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Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 297-300 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0014

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In the "Introduction" to Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity, Vike Martina Plock observes that her book should be read "as a collection of essays organized around a specific theme" (4). This notice to the reader is an admission that no medical anatomy of Joyce's work can be attempted in a monograph, but it may also seem, at first glance, like an apology for the scope or selectivity of her project. This "collection of essays" actually works like Joyce's collective novel, Dubliners, and should be read as a kind of collective monograph. Most obviously, her inclusions are governed by the chronology of Joyce's composition, progressing from essays focusing on Dubliners to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and concluding with selected episodes of Ulysses. But Plock's book is actually organized more subtly around a progression of medical themes: from literary symptomology or nosology to medical and literary intertextuality and, finally, to medical tropes and modern culture.

The history of medicine is ably engaged throughout. Her study logically begins, in "Joyce and Modern Medicine," with a survey of Joyce scholars who have touched on the importance of medical science in Joyce's life and writing. Plock then traces the advent of post-Enlightenment modern medicine from the decline of humoral theory to the emergence of empirical medicine. She ranges over the Victorian campaign for sanitation reform in the industrial world, the emergence of germ theory, the rise in respect for the medical profession as a cultural site for moral and ethical discourse, and medicine as a social and political force within the growing health movement, concluding with a discussion of turn-of-the-century theories of degeneration and Joyce's own fascination with Cesare Lombroso.

Literary Symptomology-Nosology: In the first chapter of her book, Plock argues that Joyce, in his fiction, often submits his characters to a "medico-pathological examination" (26), a technique evident in the medical profiles of Farrington in "Counterparts" and Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait. In her analysis of Farrington, she begins with a summary of the Victorian elevation of alcoholism from a moral vice to a disease. Focusing on Lombroso's study of criminal anthropology, phrenology, and the link between alcoholism and mental insanity, Plock demonstrates how Farrington's wandering mind, inability to concentrate, and violent mood swings are symptomatic of his disease. Her analysis of Farrington as a version of R. L. Stevenson's Mr. Hyde is based on a deft unpacking of Pierre Janet's theory of doubling (dédoublement de la personnalité). "Counterparts" thus becomes a case study of alcohol and its relation to authorship and the imagination: as the "author" of a witticism, Farrington becomes a kind of scribbler writing for a drink. Stephen Dedalus, of course, favors another kind of "self-abuse." Plock's essay on A Portrait explores the link between the creativity of the artist, the obsessiveness of the committed scholar, and the perceived pathology of the masturbator. Beginning with rather obscure Victorian anti-masturbation pamphlet writers such as James Barker and Sylvanus Stall and turning to the more eminent figure of Henry Maudsley, Plock defines the medical profile of the masturbator as morose, private, and self-absorbed. She locates these symptoms in Stephen, his love of Lord Byron and Alexandre Dumas, and his "artistic creed" (63) of "silence, exile, and cunning" (P 247). The chapter then ends with a convincing reading of the composition of the villanelle as evidence of the self-absorbed sterility of the failed artist. She is quick to point out that Joyce does not valorize anti-masturbatory Victorian moralists but, rather, shows Stephen entrapped and paralyzed by the cultural discourse of the day.

Medico-Literary Intertextuality: Given Plock's methodology in this work, all of the essays are intertextual and about intertextuality: not only does Joyce employ medical intertexts as he diagnoses his characters and Dublin culture, but Plock's medical framing of Joyce's work adds an historical and cultural layer of intertexts. In the medial chapter "'The True Purefoy Nose': Medicine, Obstetrics, and the Aesthetics of Reproduction in 'Oxen of the Sun,'" Plock studies the intertextuality of this episode and the first three books of Laurence Sterne...

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