Ousted Possibilities: Critical Histories in James Joyce's Ulysses

By Castle, Gregory | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Ousted Possibilities: Critical Histories in James Joyce's Ulysses


Castle, Gregory, Twentieth Century Literature


In what follows I want to put forward the argument that Ulysses is preeminently a critique of historical conventions. All of Joyce's texts (the letters, the critical works, the fiction) consistently remind us that all conventions - be they historical, religious, aesthetic - are anathema to the artist. As early as 1905, in a letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce is able to state, "The struggle against conventions in which I am at present involved was not entered into by me so much as a protest against these conventions as with the intention of living in conformity with my moral nature" (Letters II 99). This statement is revealing principally because it suggests that Joyce is not interested in subverting or destroying conventions; rather, his interest - and it is evident in all of his later work - is in finding a way to articulate his own "moral nature." In the above quoted letter, Joyce is referring specifically to the kind of conventional reactions he might expect for his Dubliners stories. "To be judged properly," he writes, "I should not be judged by 12 burghers taken at haphazard, judging under the dictation of a hidebound bureaucrat ... but by some jury composed partly of those of my own class and of my own age presided over by a judge who had solemnly forsworn all English legal methods" (100).

This desire for justice is linked with a desire for freedom not merely from moral conventions but from the historical situation which obtains in Ireland - a situation characterized by extreme chauvinism, bourgeois mendacity, and imperialistic injustice. And rather than protest this situation, Joyce excuses himself from it: "For either Sinn Fein or Imperialism will conquer the present Ireland. If the Irish programme did not insist on the Irish language I suppose I would call myself a nationalist. As it is, I am content to recognise myself an exile: and, prophetically, a repudiated one" (187). Joyce's position vis-a-vis Ireland and the narratives of history imposed upon it by British masters is remarkably like that of Nietzsche's "virtuous man" who "swims against the tide of history, whether by combating its passions as the most immediate stupid fact of its existence or by dedicating itself to truthfulness as falsehood spins its glittering web around it" ("Uses" 106). In both cases we find not so much protest as the exertion of a moral nature, and in that exertion the opening up of new possibilities for the artistic expression of that nature.

In this essay I wish to make clear that Joyce's struggle against history (which is, more precisely, a struggle against the master narratives of history which determine social conventions of all kinds) is not a rejection of history per se but rather an agonistic relation with history whenever it functions as a monological, authoritarian legitimation of social power.(1) I will argue that Joyce's primary goal is to critique this mode of history by a number of narrative (even anti-narrative) strategies, all sharing one significant characteristic: a resistance (sometimes fierce, sometimes playful) against the tendency of historical points of view to converge and dissolve in the absolute logic of a master discourse.

In the past twenty years or so Joyce's texts have been analyzed largely in linguistic or stylistic terms. Most analyses of this sort imply that historical knowledge of an empirical world is impossible or at best incidental to the process of deriving textual meaning; history as a representation of experience dissolves in the infinite "semiosis," without boundary or telos, of a radically self-reflexive text. Colin MacCabe exemplifies this tendency when he writes, "Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are concerned not with representing experience through language but with experiencing language through a destruction of representation" (4). This interpretive strategy, ably handled by people like Marilyn French, John Paul Riquelme, Karen Lawrence, Patrick McGee, Michael Gillespie, Ramon Saldivar, and a host of others, presupposes that Ulysses can only be about itself, the writing of a story that is the story of a writing. …

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