and cause you pain, you love them so much.
When John Huston's The Dead opened at the end of 1987, the film was acclaimed by many critics as a masterpiece. For the director who died in old age not long before its opening, the movie was surely a highly personal work—the meditation on death, which was imminent, a summing up, a giving form to this final summation.
Although the motion picture is a relatively new form of art, only a century old, Huston's final work belongs to a centuries's old tradition known as the ars moriendi or art of dying. In the Middle Ages and after, books were printed and widely diffused which offered instruction on how to die, religious tracts regarding the rituals immediately antecedent to death. Artists undertook, often for their own tombs, final works, appropriately devotional in character, which became a more specific form of the art of dying. Michelangelo's late Pietas, of which the Florentine version was originally planned for his tomb, were part of his ars moriendi, and his friend and biographer Vasari tells us how Michelangelo's thoughts at this time, when he worked on his sepulchral Pietà, were appropriately fixed upon death. Long after the explicit institutional and religious conditions which propagated such practices had vanished, the impulse to reflect deeply on mortality, on one's own finality, persisted naturally enough in art, which, by its very nature, has everything to do with mortality.
Joyce's book, Dubliners, from which Huston's film was made, is often regarded as a collection of short stories, although the word "collection" seems woefully inadequate to a work so richly orchestrated into a whole. If it is the chapters in the history of his city, as Joyce saw it, the book is a kind of cameo version of the magisterial novels of Balzac, in which Paris is the protagonist. Dublin, the subject of Joyce's novel, given form by its inhabitants, the Dubliners, is seen through the superintending, impersonal consciousness of the author—a consciousness which matures and expands throughout the book, reaching perfection, an all-encompassing depth and range, in the final chapter, "The Dead."
Like Flaubert, to whom he was so deeply indebted for the concision and resonance of his prose, for the sheer exactitude of his diction and imagery, Joyce created a work of formal perfection. He was the master of what, in a nearly archaic phrase, we might still speak of as prose style. "The Dead," a meditation on the living and the dead, draws together all that was contained in the previous chapters of Joyce's "novel." The two sisters at the story's center, the aunts Kate and Julia, carry the reader back through memory to the first chapter, to "The Sisters" of the Rev. James Flynn. Gabriel, at the end of the novel, meditates with a consciousness that, seeking to reconcile fancies of youth with thoughts of old age, expands backward in time as it confronts the last end, and his melancholy reflections represent a ripening of understanding far beyond those of the boy in the first chapter, who contemplates the initial mystery of the Rev. James Flynn's death. When, in "The Dead," conversation at table turns to the monks of Mount Melleray, we are drawn again to the first chapter, as well as toward the book's conclusion. Mr. Browne says that the monks, who get up at two in the morning, sleep in their coffins, and when he proposes that it would be better if they slept on comfortable spring beds, Mary Jane points out that the coffin is to remind them of their last end. Foretelling the novel's final image, the snow falling, like the descent of their last end, on all the living and the dead, the image also transports the reader, in remembrance, to the child's earlier contemplation of the Rev. James Flynn in his coffin.
Also like Flaubert, or the greatest creature of Flaubert's imagination, Joyce is still deeply romantic, and the unnamed boy in the first chapter enters into the world of romance when he dreams of Flynn's death. The grotesque memory of the dead priest, his nose stuffed with snuff, his teeth huge and discolored, his tongue hanging out—an image recorded with the nearly clinical realism of Flaubert—gives way to a Madame Bovary-like dream of the priest beneath long velvet curtains and a swinging lamp of antique fashion, in which the boy imagines that he would be "very far away, in some land where the customs were strange—in Persia." It is to a realm of "real adventure" that the boy in the second chapter, "An Encounter," aspires, a land, far away in space and distant in time, illuminated by Sir Walter Scott, a place called "Araby" in the third chapter. In his Flaubertian stories—suspended between realism and romance—episodes which introduce the dreams and delusions of childhood, youth, middle age, and old age, the world, as in Flaubert, is hostile to romance, until, finally, in "The Dead," Gabriel, capturing a glimpse of himself in a mirror, sees himself as a ludicrous figure, his life with Greeta, their former moments of ecstasy together, submerged beneath their dull existence. As in Flaubert, no word or sound is without significance, and when Joyce describes the snow falling softly, softly falling, falling faintly, faintly falling, these consonances, this music echoes still the wonder of the boy in the first chapter contemplating the Rev. James Flynn's death. Every night as he gazed up at old Flynn's window he heard the word "paralysis" in his inner ear. Said softly, it sounded strangely to him—as in a strain of music, suggesting a sentiment both subtle and vague. Becoming music, words in Joyce lift the reader beyond the range of conventional associations into a realm evocative of Persia and Araby and of places stranger still.
As a distinguished critic prior to Joyce justly observed, the English language in the second half of the last century increasingly assimilated the phraseology of pictorial art and, following this author, Joyce conceived of visionary images in perpetual motion, dissolving into music. In such music, individual pictures gradually fade into fugitive impressions, like the vague after-images of the earlier stories of Dubliners echoed in "The Dead"—fleeting, wandering spectres.
When we recall that Joyce once had a scheme for opening a motion picture theatre in Dublin, we cannot but wonder what he might have thought of Huston's transformation of part of his book into a moving picture with sound. Huston's movie presents images originally in the mind's eye of Joyce's reader, but such moving pictures of the film have certain affinities with those of the mind or consciousness. Whereas in a stage play the actors are living beings who play their parts in a real space, the motion picture projects flickering, spectral presences of lights and shades. The experience of a movie can be more nearly like a dream—a vision or even hallucination—than like a play, as if what we perceive upon the screen were the projection of our own inner experience, our own dream or reverie. It is such an effect that Joyce sometimes sought under the spell of Baudelaire, who aspired to dissolve all distinctions of art forms in aesthetic reverie filled with transient phantom images or spirits.
When in the final moments of "The Dead" Gabriel feels his own identity fading into an impalpable world, dissolving and dwindling, as he contemplates the wayward and flickering existence of the dead, he could almost be evoking the very medium into which Huston translates Joyce's work. As the inner mind's eye of the director's camera moves forward and backward into the distance, laterally and obliquely through a kind of "inscape," it conjures up a world of images suggestive of the vague shadows approached in the animated pictorial language of Joyce. Even in the first extensive scene of the movie, the camera's vision and hence our own, which becomes a dream, is one in which through the film of falling snow we sense—beyond the movement of arriving carriages and guests, within the home of the Morkans, illuminated by the ghostly street lamps, through the veiling curtains—spectral images of waltzing figures barely surmised beyond this filmy gauze. In their suggestiveness, such scenes, especially when accompanied by distant laughter or voices, are appropriate to moments of Joyce's Symbolist aesthetic—the evocation of wayward presences beyond sight, touch, or full apprehension.
Huston's film is a translation of Joyce because it transfigures Joyce's words into a different language, the realm of animated visual images. Huston uses the camera to especially good effect during Aunt Julia's song, when he leaves her and her listeners and wanders to her now disembodied words, through vacant space, becoming a ghostly presence gazing upon Julia's empty but inspirited room, filled with objects and photographs pregnant with plaintive memories. The director or his eye is here the impersonal consciousness which dwells in memory on elusive moments in Julia's fading life. Some images follow one upon the other in the manner of collage, but in other instances they melt into one another, approaching in their visual effect of fading and reemergence, the quality of memory itself.
A film after a work of literature, necessarily, cannot achieve identity with the original, and it is for this reason that some critics will condemn such a work as not worthy of the original which it imitates. To this criticism there is in a sense no reply, except to suggest the possibility that it is perhaps too restrictive, for it does not allow the film to stand as a work on its own terms. Like any translation, a film after a literary work occupies an ambiguous position somewhere between the original and the medium and temperament of its translator. If for some no translation is possible, for others such a translation will be successful in varying degrees.
We might speak of Huston's interpretation or translation of Joyce's Dubliners as a performance of the original, in which we recognize the composer's music, notwithstanding the performer's interpretation, including even his modifications of the score, which are tactful, if not Joycean. The use of the word "performance" is especially appropriate to the description of Huston's film, since the work he performs constantly aspires to the condition of music. Flaubertian story becomes Baudelairean prose poem, with all of the suggestiveness of music in the story's last words, informed by what was once called "the power of music."
In Joyce's story music is a central theme, uniting all the characters at Aunt Kate's and Aunt Julia's for their annual Christmas dance, just as in a deeper sense music is expressive of Irish conviviality, thus unifying various motifs in the earlier stories of Dubliners. Gabriel calls the Misses Morkan the three Graces of the Dublin musical world—an image that evokes the Graces intertwined in dance, the appropriate symbol of the Christmas dance, which gives full expression to their very graciousness. Julia, who formerly sang in the choir, still is the leading soprano in Adam and Eve's; Kate had given music lessons, as does Mary Jane, who plays the organ at Haddington Road; their guests include former and current students and their friends. Music fills the story in the very allusions to dance, the "shuffling of souls," and the "skirts that sweep" through the evening's waltzes, embellished by the guests's peals of laughter in "musical echo." Music plays throughout, in fact and in memory: Mary Jane's piano performance; Aunt Julia's song Arrayed for the Bridal; the song sung in unison by all the guests in honor of the three hostesses; all the talk of singers current and old (of the great Trebelli Giuglini, Ravelli, Aramburo, names that roll from the lips in musical cadence); the faint memory of old Parkinson, who sang so long ago in a tenor voice pure and mellow; and, finally, the distant music of Bartell D'Arcy's song in the old Irish tonality, which echoes the even more distant song of the dead Michael Furey.
Bartell D'Arcy's song not only stirs the sad memory of Greeta's former passion but deepens Gabriel's gloomy consciousness, the sad reflections on himself, on Greeta, on the Misses Morkan. Reading Dubliners we experience a music filled with nostalgia, regret, and homesickness, a "thought-tormented music." For Joyce as for Flaubert language is like a cracked kettle upon which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time he yearns to move the stars to pity. When Bartell D'Arcy's song evokes a distant music, it also liberates Joyce's prose, which becomes ever more lyrical. Describing Gabriel's soul swooning, approaching the region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead, where he is conscious of but cannot fully apprehend their wayward and fleeting existence, his identity dissolving, Joyce writes in language that achieves the status of pure song, the very sound of time passing. Singing of spirits and essences beyond words, themselves, of the deepest places in imagination, Joyce "scores" the snow falling in silver flakes:
It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Alien and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.
Although Joyce wrote lyrical poems of no great distinction (for example, those in Chamber Music), the related lyricism of his story's final lines—a kind of prose-lyric—transcends that of the lyric poems, because they absorb into themselves and condense the music and attending emotion of the whole story. The soft, sweet music played on the invisible harp of Joyce's prose is transfigured into a song about all of the memories, thoughts, and experiences of Dublin and beyond. As he contemplates the secrets of the grave with heavy eyelids, he sees that all this has been to him as the sound of lyres. Performing Joyce's final words, Huston projects a series of accompanying phantom-pictures—the lonely churchyard, the crosses and headstones, the barren thorns— images which, as the camera moves slowly upward through the snow, falling softly, dissolve, finally, into darkness.
Joyce's biographer has told us much that is fascinating about how the author fabricated "The Dead" out of stories he heard, from characters he knew, from the wide range of his readings, including Homer and George Moore, and other scholars have elaborated on this account by further considering Joyce's uses of literary tradition. They have also recently dwelt on how Joyce's work self-consciously reflects his sense of place in the history of literature. And for all this we must be grateful. But it is to Huston's film that we must turn for the sensuous reenactment of Joyce's work, for the vivid performance of its emotional depth and fascination that no academic discourse can give us. Huston's film restores former readers to Joyce's story, just as it will attract new ones. Even if it transforms Joyce's work in detail, even if, necessarily, it does not rise, as a work of art in its own right, to the condition of the greatest art that Joyce's story reaches, it achieves what a fine performance does when it re-creates an original music. The music that Joyce aspired to in prose is filled with the force of that emotion we experience when, in rare moments of memory, we glimpse the mystery of our own existence, when we experience intimations of mortality not as mere idea but as something strange, mysterious, and fleeting, like consciousness and memory themselves, like falling snow in eerie twilight, descending in the delicate dance, between hopefulness and the sad, fading memory of a distant strain. For we are all like the flickering shades of Joyce's musical moving picture, to which the haunted Huston paid final, parting, and loving homage.