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James Joyce and the Act of Reception: Reading, Ireland, Modernism (review)

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 11, Number 3, Fómhar/Autumn 2007
pp. 158-160 | 10.1353/nhr.2007.0040

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Ever since the publication of Ulysses, critics have tried to envision James Joyce's audience. Richard Ellmann offered the opinion that Joyce sought readers who thought as he did, and Jacques Derrida asserted that Joyce had anticipated both future audiences and future readings. Some claim Joyce wrote to an ideal audience who would devote their lives to his scholarship, while others claim that Joyce consciously made his work "unreadable." John Nash argues that Joyce did not imagine an audience, but that he embraced specific criticisms of early works and fictionalized them in subsequent writing.

One of Nash's basic premises is that the "identification of a readership is... not only a historical question, but also a theoretical, and even textual one." He argues that "Joyce's work signifies its modernity in its self-conscious concern for reception." Joyce, he argues, did not focus on reading and reception as concepts, but on particular historical reactions. Highlighting the imaginary nature of the creation of a reader and an audience, Joyce appropriated these "actual" responses by rewriting them as fictional episodes in later works.

The ensuing argument incorporates biographical and historical criticism and Nash's select close readings of Joyce's work. The chapters move roughly chronologically; throughout, Nash evokes both the political and cultural climate of Ireland—mostly Dublin—and the events and correspondences in Joyce's life contemporary to these publications. Influences like William Butler Yeats, Stanislaus Joyce, and Ezra Pound feature pervasively in Nash's history, and he shows how Joyce entwined personal reactions from these critics with rewritings of larger national trends.

Four thematic words add depth to the chapters of Joyce's reception. In "Boredom: Reviving an Audience in Dubliners," Nash contends that Joyce inscribed in his first major work a concept of Irish identity distinct from the idyllic one of Yeats and the Irish Literary Theatre. He writes, "'The Dead,' it could be said, is Joyce's characteristically ambiguous, distanced and deflating contribution to the idea of a national audience." Nash argues that Joyce's idea of a national audience—"an 'imagined community' that would be suitable and ready to receive the text"—and the audience itself had both matured from a bored to a wary one by the time Portrait and Ulysses were written and published. In "Surveillance: Education, Confession and the Politics of Reception," Nash looks to the communities—educational, personal, political, and cultural—to which Joyce belonged and which received his writings. Focusing particularly upon the way in which Joyce recreated their reactions in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Ulysses, Nash finds that Joyce's text echoes the language of historical documents. "Exhaustion: Ulysses, 'Work in Progress' and the Ordinary Reader" focuses on how reader claims of "unreadability" found their way into Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The final chapter, "Hypocrisy: Finnegans Wake, hypocrites lecteurs and the Treaty," shows how Joyce transforms hypocritical readings into hypocritical language and narration in Joyce's last major work.

Nash looks to the implications of his argument for both reception criticism and Joyce studies. Focusing on Derrida's readings of Joyce, the author contends, "Deconstruction implies a textual indefinite audience that is always deferred; on the other hand, Joyce never relinquishes a sense of the local and specific, especially with respect to the conditions of reception that are a part of that work." Nash challenges critics with a Joyce who reacted to history, not theory.

With refreshing accountability, Nash returns often to excerpts from Joyce's texts themselves in the course of offering his own readings. He also turns to political history, to theory, and to readings of Joyce's letters, and at no point hides behind uncited research or presupposition. Unfortunately, the argument grows repetitive at points and occasionally relies upon shaky readings of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, and personal correspondence; in one instance, Nash cites Stephen Dedalus's words, "That is God. . . . A shout in the street," and concludes, "Joyce perceived . . . a close relationship between boredom and rioting"—ignoring that Stephen refers to children playing a game, not to rioters. Repetition of singular readings of "Eveline" and "The Dead" similarly weaken his position. These shortcomings aside, James Joyce and the Act of Reception is a step forward...

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