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James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 3, Spring 2011
pp. 552-558 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0056

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Decades of critical commentaries and interpretations of the state of the Blooms' marital dis/union have left, one would think, little room for anything new to be added. From speculations about the 17 June breakfast to prospects for the couple's reconciliation, Joycean scholarship offers a broad spectrum of analyses and conjectures that, because of the very nature of the text of Ulysses, cannot be asserted or finalized. In James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire, Janine Utell explores the complexities of Joyce's attitude to the institution of marriage, taking as her starting point the fact that, throughout his oeuvre, he "imagines marriage to be the ideal means for two people to come together—a complete joining" (2), even though adultery always threatens that bond. But marriage also becomes for Joyce a site for "grappling with, confronting, facing, and ultimately recognizing the other," and, in such a dynamic, adultery "highlights the impossibility of complete oneness, while also highlighting the ethical necessity of acknowledging that impossibility" (2). The book's focus is marital love, or "couplehood," understood as not only the presence of erotic connection and companionship but also as "an impulse toward mutual understanding and sacrifice [and] a commitment to creating a world of two" (2). Utell acknowledges work done by Joyce scholars on sociopolitical, cultural, and ideological issues that inform his work, among them Cheryl Herr and Richard Brown, as well as writings by sexologists of Joyce's day, including Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose work Joyce read (4).

A word about the title of the book: it derives from the 1910 work by Charles Albert, L'Amour Libre, discussed by R. B. Kershner in his Joyce, Bakhtin and Popular Literature, where Kershner summarizes the main tenets of Albert's advocacy of free love and describes adultery as "the revolt of love against marriage." Utell elaborates on Kershner's phrasing by noting, "It is precisely this revolt that Joyce is staging in his work: a revolt against conventional frameworks of marriage that stifle desire, restrict individuals, and keep men and women from seeing the person they love and recognizing that person as autonomous and, separate [sic]" (3).

The context of this study is effectively presented in the book's introduction entitled "Joyce's Sexual/Textual Ethics." Utell writes, "[I wish] to make a case (a case I think has gone unmade across the body of Joyce criticism) that Joyce's critical, dramatic, and narrative writing, and most particularly his novels, function partly as interventions in contemporary debates surrounding marriage and sex; partly as explorations into the nature of love, marriage, adultery, and desire; and partly as arguments for an ethical love" (13). She aims to demonstrate that, as much as Joyce questioned a "utilitarian attitude toward marriage," he nevertheless "did value marriage in its potential for erotic union" (6, 7). In taking a cue from Michael Mason's essay, "Why is Leopold Bloom a Cuckold?"—a question that "has gone inadequately answered" in Joycean literature—Utell seeks to discover why a man would "facilitate his own wife's affair" (14). Her conclusions are contextualized by contemporary popular novels of adultery, by the 1909 letters between Joyce and Nora, and by coverage of Katharine O'Shea's and Charles Stewart Parnell's affair. Utell reads Ulysses as "the culmination of Joyce's play with the questions and complexities that riddle married love" as she argues that Ulysses forms Joyce's "ultimate argument for an ethical love—even as he acknowledges that such love might be impossible" (14).

The concept of "ethical love" central to Utell's study is thoughtfully framed by the works of Marian Eide, Ronald de Sousa, Robert Nozick, Robert Solomon, and Andrew Gibson, all of whom read "love" and "romantic love" through Levinasian ethics (8-11). Utell's evocation of de Sousa's definition of love as "'the acute consciousness of the impossibility of possession'" (479) helps to underscore the ethical dilemma that Bloom faces throughout the day as the facilitator of Molly's tryst and supports her contention that ethical love is characterized by "the impulse to give individuals greater erotic autonomy" (9, 16). That is, Utell posits, marriage...



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