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Joyce the Egoist

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 4, Number 3, September 1997
pp. 45-65 | 10.1353/mod.1997.0057

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Modernism/Modernity 4.3 (1997) 45-65

In January 1914, an obscure London journal titled the New Freewoman changed its name to the Egoist. In recent years, the change has become a subject of intense debate among scholars of literary modernism, some of whom claim that it marks a key transformation within literary modernism itself (or at least in its Anglo-American version), a turn away from modernism's earlier affiliations with militant feminism and toward a more agonistic and decidedly male modernism. The work of Joyce, who published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and much of Ulysses in the journal, has become a crucial site for the unfolding of this debate, in part because his affiliations with the journal were critical to his early career and left lasting traces throughout his work, and in part because of his undisputed status as the paradigmatic master of modernist prose. How were the relations between modernism and feminism played out in the change of the journal's name? What were the gender affiliations of egoism, and how did they overlap with the increasingly troubled status of the self and notions of modern heroism, and in what ways were they linked with the kind of relentless linguistic experimentalism so typically associated with Joyce? These have become pressing questions, and I propose to reconsider them by teasing out Joyce's complicated associations with egoism, viewed here as a set of philosophical commitments that intersect in complex ways with contemporary debates about gender, politics, and language.

1. From the New Freewoman to the Egoist

One passage of Finnegans Wake shows that Joyce never forgot the magazine that had launched his literary career: ". . . I'm so keen on that New Free Woman with novel inside." However, the full context may qualify the tone of the speaking voice:

Of I be leib in the immoralities? O, you mean the strangle for love and the sowiveall of the prettiest? Yep, we open hap coseries in the home. And once upon a week I improve on myself I'm so keen on that New Free Woman with novel inside. I'm always as tickled as can be over Man in a Surplus by the Lady who Pays the Rates. [FW, 145.25-31]

Joyce's irony is directed at the mixture of neo-Darwinism and feminism that was rampant among the magazine's editors and contributors, perhaps a reflex of his gradual move away from any form of radical politics in the 1930s. A passage from Ulysses seems to confirm the idea that Joyce identified more with the Egoist than with the New Freewoman. Stephen Dedalus, locked in debate with the librarian John Eglington, thinks to himself: "I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief. That is, help me to believe or help me to unbelieve? Who helps to believe? Egomen. Who to unbelieve? Other chap" (U, 9.1078-80). Joyce plays on the Greek ego, followed by the intensive particle men ("really"), which, in a Platonic dialogue, means "yes, truly." Gifford and Seidman, among others, see this as an allusion to the Egoist, a journal that indeed helped Joyce "to believe" in his work at a time when it faced the greatest difficulties in getting published; while the "other chap," accordingly, would be George Roberts, the publisher who hesitated to issue Dubliners and finally destroyed the sheets in 1912.

Joyce, in fact, goes further than merely alluding to the journal; the passage directly quotes from the leading article by Dora Marsden in the Egoist of 1 August 1914, when the journal was still serializing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Marsden, meditating on the concept of "authority," deftly links together the verb "to believe" with the notion "to leave doubt":

. . . the voices of authority echo one to another all the world round with the cry of "Believe, believe." They mean, "Leave decision, leave it, leave it to us," in effect asserting that knowledge is a spurious form, a degraded type of the ideal which is lack-of-knowledge. . . . The sacred is indeed the first weapon of defence against the prying questions of intelligence. . . . Very naturally, therefore, all that one believes is by...


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