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James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 10, Number 3, September 2003
pp. 573-575 | 10.1353/mod.2003.0053

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Modernism/modernity 10.3 (2003) 573-575

James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism. Jean-Michel Rabaté. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. x + 248. $60.00 (cloth); $22.00 (paper).

A book about Joyce, modernism and the therapeutics of reading, Jean-Michel Rabaté's James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism questions Umberto Eco's account of modern fiction's "ideal reader." Rabaté notes that although Eco in The Limits of Interpretation "admits that the 'ideal reader' of [Finnegans] Wake could indeed be described as a 'deconstructionist reader,' for whom texts are inexhaustible, for whom any true interpretation is a creative misprision, and in short for whom there can only be an 'infinite series of original re-creations,'" Eco shies away from the implications of the paradigm: "'It is impossible,'" Eco writes, "'to say which is the best interpretation of a text, but it is possible to say which ones are wrong . . . How to prove that a given interpretive conjecture is . . . at least an acceptable one? The only way is to check it against the text as a coherent whole. . . [it] must be rejected if it is challenged, by another portion of the same text. In this sense the internal textual coherence controls the otherwise uncontrollable drift of the reader'"(197-8). For Rabaté, however, this last qualification misses the point of Joyce's work, especially that of FinnegansWake, where Joyce strives to leave behind the dead hand of any authority and to create what a telling notebook entry calls: "revolution of the word / manage- / burial of old sense" (208).

The most intriguing element of Rabaté's argument concerns the relation of FinnegansWake to the growing mental illness of Joyce's daughter, Lucia. Joyce, Rabaté suggests, created the Wake's hermetic and paranoid world of language, as something "capable not just of imitating Lucia's quasi-psychotic idiom, but of actually curing it" (21). After enticing Lucia to become a reader of his book, that is, Joyce tried to refashion her psyche by reshaping her reading practices. He replicated the intense innerness of Lucia's language and then tried to condition her reading in a way that required her to become self-conscious of her own construction of the world, thus hoping to overcome her diseased tendencies both to "deny the arbitrary link between signifiers and signified" and "to negate the social link that (re)motivates language for whoever speaks" (22). Alas, Joyce's therapy failed to cure his daughter, whose condition continued to worsen. But Joyce's therapeutic intentions, Rabaté holds, nevertheless provide us with our best understanding of the procedures and the purposes of the Wake and of the late modernism of the 1930s in which it played such an important role.

Rabaté reminds us, moreover, that Joyce's interest in the manifestations of egoism preexisted his fatherly concern. Observers such as Stuart Gilbert had long ago noticed that Lucia's illness shared Joyce's own middle-aged "egoism," which included an "'indifference' to human issues" and a "determination to let [the] world shrink to that of an extended family" (21). Egoism, in fact, had been a central issue for Joyce over many years, and much of Rabaté's book investigates that period in Joyce's career (1902-1915), when he used the word as a talisman and which culminated when he entered the world of international fiction within the pages of a post-feminist and post-anarchist journal entitled The Egoist. Drawing on Fichte, Stirner, Nietzsche, Meredith and others, Rabaté elucidates the importance of egoism as a keystone of modernist writing and philosophy. Joyce, he argues, along with Dora Marsden, the editor of The Egoist, understood that although a naïve philosophy of the self might replicate the absurdities of Romanticism, nevertheless the philosophical tyranny of abstract "causes" could only be combatted by a willful and ferocious assertion of self. (Rabaté implies that this stance can usefully be identified with post-feminism because of the Victorian's insistence of the selflessness of femininity.) Following Stirner, therefore, Joyce and his party pursued a critique of the egoist position as it was imbedded not only in the diseases of the psyche but also in "historical neuroses such as...

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