Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

The Joyce of Impossibilities

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

The Joyce of Impossibilities

Article excerpt

impassible abjects (FW, 340.5)

The following sketch tries to outline a dilemma we have with Joyce's works, perhaps without always being aware of it. It focuses on our interactions with Joyce and how essentially necessary and at the same time impossible they are. As always, this holds true of every writer, but much more poignantly in Joyce who incites so much enthralling endeavour and ultimately frustrates it. Some of those futile and all too obvious endeavours will be listed below. To put it all more positively, they testify to the indomitable vitality of Joyce's works in progress.

I begin with the truism that final, clinching assertions are always risky, but even more so in Joyce. Apart from biographical facts, assuming there are such, it appears next to impossible to make a valid, unqualified, abstract statement with "Joyce" as its subject that would be both true and meaningful. Sentences of the sort that "Joyce arrived in Trieste in October 1904 and afterwards taught English at various schools" are probably correct, but to claim that on 16 June 1904 Joyce and Nora first went out together, which has the same appearance, is already more doubtful and conjectural (and scantily documented). But try to verify or falsify assertions like:

Joyce ... tries to find a way to represent something ideal, permanent, and absolute in writing. ... both Joyce and Freud unceremoniously reject the notion of autonomous subjectivity, ... both Joyce and Freud indicate a mental "liberation" that their works properly should provide their readers ... Ulysses insists that we imaginatively move as fully as possible into those historical myths.

It is not that such statements lack validity. In fact, we hardly can avoid them ("Joyce is a humorous writer, a realist, a political writer, a non-political writer, a leg-puller," etc.). It is the air of exclusiveness that puts them out of court. If they were rephrased in a form like: "In my thesis I emphasize the following significant (maybe predominant, or pivotal, or underestimated) aspect ...," then they would make a good deal more sense. The same may be true of critical summaries or axiomatic nutshells: "Joyce's Leopold Bloom is looking for a reunion with his past and the son he has lost." As long as we take them with their implied grain of salt they are harmless, but some indeed strive to achieve quintessential truths.

The first thing we read in Richard Ellmann' s preface to the Gabler Ulysses of 1986 is a flat "Joyce's theme in Ulysses was simple." I always feared that a student would challenge me to explain what that simple theme was. I am equally puzzled by "The sacred is at the heart of Joyce's writing experience,"4 something I never experienced and which, therefore, if it is that central a notion, would disqualify me as a reader.

Paradoxically, the opposite of any valid statement is often just as true. Joyce may be the most Irish of all writers, but he is also the least Irish and can be appreciated with almost no knowledge of Ireland.

"the rarefied air of the academy" (U, 9.107)

As we all know, Joyce is a godsend for the academy, the source for countless books, essays, dissertations, not to mention conferences and promotions. Academics tend to assume they are in intellectual possession of Joyce. To his glory, though he keeps professors busy for those proverbial centuries yet to come, at the same time he remains out of academic domestication and does not fit into any curriculum. Paradoxically, Joyce cannot be bypassed within the area of English Literature, nor adequately be accommodated within it.

In practice it is even hard to allow enough time for his works. Even the luxury of one whole academic unit, say one generous full semester, will not suffice to absorb Ulysses, but it is done in much less (which often on top of it includes history, biography, religion, classics, psychology, popular culture, etc, plus the theory en vogue). And of course all contextual frames (Irish literature, the epic, commodity, colonialism, psychoanalysis) are selffulfilling: we will find what we are expected to find. …

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