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  • James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus’s Nightmare
  • Derek Attridge
Robert Spoo. James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus’s Nightmare. Oxford UP, 1994. xii + 195 pp.

That we do not normally think of Joyce as a “historical novelist,” in spite of all the proper names, exact dates, and concrete details he weaves into his fictions, is testimony to the complicated relation his work has to the writing of history. He both utilizes and parodies a variety of historical styles and attitudes in order to put to the test, through comedy and critique, his fiction’s claims to capture the past. Robert Spoo’s illuminating book examines this engagement with historiography (primarily in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, but with some fruitful glances ahead to Finnegans Wake) by means of a judicious mixture of careful research, astute readings, and appropriate theoretical reflection.

As his subtitle suggests, Spoo treats Stephen Dedalus as a lens through which to view his subject, arguing that even when Stephen’s presence as a character fades, his “intellectual influence” remains strong. The text of Ulysses is said to “enact” Stephen’s subversive view of history, a view glimpsed in the “Parable of the Plums” in “Aeolus” and in the disquisition on Shakespeare in “Scylla and Charybdis.” Fortunately, Spoo doesn’t build too much on this argument, which seems uncomfortably close to the discredited idea that Stephen goes on to become the author of Ulysses itself, and which makes it difficult to deal with Stephen’s by no means authoritative (or authorial) presence in the later chapters of the book. He may be a little uneasy with the argument himself, as he suggests a number of alternative possibilities: that it is the “mature Joyce” or the “Arranger” or perhaps Leopold Bloom who comes to Stephen’s rescue when he is done in by history. In any event, the considerable strengths of this book lie in the larger discussion of Joyce’s relation to the writing of history rather than in the attempt to resituate and re-evaluate Stephen and Stephen’s perspective.

The story Spoo tells is not, in its outline, a surprising one: Joyce became more and more alert to the dangers of totalizing, monocausal, teleological versions of history and developed strategies to disrupt and subvert such representations. It is in the details that the interest lies; in, for instance, the discussion of Joyce’s indebtedness to Guglielmo Ferrero’s anti-heroic history of Rome or in the consideration of textiles and ghosts in Joyce’s fiction as figures for historical understanding. (The notion of history as spectral presence, and historiography as conjuration, [End Page 888] is—with its implications of both immediate apprehension and unavoidable, uncontrollable, mediation—an extremely rich one and could have structured the whole book. Spoo fruitfully returns to the subject in his final chapter, where he discusses “Circe” as a ghost story.) Although he begins, in the first chapter, with Joyce responding to the omnipresence of history in Rome during his stay there, Spoo’s own method is more critical than historical. A chapter on A Portrait and the influence on Joyce—and Stephen—of Romantic historiography is followed by four chapters on Ulysses, which, focusing on a selection of episodes, trace the competing views of history within the novel (Deasy’s sententious reductivism versus Stephen’s riddling parabolism, for instance) and at the same time the changing stylistic norms that engage in different ways with the discursive traditions of written history. One particularly interesting strand in the argument is Joyce’s use of popular forms of historiography as a counter to received traditions, with the carnivalization of the figure of Parnell as an instructive example.

Criticism which proceeds by means of such close readings (of both texts and contexts) has to be highly selective in its dealings even with a single work, especially when that work is as enormous in scale and scope as Ulysses. Spoo chooses to focus on two pairs of chapters, “Nestor” and “Proteus,” “Oxen of the Sun” and “Circe,” and, in a discussion that considerably enhances our understanding of what might have seemed an exhausted...

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