James Joyce and the Reader’s Understanding

Brigid Brophy

  • James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word by Colin MacCabe
    Macmillan, 186 pp, £8.95, February 1979, ISBN 0 333 21648 2

‘The aim of this work,’ Colin MacCabe announces, ‘is not to provide the meaning of Joyce’s work but to allow it to be read.’

‘Well, ta ever so,’ I wrote in the margin. In 1922, when Ulysses was first published and copies were burnt by the New York Post Office, or 1923, when copies were seized by the Folkestone Customs, English-reading people might have thanked Mr MacCabe for, at least, a kindly intention. Now that that battle has been won by others, his permission is superfluous.

The condescension with which he grants it all the same is only compounded when he explains: ‘The difficulty of reading Joyce is a difficulty in our notion of reading. Reading for us is passive consumption; with Joyce it becomes an active metamorphosis, a constant displacement in language.’

Mr MacCabe has no discernible literary talent, but if it truly is a virtue to stir readers from passivity into action he must be a genius. Next to this passage the urchin graffitist scrawled ‘Speak for yourself’ and ‘Who us?’

Certainly, the ‘us’ for whom reading everyone except Joyce is ‘passive consumption’ can’t include readers of Firbank, who have to perform ecstatic mental leapfrog in order to divine which dialogue issues from which speaker, and who have to discern the subject-matter of his novels by the method fighter pilots used in 1940 to spot an enemy aircraft: namely, not looking for it but letting it creep into their peripheral vision. Neither can the passive ‘us’ include anyone who has read Chapter 11 of Volume Two of Tristram Shandy: ‘The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. For my part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.’

And as a matter of fact nothing in Mr MacCabe’s book suggests he has read either Firbank or Sterne.

His claim that reading Joyce is a more active activity than reading other novelists turns out to be a sell. Puritans, who habitually consider reading novels to be much the same thing as having masturbation fantasies (and believe both to be bad for the eyesight), have suffered many disappointments recently from theories that promised to remove novel-reading from the category of passive solitary vice and, by means of some sort of audience-participation in ‘open-ended’ fictions, turn it into the equivalent of a brisk jog or a healthy community sing-song. They were bound to be disappointed because the only exercise a novel can require of the reader is that of his imagination. Anything else merely substitutes some other occupation for reading. Even writing in the margin transforms you from a reader of the book into the writer of a commentary on it. Mr MacCabe serves the puritans no better than his predecessors. All he means, when he talks of reading becoming ‘an active metamorphosis’ when you read Joyce, is that Joyce doesn’t offer the reader a single, fixed viewpoint through which to watch what goes on in the book.

Neither, as a matter of fact, does The Moonstone, with its multiplicity of first-person narratives. And the ‘I’ of The Newcomes, for instance, though he may deceive you into thinking him fixed, is a very tricky device, at once a dramatis persona and Chorus and ‘the novelist’, who finally recedes and is seen receding by a different narrator.

These pertinent but awkward instances are ignored by Mr MacCabe. (So, incidentally, is the nature of metamorphosis, which, as described by Ovid, seems a notably passive experience.) He puts forward instead something he calls ‘the classic realist text’. His italics are designed, I surmise, to scare his readers into believing they see classic realist texts all over the place, though the only examples he gives with any particularity come from middle to late George Eliot.

In ‘the classic realist text’ Mr MacCabe distinguishes two types of discourse or language, having first remarked in a footnote: ‘Throughout this work language (and its compounds) will be used as a synonym for discourse, that is to say as a term to refer to any system of lexical combination which has as effect a distinct subject position.’

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