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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 817-823

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History's Echo

Tracey Teets Schwarze

Patrick McGee. Joyce Beyond Marx: History and Desire in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Florida James Joyce Ser. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 2001. xii + 307 pp.
Andrew Gibson. Joyce's Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. xii + 306 pp.

In the "Aeolus" episode of Ulysses, Freeman's Journal editor Myles Crawford lays a hand on the shoulder of Stephen Dedalus and tells the young man, "I want you to write something for me. Something with a bite in it. You can do it. I see it in your face. . . . Put us all into it, damn its soul" (111). Critics have long identified Ulysses as that piece of writing that self-consciously executes the newspaper editor's demand, but early Joyce critics such as biographer Richard Ellmann, it is now charged, left the novel toothless rather than biting, privileging its modernist aesthetic and supposed universal humanism over its specific, political concerns. These approaches either "defang[ed]" Joyce's purported nationalism as Vincent Cheng claims in Joyce, Race, and Empire (2), or they just flat-out ignored it, attributing both to Joyce and to his work what Emer Nolan has referred to as a "benign multiculturalism" (3).

And so the current generation of cultural historicists—largely Marxists, postcolonialists, and some feminists with an historical bent—have usefully set about the task of restoring to Joyce's novel its political and social "bite." Cheng, Nolan, and Enda Duffy are among [End Page 817] those who have re-appropriated Joyce's political and historical contexts, arguing for what has now evolved as a dominant view in Joyce studies: James Joyce constituted as a colonial subject writing against empire and colonial repression. Andrew Gibson's latest book, Joyce's Revenge, is the most recent installment in this paradigm shift, while Patrick McGee's new volume, Joyce Beyond Marx, offers up a new and noteworthy caution to it. We critics, McGee rightly points out, survey our subjects (Joyce and history, Joyce and colonialism) from inside the confines of our own constituent ideologies. That is, our beliefs about political systems, postcoloniality, colonialism, masculinity, femininity, morality, family, sexuality, religion, labor, and wealth (to name just a few) are in fact bound by our own positions in time and place. McGee advises that we as critics must acknowledge our predilection to legitimate those views that we find most acceptable, as well as identify our own privileged positions within the academy as writers of history—or we risk perpetrating anew those univocal, hegemonic judgments that silence other viewpoints.

Thus, in Joyce Beyond Marx, a wide-ranging collection of new and previously published essays by McGee himself and published as part of the Florida James Joyce Series, McGee insists on the importance of historicity to Joyce studies, but he also points out the complexity of such undertakings. McGee offers up the myth of Narcissus as a metaphor for the pitfalls of historical discourse:

Historical discourse has a tendency to fall in love with its own image, with the view of the world that it projects and legitimates. . . . However liberatory any particular version of the past may be, it becomes oppressive when it falls in love with that projected image and no longer can hear those voices that come from outside the dominant discourse, voices that articulate desires that always have been told to come back later. (11)

McGee advocates a self-conscious criticism, one that recognizes and articulates its own constructed position inside an historical context in order to avoid a myopic, narcissistic blindness. Taking his own advice—proffering his own history as a young working-class Marxist in the early 1970s, for instance—McGee has produced an immensely valuable and provocative collection of essays on Joyce, history, authority, pedagogy, politics, and gender.

Let me say here that McGee's collection is exactly what these sorts of retrospectives ought to be: not just a collection of one's previous work into a single volume, but a re-seeing and a re-vision of that work...


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