Joyce's Reading Bodies and the Kinesthetics of the Modernist Novel

By Preston, Carrie J. | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Joyce's Reading Bodies and the Kinesthetics of the Modernist Novel


Preston, Carrie J., Twentieth Century Literature


James Joyce famously described Ulysses as an "epic of the human body," and many of his early and influential readers have obligingly emphasized the significance of the organs associated with each episode in Joyce's schemas. (1) Initial reviewers less enchanted with Joyce's opinions also focused on bodies and somatic responses, describing the novel as "indecent," "vile," "scatological," and "an ordinary emetic" (Brooker 26-27). Fears of the text's effects on the bodies of readers contributed to bans on Joyce's works, for as Katherine Mullin points out, a "kinetic model of reading was assumed by most social purity campaigners. ... The theory that young people were drawn to mimic what they read found constant reiteration" (34-35). (2) In the US obscenity case against Ulysses publishers Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, both prosecution and defense suggested that a text produces corporeal effects. The defense attorney, John Quinn, gave as an exhibit the physical response of Assistant District Attorney Joseph Forrester to a reading of "Nausicaa"--"Just look at him, still gasping for breath at the conclusion of the denunciation, his face distorted with rage"--using somatic evidence to argue that far from filling Forrester with "lewd desires" or sending him "to the arms of a whore," Ulysses deterred such behavior (Brooker 20). Quinn lost the case, but US District Judge John Woolsey agreed with him when he overturned the ban in 1933, claiming "whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac" ("Court Lifts Ban"). Ulysses was published in the US because it was believed to produce the "right" sorts of effects on reading bodies.

The bodily experiences of these early readers, however humorous in retrospect, indicates a sensitivity to Joyce's new techniques in Ulysses. More recent critics, rejecting the censoring tendencies of both emetic and aphrodisiac models, may also overlook ways Joyce's text depicts moving bodies and encourages somatic responses from readers. Poststructural theories postulate the instability of text, author, and reader and thereby also discourage a generalized discussion of the effects of texts on reading bodies, which are difficult to substantiate and certainly not universal. Still, several textual strategies in Ulysses do engage the kinesthetic potential of language, to borrow a term common to three influential fields in the early twentieth century: physical culture, social purity, and psychological aesthetics. In physical culture, especially the new art of modern dance, kinesthesia was theorized as a modern modality of perception; influential dance theorist Rudolph Laban defined it as "the sense by which we perceive muscular effort, movement, and position in space" (111). (3) Social purity's model of kinetic reading and mimicry and its effectiveness in banning Joyce and sparking his parodic humor have been detailed by Katherine Mullin. Kinesthetic responses to art were also the focus of the contemporaneous field of psychological aesthetics, an overlooked but significant aspect of modernist aesthetic theory. Studies in psychological aesthetics suggested that a kinesthetic sense enabled perception of the traces of bodies, both the artist's and subject's, in various art forms: the record of the brush stroke on the canvas, the impression of the sculptor's hands on clay, or the way a still figure in painting, photography, or sculpture seems captured in motion. Applied to literature by Vernon Lee (1856-1935), psychological aesthetics examined the impact of language on reading bodies and constitutes part of the prehistory of reader-response criticism. Kinesthetic readings attend to how a text encodes the gestures and motions of characters, the bodies that produce words, and the movements required by speech.

The aesthetic questions pondered by both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Ulysses echo contemporaneous debates in psychological aesthetics concerning the body's role in perceiving art. …

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