Friday, October 31, 2014
This is about Astral Weeks; this is not about Astral Weeks
James Joyce once wrote to his brother Stanislaus that he wished to "give people a kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own." What middle age has taught me is that sometimes the bread is stale, mottled with mold, punctured with worms. Or consumed entire—or fed to the ducks. Try telling a therapist that. Shrink: "How are you feeling?" Patient: "Like the bread of my everyday life was fed to the ducks." (Or, in a way that's more succinct and dramatic—Shrink: "How are you feeling?" Patient, after a deep, protracted sigh: "Fed to the ducks.") It's slightly clever and childish and a little self-deprecating, but perhaps that's the key to getting through all this—this as in this, the tedious existence that stretches out dully in front of us. Adulthood descends on you like an enormous, inky cloud; the darkness thickens and thickens until one day you are idly fantasizing about a way out—imagining different versions of yourself in different situations and in different places—which only leaves you feeling more trapped. Returning to Joyce ... Last month I re-read Dubliners and the collection's core theme of paralysis resonated with me. From what I understand, Joyce was greatly affected by turn-of-the-century Ireland's persistent stagnation—a cultural, economic, and political paralysis brought on by years of English and Catholic rule. In Dubliners, characters have been essentially cornered, backed into lives by forces and conditions they can control as well as those beyond their control. The inertia is inescapable; Joyce's men and women struggle to live purposely, to find their place, to do more than merely survive. To move forward is a challenge—a challenge with which I have become recently acquainted. Fortunately, there are forward-thinkers who help usher us along. They are the architects of those bits of art that win our eternal affection. The artists who—to quote an essay on the James Joyce Museum's website—"took the bread of everyday life and consecrated it into art." Their work sustains us, enriches us, enlivens us, releases us. It draws us out from those corners and frees us of our gripping paralysis.