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Judging Joyce

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 6, Number 3, September 1999
pp. 15-32 | 10.1353/mod.1999.0024

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Modernism/Modernity 6.3 (1999) 15-32

It may be a legal or a theological fiction (as Joyce would probably have insisted), but the impending millennial changeover seems to encourage the asking of large questions and the taking of long views. This essay will be an instance.

The imminent end of what we think of as "our" millennium also seems to breed surveys and polls, and few readers of daily newspapers can have escaped seeing one or more lists of "best books" or "most important authors" in which James Joyce and his works figure prominently. Among the large questions I find myself asking at this transitional moment are: "What is the significance of Joyce's emergence as the preeminent literary figure of the twentieth century and one of the most admired artists of the second millennium? And in the face of this pre-eminence, what are the responsibilities of those who are professionally involved with Joyce as we look ahead to a new era?"

1. An industry without limits

When one is starting on a career as a scholar and critic, it's a common mistake, and perhaps even a necessary one, to think of one's work as leading, together with the work of one's colleagues, to a solid edifice which will stand as a firm and unchanging basis for further scholarly and critical building projects. Each stage in this process, one assumes, will lead the scholarly community closer to the goal of full and final exegesis together with textual stability and historico-biographical certainty. From this perspective on critical practice, the massive accumulation of commentary on Joyce can only be dispiriting: after the deployment of so much skill and the expenditure of so much effort, surely we should be approaching something like a full understanding and appreciation of his work. The avalanche of books and articles should be slowing down as unexplored areas become fewer, explications more accurate, critical judgments sounder. But the very opposite seems to be happening.

There are several reasons for this. One is the fact that, although the number of different commentaries on Joyce seems bewilderingly large, it's only a tiny proportion of the potential number. Even works significantly less complex than Joyce's allow of a huge variety of critical responses. We like to think that, because there are so many books on Joyce on our library shelves, there has been a logical progression whereby important topics have been systematically covered and gaps gradually filled; but in fact authors' choices of subject and editors' and publishers' decisions about publication are in large measure the product of pressures and contingencies that have nothing to do with intellectual or cultural need. Think how many biographies of Joyce could be written, each quite different from the last; how many editions of each of his books could be produced; how many textual details could be explored, how many critical approaches employed, how many intertextual and historical connections drawn. The graduate student embarking on a dissertation on Joyce is likely to survey the array of secondary literature and feel despairingly that there is nothing left to be done. What we actually have, however, is a small, and rather random, selection of what is possible according to current canons of critical activity.

A second reason why the model of a closer and closer approach to full understanding is not appropriate is that it fails to take the essentially temporal and spatial nature of the cultural field into account. That is, the meaning and value of a cultural object -- such as Ulysses--is a product of that object's interaction with a specific cultural matrix, and cultural matrices vary across time and space. The consequence is that Joyce's works, like any artefacts sufficiently rich in their relations to their constituting context, can never be exhausted: after a certain measure of time (in a given place), the object is no longer the same object, and commentary has a new task. In fulfilling its new task, commentary also helps to constitute the object in its new form. The humanist Ulysses is partly displaced by the formalist Ulysses, the poststructuralist Ulysses, the new historicist Ulysses, the postcolonial Ulysses.

I say...


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