- Did it Flow?:Bridging Aesthetics and History in Joyce’s Ulysses
The critical cliché of the autonomous aesthetic modernist object has long since been displaced by the historical examination of modernism as theory and practice. However, critics have too often seemed compelled to choose between the Scylla of cultural criticism and the Charybdis of aesthetic experience.1 In one, the work of art appears as a relic of privilege, wilfully detached from social history and significant only insofar as details of the world can be read through the work; in the other, the work of art is accountable only to itself and its own aesthetic tradition.2 Yet as Stephen Daedalus demonstrates of Shakespeare in Joyce's most ambitiously historical work, Ulysses, history is grist to the artist's mill; the work of art is both deeply implicated in the historic moment and asserts a critical difference from it.3 The nature of that difference has become a preoccupation for a more recent return to problems of aesthetics.4 How do we bridge the difference between the aesthetic and the historical, between the world of the novel and the world the novel claims to represent, without reducing the novel to a simple historical artefact or reifying it into a transcendentally aesthetic object? How do writers like Joyce mediate between word and world, both asserting autonomy and maintaining connection?5
A small moment in the "Ithaca" chapter of Ulysses dramatizes the encounter between the real world and the world of the novel, even as it challenges the rigidity of that distinction. Bloom turns on a tap to fill a teakettle. The narrator asks of the water, "Did it flow?," and instead of then simply presenting an answer to that question, traces the water back through the pipes all the way to its source.6 By doing so, Joyce rejects the imaginary spectacle [End Page 853] of water coming from the tap as a creation ex nihilo and the autonomy of the literary work, and insists on tracing the object back to its origins—an origin that, like a drop of water in the ocean, ultimately dissolves into itself and is untraceable. This essay will not attempt the Herculean task of charting all of the mentions of waste and water in Ulysses, a task akin to mucking out the Augean stables or draining the sea. Instead, I will examine evocations of water and waste in Ulysses—inflows and outflows—as a means of exploring the elusive interplay between world and word, between the historical pipes and privies of turn of the century Dublin and the imagined ones of Joyce's text. Water and waste are not simply tropes for aesthetic production in Joyce's work, although this is one of their functions. Treating water and waste solely as a reflexive metaphor detaches them from historic referent and source, and I argue that when Joyce contemplates both of these forms he is speculating on the relationship between aesthetics and history, between artistic and social production. Joyce limns the outlines of a world where something always comes from something else, a world that leads us back, like water through pipes, to an origin both beckoning and necessarily elusive.
Ulysses tends to reject the idea of an original product, or a product without history, and instead embeds both the subjects and objects of the world in the history of their origin, their making, and their repeated iterations.7 The sourcing of the water from the tap to the Roundwood reservoir is symptomatic of the historical insistence of the text. Water does not merely flow from a tap; it comes through pipes and tanks, a subterranean system of delivery that creates the illusion of water appearing from nothing. In general, Ulysses as text insists that nothing comes from nothing and emphasizes the materiality of the tactile, lived world. Despite the novel's numerous and heralded departures from realism, this emphasis on material, origin, and source constitutes a sophisticated variant on realist technique, one that not only insists that the novel's characters, like us, need to go to the bathroom and buy their breakfast, but also that we live in a world in...