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Introduction to "Joyce and Physiology"

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 431-437 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0034

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In 1899, Joyce opened his matriculation essay, "The Study of Languages," with a description of "the seven earthly sciences": a fresco in the church of Santa Maria Novella at Florence depicting the seven liberal arts "in a gradual progress from Science to Science, from Grammar to Rhetoric, from Rhetoric to Music and so on to Arithmetic." Inspired by the work of such scientific luminaries as John Tyndall and such eminent literati as Matthew Arnold, both of whom delivered prominent addresses on the contested topic of the relationship between literature and science in higher education in the 1870s and 1880s, Joyce sets out to vindicate the study of literature and languages. If, he argues, the image of the seven earthly sciences in the Florentine chapel suggests that Arithmetic or Mathematics represents the culmination of human knowledge, the artist also "assumes that Grammar, or Letters, is a Science" (Writing 12). Literature is, Joyce deduces, no lofty, speculative, or imaginary exercise but a precise and coherent system based on a measured symmetry of ideas, facts, and emotions—an organized and methodical compositional technique that is "ruled and directed by clear regulations, sometimes of facts, sometimes of ideas" (Writing 13). In this inclusive reading of literature and science, literature becomes, once more, an ennobled part of mankind's worthiest intellectual pursuit.

Joyce's contribution to the late-nineteenth-century "two cultures debate" is, admittedly, as pompous and sophomoric as many of his other juvenile literary attempts, yet his interest in the topic nonetheless merits consideration. The young Joyce was extremely alert to the intellectual and cultural fads and fashions of his time—his passionate support for Henrik Ibsen's drama is a case in point—and his decision to follow in Arnold's footsteps and write an essay on the relationship between literary and scientific learning shows that the question of how to reconcile these different forms of knowledge mesmerized many at the turn of the century. Whereas, as Gillian Beer argues, in "the mid-nineteenth century, scientists still shared a common language with other educated readers and writers of their time," things seemed to have changed by the time Joyce set out to establish himself as a novelist. The relationship between humanist learning and the sciences was now defined as one of aggressive oppositions and not of collaboration and intellectual reciprocation. As Joyce explains, "a line of stern demarcation" is thus drawn "between the two" (Writing 13)—a fact provoking both ample commentary and fierce criticism from scientists and scholars such as Thomas Henry Huxley as well as Tyndall and Arnold. No wonder, then, that the young Joyce felt this topic deserved his attention.

This special issue of the James Joyce Quarterly investigates Joyce's interest in the relationship between literature and the sciences. But since he opted for medical studies no less than three times (LettersI 137), his reliance on physiological matters and metaphors rightly takes center stage in the following articles—all of which situate his works at the crossroad of literature and science to illustrate the point made in "The Study of Languages" that no gulf separates the two disciplines. In Joyce's fiction, literary and scientific knowledge paradigms productively meet, intersect, and share common intellectual ground.

Joyce explicitly announced his indebtedness to physiological discourses and debates in the development of his literary practices when he chose the term "paralysis" to describe his fellow Dubliners and also when he allocated a body organ to most of the episodes in Ulysses. Consequently, from the very beginning, critics have noted the connections between Joyce's prose and physiological processes and details. Since J. B. Lyons published his pioneering study on Joyce and medicine in 1973, a number of scholars such as Florence A. Walzl, Mary Lowe-Evans, and Richard Brown have excavated further aspects of Joyce's diversified knowledge of biological and physiological sciences. More recent criticism, such as Christine Froula's book Modernism's Body, has drawn distinctively on psychoanalytical theory to anatomize Joyce's textual corpus, and a similar commitment to read his engagement with physiological matters and debates through a theoretical lens informs many of the essays in the 2006 collection Joyce, "Penelope," and the Body. What distinguishes the...

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