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The Genealogies of Ulysses, the Invention of Postmodernism, and the Narratives of Literary History

From: ELH
Volume 67, Number 4, Winter 2000
pp. 1035-1054 | 10.1353/elh.2000.0035

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ELH 67.4 (2000) 1035-1054

Joyce, perhaps wisely, never outlined a literary genealogy within which his own works might be situated; as Clive Hart has observed, "it has always been far from easy to determine . . . what his literary tastes and opinions were." Throughout his career he would denigrate many authors whose works were said to be similar to his own -- one thinks of his dismissive remarks about Lawrence and Stein, writers that from the outset were considered part of the emerging canon of what would be called modernism. More intriguingly, he also paid homage to a number of predecessors that are otherwise quite difficult to be thought of as participating in similar projects -- Blake and Defoe, Flaubert and Tolstoy, etc.--suggesting for himself the kind of unlikely precursors that Borges would later discuss in connection with Kafka. Since his work first became known, it has been placed within an increasing number of different and even antithetical literary histories; as we all know, this obsessive genealogical practice is currently growing more volatile and contradictory.

In what follows, I will outline several of the main kinds of literary histories Joyce's work has been placed within, discuss the appropriateness, accuracy, and perceived advantages of each such placement, and examine the case for a postmodern Ulysses. I will go on to speculate on the larger reasons for these often strange and contradictory accounts, and conclude with some observations on the narrative structure implicit in many current versions of literary history. We may begin with what was, until very recently, the most familiar story -- that of Joyce as the founder and guarantor of serious, quality, experimental literature. One of the most sustained attempts to confer legitimacy on a new movement by appealing to the precedent of Joycean (and Proustian) modernism was set forth by the practitioners of the nouveau roman, almost all of whom wrote on the nature of fiction in order to better situate their own innovations. Robbe-Grillet, in his first major theoretical statement, "On Several Obsolete Notions," constructs a series of lineal genealogies that all stretch from Flaubert through Joyce and Proust, to Kafka and Faulkner, and culminate in his own work, even using the image of the branches of a tree to clarify respective positions and altitudes. Similarly, Nathalie Sarraute in The Age of Suspicion claimed a fidelity to the arduous tradition of the exploration of interiority as exemplified by Joyce, Proust, and Woolf. Knowing a good strategy when they saw one, the Tel Quel novelists -- particularly Philippe Sollers -- were quick to lay claim to the avant garde mantle and Joycean lineage as they attempted to move well beyond the parameters of the new novel. Even écriture féminine, another major experiment in prose of the period, was also (perhaps somewhat surprisingly) granted a partial Joycean paternity.

* * *

The practice of calling on the example of Joyce to validate a new aesthetic partially ended with the advent of postmodernism, a movement that was supposed to be later -- and thereby more relevant -- than the modernism it was said to supersede. Paradoxically, nearly all theoreticians of postmodernism are, despite repeated denials, implicitly committed to a master narrative of literary history -- often, a thoroughgoing and rather ruthless one. This master narrative avers that postmodernism necessarily replaced an exhausted modernism just as modernism had to supplant Victorian realism, though the paradigm tends to falter precisely when it tries to account for Joyce. And every theorist of postmodernism sooner or later, prominently or obscurely, has to confront his insistently disconcerting presence: the last section of Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction, for instance, is nothing less than a discussion of the possible postmodernism of Joyce.

McHale's conclusion in this, his first approach to the question, is that Finnegans Wake (1939) is fully postmodern, while the earlier works are not, a stance that complements Ihab Hassan's prior, persistent claiming of the Wake for postmodernism. Linda Hutcheon, on the other hand, refers to Joyce as one of "the great modernists, not postmodernists." Fredric Jameson insists on a historical rupture between a high modernism that exhausted itself in a final flowering in the late 50s or early 60s and the cultural practices of late capitalism, "a...



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