Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back (review)
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Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back, by John Gordon. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004. 338 pp. $45.00.

John Gordon forecasts, in the introduction to Joyce and Reality, that readers will see more of Joyce as a man of his day than has previously been known, and he is not exaggerating. The book is full of insights into Joyce's knowledge of the science and pseudo-science of the time and how Joyce applied these theories creatively. On another level, Gordon demonstrates that there are startling parallelisms between episodes like "Sirens" and "Oxen of the Sun" if only we would watch the text more closely. Then he takes readers on a tour of the stars and comets that light up the sky on the night of 16 June 1904.

Gordon plunges into the science of embryology to show that Joyce not only knew about such developments but also applied them beyond the cellular level. For example, as Stephen's mind in A Portrait becomes more agile, he isolates, pairs, and foregrounds similarities of thought. The exponential growth of Stephen's intellect is convincingly demonstrated throughout the novel as his mind takes creative turns. This idea is related, not surprisingly, to the concept of the mind as a labyrinth—an idea explored by many modernist writers including Hart Crane, Paul Valery, George Eliot, and T. S. Eliot. Following the evolutionary scientist Herbert Spencer, Joyce took it on himself to show that character and intellectual skills were also subject to this kind of growth. From a slightly different vantage, Gordon decides Stephen's inner workings are seen mainly as liquids and identified with life's processes, a reading that places his villanelle in A Portrait in a new and important light. Accordingly, this poem, often dismissed as imitative, "tracks, verse by verse, the course of the loss and then the retrieval of the power that in Stephen's mind is needed to fuse and energize the creative act. That power is essentially the heat-generating gravitational attraction that according to the nebular hypothesis determines the course of growth at all levels" (30). Gordon goes on to show how the rose-like glow of the poem's narrator reflects Stephen reaching back to the height of his experience with the bird girl at the end of chapter 4, and to other fragments of his relationships with women.

Gordon uses the idea of the distilling of character and its liquidity in discussing Little Chandler's potential emergence as a poet in "A Little Cloud." He shows first (35) that Little Chandler can be identified with a cloud, perhaps the one specified by Elijah—a cloud "like a man's hand."1 The creative process is here likened to a drifting boat [End Page 151] whose progress can be shown or charted by absorption, distillation, and condensation. Like Stephen's villanelle, Little Chandler's poetic spirit shows the curve of an emotion, and Gordon suggests that he glides around Dublin in a lonely, dreamy manner. He walks by the Liffey, goes drinking with Ignatius Gallaher amid lots of smoke, and then goes home to argue with his wife Annie about a forgotten packet of tea. While Annie goes out for the tea, Little Chandler finds he can do nothing to stop his infant son from wailing his heart out, and on another level this may be a manifestation of "the child within" clamoring to make himself heard. Little Chandler sees himself "just at the point of maturity" (D 73), and Gordon treats the reader to a fantastic description of what his poetry may have been like (had he written it).

In discussing the distillation of character, Gordon contributes the remarkable insight that Ulysses "is also a book full of heroes" (44). In other words, Joyce reframes Emma Bovary's concerns. It all begins in Dubliners, he says, where characters like Eveline Hill, Tom Kernan, and Gretta Conroy supply a bridge between their interior monologues and melodrama. Gordon also considers Farrington and sees him as immature and stuck in a job as copyist that might suit a school child. He analyzes Farrington's forays to the outside world in that...


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