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New Millennial Joyce

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 53, Number 1, Spring 2007
pp. 163-173 | 10.1353/mfs.2007.0019

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James Joyce's Ulysses is today regarded as one of highest literary accomplishments of the twentieth century. It is a judgment that even his detractors are now likely to accept. Early reviews of Ulysses, however, were deeply divided, some accusing Joyce of purveying in pornographic filth, others praising it for its innovative style and subject matter. By the 1950s and 1960s, academic critics, perhaps uncomfortable with Joyce's linguistic and narrative experiments, sought to find order and coherent meaning in works like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. It was not until the 1980s, with the arrival of theory, that Joyce's work became the foundation of a far-reaching and influential industry. This is the narrative that Joseph Brooker relates in Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture. It is the story of a subversive cultural figure who gradually moves from iconoclast to icon .

The process began with T. S. Eliot's 1923 review of Ulysses. Far from reacting with horror as had so many earlier reviewers, far from disparaging Ulysses as formless or obscene or anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, Eliot discerned in it a "mythic method," "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history" (177). At the same time, Ezra Pound, in an attempt to pressgang Joyce into the ranks of the "Men of 1914" (as Wyndham Lewis famously identified Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and himself [249]), praised his modernization, his Flaubertian severity of style and detachment from nationality. Eliot's desire to take comfort in Joyce's methodical use of Homer was shared by Pound, who once remarked that Joyce used the Odyssey as a form of scaffolding, "a means of construction, justified by the result, and justifiable by it only" (Pound 406). Despite Lewis's attempt to banish Joyce from the "developed modernist aesthetic" (48), Eliot and Pound prevailed in "denationalizing" Joyce and making him an exemplar of what would come to be known as "international modernism" (49).

The "critical internationalization of Joyce" (55) continued in the journal transition, which, from 1927 to 1938, published installments of Work in Progress (later Finnegans Wake). Eugene Jolas, editor of transition, insisted on cosmopolitanism in matters of aesthetics but privileged language over the abstract image celebrated by the Men of 1914. This language-centered aesthetic was reinforced by the essays collected in Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929). In the most famous of these essays, Samuel Beckett argued that Joyce's language possessed "the savage economy of hieroglyphics," that his words "are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear" (57–8). The 1930s saw the first full-length studies of Joyce's Ulysses by Stuart Gilbert and Frank Budgen, who had been more or less conscripted by Joyce to promote his life and work. It is with Gilbert that we see the beginning of "a long-term trend toward completeness and totality in the understanding of Joyce, the belief that his work not only bears but demands exhaustive explication" (60–1). Gilbert also carried on the tradition of a classical reading of Ulysses, elaborating on the "mythic method" that so attracted Eliot and Pound. Budgen attempted a quite different form of domestication by situating Joyce within a tradition of the realist novel.

Brooker's account of the early reception of Joyce's work provides not only a glimpse into the making of Joyce's reputation but also a compelling discussion of the formation of international modernism. The chapter that follows is a somewhat less compelling treatment of Joyce's academic reception. In England, F. R. Leavis's largely negative judgment of Joyce's work rested on his belief that it lay outside the English novel tradition. In elevating language over the kind of "Adamic ruralism" (79) that Leavis favored, Joyce aligned himself with a cosmopolitan modernism quite different from the homegrown variety he associated with D. H. Lawrence. In the US, Harry Levin, in James Joyce: A Critical Introduction (1941), insisted on Joyce's cosmopolitan, European perspective. His vision of modernism, like Edmund Wilson's, was structured around...

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