It seems likely that had James Joyce been born in 1982 rather than 1882 he would have ended up in graduate school, laboring away unhappily at an idiosyncratic dissertation on literary epiphany (a term, incidentally, no one—including himself—could properly define). It's not hard to imagine him appearing in his advisor's door, scribbled notes in hand, to complain yet again that he really should have stuck to his plan to enter medical school as his parents had wished. Throughout Ulysses Stephen Dedalus seems to register just such a complaint, carousing and arguing with medical student friends who eventually drink up his wages before abandoning him in Nighttown. They may temporarily share his poverty and rebelliousness, but their considerably brighter futures beckon to them beyond the pages of a text that ends with a morose Stephen stalking away into the early-morning darkness.
Joyce endured a similar kind of exile, traveling to Paris first to pursue a degree in medicine, only to find himself unable to understand the requisite lectures in physics and chemistry. Like Stephen, he watched enviously as his friends settled into lives of comfort, having seized on a profession that, as Vike Plock notes in Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity, had just "emerged as an assertive progress narrative, energetically intervening in discussions about social and cultural improvement" (7). Joyce's own ambitions for his art, in fact, draw heavily on medical discourse—as we see in his now famous letters about Dubliners, where he describes his work as a study in "paralysis" and hemiplegia." These medical ambitions are there too in his rather more infamous broadside, "The Holy Office," where the artist acts less as a physician than as a drug, "Katharsis-Purgative," carrying away Dublin's unhealthy waste.1 According to the Gilbert schema for Ulysses, fifteen of the novel's eighteen episodes have an organ of the body associated with them, a bit of symbolic architecture that effectively maps the human body onto the text as well as the world it creates, making its author a kind of aesthetic pathologist.
Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity sets for itself an explicitly diagnostic agenda, "exploring how Joyce's aesthetics developed alongside his synchronized interest in medicine [and] how his writing on the social body, Dublin, referenced or incorporated medical images and transformed them into narrative tropes" (3). Plock herself is an excellent textual physician, albeit one in a distinctly modern practice who is more interested in individual pathologies than in treating the patient as a whole. The book's introduction explicitly acknowledges that it is "a collection of essays organized around a specific theme" rather than a synthetic study; and we are offered only a few pages of introduction to the work that follows then left dangling at the end without a single paragraph by way of conclusion. Since the chapters themselves are not pressed into the service of organizing or sustaining an argument, they follow an essentially chronological structure that leads from Dubliners, through A Portrait, and then into several of the late episodes of Ulysses. Following a familiar tradition in Joyce studies, Finnegans Wake is ignored almost entirely, though the closing paragraph acknowledges that this final work might be an "extremely rich site for future medical readings" (153). The individual chapters themselves must thus be understood as case studies of an anatomized text: local attempts to assay the entangled modernities of art and medicine in individual stories and episodes. Topically, they range quite broadly, beginning first with a short summary of the medical profession's rise in the nineteenth century before turning to more focused discourses on alcoholism, masturbation, obstetrics, neurophysiology, the physical culture movement as exemplified by Sandow's workouts, and the biopolitics of gynecology. The seven chapters that lead us through this impressive array of topics are generally short, rarely exceeding twenty pages. Freed of the need to synthesize this otherwise disparate material, [End Page 185] they are efficient, sharply focused studies that capture the pervasive medical discourses that so deeply shape Joyce's work.
There is certainly something...