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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Constellations of Jane Austen and James Joyce

As a quick followup to my October 12 post "Jane Austen's and James Joyce's Webs of Allusion....

The past 10 days have been quite an adventure for me, as I have, amidst my usual Austen research and writing, launched on my own little "Odyssey" into Joyce's Ulysses. I will confess that I had previously read parts of Ulysses (I must have read the first four chapters about 10 times over 40 years!), but I never did make it much deeper than that in any previous attempt.

But this time is different, and for that difference, I must of course thank Jane Austen. It turns out that she not only taught me to read the shadow stories of Shakespeare's plays, she also has taught me to read the shadow story of Ulysses!

As I wrote the other day, Jane Austen and James Joyce might seem to be writers from two completely different literary universes, but now i know that they were no more different than Stravinsky and Mozart--both geniuses speaking the same "language", albeit in (superficially) different styles.

There are so many ironies in this literary constellation, including the obvious one that it took my reading novels written TWO centuries ago for me to first learn to read plays written FOUR centuries ago, and then to learn how to read one novel written less than ONE century ago. A funny sort of arithmetic, but it works for me!

I always knew that Joyce was very interested in Shakespeare, and I also suspected that he must also have been very interested in Austen, but I never realized how profound an homage Ulysses is to BOTH Shakespeare AND Austen (and also, of course, to other great writers such as Dickens, Homer and about 200 others, famous and obscure!).

All of this crystallized for me today into the metaphor of a "constellation" as I was having the pleasure of learning and decoding some of the mythological subtext of Ulysses, specifically the connection to Cassiopeia, (bad) mother of Andromeda, bride of Perseus, who is assisted by the god Hermes. In particular I was fascinated by the way Joyce kept returning to this allusion in various ways throughout Ulysses, including perceptions of and information about the stars in the CONSTELLATION we call Cassiopeia.

I realized that, in a way I am pretty sure was intentional on Joyce's part, he thought of his literary antecedents, works like Hamlet and Northanger Abbey (yes, that is not a typo, and I will be mentioning that connection at the end of my talk in Portland at the JASNA AGM two weeks from tomorrow), as "stars" in a literary "constellation", nodes which in aggregate took on a certain coherent shape visible to the eye (including the mind's eye).

And then I immediately thought of the following memorable conversation between Edmund and Fanny in Mansfield Park, which had, I believe, a similar significance for Jane Austen, and which was one I believe Joyce "gazed" on in HIS imagination as he wrote Ulysses:

“I like to hear your enthusiasm, Fanny. It is a lovely night, and they are much to be pitied who have not been taught to feel, in some degree, as you do; who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal.”

“You taught me to think and feel on the subject, cousin.”

“I had a very apt scholar. There’s Arcturus looking very bright.”

“Yes, and the Bear. I wish I could see Cassiopeia.”

“We must go out on the lawn for that. Should you be afraid?”

“Not in the least. It is a great while since we have had any star–gazing.”

“Yes; I do not know how it has happened.” The glee began. “We will stay till this is finished, Fanny,” said he, turning his back on the window; and as it advanced, she had the mortification of seeing him advance too, moving forward by gentle degrees towards the instrument, and when it ceased, he was close by the singers, among the most urgent in requesting to hear the glee again.

Fanny sighed alone at the window till scolded away by Mrs. Norris’s threats of catching cold.

Among other mythological themes hidden in that bit of stargazing, of course, the most important one is of the "star" which is NOT in Cassiopeia, i.e., Mary Crawford is the Circe of Edmund Bertram's Odyssey, and it is the sound of Mary's harp which lures the helpless and clueless Edmund away from Fanny and (almost) to his doom.


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