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Ben Mines

Ulysses by James Joyce

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It seems as though the fate of Ulysses is to be a book that is given the highest possible praise by academics and writers but which no one reads.

 

It is widely considered to be not only the greatest achievement of literary modernism, but the greatest book ever written. It tops the NY Times and Modern Library 100 Best list, and has garnered the highest praise from countless literary lights, from Jorge Luis Borges to Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov's praise (he called it "The greatest book ever written") is especially noteworthy, seeing as he heaped curmudgeonly scorn on almost every other darling of the literati (see Strong Opinions), while Borges, (who should know: he probably read more than has any man who ever lived), opined that Joyce wrote lines, "worthy of Shakespeare." And yet, despite all this, I have not met a single person, in the flesh, who has actually read it.

 

To begin with, I am simply interested to know if anyone else has actually read it.

Edited by Ben Mines

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Pretentiously unreadable is my verdict. I tried and gave up in dismay - I've said on this forum before that any book requiring a companion volume longer than itself can't be all that's it's cracked up to be, and I stand by that.

 

"Worthy of Shakespeare"? I don't think so. Give or take the odd archaisms and obscure historical/literary/mythological references, Shakespeare wrote plays that we can still enjoy today, because we can understand them...! Even an unedited Shakespeare play (I'm talking Early Modern printing with unfixed spelling here, full of typesetting errors) is easier to read than "Ulysses". That's not right, surely?

 

Like I've already said: Joyce unlearnt to write - his first book was great. He just got pretentious along the way, which is sad.

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Just out of curiosity, BookJumper, how far through it did you get before you "gave up in dismay" ?

 

I would argue that most of what you need to know to understand the main theme of the book—which is how Stephen, Bloom and Molly spend June 16, 1904—is contained within the book itself: by the time you finish it, every loose end has been fussily tied up.

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My problem is not with themes, but with language. It's an authorial ethic (i.e. one I follow when I write, given that I write what I'd like to read) I remember expressing during a creative writing class - I got booed down as old-fashioned then but whatever, let's try again:

 

I don't think that too abstract, modernist, post-modern, etc. forms suit literature (especially literature of ideas) because the simpler your structure, the more limbs you can go out on as regards the meaning, content, message, etc. of what you're writing. Hence why I write/like to read stories with defined beginnings, middles and endings (not necessarily in that order), punctuation, quotation marks, you name it: if it makes writing more easily intellegible, bring it on.

 

I don't think books should give us a headache - they should be enjoyed, even the challenging ones. Milton makes my head spin theologically, but his poetry is so vividly simple; Hugo can make me reflect profoundly about political issues, but his prose was intellegible to me at fourteen; Shakespeare raises so many issues of theology, politics, race, gender, identity yet those fundamental passages are not hard to understand.

 

That said, I gave up in dismay not many pages in at all, but that's because I'm able to distinguish between a book that will captivate me from one that won't from the outset; that distinction made, it would be a waste of the time I could be spending reading something else (like Milton, Hugo or Shakespeare) to persevere which something which manages to dismay me on its first sentence.

 

I should perhaps refer you to my "I think I've just been called a quitter?" thread in "General Discussion"; I rant about the subject in more depth there...

Edited by BookJumper

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I think it should be said, first off, that we cannot have a meaningful discussion about a book you haven't read. But I would like to respond to a few of the points you make:

 

I don't think that too abstract, modernist, post-modern, etc. forms suit literature (especially literature of ideas) because the simpler your structure, the more limbs you can go out on as regards the meaning, content, message, etc. of what you're writing.

 

I'm not sure I understand. Isn't this is like saying the simpler your structure, the more complex you can make it? Can you please explain how this is not a contradiction?

 

If you are saying that the underlying structure of a book should be simple, but with lots of "limbs" then you have described Ulysses. What could be simpler than the day in the life of three ordinary Dubliners? But if you are simply saying that you favour simplicity of form for a literature of ideas, then I agree, so long as it is a literature of simple ideas. Thereby, you are also writing off almost every important modernist text as well as almost every development in the visual arts since the start of the 20th century.

 

Thomas McGreevy summed up Ulysses' place in literature beautifully when he said:

 

As Homer sent his Ulysses wandering through the inferno of Greek mythology and Virgil his Aeneas through one of Roman mythology so Dante himself voyaged through the inferno of the mediaeval Christian imagination and so Mr. Joyce sent his hero through the inferno of modern subjectivity.

 

Ulysses deals with the "inferno of modern subjectivity", which is anything but simple.

 

Hence why I write/like to read stories with defined beginnings, middles and endings

 

Again, you really do need to read a book to judge it. Ulysses is one of the most carefully structured books I have ever read. In fact, the exactness with which Joyce orchestrates every detail of his plot is staggering. In one of his essays, Borges speaks of a "teleology of words and episodes" that is the hallmark of good literature, concluding that,

 

The most perfect illustration of an autonomous orb of omens, confirmations, and monuments is Joyce's preordained Ulysses.

 

"Worthy of Shakespeare"? I don't think so. Give or take the odd archaisms and obscure historical/literary/mythological references, Shakespeare wrote plays that we can still enjoy today, because we can understand them...! Even an unedited Shakespeare play (I'm talking Early Modern printing with unfixed spelling here, full of typesetting errors) is easier to read than "Ulysses". That's not right, surely?

 

Borges said, "lines worthy of Shakespare"; he was not saying that Ulysses was comparable to one of Shakespeare's plays. Furthermore, believe it or not, people also understand and enjoy Ulysses.

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Sorry to rant, BookJumper, but I'd like to make a final point.

 

Modern art and literature developed from the realization that new experiences demand a new cultural vocabulary. The reason much of modern art is complex and difficult is because the experiences informing it were inherently complex and difficult. Thus, to dismiss Ulysses as too difficult to bother with is to say that modern man's predicament, "the inferno of modern subjectivity", simply cannot be a subject for art. And in that case, art has ceased to serve a purpose.

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I think it should be said, first off, that we cannot have a meaningful discussion about a book you haven't read.

I wholeheartedly agree; however I do think it is perfectly possible to discuss the meaningful reasons that have kept me from reading that book.

 

Isn't this is like saying the simpler your structure, the more complex you can make it? Can you please explain how this is not a contradiction? (...) But if you are simply saying that you favour simplicity of form for a literature of ideas, then I agree, so long as it is a literature of simple ideas.

 

My point is this: the simpler the structure (grammar, punctuation, human-sized sentences, POVs that are consistent or at least recognisable in their shifts, that kind of thing... I am not advocating simplistic plotlines here), the more complex the ideas you can frame within that structure. I'll give you an example from the infamous creative writing class: to please our declaredly anti-old-fashioned professor, people came in with stories where you couldn't tell who was speaking to whom, what was dialogue from what was inner monologue, when flashbacks began etc. (all things easily solved through basic formatting).

 

As a result, those stories might have looked all experimental but once you dug and scraped to the meaning behind them, there was very little there. My stories, very old-fashioned as far as the structure of my sentences and paragraphs were concerned, on the other hand managed to feature reflections on issues such as the problem of evil, the question of identity, the inscindibility of character from its actor, whether madness is really an undesirable state of mind, etc.

 

Now, I'm not saying that because Joyce's structure is so complex he cannot tackle complex themes - I know him from "Portrait" (my personal favourite of his) and "Dubliners" to be a good, profound writer so I wouldn't suggest anything of the sort. I'm rather saying that because of his complex structure, his complex message will only reach a select number of people.

 

Personally I believe the largest number of people possible should be granted access to great ideas; sectioning such a large portion of potential readership off forever seems to me like the worst kind of elitism. Sorry, James. So what I'm saying is this: Joyce could have explored the same themes in a more structurally accessible manner, thus ensuring the intellectual epiphany of a larger number of people.

 

Thereby, you are also writing off almost every important modernist text as well as almost every development in the visual arts since the start of the 20th century.

I am not writing them off because I am aware that there is a lot to be gained from them if one is able to dig deep enough. Trouble is, not everybody's shovel is that sturdy. I get all excited reading about what these modernist works mean in textbooks, and when I get to the actual thing I find that the textbook was written more enjoyably - which is a bit of a let down as far as I'm concerned. I'm not saying these books don't have their value, just that they don't work for me.

 

Again, you really do need to read a book to judge it. (...) Furthermore, believe it or not, people also understand and enjoy Ulysses.

It wasn't my intention to judge anyone or their reading taste. Ulysses is just not to mine.

 

Modern art and literature developed from the realization that new experiences demand a new cultural vocabulary. The reason much of modern art is complex and difficult is because the experiences informing it were inherently complex and difficult. Thus, to dismiss Ulysses as too difficult to bother with is to say that modern man's predicament, "the inferno of modern subjectivity", simply cannot be a subject for art. And in that case, art has ceased to serve a purpose.

I might be shallow but as far as I'm concerned, no experience is really new: the things people live and die for (friendship, family, love, ideas and ideals, God and country) haven't changed since I last checked; the things we feel (fear, courage, joy, sadness, hope, despair) are still the same also since time immemorable. The causes might be new, but if the effects on the human spirit are the same then I do not see the need for art to undergo such a massive structural change.

 

Admittedly, I'm not much impressed by most modern art - once more, my own opinion. I know what it's all supposed to mean through textbooks and museum plaques but to my old-fashioned mind, a successful piece of art is something able to communicate its message independently. I don't need a book to tell me why Othello kills Desdemona, nor do I need a plaque to explain what Caravaggio/Canova/Michelangelo were trying to say. I might be unsure of a particular mythological reference but I will instantly know if this is a happy or a sad picture, a powerful or a subdued sculpture, a work celebrating belief or disillusion in God.

 

In conclusion, I know this isn't true for a lot of people but as far as my own personal truth goes, art that fails to be pretty needs at least to be expressive: Picasso's later years are hardly pretty yet I class them as successful art because one look at "Guernica" will suffice to turn my stomach around. One does not need to know the textbook backstory to feel what the artist felt. On the other hand, black squares on black squares and eggs in handcarts, I do not consider art.

 

But that's just my opinion :).

Edited by BookJumper

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I do understand where you're coming from, BookJumper. I also have an extremely low tolerance of obscurity just for the sake of it, or worse, when it is used to make an idea appear more complex, and esoteric, than it really is. But Joyce is not guilty of doing this.

 

Let me give a simple example, which I think gets to the point at issue.

 

It is possible to rewrite a recipe for French toast in prose so complicated that almost no one can understand it. You can also simplify it, but only to a certain point beyond which the idea in complete form cannot be carried. In other words, every idea, while it can be obfuscated almost infinitely, also has a point of irreducible complexity. It follows from this that there is a degree of formal complexity appropriate to the complexity of a given idea, and that a good writer is someone who draws his triangles with no more and no less than three sides.

 

Every idea has a point of irreducible complexity.

 

If you admit this, and also admit that complex ideas are a suitable subject for a work of art, then you must also admit that there is a place for complex works of art. Of course, this does not complete a defense of Ulysses. The question simply becomes: Is Ulysses a three or a fourteen-sided triangle? For us to have that discussion, you must first read it. But I would argue strongly that what Joyce achieves in Ulysses could not be contained in a less-complex text. As McGreevy said, it takes the reader through "the inferno of modern subjectivity," and is therefore, necessarily, and irreducibly, complex. The fact that this makes it a very difficult book to read does not make Joyce an elitist, any more than scientists are elitists when they write quantum equations the layman cannot understand. (Ulysses, let it be said in passing, is infinitely easer to understand than a quantum equation!)

 

At any rate, I appreciate your point of view, BookJumper. My intention is not to convince you to like Ulysses. I am just trying to defend it from the charge of being, "Pretentiously unreadable." I also hope that you'll finish reading it one day so you can come back here and really pan it. :)

Edited by Ben Mines

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I don't want to get in the middle here, but I do really agree with Bookjumper. Ulysses is a book that's just really hard to read. I've read the entire book, although it took me forever. Reading it wasn't, I didn't enjoy it a lot. But i felt I had to read it all.

It might be very interesting and difficult and has a lot of different layers, but it's really way to pretentious about it.

 

I get your point about the necessity of being difficult, but keeping with your example, quantum physics can be explained in kiddie language if neccesary, and it will still mean the same.

 

I really hate it that art needs to be pretentious or difficult to be interesting or good. I just don't get why people say they love something when they understand what it's about. For me Ulysses can be compared to drone music. It might be very new and innovating, but it's still painful to listen to.

 

A book can be just as good if it isn't that difficult and I truly believe Joyce went overboard with his writingstyle. He could have made it a way easier to read book and still leave his 'message' intact.

 

Oh and I see you're still reading Ulysses?

Edited by Smay
forgot something

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It might be very interesting and difficult and has a lot of different layers, but it's really way to pretentious about it.

 

Hi Smay,

 

It's funny that you should emphasize the "pretentiousness" of Ulysses. Some of its earliest critics—from D. H. Lawrence to Virginia Wolf to G. K. Chesterton—railed against it for being too low and bawdy.

 

Read the following passage, and try telling me with a straight face that Ulysses is pretentious.

 

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

 

Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

 

The coals were reddening.

 

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn't like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

 

—Mkgnao!

 

—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

 

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my

head. Prr.

 

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

 

—Milk for the pussens, he said.

 

—Mrkgnao! the cat cried.

 

They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.

 

—Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.

 

I get your point about the necessity of being difficult, but keeping with your example, quantum physics can be explained in kiddie language if neccesary, and it will still mean the same.

 

I'm relieved to hear that! I do not understand the dual resonance model of quantum string theory. Please explain it to me like you were explaining it to a child! :)

 

A book can be just as good if it isn't that difficult and I truly believe Joyce went overboard with his writingstyle. He could have made it a way easier to read book and still leave his 'message' intact.

 

I strongly disagree, as explained above.

 

Oh and I see you're still reading Ulysses?

 

For the third time, yes. As Jeri Johnson said, "You can finish Ulysses, but you cannot finish with it." :)

Edited by Ben Mines

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I think this really is a discussion that can keep on going forever. If you love something you'll defend it to the death and if you don't like it, you'll try to convince everyone you were right.

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I do not understand this predilection with making Ulysses 'accessible' (whatever that means) in order to get its 'message' (what message?) across. First of all, art is not meant to be accessible, secondly it is kind of ironic that people wish that Ulysses was more accessible so that it could be filled with great philosophical ideas, the platitudes of literary mediocrities such as Sartre, which, by their very nature, are inaccessible. As Ben Mines pointed out, such because something is difficult doesn't make it 'pretentious' (you should try 'reading' Finnegans Wake!)-what is the point of reading anything of worth if that is how to approach books?

 

As Ben Mines points out, Ulysses is far from pretentious and it delves into the machinations of everyday human life, from onanism to feeding a cat part of your breakfast.

 

Ulysses is an extraordinary book, in terms of its grammar and syntax, its characterisation, its originality, and the various different forms, pastiches and parodies which run through the work. Somewhat ironically, for people who cannot get through the first few chapters, they are probably the easiest to read.

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I do wonder why you say Art is not meant to be accesible?

Agreed. Surely the very purpose of art is communication (and if it isn't, I hereby will stop thinking of myself as an artist, as my goal in life is to reach people)?

 

Of course you can express complex ideas, even very modern ones, accessibly. Look at the philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Erasmus von Rotterdam - hardly kiddie stuff, yet their approachable, almost-like-reading-a-novel writing style allows people from all sorts of backgrounds to enter in the dialogue of their ideas. Similarly Plato and Descartes have laid down some pretty complex, fundamental ideas in simple (note: not simplistic) form. Look at Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" and its young-person's counterpart, Jostein Gaarder's "Sophie's World": both of them are written in 95% utterly comprehensible style, yet they contain within themselves millennia of the most intricate ideas ever devised. Lucy Eyre's beautiful "If Minds Had Toes" approaches the most important tenets of philosophy within an easygoing narrative and subtle humour; your brain is spinning yet you're hardly grunting and sweating with the effort of learning.

 

On the other hand Kant, Hume, Sartre &tc. have written books that are nigh on impossible for the common person to read, and not because the ideas within them are more complex than those mentioned above.

 

What goes for philosophy, also goes for literature intersecting philosophy. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Blake, Hugo &tc. are hardly authors of simplistic ideas, yet they are still for the most part accessible to most of us... surely it is better to enlighten as many people as possible? Dante wrote of profound theological matters in circa 1300, yet with a little guidance even kiddies are able to access most of his meaning (I was first taught "The Divine Comedy" at 10)... that's why it's art: it communicates, past its age, past social boundaries.

 

Deep thought doesn't belong to a select few.

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But a sentence or piece of prose is not simply a means to an end. Sometimes (and especially in the case of Ulysses) the medium is a part of the message.

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What I am saying is that art should not be made easier just so that it is easier for people to read it, or simpler for people to read ,or even to 'enlighten' people-I see this as a pointless excercise, however, I think that aesthetically I approach art from a different point of view from yourself and Bookjumper. I do not think that art's main purpose should be it's accesiblity, but it should be its originality, its ability to tell a story, to create convincing and well rounded characters, to entertain and to enchant. I borrow most of my aesthetics from Nabokov, though I am not as severe as him, perhaps because I like his literary sensitivity.

 

What I am saying is that art should not be made easier just so that it is easier for people to read it, or simpler for people to read ,or even to 'enlighten' people-I see this as a pointless excercise, however, I think that aesthetically I approach art from a different point of view from yourself and Bookjumper. I do not think that art's main purpose should be it's accesiblity, but it should be its originality, its ability to tell a story, to create convincing and well rounded characters, to entertain and to enchant. I borrow most of my aesthetics from Nabokov, though I am not as severe as him, perhaps because I like his literary sensitivity.

 

But a sentence or piece of prose is not simply a means to an end. Sometimes (and especially in the case of Ulysses) the medium is a part of the messag

 

Indeed, or we could appreciate a sentence for the beauty of the sentence itself, rather than for some epistemological or social end.

Edited by Michelle
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I do not think that art's main purpose should be it's accesiblity, but it should be its originality, its ability to tell a story, to create convincing and well rounded characters, to entertain and to enchant.

This might be me being incredibly thick so pardon me if this is so. How can a work tell a good story, create convincing characters, entertain and enchant if it is not easy to read? Again, by easy I do not mean simplistic. I love words, especially odd and unusual ones, convoluted and imaginific sentences, metaphors, you name it - but not to the point of alienating readers, so I try to find a middle ground between remaning literary and not getting too high and mighty about it. It would be nice to be taught in classrooms, but I don't want it to be at the price of the students of tomorrow cursing my name forevermore.

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If you follow your argument to its ultimate logical consequences, the only prose style possible is one that is subjugated to the function of achieving optimal clarity for the greatest number of readers, which rules out virtuosity, the belletristic flourish, poetry and literature itself. What we will be left with are functional texts: news articles, instruction manuals, and cook books.

 

Let's take the example of Ulysses again. One of the most important things to remember when reading it is that the prose style employed is appropriate to each episode. For example, in episode 14, in which the growth of the fetus in the womb is one of the main themes, the text moves chronologically through a series of English prose styles. In this way, the text is stylistically congruent with the theme it develops. Surely you are not suggesting that Joyce should have explained all this in plain English as a substitute for the aesthetic experience of reading the episode?

 

Furthermore, you must realize that "easy to read" is a relative term. Easy to read for whom? As a writer, do you try to make yourself understandable to the lowest common denominator? This is the approach used in television programming, and the results speak for themselves.

 

What you are saying is that writers should not go beyond the intellectual limits of their readership. There are many objections that could be raised here. The simplest of them is that such a limit cannot be determined.

Edited by Michelle
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I disagree, utterly, decidedly and completely. I believe most people (especially if taken young enough and raised on the right type of books) possess the capacity to understand and appreciate virtuosity and flourish. I do not dumb down what I write as I don't feel the need to appeal to a dumb audience; I instead strive for clear virtuosism and intellegible flourishes. I don't care whether I am understood by the kind of mass that couldn't care less about its intellectual well-being; however I do try to make sure that anyone interested in the message I'm pitching doesn't find structural obstacles in their ways. The virtuosity, the flourish, the figure of speech are there to help readers to grasp ideas, not to push those ideas further out of their reach. You could say my approach is a commonsense mediation between intellectual elitism and a socialism of ideas.

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A writer's first fidelity should be to their art, to the creative emotion. He should endeavor to successfully realize his vision, in whatever form it inspires. Whether his art is complex or simple must not inform this creative process. It is simply a characteristic of the product of the creative process.

 

I energetically pooh-pooh the idea that the potential perplexity of a group of hypothetical future students, or any readership, real or imagined, should interfere with the creation of art.

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I agree that while writing you shouldn't think about the potential readers too much. But I do think you want to speak to as many people as possible with your art. At least, that would be something I would like to be able to do.

But off course there is the possibility that you want to be understood only by those you feel are 'worthy'. And a way of realizing that is by making a book at least a bit difficult to read. You don't need to see Ulysses as difficult or pretentious, but at least admit it's no ordinary book, written for everyone. And it's not even like he used to write. So it might be a masterpiece, but he did alienate a big part of his audience by writing it this way.

And as I said, you might be fine with that, but I prefer reading more comfortable stories and I think Nabokov is a great example of that.

 

Art has always been a way for the elite to distinguish themselves from the 'normal' people, and I think Ulysses does an excellent job at this.

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I do try to make sure that anyone interested in the message I'm pitching doesn't find structural obstacles in their ways.

 

This may be a sensible journalistic maxim, but as a philosophy of art, it lacks courage.

 

And unlike you, I am not even advocating complexity or simplicity. On the contrary, I am saying that these are, or should be, incidental considerations.

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