Joyce Celebrates Release of Words from the Dead

I’m proud to announce the publication of my tenth book, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, published by Ekstasis Editions of Victoria, BC Canada.[1] My body of published work now includes poetry, a novel, Western Canadian history, and this latest book, a collection of essays.[2] My method in Words from the Dead is to analyze the Covid Age through great works of literature, poetry and history, using them as a lens through which to focus critical thinking. Art is far more than mere entertainment, or some enjoyable but unnecessary frill. Even popular culture such as songs and movies—to the extent it relies on the great themes of art—can be a source of deep meaning. History itself began from the storytelling impulse, the basis of narrative. The greatest historians, in my view, are those that instruct us in the principle of pattern recognition over vast spans of time and human behaviour. Essays are simply a more direct way of critically addressing the stories we tell each other in a culture. And it’s clear that now more than ever, the narratives we hear in the media are in need of challenging. I preface the book with several quotes, among them one from investigative journalist Eva Bartlett, who said that “the media exists to sell narratives, not to tell the truth.”

I certainly debunk the scientific and social fallacies at work during Covid lockdowns, supported by more than 600 footnotes and references from credible sources. But rather than merely telling readers what to think, the goal is to teach the basics of critical thinking and Socratic reasoning. The intellectual principle is based on the familiar adage: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Words from the Dead cover

Words from the Dead cover from Ekstasis Editions (2022)

Artists and writers often seem to have a direct line to what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” or what others have dubbed the “zeitgeist” of a civilization, meaning roughly “the spirit of the age.” In that respect they fulfill what Beat poet Allen Ginsberg called the “vatic” role as seers and thus fit into a continuity with religious mystics and prophets over the centuries. Not that writers necessarily have the capacity to predict specific events, but rather, they have an intuitive grasp of human nature and the ability to synthesize a wide-ranging array of information into a coherent whole. As I argue in my essay “Apocalypso,” which examines the symbolism in the Bible book of Revelation, the apostle John was essentially filling this role. His fine-grained and at times hallucinogenic visions could apply to almost any period of social collapse. As Jung would argue, he like most poets is speaking in archetypes, not specific political details. This frees us from having to debate whether such Bibical passages are “true” or not and benefit by their insights into broad principles of human existence. The same could be said of almost any work of literature.

Words from the Dead counters the recent (and shallow) conceit that we have nothing to learn from the so-called “dead white males” of literary history. Literary critic and scholar Harold Bloom was saw this political agenda coming way back in the early 1990s when he published his book The Western Canon. “Pragmatically, the ‘expansion of the Canon’ has meant the destruction of the Canon, since what is being taught includes by no means the best writers… but rather the writers who offer little but the resentment they have developed as part of their sense of identity.”[3] Even some academics are growing tired of this rhetoric, for example Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University and the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She writes of her liberal education fostering a sensitivity to “a culturally influential critique of ‘the canon’ that insists that Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Goethe, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, et al, are not for people like me, that they are for white people, or rich people, or people born with class privileges that I lacked.”[4] Yet she recalls the seminal moment that crystallized her desire to become a literary scholar—when she discovered Socrates: “I did not need to be rich, privileged or cultured to find in those words something that spoke to the deepest sense of my own being. And I did not need to be white or European to be startled by the claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.” As Bloom writes, “history is more than the history of class struggle, or of racial oppression, or of gender tyranny.”[5] As Montás discovered to her delight, what makes some works of literature and art perpetual is their capacity to speak to people everywhere in the most profound terms. Art is a mirror we hold up to ourselves and society, the “examined life” Socrates urged that reveals new dimensions to our existence in this world. As far as I’m concerned, the best art has no gender, no race, no nationality.

Words from the Dead provides a critical analysis of our times that draws on a reading list of nearly 50 books, spanning a historical timeline from the 5th century BC to the present. From the ancient Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, through the writers of immortal literature, to more recent critical commentators such as Karl Popper, Arnold Toynbee, John Ralston Saul and Michael Rectenwald, Words From the Dead digs deep for its perspectives. From the 1872 utopian novel Erewhon (“nowhere” spelled backwards) by Samuel Butler to the pop culture genius of the classic 1960s TV series The Prisoner, the hit series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the socially incisive lyrics of British folk-rock songwriter Roy Harper, this book explores the common threads that unite great art in many of its forms. As Professor Emeritus of English Literature Roger C. Lewis wrote in his review of my poetry collection Diary of a Pandemic Year, “against this imagery of apocalyptic punishment… the poet sets over a mythical construct of what Northrop Frye called ‘the assumption of total coherence…’”[6]

As an essayist I’m following in the tradition of great writers such as Montaigne, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell and Huxley have been lifelong inspirations for my own writing and I’ve read almost everything they ever wrote. These essayists didn’t necessarily see themselves as experts but as insatiably curious intellects using the Socratic method to explore anything that interested them. “From the start I resonated with the original concept of the essay, from the French ‘assai,’ to try,” I write in the Preface. “For me the open-ended form of the essay inspired a creative optimism, a confidence I could at least become conversant in the language. It left me free to play in the field of ideas.” Most importantly, Words From the Dead helps the reader cultivate a facility for pattern recognition based on the precedents of history and literature. That is my hope for this book, to bring consolation, critical thinking and clarity to readers devastated in their various ways by the Covid Age.

Sean Arthur Joyce lo-res

Sean Arthur Joyce 2016. Photo Anne Champagne

Acknowledgements

I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Anne Champagne, whose meticulous copy editing and astute observations have saved me from folly time and time again. Thanks are due Roger Lewis for reading the manuscript with a critical eye; and to Ekstasis Editions publisher Richard Olafson, for his enthusiasm and support for these essays. I also wish to thank my father, whose love of books and history set the mold for me from a young age.

Ordering the Book

Although the book can be ordered through Amazon, at present we have limited stock there, and prefer that buyers instead support either small bookstores or the publisher. Copies can be ordered directly from Ekstasis Editions. Most bookstores are willing to special order books for customers.

[1] Publisher’s website: http://www.ekstasiseditions.com/recenthtml/wordsfromthedead.htm

[2] My author website provides details on these books: https://www.seanarthurjoyce.ca/

[3] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York, 1994, p. 7.

[4] Roosevelt Montás, “Great Books Are Still Great,” Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-great-books-still-speak-for-themselves-and-for-us?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=3797b96215-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2022_01_17_11_14&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-3797b96215-70470777

[5] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York, 1994, p. 283.

[6] Roger C. Lewis, “Dandelions through the asphalt,” review of Diary of a Pandemic Year by Sean Arthur Joyce, Ormsby Review of Books, July 9, 2021: https://thebcreview.ca/2021/07/09/1173-lewis-joyce-pandemic/

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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1 Response to Joyce Celebrates Release of Words from the Dead

  1. Pingback: Chris Shaw reviews Words from the Dead by Sean Arthur Joyce

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