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Britain, Ireland, And Continental Europe
Joseph Valente, ed. Quare Joyce. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998. xi + 297 pp.
It is hard to imagine a more vigorous, productive encounter between queer or sexuality studies and the work of a canonical author than the one found in this collection of thirteen essays. In covering the span of James Joyce's work from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake, the contributors evaluate homosexual or otherwise "queer" issues in his texts from several crucial historical contexts: they include Joyce's response to the legacy of Oscar Wilde and nineteenth-century Hellenism (considered by Garry Leonard, Margot Norris, Jean-Michel Rabaté, Joseph Valente); Joyce's intimate reliance on the lesbian urban culture formed by his publishing contacts such as Natalie Barney in Paris (Christy Burns, Colleen Lamos); twentieth-century medical and psychiatric theories of both deviant sexuality and disease (Tim Dean, Marian Eide); the relevance of contemporaneous attitudes about gender "inversion" and identity (Jennifer Levine, Vicki Mahaffey); and the connections between "perverse" sexuality and Ireland's problematic status as English colony (Gregory Castle, Robert Caserio). The aim, as Valente notes in his introduction, is to offer not just another "layer" of interpretive meaning to Joyce's oeuvre, but instead "a whole other creative and critical history for Joyce's writing."
In invoking the Irish word quare's equivocal semantic register--in its philological link to "square," while also meaning "odd" or "queer"-- [End Page 1031] the volume's title perfectly captures the double sense of Joyce noted by most of the contributors. While acknowledging that the bulk of Joyce's personal views on homosexuality followed the conventional terms of his time, they show that Joyce also produced texts profoundly inclined to unsettle the normative ideas about heterosexual and homosexual behavior. Whether it regards the pederast in "An Encounter," Stephen Dedalus's tenuous male bonding in Portrait of the Artist, or the anality associated with Shem and Shaun in Finnegans Wake, the contributors demonstrate how decidedly queer erotics play a key part in constituting Joyce's representation of psychology, society, and nation. Since, however, as Rabaté remarks, Joyce's ambivalent relation to homoeroticism "makes it difficult to pinpoint a tentative ideology of resistance or deviance," Eve Sedgwick's thesis about the "homosocial continuum" proves to be the primary framework from which the essayists approach Joyce's portrayal of the sinuous ebb and flow between heterosexual and homosexual possibilities. For readers unfamiliar with queer/sexuality studies, the essays offer succinct, lucid descriptions of Sedgwick's concepts, as well as those of important critics such as D. A. Miller and Jonathan Dollimore, but if this volume demonstrates anything, it is how dominant a paradigm Sedgwick's continuum has become in the field. Still, the volume's most important theoretical contribution is to challenge Sedgwick's other major claim about the "epistemology of the closet," especially as it has been typically allied with Miller's premise of the "open secret." Dean, Valente, and Christopher Lane (in an afterword) particularly argue that at the turn of the twentieth century, the closet had no historical associations with homosexuality, and that, more importantly, the hermeneutics of secrecy assumes a stable configuration of oppositions such as public/private and subject/object that is belied by Joyce's pronounced undermining of such categories in the semiotics of sexuality. As an alternative, Valente offers, for instance, the useful concept of "the open closet," which is formed by an epistemological uncertainty about to what extent an author may be genuinely signaling his sexuality, as well as by an ontological indeterminacy about subjectivity itself, since it undergoes an "irreducible slippage between the ego and alter ego that implies the alterity of the ego itself."
Devaluing the model of secrecy means focusing less on the prospect of a hidden sexual content in Joyce's texts and more on the queer [End Page 1032] significance of their linguistic patterns. Hence the contributors to Quare Joyce persuasively demonstrate that understanding the complete picture of alternative Joycean sexuality requires reading those patterns painstakingly--in...