From the first page of A Second Chance at Dancing, we get the sense that Michael, the first-person narrator, is about to open up an inner emotional landscape that’s been long hidden. Too old for “coming of age” and too young for a “mid-life crisis,” Michael nonetheless occupies one of those transitional moments where all values seem up for grabs as he comes to terms with the existentialist meaning of life (or lack thereof). While the existentialist musings give an intellectual scaffold to A Second Chance at Dancing, the emotional weight is also full and authentic. If you want a conventional plot with good guys and bad guys and a ticking clock, this might not be for you. If you want something that leaves you thinking and feeling more deeply about human characters and the human condition, this book does that very, very well.
Robert Gogan’s one-man show, “Strolling through Ulysses” (ongoing at The Stag’s Head pub and other venues, Dublin) is ideal for anyone from the James Joyce scholar to the intrepid reader who found the work impenetrable. The former will be engaged by how Gogan highlights certain layers – especially the potentially humorous ones – of that manifold work, and the latter will be delighted to find a perfectly accessible presentation of Ulysses as a piece of entertainment. Even those who have never tried the tome will have no trouble following the plot and pleasures of Gogan’s show. Mainly, for those of us who read the novel with a mixture of admiration and frustration, Gogan brings back the good memories without triggering the bad.
Probably the lynchpin of the show is Gogan’s delivery style – the facial expressions, the rhythm and pace, the lingering on key phrases from the book (e.g., “scrotum-tightening sea”) that are pregnant with humor and with deeper meaning at the same time. Part of the story’s pace is driven by the erratic transitions (“ok, let’s get back to…”; “anyway…”). This is no oversight but a reminder that perfect continuity was never the point in Joyce’s writing. Gogan teases us into enjoying the associative flow without getting anxious about “losing the thread.” That, indeed, might be the best learned secret to enjoying Joyce’s longer works.
If any improvement could be made, Gogan could perhaps use props and dynamic movement to better distinguish the characters. One could picture a bit more color and prancing about. The second act is more polished in this regard, especially in the excellent segments on Gerty and Molly. Gogan’s epilogue of contemporary criticism fit well and could even be extended a bit for my taste. But as I press to think of how to pull out more potential, even that pressure is a sign of the show’s strength. As in Ulysses itself, part of the richness lies in the sense that there are always, no matter how many readings you give, more hidden opportunities to be dug out of the text.
. Such a half-lit room as I now share
. with no one I once shared with you, your color gold,
. eyes of sand, a glass tips over, a smell of hair,
. drips, drops of honey, wine, a tale half-told.
. Twenty years since in the reckless world I went
. traveling their trains and fields of sweet rose bay
. and silver-lined cities, nor do I lament
. the years not spent in your soft sway.
. For those twenty years are as a glass to hold
. that spot of time, you upon the marble red
. of Keats’ urn, forever young, forever bold
. upon the kiss, not broken by life’s procrustean bed.
. I too struggle in the urn-imagined light
. for a moment, then a flash, a color, icy black.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of
(from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)
Sexual desire seems so human to us. Sure, we know animals do it, and even plants, but their experience seems different, alien. So much emotion in the human drive. But if we call it a “drive,” we seem to risk reducing it to just an animal/vegetable thing devoid of higher meaning, devoid of love. But what if it works the other way? To recognize our sexual desire as an instance of the same force that drives the animal and vegetable kingdoms, does that not make the whole thing more meaningful and emotion-rich? Look at the way plants push toward their own physical fulfillment – all the little sprouts and turns and small daily efforts.
The beauty and love we associate with our sexual desire is there already, moving forward the whole system all the time, entangling and driving through our own species as one turn in the much larger road. Our consciousness that seems so special is just a temporary human expression of the great consciousness that rolls through all things.
At least I think that’s what Whitman is getting at, with an assist below from Wordsworth.
. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(from William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”)
What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.
Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.
I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.
Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.
Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)
Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.
I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.