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Modernist Humanism and the Men of 1914: Joyce, Lewis, Pound, and Eliot by Stephen Sicari (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 4, Summer 2011
pp. 769-772 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0086

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One of the most controversial moments in Joyce studies emerged from Hans Walter Gabler’s decision to define, once and for all, the word known to all men. The debate enlivened the pages of this journal and elsewhere, and I am sure most readers know the passages of Ulysses in question.1 Gabler’s introduction, in “Scylla and Charybdis,” of the purported answer from Stephen Dedalus—”Do you know what you are talking about? Love, yes. Word known to all men” (U 9.429–30)—both solved the question and raised further issues. How are we to take this? Is it ironic? Does it provide a proleptic moment of connection with Bloom, who will assert in “Cyclops” that “[f]orce, hatred, history, all that. . . . everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life. . . . Love. . . . I mean the opposite of hatred” (U 12.1481–85). Of course, Bloom’s humane statement is immediately denigrated by the barflies, but some readers have taken the Citizen’s assessment—”A new apostle to the gentiles. . . . Universal love” (U 12.1489)—quite literally as a credo for the book. Love, universal love, humanistic love, transcendent love, ethical love, agape, eros: Gabler gave a number of critics (myself included) a license to love love.2

Stephen Sicari’s book Modernist Humanism and the Men of 1914: Joyce, Lewis, Pound, and Eliot makes a case for the primacy of love in Joyce’s work and others. In his reading of Joyce, he focuses on Ulysses, arguing that its humanistic vision takes the place of a radical skepticism that was originally part of the modernist project. Ulysses is the earliest work examined by Sicari here; after a chapter on Joyce’s 1922 novel, he moves on to Wyndham Lewis’s The Revenge for Love, Ezra Pound’s late cantos, and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.3 As he writes in the conclusion to his study, titled “Modernist Humanism: A Love Story,” “Each in his own way discovered love, or agape, as the permanent and constant ideal capable of grounding a sense of human being and of value” (198).

The years of Blast contained a call to reject, even destroy, institutions and the authoritative forms of knowledge and discourse they supported. Once those forms were emptied out, however, the authors discussed here sought something new, even redemptive, to fill that space.4 What they found was a humanism that was not modernist but actually hearkened back to the early modern period: a rejection of rationality, order, and the strictures placed on experience by reified forms of knowledge, all in the service of reclaiming the nobility of the individual from the indignity of modernity with its ideologies, bureaucratic dehumanization, and mechanization of everyday life. Sicari claims for each writer a humanism reminiscent of the intellectual and spiritual stance of early modern thinkers like Erasmus, Dante, and François Rabelais, rooted not in an Enlightenment tradition but rather a Christian one, characterized by faith, love, and the quest for redemption. Sicari’s modernist humanism has four qualities, exemplified by the chosen writers: a move to situate the body as something sacred and worthy, a belief in the power of love, a rejection of mastery in favor of humility, and an acceptance of the transcendent and the ways it allows us to push against the limits of language and time. For readers of Joyce, the implications of Sicari’s argument are that Leopold Bloom is conceived of as a Christ-like figure and Ulysses as a text putting forth an incarnational vision of love and redemption.

In his earlier book, Joyce’s Modernist Allegory: “Ulysses” and the History of the Novel, Sicari reads the trajectory of Ulysses as moving from the naturalism of the early Bloom episodes to a more figurative, allegorical, allusive style that opens a path to something more visionary: “The Bloom of the early episodes, an epitome of humanism, is worked upon until he becomes ‘abstract,’ standing for values that move beyond a culturally determined context and reach toward the timeless. That is the ‘religious emotion’ Ulysses is moving toward.”5 The book under review is an extension of this 2001 study and...

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