Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The "Woman of No Appearance": James Joyce, Dora Marsden, and Competitive pilfering.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The "Woman of No Appearance": James Joyce, Dora Marsden, and Competitive pilfering.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

I have just re-read Episode III of "Ulysses." My dear editor go down on your knees & thank your stars for possessing one writer of metaphysics who is CLEAR! That's ME!! Joyce is ... my word! He's appalling!

--Dora Marsden to Harriet Weaver, 10 April 1918 (qtd. in Lidderdale and Nicholson 147)

I hope Miss Marsden's book came out punctually yesterday and I am looking forward to thieveries on an unheard of scale as soon as I can find an accomplice as rascally minded as myself to read it to me.

--James Joyce to Harriet Weaver, 2 December 1928 (Letters 277)

Literary modernism is replete with rivalries between writers and ideas. This essay considers one of them: that between James Joyce and Dora Marsden. This rivalry took place over several years, was waged ultimately for status and recognition, and had marked effects on the work of both writers. Underlying it were several other binary oppositions: novelist/philosopher, time/space, subject/object, male/female, word/image. These oppositions often seem irresolvable, and they certainly underlie many other rivalries; but Joyce and Marsden ended up in a kind of collusion. Marsden's writings, including her penultimate book, The Definition of the Godhead (1928), articulate a oneness that binds difference and unifies oppositions; and that stance appealed to Joyce. He draws upon her ideas in Finnegans Wake, where he figures Marsden as the source of resolution for a parodic metaphysical struggle. In this way he attempts to restore her standing by positioning her as an arbiter in the modernist debate about time and space.

This rivalry and this collusion serve to raise larger questions about competition and its effects. While collaboration might seem to be more productive, could competition be just as helpful in generating literary work? Should we view rivalry as a defining feature of modernism, not only as part of its history but also as constitutive of its tropes?

The first part of this essay traces the history of the exchanges between Joyce and Marsden, demonstrating the terms of their rivalry and the pilfering that ensued. Rather than attacking openly, both writers competed by covertly borrowing from each other. The second part considers the resolution of their rivalry in Joyce's last novel, in Marsden's metaphysical text, and, more generally, in their modernist collusion. Ultimately, their competitive pilfering serves to illuminate one of modernism's general anxieties, reflected in Pound's claim that "there is ... nothing that's quite your own" ("Portrait" 58). (1)

Marsden's status in literary modernism remains ambiguous. While her role as the founder and editor of the little magazines the Freewoman, the New Freewoman, and the Egoist has been documented in histories of the period, and while her crucial role in literary endeavors in the early years of the twentieth century has been recognized in recent criticism, there has been relatively scant attention paid to her extensive body of writing. (2) Yet Marsden's prose reflects a consistent engagement with general concerns of literary modernism--the ego and the individual, the status of the image, the nature of consciousness, and the relationship between time and space--even as interest in those concerns developed and evolved. Her work provides an important framework for understanding ideas crucial to the formation of modernism's canon, and we need to read her texts because they react to and significantly develop the literary philosophy of modernism. Moreover--and this is my concern in this essay--her responses to particular ideas of her contemporaries, and the exchanges engendered by those responses, help us to rethink our notions of influence and conceptions of individual genius in the period. I focus specifically on the indirect exchanges between her and Joyce that occurred from 1914 to 1928, in the course of which the two writers articulated seemingly distinct but finally similar positions regarding the metaphysics of time and space. …

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