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  • Chaplin and Joyce: A Mutual Understanding of Gesture
  • Jesse H. McKnight (bio)

In the ninety years since James Joyce was feverishly massaging Ulysses and Charlie Chaplin was banging out his twelve Mutual film masterpieces, the possible connection between the two remains tenuous and uncharted. At the time, both artists had made a quantum leap in creative control, consciousness of purpose, and a deepening and ripening of what might best be called the unique genius of each from their previous work.

Just as Ulysses engulfs the données of Dubliners and A Portrait with voluminous and detailed experimentation and exponential implication, Chaplin’s doughty dozen refine, reconstitute, and redefine the early Keystone and Essanay films under his own newly attained creative direction and mark for the first time in his career the precedence and preeminence of comic gesture over physical conflict. That said, the richest vein for mining comic insight into both artists may lie in the mother-lode years of 1916–1917, when Joyce was entering the thick of his period of composition and when his antennae for new ideas and influences were still extended, and when Chaplin was capping off the first segment of his career with the Janus-faced series that looked back to the freshest and most iconic moments of the prior two years and onward to the United Artist masterpieces of the 1920s.

At the turn of the last century, before the advent of silent film, both artists were groping their way to greatness—Joyce formulating theories of rhythmic gesture gleaned from Aristotle and Quintilian and Chaplin learning pantomime, pratfall, and physical humor from Fred Karno and Max Linder. As early as Stephen Hero, which in its blundering ingenuousness provides astonishing insights into the depth and breadth of his early training in philosophy, Joyce was signaling some future artistic context that would accommodate both the gestures of action and of language: “There should be an art of gesture, said Stephen one night to Cranly—Yes?—Of course I don’t mean art of gesture in the sense that the elocution professor understands the word. For him a gesture is an emphasis. I mean a rhythm” (SH 184). From the comic gesture can be deduced the cosmic rhythm—from the psychological fact, the mythological truth. That the last term of his thesis becomes an equal and inextricable partner with the first is [End Page 493] borne out in A Portrait, which, in its greater dramatic intensity and economy of purpose, affords a considerably more oblique view of Joyce’s philosophical motives and predilections than previously recognized: “Rhythm, said Stephen, is the first formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which it is a part” (P 206). Rhythm, for Aristotle, is, in its purest state, the dominion of the dancer’s art.1 From these moving gestures of form, Quintilian deduced gestures of language,2 and their identity may be the deepest root-stock from which the balletic art of Chaplin and the mimetic art of Joyce grew and took form. Both artists inherently embody Leonardo da Vinci’s dictum that the only valid figure is that which expresses through its gestures the passions of the soul,3 and this conviction is manifested throughout the Chaplin canon in actual dance and in the dance-like rhythms of his best comic situations. Similarly in Joyce, the passions of the soul are borne out in gestures that attain a kind of cosmic rhythm over time—the dance of the hours—which, like the music of the spheres, has a strange galactic elegance and dignity but can turn drunken and swinish as in Joyce’s “Circe” episode of Ulysses and Chaplin’s The Cure.4 Joyce staves off the epiphanic joinder of his key terms until Stephen Dedalus is so beset with the irony of abandonment by his creator (Joyce) that his statement—triumphant as it may be—becomes a prop in the comic revue in which it finds itself.

Shrewdly placed in the opening forays into “Circe,” Stephen makes a seemingly offhanded remark to Lynch as he...


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pp. 493-506
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