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Joyce's Revenge: History, Politics and Aesthetics in Ulysses (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 11, Number 4, November 2004
pp. 837-839 | 10.1353/mod.2005.0002

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Modernism/modernity 11.4 (2004) 837-839

Joyce's Revenge: History, Politics and Aesthetics in Ulysses. Andrew Gibson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 306. $80.00 (cloth).

Andrew Gibson's is easily one of the most serious of academic books to have appeared on Joyce in recent years. It is densely researched, full of ideas, and well embedded in current academic questions, and is sure to become a familiar point of reference in future debates as well as a standard to which subsequent researchers will have to aspire. There's a good deal more packed into it than can be represented comfortably in a short review. The author's abilities as a chapter-by-chapter reader of Ulysses, as a fluent narrative theoretician and as an impressively informed cultural historian are not at all in doubt; moreover they merge impressively here as in relatively few other books on Joyce. Gibson reads Joyce's work attentively and scrupulously, contextualizes it precisely (while still provocatively), and theorizes it more subtly than is usually the case in Joyce criticism. There's an especially responsible focus on the Irish historico-political contexts that are contemporary with the setting of Ulysses. Gibson revisits the dustier shelves of Joyce's wide-ranging and substantial literary interests so that, remarkably, Ulysses seems at once more Irish and also in a way more English, more political and yet more intellectual, than it has ever seemed before. What Gibson takes (to my mind rather conventionally) to be the demons of contemporary criticism—liberalism and cosmopolitanism—he sternly rebukes. His own work on "Nausicaa" and "Penelope" notwithstanding, he treats many of the recent advances in contemporary cultural and gender studies somewhat disparagingly as "a bit of sex and street life" (23).

The book couldn't be accused of ignoring Joyce's lightness or his humor. On the contrary it repeatedly defines much in Joyce's literary practice as a kind of subversive Irish political humor. This Gibson extrapolates in part from H. P. Kelly's book Irish Bulls and Puns, which, as he presents it, we may no longer be able to dismiss or even enjoy as a bit of harmless fun. Rather Gibson sees both it and Joyce through the preternaturally resonant Nietzschean concept of ressentiment . It goes without saying that this is an impressive and suggestive combination of the funny and the deeply serious. However, there may be a danger in essentializing Joyce and Irish literature as fundamentally vengeful in intent; to do so threatens to lock them both into an Oedipal paradigm that may ultimately entrap as much as liberate. I suppose it is a tribute to this book to say that I was tempted to quote a couple of examples of Kelly's funnier "bulls" here but, after reading Gibson, it was harder to see them in any other than this complex Nietzschean light.

This isn't primarily a book about Joyce's place in the modernist literary picture, neither is it a book about the local political contexts of those places where Joyce wrote Ulysses. It's much more concerned with the represented world of Ulyssesand with the actual cultural micro-politics of the fictional place where that book is set. According to this kind of approach, Joyce didn't leave Dublin at all, in his imagination, but worked at Irish nation-building through Ulysses just as his contemporaries were doing through nationalist debate and insurrection and subsequent political work. Both things (literature and politics), Gibson quite rightly suggests, may be understood as types of "creation" (97).

Consequently, for Gibson, Joyce's portrait of his native city is not fixed in late Victorian sepia, but is better understood (in the manner of Enda Duffy et als) in terms of the coincidental congruence of the dates of the book's eventual publication for Joyce's birthday and the declaration of the Irish Free State. The cost of this approach is that Zurich doesn't get a mention, Paris appears only as the place which Stephen recalls having visited in "Proteus," and Trieste is merely a place where Joyce happened to be writing journalism while he was making what are taken as a series...

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