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Joyce/Foucault: Sexual Confessions (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 153-157 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0132

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The frequency with which television police dramas end in the confession of a suspect is well above the real statistical norm. The aesthetic appeal of this structure in the mass-cultural genre is easily understandable. The revelatory and personal nature of a confession makes for an intriguing denouement. Yet the real-life tendency to resist the admission of guilt and "lawyer up" illustrates the difficult nature of any legitimate extraction of a confession. Wolfgang Streit's book on the function of sexual confession in Joyce's work centers on this power struggle between forces struggling to divulge discourse and those trying to conceal it. The slash in the title of Streit's book graphically encapsulates the thrust of his approach. His study of Joyce's writing is a direct application of Michel Foucault's theories outlined in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. In Streit's work, they provide "the historical framework for Joyce's sexual confessions, together with the systematic grid to understand its scope" (2). Streit could be more self-critical of this methodology. Though confession and psychoanalysis both propel discourse by offering healing or salvation, he refrains from fully compounding his approach with the fruits of narratology and the branches of historicism. Such methodological complication would be advantageous and felicitous, particularly the inclusion of Peter Brooks's work on narrative desire. Instead of such broader scopes, we have the tight nexus between Joyce's oeuvre and strict Foucauldian conceptions of power and the will to knowledge. Within this wide range of discursive possibilities, Streit focuses on confession and Joyce's systematic resistance to its production of sexual discourse. The topic, nevertheless, is a rich and compelling one. Unlike some studies of Joyce, Streit also, in a most welcome way, treats the entire Joycean canon, though the analytical bulk weighs heavily on his chapter-length studies of A Portrait and Ulysses.

Streit's first chapter functions as a second or continued introduction in its brief survey of Chamber Music and Dubliners and in its claim that these early works initiate Joyce's lifelong use of the profane to infiltrate the "will to knowledge" (14, 34) and resist the "power over life" (15, 56), two of Streit's favorite phrases. He appropriately pays close attention to Poem XII (CP 20) and "The Sisters," yet he unconvincingly claims these works are characteristic of the other poems and stories. Poem XII expands sexual discourse beyond the confines of the confessional (14). The poetic voice wants to hear from the object of his affection and, in the process, supplant the role of confessor held by a Capuchin monk. Streit is at his best in analyzing manuscript changes, and he deftly examines the versions of "The Sisters." These details not only show Joyce's recursive construction of the story as an overture for the collection but also document the stubborn resistance of the boy to the confessional demands of Old Cotter, Father Flynn, and Eliza Flynn.

Stephen Dedalus develops more subtle strategies of resistance. Streit embraces the study of Joyce's oeuvre as a continuous and accretive search for evasion and obfuscation of the discursive "power over life." In examining A Portrait, Streit thus shows how Joyce's Jesuit training taught him the rigor and intricacies of analysis that he would later use subversively. The retreat and Stephen's resultant confession and eventual non serviam form the backbone of Streit's argument. From this foundation, he applies his thesis to many of the major plot elements in Joyce's Bildungsroman: Stephen's relationships with women and the composition of his poems and aesthetic theory. Sometimes the associations are rather loose as Streit relentlessly returns to the idea of resisting the compulsion to confess. His common maneuver is to label secular events a "profane confession" (40). Sin comes to mean only sex, and Stephen wants to learn about sin in order to cultivate his own "will to knowledge."

The analysis of Exiles is perhaps the most pointed illustration of Streit's thesis. In the chapter entitled "The Stage as Confessional: Exiles," he demonstrates how confessions structure the play and drive the plot. While drawing from the simultaneity in the composition history of...

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