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Joyce's Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnic of Ulysses (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 7, Number 2, April 2000
pp. 324-326 | 10.1353/mod.2000.0041

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Modernism/Modernity 7.2 (2000) 324-326

Book Review

Joyce's Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnic of Ulysses

Joyce's Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnic of Ulysses. John S. Rickard. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. x + 240. $49.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

"Stop twirling your thumbs and have a good old thunk. See, you have forgotten. Exercise your mnemotechnic," counsels Leopold Bloom's dead grandfather Lipoti Virag in the "Circe" episode of Ulysses. Certainly it has long been understood that issues like memory, mourning, and the boundaries of the self are key in Joyce's fiction, perhaps nowhere more so than in Ulysses, but John S. Rickard's book breathes fresh life into an old subject and engagingly shows us why it is so important to understand what Lipoti Virag's enigmatic advice implies. Not surprisingly, many investigations of topics like these in Ulysses have been either purely formalist or informed by psychoanalytic paradigms. Though Freud plays an important role in Joyce's Book of Memory, Rickard approaches his subject from a primarily historicist rather than a psychoanalytic perspective. In so doing he highlights a compelling and overlooked set of tensions in the text that opens up new readings of many frequently discussed sections of Ulysses.

Rickard lays out a set of related concepts at odds with one another in Joyce's thought. One might align these dichotomies roughly as: activist theories of memory, involuntary memory, entelechy, telos, and neo-Lamarckian theories of evolution versus passivist theories of memory, voluntary memory, skeptical empiricism, mechanistic and materialistic theories of the self and the nature of the universe, and Darwinian theories of evolution as the result of random mutation. While one should not be surprised to find at the center of such a series of paradigms figures like Henri Bergson (the relationship between Joyce and Bergson has been a subject of investigation for at least four decades) and other neo-Lamarckian writers like George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Butler, as well as writers like Marcel Proust to whom involuntary memory was key, Rickard also brings some unexpected source material to bear upon Joyce's work. He turns to Joyce's heavily annotated copy of Psychology by Rev. Michael Maher, S. J., as an example of a Catholic perspective that sets the notions about the mind and soul held by Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas against the empiricism of John Locke and David Hume and the evolutionary theories of Darwin to argue that memory and the self are the result of something persistent that resists change -- a vital principle or "soul" that Maher also aligns against the Darwinian understanding of change occurring by chance (24-9). Rickard suggests, plausibly, that Maher's work may have been a source for some of Stephen's thinking about identity in Ulysses (in "Proteus" and, especially, in "Scylla and Charybdis").

From these sources emerges a way of thinking about many seemingly unrelated issues -- evolution, history, self-consciousness, and neurosis, for instance -- that ultimately is based upon disparate theories of memory. A "passivist" or empiricist sense of the past construes it as a set of discrete memories (like photographs or records, Rickard points out) that can be retrieved and assembled voluntarily into a linear sequence of events. By comparison, an "activist" understanding of the past sees it as impinging upon the present and the future in a more or less involuntary way (a synchronic vision best elaborated in Bergson's work), and experienced not so much by voluntary retrieval of memory, but rather, as Bergson and Proust would emphasize, through the experientially overwhelming involuntary flood of memory that colors our experience of the present. Joyce shows voluntary memory to be inadequate to characters like Bloom and Stephen who are still carrying heavy emotional baggage from their past -- Stephen's morose and guilt-laden relationship to his dead mother, and Bloom's sexual estrangement from Molly stemming from his infant son Rudy's death.

At times Rickard may stretch his claims about forms of memory a little too thin (can intertextuality fruitfully be considered a kind of memory?), and the book occasionally falls prey to the troubles of evidence, relying upon words like "zeitgeist" (92), "cultural...



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