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.

The body-language of Richard Brown’s book is far more specific than Parrinder’s, but his assumptions are much the same. He has two aims in mind. ‘One tries to place Joyce’s work in the context of ideas in which he participated.’ The ideas in view are mainly connected with marriage, the scientific interest in sexuality, ‘non-reproductive priorities in sex’, and women. The second aim is ‘to show that it was by attitudes to and aesthetic exploitations of other works, more than by explicit comment, that Joyce’s attitudes were expressed.’ Brown’s themes include adultery, free love, sexuality in general, masturbation, birth-control, homosexuality, masochism, prostitution, androgyny, and – for reasons not evident – feminism. These themes are negotiated through the lore and literature available to Joyce: Ibsen, Shaw, Hauptmann, Freud, Have-lock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, Charles Albert, Otto Weininger, and many other rhetoricians of sex. The lore is informative, though it is bound to excite the reader into thinking that Joyce was permanently retarded in the matter of sexuality. Brown has a phrase or two from Finnegans Wake to accompany every item he describes, which is not surprising, given its linguistic promiscuousness. But Joyce’s exploitation of other books, as Brown shows, is curiously extreme. He went to books for nearly everything that most people can’t help learning by more direct methods. Joyce may have needed matter already to a high degree articulated before he could bend it or break it to his purpose.

Brown’s book is, as you may have gathered, a lively thesis. But he’s on eccentric terms with the English language. He rarely distinguishes between ‘whom’ and ‘who’, is casual with agreements of subjects and verbs, and has some odd notions of meaning and reference. ‘At least one reader’ turns out, fifty pages later, to have been William Empson. Brown refers, with irrefutable accuracy, to ‘an American woman actress’, ‘Infidelity’ seems to have some occult meaning for him, because he alludes, in a passage about ‘The Dead’, to Gabriel’s ‘fascination with his wife’s infidelities’: when, and with whom? Bloom, he says, ‘has a past which verges on the adulterous, most prominently in his association with Josie Powell, Molly’s one-time friend, with whom he has flirted at Georgina Simpson’s housewarming party in 1888, again at Leopardstown Races, and who, now married to Denis Breen, he meets on the morning of the novel and in guilty hallucination in “Circe” ’. If flirtation and hallucination put us on the verge of adultery, we’re in trouble.

There is also a very odd passage about masturbation. Brown rebukes Fritz Senn for taking a strict line with Bloom about it – ‘cheap satisfaction brought out in a style of cheap fiction,’ Senn calls it – and he insists that ‘the endosomatic gratificatory aspect of the act’ is fine. Indeed, ‘we might see Bloom as a proper hero of sexual modernity for, since Masters and Johnson, masturbation has become a familiar index of sexual normality, or, as one historian puts it, “the ultimate criterion of correct social behaviour”.’ (The historian, I learn a hundred pages later, is Paul Robinson.)

Brown won’t leave Bloom alone. He says that since his masturbating on Sandymount Strand is shared, in some sense, with Gerty, it’s a case of onanisme à deux. And since nearly all modern sex is onanistic ‘inasmuch as its goal is gratificatory, not reproductive’, there is ‘an important similarity’ between ‘the act performed by Bloom and Gerty and that performed simultaneously by Molly and Boylan at 7 Eccles Street’. Bloom and Molly thus ‘experience a kind of onanisme à deux across Dublin’. If that is not enough, the whole episode – ‘Nausicaa’ – ‘might be read not as a poignant moment of loneliness and alienation for Bloom but as a perversely triumphant extension of his marital sexuality: a shared gratificatory act (albeit one that includes other partners) performed on a huge geographical scale’. Well, if Ulysses can be patient of that interpretation, who am I to draw a line?

The subtitle of Senn’s book is ‘Essays on Reading as Translation’. Nearly all the essays arise from a consideration of the problem, indeed the impossibility, of translating Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Translation is only an extreme instance of our foreignness to any book we read. We are, Senn says, ‘in certain constellations aliens and fumbling outsiders’. The only advantage of being foreign, of being a German-speaking Swiss, for instance, who reads Joyce, is that you notice the common plight more clearly.

The title of Senn’s book is well earned in the essays that follow. His only principle is ironic and uncomplacent adherence to the uncertainty principle. Bewildered by the certitude of his colleagues, he is alert to Joyce’s way of making the reader change his stance, allow for hesitation. Senn calls this procedure metastasis, meaning ‘a rapid transition from one point of view to another’. In another essay he calls it dislocution, and values the prefix for denoting ‘a persistent principle of Ulysses, evinced in a certain waywardness, in deviations, in heretical turns, but also in multiple errors and miscommunications’.

I suppose it might be possible to read Finnegans Wake on the uncertainty principle, since no transition from one point of view to another could be effected more rapidly than by having two or more senses active in each phrase. The phrases could be taken as palimpsests. But presumably you would decide in each case which is the primary sense from which the other ones are derived. This decision would break up the simultaneity of the phrase and introduce a kind of successiveness or narrativity, but the transition between viewpoints would be maintained. Senn doesn’t quite propose such a reading, but he has several paragraphs in the spirit of this one on the diction of the Wake: ‘A laborious sequence of restatements is replaced by simultaneous alternatives: serial modification becomes instant conflict. The integrity of the word (with its implied pretence of a one-to-one relationship) has to be sacrificed. In the non-Euclidean grammar of dissent of the Wake too much is being said incompletely at the same time. The language becomes heretic (a matter of semantic choices): its heteroglyphy alone would put it in opposition to any kind of orthodoxy.’

Several of Senn’s essays are hit-and-run forays into the detail of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but he doesn’t say what the reader is meant to do after he has disentangled a phrase. Suppose he has reached the top of page 96 of the Wake:

Harik! Harik! Harik! The rose is white in the darik! And Sunfella’s nose has got rhinoceritis from haunting the roes in the parik! So all rogues learn to rhyme.

When you have deduced the last sentence from ‘all roads lead to Rome’, and sniffed the roes and the rose: what then? An assumed conflict between the primary sense and the derived one doesn’t seem to be useful here. Senn merely says that when you’ve done this ‘a jolt of recognition metamorphoses the rogues’: but into what? I can see that when roads become rogues, they don’t lead as infallibly to Rome as the old phrase suggested: perhaps Finnegans Wake is the score of such transitions, and nothing more.

The most exhilarating essays in Senn’s book are those in which he deals with various attempts to translate Ulysses into German, French and Italian. How, for instance, do you translate into German Buck Mulligan’s remark, ‘And going forth he met Butterly’ (a parody of the Gospel report – Matthew 26.75 – of the repentant Peter: ‘Going forth he wept bitterly’)? What difference, and how many differences, does it make if you translate it as: Und als er weiterging, traf er Butterly; or Und als er weiterging, traf er Bütterlich; or Und er ging hinaus und weinte Buttermilch; or Und ging hinaus und traf Bütterlich? If you think it’s all a vat of buttermilk, you need to read Senn.

It is harder to say what need is met by Post-Structuralist Joyce, a collection of seven essays first published in French over the past fifteen years. The editors have two purposes: to interest readers in the theoretical aspects of certain French critical procedures, and to show how Joyce’s texts – it seems necessary to use this word now – may be ‘produced’ ‘in ways designed to challenge rather than comfort, to antagonise instead of assimilate’.

The theoretical matter is unlikely to surprise any reader who has kept at all in touch with contemporary Nietzschean and Freudian rhetoric. Indeed, essays which seemed dramatic événements at the time now settle into one’s mind like evenings with the photograph album. Old notions are wheeled forward as if Eamonn Andrews were producing them for This is your life: the dispersal of the subject (‘the perpetual flight of the Subject and its ultimate disappearance’, as Attridge and Ferrer call this hypothetical event), the distinction proposed in Barthes’s S/Z between lisible and scriptible texts, and the now thoroughly domesticated notions of deconstruction, différence and intertextuality.

Of the individual essays, Hélène Cixous’s is a study of ‘The Sisters’ featuring such commentaries as this one on the first part of the second sentence – ‘Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window’:

Note the violent splitting of the subject: I had passed ( – ) and I had studied. Cut by ‘and’; cut by ( – ). The parenthesis being by definition withdrawal; something introduces itself which you do not want to be introduced (‘vacation time’, vacant time), time without work. Sign of a movement of denial, of excuse, speech suddenly flagging, an indication of the bad conscience which is the source of the text and of ... and of silences, and of the ambiguities which constitute the ‘bad’ side of the priest’s discourse.

Stephen Heath says of his essay that ‘as far as I am concerned, the piece is entirely past – which does not mean that I dissociate myself from it but only that I could not now write it in this same way.’ Quite understandable. In fact, his essay is both good and bad. I don’t know why he says that for many of the stories in Dubliners ‘there is no context,’ but he may have something special in mind. The main parts of his essay are concerned with ‘strategies of hesitation’ in Joyce’s work. He speaks – much as Senn does – of Joyce’s later writing as ‘not the proclamation of irony or ridicule against the model imitated, but a copying that fixes no point of irony between model and imitation, that rests, in this respect, in a hesitation of meaning’.

Jacques Aubert writes about the first word – if ‘riverrun’ is a word – of Finnegans Wake. Jean-Michel Rabaté’s essay is a study of bits of the Wake as performative language, correlated with the idea of magical power: it is more in touch with Austin and Chomsky than with any French linguists. André Topia writes about intertextuality in Ulysses. Much of it could be translated into bourgeois terms by the expedient of taking him to mean ‘Bloom’ when he refers to ‘the Bloomian discourse’, and to mean the unity of the self when he speaks of the ‘integrity’ of the Bloomian monologue. His general argument is that Ulysses isn’t a realistic novel: ‘The Joycean text is not “viable”, is not “transformable” into the real. The whole artifice (and the whole success, as well) of the great works of realist literature is in the fact that this transformation appears so self-evident that it is obliterated. In Ulysses, on the other hand, the two elements are dissociated; the matrix is set apart from its various imperfect products.’

Ferrer’s essay is a reading of the ‘Circe’ chapter of Ulysses by recourse to Freudian and Kleinian terms. Finally, Derrida broods on the words ‘And he war’ (FW 258.12) and emphasises the ‘generalised equivocality’ – a phrase Senn, too, might have used – of the Wake. How would you translate ‘And he war’ into, say, French? Philippe Lavergne’s version is: ‘Et il en fut ainsi.’ So you can seen the problem. Like Rabaté, Derrida has much to say of performatives. He ends by pondering the consequences of the fact that the Wake, whatever its intermittent acoustic pleasures, defeats the elocutionist for most of its pages. Like Senn, Derrida is sensitive to the fact that in the Wake ‘multiplicity remains controlled by a dominant language, English.’ If you try to speak the words, you suppress ‘the Babelian confusion between the English war and the German war’. Erase the ‘graphic percussion’ of the words as printed, and you again appropriate the Wake ‘into a monolingualism, or at least subjugate it to the hegemony of a single language’. Derrida has much more about God, signatures, resentment and vengeance. None of the French critics of Joyce seems to me to fulfil the promise – or the threat – made by the editors in terms of challenge and antagonism. Finnegans Wake isn’t a declaration of war. Fritz Senn refers to its ‘outstanding obligingness’, and that seems nearer the mark.