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Ulyssean Close-Ups (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 366-369 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0063

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The back-and-forth movement between the original text and its criticism often shapes the path of our research, and great critical works will always lead us back to the text, opening new areas of inquiry and unearthing questions where we thought we had acquired certainties. This is definitely the case with Fritz Senn’s new collection of five inspiring essays, published by the “Piccola Biblioteca Joyciana.” The cover of the elegant little blue book features Joyce’s classic 1929 portrait by Berenice Abbott (of Pogues and Penguin Books fame), and the backdrop quotation from Finnegans Wake is a promising introduction for a Joyce-studies collection: “Bite my laughters, drink my tears. Pore into me, volumes, spell me stark and spill me swooning” (FW 145.18–20). Senn’s technique is, as usual, to refrain from using the jargon of theories currently in vogue but to set up his own conceptual frame from Joyce’s phrases or from Joyce-inspired metaphors, which will not only serve to enlighten the text but also to shape his approach and our reading. Thus, the first essay, entitled “In Full Gait: Aesthetics of Footsteps,” takes us on an illuminating stroll through the varied manners of walking in Dubliners and Ulysses, focusing on what Senn calls “the tell-tale gestures of our feet” (19). Fulfilling the expectations raised by his book’s title, he treats us here to numerous insightful close readings, particularly from Ulysses. Always alert to the Shakespearean and Homeric echoes and to the etymologies and “homophonic reverberation[s]” (26) of Joyce’s meticulously worded prose, Senn’s essay unfolds as a peripatetic lesson in reading, opening a host of other classic texts, prolonging echoes and following resonances across ages and translations. Remarking on the distinction between the sauntering walk that accompanies Bloom’s placid, casual wording and the proud strides that often mark clichés, the self-conscious rhetorical tropes, and the histrionic gestures of wittier conversationalists, Senn underscores the parallel between gaits and Joyce’s mimetic prose rhythm, including how the “verbalisation of walks accords with the features of each episode” (40). Building upon the double meaning of feet as meters and body parts, he draws an analogy with verse that truly captures the “verbal choreography” of Joyce’s prose (37).

The second essay, “From Efficacious Words to Eutrapelia,” is again centered on Ulysses, with occasional references to Dubliners, A Portrait, and Finnegans Wake. Senn examines here the decline of sacred language into profane and casual usage, noting how prayers, benedictions, curses, oaths, and prophecies all become perverted, parodied, enfeebled by their everyday use and by the distortion of predictions into gossip. He views Ulysses itself as libelous and blasphemous. He illustrates this by selecting the word eutrapelia, which originally meant lively wit and jesting and was praised as well-bred insolence by Aristotle but became a reprehensible sin in the Christian view, denounced in Saint Paul’s “Epistle to the Ephesians.” “Eutrapelic” is an adjective Senn applies both to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, where “[a]lmost everything can be given a facetious twist or can trigger off a joke” (72). Demonstrating his point first with “Cyclops,” he contends that the episode contains “[e]xactly the kind of flippant abuse that Saint Paul warned the early Christians about” (73) and goes on to interpret Ulysses as eutrapelic versions of both the Litany of the Blessed Virgin (U 15.1940–1952) and the Odyssey. Finnegans Wake is hailed as “paneutrapelic” (76), animated by “playful metamorphoses,” “deflected quotation[s],” and a “surface flippancy” leading to our own “creative exegesis,” which is to be constantly renewed in response to the infinite twists and turns of Joyce’s text (76–77). Here again, Senn’s conceptual frame is inspired by Joyce and serves as a metaphor for the exegesis in which he invites his readers to participate.

The last three essays are much shorter. The starting point for “Stephen Telegraphos” is the etymological meaning of Tele-machos (far from battle). Senn then moves on to the importance of telegrams and their distorted messages and semantic diversions. He ends by calling Stephen telegraphos, one who writes from far away. Noting the profusion of telegrams in Joyce...

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