Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Joyce's Erroneous Cosmos

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Joyce's Erroneous Cosmos

Article excerpt

Portals of Stimulation

Things have a way of going wrong in this world and, true to life, in the fictional one that Joyce depicts with unrelenting realism. Humans are bound to make mistakes and to be mistaken. Joyce shows it more drastically than other writers, and as always in escalating provection which leads up (up?) to Finnegans Wake where, literally, nothing is right any more.

To be human is to err. That errors (Stephen Dedalus limits them to those of a genius) are portals of discovery has been recycled so often that the platitude has acquired the status of an insight while popular wisdom has claimed all along that we learn, or could learn, from our mistakes - especially from them.

Joyce may well imply - but never state since to make dogmatic claims would already falsify them - that mistakes are the norm, not rare exceptions. Truths at best are approximated; facts are hard to get at. That something "is a fact" in Joyce's fictions generally has a spurious ring. An assertion that "all agreed that that was a fact" (U 16.994) sounds inevitably comic regardless of what the reference is. In point of fact, statistical fact, the untrustworthy "Eumaeus" episode contains the highest occurrence of the term within Ulysses: "fact(s)" occurs 34 times in that episode, out of a total of 66. It may or may not be significant that Molly Bloom uses the word only once in her silent monologue: "he cant say I pretend things can he Im too honest as a matter of fact" (U 18.1019). That Molly Bloom (or anyone else for that matter) is too honest is hardly a demonstrable fact, and perhaps Joyce reminds us that a fact is originally something made ("factum").

So far, so commonplace. Errors in Joyce have been extensively studied. The following observations merely present such instances as have not attracted the same limelight as some salient others. No taxonomy is attempted. In a wide sweep, everything that goes mis- is included, from misconception to articulation to sin and crime. If things did not go wrong, according to whichever rule, decree or standard - as they did go wrong in the Garden of Eden, among the Olympic gods, in history and in human lives - there would hardly be any plots worth telling, and fairly little day-to-day news.

Errors are unsettling, irritating and therefore dynamic. A point reiterated here is that falls and disasters and mundane fumbles can release energies. They motivate repair efforts. Adam's fortunate fault resounds through Finne gans Wake, and always in deviations of the original wording of St. Augustine's "(9 felix culpa." It so happens that the first word in the Wake, "riverrun," contains the possibly coincidental and possibly meaningful syllable "err." To include error in an initial run would certainly fit. My overall theme is the twisted appropriateness of errors and their potential implications.

Rheumatic Words

Dubliners consists of a series of stories that, true to life, more often end in failure than success. Joyce's own tag, "paralysis" (Letters I 55) is a fitting and at the same time wholly inadequate label. The stories seem to hinge around disappointment and goals which are not reached. Plans do not come off; efforts are aborted.

Yet not always. In "A Boarding House," Mrs Mooney, a determined woman, gets her way and by astute strategy manages to marry her daughter off. According to her lights she does everything right. But the story is not just boy meets girl with a happy outcome. Mr Doran' s view is diametrically opposite; he feels trapped, as he has made consequential mistakes and committed sins (whose exact nature is clear to many critics, but not to all), and he has to make reparation (errors call for reparation). In Ulysses, years later, we find him drunk already at five o'clock in the afternoon, not as a single instance, since he is known to be "on one of his periodical bends" (t/5.107).1 He is unable to remember the name of his dead acquaintance Patrick Dignam, whom he calls "Willy" (U 12. …

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