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  • "O, despise not my youth!":Senses, Sympathy, and an Intimate Aesthetics in Ulysses
  • Siân E. White

In a moment of unsolicited generosity, Leopold Bloom helps a young blind man cross the street, initiating a flood of self-reflexive thoughts about perception that highlight the interaction as an intimate one. This event upsets not only readings of Ulysses as fundamentally pessimistic,2 but also concepts of the disconnected modern hero and the unapproachably subjective modernist text. In one view of modernist aesthetics, the esoteric text alienates the reader and thereby allegorizes the characters' disconnected experiences of modernity. Since the term intimacy brings to mind, in contrast, both privacy and familiarity, it is not surprising that it would be underrepresented in the context of the impersonal public metropolis often depicted in modernism. Indeed, views of modernity that rely upon the Cartesian split portray the subjective mind as alienated not only from others' bodies but also from its own body.3 If there is a direct relation between alienation and interiority, then one can assume an inverse one between interiority and intimacy.4 The more interior or subjective the character's view, the less interactive he or she is with other characters, physically or mentally.5 Furthermore, the emphasis on an aesthetic view of consciousness that focuses on interiority comes at the expense of representing the body. The modernist aesthetic seems to privilege the mind that is disconnected from the body and other people.

Intimacy is implicitly present, however, in the lament about alienation, which is a condition borne out of the loss of intimate connection. The degree to which that loss generates such lamentation and ennui attests to intimacy's fundamental and pervasive value. Furthermore, the modernist trend toward the examination and representation of interiority, perception, and subjectivity suggests that the private sphere, or at least the private workings of the mind, have a place in conversations about modernity. The project of tracing intimacy in modernist literature gestures toward the work that the concept can do in reimagining modernism. I conceive of intimacy in three distinct but interrelated ways that imagine it [End Page 503] as a form or indicator of communication: as that which, first, characterizes collaboration between the mind and the body; second, describes a connection of sorts between two individuals; and third, constitutes an aesthetic practice whereby the simultaneous physical and psychical experiences can be represented in the literary work. I describe this third conception of intimacy as an "intimate aesthetics." Since intimacy encompasses personal and private connections that are best understood through firsthand experience, the writer faces the inevitable dilemma of having to portray intimacy secondhand. For that reason, conversations about modernism engage more often with the alienating experience of subjectivity than with moments of closeness and connection.

The first two conceptions of intimacy register the influence of phenomenologists such as Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose theories of ethics in the face of the other and of "embodied consciousness," respectively, undermine notions of alienation and an absolute mind/body split.6 Merleau-Ponty in particular claims that the body in motion does not necessarily experience alienation as a result of its distance from the other—as arguably do, for example, the modernist figures of the flâneur and the prostitute7—nor does consciousness occupy a space detached from the workings of the body. Furthermore, the interrelationship between body and consciousness does not limit the individual but rather gives him the freedom to see and engage with the world of which he is an inextricable part.8

The third conception of intimacy, as a narrativizing aesthetic practice interrogating modes of communication, engages with several psychoanalytic and cultural studies conversations that have emerged in the past twenty years. In those discourses, intimacy refers both to the idea of a close, personal relationship and to the relationship between narrativity and subjectivity in forging intimacy with the other. For Anthony Giddens, intimacy is as much a narrative of the modern reflexive self as a quantifiable relationship state.9 In that narrative, romantic partners grow increasingly more equal and open in their communication, and a reflexive narrativity brings about the actualization of the egalitarian partnership, proposing optimistically that relationships...


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pp. 503-536
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