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"The Voice and the Void: Hugh Kenner's Joyce"

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 12, Number 3, September 2005
pp. 483-486 | 10.1353/mod.2005.0094

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Modernism/modernity 12.3 (2005) 483-486

The Voice and the Void: Hugh Kenner's Joyce

Margot Norris

The first article I ever read by Hugh Kenner on Joyce's Ulysses was "Homer's Sticks and Stones," published in the James Joyce Quarterly (1969). In this essay Kenner subjects what T. S. Eliot called Joyce's "mythical method" to a meditation that we might now consider a quasi-deconstructive maneuver. As we know, Joyce learned Latin but not Greek in his Jesuit university, and Hugh Kenner asks how Joyce would have acquired his Homer. The answer, of course, is through translation, and given that there were numerous translations available, and given the late nineteenth-century controversy about Homer's identity, Kenner suggests that Joyce's Homer would have been multiple Homers. In Joyce's Voices he names them, the "fairly business-like translations" of Cowper and Butler, Parry and Lord's "'oral-formulaic' improviser," and "the stained-glass Homer of Butcher and Lang" (JV, 65–6). Kenner's 1969 essay was virtually contemporaneous with Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author," and yet it illustrates one of Hugh Kenner's salient gifts—to think theoretically without explicit resort to the discourse of theory. Kenner's principled rigor as a critic reflected a sensibility that allowed multiplicities and indeterminacies continually to complicate his respect for the empirical and his commitment to objectivity. In his early essay on Joyce's Homer, Kenner illustrates the constructed nature of the author, and in The Pound Era, he suggests that there is not one Joyce but several. Without benefit of narratological apparatus, Kenner also illustrates subtle concepts in theories of narrative. In his work on Ulysses especially, Kenner treats Joyce's novel as a writerly text by filling in its gaps and void spaces with such powerful, convincing supplements that many of our Ulysses (plural) are dialogical texts in which the voices of Joyce and Kenner converse and blend. These strategies of the early Kenner, produced in his Joyce criticism of the 1970s, have become for many of us a kind of critical unconscious.

The bridge between Kenner's commitment to objectivity and evidence, on the one hand, and his allowance of multiplicities, on the other, is his ability to hear literary language against the background of silence. For Kenner, as for Sherlock Holmes, the most significant sounds were sometimes the ones that were not audible, and the most interesting scenes in fiction, especially Joyce's, were lodged in a seeming void or gap. Kenner's empirical bent initially required him, however, to take issue with one of modernism's sacred texts. He wrote in Joyce's Voices, "The handy word 'myth,' as in Eliot's 'Ulysses, Order and Myth,' is simply wrong, an uninspected legacy from the age of Matthew Arnold and Max Müller" (JV, 64). For the Homer Kenner liked best as Joyce's inspiration was the one whose Troy had a historical existence, like Heinrich Schliemann's and Samuel Butler's. "[T]he Homer of Joyce's time was the archaeologist's," he wrote in "Homer's Stick's and Stones"—that is, not a myth-making idealist or a romancer but an empirical observer. Kenner also claimed that Joyce, like Butler, took "the archeologist's Homer seriously," by considering "what it might mean to believe that the Odyssey was composed by a real person in touch with the living details of real cities, real harbors, real bowls and cups and pins and spoons, real kings, real warriors, real houses" ("HSS," 293). Kenner here adumbrates a modernist methodological bent he elaborates more fully in Joyce's Voices where he calls it "Objectivity," the "attention to the evidential" (JV, xi). Kenner traces "Objectivity" to the early nineteenth century, when new disciplines dictated that "men should learn to merely look and listen, that attention to what was and was not evidence might deliver the methodiz'd mind from self-deception" (ibid).

Kenner adheres to this discipline almost literally—particularly and (ironically, given his early hearing loss) to its caveat to listen. What he heard were multiplicities, the pluralized voices of Homer from all those different translations become audible in Ulysses, and...

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