Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An Exercise in Comparative Literature

For decades, the debate has been raging amongst literary scholars: "Which is better? James Joyce, or a train timetable?"

On the one hand, there are the scholars who argue that we live in an everchanging, metatextual world, and that we should be prepared to let in all types of literature to the canon. On the other hand, there are the classical scholars who think we should just stick with the train timetable.

So what's so good about James Joyce, anyway? Can it do something useful, like tell us when and where to catch a train?

In this essay, I propose to help settle this crucial philosophical debate once and for all by performing a comparative study.

A Study In Literary Quality


Let us consider the table. I have listed a number of criteria by which we may judge our two texts:

CriteriaTrain TimetableUlysses
What does it do?Helps you get from A to BHelps get you from A to L by way of Z, and making a slight detour through G and U before considering the Freudian and Jungian qualities of the letter S
What does it describe?Trains departing from and arriving at various train stationsA day in the life of various Dubliners.
Best Line"Challenges lie ahead, but we believe we have the experience, knowledge and vision to consolidate the network.""Thou has done a doughty deed! Thou art the remarkablest progenitor barring none in this chaffering allincluding farraginous chronicle. Astounding!"
Worst Line"Challenges lie ahead, but we believe we have the experience, knowledge and vision to consolidate the network.""Poor Dignam!"
Difficulty levelEasy to read, and you don't have to read all of it to get the general idea. It is a bit boring.Diufficult to read, and once you get through it all, you realise you have no idea what the fuck it was all about. It is a bit boring, even if you do read it.

Clearly, our two texts are very closely matched.


Let us next consider some of the pros and cons of each text ...

Pro: Can tell you when trains arrive

Con: Trains are often late.

Pro: The letters and numbers are printed in a variety of pretty colours and shapes, making for a pleasing aesthetic experience.

Con: The literary quality is execrable.

Pro: Can be used as a bookmark, thus making it even more useful.

Con: Can be used as a bookmark in Ulysses.

Pro: Can tell you everything you need to know about the 8.27pm train from Kensington.

Con: You don't want to know. No, really, you don't.
Pro: Can't tell you when the trains arrive, but they'll be late anyway.

Con: A late train is better than no train at all.

Pro: Learned literary scholars tell us that it is quite well written.

Con: But alas, it is nothing without the pretty colours. :(

Con: Huge book. Can not be used as a bookmark, ever.

Pro: Can not be used as a bookmark in another copy of Ulysses.

Con: Cannot tell you all about the 8.27pm train from Kensington.

Pro: What if you want to catch that train?


In this final section, I will consider the opinions of various literary scholars, and attempt to draw a conclusion.

According to Fotheroy, Joyce was a "luminous beacon of twentieth century literature, an inspiration to all humanity. In these troubled times, we should all read some more James Joyce." But in the considered opinion of Jervinski, Fotheroy was a dirty old man who liked to invite young men to his office and fondle their lily-white bottoms. Arthurs-Ramfellough is on record as saying, "I do like to sit down with a nice cup of tea and a copy of the latest train timetable." On the other hand, we must give equal weight to the arguments of Jeeves, Blubinski, and Wuggles, who have stated that Ramfellough enjoyed writhing around naked in a bathtub of hot spam, singing all of Elton John's lesser-known hits.

In Conclusion:
I think I need a drink. Thank you for your time.

Tim Train

In next week's Exercise in Comparitive Literature, Tim asks the question: "Is it appropriate to read the Bible naked? If so, in what circumstances?"

Cross posted on Will Type For Food.


At 9:20 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Does anyone know how to get rid of sall that blank space above the table? It really pisses me off. Though I suppose you could view it as a 'free expression space', or something, and just scribble graffitti in it ...

At 9:22 PM, Blogger JPW said...


The best thing about train timetables, especially those from cities you are not very familiar with, is that you can read the station names and use your imagination to picture the place in your head. For example, Ascot Vale. You know what an ascot is? It's something you put around your neck! A vale full of fops, perambulating with their walking sticks and tut tut tutting at things. Marvellous!

Joyce, though? He's a knob, and his books don't deserve to be read. I'm sorry, but there it is. Even his wife is famously quoted as saying "But James, why don't you write books people can read?" A good question, Nora. A very good question indeed. People have built entire literary careers on telling us about how great 'Ulysses' is. Here's the trick with books: if you need other books telling you about how great a certain book is, then it isn't a good book. What it is is peculiar.

Man, Joyce really burns me up!

At 9:24 PM, Blogger JPW said...

As for the table, I really haven't the foggiest. I can't even make it so that, when I'm quoting a passage for something, the page margins are wider than the margins for what I myself am writing, if you get what I'm talking about.

Maybe a dodgy workaround would be to take a screencap of the tables and then crop them and post them as images?

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Not even Borges understood Ulysses. He knew how to get to Broady, though.

Is your name really Tim Train? Or is it Tim Train in the same way mine is Tim Sterne?

At 9:44 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Fucking Joyce. That's all that really need to be said on the matter.

Tim - you mean you're name isn't Sterne? *Runs off crying*

Alright, I'm better now. Anyway, James Joyce, eh? What a fucking knob.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Incidentally, I think Joyce worked a lot on accuracy. There's a note in the back of my copy of Ulysses explaining how he got worked up when the details in stories about Dublin weren't right; once he criticised a writer for getting a train timetable wrong.

So possibly - if he were writing about modern-day Melbourne - you could use him to get from A to B.

At 9:50 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Nabokov used to stress the importance of a topographical understanding of literature. In his university lectures he'd draw maps of Northanger Abbey or Dublin or whatever and insist this was important. I'm not so sure. Internal, imaginative topography is certainly important, but is it necessary to know the real thing?

At 12:47 PM, Blogger russ said...

Having not read either I shan't comment on your first -- most interesting -- question.

But in answer to your second question TimT: the spaces are there because of newlines between your 'td's and 'tr's that get converted to 'br' in blogger. Then they get put outside the table in the display, because they can't go in it now can they? That would make no sense. So you should make your tables again without spaces between the cells. It will look pretty enough, although this comment, and yours will look redundant to future scholars.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Yes! It worked! Pesky blogger ... cheers for the help, Russ. And trust me, your life is no worse from not having read Joyce ...

At 7:36 PM, Blogger russ said...

You're welcome TimT. James also had a question for which the answer is "blockquote" tags.

At 8:17 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Blockquote tags? You mean these?

<blockquote></blockquote> <blockquote></blockquote> <blockquote></blockquote>

Help yourself, James, I've got a million ...

At 5:00 AM, Anonymous Bill Ectric said...

If I was riding in a train along the coast one day, and looked out at a seal raising his head up from the water while, simultaneously observing a billboard with the word, "Usurper" on it, that would come close to replicating my reading of Ulysses. If I also had a potatoe in my pocket.


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