Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Leopold Blooms Dark Riddle: Joyce, Levinas, and the Storytelling Self

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Leopold Blooms Dark Riddle: Joyce, Levinas, and the Storytelling Self

Article excerpt

Given the overarching verbal complexity of James Joyce's Ulysses, it is not surprising that many contemporary critics invoke Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of heteroglossia to untie its knotted linguistic surfaces. Both John Paul Riquelme (2006) and R. B. Kershner (1989), for instance, unravel the limitations of reading Leopold Bloom as an autonomous, idiosyncratic hero by drawing upon Bakhtin's critique of selfhood and the limits of "the monologic utterance of the individual" (Bakhtin 1981,271). Challenging the time-honored premise of the Cartesian unitary subject, they claim Joyce renders Bloom's complicated inner life as an amalgam of cultural and ideological discourses, rather than a consistent singular voice. (1) Other critics, equally indebted to Bakhtin, further discern that Joyce's linguistic manipulations not only deconstruct illusions of a unitary subject; they also scrutinize language's complicity in the torturous events of the twentieth century. In their analyses, critics Vincent Cheng (2000), Enda Duffy (1994), and Patrick McGee (1988) point out that Joyce's treatment of history affirms alternatives to the master narratives that legitimate the authority of the church and state. These critics characterize Joyce's narrative fragmentation as his scrutiny of the monologic discourses that have sustained illegitimate power, claiming that Ulysses's verbal knots ultimately reveal Joyce's understanding of history's entwinement in language systems. Much like Riquelme and Kershner, they argue that Joyce rehearses insights about multivocality, dialogism, and ideology well in advance of Bakhtin's theoretical conceptualizations. (2)

But because Joyce's hero is also emphatically an average belly-scratching man, we should remember that his story is simultaneously--and quite commonly--one of heartache and the struggle to overcome it. Even as Joyce engages multiple discourses and casts conventional notions of Bloom's character into the realm of the antique, he draws us into Bloom's inner life by tracing his persistent search for some semblance of coherence in his tale. And as these narrative tugs toward disunity and wholeness compete throughout the novel, Joyce animates Bloom's ongoing attempts to survive the text's verbal tensions. It is crucial, therefore, not to allow the astute insights we gain through Bakhtinian analysis to delimit the endpoint in exploring Joyce's narrative technique. It is as important to see what is abbreviated therein as it is to applaud its postmodern implications. For stressing Bloom's unremitting desire for a unifying narrative illuminates the adroit tenderness through which Joyce renders the novel's basic plot: throughout the day Bloom longs to return not only to his wife, Molly, but also to recollect himself as the man she loves. Emphasizing this longing calls our attention to how--even as Ulysses radicalizes conceptions of the self and deconstructs linguistic structures of the past--Joyce nonetheless offers a tempering, even tenderhearted, look at what ought to abide. (3)

This central narrative tension raises a larger question: Why does Joyce present his hero as a man whose character both resists and longs for a discursive hegemony? It Bloom is at once a creature of multiple linguistic contingencies and a lone storyteller occupied in trying to compose a narrative to hold together the raveled edges of his day then considering the two competing narrative tugs together suggests that his inner life exceeds either discursive rendering. Karen Lawrence suggests that this excess reveals Joyce's strategy for demonstrating how Bloom's "domestic situation merges with the narrative focus" (1980, 561), reflecting his psychological ordeal. But where for her the text's systematic twisting and wrong turning enacts Bloom's psychological defenses, I would add that just as Joyce represents Bloom's recursive repression, he also elicits our understanding of the profound depths of his loneliness. Sustaining a focus on Bloom's unrelenting need to compile a satisfactory account of his life, Joyce makes compassion for his struggle to find a discursive path toward a happy ending our suture to his everyday need to be loved. …

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