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The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh (review)
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In 2008, Sarah Tribout-Joseph published Proust and Joyce in Dialogue. The title of Michael O'Sullivan's second book, The Incarnation of Language: Joyce, Proust and a Philosophy of the Flesh, which came off the press in the same year, might seem to adumbrate an exploration of broadly similar literary terrain. But such is not the case: O'Sullivan's study constitutes a markedly different kind of endeavor. This is clear from even the briefest of glances at these two works' respective opening gambits. While Tribout-Joseph's inquiries begin with an account of James Joyce's and Marcel Proust's much mythologized meeting in Paris in 1922, O'Sullivan's first sentence hones in on the theological and philosophical concerns at the heart of his investigation. "The Incarnation story," he declares, "is a compelling one" (1), before launching into a dense exposition of some of the links between various exegeses of the Biblical narrative and twentieth-century phenomenology.

O'Sullivan's study comprises four chapters: "Phenomenology and Incarnation," "Joyce and the Incarnation of Language," "Proust and the Incarnation of Language," and "Incarnation and Impotence: Joyce, Proust and Desire." The book is in some ways a continuation of musings presented in O'Sullivan's first book, Michel Henry: Incarnation, Barbarism and Belief (chapter 1 incorporates sections from this earlier monograph). It is apparent from the titles of O'Sullivan's texts, with their predilection for the enumeration of abstract nouns, that his studies are ambitious in their breadth and subject-matter and that they are forthrightly theoretical in their critical proclivities.

Even among the scholarly literary-critical community, theoretically inclined works have a reputation for difficulty verging on impenetrability, and this study is not one to assuage the doubts of skeptics. Every page is packed with highly conceptual jargon. Working definitions of terms and phrases drawn from specialized corners of theology, phenomenology, and literary criticism are not provided. As a result, the book's semantic fabric is a slippery, often inscrutable, surface, and O'Sullivan's meaning can, at times, be bafflingly elusive. This state of affairs is not helped by the fact that his own voice is systematically muted by frequent references to, and quotations from, a wide array of pronouncements by other thinkers. Names and inverted commas swarm the text, filling every interstice in which an original argument might unfold. Michel Henry, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl, Emmanuel Levinas, Luce Irigaray, Paul Ricoeur, Hent de Vries, Julia Kristeva, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière: these are just some of the names whose authority is invoked in the introduction alone.

O'Sullivan's study takes religious images in Joyce's and Proust's works as points of departure for his consideration of a vast range of abstruse philosophical musings on the connections between word and flesh, rightly claiming that "Joyce and Proust share a devotional attention to the artistic process that draws them to the concepts of incarnation and transubstantiation as motifs for artistic endeavour" (5). He examines ways in which the oeuvres of these two canonical modernists may be said to perform phenomenological incarnations of their own. Such a project speaks to some of the longstanding interests of Joycean scholarship, which has long been fascinated by the author's use of epiphany, incarnation, and transubstantiation as images for artistic practice. But precisely because interest in such themes runs high, readers from this particular section of the audience risk disappointment since any real examination of the details and implications of Joyce's treatment of such matters is substantially occluded by the mode of the broad-ranging overview that is adopted here. O'Sullivan's book offers frustratingly little in the way of close reading, and Joyce's and Proust's works, when mentioned at all, are surveyed as though from a great distance and through many mediating lenses. Because O'Sullivan spends little time attending to the minutiae of authors' texts, his statement that "Joyce's aesthetic retains an interest in such a moment of incarnation throughout its various manifestations" is only occasionally supported by actual reference to the relevant works (67).

Moreover, a number of O'Sullivan's claims seem too...

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