James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare

James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare

James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare

James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare

Synopsis

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Stephen Dedalus's famous complaint articulates a characteristic modern attitude toward the perceived burden of the past. As Robert Spoo shows in this study, Joyce's creative achievement, from the time of his sojourn in Rome in 1906-07 to the completion of Ulysses in 1922, cannot be understood apart from the ferment of historical thought that dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tracing James Joyce's historiographic art to its formative contexts, Spoo reveals a modernist author passionately engaged with the problem of history, forging a new language that both dramatizes and redefines that problem.

Excerpt

Good God, what a mess! And to think that the nineteenth century takes on airs and adulates itself. There is one word in the months of all. Progress. Progress of whom? Progress of what?

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là-bas

It has . . . been said of the Iliad that anyone who starts reading it as history will find that it is full of fiction but, equally, anyone who starts reading it as fiction will find that it is full of history.

Arnold J. Toynbee, History, Science, and Fiction

The word "history" reverberates throughout Ulysses like the laugh of a ghost. Fiercely contested and continually appropriated, it can probably lay claim to more transformations than the protean dog Stephen Dedalus watches on Sandymount Strand. The Englishman Haines observes with imperial serenity that "it seems history is to blame" for his nation's treatment of Ireland (1.649), while Stephen complains that "history . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake" (2.377). Mr. Deasy, the prating, imperturbable Orangeman, affirms that history moves "towards one great goal, the manifestation of God" (2.381), but the outsider Leopold Bloom, bearding the superpatriotic Citizen in his gloryhole, offers a less sanguine opinion: "Persecution . . . all the history of the world is full of it. . . . Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred" (12.1417, 1481-82). A provocatively complex word whenever Joyce uses it, "history" carries an especially heavy, shifting freight of meaning in Ulysses that makes it the verbal counterpart of Stephen, who personally labors under the burden of the past.

Definitions of history are bound to proliferate in a country oppressed by it, a country that, at the time of the events of Ulysses, was confronted with multiple images of its past, ranging from servitude and humiliation to . . .

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