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"That's the Music of the Future": James Joyce's Ulysses and the Writing of a Difficult History

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 20, Number 4, November 2013
pp. 685-708 | 10.1353/mod.2013.0105

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Historical Horizon

The modernists' obsession with history is well known. Responding to the ineluctable pace of modernization that threatened to sweep away the past, some modernists celebrated the loss and welcomed the new world; others engaged the historical imagination by capturing the disappearing world and the intransigent present. The actual difference between these two forms of modernist historical imagination is, however, not so tidy and complete, reflecting both the general disjunction between modernity's historical and anti-historical instincts and history's inexorable traces in the collective unconscious. James Joyce's adaptation of an epic perspective in Ulysses, however absurd and half serious, is instinctively historical and characteristically works both ways. He revels in the intoxicating dynamic of the new fast-changing world while at the same time obstinately working to capture the historicity of a disappearing present.

This essay's starting device is the modernist counterpoint between the rhythms of individual thought and the spectral variations of history in Ulysses's three penultimate episodes—"Circe," "Eumaeus," and "Ithaca." The fragments of the Dublin nightlife settings—brothels, street hustle and bustle, cabbies' tired night talk, and the sound of the Dublin waterworks—transition abruptly but configure a particular historical progression. This essay suggests that the complex rhythms of these narrative transitions are those of a difficult history. Irish history emerges here as an explicit thematic engagement with the Irish nationalist imagination, in the documentary particularity that shapes Joyce's epic method, and as a formal feature, expressed in the logic of broken progress that structures the narrative material.

The question of history has been at the heart of Ulysses's critical reception. Early criticism of the novel aligned history with the universal application of the narrative, with its unifying and reconciling thematic resolutions; in later criticism, history is bound with the project of deducing a new moral and ethical basis of the family; and more recently, the identified historicity of Joyce's language is argued to undo the traditionalist notions of subjectivity. Most prominently, the question of history emerges as a major point in Marxist critics' argument that Ulysses thematizes a new mood of almost cosmic indifference to and the impossibility of imagining "social totality" in modernity, failing to disrupt the circulation of dominant ideologies (UG, 21). Continuing Theodor Adorno's view that modernism's typical withdrawal from the social world signifies the futility of all resistance to alienating social structures in modernity, Fredric Jameson famously concludes that Ulysses's most salient formal modernist trait is the "crisis of detail"—a "historical necessity" that projects the eroding meaning of the objective world in modernity ("UH," 128).

This dialectical-materialist interpretation opens up a number of important questions. Might Ulysses's assimilation of the logic of modernity enact a reversal of the force of tradition and history? Are the two idle-man-about-town protagonists completely desensitized to any form or shape of collectivity, considering Ulysses's incongruous but overwhelming epic and Irish references? Finally, what are we to make of Joyce's literary figuration of a reality in which social cohesion is failed and yet is vaguely perceptible? Does it count as a historicizing utopian gesture?

In the divergent readings of Ulysses as aesthetically subversive and politically ambivalent, we discover a shared sense that a destructive logic operates in Joyce's stylistic extravagance. This essay argues that this destructive impulse can be meaningfully reconnected to a particular historical development, as each episode works within the parameters of distinct discursive practices, probing the social dynamic those practices generate. What underlies Joyce's epic method is not its universalizing ambition, which in Hegel's terms would be a constricting universality or bad infinity, but rather its documentary particularity, the way the narrative historicizes Ireland's colonial predicament and its cultural logic of self-undoing.

On the thematic level, the characters' historical ruminations point to the centrality of interpretation in modernity. Modernity, Ágnes Heller notes, characteristically "affords meaning to the present/modern world in presenting truth/untruth by way of interpretation." One way to approach the problem of interpreting the social world in Ulysses is to recognize both the characters' preoccupations with history and the text's historicity, the compulsion to focus on...



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