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Eugene Jolas: Critical Writings, 1924–1951 ed. by Klaus H. Kiefer and Rainer Rumold (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 4, Summer 2011
pp. 782-784 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0095

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In his important statement-manifesto, “The Language of Night” (140–61), Eugene Jolas delivers his unmistakable mix of nonsense, fluent journalese, high-flown, ultra-modernist screed, and “borrowings” from Joyce’s Wakean locker. The nonsense normally issues forth from a jumped-up sense of his own intellectual worth: “No systematic effort for renovating the creative capacities of language had been made in modern English,” he opines, for instance, “until I founded transition in 1927” (150). The fluent journalese is still cub-reporter cant learned when he was writing his weekly column “Rambles Through Literary Paris” for the Chicago Tribune in the mid-1920s: “Breton, inventing the texte surréaliste (Poisson soluble), pushed the free association to amazingly daring regions” (148). How can one “push” associations? How can “regions” be daring? The ultra-modernist screed appears in the adopted genre—the table-thumping manifesto—where Jolas reproduces the twelve bullet points of his 1929 “Revolution of the Word” proclamation, with its pompous “[w]e hereby declare” and its dubious Marinetti-isms: “Time is a tyranny to be abolished”; “The writer expresses. He does not communicate” (151). And the borrowings from Joyce are predictable, though usefully punchy: “[The language of Work in Progress] is [one] that, in line with Vico’s theory of repetitive cycles, combines in a vast saga the elements of the language of the gods, the heroic language, and popular speech” (149).

What makes the whole performance of interest to us now is the energy with which Jolas anchors Joyce’s most experimental work in its European modernist context. It is a vitality that is not only infectious but persuasive, managing to convince us that Finnegans Wake does have a real filiation with what Jolas calls the “irrationalist movement which developed in France and Germany during the war” (146). Jolas lists the key elements of a number of writers, beginning with Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud and ending with Dada to Surrealism, noting, in the process, the language work of writers like Stefan George, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard, Léon-Paul Fargue, and Jean Paulhan. The insistence and confidence of the manifesto, combined with the easy assimilations of the journalist, have this one advantage: they allow Jolas to describe the scope of the common project of European modernism as early as anyone else. He makes it clear that Joyce’s work is modernist in its espousal of Surrealist methods of composition, its identification of language as a proper field for self-reflexive inquiry, its association with dreamwork, night language, and the Jungian unconscious, its choice of Europe as transnational space, its interest in the decomposition and disintegration of vocables, and its discovery of new combinatory, processual forms of language that reveal and substantiate an international cultural consciousness.

Whether it is true that Joyce was a para-Surrealist in the Wake years is, of course, open to question. Jolas’s general humorlessness means that he is mostly deaf to the sounds of Joyce’s parody, especially any parody of Surrealist representations of the unconscious (for instance, the sly bringing together of “dream monologue” with “drama parapolylogic” or the likening of Surrealism to drunkenness with Festy King “appatently ambrosiaurealised”—FW 474.04–05, 85.32). The transnational and “Eur-American” “Atlantic[ist]” creed that the trilingual Jolas adopted meant his mind was closed to the Irish dimension of Finnegans Wake (121). Much of the word-play and dreaminess in the book is openly parodic of Irish Revival nationalist mysticism and explores language from a perspective colored by the Gaelic/English/European conflicts of Irish history. But the very fact that Joyce tolerated Jolas, even when Jolas absurdly and loudly claimed Joyce was a Romantic artist, means he also tolerated the connections Jolas was making between his great work and the European Surrealist projects. Indeed, transition was known as an American Surrealist review. This at least suggests that Joyce’s suspicion of the avant-garde in Paris was accompanied by an opposing sense of himself as a dreamworker in, and of, language, allied in this to Surrealists like Philippe Soupault.

Jolas is also useful in reminding us of the ferment of ideas and...



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