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.’

One type of discourse, he says, consists of ‘the object-language (the marks held in inverted commas)’. By this, it presently proves, he means dialogue.

Everything that isn’t dialogue constitutes the second type of discourse, which Mr MacCabe calls the ‘meta-language’, an ugly hitching of a Greek prefix to a Latinate root which he acknowledges to ‘Tarski’s classic article on the semantic conception of truth’. (The word ‘classic’ doesn’t in this case rate italics.)

The ‘object-language’ (the dialogue) is, according to Mr MacCabe, open to reinterpretation. The ‘meta-language’ (the non-dialogue) can comment on the ‘object-language’ and ‘can also explain the relation of the object-language to the world’; but the ‘meta-language’ considers itself to be ‘transparent’, ‘functions simply as a window on reality’, ‘refuses to acknowledge its own status as writing’, ‘claims to be unwritten’ and resists reinterpretation by refusing ‘to admit its own materiality’.

What Mr MacCabe has glimpsed through this laborious mass, which I have reported more succinctly and systematically than he does, is the simple rule of the whodunnit: the characters may tell lies (the dialogue is open to reinterpretation) but the narrative mustn’t (it is ‘a window on reality’). He shows no sign of recognising what he has discovered. Perhaps he hasn’t read any whodunnits either.

Joyce, Mr MacCabe continues, accomplished a revolution by breaking away from ‘the classic realist text’ and dispensing with the ‘meta-language’: ‘The absence of a meta-language in Joyce’s work is evident in his refusal, a refusal which dates from his earliest writings, to use what he called “perverted commas”.’

All that is wrong with Mr MacCabe is that he can’t or won’t think. Ulysses is, I take it, a novel that he has read, yet he has managed not to notice that a sizable chunk of it is written and set out in dramatic form, with stage directions in brackets. This written form separates dialogue from narrative to exactly the same effect that inverted commas do in George Eliot.

Again, Mr MacCabe contrives not to notice that inverted commas round dialogue are a comparatively recent convention. Both Tristram Shandy and the Authorised Version manage without them. Not having noticed this, Mr MacCabe doesn’t say whether he thinks the Authorised Version was also in revolution against ‘the classic realist text’ (and, if so, where its authors saw examples of that, given that they can’t have read George Eliot) or whether he thinks Joyce was in fact a counter-revolutionary, who restored the original status quo against which George Eliot had conducted a revolution.

Anyone who has written a novel or has imagination enough to conceive what writing one must be like could have saved Mr MacCabe from these naiveties. A novelist has choice about what he puts into dialogue and what into narrative. The whodunnit writer never needs to ‘cheat’: he has only to attribute his deceptions to one of the characters. Any novelist could at will re-cast all his dialogue as reported speech, thereby writing entirely in ‘meta-language’, or alternatively could adapt his novel into a play, which (from the point of view of the audience, though not of the reader of the written script) consists entirely of ‘object-language’.

Neither does narrative ‘claim’ not to have been written by anyone, though it may pretend as much for the sake of illusionism. Mr MacCabe ignores first-person narratives, which often positively profess to be written by a fictitious someone, along with those third-person narratives which are more or less confined within that person’s consciousness – the type of narrative that is the vehicle of much of Ulysses. Indeed, he ignores the most basic fact of all: namely, that the whole of a novel, dialogue and narrative alike, is a let’s-pretend.

Even when the narrative takes a seemingly impersonal, god’s-eye view, it is usually the most, instead of, as Mr MacCabe has it, the least, written part of the novel, since it is usually the residence of the emotional tone of the whole thing. It is impossible to conceive that the non-dialogue parts of a novel by Meredith are claiming not to have been written. Perhaps Mr MacCabe, who doesn’t mention him, either, would reply that Meredith isn’t a classic realist’. Yet even George Eliot’s discourses, on, say, bunsen burners, or the behaviour of iron filings when magnetised, are crying out that they were written, and by a very personal personality: who else would have inserted them at that point in the tale?

Mr MacCabe’s notion that the non-dialogue passages resist reinterpretation is the opposite of the truth. Those passages invite the reader to dwell on and reinterpret them, because it is chiefly by liking or disliking them that the reader judges the book. Fictional narratives are not ‘transparent’ but tinted windows, looking not onto reality but onto invented things (which have a variable relationship to reality); and it is on the reader’s liking for one nuance of tint rather than another that the writer relies to make the reader choose to read the next novel by the same writer. No doubt the writer even of a ‘classic realist text’ hopes that the reader will so choose.

Mr MacCabe’s book resembles the proceedings of a water beetle. He skeeters across the surface of a great many questions, bumps excitedly into a theory and then, before examining it, shoots off to the next. He takes quick looks at Saussure (with diagram), Lacan, Barthes, Brecht and Wittgenstein. (No wonder he doesn’t seem to have found time to read many novels.) He remarks on certain similarities between an analysand relating his dreams to a psychoanalyst and a novelist telling stories to a reader, but skeeters off before he can notice the crucial economic difference: that, with a novel, it is the talkative one who is performing a service and demands to be paid for it.

Indeed, for a critic who purports to think in political terms and who cites the ‘traditional Marxist definition of a practice’ when he discusses the activity of writing, he is weak on economic relationships. He doesn’t mention the respect in which Joyce was truly a counter-revolutionary: he reversed the tendency, which had been increasing from the 17th century on, for writers to depend not on private patronage but on the public. It is at least worth considering the effect on a writer’s writing of the source of his income. Perhaps some 20th-century writers have striven to express themselves comprehensibly enough for a mass public, and others to write incomprehensibly enough to satisfy the avant-garde expectations of a patron. After all, it might really just not have done, in the eyes of Joyce’s financial supports (a Rockefeller daughter and Harriet Weaver), had Joyce’s imagination eventually come up with an indubitable masterpiece but a masterpiece on the lines of, say, Treasure Island.

However, Mr MacCabe is the last person to denuminise Joyce or even to treat him as a human being who had to invent the stuff Mr MacCabe considers as a ‘text’ (sacred, perhaps); and Joyce is the last person he thinks of blaming for what he asserts to be the fact (I don’t know how he knows) that ‘few have read Ulysses with the necessary attention and fewer still have done more than open Finnegans Wake.’

I realise I may be in a privileged position since (my father having sagaciously bought a copy of Ulysses in Paris some years before I was born) I was brought up on Joyce and therefore apprehended him not as a revolutionary, and not as numinous (even though Ulysses makes mention of ‘Brophy, the lame gardener’), but as a norm – almost a ‘classic realist text’, indeed. I think it would be wiser to admit that the sensuous and intellectual attractions of almost any given page of Finnegans Wake don’t include much inducement to turn to the next page, and that the Edwardian pace of Ulysses, the slowness it attributes to the reader in taking a point, may make the book seem thin and straggly, especially if you have accustomed yourself to the dense concentration of images in Firbank or indeed to the tempo of Chandler. I suppose it was the 24 books of the Odyssey that banally chimed in Joyce’s thoughts with the 24 hours of the day and beguiled him (ah, Sirens) into giving Ulysses the shape of ‘a day in the life of…’, one of the most leaden and least read-on shapes a book can take, since it positively promises not to surprise you by temporal leaps.

This is not to disparage Joyce’s re-creation in retrospect of that day in the claustrophobic life of a provincial city, cluttered with Edwardian things (a chamberpot beneath every bed, a piano in every pub) and brooded over by obsessive liturgy and paradoxically unsparkling Gilbert and Sullivan. I suspect it is as-a representational novelist that he will last. And he deserves honour for entering in his provincial diary of a day the bodily functions that many of his contemporaries declined to mention in print, at least under their common names. Fashion in reading tempo may well come back to him (after all, the films made in the Seventies move much more slowly than those of the Forties), but if it does it must be by readers’ agreeing to become more and not, as Mr MacCabe supposes, less passive as consumers.

Sooner than admit that Joyce can be boring to a present-day reader or may have technically miscalculated (or simply flouted) his readers’ need of a hook to hold their attention and move it on, Mr MacCabe blames ‘our’ passive reading habits and, for those, blames the failure of ‘literary criticism’ to ‘engage with the radical novelty of Joyce’s work’.

Dab-hand though he is at the spurious precision of a superfluous definition (there’s a lot more of his footnote on language and discourse than I have, for my readers’ sake, quoted), Mr MacCabe doesn’t say what he means by ‘literary criticism’. He places huge responsibilities on it. It isn’t, he says, ‘a transient epiphenomenon which can be ignored in favour of the original literary text’. Indeed, if it has failed with the original text, then ‘we’ can’t read the original text until Mr MacCabe ‘allows’ us to. Towards the original text itself he positively utters threats: ‘no text can escape the discourses of literary criticism in which it is referred to, named and identified.’

And yet he doesn’t disclose whether, by ‘literary criticism’, he means reviews in periodicals like this one; or the grunts of one browser along the library shelves to another (‘A bit above my head, dearie’, ‘Load of old balls, if you ask me’) – which, though it can’t be tested, seems likely to be the most widely influential form literary criticism can take; or books (or as he would say ‘works’) like his own (of which he tells us: ‘This work is a version of a doctoral thesis’), which display an extensive and conspicuous acquaintance with theorists of novel-writing, down to (or up to) authors of unpublished theses, but manage to ignore so many novels.

My own favourite among the theories Mr MacCabe redacts and reports on is one that originated with a French critic and that maintains that in an epic the readers ‘know that the hero is good and the villain bad’, whereas a novel ‘suspends these disjuncts for the course of the narrative – is the hero good or bad? – only to affirm a final identity and with this affirmation to retroactively deny the suspense produced by the narrative’.

Mr MacCabe won’t let go of this theory and promises to elaborate on it (though in practice he quickly skeeters off to another), despite the fact, which he reports, that the originator of the theory has abandoned it in her later work. In this she was better advised than Mr MacCabe. It is a theory according to which not only is Vanity Fair (that ‘novel without a hero’) not a novel but the Iliad and the Odyssey cannot be epics, since the one has no hero and the other has a hero whom the reader doesn’t always know to be good. As for the hero or villain of Paradise Lost, and whether he is known to be good or bad, God or Satan help the reader who tries to apply the theory.

On the classic realist theory that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, I wish that Mr MacCabe’s unfortunate experience in getting stuck with a theory of such high nonsense value as his novel-epic contrast might alert authors of doctoral theses to the advantages of thinking before they write. Instead, I expect all the authors of all the theses he cites will write to the Editor to condemn me. I hope above all that Mr MacCabe’s bullying words, ‘no text can escape the discourses of literary criticism,’ aren’t true, for if they are, and if ‘literary criticism’ consists of what he so insensitively practises in such appalling prose, literature will soon be hacked to bits.