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European Joyce Studies 12: Joyce’s "Wandering Rocks," (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 598-601 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0005

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According to this volume's contributors, saying anything demonstrably novel about the tenth episode of Ulysses is profoundly difficult. In his contribution, Len Platt blames Clive Hart for the predicament. Hart's 1974 account "established the episode as a literally 'calculated' piece of writing" composed of "mechanical and meaningless" links between people, places, and things (142). "Wandering Rocks" reproduces "the working parts of a physical and social machine of great intricacy," Hart wrote (201), "but the image is," Platt glosses, "a dark one . . . antithetical to concepts of community or culture" (143). Hart's description of calculated structure and thin connectivity has dominated scholarly assessment, and though much has been done to chase down the episode's references and itemize the various links it establishes, Platt finds that "relatively little has been added to our understanding . . . since Hart's pioneering work" (143).

Other contributors echo this lament over the state of criticism on "Wandering Rocks." According to David Pierce, "[t]he episode is remarkable, not so much for the varied critical readings it has prompted, but for the slender evidence on which critics have based their judgments" (79). Although Pierce treats Hart as part of the problem, the person ultimately to blame for such scholarly malaise is James Joyce himself; he retained "absolute control and dominance over the material at his disposal" and left us little clue as to its meaning (88). Pierce continues, "No signposts are given to the reader for the appearance of interpolations," and "when connections are made by the reader—the author/narrator/arranger is reluctant to make connections—they are sometimes quite trivial" (102). Pierce is not so much finger-pointing here as he is self-reflexively wondering about what it is we critics do with the episode. After presenting a detailed compilation of textual matter referred to in "Wandering Rocks," Pierce mulls,

As is apparent from a cursory glance at the above "Select Reading List," the reading material in "Wandering Rocks" presents a different challenge for the systems analyst and for the philosopher. The former delights in gathering and regathering the material into some recognizably coherent shape, but the latter eventually runs into an impasse familiar in Joyce studies, doubt as to what all this labor amounts to or could possibly achieve or yield.


This is strong stuff, but it is also the description of what turns out to be (if this volume is at all representative) an enormously productive intellectual bind, one in which data-gathering and analytic comment achieve a neat balance.

European Joyce Studies 12 confirms the productivity of such a bind by demonstrating the topical range and methodological reach of contemporary criticism on this episode and Ulysses as a whole. Hart himself sets the tone in the first offering, a short essay that describes the episode's formal playfulness, its habit of establishing a determining structure and then breaking it. This Hart interprets as a reminder that Ulysses, "dense with formalism, is among other things an exercise in the imposition of pattern on a vast and essentially formless body of urban material and human experience" (25). Co-editor Andrew Gibson submits a thorough analysis of the thematics of colonial power in the episode. He does his most telling work on Father Conmee, who winds up appearing as the model for a "'compromise bargain' with the State" (43). Gibson's description of an endemic fear of falling that afflicts Joyce's characters is compelling. Stefan Haag attends to the synesthetic element of this "very 'noisy' book" (113). He argues that the barangs and bangs, growls and "gay sweet" chirps that echo through the pages of "Wandering Rocks" describe an "aural commons," "a life-like acoustic space, where people interact and on occasion intrude, deliberately and accidentally, into one another's space" (120). This commons is on the verge of privatization, Haag contends, which provides the episode with an ethical mandate to preserve it and a nostalgic feel since Ulysses locates the public sphere in the recent past.

Such diverse contributions do address a shared problem, although given their range and interest it might be better to call what they share a problematic rather than a problem per se. Most contributors...

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