NEW YORK – The Onassis Foundation USA opened its fall season on September 19 with its popular Conversation series “On Truth (and Lies)” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
The discussion “On Truth (and lies) in Joyce,” between the series host, philosopher Simon Critchely, and Irish actress and writer Olwen Fouere followed the latter’s spellbinding performance of “Riverrun” where she personified the voice of the river in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
It is one of the most difficult works of English fiction, filled with a mixture of words from the dictionary and Joyce’s neologisms. The stream of consciousness text is filled with literary allusions and free associations that evoke dreams and the speech of madmen.
Critchley called it a psychotic text where everything works through associations and weird leaps. “If you know anything about psychosis or are psychotic yourself,” you will feel at home, he said.
Rivverun was born of the Fouere’s experience during a public reading of the last page of Finnegan’s Wake “where the river Liffey (Life) calls out to us as she dissolves into the great ocean of time.”
She said it was a light bulb moment: this is the way to access Finnegan’s Wake – through the voice of the river,” she realized.
The discussion was co-presented by BAM and the Onassis Cultural Center as part of the Hellenic Humanities Program at BAM. Violaine Huisman, BAM’s Director of Humanities, told TNH that “The beauty of the collaboration is that it challenges us to think of our productions in different way and to dig deeper into their meaning…The notion of Hellenism in theater is always relevant and interesting. Allowing a philosophical theme to run through our theatrical programming is incredibly rich and broadens its scope.”
On Truth (and Lies) has often touched on how literature’s – especially theater’s – “lies” illuminate life and reveal hidden truths.
Critchley quoted Fouere saying “The theater that interests me is a theater of disturbance – when people feel a little bit altered afterwards, a little uneasy, but they can’t get it out of their minds. Then, I feel I have done my job.”
Fouere agreed when Critchley called theater, “that machine… that Greeks [invented] to create that kind of disturbance.”
He also quoted her saying: “I think I am attracted to extremity, extremity of experience, extremes of everything,” and she referred to “the subversive energy that we carry around about us and we often don’t utilize…Extreme experiences remind us of the many facets of our existence that we don’t half the time realize are there.”
The political edge to the observations is not coincidental – Joyce was passionate about politics. Neither is it an accident that the Athenians pioneered theater and freedom of expression, and also and that poets’ power to disturb was perceived as such a threat that great (and poetic) Athenian minds like Plato’s sought to suppress it.
The political realm exhibits a bizarre dialectic of truth and lies. It is easy to dismiss a point of view or movement as extremist: “they don’t represent my country – they are liars” but as circumstances cause them to grow in strength, there comes that disturbing but necessary Jungian shadow moment, the point when one realizes: “Yes, they are also my country,” or even more disturbingly, “yes, I feel that way sometimes, too.”
Those thoughts can be rejected and buried, but it can be healing to understand that the same social forces and historical events engender both the extreme and “normal” response.
And how does one know what is normal without being in touch with the extremes?
It is also no coincidence that Greek Christians pioneered the practice of confession, forerunner to psychoanalysis.