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Reviewed by:
  • Joyce, Decadence, and Emancipation
  • Susan Shaw Sailer
Vivian Heller. Joyce, Decadence, and Emancipation. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. 191 pp.

Vivian Heller undertook the study that became this text having become intrigued with the question raised by Adorno, Benjamin, Lukács, and Brecht in the 1930s: is modernism a symptom of decadence or a sign of emancipation? Joyce’s fiction, for which Heller finds the terms of decadence and emancipation “central,” provides a rich area for such exploration. Given the terms’ complex history and burdensome politics, “decadence” and “emancipation” should have been defined. That they were not is a problem. It does not, however, obviate [End Page 510] the merits of Heller’s accomplishment. Joyce, Decadence, and Emancipation brings new insights to readers of Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, insights about each of the three Joyce fictions as well as the relationships among the three.

The relationship between decadence and emancipation in Joyce’s fiction Heller finds to be one of symbiosis and “dialectical intimacy.” This provocative formulation deserves development, but the writer explores neither the dialectics of decadence and emancipation nor their intimacy. What she does is trace differences in how Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses dramatize decadence and emancipation. To highlight how each of these works constellates the two terms, Heller focuses on how Joyce uses narrative epiphanies to register the differences.

She observes that the nature of epiphany changes from text to text. In Dubliners, they are “analytical; each one is a disclosure of bad faith or a demonstration of entrapment. The epiphanies of Portrait are relativistic; taken together, they cancel each other out, dissolving into musical changes that compose a destiny.” Those of Ulysses “mark points at which history is repeated with a difference. Like all Joycean epiphanies, they are narrative events, not communal ones; they change the position of the reader, not the lives of the characters.”

Heller views paralysis as Joyce’s trope for decadence. In Dubliners, paralysis confirms the failure of social and spiritual regeneration; emancipation is not dramatized as possible. Portrait dramatizes the development of artistic subjectivity as a potential emancipation from decadence, or paralysis, but shows Stephen trapped within his self-consciousness, not yet able to distance himself from his own perceptions, unable to place them relative to those of others, which would allow him to use these perceptions for artistic creation. In Ulysses, the explosion of narrative styles “presupposes the fact of literary decadence; the experiment of Ulysses depends on the exhaustion of nineteenth-century narrative norms.” Hence, “[b]y capitalizing on literary decadence, Joyce reinvents the possibility of artistic emancipation.” Allowing the narrative style of one chapter to cancel out another, Joyce “lays bare the endless process of creation and destruction that produces a living work of art.”

But Joyce did not use the word “epiphany” in relation to Dubliners or Ulysses. Its use in Portrait, indeed, is tied to the process of Stephen’s consciousness, which the narration demonstrates is gifted [End Page 511] for intellectual purposes but not yet prepared for creative work or generous living. Heller recalls the definition Stephen offers for epiphany in Stephen Hero and Portrait as “the intellectual penetration of a sensuous object,” whereas epiphany in Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses is “a more thoroughly mediated event, consisting of the intellectual penetration of a body of experience formed in narration.” In any case, the experience of epiphany, for Heller, would seem to be an intellectual experience. But Stephen in both Portrait and Stephen Hero seeks an almost sexual release from the experience of epiphany as well as a far more complex experience than intellectual apprehension—rather, a dynamic interplay among intellect, spirit, and sensation that transforms one’s understanding.

That Joyce himself did not extend the word “epiphany” to works other than Stephen Hero and Portrait makes me wish that Heller had acknowledged and defended her extension of the term. When in a note at the end of the Introduction, Heller writes that “In Finnegans Wake, epiphany occurs everywhere and nowhere; a massive condensation of meaning is found in virtually every paragraph, every sentence, and every phrase of Joyce’s ‘night book’ . . .,” I am uncomfortable...

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