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James Joyce and the Mythology of Modernism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 602-606 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0037

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One surmises, from the title of Daniel M. Shea's book, James Joyce and the Mythology of Modernism, that this study cuts a broad swath through Joyce's body of work. The title is freighted with two magnificently unwieldy ideas, and Shea does not retreat from some of the largest, most daunting topics in Joyce studies: myth, modernism, history, theology, philosophy, aesthetics, economics, natural science, anthropology, and publishing. The reader confronts a book consisting of eight unnumbered chapters with no formal introduction or conclusion and no subdivisions in any of them. While the writer's voice is consistent and recognizable throughout, the book's argument, the territory in Joyce studies it attempts to stake out, and a discernable and systematic plan of development are not. Published with a plain orange-and-black soft-cover as part of a "Studies in English Literatures" series by Ibidem-Verlag in Stuttgart, Shea's book enters an ever-tightening academic publishing world as an unfocused study that aspires to fruitful insights but is so sweeping in conception that only in moments does it find its focus.

A few chapters into James Joyce and the Mythology of Modernism, I was both impressed and dismayed at how polymathic Shea's approach is and how generalist and broad its orientation. He wastes no time in approaching Joyce via the most consequential and sweeping frames of reference. The book begins with a dual focus on myth and religion, attempting to claim Joyce as both Roman Catholic and myth-maker—a paradoxically loyal apostate who affirms God by challenging him through aspiring to the role of mythopoeic artist-hierophant. In his first chapter, Shea takes an oppositional and rhetorically charged tone in attempting to establish his central claims. In a way typical of the entire book, his sentences are often both grandiloquent and vague. Attempting to read Ulysses as more than a text structured by mythic parallels, Shea writes, "Forty-odd years after [S. L.] Goldberg's observation of the fullness of Joyceana, this study purports to be no different, as I propose a vision of James Joyce as a mythopoeic writer whose agenda was no less than the artistic representation of his entire world beyond the material and towards the divine" (2). He also repeatedly chides "critics" for missing what he, himself, has seen. In the first chapter alone, he offers these statements: "In this respect, Joyce's approach towards mythology is one such item in the current arsenal of evaluations that has been softly, quietly and complacently accepted" (2); "[w]hen this path is taken, though, the critical lens too often blinds itself to the realities of Joyce's own milieu" (3); and "[t]he unfortunate tendency of critics to separate the text from its mythic import has diverted critical attention away from Joyce's own work in accomplishing what his forebears had done" (6). This "what critics have failed to understand" motif continues throughout the book as if it were bent on exposing a conspiracy. By the end of the first chapter, we have encountered some of the central problems of Shea's study. In chapter 1, subtitled "The Need for a New Myth," he eschews any systematic attempt to define myth and its dizzying multiplicity of meanings by integrating scholarship from anthropology, comparative religion, and folklore studies. Worse, he neglects to address any critics by name who, he claims, have missed the point about myth, failing to engage the vast Joyce critical tradition in any sustained way. Who are they who have missed what he has seen? Out of what critical loam has he crafted his own work? While he cites other scholars periodically, one is left with the impression that Shea has made no attempt to situate his book within the critical context of the present decade; his sparse bibliography lists a mere seven critical works published after 2000 and none published after 2002.

Shea's work thus exists in a kind of critical solitary confinement chamber. To his credit, he aspires to refocus the way Joyceans think about myth and Joyce's "mythical method" as more than merely "structure, trellis, or even a method" (173). Myth is a vital and living part of...

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