restricted access A Backward Glance at the XXII International James Joyce Symposium, Prague Czech Republic, 13-18 June 2010
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A Backward Glance at the XXII International James Joyce Symposium, Prague Czech Republic, 13-18 June 2010

In the AULA lecture theater at Charles University in Prague, two black-and-white placards were on either side of the stage. The one on the left showed students protesting outside the Philosophy Building. On the right, there was a noticeboard advertising Stávkové anti-semináře, strike anti-seminars. Under these on the stage was Professor David Hayman, presenting his Tuesday plenary talk for the XXII International James Joyce Symposium. "Who's read Portrait of the Artist?" he asks. The audience titters. "Who likes Czech food?" More tittering. "Beckett read my dissertation," he continued. "He liked it." "'It could have been worse,' he said."

Billed as "a nestor of genetic Joyce studies" in the program, Hayman was certainly living up to his Homeric counterpart. Tales of meeting Joyce's acquaintances in Paris in the 1950s segued—thanks to Jean-Michel Rabaté's indulgent prompt—to stories of a 1973 Joyce reading group with Julia Kristeva and a pleiad of other semi-legendary luminaries. It then gave way to an epic retelling of a drunken night long [End Page 18] ago with Jacques Lacan when Hayman ordered a steak and couldn't eat it and subsequently proved Lacan to be wrong about something.

Flattering as it was to think of myself, a graduate student at my first James Joyce Symposium, as one of the heirs to this fine tradition, I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable. The impression one might have gained from hearing this talk alone was that Joyce now is a retrospective and largely self-interested (read "academic") pursuit—an impression that would be compounded by the lack of an audience both at poet Steve McCaffery's virtuosic performance later in the week and at the closing roundtable dealing with Joyce's role in contemporary poetics.

Fortunately, this was not altogether characteristic. Maud Ellmann's wry disquisition on "Noses and Monotheism" or Sara Crangle's "Joyce's 'Multiple Mucosities'" or Sean Latham's Ulysses as zombie fiction proved that there was plenty more juice to squeeze out of Joyce's old corpus before it would lie still. Other talks listed in the program on Joyce and "ash in the troposphere" (surely a reference to that pesky Icelandic volcano) or Joyce and Czech connections or Vincent Cheng's "Joyce, Kundera, and National Forgetting" promised a refreshing degree of topical relevance. Besides these, talks by my fellow graduate students were given a more than generous reception at the hands of the established Joyceans, showing that this is one of the most open and friendly of academic fields. If Joyceans failed to make a strong turn-out at the last panel on the last day, it must have been out of sheer exhaustion rather than disregard for new interpretations of Joyce. And who can blame them? It was a busy week. The majority of the Symposium was taken up with ten-hour days of talks interspersed with conversations over coffee or wine. Add to this schedule an art opening, a book-launch, a Bloomsday banquet, a boat-cruise, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake reading groups, and the World Cup on a big screen in the Old Town Square, and who wouldn't abscond into the medieval city for a break?

Still, the enthusiasm of the community could not quite quell my niggling doubt that Joyce remained aloof: paring his fingernails in the dusky pantheon of an avant-garde past. Although one of the aims of the conference was to draw connections between Joyce and central Europe, in many ways, the talks that did attempt this, such as two panels on Joyce and Franz Kafka, succeeded chiefly in underlining Joyce's profound separation. Did Joyce and Kafka have anything to do with each other? Not much, but they had nothing to do with each other in similar ways. Far from bringing the composing artist down to earth, the much vaunted future of Joyce—"genetic Joyce studies"—appeared in some ways to have done the opposite at this Symposium: to have removed its proponents from our world to his, or at least to...