Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and the Trauma of History: Reading, Narrative, and Postcolonialism

By Murphy, Sean P. | Style, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and the Trauma of History: Reading, Narrative, and Postcolonialism


Murphy, Sean P., Style


Christine van Boheemen-Saaf. Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and the Trauma of History: Reading, Narrative, and Postcolonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. x + 227 pp. $59.95 cloth.

As Joyce's intention to keep scholars baffled for centuries becomes ever more apparent in the polyphony of readings his works inspire, most academics have abandoned their (masculinist) hopes of mastering Joyce's texts in favor of creative and varied engagements with them. No exception to this rule, Christine van Boheemen-Saaf's fine study of Joyce as a postmodern and (post)colonial writer and subject calls on readers to witness the trauma of history visited upon the Irish by Great Britain's impulse to colonize others. Such an impulse complicates the formation of an individual as well as a collective Irish identity, especially since that identity or set of identities is constituted in a language quite different from Gaelic. Irish citizens, then, have to account for the loss of a "natural" language at the same time that they forge identities within an oppressive language, political system, and historical reality. Ideal readers of Joyce, Van Boheemen-Saaf suggests, do well to empathetically "witness" the inexpressible traumas of colonialism that are discursively encrypted in his texts. At one point in her study, Van Boheemen-Saaf defines a diary as "words written by the self to the self in order not to forget the self ' (67). The criticism that hopes to tame Joyce's texts often reads like so many diaries that monumentalize certain readings, insights, or ego-bolstering "solutions" to the textual riddles Joyce purportedly poses. Van Boheemen-Saaf, on the other hand, offers readers a refreshing approach to Joyce at the same time that she avoids writing a self-serving diary.

Outlining one of the central claims of her work, Van Boheemen-Saaf writes, "I want to reclaim the importance of literature as a socially necessary source of knowledge, especially in its affective demand to witness literature's occasion" (10). Throughout her five-chapter study, and in detailed discussions of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the "Cyclops" and "Penelope" episodes of Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, Van Boheemen-Saaf convincingly casts the reader in the position of witness. Joyce's text, she claims, "was designed as a location where the anxiety of postcolonial existence could find embodied existence, and as an anamorphic mirror which returns to the reader the experience of traumatic insufficiency characteristic of colonial experience" (191). The "trauma of Irishness" (3) involves a crisis of identity in language and a crisis of understanding as obtained within language. Joyce himself mocked epistemology, referring to it in Finnegans Wake as "Epistlemadethemology for deep dorfy doubtlings" (374.17-18). As "deep dorfy doubtlings," we cannot help but to see our modes of knowing as constructed and as insufficient when confronted with Joycean texts that simultaneously mock our "dorfiness" and encourage our epistemological and ontological doubt.

* This study is at its strongest when Van Boheemen-Saaf reads Joyce alongside Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, illuminating the subaltern subjectivity that challenges both binarity and the void at the "origin" of colonial identity. As an example, the chapter titled "Representation in a Postcolonial Symbolic" takes as its subject Stephen Dedalus's relationship to language. Because Stephen is a subaltern subject, "the English language does not provide him with a stable point of authority, a unified mirror image, an unshakeable concept of origin which can ground identity in his language" (49). Although the English language fails in many ways to anchor Stephen's identity, I wonder if any language can in fact "anchor" any subject's identity. Lacan's system argues for the radical contingency of identity in all symbolic systems. In his Ecrits Lacan argues that "the unconscious is structured in the most radical way like a language" (234). …

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