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17 MARCH, 2014

Djuna Barnes Interviews James Joyce in 1922: The Iconic Irishman’s Most Significant Interview

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“He turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.”

Djuna Barnes might be celebrated as a pioneer of modernist writing, her 1936 novel Nightwood a beacon of both modernist fiction and queer literature. But few know that Barnes was also a formidable journalist — a practitioner of literary journalism decades before Gay Talese pioneered the genre. In 1913, after completing her studies in art, 21-year-old Barnes began interviewing and profiling some of the greatest artists, writers, actors, singers, playwrights and other luminaries of the first half of the twentieth century for a number of prominent magazines. In 1985, three years after Barnes died at the age of ninety, outliving every single person she ever profiled (“It’s terrible to outlive your own generation. I wish I could be dead,” Barnes had remarked a decade earlier), these extraordinary conversations were collected in Interviews by Djuna Barnes (public library), featuring Barnes’s own drawings of her subjects. But what makes them especially compelling is that Barnes, like today’s most masterful interviewers, poured into these conversations an enormous amount of her own heart, mind, and sensibility, so that they invariably reflected as much about her as they did about her subjects.

Among them was none other than James Joyce, whom Barnes interviewed and profiled for Vanity Fair in 1922, months after Ulysses was published. The interview remains the most significant one Joyce gave in his lifetime, at once the most cryptic and the most revealing.

James Joyce

Barnes met Joyce in Paris in 1922. After reading an excerpt of Ulysses in The Little Review, where her own work had appeared, she was so impressed that she proclaimed in despair: “I shall never write another line. Who has the nerve after this!” She soon befriended Joyce and became especially close with his wife, Nora. But the admiration was far from one-sided: Joyce thought highly enough of Barnes to gift her the original, annotated manuscript of Ulysses. He may have been a major influence on her writing, but so was she on his, especially as later evidenced in Finnegans Wake.

It is this admiration that pours into Barnes’s introduction to the interview, where her beautiful prose and expansive mind tickle one another into transcendence:

There are men in Dublin who will tell you that out of Ireland a great voice has gone; and there are a few women, lost to youth, who will add: “One night he was singing and the next he wasn’t, and there’s been no silence the like of it!” For the singing voice of James Joyce … is said to have been second to none.

The thought that Joyce was once a singer may not come as a revelation to the casual reader of his books. One must perhaps have spent one of those strangely aloof evenings with him, or have read passages of his Ulysses as it appeared in The Little Review, to have realized the singing quality of his words. For tradition has it that a singer must have a touch of bravado, a joyous putting-forth of first the right leg and then the left, and a sigh or two this side of the cloister; and Joyce has none of these.

Barnes, who had been “on one or two theatrical committees just long enough to suggest the production of Exiles, his only play,” revels in Joyce’s most beautiful sentences (“So stood they both awhile in wan hope sorrowing one with the other.”) and writes:

I realized Joyce must indeed have begun life as a singer, and a very tender singer. And, because no voice can hold out over the brutalities of life without breaking, he turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.

(This sentence itself if undoubtedly among the most beautiful prose ever written.)

Before that first meeting with him in Paris, Barnes held great admiration for Joyce the writer but what she knew about Joyce the man was somewhere between hearsay and legend — mostly based on the ludicrous rumors about him in America. (Ezra Pound had famously contributed to the myth by writing, “Joyce is the only man on the continent who continues to produce, in spite of poverty and sickness, working from eight to sixteen hours a day.” Of course, we now know the reality of Joyce’s daily routine was rather different.)

So when Barnes first met Joyce at a little Parisian café across from the church of St. Germain des Près, she found herself transfixed by his odd appearance — a waistcoat too young and too small for him, “partly because he had thrust its gathers behind him, and partly because the belt which circled it lay two full inches above his hips,” a strangely styled red and black beard, which “descended sharply into a scant wedge on an out-thrust chin, and a what appears to be the early-twentieth-century version of an Ugly Christmas Sweater, knitted by Joyce’s own grandmother “for the first hunt of the season” — a purple waistcoat featuring “alternate doe and dog heads, [the does'] tiny scarlet tongues hanging out over blond lower lips, drowned in a light wool.”

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes

Joyce’s demeanor was equally unapologetic, beginning with the very first thing he said to Barnes regarding the recent censorship of Ulysses:

The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse, they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.

And yet it is quickly revealed that he takes language — and thereby his own writing — rather seriously as a sculptor of culture. He tells Barnes:

All the great talkers have spoken in the language of Sterne, Swift, or the Restoration. Even Oscar Wilde. He studied the restoration through a microscope in the morning and repeated it through a telescope in the evening

[In Ulysses] they are all there, the great talkers, them and the things they forgot. In Ulysses I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does to what you Freudians call the subconscious.

He adds a quick sleight against Freud and his craft, which had just reached its cultural height some years earlier:

But as for psychoanalysis, it’s neither more nor less than blackmail.

Once again, Barnes’s own exquisite prose pours in:

People say of him that he looks both sad and tired. He does look sad and he does look tired, but it is the sadness of a man who has procured some medieval permission to sorrow out of time and in no place; it is the weariness of one self-subjected to the creation of an overabundance in the limited.

If I were asked what seemed to be the most characteristic pose of James Joyce, I should say that of the head, turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death.

Barnes, who went on to befriend Joyce over the course of the four months she spent in Paris that year, notes that “one may not ask him questions, one must know him” and recounts their talks, the conduit of knowing:

We have talked of rivers and of religion, of the instinctive genius of the church which chose, for the signing of its hymns, the voice without “overtones” — the voice of the eunuch. We have talked of women;a bout women he seems a bit disinterested. Were I vain, I should say he is afraid of them, but I am certain he is only a little skeptical of their existence…

We have talked of death, of rats, of horses, of the sea; languages, climates and offerings. Of artists and of Ireland.

Joyce told her of the latter:

The Irish are people who will never have leaders, for at the great moment they always desert them…

Barnes remarks on Joyce’s curious customs and routines:

Joyce has few friends, yet he is always willing to leave his writing table and his white coat of an evening, to go to some quiet nearby cafe, there to discuss anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new.” Callers have often found him writing into the night, or drinking tea with Nora. I myself once came upon him as he lay full length on his stomach poring over a valise full of notes taken in his youth for Ulysses — for as Nora says, “It’s the great fanaticism is on him, and it is coming to no end.” Once he was reading out of the book of saints (he is never without it) and muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for a stroll.”

However it is with him, he will come away for the evening, for he is simple, a scholar, and sees nothing objectionable in human beings if they will only remain in place.

Of course, Barnes knew better than to let the reader mistake Joyce’s outlook for sheepish resignation to the human condition. She quickly counters by relaying Joyce’s iconoclastic tenacity in his own words:

I will not serve that which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in my art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning.

Interviews by Djuna Barnes is a treasure trove in its entirety, with many more rare conversations with cultural icons. Complement this particular one with three poems by James Joyce and his newly revived children’s book.

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14 MARCH, 2014

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

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“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.”

In 1988, Bill Moyers produced a series of intelligent, inspiring, provocative conversations with a diverse set of cultural icons, ranging from Isaac Asimov to Noam Chomsky to Chinua Achebe. It was unlike any public discourse to have ever graced the national television airwaves before. The following year, the interviews were transcribed and collected in the magnificent tome Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library). But for all its evenness of brilliance, one conversation in the series stands out for its depth, dimension, intensity, and timelessness — that with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, one of the most remarkable and luminous minds of our time, who sat down to talk with Moyers shortly after the publication of enormously stimulating book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.

Martha Nussbaum

Moyers begins by framing Nussbaum’s singular approach to philosophy and, by extension, to the art of living:

MOYERS: The common perception of a philosopher is of a thinker of abstract thoughts. But stories and myths seem to be important to you as a philosopher.

NUSSBAUM: Very important, because I think that the language of philosophy has to come back from the abstract heights on which it so often lives to the richness of everyday discourse and humanity. It has to listen to the ways that people talk about themselves and what matters to them. One very good way to do this is to listen to stories.

Reflecting on the timeless wisdom of the Greek myths and tragedies, particularly Euripides’s Hecuba, Nussbaum considers the essence of good personhood, which necessitates accepting the basic insecurity of existence and embracing uncertainty. She tells Moyers:

To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

The paradox of the human condition, Nussbaum reminds us, is that while our capacity for vulnerability — and, by extension, our ability to trust others — may be what allows for tragedy to befall us, the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity:

Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, “I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.” That really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”

You see people doing that today where they feel that society has let them down, and they can’t ask anything of it, and they can’t put their hopes on anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book.' Click image for details.

Things get significantly more complicated, however, when we find ourselves in binds that seem to call for tragedy by asking us to make impossible choices between multiple things we hold dear. Nussbaum illustrates this by pointing to Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, in which the king-protagonist has to choose between saving his army and saving his daughter. The same tragedy plays out on a smaller scale in everyday dilemmas, such as juggling your career with being a good parent. Most of the time, as Nussbaum puts it, the two “enrich each other and make the life of each of them better.” But sometimes, practical circumstances pose such insurmountable challenges like an important meeting and your child’s school play happening at the same time — one of these two priorities inevitably suffers, not because you are a bad parent or a bad leader, but because life just happens that way. Therein lies the human predicament — the more we aspire to live well, according to our commitments and priorities, the more we welcome such tragic choices. And yet the solution isn’t not to aspire. Nussbaum tells Moyers:

Tragedy happens only when you are trying to live well, because for a heedless person who doesn’t have deep commitments to others, Agamemnon’s conflict isn’t a tragedy…

Now the lesson certainly is not to try to maximize conflict or to romanticize struggle and suffering, but it’s rather that you should care about things in a way that makes it a possibility that tragedy will happen to you. If you hold your commitments lightly, in such a way that you can always divest yourself from one or the other of them if they conflict, then it doesn’t hurt you when things go badly. But you want people to live their lives with a deep seriousness of commitment: not to adjust their desires to the way the world actually goes, but rather to try to wrest from the world the good life that they desire. And sometimes that does lead them into tragedy.

Perhaps Alan Watts was right when he advised not to fight the world’s contradictions but to conceive of the universe as “a harmonious system of contained conflicts.”

Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring many more conversations with luminaries spanning art, science, psychology, literature, the creative spirit, and just about every aspect of life. Complement this particular one with Nussbaum’s advice on living a full life.

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14 MARCH, 2014

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1954. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

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