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Music and Language in Joyce's   "THE DEAD"

by
David L. Mosley
Professor of Music
Goshen College

Joyce's work as a writer testifies to his interest in the acoustical properties of language and the attempt to incorporate musical devices and strategies into literature. Likewise, his activities as a singer, coupled with his life- long interest in vocal music, placed him in touch with the more conventional merger of word and tone. Much has been made of the lyrical language, musical allusions, and possible musical structures to be found in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; however, Joyce's attempt to conflate the codes of music and language in his short story "The Dead" has not been adequately addressed. Given Joyce's interest in musico-literary interrelationships, it is not surprising that "The Dead" draws heavily upon musical sources and exhibits certain musical characteristics. Richard Ellmann has said of the story, "In its lyrical melancholic acceptance of all life and death offer, 'The Dead' is a lynch pin in Joyce's work" (252). This essay will elaborate upon those "lyrical" qualities mentioned by Ellmann and their phenomenological and semiotic implications. The analysis of "The Dead" which follows will show that in this story Joyce was experimenting with three properties commonly associated with musical counterpoint: simultaneity, repetition, and autonomy versus interdependence. These contrapuntal properties are typically displayed in tonal music in the following manner: simultaneity is present in the concurrent interaction of two or more melodic voices in counterpoint, repetition is present in the way a tonal composition is limited to the twelve tones found in the chromatic scale and must employ these according to the conventional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance, and autonomy versus interdependence is present in the way the concurrent voices in counterpoint are apprehended as two or more individual melodic statements and, at the same time, as a single integrated polyphonic texture. As Zack Bowen has shown in his Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce, "The Dead" is deeply indebted to many musical compositions. The story's title is believed to refer to Thomas Moore's Irish Melodie "O Ye Dead!" in which the living and the dead sing of their envy for one another's state of being in alternating stanzas. The story itself contains a number of different dances, a piano competition piece, an aria from Bellini's I Puritani, and the haunting rendition of the folksong "The Lass of Aughrim" which serves as the catalyst for the story's epiphany. Thus the story's musical allusions are eclectic in both their style and performing forces--indeed we would expect nothing less from Joyce. No less interesting, however, are the linguistic events in this story. "The Dead" begins with the awkward and eventually aborted conversation between Gabriel Conroy and Lilly, the caretaker's daughter. This encounter is followed by Gabriel's conversation with the Irish nationalist Miss Ivors, the dinner-table conversation about music and Gabriel's own dissembling speech, his conversation with Gretta about her lost love Michael Furey, and Gabriel's own final meditation on life and love. When divided into the two realms of music and language, the narrative progression of the story might be diagrammed in the following manner: This diagram shows that there are five musical events and five linguistic events in the story, yet anyone familiar with this particular work, or Joyce's style in general, knows that these distinctions are not so easily made. For instance, the conversation between Gabriel and Lilly takes place concurrently with the waltz, during the piano piece Gabriel reviews his coming speech, the dance of Miss Ivors and Gabriel is dominated by their discussion of literature and languages, the Bellini aria sung by Julia Morkan is a hybrid expression involving both music and language, the after-dinner discussion is concerned with music and musicians, Gabriel's speech ends with the singing of a short song, Bartell D'Arcy's performance of "The Lass of Aughrim"--like the Bellini aria--is a hybrid expression, the conversation between Gabriel and Gretta following the party is the result of having heard the prior folksong, and Gabriel's final meditation is a piece of prose which aspires to music. Given the way in which almost all of the events in this story are simultaneously musical and linguistic, it is therefore more instructive and efficacious to divide the story into the following five categories: music, music and language, musical language, language and music, and language. Joyce also employs a limited and highly repetitive lexicon of acoustic signifiers throughout the story which contribute to his attempt to conflate the codes of music and language. "The Dead" begins with the clang of the wheezy hall door bell and it concludes with the nearly silent snow fall accompanied by Gretta's breathing. Between these localized acoustic occurrences, Joyce repeatedly uses acoustic signifiers of five different types. The story contains twenty-three references to laughter and sixteen references to the tone of voice of various characters. These references are distributed fairly evenly throughout the text. The story also contains numerous references to the sounds of dancing, clapping, and rattling. All of these last three acoustic signifiers are introduced in the first pages of the story, but subsequent references to them are grouped according to the tripartite division Joyce imposes upon "The Dead" by means of a row of periods between paragraphs in the text. All but one of the references to the sounds of dancing come from the first section of the story, all but one of the references to the sound of clapping or applause from the second section, and all but one of the references to rattling occur in the story's third section. The specific occurrences of these acoustic signifiers is diagrammed below: In this diagram the numbers at the top represent the page numbers of the three parts of the story as delineated by Joyce and the numbers at the bottom represent the printed page numbers in the Penguin paperback edition of Dubliners. D=the sounds associated with dancing, C=clapping or applause, R=rattling, L=laughter or laughing, and T=tone of voice. All of these signs stand for acoustic phenomena, or sounds in time, i.e. they demonstrate those properties shared by a musical composition and a literary expression. Some of them--like dancing and clapping--are more typically associated with music, while others of them--like laughing and the tone of a speaker's voice--are more typically associated with language. The sound of rattling is a seemingly more neutral phenomenon in relation to music and language, and its significance will be addressed below. Taken as a whole, this diagram of the acoustical signifiers in the story shows a progression from dancing-to-clapping-to-rattling which is underpinned by consistent references to laughing and tone of voice. When viewed from a musico-literary perspective, this progression moves from active musical participation to a more passive response to musical performance to the experience of a purely acoustical phenomenon. The references to rattling are the most significant from a hermeneutic perspective since many of them come in relation to Mr. Browne--a character frequently associated with death, and in relation to the various carriage rides at the end of the story--frequently associated with the traditional Irish death coach (Torchiana, 237-38). Furthermore, the final exhalation of air from a dead body is conventionally referred to as the "death rattle" and this connotation is surely in the reader's mind at the end of the story asGabriel's meditation is accompanied by Gretta's deep-drawn breaths of sleep. Figure 3 combines and abbreviates Figures 1b and 2. It illustrates Joyce's ever sharper focusing upon musico-literary phenomena, as well as the progression of acoustical signifiers which culminates in Gabriel's meditation. The final section of "The Dead," which Joyce delineates with a double-space between the paragraphs on the forty-seventh page of the story (page 221 in the Penguin paperback edition), strives to be musical in both its form and content. This passage is most frequently referred to as the epiphany for the story. Significantly, Joyce's own theory of literary epiphanies bears some resemblance to the characteristics of counterpoint with which he is experimenting in this story. In hisStephen Hero, an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce has Stephen Daedalus describe an epiphany in the following manner, "By epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself," and a bit later Stephen concludes, "This is the moment which I call epiphany. First we recognize that the object is one integral thing, then we recognize that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact; finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps up to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany" (Werner, 48). While this description seems to outline three steps in the epiphanic moment, Joyce also emphasizes the sudden and momentary nature of the epiphany--the way the integral and composite nature of the object or emotion is perceived simultaneously. Just as musical counterpoint involves the simultaneous presentation of multiple melodic statements, the literary epiphany involves the simultaneous presentation of multiple hermeneutic perspectives. Furthermore, the recognition that the literary epiphany is both a composite structure and, at the same time, one integral thing is analogous to the way counterpoint is both a combination of autonomous melodic lines and an integrated, or interdependent, whole. Another aspect of Joyce's epiphanies which is often commented upon is their use of common objects, events, or observations. Joyce touches upon this when he refers to "vulgar" (in the classical sense of the term) words or gestures, and Umberto Eco alludes to this feature of Joyce's epiphanies in his Aesthetics of Chaosmos when he states, "The epiphanies of Dubliners are key moments that arise in a realistic context. They consist of common facts or phrases but acquire the value of a moral symbol ... " (25). How else but by repetition do the words, gestures, and facts of Joyce's epiphanies achieve their vulgarity or commoness? Through the simple gazing upon Gretta's hair, face, and clothing in the story's final pages, Gabriel gains insight into the past, the present, and the future. He has observed these aspects of his wife's appearance repeatedly in the preceding pages of the story--once upon their arrival at the Morkan sister's home and again while gazing at Gretta on the staircase as she listens to Bartell D'Arcy singing "The Lass of Aughrim"--but they become a vehicle for symbolic meaningat the end of "The Dead." Gabriel's revery is interrupted only by the soft taps of the falling snow against the window. The snow, too, has been a constant companion throughout the story--it is on Gabriel's coat and shoes as he arrives at the party and he gazes at it longingly through the window following his dance with Miss Ivors. Yet as Gabriel recalls the observation of his niece, Mary Jane, that the snow is general (or falling simultaneously) all over Ireland, the snow becomes both a symbol of paralysis and death, as well as a symbol of interconnection and life. What then is the result of Joyce's attempt to interpolate musical characteristics into the prose of "The Dead" and what does this attempt show us about the possible conflation of the codes of music and language? Joyce's use of simultaneity, repetition, and autonomy versus interdependence are an attempt to invest literature--a linguistic phenomenon--with characteristics specific to counterpoint--a musical phenomenon. Inasmuch as Joyce is successful in finding linguistic analogues for these musical characteristics and incorporating them into his prose, both locally and structurally, his attempt is successful on the phenomenological level, i.e. Joyce's "The Dead" exhibits certain characteristics common to music. Semiotically speaking, however, Joyce's attempt is a failure, indeed it is doomed from the outset. The problem lies in the irreconcilable differences between the codes of music and language. Musical pitches, or pitch-configurations, are almost entirely iconic; they stand only for themselves and may be interpreted only in relation to one another. Conversely, linguistic terms, or statements, are almost entirely symbolic; they always stand for something else and may be interpreted in relation to that for which they stand. (There are, of course, exceptions such as the mimetic musical figure or the onomatopoetic word, but they are of little consequence to this discussion). As a musically-competent writer, Joyce was most certainly aware of these properties of music and language. Indeed it seems that the phenomenological similarity and semiotic incompatibility of music and language may have been a guiding metaphor for Joyce as he wrote "The Dead." These similarities and incompatibilities make for an interesting interpretation of Gabriel and Gretta, and Joyce's treatment of their marriage. Gabriel is a logocentric individual--he makes his living in the academy, he writes reviews for the paper, and he spends his leisure time polishing his languages while touring the continent. Gabriel has little patience for, or insight into, music. His speech easily distracts him while listening to his niece's piano performance, and when the dinner-table conversation turns to music and musicians Gabriel becomes silent. Gretta, on the other hand, is extremely sensitive to musical expressions. Despite the fact that Bartell D'Arcy's performance of "The Lass of Aughrim" is of an inferior quality--D'Arcy is hoarse and unsure of the words--this music transports Gretta into the past and the emotional intensity of her attachment to Michael Furey. Joyce's identification of Gabriel with language and Gretta with music is no simplistic equation of masculinity with reason or femininity with emotion:, indeed, Gabriel's mother is less musically sensitive than he, and Michael Furey, as his name suggests, was probably more emotional than Gretta. Rather, the incompatibility between Gabriel and Gretta as marriage partners may be viewed as analogous to the incompatibilities between the codes of music and language. Joyce makes this painfully obvious in the dramatic climax of the story when Gabriel, while watching Gretta listen to the performance of "The Lass of Aughrim," likens her appearance to a painting which he would title "Distant Music." In the final sentence of this story, which is remarkable for both its verbal euphony and its exceptional grammatical structure, Joyce approaches an iconic type of linguistic expression: "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." Yet, despite its acoustic beauty and structural symmetry, this statement remains a linguistic construct referring to the snow and its metaphorical meaning in the context of this story. This sentence is emblematic of the manner in which music and language are phenomenologically analogous yet semiotically incompatible. Like a musical passage, this sentence consists of articulated sounds in time. Phenomenologically speaking, some of these sounds--like the <s> in soul, swooned, slowly, and snow--exhibit a relation to one another which seems extraneous to the meaning of the terms themselves. However, it is obvious that Joyce did not ignore the significance of these terms as he selected them, and we cannot read or speak them outside of a semiotic context. In and of itself, music can be no more than iconic. This is not to suggest that music is meaningless, only that its meaning is self-reflexive. On the other hand, language can be no less than symbolic. This does not mean that linguistic expressions have no self-reflexive characteristics--such as striking alliterative patterns or singular grammatical constructions--but these self-reflexive characteristics are always overshadowed by the semiotic relation of linguistic expressions to an external reality. The decade on either side of the progression from the 19th to the 20th centuries saw unprecedented and ubiquitous social and intellectual fragmentation accompanied by a multiplicity of analytic categories by which these so-called "modern" movements defined themselves. This fragmentation and multiplication of categories distorted and eventually denied any coherent historical, cultural, or religious context in relation to which an aesthetic expression may be interpreted on an allegorical level. There seem to have been two common responses to this state of affairs: (1) the author could work with a disjointed and chaotic grab-bag of symbols, or (2) the author could turn the vehicle for aesthetic expression back upon itself thereby employing that vehicle as a context in relation to which the aesthetic expression might be interpreted allegorically. It seems that in his short story "The Dead" Joyce attempts such an approach to allegory, in which the literary vehicle itself is allegorized by highlighting the semantic disparity between the preferentiality of language and the self-reflexivity of music. The single predicate upon which this allegorical strategy depends is the acknowledgement that language and music were once an inextricable unity--what the ancient Greeks called musike. This predicate is not only culturally determined, but is also phenomenological justified inasmuch as language and music are both comprised of sounds organized in time. Thus the interpersonal disparity between Gabriel and Gretta is an allegory of the semantic disparity between language and music, and on another level the semantic disparity between language and music is an allegory of the ontological disparity between preferentiality and self-reflexivity, and on yet a third level the ontological disparity between preferentiality and self-reflexivity is an allegory of the disparity between experience and emotion. It is this third level which constitutes the true subject of Gabriel's meditation at the conclusion of the story. For just as the last sentence cannot truly become music, so Gabriel is unable to escape his logocentrism and the external existential realities of his life in order to gain access to Gretta's realm of musicality, self-reflexivity, and emotion.

 

 


 
 

 
 

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