Friday, June 30, 2017

The Bitch's Shadow

In a sprawling and exciting Bloomsday conversation I had with sync sorcerers, Douglas Bolles, William Klaus and Dennis Koch, recorded for the 42 Minutes and Always Record podcasts, the topic of Joyce's connection with Giordano Bruno's art of memory came up. Later this sent me on another wild loop of research and a 1965 essay by critic Norman Silverstein was uncovered.

Silverstein discusses the Italian philosopher's memory system in "Bruno's Particles of Reminiscence":

In order to know the world, refined men must know that gods and heroes remain spirits in our world and that these gods and heroes retain special powers. In order to invoke these special powers Bruno composed a list of 150 sounds of reminiscence based on a 30-letter alphabet. 

This list was fashioned into a incredible wheel-image by the Renaissance scholar, Frances Yates, who argues convincingly in her Art of Memory that Bruno must have intended his system to be set in a complex series of revolving wheels-within-wheels that would yield nearly endless combinations of insight and surprise:

The lists of images given in the book are marked off in thirty divisions marked with these letters, each division having five subdivisions marked with the five vowels. These lists, each of 150 images, are therefore intended to be set out on the concentric revolving wheels. Which is what I have done on the plan, by writing out the lists of images on concentric wheels divided into thirty segments with five subdivisions in each. The result is the ancient Egyptian looking object, evidently highly magical, for the images on the central wheel are the images of the decans of the zodiac, images of the planets, images of the mansions of the moon, and images of the houses of the horoscope.

Here is a graphic of Yates' reconstruction of this system, which may be clicked on to better see its detail:

Joyce's fascination with Bruno throughout his writing career is well-known. From an early critical review of a book on Bruno to almost continual reference to the Nolan and his ideas in Finnegans Wake, Joyce reveals himself as a faithful devotee of the Magus. Silverstein points to a hidden reference in Ulysses that might provide a key to Joyce's whole magical design.

In the opening section of the Walpurgisnacht-like "Nighttown" or "Circe" episode of Ulysses, a "bawd" calls out to Leopold Bloom to entice him into her brothel, promising "ten shillings a maidenhead." And a warning is also given:

THE BAWD: (HER WOLFEYES SHINING) He's getting his pleasure. You won't get a virgin in the flash houses. Ten shillings. Don't be all night before the polis in plain clothes sees us. Sixtyseven is a bitch. 

"Sixtyseven is a bitch." Silverstein insists that 67 is not just the number of a red light district police officer, but it is also a significant reference to Bruno's memory system. This can be verified by checking Yates' wheel. The deity representing number 67 is none other than Circe and her "invention" is, appropriately enough, "fascination." To the argument that this reference is very intentional on Joyce's part, can be added the fact that one of Bruno's major works on the art of memory is Cantus Circaeus, or The Incantation of Circe (1582).

Silverstein himself does not get deeply into the implications of all this, but it leads to some pretty obvious speculation. Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake are vast and still very active memory systems. And the intention of these systems, following Bruno, is not for the enhancement of memory alone, but to launch a magical working which aims to radically renovate the whole of both physical and mental "reality." Yates make clear Bruno's sorcerous design:

Bruno's mind is working on lines which are extremely difficult for a modern to recapture... that the images of the stars are intermediaries between ideas in the supercelestial world and the sub-celestial elemental world. By arranging or manipulating or using the star-images one is manipulating forms which are a stage nearer to reality than the objects in the inferior world, all of which depend on the stellar influences. One can act on the inferior world, change the stellar influences on it, if one knows how to arrange and manipulate the star-images. In fact the star-images are the "shadows of ideas", shadows of reality which are nearer to reality than the physical shadows of the lower world.  

Difficult for a modern to recapture, maybe, but this is essentially what Joyce has done. His later books are magical spells or counter-spells painstakingly constructed, through the art of memory operating mostly unconsciously for readers, to smash the nightmarish lockdown of history -- "...the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame..." -- and to reveal the eternal in every moment. 

This wish is not unique among poets, or even other modernist authors, but Joyce is perhaps alone in transforming his writing into a functioning magical force. This is also the culminating vision of D.H. Lawrence's 1915 book, The Rainbow:

And the rainbow stood on the earth. She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world's corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their blood and would quiver to life in their spirit, that they would cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new, clean, naked bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven. She saw in the rainbow the earth's new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.

The architecture of the world recast into a rainbow-formed "living fabric of Truth." This is a hog-mad imaginative vision. But let us not fear it. Circe is at work here as well. And Bruno, through Joyce, has shown us the recipe to make it happen.