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Donald Brown - Enjoy(c)ing Cultures - Poetics Today 22:3 Poetics Today 22.3 (2001) 671-689

Review Article

Enjoy(c)ing Cultures

Donald Brown
Comparative Literature, Yale

Neil R. Davison, James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity: Culture, Biography, and “The Jew” in Modernist Europe. New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 305 pp.

Christine Froula, Modernism’s Body: Sex, Culture, and Joyce. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 316 pp.

Joseph Kelly, Our Joyce: From Outcast to Icon. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. 287 pp.

Karen Lawrence, ed., Transcultural Joyce. New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 247 pp.

Joseph Valente, ed., Quare Joyce. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 297 pp.

Paul Vanderham, James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 242 pp.

In the wake of disputes about the literary canon, the political, cultural, and ethical implications of literature have come to the fore as topics of critical attention. John Guillory’s influential Cultural Capital (1993) alerts us to the question of what kind of acculturation takes place when texts are “colonized” by a particular discipline or a methodology within a discipline. We find that the texts we teach are not simply paragons of artistic merit or exemplars of particular literary developments but that the texts themselves [End Page 671] and the presentation of the texts are fraught with ideological implications. As Guillory (1993: ix) says, “Literary works must be seen as the vector of ideological notions which do not inhere in the works themselves but in the context of their institutional presentation, or more simply, in the way in which they are taught.” As “cultural capital” then, many literary texts are in flux according to their usefulness in making certain points or in covering certain ideological terrain. The question for teachers and critics becomes one of determining which set of possible meanings should be emphasized and addressed.

The work of James Joyce lends itself particularly well to a variety of critical and pedagogical approaches, and Joyce criticism continues to adapt to current scholarly interests, finding new issues to discuss as the intellectual terrain changes. In a recent article, Vincent J. Cheng (1997: 84) passes in review recent Joyce scholarship from Emer Nolan, Terry Eagleton, Seamus Deane, and himself and muses, “We have constructed what I should call the ‘political’ or even ‘postcolonial’ Joyce as a response to the ‘canonical Joyce’ of earlier decades.” While asserting the relevance and viability of the postcolonial Joyce as an object of study, Cheng (ibid.: 93) also notes, “To construct a ‘postcolonial Joyce’ does not in any way displace or erase the canonical, high modernist Joyce, but merely expands the academic terrain Joyce covers.” That said, Cheng addresses the argument that no progressive political purpose is served by including Joyce in the field of postcolonialism because his work is so firmly entrenched in the academic study of modernism. From this perspective, the expansion of Joyce beyond the boundaries of high modernism into other areas of study poses a kind of imperialism, but Cheng insists, as any Joycean might, that rigid boundaries are not helpful with texts as complex and culturally rich as the Joyce canon. Reading Joyce as a paradigmatic modernist infiltrating postcolonial discourse stakes out new terrain for the ongoing reevaluation of canonical modernism, while reading Joyce as a postcolonialist permits an immigration of new concerns into the always somewhat amorphous concept of modernism. It is with issues such as these in mind that I have undertaken to review several recent books that place Joyce in various cultural contexts. My aim is to get a sense of how critics “do” Joyce at the present time, a time in which the dominant theoretical approach addresses the ways human subjects are constructed by culture. Our sense of this constructedness has implications for how we construct our readings of our cultural icons.

Developed from essays written for the Fourteenth International James Joyce Symposium held in Seville, Spain, Transcultural Joyce, in editor Karen Lawrence’s words, “seeks to describe the ‘afterlife’ of Joyce and his texts as they are carried metempsychotically across cultural, linguistic, national, [End Page 672] and gender divides to undergo a ‘change of manners’” (1). Lawrence’s statement refers to Stephen Dedalus’s idea of a ghost as one who has faded away “through death, through absence, through change of manners” (Joyce 1986 [1922]: 147). Building upon Maria DiBattista’s view that resubstantiating ghosts of other times and places is “always a transcultural act” in which material from elsewhere must be reconfigured in a new cultural situation, Lawrence links transculturation to the notion of metempsychosis employed in Ulysses, but instead of directing attention to how Joyce “channels” Homeric or Shakespearean ghosts, the essays in this collection are concerned with how postcolonial and postmodern authors and contemporary translators invoke and resubstantiate a phantasmal Joyce. Viewed in such a variety of contexts, Joyce’s ghost seems more than ever a protean shape-shifter, a palpable presence not ever to be grasped in its essence. What’s more the essays alert us to certain indeterminacies in the idea of the “transcultural.” In our era of globalized communication, most of our cultural activity is transcultural in its reach and implications, a situation we generally take for granted. By identifying our contemporary sense of the transcultural with the cultural transmission of Joyce’s peculiar strain of modernism, Lawrence’s collection shows Joyce to be a key figure for writers for whom the transcultural is a mode of being between or among cultures to a degree not wholly accounted for by modernist cosmopolitanism. In keeping with our era’s attention to the social and political aspects of artistic creation, Joyce as transcultural writer to some extent replaces the aesthetic emphasis on Joyce the modernist writer and articulates his alienation from normative cultural assumptions more forcefully. In performing such readings, the critics and translators in Lawrence’s collection attest to the importance of transcultural reading in their own work and in the ongoing estimation of Joyce’s work.

Many fine essays here contribute greatly to our understanding of Joyce’s influence. Too often Joyce’s pervasiveness seems only an academic matter, a question of how to define modernism or of how to trace developments in the novel, but the essays in Transcultural Joyce show us the vitality of Joyce as a precursor. Joyce’s achievement is considered as an influence on Irish writers of our period, on postmodern continental writers, on Latin American writers, and on South Asian anglophone writers. The majority of the essays pair Joyce with a representative figure who bears a clear relation to his work, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Georges Perec, and Salman Rushdie, to name a few. The closing section, in discussing translations of Finnegans Wake into French, German, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish and translations of Ulysses into Chinese, demonstrates the extent to which Joyce’s vitality is a matter of linguistic and stylistic innovation and an ongoing challenge to the art of translation. To read Joyce, even in the original, is to translate him and, [End Page 673] as DiBattista suggests, is “always a transcultural act” because of “different times, altered ways of living” (21) that make our perspective incommensurate with Joyce’s. Joyce’s working assumptions about narrative art, about culture’s formative project, and about psychosexual norms and human consciousness remain challenging even today, and his work’s ability to test the ingenuity and imagination of even the most painstaking reader remains unsurpassed. The kinds of transcultural interactions presented by the authors in Lawrence’s collection demonstrate an international interest in a literary figure whose reach is truly global but who also, as other recent studies have emphasized, remains local in his choice of settings, characters, and political issues. Part of the attraction of Joyce as both canonical modernist and proto-postcolonialist is no doubt the extent to which he is both modern and archaic, cosmopolitan and parochial, in exile when at home and at home when in exile. Joyce’s work, Finnegans Wake in particular, stands as an epic gesture toward the kind of assimilationist culture that our modern, globalized academy and communications technology make possible.

That said, Joyce’s work, as these essays show, is never easy to assimilate, whether at home or abroad. Consider the Irish author Eavan Boland’s characterisation of Joyce as “one of the least available” writers during her formative years in Dublin, if only because of her effort to learn “the categories of Irishness and identity” Joyce had resisted (13). Speaking as a resident of “postmodern Ireland,” Boland finds “intact and inconsolable” Joyce’s “resolve to disobey, to subvert, to goad a society by acts of memory and love” (19). More to the point, we find in Boland a resistance to the exile that Joyce considered necessary to his development as an artist. In other words, it is modernism’s cosmopolitan critique of resolute national localisms that seems antagonistic to the experience of Irish literature that Boland recounts. The “stubborn adherence to the impersonal, untheatrical realism represented by Joyce’s Dubliners” that DiBattista finds in John McGahern’s fiction links the latter author to “a conservative idea of native traditions” similar to those Boland evokes in her essay (33–34). A realist focus on local detail as a means to capture the perspective of a specific time and place generally causes a writer to forgo the lessons of modernism in favor of something closer to home.

The contrast between localism and modernist cosmopolitanism is suggested but not fully developed in Lawrence’s essay on the Irish author Brigit Brophy’s In Transit (1969), a novel that incorporates a punning style reminiscent of Finnegans Wake and makes direct references to Joyce’s work, casting Joyce as “Old Father Finnegan.” Lawrence discusses how Brophy, while inventing a “distinctly Irish (and Joycean) contribution to modernist linguistic experiment” (38), attempts to delineate “more radical indeterminacies [End Page 674] of sexual identity” in distinction from Joyce’s “phallic framework” (39). As Brophy (1969: 228) writes (with a somewhat Beckettian intonation), “It no longer matters a damn of course whether ‘I’ is masc. or fem.” Clearly, a relation exists to the shifting sexual roles any speaker can play in the Wake, but Lawrence is keen to accentuate how the “secure roles for male and female” that seemed more fixed in Joyce’s day—and which are thus the stuff of puckish subversion in the Wake—are not sufficient “to represent the foster, mixed, and transcultural ancestry of [Brophy’s] sex-changing narrative” (43). Though Lawrence mentions that it is difficult to assume “national culture” as a shared context for the cross-talk between Joyce and Brophy, the essay skirts the issue of the relation of Irishness to the kind of modernist techniques that both Joyce and Brophy utilize. It’s a fair question, given the fact that the rest of the volume is taken up with the question of Joyce as an import into other nations. One cannot avoid the feeling that Joyce is an import “back home” in Ireland as well.

Joyce’s difficulty is not simply an “Irish question,” nor is his relevance only in question in Ireland. As Srinivas Aravamudan asserts, Joyce must “be reevaluated in the context of a global multiculturalism” (97). But the problem, as reading this book makes clear, is that no such thing as “global multiculturalism” as a continuous tradition or a coherent concept exists. Rather, one is more apt to find the tendency to read Joyce and modernism in general in the context of the localisms of various cultures, much as national literature departments in the United States teach different versions of modernism that can also be considered local if not wholly academic constructions. The question of how various cultures and various artists and writers within those cultures respond to an artistic agenda such as Joyce’s does not become easier to answer through a globalized perspective. The idiosyncracies of response and influence within a single cultural tradition are too complex. To take a case in point, see how Joycean modernism “translates” in the hands of Borges and José Lezama Lima, as presented in César Augusto Salgado’s essay “Barroco Joyce: Borges’s and Lezama’s Antagonistic Readings.” It isn’t simply that Borges, who considers Ulysses a failure and the novel a defeated genre, misses the point; rather, Borges is “skeptical of the vagaries of avant-garde experimentation” (80), experimentation that Lezama finds enabling for his own project. Salgado presents two authors, read within the same cultural traditions, whose antagonistic responses to modernist playfulness derive in part from what they consider the resources of the medium to be. We are still faced with Joyce’s influence on individual writers, none of whom is representative of a given culture or its assumptions about literary art.

Lezama’s view of Joyce finds a use value for the kind of fiction Joyce writes; Borges, who finds the puns of Finnegans Wake “frustrated and incompetent,” [End Page 675] sees Joyce leading to a dead end, as does the Cuban author Cabrera Infante.1 In an essay on Joyce’s influence on Infante, Michael Wood allows, “We might think one needs to go a little further down the street to see whether it is a dead end or not” (54). In a sense the Wake is too anomalous to support its incorporation beneath the rubric of modernism, but “further down the street” seems not to take us toward postmodern evaluations of modernism but rather back to Joyce’s precursors. Both Borges and Wood, in keeping the Wake at arm’s length, cite older masters of the pun who are deemed superior to Joyce. Borges cites Jules Laforgue and Lewis Carroll, while Wood cites Carroll and Laurence Sterne as more pervasive influences on Infante. So much for modernist experimentation. The question instead seems to be the value of age-old paronomasia or play on words. It seems misleading, in this light, to characterize the Wake as avant-garde and experimental or to give much credence to commentators from the twenties to the forties who saw such playfulness as the “exhaustion of novelistic discourse” (64). Such critics might be equating their own exhaustion as readers of Joyce with the exhaustion of the genre itself. When we read Brophy, Infante, or Lezama we are dealing with authors who, like Joyce, find untapped creative and satiric potential in their native tongues and are able to manipulate language to serve their purposes. In the process realism’s locally accurate detail is amplified by symbolist shadings, narrative artifice, and extreme license with language in a manner generally recognized as modernist. Certainly the end result of such verbal inventiveness is a text whose language is not containable in a single locality, tradition, or national literature—and also not fully contained by the concept of modernism. But do such hybrid texts lend themselves to an identification with multiculturalism, that is, a program in which distinct cultures flourish in all their particularity?

In “Postcolonial Affiliations: Ulysses and All about H. Hatterr,” Aravamudan points out that multiculturalism can be criticized as a vacuous syncretic idealism, while transcultural criticism, in looking at the affiliations that take place across cultures, allows us to learn the lesson of disculturated iconoclasm that modernism’s parodic texts teach. Modernism, in this view, is symptomatically transcultural and should be addressed as such to avoid syncreticism and parochialism. Transcultural, in Aravamudan’s usage, seems of necessity shaded with an agenda critical toward both exclusionary [End Page 676] cultural identities and syncretic “multicultures” that obscure cultural difference. The problem with Aravamudan’s formulation of the comparison between Joyce and the Indian author G. V. Desani is that Aravamudan sees Joyce as a syncretic idealist who accepts charlatan gurus such as Madame Blavatsky rather than debunking them and who aspires to the role that Blavatsky attempted to play in making Indian mysticism available in the West. According to Aravamudan, the parody of Theosophy in Ulysses is aimed at “a higher symbolic reconciliation” (101) that leads Joyce to a syncretism that, while transcultural, is not iconoclastic and critical to the degree found in Desani’s debunking of imperialism in India. In other words, Aravamudan’s theory of transcultural dynamics is instructive, but its application seems a misreading of Joyce that relies too heavily on Joyce’s canonical cultural position as evidence of his syncretism. Aravamudan goes so far as to cite the contrast between “the success of Joyce’s syncretism” and “the failure of Desani’s iconoclasm” (98) as though a difference in ideological perspective were the main factor in the respective status of the two writers.

Joyce, as this volume helps us to see, is transcultural in a critical sense, satirizing local details of Dublin life (such as the Irish Renaissance’s interest in Theosophy) as well as the European intellectual tradition as exemplified in imperialist British culture. Comparisons with later postcolonial writers such as Desani and Rushdie show that Joyce’s centrality in the modernist canon derives in part from the coherence of the Western tradition he satirizes and the perspective from which he does so. As Ronald Bush summarizes the relation between Rushdie and Joyce, both writers are concerned with the “ironies of a comedy of postcolonial hybridity” and “a thoroughgoing interrogation of the authority of sacred texts” (146). Hybridity and iconoclasm thus seem common to postcolonial authors, who identify themselves more with certain intellectual and artistic developments, transpiring across cultures, than with perspectives indigenous to a given homeland. Joyce can be said to be iconoclastic toward all traditions and as such is the paradigmatic modernist in his insistence on the artist’s task of rhetorically subverting any textual authority. However, it is also the case that the traditions Joyce subverts are often sustained in his fiction through its reliance on authoritative concepts derived from British and Roman Catholic cultural imperialism. As a canonical writer, Joyce sustains a tradition of modernist playfulness, irony, and exegesis that many subsequent authors would like to subvert, even while gaining a certain cultural capital through comparison to Joyce’s methods.

The period in which Joyce wrote allowed him to draw upon the intellectual traditions that Matthew Arnold invokes in his discussions of Hellenism and Hebraism as the twin sources of cultural value. Donald D. Stone (1998: 180) [End Page 677] writes in a recent account of Arnold’s use of these terms, “Whereas Hebraism, with its concern for inward rectitude, requires an obedience on the part of the individual that might lead to an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo, Hellenism prompts a counter impulse: the desire to have an objective grasp of reality that might very well lead to a questioning of the status quo.” The sense of cultural hybridity that marks Leopold Bloom from the start is itself an innovative merging of these cultural strains in the person of a Semitic Odysseus who, throughout his long day’s odyssey, is concerned with cultural values and who both questions and upholds the status quo. Neil Davison’s James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity addresses the peculiar ramifications of Bloom’s transcultural status in early twentieth-century Ireland. Just as the discourse on postcolonialism takes its bearings from the constructed nature of the postcolonial subject, the textual signs by which Joyce encodes and the reader interprets Jewishness demonstrate that such constructions are socially determined and structurally implicated in larger systems of affiliation, identification, and alienation. As Davison says, “A multitude of European cultural markers of ‘Jewishness’ are critical to Joyce’s construction of Bloom’s inner-life as well as to his subject position” (1). Davison convincingly argues that Bloom’s Jewishness has for too long been given only cursory attention within Joyce studies. Jewishness has been marginalized or taken for granted in most studies of Ulysses, and accounts focused on Bloom’s ethnicity have not done justice to the biographical and cultural contexts that went into the making of Joyce’s amorphous Jewish-Hungarian (by birth), Irish (by citizenship) Ulysses.

Davison is at times guilty of overdetermining the case—assuming, for instance, that ideas of Jewishness circulating in Catholic Ireland must have made an impression on the youthful Joyce. Rhetorically this is acceptable, but too many such inferences, unsupported by documentary evidence that Joyce was particularly concerned with the matters and texts Davison cites, causes Davison to rely on the weak assertion that, because prejudice was in the air at the time, Joyce must have known of it, observed it, and responded to it in some way. Similarly Davison reads Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (which we know Joyce knew) with an emphasis on the figure of the Jewess Rebecca because he assumes that Joyce was impressed by this character. Granted Joyce was attracted at times to “dark ladies” who either were of Jewish descent (Amalia Popper) or were assumed by Joyce to be Jewish (Marthe Fleischmann), but the description Davison cites from Giacomo Joyce does not manifestly owe its details to Scott (51). What’s more, while it is well known that Joyce was influenced by Nietzsche, Davison can only use inference to support his assertion that “Nietzsche’s positive use of the stereotype [of the clever Jew] . . . became a fixture of Joyce’s conception of [End Page 678] ‘Jewish nature’” (121), or to support his claims about which of Nietzsche’s views had the greatest impact on Joyce. Davison is informative in his depiction of various philosophic and pseudo-scientific ideas on Jewishness by the likes of Otto Weininger, whom Joyce read, but the links to Joyce’s own ideas are tenuous at best.

On the more positive side, Davison’s book makes the reader aware of the issues involved in creating a Jewish protagonist for a novel set in Catholic Dublin, thus giving ethnic studies a new relevance for Joyce studies. Davison tellingly demonstrates the extent to which the subtexts of Jewishness and anti-Semitism are prevalent in Joyce’s writing and in his cultural milieu. For Davison, Joyce intends Bloom to be the principal agent in his “sabotage of Victorian liberal culture” (14). The sabotage is aimed at neat dichotomies such as Arnold’s Hebraism and Hellenism, and the pervasiveness of such cultural shorthand—the “strictness of conscience” versus the “spontaneity of consciousness” (Stone 1998: 180)—adds to the particular relevance of Bloom as an exile at home. Buck Mulligan claims he would like to “hellenise” Ireland, but from Bloom, the partially assimilated partial Jew, we get the most vivid portrait modernism has to offer of a spontaneous consciousness in dialogue with its conscience.2 Davison’s study helps us see how Joyce’s creation of a marginal Other focuses the Irish author’s attack on the many social and cultural stereotypes that had stunted intellectual growth and political possibilities, not only among the Irish but throughout the British Empire and in Europe as well. “Realizing how alienated his own sense of ‘Irishness’ had made him to the Irish, British, and European cultures of his day, Joyce confronted his own Otherness by becoming fascinated with another type—perhaps the most entrenched ‘Other’ in all of Europe” (240). In addition to questions of anti-Semitism in Great Britain and the ubiquity of racial stereotypes, Davison’s book confronts the very question of how race is determined and evaluated. Joyce’s own conceptions of race cannot be disentangled entirely from the faults found in the discourses of his day, but the representation of Bloom’s inner life indicates, Davison argues, Joyce’s intention to scrutinize the way cultural identity is determined by preestablished cultural markers.

Cultural constructions of a sexual rather than an ethnic nature are much under scrutiny in Quare Joyce, Joseph Valente’s groundbreaking collection of essays, and in Christine Froula’s formidable Modernism’s Body. Valente’s collection is in some ways an interesting companion piece to Froula’s in that both are concerned with what might be called “transgendered Joyce.” In [End Page 679] both books questions of gender identity, sexual orientation, and representations of masculinity and femininity and their psychological implications are brought to the fore as questions of cultural determination. Joyce depicts not only how political and ethnic subjects are constructed but also how sexual knowledge comes about and how desire, which is assumed to be less constrained than societal norms allow or admit, impacts social development. Froula’s book is a sustained meditation on the signifiers that constitute sexual identity. While drawing upon the constructions of human sexuality expounded by Freud and Jacques Lacan, Froula insists that Joyce, through his autobiographical self-scrutiny, investigated the human psyche in a manner as profound and far-reaching as psychoanalytic method. What’s more, Froula asserts Joyce’s favoring of the maternal over the paternal in his discourse: “Joyce, that is, challenges the oedipal model of desire, language, and subjectivity by exposing and analyzing the law of gender that the Freudian/Lacanian Law of the Father obscures” (13). According to Froula, Joyce’s unique poetics derive from his work’s tracing “the intricate psychodynamics by which the maternal body becomes the hidden point of departure—fetishized origin, deified scapegoat—of his culture” (15). Froula’s insistence on the son’s identification with the body of the mother sets up the psychosexual dynamic “of a male artist’s repressed femininity” (252) that paves the way for the fuller exploration of same-sex eroticism that we find in Quare Joyce. In other words, once we begin to see the overriding concern with psychosexual development in Joyce’s work, we can arrive at a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the cultural importance of sexuality as presented by Joyce. In my view, the great contribution of these two volumes is precisely their willingness to delineate the sexual ambiguities upon which Joyce’s imagination clearly thrived. The value of Froula’s work is in her attempt to provide a coherent mythos that unites the psychosexual vagaries in Joyce. For many of the authors in Valente’s collection, on the other hand, the purpose is not so much the explanatory value of homoeroticism as the more complex view of sexual and social relations that attention to “queer” sensibility affords. In his introduction Valente unpacks the collection’s title by referring to Joyce’s “inclination and aptitude for queering the dichotomy between the ‘queer’ and the ‘square/straight,’ for unsettling the normative and hierarchical distinctions between different modes of sexual expression” (4).

Modernism’s Body provides an exhaustive discussion of how gender functions in Joyce’s fiction, articulating his texts’ relation to feminist and psychoanalytic theory. Previous efforts to assign Joyce the status of misogynist, masochist, or feminist, even when correct in some of their assumptions, often miss the provocative undercurrents Froula’s sophisticated readings [End Page 680] bring to light. For instance, Joyce has been judged misogynistic due to his fiction’s perpetuation of stereotypical views of women and female sexuality. Froula argues that, in the “Circe” chapter, Joyce parodies Stephen Dedalus’s “theory that masculine culture posits women as unfaithful mothers/whores” and thus unmasks “the hidden condition of [the] culture’s sexual politics” (138). But such ironic representation, though making “an invaluable contribution to feminist analysis” (28), is not wholly feminist in its intention, for “Joyce indisputably cultivates, performs, and quite enjoys the symptom he dissects” (ibid.). Joyce’s fiction is aimed against certain aspects of patriarchy, such as its refusal to acknowledge the full scope of its constructed identification with femininity, but not in the name of a triumphant matriarchy. The son’s identification with the mother is in some ways an attachment to a dominated and scapegoated Other within the prevailing psychosexual hierarchy. Thus the charge of masochism, as a sexualized fixation upon powerlessness and painful submission, does account for certain characteristics of Bloom as traditionally read, that is, “the new womanly man” (Joyce 1986 [1922]: 403) subjected to humiliation at the hands of Bella/o Cohen in “Circe.” Froula provides a more fully realized account of the positionings involved: “In the sadomasochistic scenario the client identifies the ‘bottom’ with femaleness regardless of the actor’s sex. The humiliated one is always a ‘woman,’ and . . . at the deepest level, himself” (186). More emphatically, the child’s “no-longer-repressed wish to be like his mother transgresses the law of gender and condemns him to punishment” (ibid.). It is Froula’s attention to the various kinds of transference, transumption, and transformation that occur in the sexual unconscious of Joyce’s characters (and, in the Wake, of the text itself) that brings to light the complexity of Joyce’s psychosexual dynamics.

However, one area of sexuality is not fully explored in Froula’s book, an oversight that Quare Joyce sets to rights. The identification with the maternal body that Froula insists upon opens up the question of the degree to which desire in Joyce’s fiction is predominantly heterosexual. In other words, if we allow for a fixation with female experience among Joyce’s major male protagonists—Gabriel Conroy, Stephen, Bloom, Richard Rowan, Shem and Shaun, HCE—we would do well to consider to what degree a male object of desire is also incorporated into their sexual economy. Put another way, since Joyce seems to occupy some liminal space between feminism and misogyny, might his work also contain a particularly interesting interaction of homophobic and homosexual attitudes? Froula does not avoid the question altogether—her account of the feminization Stephen undergoes while among the Jesuit priests does allow for possible homosexual and certainly homosocial responses on the young man’s part—but her focus on the status [End Page 681] of the female imago within the male imaginary keeps at bay the problem of a male object of desire. Quare Joyce brings such forbidden desires to the fore not only in Joyce’s fiction but also in relation to surrounding contexts, such as the trial of Oscar Wilde in Joyce’s day and hysteria about AIDS in ours.

Vicki Mahaffey’s essay “Père-version and Im-mère-version: Idealized Corruption in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a good example of how a switch to the theme of homosexuality affects the reading of Joyce’s characters. Deriving some of its key ideas from the Lacanian Law of the Father and its “père-verse” inscription upon the son that also figures prominently in Froula’s reading,3 Mahaffey’s essay forges a comparison between Joyce and Wilde in terms of a masculine culture that, by prohibiting sexual desire between males, produces a “socially acceptable norm of perverse male desire” that is homophobic and misogynistic (121). But Mahaffey is also concerned with how the son’s relationship with the mother can also become perverse, as in Wilde’s presentation of the son’s “corrupt enslavement” by a mother who makes of him an “impossible ideal” (122). Mahaffey identifies such a relation as “im-mère-sion” in a play upon Lacan’s theory of “père-version” (the form of perverse desire sons learn from fathers): “The mother’s exercise of ‘immersed’ desire denies the child a separate existence, condemning it to live in the shadow cast by her own repression” (122). The homosexual connotations of Stephen’s relation to the maternal become clearer in Mahaffey’s discussion, though her reading at times seems questionable—why say that a prostitute putting her tongue between Stephen’s lips “put him in the female position” (126)?—or implausible—though to peach may mean “to pant” as well as “to inform on,” do we really believe that Simon Dedalus, in telling his son not “to peach” on other students, warns Stephen “not to pant on a fellow, not to express his friendship sexually” (ibid.)? Clearly subtexts of homophobia and of repressed homosexuality are present in Joyce’s text, and in essays by Jean-Michel Rabaté and Valente we find more nuanced accounts of Joyce’s debt to Wilde.

In his essay “Thrilled by His Touch: The Aestheticizing of Homosexual Panic in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Valente presents an elegant formulation of the differing status of homoerotic desire in Joyce’s Portrait and in Wilde’s Picture: “Whereas Dorian Gray veils its specific erotic ‘truth’ in order to betray it selectively, enacting a classic economy of repression and desire, [End Page 682] A Portrait announces but does not specify its erotic truth, entertaining a jouissance [enjoyment] of suspension and volatility” (51). The essay provides an account of Stephen’s mounting “homosexual panic” that remains true to the varying shades of homoeroticism and homophobia in Joyce’s novel. Valente’s treatment of such items as Stephen’s considerations of a green rose or the word suck are thoroughly realized accounts of Joyce’s writerly jouissance. Furthermore, the entire question of whether or not Joyce reveals his own “homoerotic desire and discomfort” through Stephen’s experience allows Valente to consider the varying levels of autobiography and fiction in the novel without “outing” Joyce as either closeted homosexual or homophobe. In “On Joycean and Wildean Sodomy,” Rabaté rightly concludes that Joyce’s “adherence to the anti-homoerotic prejudice of his time” results in neither endorsement nor condemnation because the “unspeakability” of the perverse sexual act places the sin in the mind of the speaker—much as Wilde insists that everyone finds his own sin in the unnamed sin of Dorian Gray. “Joyce’s purgatorial and comic sense of sodomy locates it primarily in language, sees it indissociable from the web of slander and gossip that always needs fresh butts to feed its endless discourse” (43). Perversity is polymorphous and polyvalent in Joyce’s work. Like “Shem and Shaun and the shame that sunders them,” perversity is an aspect of human sexuality that is implicit in all talk of sex. According to the system of values Joyce inherited from Catholicism, any sexual act that precludes legitimate procreation, from masturbation to sodomy to incest (with father/son incest the most forbidden) to adultery, lies under prohibition and so carries with it a sense of shame and guilt that, as Rabaté suggests, is written into the language with which one describes and condemns such acts. Joyce’s satiric perspective permits him to consider all the possibilities and variations of human sexuality and to mock them all with their comical associations.

My reservations about the essays collected here can best be articulated through a comment made by Christopher Lane in the volume’s “Afterword.” Lane remarks on the “collection’s fundamental premise that readers cannot grasp Joyce’s radical conception of sexual desire without appreciating his narratives’ fundamental distrust of successful object relations” (279). As the statement suggests, the essays are perceptive in their discussion of Joyce’s conception of sexual desire, but what few of the essays here other than Rabaté’s mention is the explosively comic potential of unsuccessful object relations. Part of this lack of humor may have to do with too much reliance, in many of the essays, on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s descriptions of the way homosocial bonding underwrites a culture of homophobia and misogyny. No laughing matter, strategies of cultural oppression tend to deflect attention from Joyce’s satiric representation of sex. For Joyce, sex or gender [End Page 683] is far too amorphous to serve as a suitable basis for personal identity, collective morality, or social hierarchies. A threat of extreme comic deflation always awaits those who are driven to find happiness or self-justification through satisfied sexual desire or the recognition of desire or who base their cultural supremacy on the suppression of sexual thoughts, words, or acts.

The best example of the kind of reading one would prefer to see more of can be found in Tim Dean’s “Paring His Fingernails: Homosexuality and Joyce’s Impersonalist Aesthetic,” in which the “impersonalist aesthetic” of modernism is addressed as the basis for Joyce’s perverse, antiauthoritarian sublimation of sex (241). The first step is discounting impersonality as “an ingenious ruse for consolidating mastery and authority” (245)—a position that detractors of modernism often assert in an effort to denounce authority from some other authoritarian vantage point. The second step involves the replacement of Sedgwick’s view of homosexuality as always entailing a rhetoric of secrecy with the Joycean view of homosexuality as, in Dean’s words, “radical enjoyment or jouissance” (251). Dean sets up this reading by providing a wonderfully pertinent and, as far as I know, previously overlooked meaning to the famous Joycean figure of the artist “paring his fingernails” (Joyce 1968 [1916]: 215). By drawing attention to the fact that the effeminate Tusker (“Lady”) Boyle is portrayed as paring his fingernails elsewhere in Portrait, Dean alerts us to a telling subtext in Stephen’s formulation about the artist, who thus becomes more Wildean and Paterian than ever. For Dean the point is that Joyce identifies his aesthetic with homosexuality to forge a link to “hyperesthesia sexualis,” discussed by Richard von Krafft-Ebing as an abnormal increase in the sexual instinct but also as “abnormal increase in sensitivity to stimuli” (254). According to Lacan language, as an imposition by the Law of the Father or the symbolic order, shuts down such hypersensitivity unless, like Joyce, one uses language “to gain access to, rather than forfeiting, jouissance” (257). Dean’s discussion is relevant not only to Joyce but, one suspects, to many writers whose ambiguous sexuality is a result of the fact that their true object of desire is not a member of either sex precisely but rather a peculiar (or “queer”) relation to language that only the practice of their art provides, enabling them to find a substitute for unsuccessful object relations. It is in this sense that Joyce is truly a “quare fellow.”

Two recent books that chronicle Joyce’s battles with censorship allow us to consider just how “quare” Joyce’s perspective was deemed in his day. Paul Vanderham, in James Joyce and Censorship, provides a highly readable and informative account of the various trials of Ulysses, from the initial marking of objectionable passages (by Ezra Pound and others) in 1918 to U. S. District Judge John M. Woolsey’s decision in December 1933 to let the published [End Page 684] novel enter the United States. In Our Joyce, Joseph Kelly also spends considerable time on the efforts to censor Ulysses as part of his account of the changing image of Joyce found in the story of his work’s reception. It is clear that Joycean jouissance is based on an aesthetics that was, for its time, far too sexualized. But it also seems obvious to us now, particularly after reading Dean’s article, that Joyce’s writing should not have been considered pornographic or obscene but rather unusually fixated on the part language plays in the construction of sexuality. Granted a novelist who explores psychosexual development and who pushes his or her language to hyperesthetic levels is bound to rub some readers the wrong way.

Vanderham’s book provides a long overdue account of how Ulysses became legal and, more importantly, how the struggle against censorship affected Joyce’s continued work on his novel and on his subsequent “Work in Progress.” The book is trenchant and effective in showing how initial commentators on Ulysses played into the censors’ hands by avoiding any mention of the passages deemed “objectionable,” and its account of Morris L. Ernst’s defensive fallacies and Judge Woolsey’s “well-intentioned lies” (a phrase quoted from Leslie Fiedler) is thorough and engaging (10). In arguing that Ulysses is not obscene because it is merely aesthetic, Ernst and Woolsey present us with art that has no consequences and is thus harmless. Vanderham’s discussion of why this became the only acceptable strategy for defense is convincing and relevant to all arguments about censorship, for he asks us to consider how art is effectively denuded of its critical agency by being placed in an autonomous realm where only its artistic effects need be considered.

Yet one is still somewhat perplexed by Vanderham’s attempt to justify a current sense in which Ulysses can be called obscene. Vanderham departs from the puritanical notion of obscenity that still pertained in the early part of the century but wants to keep in play definitions offered by Studs Terkel and Margaret Atwood. For Terkel obscenity amounts to stripping humans of their dignity, while for Atwood obscene language is language that “diminishes the persons to whom it refers” (8).4 The ostensible goal of this strategy is to defeat the misleading defense of Ulysses, which holds that a genuine work of art “could not influence its readers for ill” (9). The point of resuscitating Ulysses’s “obscenity” is to offset the academic, institutionalized, nonoffending Joyce that Vanderham believes modern criticism has created. However, something seems wrongheaded about any attempt to establish a different criterion by which the “objectionable” passages in [End Page 685] Ulysses (Vanderham provides a useful appendix of all such passages) could be called “obscene.” The point at which human dignity is compromised or at which persons are diminished is just as difficult to determine as any other supposed objective standard for obscenity. What’s more, such views of obscenity may make sense coupled with a freedom of speech defense such as Vanderham articulates—inasmuch as checks upon speech are useful in a civil society—but such standards cannot be easily applied to works of art. In other words, Vanderham’s attack on the “well-intentioned lies” misses the point as to why art and literature should enjoy a different status from other forms of activity, of speech, of writing. The defense of art should not insist that art has no effects but rather should stress that the value of art is as an imaginary space in which ideas, expressions, and values may be given a freer treatment than may be enjoyed in social life. It is not simply a matter of freedom of expression. Ulysses should be considered freed from charges of obscenity not because our culture permits Joyce to be as vulgar as he likes but because works of imagination are permitted to test all canons of taste, decorum, intelligibility, prejudice, and so forth.

Joseph Kelly’s Our Joyce, in tracing Joyce’s changing status “from outcast to icon,” covers some of the same ground as does Vanderham’s work. But for Kelly, “Ernst’s Joyce” is third in a series that leads from “Joyce the Realist,” to “Joyce the Egoist” (as promoted by Pound and T. S. Eliot), to Joyce as “modern classic,” to the Joyce constructed by Richard Ellmann’s biography, to Joyce as figurehead and major subject of the “Joyce Industry.” For Kelly as for Vanderham, Woolsey’s decision is a major step in the canonization of Joyce. Woolsey’s decision, by defending Ulysses as high art immune to censorship, helped set up the subsequent reception of the book as a timeless masterpiece. Kelly effectively restores the early Joyce’s position as a social critic of his country, a shrewd observer who wrote Dubliners as a realistic depiction of Ireland’s cultural shortcomings. Due to the lengthy delay that transpired before Joyce was able to find a publisher who would accept the collection without changes, Dubliners never had the effect its author originally intended. Kelly’s account of Joyce’s career aims to offset the critical assumptions about Joyce’s modernist agenda that take their cues from Pound and Ellmann. Central to Kelly’s reading is the need to restore “real intentions to the literary act—first the author’s and later others’” (8).

Kelly’s description of the way the intentions of others have affected the reception of Joyce is fair and, while the facts of the reception are somewhat obvious, illuminating in its implications. Kelly is interested in bringing forward an alternate Joyce, a Joyce with an agenda more political than aesthetic. Eliot and Pound began a process that Ernst and Woolsey helped consolidate, sealing Joyce off from history so to speak, making him into “an [End Page 686] artist in conversation not with a broad readership but with his peers (other artistic and critical geniuses) or with the dead geniuses of the tradition or with no one at all” (73). Kelly’s argument is particularly deft in its handling of Ellmann’s biography, which has long been “revered for an objectivity that its author did not profess” (172). In directing our attention to the way Ellmann’s own assumptions played into his construction of “our Joyce,” Kelly provides a cautionary fable about relying too heavily on any single construction, no matter how great the consensus in its favor. “Ellmann’s Joyce intended his work to be explicated in a literary tradition, by symbolic analysis, and as applying universally to humankind” (169–70). Most students, teachers, and scholars of Joyce would probably not find such a statement inaccurate or problematic except to the extent that the phrase “Ellmann’s Joyce” makes us think that perhaps a “real Joyce” existed who had other intentions. Kelly thinks so and is deliberate in trying to restore “Joyce the Irishman,” who wrote only incidentally for other geniuses, living or dead, and for great critics and analysts of literature but who wrote deliberately for the Irish. In other words, at the center of Kelly’s own intentions is a return to localism that offsets, to some degree, the accomplishments of modernist (and academic) cosmopolitanism. Certainly this approach has considerable justification, particularly with regard to the early Joyce, but at a certain point Kelly’s reconstruction of how the image of Joyce—the “mosaic worker” (193)—came about removes itself from a satisfying engagement with how Joyce actually worked throughout his lengthy ongoing revisions of Ulysses and through the arduous process of writing Finnegans Wake. It is true that the intentions of others helped shape the reception of Joyce’s work, but it is also true that, through Stuart Gilbert and the critics assigned to discuss “Work in Progress,” Joyce also helped shape his work’s reception. Joyce, as Vanderham argues, began to write differently due to the experience of censorship and the fact that chapters of Ulysses were no longer allowed to appear in periodicals. But Joyce also developed as a writer due to the attention of Pound and Eliot and through his involvement with the writers involved with transition. But Kelly is not primarily interested in giving a coherent “corrected” image of Joyce. Though he does detail how the “Joyce Industry” came into being and what its major working assumptions are, en route to a rectification of some of its oversights, Kelly’s larger concern is to alert us to how “Joyce the genius” puts a limitation on the kind of readings and research that are deemed relevant and useful.

The intellectual and historical forces that have shaped the modern academy have made Joyce “ours” as the prevailing representative of certain tendencies in modern literature. Kelly’s intention, as with Cheng offering us a “postcolonial Joyce,” or Lawrence’s authors considering the “transcultural [End Page 687] Joyce,” or Valente’s contributors and Froula discussing the “transgendered Joyce,” is not necessarily to unseat the “canonical Joyce” but rather to provide another avenue of study. The “enduring image of Joyce has stalled change,” Kelly claims (11), perhaps relying a bit too much on a simplified version of the “canonical Joyce” that is actually a creation of the classroom (an aspect of Joyce studies that gets no direct attention). As with Vanderham’s effort to restore the “obscene Joyce,” Kelly’s “Joyce the Irishman” does put certain aspects of Joyce’s writing back into critical circulation. But at the same time Kelly’s book demonstrates that “our Joyce” has been undergoing similar revisions from the very beginning and that “the enduring image of Joyce” is in every era part discovery, part invention on the part of his readers.

A voice in the Wake asks rhetorically, “His producers are they not his consumers?” (Joyce 1982 [1939]: 497). The production of “Joyces” continues apace with the consumption of Joyce’s texts. The relevance of the “canonical” or “modernist” Joyce has been called into question due to the tendency of current readers and critics to resist claims about artistic genius or art’s autonomy and to become impatient with discussions that leave aside the political, the cultural, the sexual, and the social in favor of the aesthetic. Joyce the realist, the social critic, the transgendered self-scrutinizer, and the transcultural import have always been present as aspects of the writing so deliberately produced by Joyce the modernist. The meaning of the last term was intended, I believe, to alert us to the way Joyce’s work combined all those various other designations through a rather obsessive attention to the jouissance and challenge of a specific art. Joyce is not an aesthete, but any Joyce whose intentions, interpretation, or significance we wish to debate is always first and foremost a major stylist of English prose in the modernist period. However academic, in a perjorative sense, such an assessment may seem, it also seems to me undeniable that some such assessment is necessary to justify the study of Joyce and his influence. It also seems to me that the various critics whose work I have been discussing accept some such estimation of Joyce, thereby becoming “his consumers.” As his producers, on the other hand, they are free, within the constraints of discourse deemed suitable and acceptable at a given time, to make of Joyce what they will. “Our Joyce” at present is more polyvalent than he has ever been in the sense that more intentions, more information, and more expertise are in play in his analysis than ever before. The truly amazing effect of reading a selection of Joyce criticism is that one finds Joyce, in each case, recognizable but elusive, tangible but ghostly, an absence present in the oddities of his language and in the scope of his fiction. The end result perhaps is that we become less inclined to make Joyce “ours” in any definitive sense, preferring to consider [End Page 688] how his work helps us enjoy—with what peculiar “jouissance/joyce-essence”—the culture we recognize in all its multiplicity as ours.

Donald Brown is a part-time lecturer in the comparative literature department at Yale University. His research includes twentieth-century literature, and he is now working on a book on allegory and modernism. This is his third review article for Poetics Today.


1. “Finnegans Wake is an amalgamation of puns executed in a dreamlike English, and it is difficult not to describe these as frustrated and incompetent” (68). Salgado translated the quotation himself and provides the following reference for the statement’s original publication: “El último libro de Joyce,” El Hogar 16 June (1939); reprinted in Textos cautivos: Ensayos reseñas en “El Hogar,” edited by Enrique Sacerio-Garí and Emir Rodríguez Monegal (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1986).

2. The phrases are Arnold’s, cited by Stone, and are found in Matthew Arnold, Complete Prose Works, vol. 5 edited by R. H. Super, 11 vols. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960–1977): 165.

3. Mahaffey writes, “The law of the Father is here, quite literally, to bond with men without sexual intimacy and to objectify women through the desire for sexual intimacy” (125). Mahaffey’s principle Lacanian text is The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953–1954, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by John Forrester (Paris: Seuil, 1975; New York: Norton, 1988).

4. Vanderham cites Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (New York: Pantheon, 1974): xix; and Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (Toronto: Seal Books-McClelland-Bantam, 1986): 208.


Brophy, Brigit
1969 In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons).

Cheng, Vincent J.
1995 Joyce, Race, and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
1997 “Of Canons, Colonies, and Critics: The Ethics and Politics of Postcolonial Joyce Studies,” Cultural Critique 35: 81–104.

Deane, Seamus
1990 “Joyce the Irishman,” in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, edited by Derek Attridge (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Eagleton, Terry
1995 Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (London: Verso).

Guillory, John
1993 Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Joyce, James
1968 [1916] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, edited by Chester S. Anderson, Viking Critical Library (New York: Penguin).
1982 [1939] Finnegans Wake (New York: Viking).
1986 [1922] Ulysses: The Corrected Text, edited by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior (New York: Random House, Vintage).

Nolan, Emer
1995 James Joyce and Nationalism (New York: Routledge).

Stone, Donald D.
1998 “Matthew Arnold and the Pragmatics of Hebraism and Hellenism,” Poetics Today 19: 179–98.

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