Ulysses

The New Statesman reviewed Ulysses for the first time on 7 April 1923. Desmond McCarthy, the literary editor at the time, wrote under the pen-name Affable Hawk. Presented here is the full text of the review.

Last week I was disconnected in the middle of my discourse. I had just reached Mr. James Joyce and Ulysses. The hubble-bubble of talk round it has subsided, but its influence is likely to be far-reaching. Although copies are destined to find their way into the libraries of those who collect books described in catalogues as “very curious,” it is far from being pornographic in intention. It is perhaps the most obscene book ever written, but it is not a lascivious on; it is, almost dismally indeed, the opposite of that.

The author has been compared to Rabelais. He has only in common with Rabelais a gust for and an exuberant command of words; a like avidity for verbal analogies and assonances, which he carries to a point characteristic of a peculiar mental aberration which used to be called puns, alliterations, or repetitions, which here and there flash into wit, or form an amusing or brilliant collocation of vocables, but more often make an echoing rumble which is not addressed to the intelligence; he flings about a lot of dirty words as well as crashing learned ones. And here all resemblance stops between the author of the inestimable life of the Great Gargantua and that of Ulysses, though one must add they are both born parodyists, the former of general ideas, the latter of literary methods. Indeed, in spirit, two books could not be wider apart.

At bottom, though the most extravagantly fantastical of men, Rabelais was as sensible as it is possible for an alarmingly solid human being to be, and of a downright direct simplicity which makes even Montaigne seem a coquettish, cat-and-mouse writer beside him. If you examine what lies behind Rabelais’ art as a great story-teller (he excelled there) and as a care-destroying buffoon, what is revealed is the philosophy of common sense, a gay stoicism. In the case of Ulysses there is a gloomy background to those exuberant verbal torrents, a morose delectation in dirt; I touch no intellect below, only a mass of nerves and a haunted imagination.

Aussi eût-il été bien forissu (sorti) du déifique manoir de raison si autrement se fût constristé au alteré. Car tous les biens que le ciel couvre et que la terre contient en toutes ses dimensions, hauteur, profondité, longitude et latitude, ne sont dignes d’émouvoir nos affections et troubler nos sens et spirit; that is the essence of Pantagruelism. Above all, Rabelais is fearless; he has no more fear of the body, its functions and secretions, than a doctor. The exhilaration which he imparts is largely due to the laughing indifference with which he handles what others shrink to touch. Amusement at, not horror of, the body is the infection which the reader catches from his pages. He tells us he wrote his book to cure with laughter sick people; sick or not physically, the imaginations of many are sick and queasy, and perhaps the sickliest and most queasy imagination which has found expression in literature is that of Mr. James Joyce himself. The Portrait of a Young Man as Artist, one of the few really remarkable and best written of recent novels, throws light upon Ulysses. It enables the reader to measure the depth to which a superstitious horror of the body and sex has been branded into his mind, and explains why passages which appear pointlessly nauseous or exaggeratedly horrible in Ulysses came to be written: to us they may seem messes, to the author they represent, no doubt, the most difficult spiritual victories over private inhibitions. One thing that spoils Ulysses as a work of art is that it is far too much a self-administered cathartic. The author may have freed himself, but he brings no freedom to anyone not in his predicament. There is wit in it, just as there is an amazing acid precision in nailing down with a phrase – especially whatever disgusts – but of laughter there is only an approximation – a croak or a derisive snigger. The quality of its humour may be measured by the fact that in making, according to preposterous plan, each of Bloom’s adventures during twenty-four hours correspond, by some far-fetched analogy, to the consecutive subjects trated in the books of the Odyssey, Bloom, when the Æolus episode occurs in Homer, is represented onomatopoeically as troubled by wind while looking at a picture of the dying Wolfe Tone in a shop window. Silly? Yes, very.

I do not say that at the base of every good book of this kind must lie a robust and fearless philosophy. Out of hag-ridden horror, and cold hostile curiosity the adventures of the body can also be written, but let us once and for all drop any comparison of Mr. James Joyce to Rabelais.

Modern fiction, in so far as it is adventurous, tends to become more and more rhapsodical, episodic, and psychological. The importance of Ulysses lies in its carrying these tendencies to the very last limit. It is instructive to see what happens. Of course “the story” disappears (the story has already disappeared from the work of many contemporaries), but, in a very real and significant sense, “characters” have disappeared also. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, and during this one there has been a continually increasing tendency to go deeper in what is called the “psychology” of characters in fiction, to get behind the motives of which the characters are conscious and to which they would confess if they asked why they did such and such a thing. Ever since Tolstoi made Anna Karenina think of bathing when she threw herself under the train, the tendency to find irrelevant thoughts and feelings important has increased. Human beings, no doubt, do their thinking and feeling in the interstices of long wool-gathering processes, and at moments even of intense emotion the mind may fly about in the most erratic fashion. The older novelists ignored this fact completely; they did not attend to such phenomena, because they did not conceive them to be part of rational human life, the only thing worth writing about. Nevertheless it was discovered that some suggestion of this fact helped enormously to give vivid actuality to emotions described in fiction. Those who wrote later went farther; and latterly we have had novels written by authors who are fascinated by this irrelevant helter-skelter of thoughts, half-thoughts and sensations. Now the fact that Anna was inconvenienced by her little red bag when committing suicide, and that Vronsky’s spiritual misery was swamped by the toothache, adds nothing to our grasp of either as “characters”; Kitty and Levine might have had the same thoughts and sensations in the same circumstances; we have got to know Anna and Vronsky thanks to touches of a different kind. What these incidents illustrate is not “character,” but the nature of the human machine itself common to all humanity, however much individuals differ. The greater space therefore the novelist devotes to such facts, and the more he relies upon them exclusively, the more he tends to destroy his figures as “characters.” His novel, especially if he follows a system of interpretation like Psycho-Analysis, tends to become a pseudo-scientific discourse about imaginary cases; utterly worthless, of course, to men of science, or to anyone in the least scientifically minded, and utterly uninteresting to all except to those young readers to whom such partial revelations of possible truths about human nature come as a startling surprise.

Mr. Joyce has carried this process farther than anyone else. In retailing the thoughts, half-thoughts, perceptions of inattentions of Bloom and Mrs. Bloom, he has sunk a shaft down into the welter of nonsense which lies at the bottom of the mind, pumped up this stuff and presented it as a criticism of Life. 

Affable Hawk.

McCarthy was the literary editor of the New Statesman in the early 1920s. Writing under the name Affable Hawk, he also contributed book reviews to the magazine.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage