Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Stephen Dedalus on Moor Fields

Seeking elucidation in my confusions about Modernism I turned to Axel's Castle by Edmund Wilson (1931 -- 1961 Fontana edition), the later chapters of which I hadn't read since my student days (if then -- I was not a diligent reader, or perhaps just not a fast enough reader to be an academic). I found the following (p.181), which seemed to express the idea I was feeling toward when I asked whether my writing for Rosen about playing on Moor Fields as a kid arose from an impulse to get a handle on the experience or, as I suspected, an urge to make sentences (or periods as they used to be called in Britain and still are in North America).

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Wilson mentions, James Joyce writes of Stephen Dedalus:

He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself :

--A day of dappled seaborne clouds.--

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours : it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose.

Something of that may apply to me, I think, though I didn't share Stephen's and Joyce's poor sight. Yes, I loved 'the rhythmic rise and fall of words', but what I loved about them was in part that they were 'mirrors' (the right word) for an inner emotional world. Which makes prose in that respect like music, which it plainly is; i.e. at one level it's not about what the words mean but about something else the unfolding of the ensemble does. It's this aspect that I think the 1960s English theorists neglected -- and because I tend to read prose as if it's working the way Stephen suggests, that may account for my slow reading.

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