Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Recap of the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (Part 2 of 2)

Victoria College at the Univ. of Toronto where all of this took place.

(Continued from part 1 here.)

The cool, damp Toronto air was a welcome respite from the oppressive summer heat in Texas. It rained a few times, with heavy thunderstorms one night, but we couldn't have been happier with our time in Toronto. While I'd been there once many years ago, I was amazed during this trip to discover how great a place Toronto is. It's got great food, with restaurants catering to every dietary need or preference in every ethnic style all over the place. Being an academic hub, there are more enticing bookstores in the city than I was able to make it to. Most impressive of all was the architecture and city design. Old Gothic buildings intermingling with enormous, postmodern skyscrapers. And somehow within all that, the residential neighborhoods are quiet, quaint---homes have yards and gardens full of exotic flowers and trees. It felt like an idealized version of Manhattan. Far fewer homeless people and vagrants. Lacking that vibe of pedestrians rushing around all stressed out or angry. Drivers were a little whacky but there was far less angry horn-honking than NYC. Also, I didn't get quite the sense of the haves-and-have-nots polarity being as extreme as it is in Manhattan. Toronto seemed like a fairly prosperous, comfortable, laid-back place (noticed lots of people smoking weed in public). And it's a noticeably clean city.

I point all this out because the experience of walking through the city each morning to the University of Toronto campus was something I tried to savor. No matter which path you took there'd be interesting stuff to see, whether museum edifices or streets full of elegant old houses with jungle cube front yards.

On Thursday morning 22 June my lady and I made our way to Victoria College for the day's first panel, "Wormholes in the Wake," featuring a quartet of unique papers involving Finnegans Wake. I went third. Right before me, Prof. Jesse Meyers of NYU presented his findings from the portraits of Joyce created by Frank Budgen during the years Joyce was writing his Work in Progress. The portraits are archived in the Joyce collection at the Harry Ransom Center here in Austin, TX so already Austin was being well represented. Meyers noted the many thematic elements from the Wake that are embedded within Budgen's impressionistic portrait-landscapes of Joyce, such as the inn, the four old men with their ass, and some hermetic symbols evocative of the Book of Kells. As Meyers' laser-pointer aided analysis brought these rather vague impressionist paintings to life it was captivating to witness, even my fiancée who doesn't care about this kinda stuff at all was digging it.

So I had to follow that up. It went fine, though. Having spent months researching and writing my paper, discussing it with my reading group, and even presenting early drafts at literary salon-style events in town, I was eager to finally share it with the Joycean community. Was also certainly anxious about how it might be received. The room was full of some of the most respected Joyce scholars and academics alive. Two people who I'd quoted throughout my paper and inspired some of the views I expressed were present in the room. I didn't manage to say this because I wanted to get right to the paper, but it was a privilege and an honor of the highest order to have that opportunity to present my work in that setting to that group of people. I feel extremely grateful.

My paper, "Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House: Finnegans Wake in the Shadow of War" examines how Joyce's history of the world confronts the cycles of warfare, invasion, and cultural displacement that have shaped history while using subversive mockery and incisive humor as a weapon against those forces. It's an enormous, extremely rich subject and I've got far more to say about it than I could have possibly fit into a 20-minute presentation. What I presented was a truncated version of the paper, unfortunately having to leave out some key material, but overall I'm very proud of how it all went. The response was better than I could have hoped for. Lots of people offered very positive feedback, some of it outlandish, and I felt extremely humbled and somewhat stunned. Experienced academics who've published plenty and whose opinion I trust as honest told me it feels like a complete piece that ought to be published somewhere. My attempts to garner any constructive criticism from folks brought only nitpicking small aspects of it. Some esteemed Joyceans whose opinions really matter to me said they loved it. Again, it was just an absolute honor and a pleasure to deliver my writing to this group of people. Was interesting to observe their reactions, what made people laugh, etc. At the end I told a quick story about Sylvia Beach and a woman in the last row was nodding the whole time like "Oh hell yes, I know this story." It was great.

I need to polish the paper up a bit, put some finishing touches on it then try to get it published somewhere. If that doesn't happen quickly enough I will post the whole thing here because it needs to get out there soon. The themes of "Waging Peace from the Inkbattle House" have occupied my brain for most of the year, I'm ready to share it now (and move on). Although, the topic is certainly rich enough to warrant an entire book if not a whole series of books---war and peace in Finnegans Wake. My friend Benjamin Boysen's immediate feedback was to recall a chapter from War and Peace that resonated for him with the end of my paper, where Tolstoy likens the rebuilding of a war-shattered Moscow to ants resiliently rebuilding the city of their ant-hill. Speaking of building cities, I befriended an architect named Marcin Kendzior who's an ultra-passionate Wakean with a fascinating outlook on the text (his presentation was one of my favorites at the conference)---he described to me the resonance between my discussion of flowers and their life source of decay with the observations in "The Language of Flowers" by Georges Bataille. In the panel I immediately went to, I heard a paper entitled "Language of Flowers: Ulysses, Globalism, and the Botany of Empire" by Greg Winston that featured a reading of the perspective on flowers in Ulysses, discussing botany as an "imperial science of conquest and commerce." There I also heard a very intriguing paper from Barbara M. Hoffman on "Australyians in Island: Australia, Diaspora, and National Identity in Finnegans Wake" where she investigated a Wake paragraph clustering references to a few Irish poets who'd gone astray of the law to be imprisoned in Australia, "astraylians in island." (FW p. 321) It was super fascinating, resonating a vast wave of ideas for me.

Later that day I witnessed Layne Farmen's reading of Richard Linklater's Slacker as an adaptation of Ulysses (one drab day in Austin, one drab day in Dublin) which was very cool for a variety of reasons. Being an Austin resident who's familiar with Slacker, I enjoyed his readings of scenes from the film. His sharply constructed arguments allowed me to see scenes differently. Plus he discussed a scene I've always loved where the characters actually break out a copy of Ulysses and read a passage from Ithaca. My friend from the Austin Wake group, Scott Rhodes, was the editor for Slacker and has told me the background for this scene before. In fact, there's a video of Scott discussing the scene and then reading the Ithaca passage at a Bloomsday event last year (starts at 18:30 mark here).

That panel also featured a talk from noted Joyce scholar John Gordon taking a closer look at the story "An Encounter" from Dubliners (Joyce's short story collection seems to get short shrift in these conferences, such that someone presented a paper amusingly titled "Is There Any Hope for Dubliners This Time?") I must mention here that professor emeritus Gordon---author of Finnegans Wake: A Plot Summary and numerous articles on the Wake---has created a blog where he is assembling his own line-by-line annotations to Finnegans Wake to accompany those of Roland McHugh/Fweet. He has already gathered annotations for Books I-III. I encourage you to check it out HERE.

The last panel I experienced that Thursday focused on the Jewishness of Bloom and led to one of the better Q&A discussions of the conference with plenty of back and forth over the vague Jewish roots of Bloom, the book's treatment of antisemitism, and Joyce's view of religion in general. Everything so far described in this post was encountered in just one day, and I've left out quite a bit. Every day of the conference was like this---jam-packed with abundant food-for-thought feasts, such that by the end of the day my brain was taxed, craving both to recharge batteries and let the day's experiences soak in. Yet the Diasporic Joyce Conference was also a rare opportunity to hang with fellow Joyceans from around the world who'd gathered in the welcoming confines of Toronto's metropolis. That Thurs night, having gone through delivering my paper in the morning then absorbing many other presentations throughout the day, I ended up staying out until 3 AM getting extremely drunk with some fellow Joyceans then walking home through a torrential rainstorm with lightning and thunder. A memorable time indeed.

The view from our room in downtown Toronto.

The next day, Fri 23 June, I was physically a wreck, but the sun was shining on Toronto and another day full of Joyceana awaited at the Univ. of Toronto campus. Conscious and upright at last, I made my way over there where I immediately ran into Prof. Garry Leonard, one of the conference organizers, and we had an engaging chat all about what exactly makes the city of Toronto so special (city-planning foresight, for one). Then I witnessed a presentation from the aforementioned architect Marcin Kedzior whose talk was one of the most memorable and exciting of the conference. He opened by reciting---performing---from memory, with emphatic embellishment, the closing of Finnegans Wake and the opening two pages, followed by a cornucopia of ideas and insights into the Wake's "hierarchitectitiptitoploftical" (FW p. 5) construction, recalling the mythic master builder designing a city next to the river. As he put it, when a word has 100 letters like Joyce's ten thunders, it's more of a construction using letters as bricks. Marcin touched on so many topics and sparked so many ideas in my head I couldn't cover it all here, hopefully I'll write it up in a separate post. In the same panel, editor of the James Joyce Quarterly Sean Latham gave a talk that was sort of a primer on the current state of Joyce studies around the world. Was interesting to hear how proliferant this stuff is---the JJQ has submissions coming in from all over the world and with the recent publication of a Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake, Joyce studies have begun to bubble up over there. It's all in addition to the already steady production of Joyce studies churning out of the UK and North America.

Friday evening found us all gathering in the chapel for the plenary presentation from Valérie Bénéjam, a wide-ranging talk that seemed to touch on almost all of Joyce's works, mainly revolving around the theme of diaspora. One little factoid that stuck with me was the suggestion that Joyce may have used exactly 70 or 72 languages in Finnegans Wake because it's a symbolic number, the number of scattered languages following the fall of the Tower of Babel. The reasoning behind this assertion was that Joyce's notebooks contain a number of words from other languages that he decided to leave out.

The chapel was subsequently the setting for a fun event arranged by Derek Pyle of Waywords & Meansigns called "Quashed Quotatoes" that was a sort of Joycean karaoke. With live music playing, the king of Finnegans Wake performances Adam Harvey provided a theatrical reading of some Wake passages, followed by an entertaining reading from Robert Amos, and a mesmerizing sequence of interpretive dance performed by a representative of the Joyce bloodline, a young Irish girl named Lucia who is James Joyce's grandniece. I too got up there and did some live readings of some passages from Book IV. I don't think my performative skills hold a candle to any of the previous presenters, but I did have a lot of fun standing on stage in a chapel reading the Wake on a mic with live music.

Saturday 24 June was a fittingly excellent conclusion to the event. At the start, I witnessed a very intriguing panel on animals in Joyce's work. Rob Brazeau contemplated how we turn animals into commodities of the marketplace and engaged in a very fascinating close reading of the Telemachus episode in Ulysses. The insights were flying faster than I could take notes, but from what I recall he noted that one of the uniting factors of the Telemachus and Calyspo episodes (parallel in time and surely in subtextual themes) is the exchange of animal commodities for money---milk in the former, meat in the latter. He also pointed out how the mythopoetic pastoral Irish crone, the milkwoman, becomes obscured by metropolitan economy, payment for the commodity of milk as she's seen calculating the details of their bill.

The afternoon featured what was undoubtedly the most popular and hilarious panel of the conference, all about scatology in Joyce, featuring three luminaries sharing their insightful papers. Claire Culleton's analysis of the socioeconomic factors involved in Bloom's defecation in Calypso felt like standup comedy. Tim Conley pushed the envelope further with references to Gargantua and Pantagruel's inquiry into what's the best material to use for a good ass wipe ("none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs"). And Austin Briggs---a gentleman in his 80s wearing a skin-tight black t-shirt that said "Shit Don't Mean Shit!"---analyzed the Molly Bloom chapter, suggesting there is actually a period punctuation mark in the middle of the episode (something I'd never heard before) which would somehow, between the closing black dot at the end of Ithaca and the final period to end the text, make an infinity symbol with a dot in the middle. That dot being Molly's anus. 

Lastly, I want to discuss one of my favorite papers from the conference. In the midst of a panel about magic in the work of Joyce, we were granted the privilege of a paper shared by eminent Joyce scholar John Bishop who is recovering from a stroke and provided his talk via pre-recorded video (followed by Skype'd Q&A). If you've read this blog at all, you must know I have an immense appreciation for Prof. Bishop's work. He is my favorite Joycean so I was very excited to experience his presentation. Due to his physical condition, he was unable to recite from a paper so (incredibly) he recited it all from memory.

Bishop's discussion sprung from one line from one of the most tender sections of Finnegans Wake, p. 565 where a mother comforts her child who'd been having a nightmare. "Poor little brittle magic nation," she says. Little Britain, as opposed to Great Britain, is poor little Ireland, whose dream of being a nation is not a reality. There's also a juxtaposition here as Great Britain is too pragmatic, doesn't have enough imagination, as opposed to little Britain, Ireland with its treasure trove of fairy tales and myths, hence "magic nation." Bishop noted that the magical intention of Joyce's art is invoked right from the epigraph of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, taken from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Stephen Dedalus sees himself as "a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life." This metamorphosis is a form of magic, a transubstantiation which Joyce enacts on a grand scale in Ulysses where a regular 20th century day is imbued with the theophanic (Bishop's word) mystery and glory of a Homeric epic. Bishop quipped, maybe realism itself is magical; the conjuring up of lives and voices of dead people. For Joyce, whatever he takes up turns to magic. He gives words all the magic of a living thing.