Nora (2001)

“Nora” is well acted but a bit contrived. It’s about James Joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle. Ewan McGregor plays James Joyce and Susan Lynch plays Nora Barnacle.

The film does at least make the sexual relationship between Nora and James seem plausible. And some things in the film make more sense than Paul Strathern’s historical take.

Strathern says Nora was a virgin when she first met Joyce, but the movie depicts Nora as having lovers before Joyce. That makes much more sense. What virgin would get a man off in public after just meeting him? And why would Joyce have been so crazy with jealousy if he truly believed Nora was a virgin?

Strathern distances Nora’s story from “The Dead” in Dubliners, but the film explicitly says that “The Dead” is based on Nora’s previous relationship with a boy who died of typhoid. It seems strange that Joyce would write a story that was so closely related to Nora’s without already knowing about it. Why did Strathern feel the need to separate Joyce’s “The Dead” with Nora’s experience?

I probably need to add Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce to my list.

James Joyce in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

Bust of Joyce on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Strathern’s James Joyce in 90 Minutes is a fun and very informative little book. I already covered Strathern’s thoughts on Joyce & Modernism. Here are the biographical highlights I want to remember…

  • 1882 (Feb. 2): born in Rathgar – middle class suburb in South Dublin
  • 1888 (6 years old): sent to Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare which was regarded as the finest Catholic school in Ireland.
  • 1892 (10 years old): father lost his job and was never able to find regular employment again. Took on various part-time jobs including soliciting advertisements for a Dublin newspaper. James dropped out of Clongowes and schooled himself. His mother helped but she was responsible for 13 children and James’ father was abusive toward his mother and increasingly unavailable. (As a teenager, James had to pin his father down to keep him from seriously injuring his mother while his mother fled to a neighbor.) The family moved from neighborhood to more impoverished neighborhood which made James very familiar with Dublin districts.
  • 1893 (11 years old): Sent with brother Stanislaus to Belvedere College in Dublin. Was an excellent student. (Remained there until University.)
  • Teenage years: began to lose faith and experienced a dark night of the soul. Began writing poetry. He explained to Stanislaus “There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the mass and what I’m trying to do. I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.”
  • 1898 (16 years old): entered University College, Dublin, the city’s Catholic University. Was supposed to rival Protestant Trinity College which had educated Oscar Wilde and philosopher Bishop Berkeley. But when Joyce entered, the Jesuits were imposing a rigid Catholic orthodoxy which created an air of mediocrity. Joyce attended irregularly.
  • 1900 (eighteen years old): wrote a long review of Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken which was extended into an 8000 word review of Ibsen’s entire work. It was accepted by a prestigious London publisher. Ibsen read the review and sent Joyce a letter of thanks. Joyce wrote to Ibsen: “Ireland has produced nothing but a whine to the literature of Europe.” What he meant was that he sought to establish a real Irish tradition, not the current literary tradition of Ireland which was almost completely composed of Anglo-Irish or Protestant writers who were middle or upper class. (Joyce was a Celt with a Catholic background and he did not subscribe to middle-class mores.)
  • Joyce identified with Ibsen’s characterization of the feminine in large part because he was also imbued with a “feminine delicacy of touch”. His Catholic sexual repression had left him deeply ambivalent about his own sexuality. He was highly sexed and highly repressed which led to a perverse obsession with intimate bodily odors, a fetish he retained for the rest of his life.
  • He began having sexual encounters with prostitutes which were necessary for him as an artist and as a man. However, it created in him a deep shame. He also drank way too much.
  • Began writing prose he called “epiphanies”. This was a theological term referring to a heightened sense of consciousness in which a vision of the godhead or religious revelation takes place. For Joyce the revelation was spiritual but without any religious content or sacred meaning. His epiphanies occurred “in a vision of the soul of the commonest object… in the vulgarity of speech or gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.”
  • 1902 (20 years old): Graduated from University College, Dublin. He moved to Paris with the goal of becoming a writer. Four months later, he learned his mother was dying and he returned home. She died a few months after that and Joyce took a job as a teacher in Dublin to help care for the family, but his father spent what little money they had on alcohol. Joyce spent 10 days in Martello Tower with Oliver St. John Gogarty and began writing Stephen Hero based on the spiritual progress of Joyce himself (epiphanic formative experience).
  • 1904 (22 years old): met Nora Barnacle who had run away from her home and was working as a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel. They met for a second time on June 16 which became the most famous date in 20th century literary history. Nora was 19 and still a virgin, but she slipped her hand into Joyce’s pants and brought him to orgasm while standing on the street. That changed Joyce’s life. Joyce continued drinking, however. He got into a fight and was looked after by a Jewish man, Alfred Hunter, which also assumed deep significance for him. Joyce ran away with Nora in October.
  • 1905 (23 years old): Nora and James moved to Trieste and convinced Stanislaus to join them. Stanislaus took a teaching position which allowed Stephen to write but James became “his brother’s keeper” and Nora and James began fighting. James continued to drink way too much and Stanislaus would sometimes have to carry him home. Realism & symbolism were the two main contending literary movements at the time. Joyce combined the two. His writing was utterly realistic but also suffused with symbolic meaning. Symbol and reality became one.
  • 1907 (25 years old): Completed “The Dead”, the final story in Dubliners.
  • 1909 (27 years old): Convinces several businessmen from Trieste to open a string of cinemas in Dublin. His Volta Cinema was the first cinema in Dublin. The scheme failed and Joyce was in financial ruin. This year, he also heard through the grapevine that Nora had been in love with someone else before she met James. He felt this was a betrayal, much like what he had written about in “The Dead”, and it became a major theme in later works.
  • 1914 (32 years old): Completes Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a reworking of Stephen Hero. This novel is not as “realistic” as Dubliners. The novel shows how the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist movement threaten to stifle the spirit of the artist, Stephen Daedalus. The interplay of Good and Beauty that is the central aesthetic theory proposed by Stephen comes from Thomas Aquinas. Joyce rejected Catholicism, but he also recognized its strengths and used them. The close of the novel conveys Stephen’s deepest worries and aspirations, but also the beginning of his literary talent. This book was an article of artistic faith, not autobiographical. He had trouble getting the book published and then finally received help from Ezra Pound. Dubliners was published and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized in an influential London literary magazine.
  • This year, WWI began. Stanislaus was thrown into a camp for enemy aliens and James & Nora decided to move to neutral Switzerland. Nora spoke Irish, English and German, but James said her English and German weren’t comprehensible to an Englishman or a German. Now she had to learn another language. Joyce began writing Ulysses, which was even more autobiographical than Portrait yet more objective. The entire novel takes place on June 16, 1904, the day he met Nora. We experience the day as though we are inside the heads of the main characters. Harriet Weaver, a 41 year old unmarried English Quaker woman admired Joyce’s work and became his benefactor. Joyce had a disease that caused him to go completely blind in one eye and virtually blind in the other. Weaver helped pay his medical bills.
  • 1918 (36 years old): The first episodes of Ulysses began appearing in New York’s The Little Review. They continued to appear until 1920 when the magazine was sued by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Joyce moved back to Paris where he thought his writing would be better appreciated.
  • 1922 (40 years old): Ulysses was considered unpublishable, but is finally published by Sylvia Beach who owned Shakespeare and Company and admired Joyce’s work. It was published on Joyce’s 40th birthday. Stephen and Bloom are very different characters. Stephen is intellectual, meditative, has an extensive vocabulary, is more exotic and skillfully employed. Bloom has a more rapid-fire inner monologue which matches the outward attentiveness of his mind. (Like Joyce’s father, Bloom is an advertising man for a newspaper. Bloom also is taken from Alfred Hunter who took care of Joyce when he 22 and in the bar fight right after he met Nora. However, there was another incident when Joyce got drunk after finding out about Nora’s previous love affair that Bloom is based on as well: John Byrne had to take him home and he lived at 7 Eccles Street.) Joyce wanted to create an exact replica of Dublin so that if it was ever destroyed, it could be recreated from Ulysses.
  • Early 1930s: Lucia, Joyce’s daughter, was mentally ill. Joyce consulted Carl Jung but he could do little to help. Jung told him: “You are like two people going to the bottom of the river, but where as she is drowning, you are diving.” Meanwhile, Joyce continued to have operations on his eyes which were subsidized by Harriet Weaver. She had spent a huge amount of money on him by this point. Joyce continued to drink heavily. Despite his drunkenness and blindness, he began working on Finnegan’s Wake.
  • 1939 (57 years old): Finnegan’s Wake is published. It was called the ultimate literary carnation of Shame’s Voice (Joyce called himself Shame’s Voice) and was considered to be an “aberration of genius”. It was literature as puzzle. We have to abandon our habitual notions of meaning and preconceived notions of reading to “understand” it. Younger generations liked it. Samuel Beckett said that Finnegan’s Wake “is not about something; it is that something itself.” Joyce was a very ill man as Europe entered WWII.
  • 1940 (58 years old): The Nazi’s invaded France and James and Nora moved back to Zurich.
  • 1941, January 13 (59 years old): James Joyce fell ill with an ulcer and died, penniless.
  • 1951. Nora died.
  • Ulysses became known as the novel that most characterized the 20th Century. Bloomsday is celebrated every year on June 16 around the world.
  • “The Dead” is often listed among the top 10 greatest short stories ever written
  • Finnegan’s Wake is considered a cult work for gifted connoisseurs, including Nobel-prize winning American particle physicist Murray-Gell-Mann. The name “quark” came from Gell-Mann based on a passage in Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark. And sure as any he has it’s all beside the mark.”

Even Silence Has an End by Ingrid Betancourt

Even Silence Has an End is Ingrid Betancourt’s account of being kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and held in captivity for 6 years in the Colombian Jungle.   It’s a gripping book – I had difficulty putting it down.  Every time I put it down I wanted to pick it up and find out what happened next.  At the same time, however, it left me feeling unsettled.

I think this may be the second hostage memoir I’ve read.  I remember reading an account of an American man held hostage in Korea (I think it was Korea – it’s been a while).  He and his fellow hostages came up with a means of communicating with one another by making scratching sounds on the wall.  They were not allowed to communicate directly so they somehow figured out how to decipher the scratching sounds.  The author of this memoir was extremely grateful for the company of his fellow hostages.  I can’t remember his name or the exact details, but his amazing capacity for gratitude despite his immense hardship has remained with me for years.

I didn’t sense that same sort of gratitude in Betancourt’s account.  It felt more like forced tolerance.  Of course, she was in captivity for 6 years.  That is an excruciatingly long time.  And she is female, not male, which I’m sure creates completely different considerations.  By Betancourt’s account, her fellow captives were often mysteriously at odds with her.  She blames it on lies their captors told to intentionally put them at odds with one another.  I don’t doubt this is true.  I think what troubles me is that Betancourt seems to take great pains to portray herself as an enlightened, loving, self-reflective heroine; but she paints her dark side just a tad too brightly given the disconnect she experiences with her fellow captives.  Something feels just a tad disingenuous.

I think what most bothered me was how she presented the woman who had been taken hostage with her.   Maybe the story was entirely accurate, but if you’ve been taken hostage with someone, what is the benefit of betraying her in a negative light?  According to psychologists, hostages are generally supportive of those who have been held hostage with them, no matter what sort of crazy degrading behavior they have exhibited.  Betancourt’s portrayal of Carla Rojas was especially problematic for me – especially when describing the interaction of both women with the baby.  I sense a hidden agenda.

Of course, we all have our hidden agendas.  So even if Betancourt is presently unwilling or unable to deal with certain parts of her psyche, her willingness to provide such a detailed account of her captivity is amazing.  I can’t even begin to imagine going through what it is she went through, and for six plus years!!  Who can even imagine what it would be like to be tied to a tree by a chain from your neck for months on end, without knowing how long you will be chained?  Or having to request permission to go to the bathroom, which isn’t actually a bathroom, but a frequently used putrid hole full of insects?

Maybe her fellow captives have reason to take issue with her, just as she may have reason to take issue with them.  I have no idea.  Whatever the case may be, clearly Betancourt is an incredibly strong female with an immense sense of self.  I’m glad to have read her book.

Faith, Interrupted by Eric Lax

I sincerely appreciated Eric Lax’s Faith Interrupted although I don’t entirely relate to Lax.  He was the son of an Episcopalian minister and grew up with an unquestioning faith.  My family was far less religious and I was constantly questioning what I was being taught in church, when we went.  But in a sense, I was also unquestioning.   All my questions were within a certain boundary that I didn’t dare go outside.  For the past five years, I’ve been venturing beyond those bounds and it makes my relationship with institutionalized religion extremely uncomfortable.

Lax wrote:

I still felt connected to the Episcopal Church and closely followed its internal doings through clergy friends and my parents, but it was more an institutional attachment I felt than one that connected me with God.  I derived a sense of inclusion and security from my relationships with the bishops and clergy I knew well and liked, and who liked me.  I felt part of the Church, an insider in a genteel and socially prominent faith.  Unfortunately, this meant I found comfort more in feeling connected to the establishment than to the Holy Spirit.

That’s how I feel about Methodism.  I feel a profound loyalty to the institution and have several friends who are Methodist ministers. But feeling a loyalty to an institution is far more materialistic than it is spiritual.

I was in a Spiritual Directions group in our Methodist Church which was incredibly uncomfortable for me, even though the members of the group were amazing, lovely women.  Spiritual Direction is supposed to be about exploring your own spirituality without judgment or condemnation, but I felt judged because the members were so intent on trying to get me to adopt various versions of a personal God.  I simply can no longer believe in a personal God. That’s not to say I don’t think God can be personally experienced.  I have had a very personal experience of what I call God. But a personal experience of God is not a personal God.  The two are very different.  The overwhelming advice was to realize that God considers me His precious child.  It was a sort of mantra – “I am a precious child of God”.   I know the women are trying to shift the idea that we are sinful to something more positive, which is undoubtedly beneficial.  But I simply cannot understand God in this way, anymore.  God doesn’t create sinfulness and preciousness. We do. God transcends human egoic judgment.  But how can you explain this to “believers” without judgment or condemnation?  You really can’t, because they tend to view it as a negation of God even though it’s merely the realization that our ideas of God are not God.

Maybe I’m more like Eric Lax’s friend Skip, the Episcopal Minister, than I am like Lax.  I’m extremely comfortable with mysticism, contemplative prayer, and Father Keating.  I don’t struggle with that like Lax does.  It makes sense to me. But I repeatedly try to find a place within institutional religion and I just can’t seem to find one beyond a social connection.

Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby

Welcome to Utopia, Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby is a nonfiction book about a little Texas town about 180 miles from where I live. Karen Valby is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.  The book started out as an assignment to find an American town that had not yet been affected by the popular culture.  Something about people who were not yet “swallowed whole by the all-consuming, trend hungry maw of Hollywood.”

I have never lived in a small town but my roommate in college was from a very small town.  I ended up dating a guy from her small town for 3 1/2 years (almost my entire college career) so ended up quite familiar with the characters from that little town.  They were like the characters in Utopia.  Many of them ranch owners, ranch hands, restaurant owners, grocery store owners.  They were hard working, tough, intelligent, kind hearted, opinionated, and mostly conservative.  I was in love with that little town.  The newspaper had articles explaining how a local boy broke his arm or that a local restaurant was getting a new state of the art oven.  Everybody knew everybody and who they were related to and how (with the exception of the oil field workers who came through seasonally).  Many of them were extremely gossipy and even sometimes seemed to be outright hateful.  But it was clear that in the end, the town rallied behind its citizens.

I liked it so much that when I decided to teach school, I chose a teeny tiny little town that required a long commute.  It was a little bigger than Utopia because it had a football team and it had just gotten its first McDonalds.  That was a HUGE event.  The marching band was present at the grand opening and the kids were elated.  That was over 25 years ago.  It’s not a small town anymore.  It’s an exurb.  I’m not sure what’s become of my friend’s hometown from college.  I haven’t been back since college.

I genuinely enjoyed reading Karen Valby’s book on Utopia.  It follows the lives of four people: a teenage boy who can’t stand country music and dreams of getting out of Utopia, a teenage girl who is the only African American girl in the school, the mother of multiple sons who have joined the army, and an elderly gentlemen who used to own the local grocery store.  He still shows up at the store every single morning for a male coffee drinking ritual that has been going on for decades.

It’s kind of sad to think that the remaining few towns like Utopia are becoming a thing of the past as corporate America takes over.  I hate to see them go!  Of course, I live in suburbia.  I’m part of the problem.

Oprah

I mentioned yesterday that I was reading Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelly. It was just another one of those books sitting on the library’s “New Books Shelf” that I grabbed on my way out. 

I read less than 1/4 of the way through and quit. (It’s over 500 pages so I read quite a bit.)

When the kids were little I used to watch the Oprah show fairly regularly because it came on during my kids downtime. Usually I was doing bills, folding clothes or starting dinner at the same time, but it was often engaging. No matter what you think of her, she’s definitely interesting. 

I agree with Kelley that she has been mythologized, sainted, glorified all based on a persona she offers her audience and not necessarily on the reality of who she truly is. But the more I read Kelley’s book, the dirtier I feel.  It’s basically trashy gossip, even if it is true. So what if Oprah is aloof, strong-willed, domineering and has secrets. She’s a human being and human beings are complicated!

People are never the mythologized perfection our culture makes them out to be. Abraham Lincoln regularly slept with prostitutes. Einstein had a wife and children that he didn’t allow the public to know about. Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs. So what? That doesn’t make them any less important as far as history is concerned, just human!

Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher

Just finished reading Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher and I am a little disturbed with how much I related to it.  Everyone always jokes about me being OCD, but I’m not OCD! I just have tendencies.

Except…

When she explained her childhood obsession of having vivid images of accidents and ambulances, I remembered doing the same thing.  I used to be scared to death to let my parents go out because I was certain they would die.  I have no idea why I was so certain.  I would sit in the middle of the room crying about how I knew they were going to die and they wouldn’t know what to do with me. I had horrible visions that were I freakishly detailed and realistic and I earnestly believed that I was somehow linked to all of the horrors in the world.  I prayed constantly to keep God happy, which is what attracted me to Sher’s book – the title resonated with me.I also played counting games with myself – if I just do this so many times, all will be well.

I never cut myself, but I imagine had someone mentioned it to me, I would have tried it.  Anything to detensify the intensity that was in my head. In high school, my fingers were constantly moving, either pretend typing what I or someone else said, or playing the notes of a song I had in my head on a pretend flute on my arm. I thought I had stopped this habit but my daughter brought it to my attention just the other day.  I was reading a book and my daughter asked me what I was doing with my fingers.  I was typing out the words.  I don’t notice I’m doing it so have no idea how often I do this in front of people without realizing it.

When my son was first born, I had detailed visions of kidnappers walking through the window and snatching him from his crib.  So he slept with us, where I knew he was safe.  I was constantly checking the stove to make sure it was off.  Sometimes, we’d be on the road and I’d make my husband drive back home to make sure it was off, even when it probably hadn’t been used that day.  Everything in my home, on my computer, in my files, in my drawers had to be perfectly organized and orderly because I linked disorder to impending doom.  Certain patterns would drive me absolutely insane because they weren’t appropriately balanced or because I’d get lost in them and not be able to break free.

After reading Sher’s book, I wonder how much this sort of obsession has to do with being taught that we can somehow manipulate God through our prayers and behavior?  We are taught that God is in control, but at the same time, we are taught how to control God through flattery and plea bargaining and are told this is prayer.  Of course, children are often taught this form of a prayer because it is an effective way to get kids to obey their parents and other authority figures. I remember being appalled when I was helping out in a preschool Sunday School class and a little girl had brought in new crayons. A little boy wanted to use them but the little girl refused to share. The Sunday School teacher demanded that she share saying, “God doesn’t like it when you don’t share.”  I was horrified, but that was how I was raised, too.  God doesn’t like it when you lie.  God doesn’t like it when you have sex before marriage.  God doesn’t like it when you talk back to your parents.  I think Sher is right – when we are young, we think of our parents as God’s right hand “man” and so confuse what it is God doesn’t like with what it is our parents don’t like – especially when our parents reinforce it by saying God doesn’t like what it is they don’t like.

For years, when anything bad happened, I somehow thought it was my fault.  I was the oldest growing up so was often in charge of my younger siblings.  When they got into trouble, my mother frequently blamed me for their behavior. She would blame me for her own behavior, too.  It was my fault that she knocked over a lamp.  It was my fault that she ran the stop sign. It was my fault that she couldn’t control her emotions.  I am very careful not to pass the same blame game onto my children, but sometimes I catch myself doing it and I feel horrible.  (I’d really like to be able to blame my teenage son for my high blood pressure!)

There have been times when I can’t get to sleep because I’m convinced I am the most horrible mother on the face of the earth.  I blame myself for every sadness, hurt or pain my kids experience.  I blame myself when they fall down or get bad grades.  I blame myself when they are heartbroken because a love interest has fallen through. My husband has caught me sobbing in the middle of the night bashing myself in the worst way for not being the mother I should be.  Sometimes he just holds me, rocks me back and forth, and says, “Shhh, It’s OK.  Shhh.  It’s OK.”  He has always maintained that I am the best mother his kids could possibly have and that I see myself so much differently than the rest of the world does. He and the kids think I am an amazing mother.  But it doesn’t help to tell me this when I’m in the throes of feeling like I’m the worst mother. The non-judgmental, “It’s OK” works much better.

Over the years, I’ve been slowly but surely letting go of my belief in a personal God. The more I’ve given it up, the more my obssessions and self-bashings have calmed down. I still feel a personal connection to God.  I just no longer think of God as anything even remotely personal.  Not even in the New Age sense.  I know God exists.  I just don’t think my ideas or anyone elses ideas about God are real.  They are ideas. Not God.  Even saying “God is Love” is a judgmental idea that is potentially dangerous for me. Thinking of God as “The Ground of Being” without any emotional value attached whatsoever works best for me.  God IS.  No need to fill in a blank after “IS”.

Obviously, I appreciated the book because it was honest and courageous.  Had it been a little shorter, I would have appreciated it even more.  In reviews, people claim that they can’t relate to Sher and that she was narcissistic, manipulative and uncaring.  I think her ability to express her relationships in a non-flattering way toward herself shows she cares immensely about others even if she’s not always able to express it appropriately.  Nowhere did I feel like she was writing this to put others down.  It was simply about understanding herself, her relationships, and her disease to the best of her ability.  It’s always easy to judge – especially when someone lays themselves bare as did Abby Sher in Amen, Amen, Amen.