Something out of the Common Groove: Joyce and Originality

By McCARTHY, Patrick A. | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Something out of the Common Groove: Joyce and Originality


McCARTHY, Patrick A., Philological Quarterly


... being tantamount to inferring from the nonpresence of inverted commas (sometimes called quotation marks) on any page that its author was always constitutionally incapable of misappropriating the spoken words of others.

Finnegans Wake

If I said that in discussing modern literature we seldom speak of originality except to remark on its absence, would that be an original statement? My rhetorical question has at least two answers, yes and no. Yes: the observation, at least this particular formulation of it, is to my knowledge original since I do not recall having seen this statement before. Or no: it is not original, since it merely revises the opening of T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence."(1) Yet both answers, yes and no, may be doubted and qualified. For example, since I am consciously inverting Eliot's categories, perhaps this is an original parody or adaptation of his line, one that works because the critical climate has changed so much since Eliot's time that 'we hardly believe in what he called "individual talent," although we would be loath to call what we do believe in "tradition" -- maybe "cultural discourse" would be closer to the mark in this post-Foucault age. On the other hand, my confidence in the originality of my adaptation is far from absolute: perhaps I came up with this observation because I heard or read much the same thing elsewhere, and the idea--or even the exact words--lay buried in my memory.(2)

Questions of originality are always tricky; today they are also unfashionable. Critical schools that emphasize the text and refine the author out of existence are not much interested in originality, nor are those that focus on political and cultural issues. Biographical and psychoanalytic criticism redirect attention back to the author and so, in their own way, do the various schools of textual and genetic criticism, but the academy--the American academy, at least--tends to neglect questions of originality, a concept associated with romantic bourgeois individualism. Once again, Eliot states the converse by referring to "our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else."(3) Today, looking at ways in which a writer least resembles other writers would likely be regarded as an example of retrograde thought, especially if this procedure made it difficult to fit the author into the confines of a theory.(4)

By originality, I mean something more than simple innovation, although that is inevitably part of it. I mean also a striking and permanent distinctiveness or strangeness in a literary work, so that it meets Ezra Pound's definition of literature as "news that STAYS news."(5) An original writer, we might provisionally say, is one who significantly and permanently changes the way we think about writing. Nonetheless, questions of originality are inseparable from issues of influence, indebtedness, filiation, intertextuality, even plagiarism. In this paper, I will examine Joyce's treatment of originality in his major works, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. I will also argue that Joyce is "original" in the sense in which I have used the term, which is basically the meaning that Harold Bloom gives it when he calls Shakespeare "the most original writer we will ever know."(6)

Joyce had a justifiably high opinion of his talent and achievement as a writer, but he recognized that his importance lay primarily in his use of his materials rather than in their originality. Richard Ellmann notes that his brother Stanislaus was only "the first of a series of people on whom [Joyce] leaned for ideas," and that Joyce once said to Frank Budgen, "Have you ever noticed, when you get an idea, how much I can make of it?"(7) This is the author who told George Antheil that he was "quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man," who said that in Ulysses he was creating a modern version of an old story, and who wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, just after publication of a new book by Dora Marsden, "I am looking forward to thieveries on an unheard of scale as soon as I can find an accomplice as rascally minded as myself to read it to me"(8) (Letters 297, 146-47, 277). …

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