Banking on Joyce

By Jameson, Conrad | New Statesman (1996), July 10, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Banking on Joyce

Jameson, Conrad, New Statesman (1996)

The Joyce inudstry is not quoted for shares. It should be, argues Conrad Jameson, in his analysis of how the writer's stock is kept artificially high

If it is literary investments you have is mind, then you might do well to look at the Joyce industry, because, unusually in my broking experience, it offers not only the statbility that you might expect -- James Joyce's position as required reading on modern literature courses sees to that -- but also, less obviously, something of the excitement of a dotcom.

Take the way it handles jobfests and publications. On 24-30 June, the 17th international James Joyce Symposium took place at Goldsmiths College in London. The symposium is held every other year around Bloomsday, and gathers together important scholars and readers from all over the world. In five days, 350 members got through 215 papers -- and still had time to see Nora, the new film about Joyce's early love life.

The industry is committed to jobs and the proliferation of papers -- running into the tens of thousands. Certainly, such productivity is aided by some of Joyce's more madcap writings - it is possible to extract about 20 different meanings from the unpunctuated title of Finnegans Wake; and just think of the papers that concentrate on Joyce's references to 65 languages, from Icelandic to Swahili. But the industry plays its part as well, profiting not only from the increase in productivity that came with deconstruction -- a true devotee of Roland Barthes believes that a new scenario can be found on every reading of the same text -- but also in opening itself up to new categories of criticism: Post-Foucault, Reader-response, Cultural Studies, Bakhtinian, Cultural Studies Other, Feminist-Historicist, Feminist-Psychoanlytic, Postcolonial Close Reading, to name only some of the headings of the recent symposium. Here is the kind of flow of papers that a department has to think about when deciding how best to impress the assessors for new funds at quinquennial reviews.

Or think of the way the Joyce industry interacts and encourages the lay cult of Joyce supporters and fans, who now boast 33,000 Joyce-dedicated websites, and active societies with readings, shrines and benefactions (a Dublin lawyer is currently investing [pounds]1m to restore the house that was the setting for "The Dead"). And, of course, the ritual that binds them all: an annual Bloomsday on 16 June celebrating the day in the life of Leopold Bloom that is the story of Ulysses. The more devoted go to Dublin to wander the streets in Edwardian dress. But every worthy Joycean will join in eating Bloom's favourite, a pig's kidney, with its unkosher, convention-breaking meaning still intact.

The cult also has its own reward: a virtual invitation to identify vicariously with Joyce as artist-hero. With the launch of the film Nora, that invitation is now gold-bossed in showing a young lion-hearted artist breaking the ties of country, religion, family and fear, and all in the artistic cause of telling it as it is. The antecedents are obvious enough, from Jean Christophe to The Fountainhead to Cinema Paradiso. But so is the depth of the artist-hero's appeal that Joyce still represents as he goes out--to quote the famous words from his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man -- "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race".

As for the downside, this is simply the reverse side of a personality cult that has made Joyce what he never was, in the name of a cause that is dubious in the first place: the sustaining of the Joyce industry itself in its own attempt to refashion the modem novel along the lines of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The problem is that, to turn Joyce into a totem, the industry has had to tell a lot of lies.

The lies began after the war, when the so-called New Critics needed a modern novelist to represent their art-for-art's-sake views that made the pleasure-pain of complexity and contradiction the height of aesthetic experience.

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