Everyone’s Talking Ulysses

As this month marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s impossible to avoid.

My confession: I’ve read it one and two thirds’ times. That is, I first tackled this 700+page tome as an undergraduate in Chicago and failed to finish it – this is what happens when you work fulltime and take on a full schedule of classes. Self-pity aside, I managed two thirds of the book and with fastidious notes from the prof’s lectures, I partly bluffed my way through an essay exam, emerging with a B+. Fast forward to some 25 years later, I was in my forties and decided it was time to read the book cover-to-cover, including the 200+ pages of annotations at the back.

Such a reading exercise is hard work, simply because so much is involved in following the wandering thoughts and observations of Leopold Bloom and in understanding the political and social references of the time (those annotations come in handy). Ezra Pound described Ulysses as an ‘encyclopedia in the form of farce,’ and it is encyclopedic in that it covers a mass of subjects and ideas. But I don’t think ‘farce’ does it justice – the humour in Ulysses is at times situational, but is more often subtle and satirical.

Even though getting through Ulysses is an undertaking, it is worth it, especially in middle age. My undergraduate self couldn’t have possibly appreciated the nuance of emotions and the reflections on life:

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

The 25-year gap between my first and second readings was filled with, among other things, living in the UK and reading other modernist writers, such as Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. While I recall my younger self appreciating the turns of phrase and the love of language that trickles throughout the novel, I value it more from the vantage point of being a literary stylistician, noticing the occasional wink to the reader.

Would I read it again? People certainly do. I remember the poet Anthony Thwaite telling me that he read it about once every decade. For the true Ulysses aficionados, there’s the Twitter account UlyssesReader, which tweets out quotes from the book every ten minutes – it’s a corpus-fed bot. Serious fans make the pilgrimage to Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations every 16th of June, the day the story takes place. It all sounds like good fun, but when it comes to rereading, I’d rather reread Joyce’s short story collection, The Dubliners, with one of my favourite stories, ‘Eveline.’ Or better still, read something for the first time. There’s Finnegan’s Wake, a Joyce book I found unreadable when I tried it some 30 years ago – it makes Ulysses read like a child’s nursey rhyme – and there it sits in my Kindle, waiting for me.

A Saturday in London

This is not a travelogue, nor is it packed with recommendations for places to eat in the Big Smoke – apparently the most popular nickname for London, according to Google. Yesterday marked my first daytrip to London in well over two years. That’s not to say I haven’t seen London at all during the pandemic, but those were trips getting to or from airports, with fleeting glimpses of the skyline from an overground train. Ely to Nice is inevitably via London. But Nice, the fourth largest city in France, has nothing on London when it comes to crowds and narrow spaces, where I have been imagining spiky Covid cells floating from one Londoner to the next. My day in our country’s crowded capital was my act of defiance, my coming to terms with the idea that I must learn to live with ‘it.’

Like so many of my past trips to London, this one was spawned by political activism.  Make Votes Matter had organised a rally in Parliament Square to protest against voter suppression and in support of proportional representation. Voter suppression is the hidden agenda of this government’s proposed Elections Bill, currently getting readings back and forth in the two houses of Parliament. As for proportional representation, the current system for voting in the UK gives victories to candidates with the most votes and the party with the most seats, even if these results are far less than 50%. Stay with me. This means that in a country with more than two viable political parties, the majority of the votes could be against the Conservatives, for example, but the Conservatives still win because the opposition votes are divided among say four other parties. If you’ve been following British politics, you’ll have recognised that my example is in fact the reality. The last time Parliament was won by a majority was in 1935 (Statista) and the unpopular Conservatives were in power for most of the 20th century and since 2010.

While these are causes worth rallying around, more important for me was being outside in the gathering of some 500 people. We didn’t need to wear masks or keep two meters apart. We talked to people we knew and to a couple of strangers and we joined the group chant of ‘No way,’ responding to a speaker’s rallying cry. We were in a dome where Covid seemed a distant memory.

Yet, the true highlight of my London day was a visit to the Tate. I’ve been to some museums in Nice during the pandemic but felt safe doing so with pass sanitaires being scanned for entry.  At the Tate, some Covid protocols were in place. We had to book our free tickets in advance as numbers entering were limited, and we had to wear masks – all sensible measures. The health protocols kept me aware of the times we live in, but the works of art – J.M.W. Turners, Henry Moore, the Pre-Raphaelites – transported to that other space where only art and creativity can take me. A true and real space, to loosely paraphrase Aristotle.

The rally and the museum were the pleasurable parts of the day, as was a long stroll in the winter sun from Parliament Square to Blackfriars Station to catch the Thameslink train back to St Pancreas. The not so pleasurable experience came when riding an underground train, the aptly named Tube – in these small carriages, designed in the days of Victoria, I felt like a rat in an underground pipe, encrusted with dirt, potentially with disease.

On a more positive note about the Tube, I’m reminded of a much-quoted passage from Peter Ackroyd’s London Under which encapsulates how I felt at the end of the day:

‘The passenger travels within the origin of the city. It is a curious fact that the further the train moves from the centre of the city, the more anonymous it becomes. The journey becomes less intense. It becomes less intimate. It loses its mystery.’

London in these Covid days of partial restrictions has become less mysterious and less intimidating as I have grown more used to living with the pandemic.

Problems and Praises for The Trauma Plot

In a recent New Yorker article, Parul Sehgal makes the case that the trauma plot can leave us with characters who are ‘flattened into a set of symptoms.’ The first example that came to my mind, and not included by Sehgal, was The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The main character without his combat encounters of deactivating bombs wasn’t much of a character. Yet, it is nevertheless a great film because for the most part it’s plot-driven, but in a good way, with precision editing giving the audience an intense visual experience.

Sehgal offers examples from television (including Clare Underwood and Ted Lasso) and modern fiction (Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) that have been reliant on the trauma narrative creating a character’s past and personality. For me, the most salient point comes from counter examples:

‘Trauma has become synonymous with backstory, but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice. Personality was not always rendered as the pencil-rubbing of personal history. Jane Austen’s characters are not pierced by sudden memories; they do not work to fill in the gaps of partial, haunting recollections.’

Sehgal is not a total polemicist, pointing out times when the traumatic backstory is only partly revealed and how it has contributed to some of our best works of fiction – Morrison’s Sula, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.

I can think of several novels that use the trauma plot to great effect without diminishing their characters. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (originally in French) have female protagonists whose traumatic pasts help to explain the defensive sharp wit and quirkiness of these rounded characters. Kazuo Ishiguro effectively deals with trauma in a few of his novels, and in An Artist of the Floating World, the denial of one character’s traumatic memories is used to symbolise the collective amnesia of post-war Japan.

Sehgal’s piece is also worth a read for what she has to say about the ubiquity of trauma in our present-day cultural scripts, offering studies and views counter to popular thought. Like Sehgal, I find it intriguing that our society seems to have a fascination with trauma. Is this part of a victim-centric wave of thought and policy (those much-debated ‘safe spaces’) or have we become more sympathetic and able to discuss traumatic experiences that our ancestors preferred to conceal?

Photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

I’ve been a fan of photography as far back as I can remember, and it could have been my metier had I been born later, into the age of digital and affordable photography. As an admirer of others’ works, among my favourite photographers are Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Georgia O’Keeffe (yes, she was a photographer too).

I can now add to this list Yann Arthus-Bertrand, having recently discovered his work in Nice. This French-born photographer and film director is known for his environmental and socially conscious works, including the films Human (2015), Woman (2019) and Legacy (2021).

The exhibit I saw was indoors at the Musée de la Photographie and outdoors in a public square and the popular Promenade du Paillon – a public park in the city centre. As art in public spaces has long been the preserve of sculptors and architects, I was delighted to see visual art’s poor cousin photography in these open spaces for all to experience.

I was most struck by Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial photos taken all over the world. It’s hard to summarise them as they depict scenes as eclectic as life itself. Some of these aerial shots verged on optical illusions, appearing at first to be one thing, but revealed to be something else upon close inspection. Whether capturing the wonders of the natural world or freezing in time the spectrum of poverty and human labour, the images hold an aesthetic as haunting as they are enjoyable. I did feel a slight discomfort in marvelling at the beautiful colours and boxy shapes of a favela in Sao Paulo as seen from the air.

When talking about art, images support the words. I recommend visiting Arthus-Bertrand’s website or doing a search for him on Pinterest, where his fans have pinned hundreds of his photos. On this note, I close on the words of Arthus-Bertrand, who like many of us wanted one career, but ended up doing something else:

I wanted to be a scientist. I did a thesis on lions. But I realised photography can show things writing can’t. Lions were my professors of photography.

My Year of Journaling

You might recall the start of 2021, I initiated an experiment in writing in a journal on a daily basis. No more sporadic journal writing in waves. This new regime was to give some rigour to my writing practice. I did stick with it, but a couple of times a month, I found myself too busy to write and just completing the daily exercise with a sentence or two, usually about how busy I was that day.

After 365 journal entries, I have 82 pages filled with a total of 41,225 words. That sounded impressive until I did the maths and realised I only wrote on average 110 words per day. When I was working on books, I kept my momentum by writing 5000 words per week (roughly 750 per day). I console myself with the thought that journaling wasn’t the only writing I did in 2021. There were these blogs, a couple of new essays, two articles for East Anglia Bylines and editorial work on a short story (published in September) and two academic articles (published in June and October).

What was this journal about? As a journal intime, it was about me, my feelings and my ideas for writing. Looking back at the year, the journal entries often referred to Covid and how I was feeling about it, or how the government restrictions, cancelled events and rescheduled flights interrupted my life. Interestingly, the words Covid, pandemic and test(s) didn’t even make the top 100 words on the frequency list – I uploaded the file into a concordancer as geeky linguists like me do. There were, however, a fair share of implicit references to it ‘things being as they are these days.’

Among the highest frequency words from the year of daily journaling had to do with writing itself – write, wrote, writing, blog and article all made regular appearances. Related to this was the word time – that showed up big and bold on a word cloud that I generated of the journal file (see below). These word clouds exclude pronouns and function words (such as determiners and conjunctions).

Word cloud of my 2021 journal

Back to the concordancer, which includes all words in a text, of those 41,000 plus words, the most frequent one was the pronoun I. No surprise there as journals are home of the Narrative I, which is also the Authorial I. As I was writing to me, and most certainly not to anyone else, I felt free to work through writing ideas, including the ridiculous and unpublishable – an exercise of creative muscle-stretching. Above all else, I was free to say what I thought, and the results often surprised me. These deeply private thoughts included affirmations, self-loathing, and the recording and interpreting of dreams. The act of writing such thoughts has been psychotherapeutic to say the least.

For these reasons, I’m continuing in 2022 with daily journaling, and I can highly recommend it – and not just for people who write.

Meritocracy: the self and the social

While I’ve read some fine books in 2021, my favourite this year has to be Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Central to this book is the idea that thinking we live in a meritocracy – an idea much-used by politicians – has created a false sense of deserving and has alienated the unsuccessful. Sandel points out that many who have not received the rewards of their hard work, in particular those who have been most effected by the economic crises of recent decades, blame their governments and/or immigrants, giving rise to populists’ movements in democracies such as the UK and America. Reading this book made me re-examine my own thinking on meritocracy and how it has changed over the years.

When I was a child, I believed that if I tried really hard at something I would reach my goals. Watching Jimmy Stewart films and being told by teachers and parents that anything was possible if you worked for it, I was a product of my culture. Yet, I knew even then that there were limits. I was never going to be Miss America (because I didn’t have the looks), nor was I going to be a professional baseball player (because I was a girl). By the time I was a teenager in the 70s, the women’s lib movement made me all too aware that adult life was not played on a level field and that if I succeeded at anything, I would be paid less than my male counterparts.  

While the bubble was deflating, there was still enough air in it for me to believe that hard work and ambition would have their rewards. Living in predominately white, working and lower-middle class America, believing in meritocracy was a default position. On top of that, I was caught up in the wave of aspirational coaching and new age spirituality espousing the notion that positive thinking yielded positive results. My reading list in those days featured self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay. It was all about self-improvement – it was all about me, me, me…

Although I found such thoughts empowering, there was a flipside to all of this: that failure was something I projected on to the situation. I would never blame a government or social structures – that seemed a sign of weakness, blaming others as a child would. By my mid-twenties, I easily blamed myself for the jobs I didn’t get, the publications not realized and for times of being negatively targeted by family members or colleagues. Likewise, when I did achieve and accomplish something I owed it to myself (and sometimes luck). I was being rewarded for my labours and for jumping over obstacles. It was still all about me, me, me…

Over the years, the more I talked to friends, the more books I read in politics and sociolinguistics, the more films and stage plays I saw, the more my thinking included how the power of social structures, the media, advertising and popular culture, along with money of course, dictates who achieves and who does not. Sandel’s book deconstructs our so-called meritocracy in a similar way. I was particularly pleased to see how he uses corpus linguistics to illustrate points on language used by politicians and advertisers to sell the idea that we live in or could live in a meritocracy if we vote a certain way or do certain things.

But Sandel has done more than just validate my own thinking. He has made me aware of the judgements I have made in recent years about the less educated, noting how they tended to vote more for Brexit and Trump. Sandel points out that a university degree is on the one hand not always given to the smartest or most deserving and is on the other hand an entrée to the jobs our society places more value on. He also looks at education in the climate change debate, again making me think differently. Politicians on America’s far right who are climate change deniers are just as educated as those who believe that climate change is real and human made. Both sides of the argument have used their schooling and analytical skills to justify beliefs they already had.

As 2021 winds down, my thanks to Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel

Gifts for Her – Headless Women?

The Observer recently published in its glossy magazine ideas for Christmas gifts, the latest items to buy that you can’t think of yourself. Under the category ‘Gifts for Her’ were candle holders in the shape of a partial female nude. It only had the upper thighs and beautifully fit buttocks, stopping at the waist. That is, it also lacked breasts and legs, one could argue, making the objects less titillating and therefore something appropriate to purchase for ‘her’ this Christmas. But not this ‘her.’ Straight away, I felt uncomfortable with this gift idea.

from The Observer Magazine 5 Dec 2021

As the photo in The Observer only showed the back of these candle holders – a set of three in the female-friendly colours, I suppose, of red, pink and purple for £110 – I visited the seller’s website in the hope of seeing the fronts. I was curious if they had a triangle of pubes or were more like Barbie and bald. This curiosity was not to be satiated. The items weren’t there and I had to assume that they had sold out. Obviously, others weren’t put off by these objects as I had been. On that point, I also noticed that there haven’t been any published Letters to the Editor or comments on the website about these female-buttocks candle holders.

I did, however, find some candlesticks by the same designer, Anissa Kermiche. These were also of women’s bodies, including breasts, but still excluding heads. I found these shapes aesthetically pleasing and reminiscent of Matisse’s famous blue and white paintings of female nudes – only his women had not been decapitated. Perhaps it is the lack of heads in these gift items that bothers me. Headless women objectify the female body and in ways for which you’d be hard pressed to find male equivalents. Nude male bodies without their heads if used for household items, usually come with a wink and a chuckle.

All of this brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s much-quoted essay on the female body, which includes this vignette:

The Female Body has many uses. It’s been used as a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.

Conclusion, if you want to buy me a present this Christmas, skip the headless women, a book is always a safe bet, or perhaps a Matisse 2022 calendar.

Allyship – Word of the year 2021

Dictionary.com has announced that allyship is its word of the year. A word I have never seen before, let alone this year. I was expecting vaccine, variant, renewables or some neologism, like antivaxxer.

According to Dicitonary.com, allyship is a noun referring to ‘the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.’ It’s a straightforward blended word, combining the word ‘ally’ with the morpheme ‘ship.’

Although allyship is new to Dictionary.com, its origins go back to the mid-1800s, but that was in a broader sense, a group of allied organisations. The modern sense used by Dictionary.com can be traced to the 1940s but didn’t come into more regular use (apparently, even though I missed it) until some 15 years ago.

These lexicographers go on to say, ‘Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021 – and crucially, how the public processed them.’ For me, recent examples of this include white protesters at the Black Lives Matter marches and heterosexuals across the world actively supporting gay rights in Ghana, Uganda, Russia and Poland. Though some in these pools of partisans have been accused of virtue-signalling (another good word), I’d like to think that the vast majority are genuine.

But I was put in my place when I did my own corpus search on allyship and found an article from The Guardian. Questioning the allyship of whites who support black causes, Kelsey Smoot had this to say:

‘The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals – it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by White Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things. Not just the extra $50 in one’s monthly budget by way of donating to an organization working towards racial justice. I mean palpable, incalculable loss.’

Smoot raises some good points about empathy and activism. Nevertheless, I like the social justice flavour of allyship and might start using it myself for actions I think are genuinely deserving. This might be a tall order.

Dying languages, changing climates

With the recent publication of ‘Native Speaker 2,’a few people have asked me about the inspiration behind this story of a feisty nonagenarian who is one of the last speakers of an American Indian language. It was loosely based on a talk that I heard at a linguistics conference back in 1995. When an old American Indian woman spoke in a quivering voice of her sister’s death marking the demise of their language – with no one to speak to, a language doesn’t live – there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Some 25 years later, the emotion of her words stays with me. My retelling added some humour in the characterisation of the aged woman, and I used the Wintu language group of Californian languages as the language on the verge of extinction. My gratitude to Leanne Hinton’s Flutes of Fire, a highly readable book about Californian Indian Languages.

Dying and extinct languages are undoubtedly one of the many consequences of colonialism. One of the other consequences is that countries colonised in the modern era (16th century to the present) are more vulnerable to disasters brought on by climate change. This has been highlighted these last few weeks with coverage of COP26, where indigenous peoples and their supporters had a more notable presence than at previous COPs. One native Brazilian, protesting against the destruction of rainforests, also made the point that the rich nations that colonised the southern hemisphere have caused most of the devastation to our planet and are still reaping the rewards.

endangered languages
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Okay, I was talking about California earlier, a rich state in rich country (speaking in broad terms). America has been both colonised and coloniser. Though it could come down to the appellations, Native/Indian American and just American. Nevertheless, the cultural and linguistic side of these dual roles, coloniser and colonised, has been surreptitious and slow, taking place over decades and centuries. But on the environmental side, the spirit of both roles can be seen in the damage the US has brought upon the world, including itself, in my lifetime. America has become the bully who self harms.

On a lighter and nerdier note, according to linguists and anthropologists, the relationship between climate and language has other direct links. Differences across languages can be explained in part by different regional climates. For example, languages spoken in warm, wet and heavily wooded areas, such as in the Asian-Indian subcontinent, tend to use more vowels and fewer consonants. At the other extreme, languages used in arid, desert-like regions are more consonant heavy. One of the explanations for this has to do with the effects of dryness on the vocal cords (all vowel sounds are voiced, involving vibration of the vocal cords).

The conference I went to back in the nineties was my first and last native American language conference. As fascinating as it was, I was among the few non-indigenous people in attendance. The linguistic field of language documentation for dying languages had moved on and was starting to hand over the reins to those whose ancestors spoke the native languages. Although people were welcoming, I felt like an intruder, a descendant of contemptible European colonisers. I only wish now that my younger self realised the full extent of the harm of colonisation, damage that goes far beyond languages and cultures.