‘Ulysses’ and Its Wake

Tom McCarthy

How do you write after Ulysses? It isn’t just that Joyce writes better than anyone else (although he does), it’s the sense that Ulysses’s publication represents a kind of rapture for literature, an event that’s both ecstatic and catastrophic, perhaps even apocalyptic. A certain naive realism is no longer possible after it, and every alternative, every avant-garde manoeuvre imaginable has been anticipated and exhausted by it too. As though that weren’t enough, Joyce returns to the scene of his own crime, arriving not incognito (in the manner of his shady non-character McIntosh), but brazenly assuming the role of principal mourner. Just as Ulysses was initially conceived as an extra story in Dubliners, Finnegans Wake gestated as a 19th episode of Ulysses. The three are part of a continuum, and Ulysses is a work whose own wake, and perhaps that of the novel tout court, is already at work in it. What new patterning, what ploughing of the sea, could a writer envisage outside the ripple-field already sent out by Joyce? Derrida complains of Finnegans Wake’s relentless ‘hypermnesia’, which ‘a priori indebts you, inscribes you in advance in the book you are reading’. ‘The future,’ he says, ‘is reserved in it.’

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