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New Literary History 32.3 (2001) 639-657



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"And the Wind Wheezing Through That Organ Once in a While":
Voice, Narrative, Film

Andrew Gibson


Toward the end of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Cranly asks Stephen Dedalus for his "point of view," Stephen responds, in a famous passage: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use--silence, exile, and cunning." 1 Why should "silence" be one of the three conditions of what Stephen projects as his venture into self-expression? The word is usually interpreted as indicating part of a strategy for survival. Yet insofar as such a strategy is at stake in the word "cunning," at least, Cranly promptly calls its appropriateness to Stephen into question. The silence at issue can also be understood in contradistinction to the voices indicated everywhere in Portrait. These are certainly voices that insist on conviction or claim allegiance, that carry an ideological freight. But they are also voices as they make themselves heard in the world around Stephen. The world of Stephen's Dublin is notoriously full of voices, a fact which Joyce underlined, in particular, in the "Aeolus" chapter in Ulysses. "Silence," then, is one of Stephen's ways of declaring a necessary distance between himself and Irish culture. It is as important to him in this respect as is "exile." In effect, though, this silence is equivalent to writing. For Stephen (and for Joyce), like exile, the silence of writing is a repudiation of a present and presences. This silence will be even more crucial and determining for the art in question than any set of emotions felt for the present (emotions that were surely extremely complicated, in Joyce's case). As in the art of the Dante who was so significant for him, the silence of Joyce's art establishes a historical and critical distance from his subject. This distance is the measure of an intransigent political difference. In both instances, it is the violence of voices that is partly what is consigned to the crypt. Thus art abandons its subject matter to a "desert" of silence, in the sense in which the later Derrida deploys the metaphor of the desert: "This critique [Specters of Marx] belongs to the movement of an experience [End Page 639] open to the absolute future of what is coming, that is to say, a necessarily indeterminate, abstract, desert-like experience that is confided, exposed, given up to its waiting for the other and for the event." 2 To a certain degree, the work of Dante and Joyce performs a similar critique precisely in silencing a present or endowing it with the particular kind of muteness possessed by literary narrative. Insofar as the passage from Portrait is about the conditions of (narrative) art, then, it is concerned to specify one of them as the renunciation of voice and of a world of voices. Literary art is the tomb of speech. It may pervasively mimic speech, may serve as a memorial to, record of, or testimony to speech or words spoken. That does not crucially change matters. To Roland Barthes's famous question as to who speaks in the text, the answer, it would seem, is no one, ever.

There are in fact no narrative voices and no voices in literary narrative, whether the voices of authors, narrators, or personae. Insofar as the term "voice" is used to designate any feature of literary narrative, when its status is neither linguistic nor technical, that status is at once metaphorical. This is the case with both classic and recent theoretical accounts of the novel. Wayne Booth, for example, demanded a renewed respect for the authorial or narrative voice in the text. But his concern to reinstate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 639-657
Launched on MUSE
2001-08-01
Open Access
No
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