Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Introduction

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Introduction

Article excerpt

Punctuation has its discontents: we call such people writers. The sometimes wild variations in ways that literary authors deploy commas, colons, and question marks may very well suggest a common resistance to the standardization of methods that punctuation is supposed to represent. Writing to his publisher, who had dared to adjust the sometimes eccentric punctuation of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson affirmed: "I must suppose my system of punctuation to be very bad; but it is mine; and it shall be adhered to with punctual exactness".1 Stevenson's possessive sense of his own manner of punctuation resonates with that of many other authors. One could easily suppose this statement to have been drawn from a letter by James Joyce to any of his publishers (Joyce, perhaps with some uncertain measure of irony, refers to Stevenson as his "stylemaster" in a 1927 letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver ( LI 255)), but one could also imagine this statement to typify any writer so confident of his or her idiosyncrasies or deviations from some formal norm as to identify him- or herself with them. Stevenson - the distinct style, the author as his readers recognize him - is his punctuation. There is a good reason why even those who have not read Ulysses know something about the last chapter not having any commas or periods. This is their conception of "Joyce": the name bespeaks an extraordinary style directly defined by his punctuation. And who can call this perception altogether inaccurate?

Modernism's expanding awareness of the materiality of artistic and literary production, which freed writers to envision the "destruction of syntax" and "words in freedom" (in Marinetti's formulation),2 effectively demanded careful inspection and sometimes refutations of the history, institutions, and standards of writing. Sprawling, unmetrical poems ignored margins, deployed non-typographical marks, let the letters dance with ampersands across the page. Pointedly un-genteel manifestoes thundered in the prose and fonts of newspaper headlines. Novels in warped grammar refused consistency in typeface and puzzled readers with ambiguities as to what was dialogue and what was not. While Joyce must not be denied his particular peculiarities in such experiments, the historical context that he shares is important. Modernism's rebellion against the niceties of aesthetic and social conventions and its attraction - even obsession - with the unsaid and unsayable meant that punctuation, like the constrictive grammar previously decried by Blake and Nietzsche, would no longer enslave expression, and would itself be liberated. Joyce's own punctuation foibles, though distinctive, may be seen as part of a larger modernist campaign to challenge authority and enforced conformity by widening the range of references and allusions while simultaneously problematizing mechanisms of attribution and citation, punctuation among them. 3

In the fourth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen wonders about what it is in language that so attracts him:

Words. Was it their colours? . . . No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose? (P 140)

These are good questions to put to Joyce himself. In addition to calling to mind Joyce's tendency to draw upon and parody the works of Walter Pater,4 the word "periodic" and the earlier insistence on "the period itself" should give us pause: the suggestion that the writer known for reveling in the combinations of polylinguistic vocabularies might take greater pleasure in the study of "periodic prose" flies against many admiring commonplaces. …

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