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Lure of the Fallen Seraphim: Sovereignty and Sacrifice in James Joyce and Georges Bataille

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 303-323 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0044

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For Georges Bataille, sovereignty and sacrifice are inextricable. The passage to sovereignty requires overcoming the fear of death and a transgressive accession to the "un-knowledge" (non-savoir) of being. Joyce's Finnegans Wake allegorizes a similar transgression, with the reviving Finnegan rising from his bier and demanding whiskey for himself, in the impossible ontological maneuver of drinking to his own demise. For Bataille, in one of his only references to Joyce, the ritualized revelry of the wake is paradigmatic both of that gaiety-in-annihilation that distinguishes the sovereign and of the need to confront death while remaining conscious: "In order for man to be revealed to himself he must die, but he must do it while living" (12:336).

I contend that the blithe demise of Finnegan is but the final, though greatest, term in an ethos of sovereignty and sacrifice that spans Joyce's entire oeuvre, from the first pages of Dubliners to the final lines of Finnegans Wake, whose consonance with Bataille's mythology of loss furnishes an interpretative tool for understanding the Irishman's artistic trajectory. Although Bataille claimed that Joyce had no influence on his work (8:615), the contiguity of their artistic motifs and thematic concerns is sufficient to justify a comparative investigation into their respective texts. Beyond the passing references to the Wake, Bataille's formalized ethos of sovereignty is too close to that of Joyce to ignore. Indeed, it is easy to speculate on the early historical and biographical parallels that might be behind this. As young men, for example, both considered the priesthood. Joyce questioned and finally abandoned his faith at the same age that Bataille converted. Both men carried with them a profound and unorthodox religious sensibility and a debt to Thomas Aquinas, which found repeated expression through their work. It is highly unlikely that the two writers ever met, but both were in Paris during the 1930s—the son of the blind madman with an abortive career in medicine, on the one hand, and the older, near-blind ex-medical student with the "schizophrenic" texts and a mad daughter on the other —forging their own artistic praxis along remarkably similar lines. This study sets out to read Joyce through the economic and philosophical concepts theorized by Bataille and to consider the degree to which they can help us understand some of the underlying motifs in Joyce's work.

The first section of the essay considers the portraits of two Joycean artists—Stephen Dedalus and Richard Rowan—arguing that the ideals they seek to forge for themselves correspond closely to the attributes ascribed by Bataille to the dramatic figure of the sovereign. Stephen's artistic and spiritual creed constitutes a blueprint for a creation based on the continuous movement of loss without return, as exemplified by his self-exile, the sacrifice by fire of his artistic production. A need for incalculable loss is the essence of Stephen's sovereignty, and his character converges with some of the most salient aspects of Bataille's thinking. In Exiles, Richard Rowan continues this trajectory, and the play is, in fact, nothing less than a mise-en-scene of the rites of "potlatch," in which, as Bataille explains, lavish gifts are offered, not in the hope of reciprocation but because of a primal need for ever-increasing expenditure: only when the loss is so great that further returns are definitively forestalled can the rite come to an end (1:308-11). It is the same struggle for the termination of an escalating series of potlatches that provides the central dynamic of Exiles. The plot moves towards an explicit rupture, which presents the clearest elucidation of Bataille's theory of exchange and sovereign economy.

After the discussion of these texts, the focus will be predominantly on Finnegans Wake as the most complete expression in Joyce's work of Bataillean non-savoir and sacrifice, both in terms of thematic content and semantic excess. I begin by examining the ritual of the wake in greater detail and the reaction of Joyce's reveling mourners to the cadaver's evident restlessness. The transgression of ontological boundaries effected by HCE's revival represents the absurd limit of the...



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