Look No Further! Hidden Meaning!

Note: I will make every effort not to portray this writeup as a rant. It is not a rant!

Let's try to start be hearkening back to another era, an age of innocence: namely, childhood. Think about how cool it was to turn over a clod of dirt and find a chunk of mica or pyrite. Even cooler was finding an actual artifact, whether it was a gardening glove so old it was beginning to crumble or, sometimes - rarely, a piece of pottery or a sharpened stick or rock. Of course, there was no way for us as children to identify the age of our find. It was buried, so it was old. Maybe even older than mommy and daddy. Think about how you felt if you ever happened upon something like a shard from an old vase or an arrowhead. Immediately (or rather, after someone explained to you just what it was you'd found) you felt a warm pervading feeling that informed you of your connection to these people who came before you. You had suddenly peeled back one of the layers of meaning of the otherwise humdrum practice of wedging dirt under your fingernails in the backyard.

Jump forward a few years. The next kind of discovery that becomes important (I'm not talking about soul searching, self-discovery, or anything else that can be found in the "books with yellow covers" section of Borders...) is intellectual discovery. I'll use the example of etymology because it's easy to illustrate. It is fascinating (to me, at any rate) that we still use the clunky and archaic system of the "month." But, as soon as we find out that it's from an old english or old german language, we can see how inextricably they have tied us to their system of thought as well as their system of time. Granted, we've slightly modified the strict lunar cycles of the olden days, but because of "months," we think of the world in a certain way, our poetry sounds a certain way, our business is done a certain way -- the ripples of this seemingly unimportant linguistic nuance are widespread. This is another discovery of sorts - it is another way to find meaning in something we take for granted, day in, day out.

I suppose you should all keep in mind that I'm a word-nerd and it's this part of me that is taking the liberty of creating this writeup. Anyway, as you learn to become more comfortable within the space or your particular language, its nooks and crannies, its inconsistencies and charming relics, you'll begin to realize that some people have used this language - the product of our societal tendencies, transactions, loves and losses - to get in touch with the foundations of the humanity that created it. This is again a sort of archaeology - look at the writer's ink-stained hands and then at the dirt-covered child - there is a deep honesty of creation in both. The difference is that the child's purpose and forte is to discover, whereas the writer tends to wrap his discoveries up in language so that others can pick at it and - by virtue of the order of the words in the book - discover something for themselves. This is, in part, what literature is about. There are certain pieces of work with which we find a sort of communion and this is another moment during which we have uncovered meaning. The whole point, though, is that we've figured it out ourselves. The reason we've been able to find it in the first place is because we've entered into a sort of dialectic with the text. Here's the most important truth, though: authors leave PLENTY OF SPACE between their "subject matter" and their writing. What if we opened Ulysses and read:


Stately, plump Buck Mulligan1 came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl2 of lather on which a mirror3 and a razor4 lay crossed.5 A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled,6 was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
--Introibo ad altare Dei. 7
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:
--Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!8

1 Buck Mulligan is introduced as the antithesis to young Stephen Dedalus. He is stately and plump as opposed to Stephen, somewhat emaciated from constantly expelling his art from his body and mind. See "snotgreen sea" and the passage about his sick mother.
2 The sea is also protrayed as a bowl, and here Buck Mulligan takes on a godlike stature as he carries the bowl to and fro.
3 This is the mirror through which Stephen sees Dublin and the rest of Ireland, but it also poses as the looking-glass through which others see Stephen. Again, Mulligan is shown as having control of a real part of Stephen's life, much as Blazes Boylan will take control of a real part of Bloom's life later in the day.
4 The razor is a foreshadowing of the entrance of Stephen (Kinch, the knifeblade, named so for his sharp wit).
5 Already, we can see the question of Catholicism in Joyce's work. The environment in which Stephen was raised and educated (See Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was fiercely Catholic and during the course of this book the Catholic mass will be parodied, denied, affirmed, and mangled in various ways.
6 The sleepinggown is ungirdled to signify the comically overblown libido of Buck Mulligan, the self-declared fertilizer of Irish women. In Oxen of the Sun, this aspect will be elucidated.
7 Lat. I will go in to the Altar of God. Here is the first appearance of the Catholic mass and, though the words are correct, it is being parodied by Buck who is holding a bowl of lather instead of a goblet of wine.
8 Stephen is anything but a "fearful Jesuit," as Mulligan indelicately puts it. In Circe he will cross paths with some english-sympathizing police officers and his dislike of Catholicism and stubbornness will come to the fore.

No! No, no! This is a heavily annotated version of Ulysses. Literary critics live to make those sort of comments in books and sell the new editions to people, but this is a far cry from the original version by Joyce. This is not to say that literary criticism is a bad thing; au contraire, it is yet again a way to open up a previously unnoticed dialogue with a given work. It is the literary critics who think themselves capable (whether they are or not is a different question entirely) of this task, of finding the hidden meaning. So, here comes the whole point of this writeup: it's the critics that write these notes and not the authors! Proffering a pre-packaged interpretation of one's own art should not be included in the creative process. This is where I'm doing my best not to rant and rave. Granted, fiction writers who choose to publish their work on E2 should be aware of this and should definitely continute to hardlink but they should do so responsibly. I'm thinking of some poems and stories I've read lately in which, to make up an example, a word like "rain" is linked to "I can still feel her soft lips." I'm sorry, but this doesn't actually make a piece more poetic -- actually, it works against the creativity of the artist by limiting the interpretive possibilities. I think drawing parallels is great -- I definitely do it myself sometimes, but every time a new form of art or technology comes around (and I'd call a vast number of these hyperlinked ones and zeros "art"), people need to figure out an effective way to work within it.

Just my two cents.