Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

A "Distant Music": Invoking Phantasmagoria in Joyce's "The Dead"

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

A "Distant Music": Invoking Phantasmagoria in Joyce's "The Dead"

Article excerpt

1. Summoning Deadness and its Spectrality: The Story's Foundations

Epitomizing notions of paralysis, exile or return to the origin, James Joyce's "The Dead" frames an unstable rendition of identities which transcends any categorization based on discriminative traits or fixed archetypes. The narrative resorts to an ambivalent and dynamic method or taxonomy both concealing the immediate and showing the invisible or delayed. In fact, this "novella" (1) about death, alienation and life renewal combines realist and antirealist segments which result in a discontinuous and disruptive flow yet bearing balance, cohesion and coherence. Joyce's text blurs reality, pressing against and beyond tangibility, displacing its livid scenes to covertness, while invoking phantasmagoria to erase the limits between the immediate signs of physicality and the supplement invisibility. The text destabilizes the normal automatized reading, involving fluctuations, "cross-overs, the blurring of boundaries, mergers and exchangers of position" (Riquelme 1994: 228). A close analysis of this narrative proves it is resourceful to view it in a poststructuralist sense, away from any reductionist reading, and, more concretely, adopting a deconstructive interpretation. The latter is specially pertinent in a story playing with contradiction and binary oppositions (differance), but ultimately illustrating the convergence of institutionalized or dominant centers of meaning and their corresponding devalued or subliminal margins. (2)

We can read "The Dead" as a marked semantic free play and inversion of roles between the aforementioned legitimized center --in this case, the living, who are made deferred--and those excluded or peripheral the concealed dead, who float to the surface to finally settle mutuality. In other words, deconstruction in this work does not bring a new hierarchy, reversing or destroying the previous one--the average living Dubliners dominating over those already gone--, but dismantles the opposition between the living and the dead, the present and the past, creating a balance between the traditionally superior terms and the inferior ones (Murfin 1994: 208). "The Dead", consequently, stands as a ghost story Joyce himself referred to it that way (Wheelan 2002)--in which the others, the immaterial legions of the deceased and those remnants of the past are summoned and endowed with presence, replacing the moribund living, though, in essence, what remains is an exchange of properties between both modes through balancing phantasmagoria. In a story where referentiality seems to be "subtle" and "atmospheric" (Kelleher 1965: 433), the substance of things is understood "from its shadow" (Benstock 1969: 150). This strategy dynamizes the center of meaning by legitimizing the validity of the ostensible opposites, not mutually exclusive as a result, and having both interacting in a palimpsest of undecidability and equivocity of identity (Riquelme 1994: 219). The same principle applies to the divergent interpretations the story is prone to, a manifest validation of the "perplexingly multiple" (ibidem 221) and irreconcilable meanings which frustrates the possibility of a single definitive closure, that univocity which limits our dialogue with the text, according to deconstructivist theories (Culler 1975: 244).

The present in "The Dead", its parameters and actants, plagued by numbness and the mist, seem to illustrate decomposition, decrepitude and deterioration, as if they were phantasmal signifiers and motifs. To be more precise, the spatial setting is formed by four sites projecting haunted images: a house, with its partygoers, in a fading out cadence, commemorating the memory of the dead; a hotel's room, as a non place or purgatory where the uncanny Michael Furey manifests by drawing energy from the perishing couple; Dublin, an effaced city in perpetual darkness, and Ireland, a territory under the endemic plague of snow. (3) Its imagery and atmosphere emphasize a sense of vagueness and extinct life which, according to Roos (2002), might be derived from nineteenth-century author Bret Harte's opening to his three-volume novel Gabriel Conroy (also the name of the protagonist in "The Dead", which evinces the connection). …

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