States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment

By Vicki Mahaffey | Go to book overview

Preface

Small things matter, and that's where the leakage begins.

—Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

When I was working on the issue of authority in the writings of James Joyce, 1 I attempted to define an exercise of authority that was unoppressive, dynamic, and even joyous, which I associated with the authority of experience (as opposed to the more tyrannical authority of power or force). This is the kind of authority I had come to enjoy in the classroom, and it offers all the rewards that are usually associated with mastery of one's discipline and the ability to restage that mastery for students. What I also came to recognize was that this kind of authority is by definition backward-looking, even nostalgic, since it depends upon a re-presentation or belated staging of discovery; moreover, the authority of experience produces a feeling of widening distance between teacher and students, who are cast primarily as audience. I found it increasingly disturbing, for example, to teach the works of Samuel Beckett, and especially Waiting for Godot and Endgame. These two plays were uncannily beginning to resemble, in the relation between characters and audience, the relation between myself and my students. Like teachers, Beckett's characters are experienced at playing the same scenarios day after day, and at moments they succeed both in entertaining and in being entertained, but the ennui of repetition frays their patience to the point that they long for ending, and they question the meaning of such rituals even while performing them. Despite their preoccupation with routines authorized by experience, with behaviors randomly repaid by carrots or sticks, Beckett's characters sometimes recall the allure of "beginning," which is not an idealized or fetishized youth, but the process of discovery that precedes the formation of habit. In Endgame, Hamm asks Clov, as Clov pushes Hamm's wheelchair toward the light, "Do you remember, in the beginning, when you took me for a turn? You used to hold the chair too high. At every step you nearly tipped me out. (With senile quaver) Ah, great fun we had, the two of us, great fun. (Gloomily.) And then we got into the way of it." 2 Or, as Vladimir expresses it in Waiting for Godot, "We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener." 3 Beckett exposes mastery as a disguise of habit, intermittently ludicrous and delightful, but also excruciatingly boring. As Vladimir explains. "All I know is that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us

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States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • States of Desire - Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment *
  • Preface *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Contents *
  • Abbreviations xix
  • One - Introduction Reading and "Irish" Desire 3
  • Two - Wilde's Desire a Study in Green 37
  • Three - "Horrible Splendour of Desire" the Will of W B. Yeats 87
  • Four - Joyful Desire Giacomo Joyce and Finnegans Wake 142
  • Five - Conclusion 210
  • Notes 213
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • Index 261
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