"Thinking Strictly Prohibited": Music, Language, and Thought in "Sirens"
Allen, Stuart, Twentieth Century Literature
Taking their cue from the novelist's comments to Frank Budgen that he composed "Sirens" using "the technical resources of music" (Ellmann 459), many theorist-critics have written about "musicality" in Joyce. These writers locate in "musical" feeling and sensuality a resistance to the incursions of a rationality they identify as, among other things, aggressive and abstract to the point of being barren. Viewing thought as the enemy, they seek to purge this oppressive spirit with the supposedly nonrational "musical" matter they would thereby free. As a consequence, discussions initially concerned with something like Joyce's prosody quickly tend to focus on political and philosophical questions, particularly those associated with desire. (1) The deadly prose of the mind, the argument goes, is countered by the poetic or "musical" body.
In what follows, I consider the idea of musical language in the "Sirens" episode of Ulysses, not in order to cloak a tangential discussion of the body, the porous self, or textual subversion, but to think through the significance of the resemblance between music and language and to identify why critics have found it almost impossible keep this topic in view. (2) It is my contention that rather than rout critical intelligence, musicality in Ulysses allows readers to experience one of music's most striking effects--distraction. With the help of Theodor Adorno's aesthetics, particularly "Music and Language: A Fragment," I address the question of the standoff between art (defined as seduction, destruction, and falsehood) and reason (constructed as disinterestedness, preservation, and truth). I argue that musical mimesis does not just undermine thinking but is a kind of thinking itself. In this way I hope to restore to "Sirens" a cognitive content overlooked by much of the Joyce criticism that takes sensuality to be the adversary of a reason it consistently posits as wicked. I propose that the very separation of art (mimesis/sensuality) and philosophy (cognition/identification) produces the undesirable--that is, crude, distorting, and damaging--aspects of reason that poststructuralist and historicist critics contest. (3) However, it is not my goal to diminish the importance of the mimetic element in art. Neither subsuming art beneath (Adorno's) philosophy nor dismissing it as mere decoration, I consider the political implications of Joyce's mediation of the rational through the sensual, the sensual through the rational.
Derek Attridge takes Joyce's experiments with syntax in "Sirens" as music making in a literal sense. But emptying the idea of musicality into the post-Saussurean model of language to which he is committed, Attridge soon gets distracted from the question of music that motivates his discussion. He argues that by reviving the dormant prosody of prose, fearless of both unintelligibility and a short-circuiting of information transfer, Joyce "liberates the body from a dictatorial and englobing will, and allows its organs their own energies and proclivities" (61). The study of musicality falls by the wayside as classical poststructuralist concerns such as a thematics of the breached subject take center stage.
Attridge's observations about language and the rampant autonomy of fetishised body parts in "Sirens" are extremely provocative, and represent a major contribution to the literature on Ulysses. Nevertheless, his analysis of the body soon also forgets its linguistic ground (a ground that he reminds us is long forgetful of its musical impulse) and develops into a sketch of a progressive politics driven by liberated sexuality. The release of the body from the tyranny of the mind, Attridge claims, unleashes sexuality against repressive morality.
Its utopian politics are not the only problem with this approach. When Attridge actually describes sexuality, he reveals a major weakness with the Anglo-American reception of French theory, or perhaps with the theory itself: "sexuality thrives on the separation of the body into separate parts, while a sexually repressive morality insists on the wholeness and singleness of body and mind (or soul)" (62). …