- The Aesthetics of PhenomenaJoyce's Epiphanies
To Hans Walter Gabler
This study began as a sample reading of an ostensibly marginal and manageable corpus of Joyce's work in which I tried to see whether phenomenology, as a specific perspective of looking at things, has anything at all to offer to our understanding of Joyce. The perspective turned out overwhelmingly productive, every discovery was followed by another, and the textual field of my examination expanded until Joyce himself emerged, essentially, as a phenomenologist: an original and rigorous thinker who developed a phenomenology of aesthetic experience in his own terms, and an artist whose creative work is comprehensively grounded in the conception of art put forward in his theoretical reflections.
The reading that follows is an exposition of this vision of Joyce and of the phenomenological aesthetics of literature that Joyce elaborates in his writing across different genres. Epiphany remains at the epicenter of this vision, but the vision itself expands far beyond the limits of what epiphany encapsulates as a concept or what it appears to be as a literary genre. This conception of literary experience is not defined by epiphany or any other single notion but reshapes our prevailing assumptions about art and literature, just as phenomenology does in relation to analytic or metaphysical philosophy.
As a perspective grounded in distinct philosophical positions, phenomenology has not yet enabled a comprehensive reading of Joyce. Separate aspects of Joyce's writing have been examined as expressing phenomenological insights (which, unsurprisingly, cluster around epiphany) from early Joyce criticism to the present, but there has been no attempt to [End Page 185] expand these implications to an understanding of Joyce's work as a whole. Rudd Fleming back in 1952 and Shiv K. Kumar several years later seem to identify the phenomenological grounding of Joyce's notion of epiphany, without drawing sufficiently forceful conclusions.1 Antoine Levy, in a far more recent reading, derives a phenomenological notion of epiphany directly from Aristotle and uses it to foreground Stephen's perceptual apprehension in "Proteus," but he does not position his reading or Joyce's work in the context of phenomenology.2 Richard Kearney swerves in the opposite direction: He draws on Joyce's epiphany to build a hermeneutic phenomenology of religion, language, and otherness, yet his engagement with Joyce is mostly interpretative, focused on the manifestation of these phenomena in Joyce's narrative plots but not on his work as a medium for expressing them.3 Sharon Kim opens her monograph on literary epiphany with a chapter on parallels between Joyce's epiphany and Heidegger's epiphanic aesthetics, but misses the phenomenological thrust that quite clearly underlies both conceptions she presents.4 Carole Bourne-Taylor and Ariane Mildenberg, in their editorial Introduction to an essay collection on phenomenology in Modernism, list Joyce among the "orchestrators of modernism" next to the paradigmatically phenomenological writers, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust; but the representation of Joyce's work in the collection is limited to a section in an article that, both thematically and methodologically, is closer to postcolonial criticism than phenomenological commentary.5
To go beyond such fragmentary insights and appreciate the full significance and interpretative value of the phenomenological outlook in Joyce's art, we must begin with the philosophical grounding of phenomenology itself.
In the neo-Kantian frames of reference that dominate our current critical discourse on art, we see aesthetic experience as a special, disinterested kind of contemplation of an art object, considering the object itself and so the experience autonomous from the rest of the world by definition. This approach ascribes to a work of art an idealistic immanence and, consequently, associates aesthetic experience with spiritual elevation and transcendence, leaving the mundane experiences of the lived world behind. However powerful, this conception of aesthetic autonomy is relatively new in the history of philosophy, reaching back to the eighteenth century [End Page 186] only. Kant himself in his early work uses the term "aesthetic" in the Greek sense of the word—meaning sensuality as such, as opposed to intellect—and defines the aesthetic in the way we know it only in the third Critique against the work...