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Nature, Existential Shame, and Transcendence: An Ecocritical Approach to Ulysses

From: Joyce Studies Annual
2012
pp. 66-95

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Nature, Existential Shame, and Transcendence
An Ecocritical Approach to Ulysses

Most of James Joyce’s narratives unfold against the backdrop of Dublin’s manmade structures and systems—what the historian William Cronon calls “second nature”1 in Nature’s Metropolis, his book about Chicago. Urban second nature arises from and interacts constantly with the phenomena of biological nature, and Dublin has always contained plenty of interesting examples of this interrelationship, such as wildflowers on canal walls2 or the diverse bird species of North Bull Island.3 Joyce’s fiction is not much concerned with Dublin flowers (except the symbolic kind) or birds or wild, nonhuman nature. It concerns itself deeply, however, with the locus of the human experience of nature: the body.

Critics have long been aware of the near-clinical interest that Joyce, a former medical student, invested in his descriptions of bodily processes. Indeed, the body as a major theme in his writing is a well-established area of inquiry.4 Yet Joyceans and other literary critics, even some ecocritics,5 appear to share a deep-seated Western philosophical ambivalence about the relationship between the natural and the human. As Kate Soper observes, “We have thought… of humanity as being a component of nature even as we have conceptualized nature as absolute otherness to humanity.”6 This ambivalence is emotionally and intellectually fraught. It is a way of acknowledging yet repressing the fact that humans, in spite of our drive to transcend nature, are continually pulled back into our physical selves by natural laws whose impingement we feel to be, at times, alien and shame-provoking. In this essay I will take a trans-corporeal7 approach, inflected by ecofeminist phenomenology, to understanding Joyce’s treatment of nature-body relations. By shame, I mean the feeling aroused by the vulnerability, limitations, and necessities of our existence [End Page 66] as spirit-like minds tethered to animal-like bodies. What I will discuss as “transcendence” differs from the phenomenological definition of that term; it arises out of aspects of experience, including the experience of art, that rise above time’s quotidian flow and temporarily reconcile our aspirations toward transcendence with the fact of life’s imperfectability.

From the perspective of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of phenomenology, our bodies interact with nature through the modality of the senses. Thus they co-create our experience of nature,8 as Stephen Dedalus demonstrates when he surveys Sandymount Strand at the outset of the “Proteus” episode: “Ineluctable modality of the visible … thought through my eyes” (U 3.1–2). In co-creating both the sensible world and the self-in-nature, the body endows us with pleasure and delight. Yet it also generates what the ecologist William Jordan III terms “existential shame.”9 This uniquely human feeling is “a sense of existential unworthiness, the painful emotion a person naturally feels on encountering any kind of shortcoming or limitation …. [It] is the emotional register of our natural, radical, existential dependency” (Jordan 46–7). What we depend on most fundamentally, of course, is nature—the indispensable force immanent in the body and the world. It is our human condition as self-reflective, spirit-like entities that are also appetite-driven mortal creatures—Ariel joined at the hip with Caliban—that arouses existential shame pertaining to the body.

Two related ideas stem from existential shame: the notion of the birth of humanity as original sin, and the need to compensate and atone for that sin. Natural imperfection is a consequence of culture that signifies a rupture between nature and human nature. Metaphorically, it is born of the tumble of Adam and Eve from unreflective, animal-like yet perfect existence—in a garden whose creatures do not exert themselves, suffer or change—into both nature and nature-transcending self-consciousness10 in the same instant. The vehicle of their Fall is the body, which comes into being at that instant as something that is them and not-them,11 both animal and human. Their appetite for the forbidden fruit marks the body as an alienated vessel of desire, that is, the desire of a body that is not one with nature. In this sense...