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The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh (review)
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The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh. By M. O’Sullivan. London, Continuum, 2008. vi + 184 pp. Hb £60.00.

This book sets out to correct what the author sees as a bias within Joyce and Proust criticism towards ‘post-structuralist’ approaches. Such approaches, particularly as informed by the work of Jacques Derrida, have privileged the questions of alterity and difference in their readings of both Joyce and Proust. As such, those aspects of both oeuvres that offer inscriptions of the writing process within the body of the texts have tended to be read, under the influence of deconstruction, as allegories of the ethical encounter and its mediation by linguistic différance. This book claims that such readings have tended to present an incomplete picture of both authors as invested in a rather negative view of the linguistic violence that thwarts and defers authentic, intersubjective encounter. The ‘deconstructive’ aspect to both Joyce and Proust’s writing (particularly the later Joyce) has thus most often been read as driven by a desire for the text to constitute an embodied experience of alterity through its identification of reading and writing with those [End Page 105] other corporeal pleasures of touching, tasting, smelling, sleeping and sex. In place of such deconstructive readings the author proposes one informed by the recent ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology and ethics. His approach to the Joycean and Proustian corpus takes up the notion of ‘incarnation’, which is to be distinguished from the more familiar ‘embodiment’. Whereas ‘embodiment’ suggests a corrective to Cartesian dualism, incarnation, in its theological origins, insists upon the consubstantiality of word and flesh (quite literally, in the notion of the Messianic return). In reading literature through this notion of embodiment, O’Sullivan claims, deconstructionists have missed an older, theological understanding of the relationship of logos to corpus that lives on in both Joyce and Proust. One of the central claims of this book is thus that both of these authors write from a position on the body’s relationship to language that has been obscured by embodiment’s Cartesian derivation, making the deconstructive gesture redundant. This insight, and the book’s overview of phenomenology’s commitment to incarnation over embodiment, is a welcome one. The book’s attention to less familiar phenomenological thinkers than Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, particularly Michel Henry, is equally illuminating. The discussion also succeeds in convincing, through its very detailed examination of Proust’s and Joyce’s references to the writing process as epiphany, the eucharist, auto-affection and metempsychosis, of the potential relevance of incarnation to readings of their works. However, the novelty of the approach and the necessity of fully elaborating the critical framework for the reader do not always allow for the kinds of close readings required to support the author’s claims, which often remain at the level of assertion rather than demonstration. This book will, however, undoubtedly make stimulating reading for those with an interest in phenomenological–theological approaches to literature. Proustians and Joyceans looking for alternative approaches to their corpus will also find substantial food for thought.

Suzanne Dow
University of Nottingham