Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cuchulain Part 2

In Chapter VIII ("The Dream of Angus Og") the dreaming title character, when his nightly vision of a beautiful woman playing a harp ceases to appear to him, remains bedridden and stops eating for two years. I think this short legend may be supposed to illustrate the native poetic and musical spirit of the Irish people, but it comes off rather silly and juvenile in an age of economics.

The elaborate descriptions of the grandeur of the clothing, jewels, swords, etc, seemed to me pointless and absurd. If it had had more substantial grounds in truth it might have been important, but it is not even an important lie--the myths survive and function completely independent of it.

I don't know if this is a Gregorian touch or not, but women fight and have their heads lopped off in this book as well as men, unlike in Ossian. It was not really very sensitively or poignantly done.

p.134--"Then Brod, Conchubar's chariot driver, threw one of the spears he had in his hand into the house, and it went through Gerg's body, and through the body of Airisdech his servant that was behind him, so that the two of them fell together."

Chapter X, "The Wedding of Maine Morgor"--i.e. a massacre, was a horrible story of which I don't get the point. By this stage of the book it hardly seems possible that the population of prehistoric Ireland could have absorbed the slaughter of its young men--and women too--on the scale on which they are being cut down here.

p.152--"...there are eighteen divisions have passed the border, but the eighteenth is broken up and distributed among the others, so that no sure reckoning can be made of it.' This, now, was one of the three best estimates ever made in Ireland..." What?

Apparently Cuchulain's long range eyesight is not too good because his driver, or whoever is standing next to him, always has to describe who or whatever is coming.

p.179--"Where is the use of all this talk?" said Ferdiad; "Your great name will be lost, your head will be on a stake before the crowing of the cock." More archetypical dialogue.

p.161--The evisceration of the earnest pup Etarcomal by Cuchulain, with whom the former is foolishly determined to fight, is a disturbing sequence: "And with that he gave a blow of his sword that cut the sod clean away from under the soles of Etarcomal's feet, so that he fell on his back. 'Go back now,' he said, for you have had a warning.' 'I will not go back until I have fought with you.' Then Cuchulain gave another stroke with the edge of his sword that cut the hair close off his head, but drew no blood. 'You may go back now, at least,' he said. 'I will not go,' said Etarcomal, 'until I have made an end of you, or you have made an end of me.' 'Well,' said Cuchulain, 'if you are set upon that, it is I must make an end of you.' With that he made a cross blow at him that cut him through and through, so that he fell dead."

Though I ordinarily do not like to pass judgements, as some do, on how much contempt authors who are now highly regarded must have held their once celebrated but now downgraded contemporaries in, I couldn't help thinking that Joyce must have wanted to throw up when he read this. I checked the annotated Ulysses for any references to this book, and sure enough, there is a pretty juicy one in the Sylla and Charybdis chapter (9). The incident is lifted directly from Joyce's life:
"(Mulligan)--Longworth is awfully sick, he said, after what you wrote about that old hake Gregory. O you inquisitional drunken jewjesuit! She gets you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn't you do the Yeats touch?
He went on and down, mopping, chanting with waving graceful arms:
--The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer."
The notes state that in a review of Lady Gregory's Poets and Dreamers, "Joyce took Lady Gregory to task for her explorations 'in a land almost fabulous in its sorrow and senility' with the obvious twist that the senile dreams of the past were hardly sufficient to a vital national literature." "Mopping", by the way, is obsolete or rare for a made-up face. "The most beautiful book, etc, though not the bit about Homer, which is improvisation on Mulligan's part, is from Yeats's introduction to the Cuchulain book I am writing about now.

p.189--On a warrior: "...he himself got many wounds back again, so that he had to hold up the board of the chariot to his body to keep his bowels from falling out..." I have seen this condition alluded to in other works about ancient warfare. Not to make light of it but that cannot be something you can survive with very long.

p.189--"Then Cuchulain said to Laeg: "Rise up now, and go into the camp, and bring some of Ailell's physicians to cure Cethern; for I give my word, if they do not come before this time to-morrow, I will bring death and destruction on them.'...Then Cethern showed the first one of them his wounds, and it is what he said, that he could not be cured. Then Cethern gave him a blow that sent him out of the house." The doctors are clearly not calling the shots in this society.

p.201--"When the men of Ulster heard that message from Cuchulain, they rose up, and rushed out without stopping to put on their clothing, but only taking their weapons in their hands, and such of them as had the door of their tents facing eastwards did not wait to go through it, but broke out to the west." I think we have an indication of why the Irish did not have a great record of success in winning wars.

p.236--There is a character named "Iriel of the Great Knees."

I had a note written regarding military feats being the only way for men to distinguish themselves, the glorification of war, World War I being 12 years away, and so on, but I scribbled it so I cannot make out now whatever my big insight was and I cannot remember it. I'm sure it had to do with how appalling this book must have been to most of the people who experienced that war.

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