial administrators are locked in an endless sequence of attack, counter-attack, revenge and reprisal. The protagonist is not necessarily an active participant in this war effort, he reminisces for the day when his post was an easy one to fill, and his duties primarily consisted of having sex with young women.

A number of barbarians are rounded up by the colonists and tortured for information about their society, their plans to attack the frontier stronghold and one of them, after having been tortured until she lost her sight, is left behind. The magistrate then begins an unusual affair with her. They seem incapable of connection, of understanding. Even to the end of their affair, the magistrate is unresolved about how exactly he feels about her, if indeed he does feel for her at all. Their parting is, to a sentimentalist such as myself, is unbearable, beneath Coetzee’s stony reportage is a poignancy and a mourning for an understanding that is always doomed to being mired in confusion: “On this bleak hill-side in mid-morning I can find no trace in myself of that stupefied eroticism that used to draw me night after night to her body…There is only a blankness, and desolation that there has to be such a blankness.”

A familiar theme in Coetzee’s work is the difficulty of understanding the other, especially across racial lines. But this would be to inappropriately specify how Coetzee makes the unknowability of every human being clear, in an unforgettable phrase, the magistrate mentions “In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.”

Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’ and Impressionism

There are a number of artistic movements that came to be named by their detractors. The umbrella terms under which they operate were initially formulated as terms of abuse, forced upon them by reactive sceptics, detractors and the Louis Leroys of history. Impressionism, a nineteenth century genre of painting is one such example. There are others but they elude me for the moment, I’ll update this post once I remember.

Impressionism is relevant within the context of this post because it is a term often used to convey the style of Virginia Woolf’s fiction. Impressionism demonstrates the triumph of brilliant patterns of colour neither-one-nor-the-other over the tyranny of the line; the preference for an endless disclosure of horizon-rich landscapes over filthy symmetry and one therefore cannot fail to detect a certain congruency of approach when casting one’s eye over the vivid lyrical passages that appear at points in Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves: “The sun had now sunk lower in the sky. The islands of cloud had gained in density and drew themselves across the sun so that the rocks went suddenly black, and the trembling sea-holly lost its blue and turned silver, and shadows were blown like grey cloths over the sea. The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black lines which lay irregularly upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining.” There is a rather beautiful paradox established here in the ethereality of the lengthily undulating sentences and how invested the words are in the materiality, the textures of the features of the landscape, the thickening clouds, the chameleon-like sea-holly.

Woolf’s painterly style isn’t limited to these rather lovely descriptive sections, but continues in her highly unique approach to characterisation. The Waves is narrated by six characters, who speak in a rambling and significative yet highly concentrated modernist style. Unusually for a modernist text, whoever is narrating at any given point is clearly signposted, as in this rather mundane example: “‘I was running,’ said Jinny, ‘after breakfast.”  Here, the narratorial voice signals clearly when a monologue begins and ends. This makes a contrast with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, for example, or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, therein character’s voices are interwoven and interspersed and therein madness lies.

At this stage, the work of the impressionists have come to be recognised as Great Works of Art, no longer the outliers that they were when they initially came on the scene and were forced to set up their own salons where their works could be exhibited. It is hard not to snicker derisively at the conservative devotees of particular schools of art that the impressionists railed against in order to foster the environment in which their works could be appreciated.

In an altogether different context, the word impressionism has come to take on a derisive connotation once more, as devotees of computational literary hermeneutics have began to delineate traditional literary critics, known mostly for their grotesquely troglodyte insistence on reading the thing, rather than appreciating literary works of art through bean-counting like normal people in a post-digital era. For computational critics, this methodology (bleh) is insufficiently rigorous, if you’re not counting the number of times Woolf uses the device of personification and graphing it on a colour-coded visualisation, to advance the point that she uses it is useless. I’ll take this opportunity to proclaim myself an impressionist 4 lyf, if and useless to boot, if reading a book is what those who are useless do.

Also, on a fun note, each character is at least partially based on close friends of Woolf’s, such as Mary Hutchinson, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. This is great news for all Bloomsbury Group fans-people.

‘A Semi-Statistical Empirical Validation of the Potential Facticity of the Hypothesis of Stoom and Blephen’ Or ‘A Rough and Ready Quantitative Analysis of James Joyce’s Ulysses’

The last stretch, the final three episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses are disappointing. If one was, like me, to spend the reading of the first fifteen episodes awaiting the apparently inevitable consubstantiality of Stephen Dedalus fils and Leopold Bloom père, finally satisfying the two lacks in the existences of each one would have been sorely deprived. The elision of symmetry, the leaving mysteries sufficiently shrouded is part of Joyce’s design, a forward movement of stylistic innovation while maintaining a definitive unresolvedness in the hearts of the main characters. Molly and Bloom do not begin repairing their marriage, at least not in any terms that are unambiguous, (“Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs”) Stephen Dedalus will continue to lack for a paternal presence to advise against his reckless profligacy and Bloom will continue to silently mourn (“I feel so sad today. La ree. So lonely”) both for the distance that exists between him and Molly and for his son Rudy, (but in his everyman, amateur scientist ad-canvasser kind of way).

Rather than mutually perceiving what the other lacks, in the way that the reader is capable of doing, their interactions in a cabman’s shelter on Tara Street and in 7 Eccles Street are peppered with social missteps, incomprehension and plain awkwardness. Bloom is patently oblivious to the boredom that he evokes in Dedalus by his frustrating persistence in talking about things such as the role of the artist in civic society (“Also literary labour not merely for the kudos of the thing. Writing for the newspapers which is the readiest channel nowadays. That’s work too. Important work”), the scientific explanation for Stephen passing out earlier and bothersome trivialities such as ‘other people’ in general while Stephen ignorantly recites an anti-Semitic ballad to his host. This is not to suggest that these are equally high on the coveted Barometer Of Social Unacceptability, Stephen’s misstep is obviously far more egregious, but it is nevertheless presented as a case in which both men display a fundamental inability to accurately read the other.

This denial of a neat ending is deliberate on Joyce’s part, of course. One wouldn’t expect a happy ever after, or even the opposite. His language is, as always, over-determined to the point of making the entire text resistant to a neat understanding of anything. I resolved to see if a computer could see more than I could in this case, through use of Voyant’s corpus comparison tool available at to see if it could uncover the reality of a supposed synthesis of Stoom and Blephen.

Explanations may be in order.

Ulysses appears in three halves, the Telemachiad, the Odyssey and the Nostos. The Telemachiad gives every impression that we are in for a sequel to Portrait, with Stephen swanning about South Dublin, sneeringly superior of all he meets and greets. The fourth episode enacts a radical change in pace, as the reader finds herself all of a sudden in the mind of one Leopold Bloom, who has an altogether different internal apparatus, yammering away in its own freely indirect discursive manner. The difference is fairly easy to perceive:

Stephen: “Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.”

Bloom: “Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L. M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which? Time I used to try jotting down on my cuff what she said dressing. Dislike dressing together. Nicked myself shaving.”

Stephen: “Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode.”

Bloom: “How goes the time? Quarter past. Time enough yet. Better get that lotion made up. Where is this? Ah yes, the last time. Sweny’s in Lincoln place. Chemists rarely move. Their green and gold beaconjars too heavy to stir. Hamilton Long’s, founded in the year of the flood. Huguenot churchyard near there. Visit some day.”

Stephen: “Patrice, home on furlough, lapped warm milk with me in the bar MacMahon. Son of the wild goose, Kevin Egan of Paris. My father’s a bird, he lapped the sweet lait chaud with pink young tongue, plump bunny’s face. Lap, lapin. He hopes to win in the gros lots. About the nature of women he read in Michelet.”

Bloom: “Poor boy! Was he there when the father? Both unconscious. Lighten up at the last moment and recognise for the last time. All he might have done. I owe three shillings to O’Grady. Would he understand? The mutes bore the coffin into the chapel. Which end is his head?”

One doesn’t need to be a master exegete of the sacred text to see that the difference is fairly clear and how it gives Joyce a nice opportunity to showcase his variegated literary talents. Dedalus episodes are for his literary aerial acrobatics, flouncing back and forth on a tightrope while juggling and generally making a lot of noise. Bloom is the more staccato mode, with an occasional flourish, asides that are wry and a not insubstantial amount of smut. Both in good ways.

The Odyssey almost dispenses with Stephen altogether in preference of Bloom, six out of eleven episodes has the reader follow Bloom around exclusively, versus Stephen’s monopoly on only one, ‘Scylla and Charybdis’. They split the difference in ‘Aeolus’ and ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and I would contend that Bloom gets the best lines in ‘Circe.’ ‘Eumaeus’ and ‘Ithaca’ may be less clear cut cases, but there is potentially a way of devising this using the aforementioned corpus comparison tool available in Voyant. If one were to create a corpus typical of Bloom’s register, and one of Stephen’s, one could see which episodes more closely correspond to the tone used in each, whether Bloom’s apparent monopoly on the bulk of the novel’s ‘voice’ does indeed predominate, or whether they coincide or whether the literary experimentation stifles the contribution of both could, in theory at least, be decided by this (admittedly haphazard) methodology.

First, the problem with a ‘typical’ corpus. It should be noted that Stephen provides us with roughly 1200 lines from his point of view, whereas Bloom supplies 2200. (A structural commentary on Stephen’s capacity to procrastinate the writing of the great work that he plans to undertake? Undoubtedly not.) A disproportionately sized corpus would stand Bloom in a better stead to be confirmed as the dominant narratorial voice, therefore it is proposed that Hades be removed from Bloom’s ‘typical’ corpus. This method has the benefit of being appealing to the clinical among us, as it excises Stephen’s brief cameo from Bloom’s corpus (“Mr Bloom at gaze saw a lithe young man, clad in mourning, a wide hat”), as his father, Simon, Jack Power, Leopold Bloom and Martin Cunningham trundle past him in a carriage on its way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Simon has a tendency to dominate the conversation, to the exclusion of the consciously excluded Bloom. (“It’s the droll way he comes out with the things. Knows how to tell a story too.”) The greater ‘purity’ this offers the Bloom corpus is welcome. Removing Hades from proceedings has the additional benefit of bringing the number of lines in the Bloom corpus down to a far more even but by no means perfect 1122. #bonus.

The five largest z-scores for increased difference and decreased differences between the corpora were obtained, summed and averaged in order to find an approximate quotient of difference between the episode being tested and the Stephen and Bloom corpus. Its approximateness should be stressed, if I had the inclination and the time, mostly the inclination, I would find every instance of interior monologue in the book for both characters in order to obtain a more representative Stephen and Bloom corpus. Therefore these results should be regarded with much scepticism.

Ultimately, it turned out ‘Hades’ and ‘Cyclops’ were the two most hybrid episodes, managing to balance the similarity of word choice between both Stephen and Bloom’s corpora. The least balanced was ‘Oxen of the Sun,’ commonly regarded as the third major hump to any potential reader, its irreconcilable weirdness to these earlier episodes should come as little surprise to anyone.

‘Aeolus,’ an episode set in an office in the offices of the Freeman’s Journal newspaper was the most Bloomian episode, which is at first surprising, considering Bloom is absent for most of it and Stephen is present. Then again, it features a ream of men holding forth on various subjects on which they are barely informed. Bloom would be right at home.

The episode most characteristic of Stephen is ‘Hades,’ perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its high incidence of words such as ‘Dead,’ ‘coffin,’ ‘heart’ and ‘dead.’ Considering Stephen has written a poem about sexy vampires, its obvious that Dignam’s spectre isn’t the only one haunting this episode.

However, these statistical analyses have little value when it comes to developing a proper understanding of these characters or the book that they inhabit. They are useful only when related to the kind of qualitative understanding that only a reading of the thing can offer. They can then be productively fused and galvanise our sense of particular episodes, particularly when they seem to be inaccurate or wrong-headed, the dissonance required to give depth to the equally suspect harmony.

I reckon this unresolvedness is something that should be stressed by readers of and writers on Joyce more, not just in the Joycean publications intended for a coterie of academics or anoraks (M’Intoshs?) residing on the exterior of the academy. Despite having read Ulysses four times (not to brag, yes to brag) I find myself no closer to unravelling its enigmas in its totality, not getting a sense of what resides beneath the tip of the iceberg so much as sailing leisurely past its glacialness from the safety of an icebreaker’s observation deck. (This metaphor is being tortured to within an inch of its life, not least because it suggests that reading Ulysses is akin to charting the furthest reaches of the earth.) Readers shouldn’t be bean-counters or detectives, but should exert themselves to becoming acclimatised to unresolvedness. When it comes to Ulysses, it’s just part of the deal.