Raiding Joyce

Denis Donoghue

  • James Joyce by Patrick Parrinder
    Cambridge, 262 pp, £20.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 521 24014 X
  • James Joyce and Sexuality by Richard Brown
    Cambridge, 216 pp, £19.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 521 24811 6
  • Joyce’s Dislocutions: Essays on Reading as Translation by Fritz Senn, edited by John Paul Riquelme
    Johns Hopkins, 225 pp, £22.20, December 1984, ISBN 0 8018 3135 0
  • Post-Structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French edited by Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer
    Cambridge, 162 pp, £20.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 521 26636 X

Patience is a mark of the classic, according to Frank Kermode. ‘King Lear, underlying a thousand dispositions, subsists in change, prevails, by being patient of interpretation.’ It follows that a work of art is not a classic if it insists, apparently, on being read in one way. By that criterion, Ulysses would appear to be a classic. Joyce relentlessly explicated it, and gave his fans the authorised version of its structure, but the user’s manual doesn’t limit the ways in which the book may be read. Nothing said about Ulysses seems to spoil it. But Finnegans Wake lacks this imperturbability: it seems to demand to be read in one way, and nobody knows what the way is. Obstinate rather than patient, it holds out against every effort of good will. Nothing Joyce said about it is much help.

Patrick Parrinder’s book is a fairly straightforward introduction to Joyce, based on two congenially related emphases. The first is that Joyce’s work as a whole, and Ulysses in particular, feature ‘a poetics of the body’. In a letter of 1921, Joyce told Frank Budgen:

Penelope is the clou of the book ... It begins and ends with the female word yes. It turns like the huge earth ball slowly surely and evenly round and round spinning, its four cardinal points being the female breasts, arse, womb and cunt expressed by the words because, bottom (in all senses bottom button, bottom of the class, bottom of the sea, bottom of his heart), woman, yes ... Ich bin der Fleisch der stets bejaht.

I am the flesh that always affirms: Parrinder happily takes Joyce’s word for that sentiment. ‘The central subject of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake,’ he maintains, ‘is the celebration not of artistic but of ordinary human fecundity.’ I don’t see that one excludes the other.

Parrinder’s second notion is that the poetics of the body is mostly seen in the carnival and grotesquerie that Joyce shares with Rabelais. Bakhtin is the main authority for this emphasis, but Parrinder uses him misleadingly, I think. In Rabelais and his World, Bakhtin describes Medieval and Renaissance carnival as a social practice, performed beyond the pale of the authority it mocked: it thought of itself as the nature nearly suppressed by culture. The ‘Circe’ chapter in Ulysses, which gives Parrinder most of his evidence, is quite a different thing, it doesn’t imply a social practice which it offers to articulate. So it is misleading to say that Bloom is a Lord of Misrule, as if the phrase referred to a social or public role he could be said to play.

Putting these two ideas together, Parrinder reads Ulysses as a realistic novel, complete with characters and plot. He thinks Bloom a pretty solid citizen – ‘No artist has paid a greater tribute to bourgeois man than did Joyce in the creation of Bloom’ – and presents him looking forward to a peaceful and prosperous future ‘in which Western bourgeois civilisation has been tempered with a mild dose of international socialism’. Like many other critics, Parrinder makes Bloom sound older than his 38 years – he refers to his ‘time of life’ as if he were nearly over the hill. His account of Molly Bloom gives her several more lovers than the book by my reading, indicates, unless he means her admirers. Sometimes his commentary sounds like the report of a Marriage Guidance Counsellor – ‘He and Molly must face their problems of sexual adjustment as solitary individuals cut off, to a great extent, from the social continuities around them’ – and while he thinks the marriage can be saved, he recommends prudence on both sides.

He surrounds the book with standard affiliations – Vico, The Master Builder, a bit of Freud – and he reasserts the bearing of carnival and riot. ‘Finnegans Wake exhibits the grotesque body through mythology, totemism and pornographic fantasy.’ But in the end he shakes his head and thinks the book ‘an experiment which may, at some points, have gone astray’. I don’t think Parrinder would claim that his reading of the Wake is especially new, but on Joyce’s work as a whole, he is vigorously interesting and helpful.

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