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Joyce’s Ghosts is an important book. Indeed, read aright, it may be one of the most important books on Joyce to have appeared in the past twenty years. This may not be immediately obvious. It is cluttered with references to secondary sources; Gibbons would have been better off abandoning his habitual modesty and trusting more to his own often very fine intuitions and perceptions. The focus is unsteady, and parts of the book don’t seem very clearly related to its main theme—notably the first chapter, on the modernist text and the city, where hardly a ghost makes so much as the merest apparition. The comparisons and analogies (between “The Dead,” for example, and John Huston’s film of it), though interesting in themselves, sometimes distract a little from the force and originality of Gibbons’s central case. In its largest scope, we might summarize this case as follows: Joyce’s is a world in which what Alain Badiou calls “inexistents” of many kinds are as important as the beings the novelist represents; here “inexistents” are almost palpable and exert a certain pressure on the living.1 Working from this premise, Gibbons has produced a book that has the power to shift some of the most deeply rooted emphases conventional within Joyce studies. As such, it is a major contribution to the growing number of serious, scholarly volumes that not only prioritize a (British- and) Irish-centred Joyce, but do so increasingly diversely, with more and more divergent orientations and dispositions
The dominant conception of Joyce, certainly within readings of him as an international modernist, has long characterized him as a “hard” one, to use a Poundian term of approval. Whether it was a question of the crystalline precision of his early prose, the rigor of his later concern with language, the concretion and immediacy of the environment he evoked, his vast immersion in the dense factuality of historical worlds, his seeming impatience with high-sounding rhetorics, romanticisms, and idealisms, his clear-eyed grasp of the vagaries of the flesh and sexuality, or the richness and scope of his mocking laughter, Joyce appeared to confront his readers with a [End Page 920] modernity that was ungainsayably solid, material, whose “sudden reality,” in his own words, was capable of smashing delusions “to a pulp.”2 When Stephen Dedalus advised himself to “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past,” he seemed to sum up a crucial aspect of the Joycean aesthetic.3 True, there was room for doubt. Was not almost all of Joyce’s work, certainly prior to Finnegans Wake, retrospective, a conjuration of vanished scenes? Might it not even be, in a certain way, elegiac? In “Oxen of the Sun,” was Stephen not possibly gesturing towards an aesthetic different to the “hard” one: “If I call them into life across the waters of Lethe will not the poor ghosts troop to my call?” (14.1114). Whether he was or not, they did troop to Joyce’s call in practically endless numbers. It is important to remember that the substantial biographical (and “modernist”) world of the later Joyce that has attracted such lavish devotion, with its Pounds, Gilberts, Beaches, Budgens, Weavers, Jolases, Léons, et al., was, if we except the fleeting verbal nods in the Wake, never a world he had the very slightest interest in writing about. In one way, it was as though he didn’t live in it at all. All the same, for decades, Joyce the necromancer had practically no status or purchase alongside, say, Hugh Kenner’s Joyce, a Joyce whirling forwards into a boundless modernity with all the vast energy of a literary juggernaut.
Gibbons markedly departs from this kind of conception of Joyce. His Joyce is obsessed with Irish phantoms, spectres, disembodied presences. He is both a haunted writer and one who attends to a haunted world. Gibbons sets out from the right starting-points: Joyce’s susceptibility to superstition (or what Gibbons rather nicely calls “ordinary...