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James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 2, Number 3, September 1995
pp. 180-182 | 10.1353/mod.1995.0049

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Modernism/Modernity 2.3 (1995) 180-182

Book Review

James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare

James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus's Nightmare. Robert Spoo. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp viii + 195. $39.95.

History, T. S. Eliot writes in "Gerontion," contains many cunning passages and contrived corridors. Eliot's labyrinthine vision should hold cautionary resonance for readers of Joyce, for many of the philosophies of the past found within his works are mediated by the namesake of that master artificer, Dedalus, whose signal creation may be seen as a warning to those who would untangle the skein of history's ruined tapestry. In his new book Robert Spoo argues that historically informed studies of Joyce have tended to privilege a materialist and populist criticism that owes its shape to the worldview of Leopold Bloom, devaluing or ignoring the equally insistent intellectual and "high-cultural" concerns presented by the mind of Stephen Dedalus. Spoo redresses this balance in a series of intricate readings that concern themselves foremost with ideas of history in Joyce's major works, first establishing the range of Joyce's late-Victorian historical and historiographic knowledge, then carefully analyzing chosen chapters from Ulysses in order to illuminate a major postromantic crisis within Joyce's works: the replacement of the idea of history as an immanent past that can be reached directly by a historiography that knows itself to be merely a Penelopean weaving and unweaving of narratives.

An historical study of Joyce faces a Scylla and Charybdis of choices. One may focus, as have recent studies, on Ulysses's use of incidents from Irish history (in which case theoretical concerns for history as intellectual construct may be overshadowed by attention to detail), or read Ulysses through the lens of postcolonial theory, attending to the historical conditions of the time of Joyce's writing rather than upon the past materials so insistently manifest in his fictions. Spoo takes a middle ground, neither forgetting the importance of factual incident to the fabric of Ulysses nor underplaying the world of Joyce's intellectual growth, yet subordinating both to the writing of history per se. He explores the several ways in which Joyce's texts investigate historical forces and modes of historical knowing, and how Joyce enacts stylistic resistances to historical discourses. Spoo argues that the historiographer, like the uncanny fox who buries his grandmother in Stephen's schoolroom riddle in Ulysses, inevitably reobscures the past in a new rhetorical shroud even as he unearths it. To this end he musters an eclectic range of critical perspectives, approaching history first as an integral part of Joyce's intellectual background and narrative concerns and later exploring how Ulysses transforms those thematic ideas into textual practice. The opening chapter, for instance, deals with Joyce's attitudes toward history in his letters and reading in Rome from 1906-1907 -- material firmly rooted in the intellectual source scholarship of Richard Ellmann and Dominic Manganiello -- but is followed by a reading of the images of history in A Portrait of the Artist that notes the persistent dual presence of paradoxical metaphors of the past as both "ghost" and "weaving." The remainder of the book investigates Ulysses, particularly those chapters where Stephen is most dramatically present, and it always keeps stylistic and rhetorical issues firmly in the middle ground, sensitive to the ways in which Joyce's ironic epic not only interrogates history as the often repressive persistence of the past but also as the already mediated text from which Ulysses builds its stylistic experimentation as a response to Stephen's historical musings.

Spoo convincingly deals with the oscillating relationship between historical discourse, fact, and fictional text, and by and large moves deftly between formal and historical registers. Seldom has Joyce been so thoroughly positioned within European literary and intellectual culture: here Joyce is not merely conditioned by Friedrich Nietzsche and a predecessor of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, but a product of the ideas of Edward Gibbon, W. E. H. Lecky, Thomas Carlyle, and Walter Pater, and juxtaposed fruitfully with the historical musings of such unlikely bedfellows as Henry Adams and Arthur Quiller-Couch, Virginia Woolf and Guillaume...


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