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James Joyce: A Portrait of the Critics

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
The Book as World: James Joyce s Ulysses. By Marilyn French. Harvard. $12.50.
Epic Geography: James Joyce’s Ulysses. By Michael Seidel. Princeton. $14.50.
James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist. By Stan Gebler Davies. Stein and Day. $10.00.

JAMES Joyce once predicted that his writing would “keep the professors busy for centuries.” The recent proliferation of Joyce scholarship would seem to confirm the author’s prophecy. More than 50 years after the publication of Ulysses, we are still “learning to be Joyce’s contemporaries” through an ongoing process of critical elucidation.

Marilyn French’s study, The Book as World, uses structural analysis and reader response theory to investigate the point of view in Ulysses. Professor French assumes that the meaning of Joyce’s novel adheres to the formal elements of its structure—to style, tone, and technique; and that beyond or behind the textual surface lies an authorial presence, ever elusive in its manipulation of narrative masks.

According to French, the reader of Joyce’s epic is himself Ulysses, the novel his journey of exploration. The narrative pattern of the book “consists of a series of concentric circles in an uneven cone shape.” Ulysses begins on the rock of Ithaca and expands to embrace the city, the world, and the universe. Each episode “moves the characters outward in space to a new place in Dublin, while the narrational comment moves the reader outward in space to a new distance from the action and simultaneously probes some area of consciousness.” In the final episode, a coda returns us to nature and to the earth in the person of Molly Bloom, Joyce’s Gea-Tellus.

Marilyn French describes Ulysses as a “relativistic novel.” The first six episodes of Joyce’s work are written in the “initial style” of interior monologue; they give us the illusion of a perspective contiguous with that of Stephen and of Bloom. By the time Joyce introduces the experimental games of “Aeolus,” we have already cast our sympathies with the “all too human” protagonists of the novel. As the author effaces himself, a dio bòia intrudes in the form of a mocking narrator, deflating the disorder and chaos of private emotion. The narrative voice becomes progressively distant until the reader is forced to choose between frail sentiment and the rational framework of scientific objectivity. In a world which offers few consolations and fewer certitudes, the individual must define his own value system. Joyce’s radical style exposes the void confronting mankind; it challenges the reader to “fill in the gaps” eradicated by cosmic indifference.

In the framework of structural analysis, Marilyn French provides a close and meticulous description of narrative development in Ulysses. Enlightened by philosophical insight and by ethical concerns, she relates the novel to the moral dilemmas that continue to plague contemporary society. She returns Ulysses to the sphere of human action, where it was originally conceived, and which modern critics all too frequently ignore.

If The Book as World examines the tension between cosmic space and human sentiment, Michael Seidel’s Epic Geography investigates the more palpable spaces of physical reality. Professor Seidel attempts “to recover an epic pattern in an encyclopedic, comic narrative” and to show how “the spaces of the Odyssey are literally superimposed upon the territory Joyce maps in Ulysses.” The author bases much of his study on Joyce’s interest in Victor Berard’s Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssee. He contends that the use of Homeric correspondences in Ulysses was not limited to figurative analogy—that the Odyssey, filtered through Berard’s imagination, provided Joyce with a literal and geographical schema for epic navigation. Just as Berard tried to locate in Mediterranean realms the actual topoi of Homer’s epic, Joyce assiduously reproduced many of Berard’s localities on a mock-epic map of Dublin. Convinced of the Semitic origins of Homer’s narrative, Joyce translated the periploi of Odysseus to the wanderings of an Oriental Jew in Dublin. He extended Berard’s “Egyptian-Semitic-Greek grid” westward to Hibernian shores.

In Epic Geography, Michael Seidel uncovers a plethora of classical, philosophical, and literary sources that influenced the structure of Ulysses, From Vico’s Scienza Nuova, Joyce apparently adapted the principles of corporeal geography: he made Ulysses an epic of the human body, with Molly Bloom as its gynomorphic center. Giordano Bruno provided the “hermetic conceit of micro- and macrocosmic worlds.” And Samuel Butler, in The Authoress of the Odyssey, attributed the Homeric world, micro- and macrocosm, to the romantic fantasies of a young Sicilian woman much like Gerty MacDowell, Montesquieu offered a “climatic” theory of personality and national character that could affirm the warm-blooded nature of both Leopold and Molly Bloom, And Daniel Defoe created an English Ulysses in the figure of Robinson Crusoe, a natural precursor to Joyce’s Irish hero.

Seidel’s Epic Geography, illustrated in detail by maps of Homeric and Joycean periploi, adds a new and intriguing dimension to our critical understanding of Ulysses. The author judiciously examines ancient myth and modern narrative, Homeric fable and 19th-century theory. Like an archeologist digging for ruins, he discovers layers of meaning that reflect the multi-dimensional, encyclopedic world of Ulysses. Occasionally, Seidel has a tendency to become Procrustean in his eagerness to delineate Homeric correspondences. But the fault is minor in the context of this fascinating intellectual exercise. Epic Geography provides a superb amalgamation of classical knowledge and Joycean speculation.

Stan G6bler Davies’s new biography, James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist, offers a popularized account of Joyce’s life. The author is evidently incensed by what he considers the academic tendency to canonize Joyce as a saint of modern literature. He warns in the preface that his book “is short on critical waffle” and is not to be recommended to “seekers after a Ph. D. in Eng. Lit.” Davies is anxious to convince us that James Joyce was merely a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Irishman. He apparently shares George Bernard Shaw’s opinion that Ulysses was written as a pornographic primer for Dublin men and boys.

Mr. Davies dwells with salacious fascination on all the most titillating details of remote biographical relevance. He conjectures about Joyce’s adolescent sexual interests, his visits to the Dublin red light district, his payments to prostitutes, his fears about (and possible contraction of) venereal disease, his elopement with and triumphant defloration of Nora Barnacle, his erotic interest in Amalia Popper, and his brief (and probably Platonic) involvement with Marthe Fleischmann. Davies comments on the private sexual practices of almost all of Joyce’s friends and associates. With much grumbling and some lascivious glee, he paraphrases erotically explicit passages from Joyce’s previously censored correspondence with Nora. This exercise seems particularly futile in view of Richard Ellmann’s recent publication of these same passages, intact and in context, in his new edition of Joyce’s Selected Letters.

Davies’s biography adds a few literary anecdotes to our stock of Joycean lore, and it reiterates the content of Frank Budgen’s memoir, My selves When Young. But for the most part, the author’s principal concern seems to be to “criticize the critic” and to indulge in an acerbic display of his own vitriolic humor. Davies directs the cold steel pen of his wit against academicians, publishers, and that formidable “phalanx of literary ladies” (all, he presumes, either sex-starved or Lesbian) who supported Joyce in the original publication of Ulysses. The entire biography unfolds like a long pub story, embellished with bawdy, salacious, and misogynist guffaws. The book reveals more about the teller than the tale—less about Joyce than about his self-appointed Irish biographer.


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