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The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh (review)

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 48, Number 1, 2011
pp. 100-103 | 10.1353/cls.2011.0017

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O'Sullivan in effect combines two valuable studies. He opens with a densely woven, lucid chapter touring French theorizing on "incarnation" in response to phenomenology plus religious tradition, moves to Joyce and Proust, dedicating a chapter to each, and then in a final chapter juxtaposes the novelists mainly in regard to how they develop the principle of "impotence." These four chapters thus perform a double mirroring. Heady chapter 1 is quite able to stand on its own as a study in intellectual history but is intended as a foil for the two great writers, and then Joyce and Proust are mutually reflected in their own right through their fictions.

O'Sullivan is clearly a master of the philosophic subject matter that his more general introduction and his Gallocentric first chapter compress into fifty-six pages. It is no mean feat to line up and referee the rolling discourse, with its cross-commentaries, disagreements, and inventions of new terminology right down to the (only recently waned) heyday of deconstruction. Derrida's long-term rejection of Husserl's concept of the sign and incarnational rhetoric is the most prominent plot line in the story chapter 1 tells, but it is by no means the only one; O'Sullivan gives a considered hearing to many variants, more prominently to Marcel Henry's and Emmanuel Levinas's views, with their respective coloration by the Christian and Judaic tradition. Although O'Sullivan scrupulously presents Derrida's views, nonetheless, on balance, once he turns to the novelists, he tends toward showing why Derrida finally is an inadequate guide to the complex artistic legacies of Joyce and Proust.

Space restrictions prohibit even a rudimentary summary of the richness of details in chapter 1. Among many lines we follow is that of Derrida's resistance to what he construes as Husserl's staging of logos and phōnē [voice] and ontotheological transformation of "objectivity" into a "spiritual flesh" that speaks and is present to itself. Against Derrida, Nathalie Depraz believes that the troublesome human "subject is obliged to 'exhibit the genetic deep-rootedness of the experience of otherness as self-alterity'" (28). In an analogous move, Henry sees "empathy grounded in auto-affection" (29). Henry's concept of a "manifestation of Being" entails the meaningful reception of otherness based on awareness of self. O'Sullivan does not draw the connection, but in my estimation there is a broader family resemblance between Henry's idea of the mind's self-discovery and awareness of the "foundation" and Eric Voegelin's idea of the moment when the human subject discovers itself rising out of the ground of being. Henry's proposition that "auto-affection" (when the self can grasp itself as an alter ego) affords "nourishment" suggests two salvational possibilities, I think—both an overcoming of the dilemmas of ego identity probed from romanticism through symbolism, which Voegelin praises in the works of Proust, Mann, and Joyce, and the foundational pure gift of life and love, which Gian Balsamo has expounded in his Joyce's Messianism: Dante, Negative Existence, and the Messianic Self (2004). From another angle, O'Sullivan observes that Emmanuel Levinas derives "responsibility," recourse to interhuman communication, the narrative way of speaking, from the Judaic sense of a known or prefigured truth that requires "commentary"; and here again we have a provocative parallel to the idea of an unfolding scriptural code.

It is regrettable to scant chapter 1; it is downright painful to have to pass over innumerable fine insights in chapter 2. O'Sullivan pursues several arguments in an effort to overturn the claims of deconstructionist readers like Derrida and Derek Attridge regarding Joyce. Not only does Joyce start in his own critical writings from a more robust Renaissance sense that privileges the body inclusive of its spiritual faculty but in all his experiments with narrative and voice he maintains his belief in an embodied or incarnated aesthetic and moves toward a rehumanizing union with otherness. Neo-Thomism may have helped nudge Joyce's interest in genesis and epiphany so as to suggest a spiritual affinity with Husserl's notion of an "inner viewing" of and through language in Phenomenological Psychology (1925). In any event, O'Sullivan...



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