- Joyce & Flaubert
James Joyce, writing to Ezra Pound on the subject of Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine: "We might believe in it if Flaubert had first shown us St. Antoine in Alexandria looking at women and jewellers windows." We might believe in the book's sequence of hallucinations, that is, if we had earlier witnessed St. Antoine assimilating the raw material from which his mind, conscious and otherwise, will generate them. Phantasmagoric fiction is all very well, so long as its specters can be realistically accounted for, can be recognized as the product of the mind of their progenitor interacting with the data of a real world. Give us the pearl, but show us the grit and the oyster, and then the grit in the oyster, first.
I begin with this quotation because it highlights my main disagreement with Scarlett Baron's book about Flaubert and Joyce. Although evidence of Flaubert's influence can probably be found in just about everything Joyce wrote, it has long been recognized that nowhere is this so much the case as in "Circe," the culminating chapter of Ulysses. Goethe's Faust and Ibsen's Peer Gynt, along with some Strindberg, some Christmas pantomime hijinks, and some Chaplin-era movie magic, probably all contribute, but La Tentation de Saint Antoine is unquestionably "Circe"'s main inspiration. So clear is this that anyone who has read both could reasonably wonder whether a certain amount of anxiety-of-influence may be at work when Joyce complains about Flaubert's lack of believability. Perhaps he feels a need to stress the difference between his own production and that of his forerunner.
Be that as it may, the difference is real. Let me give an example of the kind of thing which, according to Joyce's account, happens in "Circe" but not in La Tentation. An unenthusiastic Leopold Bloom (un-enthusiastic [End Page 415] because he has recently masturbated), visiting a brothel, encounters a "young whore in a sapphire slip, closed with three bronze buckles." Her name is Zoe. In the background, "oriental music" starts up, heard by Bloom ("Sad music," he remarks), which as we will later learn is being played on the house's pianola by Stephen Dedalus. Bloom then "gazes in the tawny crystal of her [Zoe's] eyes, ringed with kohol" for long enough that she gives him the standard rebuke to overlong starers: "You'll know me the next time." He "forlornly" recites, and slightly misquotes, a once-famous line of sentimental poetry, "I never loved a dear gazelle," from Thomas Moore's oriental romance Lallah Rookh. There follows an apparition of leaping gazelles, mountains, lakes rimmed "black" with "cedargroves" and "a sky of sapphire," "cleft by the bronze flight of eagles."
This goes on, but I hope it is enough to illustrate my point. Bloom is in a trance. (It happens to him a lot, especially in "Circe.") Like a hypnotist's subject, his mind is somewhere between waking and dreaming, and its logic is detectably, if deliriously, associative. He probably starts in on the Moore poem because, as it happens, he had it on his mind—was in fact heard referring to it—a few minutes before; because the oriental music in the background recalled the poem's orientalist origins; and because its next line, "[t]o glad me with its soft black eye," was prompted by the eyes into which he is gazing, those dark eyes of Zoe's, ringed with "kohol"—a cosmetic that, with its oriental associations, shows up twice in Lallah Rookh. In any case, those koholed eyes are—can I say obviously?—the real-world origin of the "lakes" surrounded by "cedargroves." (Not all that original, after all: "Your eyes are like limpid pools, your lips are like rose petals," etc.; later in the same sequence Zoe's red lipsticked lips metamorphose into roses.)
To complete the inventory: The mountains? Zoe's breasts. The sapphire sky? Her sapphire slip. The bronze eagles? Its bronze buckles. And the leaping gazelles? From the Moore poem, of course...