Consulting the oracle

HK

With a lockdown birthday doggedly nearing, and required by the Librarian to come up with suggestions for a present she might give me, I settled on a book called Joyce’s Voices, which has several points in its favour. It’s by Hugh Kenner, and one of the few titles of his that I don’t already own. It’s a blessedly slim volume, which will take up very little of the very little space available. Then, too, it’s neatly designed and clearly-printed, a paperback reissue from the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press of the original 1978 edition, which was largely based on the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures that Kenner gave at the University of Kent in Canterbury in 1975.

I’ve just been moving warily through the final proof of the third issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society, so was reminded of Kenner struggling with the page proofs of The Pound Era and writing to Guy Davenport: ‘It is demoralizing to find “viligance” for “vigilance” in a line one has already read 4 times.’[1]

Indeed. That in itself recalled my discovering The Pound Era a hundred or so years ago and making my naïve and youthful pencilled notes against unfamiliar terms (of which there were quite a few). ‘Frightfulness’ I have scrawled beside ‘Schrecklichkeit’, having never come across it then (I’ve come across it a good many times since), and ‘first five books of Old Testament’ against the adjective ‘Pentateuchal’. The one I recall most easily came in the chapter ‘Inventing Confucius’, concerned with Pound’s extraordinary and hugely productive dealings with Chinese ideograms. Kenner describes one ‘lucky hit’ and goes on: ‘He was not always that fortunate, but that was thereafter his method: follow the crib, and when it flags, haruspicate the characters.’[2] My inelegantly written note: ‘haruspicate – to foretell events from inspection of entrails of animals’.

I reflected that, while Canto I’s Tiresias doesn’t examine the entrails of that sacrificed sheep, he does drink its blood, ‘for soothsay’ – and his forecast of Odysseus’ future is pretty much on the money.

In an earlier book, partly based, like Joyce’s Voices, on a series of lectures, Kenner wrote of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, ‘So the scientific character of the novel, its quest for the ideal type, the general law, was to turn upon itself like a haruspex scrutinizing his own entrails.’[3]

Hughkenner

(Hugh Kenner by Walter Baumann, via The Ezra Pound Society)

Haruspices, the Etruscan soothsayers, interpreted the will of the gods primarily by examining the entrails of sacrificial victims. ‘The science of augury certainly was no exact science’, D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1932. ‘But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if ever they are to do anything worth the name.’ He added that, whatever your personal path, there was ‘no other way when you are dealing with life’, it all came to the same thing in the end. ‘Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer.’[4]

We are all augurs now, or we might as well be. I can’t recall a time in which there was a greater sense of unmooring, of instability, of frankly unknowing. Who can guess what next week offers, or next month, let alone further ahead? We may as well glean what we can from birds’ patterns of flight or the nature of lightning strikes, though, given recent history, we’re unlikely to stray with unearned optimism into the assumption that an equitable and well-ordered world is coming down the track.

Phersu_from_the_painted_walls_of_the_tomb_of_the_Augurs_at_Tarquinia,_525-500_BCE,_Etruscan
(Phersu, from the painted walls of the tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia)

There was, to be sure, a brief moment in which many people thought that, however bad the situation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were at least glimpses of possible routes towards improvement, in social inequalities, in reducing pollution, in rethinking political and economic structures in the broadest terms. But the rising levels of traffic, of pollution, of thoughtless social behaviour, suggest that we are already falling back, rapidly and heavily.

Still, I have Kenner on Joyce to look forward to. And in that connection, I think of another letter he wrote to Davenport: ‘Whenever I bring a new car on its 1st trip across the continent I expect a Joycean oracle. In 1956 I passed, on June 16, through Bloom, Kansas. That car subsequently rolled up 112,000 miles without so much as a valve job. This time the odometer turned 1904 on June 16, and the night’s stop was at 1922. We shall see what this double augury portends.’[5]

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 21 June 1971, Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1357.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 450.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 29.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.

[5] Letter of 29 June 1962, Questioning Minds, I, 144.

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