Fritz Senn opens his most recent collection of essays, Inductive Scrutinies. Focus on Joyce, with a passage from a 1988 letter to the James Joyce Broadsheet in which he worries about the proliferation of “Theory” in Joyce studies and its ability to distract from—or even worse, muddy— [End Page 873] the already notoriously difficult texts of James Joyce. Senn pleads for specificity over abstraction, for clarity over obfuscation; he asks for textual application of the theoretical apparatus: “When something is applied to a bit of text then I can agree or disagree,” he writes. Considered together, these five books revive the embers of the text-context debate that still smolders within the critical community. Senn’s point is well-taken, and I share his (evidently continuing) concern with the predilection of theory to overshadow or even to replace a close textual reading. Happily, however, the writers reviewed here employ contextual theory to illuminate rather than to eclipse the Joycean texts they explicate, and they generally provide a bounty of close readings to buttress their carefully constructed theoretical frameworks.
The task of Vincent J. Cheng, Emer Nolan, Thomas C. Hofheinz, and Mark Osteen is to continue the ongoing re-contextualization of Joyce’s work: Cheng and Nolan seek to re-politicize Joyce’s fiction by engaging its colonial contexts, while Hofheinz and Osteen work to re-historicize Joyce’s novels, Hofheinz by unearthing the “plurability” of histories posited by Finnegans Wake, and Osteen (though he is engaged in other processes as well) by reestablishing the specific economic situation of 1904 Dublin, presented in Ulysses. The prefix “re-” signifies an assumption important to all of these arguments, that such political and historical contexts are not mere scholarly inventions, inscriptions of late-twentieth-century sensibilities upon a Joycean tabula rasa. Rather, these issues were in fact explored by Joyce himself in his Critical Writings and are indeed woven throughout the fabric of his fiction, though they have been, until recently, infrequently pursued by his critics. What these four books make abundantly clear is that considering Joyce within his political/historical milieu adds an important and richly rewarding dimension to his works. What Senn prompts us to recollect is Joyce’s lifelong fascination with words themselves, as well as the ever-elusive ways in which they—and we—construct meaning.
Of central importance to both Cheng and Nolan is peeling back the “apolitical” label that seems to have stuck tenaciously to Joyce’s fiction. Joyce has been marked as an “apolitical” writer for several reasons, not least among them is the apparent dissonance of the 1907 Triestine lectures, collected in The Critical Writings. In one much-cited passage, for instance, Joyce blames the British as well as the Irish for Ireland’s economic and political oppression, but while such conflict may [End Page 874] perhaps render him “ambivalent,” it by no means renders him “apolitical.” Similarly, Cheng and Nolan contend that Joyce’s canonical position as an icon of high modernism has also contributed to his political emasculation. Both critics profess a desire to rescue Joyce from the sanitizing impulses of Modern aestheticism, and note the irony which resonates in the appropriation of this dispossessed Irishman by a British Modernist tradition.
Cheng and Nolan make valuable contributions to the discussion of Joyce’s colonial context, approaching it from distinctly different vantage points: Cheng surveys the Joycean canon through the lens of subaltern theory and focuses his discussion on the ways in which Joyce represents and critiques the construction of racial, cultural, and national identities. Nolan, on the other hand, reads Joyce through the prism of what she believes to be...