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  • “The Grand Heretics of Modern Fiction”:Laura Riding, John Cowper Powys, and the Subjective Correlative
  • Jerome McGann (bio)

In all the mass of commentary on Joyce's Ulysses, two signal early essays, each by a key twentieth-century figure, are rarely cited: John Cowper Powys's "James Joyce–-An Appreciation," written immediately after the publication of the first edition, and Carl Jung's "Ulysses: A Monologue," written a decade after that epochal event of 1922. Neglecting these two essays, as scholars have done, has perpetuated a slight but significant distortion in our academic view of Joyce and the cultural shift his work has been taken to define. The distortion overlaps with a related misreading—equally small but no less significant—of T. S. Eliot's influential essay of 1923, "Ulysses, Order and Myth."

This would be a small matter indeed but for the astonishing claim of Eliot's essay: that Ulysses "is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art."1 But are we sure we understand what Eliot meant by his claim? Equally pertinent, what do we think of it? Those questions get called to attention by the Powys and Jung essays. Returning to these three works, I want to open an argument for rethinking the history of twentieth-century fiction. To fully elaborate it, which is beyond the scope of this essay, would throw into prominence a number of writers: most notably, Powys himself and Laura Riding, who will figure prominently here, but also Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves, and Edward Upward—whose positions in the history of the period remain underread to this day. [End Page 309]


Briefly, Jung and Powys argue that Joyce's work should be read as subjective and intensely personal. When Jung identifies "Joyce's Ithaca" as a "new cosmic . . . detachment of consciousness, [a] depersonalization of the personality," we can easily mistake what he means to say.2 Everything in Ulysses comes to us, in Jung's view, sub specie somnium, with the egos of all the characters—their realist props and stays—dissolved "as in a collective dream that begins nowhere and ends nowhere." "For that very reason," he goes on to observe, "all and everything, even the missing punctuation of the final chapter, is Joyce himself" (ibid). "His detached contemplative consciousness, dispassionately embracing in one glance the timeless simultaneity of the happenings of the sixteenth day of June, 1904, must say of all these appearances: tat tvam asi, 'That art thou'—'thou' in a higher sense, not the ego but the self. For the self alone embraces the ego and the non-ego, the infernal regions, the viscera, the imagines et lares, and the heavens" (ibid).

Powys sees Joyce's work the same way. Ulysses "is not—for all its realistic savagery—an objective book at all. It is entirely subjective. It reveals only one soul in the world, the soul of James Joyce" fighting for its life.3 Commenting on a passage in "Circe," Powys thus says: "In a sense, in a very deep sense, the thing . . . is a world-maddened hoax of a deep imagination, turning and rending the plaster-cast mock-heroic attitudes of the 'cover-it-up' puppet show. It is James Joyce himself dancing a furious malice-dance on the dinner-table of the Best People while the ghost of King Edward (and all other reputable rulers of the world) 'levitate over heaps of slain, with white jujubes on their phosphorescent faces.'"4 One of our best Powys scholars, Charles Lock, dismisses this way of reading Ulysses as "so wide of the mark that we can be confident that Powys had no knowledge of Joyce's personality."5 But Powys's reading, like Jung's, is not talking about personalities. Indeed, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Remembrance of Things Past, even Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage are all, for Powys, defining works of the age because all, in their different fantastic subjectivities, broke with the mythologies of realism. The escape did not entail the disappearance or debunking of myth—what Powys calls "life illusions"—but the ability to take one's illusions seriously as they are: illusions, beliefs, ideologies.



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