Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

An Imperfect Wake

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

An Imperfect Wake

Article excerpt

What could be called wrong in Finne gans Wake where nothing might be right anyway? In order to approach this question I would like to propose a distinction between epistemological error and ontological error. Epistemological error is a condition of faulty knowledge (or mistakenly -applied knowledge) and ontological error is something different, very different. Such a distinction is not quite the same as the one Aristotle propounds in chapter 25 of The Poetics. Like a textual editor, he distinguishes between essential and accidental errors. An accidental error is simply a matter of factual inaccuracy, whereas an essential error is a flaw in the poet's faculty of representation; of course distinguishing between these two categories is itself not easy and thus itself prone to error.1 Aristotle allows for accidental error as long as it could be formalistically justified. However, he does admit that it is not always possible to distinguish between essential and accidental errors: "we must ascertain whether an error originates from an essential or accidental aspect of the art. For it is a less important matter if the artist does not know that a hind does not have horns than if he is unskilful in imitating one." In the scheme I am proposing, both the categories of error that Aristotle considers, essential and accidental, would be epistemological in that they are at least potentially prone to codification and judgement. Ontological error is something else entirely.

A conventional definition of epistemological error requires the normative; that is, some base and basic understanding of what is correct against which any deviation would be comfortably decamped in the demesne of error. In epistemological error, reference is deviated. Epistemological error assumes something could be right even if it winds up being wrong; epistemological error thus assumes that any error is, somehow, perfectible if only in potentia.

There are many examples of this kind of error in Ulysses, such as the whole voglio business, to take a simple example. Bloom misremembers Zerlina's line in such a way that indicates trepidation about Molly's impending infidelity. Now, to see this level one needs to know that the line is actually "vorrei e non vorrei," and then from against this backdrop of Mozart's, let's just say, "actual line" one could infer some possible resonances of Bloom's error, such as his acknowledgement of Molly's lust for Boy Ian in that she will sleep with him rather than merely would like to sleep with him.

This is, of course, a straightforward example, all the more so because Bloom remembers the correct line in "Hades" (U 6.238), only then to subsequently revert back to the incorrect formulation that betrays his paranoia. Since Bloom temporarily remembers the correct line and notes his error, we can be absolutely certain that this is not an error on Joyce's part. There are numerous other examples in Ulysses where it's not entirely easy to adjudicate where the error lies: whether it's deliberately deployed by Joyce for some cunning artistic purpose or whether it's a simple snafu.

To take a marginally more complex example, let us look at Bloom's chest. In "Ithaca" we are told that his chest measures 29 ½ inches after two months' exercise under Sandow' s regime, as opposed to a mere 28 inches before (U 17.1818). However, even this not insignificant gain fails to redress a fundamental problem with Bloom's anatomy as it is described in the text of Ulysses. Elsewhere in "Ithaca" we learn that Bloom stands at five foot nine (U 17.86-87) and weighs eleven stone and four pounds at his most recent measurement on May 12th, that year's Ascension Day (U 17.91-92). Robert Adams was the first to note that Bloom's measurements are incongruous and that his chest measurements are impossibly small for a man of his build.4 For a man of Bloom's height and weight, a chest measurement of 40-42 inches would be expected by most tailors.

Joyce had a specific reason to give Bloom his height and weight. …

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