restricted access Joyce, Bakhtin, and the Literary Tradition: Toward a Comparative Cultural Poetics (review)
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Reviewed by
M. Keith Booker. Joyce, Bakhtin, and the Literary Tradition: Toward a Comparative Cultural Poetics. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995. 273 pp.

In his latest book, M. Keith Booker uses Bakhtinian lenses to examine Joyce’s intertextual relations with six canonical authors—Homer, Rabelais, Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky—and thereby to forge an innovative “comparative poetics.” But, in fact, Booker seems less interested in intertextuality than in analyzing Joyce’s attitude toward authority.

For example, in the Homer chapter, Booker contrasts T. S. Eliot’s and Joyce’s use of myth to suggest that Joyce resembles Bakhtin and Bakunin in opposing both literary and institutional authorities, especially Christ and Catholicism. Booker extends this argument in the Rabelais chapter through an analysis of what he calls “inverse transgression”: Joyce’s tendency to associate transgressive sexual and social behaviors not with liberation (as do such thinkers as Bataille) but with the authorities who regulate and devour their subjects. Although this chapter is ingenious, it also epitomizes some of the study’s flaws: diffuse and sometimes shallow argumentation (as when he sweepingly conflates [End Page 515] different types of transgression), and cursory treatments of important figures like Bataille.

To compare Joyce and Dante, Booker introduces another useful term, “sliding signification,” which refers to the way that both authors’ language creates multiple simultaneous meanings. Booker makes excellent use of Bakhtin’s distinction between First Line and Second Line novels to support his conclusion that Joyce differs from Dante in neither flying from historicity nor submitting his polyvalences to the control of a monological Authority. But Booker understates the degree to which Joyce continues to identify himself as the God of his texts, and overstates the degree to which “sliding signification” is peculiar to these authors. Don’t any number of poets and novelists use language in similar ways?

As in his discussions of Homer and Dante, Booker’s analysis of Joyce’s Shakespeare plows well-tilled ground; yet he unearths some nourishing tidbits, as for example in his enlightening treatment of “The Dead” and Twelfth Night. More broadly, Booker challenges the conventional image of Elizabethan England as stable and unified and convincingly argues that for Joyce, Shakespeare represents an English literary and political authority that the Irish author consistently contests.

In juxtaposing Joyce and Goethe, Booker proposes to demonstrate how Joyce revised the Bildungsroman tradition. But despite occasional flashes of insight regarding Stephen Dedalus’s dialogically developing selfhood, this chapter seems superficial. If terms such as “inverse transgression” offer handy formulas to address Joyce’s peculiar language, this chapter’s coinage, “unfinalizability,” does not seem destined to be heard falling from the tongues of future critics. In contrast, Booker’s strongest chapter grows out of the least promising pairing—Joyce and Dostoevsky—about whom Booker mounts a powerful, persuasive argument. Adapting Bakhtin’s vision of the Dostoevskian “dialogical self,” Booker convincingly shows how both authors’ characters are so constituted by prior discourses that they are identifiable less by interior monologue than through internalized social and historical dialogues. Booker’s comparison of Stephen Dedalus and the Underground Man is particularly enlightening.

His conclusion, however, in which he challenges the conventional description of modernism as elitist, ahistorical and antipolitical, is troubling. First, I doubt that “many critics” really continue to view Joyce [End Page 516] this way: virtually all of those he cites derive from the ‘70s or early ‘80s, and a quick perusal of recent Joyce criticism suggests that Booker is beating a dead horse. More generally, he states that literary historical terms such as “modernism” or “postmodernism” are more a product of how texts are read than of texts themselves. Thus he concludes that it is “simply not possible to separate the characteristics of a work from the characteristics of the method of interpretation.” Yet on the same page he asserts that Joyce’s works have been “ill-served” by his classification as a high modernist. If we cannot separate the work from readings of it, how do we know whether a work has been “ill-served” or not? It doesn’t help to say that some methods yield “richer” results than others; we have merely pushed the...