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Reviewed by:
  • Joycean Temporalities: Debts, Promises, and Countersignatures
  • Matthew Walker Paproth
Tony Thwaites. Joycean Temporalities: Debts, Promises, and Countersignatures. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 2001. xviii + 225 pp.

Tony Thwaites's analysis of temporal connections within Joyce's body of work begins with Joyce's famous declaration that "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries, arguing over what I meant." This remark is an example of the stream of self-commentary surrounding and inhabiting Joyce's literary output, forcing the reader to be constantly aware of the author in the autograph, the writer in the written, the signatory in the signature. Joyce's presence is so pervasive in and around his texts that we can hardly think of Dubliners without thinking of Joyce's comments about his style of "scrupulous meanness" and his attempt to "write a chapter of the moral history of my country" with Dublin as "the centre of paralysis." Thwaites views this self-commentary as Joyce's signature, scribbled everywhere around the actual text. Because it looks backward and forward to establish meaning, this signature is at the same time a countersignature, understandable only in its temporal relationship with every other signature, every other moment when the forward propulsion of the text collapses and we glimpse the artist.

As a result, we find in Joyce a series of debts and promises in which meaning is simultaneously delayed and arriving back from the future. Joyce sets up a sequence of infinite links between beginning and end—and every position in the middle—and, rather than using this process to search for an incontrovertible essence, his writing playfully celebrates it. These frenzied connections can be seen most obviously in the wilderness of Finnegans Wake, but Thwaites sees them as a prominent, vital feature of Joyce's four major works. Thwaites employs concepts from Derrida and Lacan throughout his [End Page 503] analysis of the temporal relationships in Joyce's oeuvre. Despite several minor annoyances—including a tendency to paraphrase a passage immediately after quoting it and a penchant for titles drawn from the world of banking (his foreword is a "Promissory Note")—Thwaites's analysis is serious and perceptive without losing its sense of playfulness.

Two chapters stand out. "In the Language Machine" applies Joyce's use of debts and promises to the linguistic puzzles in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Thwaites begins the chapter with a close reading of the opening paragraphs of Portrait, in which he describes how Stephen is immediately thrust into the machinery of language. He focuses especially on the use of rhythm and repetition in these early passages to show that Stephen is far more fascinated by the form than the content of the language of the adults surrounding him. Thwaites moves on to the "U.p: up" postcard, which, he suggests, holds no hidden message for us to uncover, so it is pointless to argue over what is actually written there. The card's meaning lies in its external effect as it circulates and enters into its readers' minds. In the second half of the chapter, Thwaites analyzes "Nausicaa," a microcosm of the tension that stretches through most of Joyce's writing. He sees the rift dividing the episode as a moment of collapse, and when we make the sudden transition from Gerty to Bloom, it is only by reading the two viewpoints against one another that we can understand Joyce's intention. The positions held by Gerty and Bloom have no meaning without the rhythm of oscillation between them: "I see you, I see you seeing, I see myself seen, I see myself seeing you seeing me" (Thwaites 108).

The last chapter, an engrossing analysis of Finnegans Wake, is the book's strongest. Here the concepts of debt and promise lead Thwaites to argue that in Finnegans Wake Joyce extends his polysemic principles to their logical conclusions, producing a text unrestrained in both content and point of view. Taking the letter describing HCE's crime as an example, Thwaites sees it not only as an exercise in plurality, but as something written by plurality itself...


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pp. 503-504
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