27-29/1030: Abstract or Concrete? an incomplete reflection on “The Dead” and the dead

Last week was the first week where I hit a major road-block in writing regularly, but part of my not writing is also because I’ve been giving myself a bit of slack, since classes and the semester officially start today.

While I could write about the first seminar introduction I visited today, I need to finish the post I started on Saturday. A lot ran through my head that day that I need to address in a few small moments, but first I start with a small discussion of James Joyce’s The Dubliners and its last story: “The Dead.”

My first introduction to James Joyce was in a writing tutorial, in the praise of a story which the director of the writing program, my one-on-one teacher, could not praise enough. She said I had to read at least this story if I didn’t read the whole book. I’ll admit that I only fairly skimmed the text that evening, always meaning to devote more time but never found any. But now, I felt as though I needed to read it.

It’s a layered story, and I honestly was waiting the whole time I read for a death. Also, for a while, I thought this would be a Christmas ghost story, like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” or the Russian modernists. But I could also appreciate the third person focused narration of Gabriel and his sensitive observations of the evening- finely literate and politically involved. He gave quite a speech for the hostesses, but he is worried about it beforehand, and embarrassed about it afterwards. Of course he’s fictional- maybe a mirror of Joyce himself, as he imagines himself. I looked for “The Lass of Aughrim,” and decided I preferred some other Irish songs better. But this reading was not about the songs or the happy parts- or, perhaps not just the happy parts. And I can write about the music in “The Dead” at another time.

The reason I was drawn towards this text this weekend, was because of my own experience with the dead. I was asked to help clean out the apartment of a dead man whose next-of-kin had rejected the inheritance. The experience was unique and sad for me- being the first experience of its kind and for someone whom I didn’t know. I cannot imagine what it must be like when I have to do it for someone I know and love, but my time will come soon enough. I guess Joyce caught that impression well enough in words by the end of the story.

 The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades.  (Gutenberg online edition of The Dubliners)

One by one, we are all becoming shades. But we know this, despite our daily endeavors to continue as if we would live forever. It’s the other truth Joyce captured that answered why I wanted to read this:

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

What bothered me about cleaning out this man’s home, was that his death was removed from love. I saw the reminders of his relationship with his children, with his girlfriend, and I pieced together these relationships. He had hot chocolate mix for kids, an Advent set with Christmas decorations, books from his French girlfriend signed “de moi, a toi.” Why weren’t these people who loved him doing this work? And why could I separate the objects from the man one moment, and then in the next despise my packing up a useful supply or item for my personal use? I was missing the feeling of loss that should accompany this kind of sorting- the loss is intertwined with love.

He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.

To love someone more because one knows s/he will die one day I have experienced before, but what Joyce describes, the falling into nothingness by fading and withering versus going boldly “in the glory of some passion” is what I’m worried this man did, and that I was witness to this. I fear this fate for myself and yet I know that the vast majority of us will die of old age, faded and withered, than with some great passion.

All these feelings flowed through my head without words and I yearned for some way to express them. I looked for “The Dead.” Now, Joyce has given me words, but it made me wonder- does writing make our ideas more abstract, or more concrete? I wanted the script to read to verbalize my pain and fears, and in a way, they brought them closer to reality. However, at the same time, I’ve made them more abstract. By bringing these feelings into a system of signs, I’ve removed the primal feelings from their primacy. I suppose this is one distinction Walter Ong refers to, when he talks about verbal versus written language. Perhaps that is why music is so important to the story, because they connect the primal and the abstract- and Joyce would be very much aware of this. Maybe I should have avoided the words, but at the same time, they help me. I feel like I’ve worked through my feelings- that I’ve been productive in them by going through the logic of putting them into words.

Still, I can’t deny the magic of Joyce and his writing. There is no question that he proves the power of literature, and I feel grateful to have had the time to read the story properly this time in light of what I was going through.

The question of abstract versus concrete is something I want to return to, but in the meantime, I am content with these last words:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I can feel the snow as it falls.

Work Cited: Joyce, James. “The Dead.” The Dubliners. Project Gutenberg: Ebook, (2001). Online.

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality.

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