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  • Degeneration, Decadence, and Joyce’s Modernist Disability Aesthetics
  • Marion Quirici (bio)

Shortly after the publication of James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle as a standalone volume in 1928, the Observer issued an unfavorable review by Gerald Gould. “It looks as if he had a spelling-bee in his bonnet, and had got confused by the buzz,” he complained.1 To Padraic Colum, whose preface to Anna Livia had praised Joyce as “an innovator of literary form,”2 Gould countered, “I doubt whether it is really an invention to burble, since all babies do it” (7). His summary response to this chapter on rivers and flowing waters was blunt: “The only water it all suggests to me,” he wrote, “is water on the brain” (7). Gould’s technique—discrediting Joyce by invoking disability—is dashed off with a lightness of touch that reveals the use of negative disability metaphors as a second-nature reflex during this stage of eugenics and social Darwinism. Indeed, by 1928, disability imagery was already a well-worn trope in Joyce’s reception.

This essay explores the invocations of disability in early responses to Joyce’s novels, from newspaper reviews to essays by well-known modernist contemporaries. My study demonstrates the lasting impact of nineteenth-century theories of degeneration—the idea that modern art was contributing to the disabling, weakening, and moral deterioration of the human race—on the reception of modernist literature in the interwar period. So-called “degenerate art” was targeted by the rising Nazi party,3 but others outside Germany shared the attitude that modernism was an expression of sickness: Joyce’s critics in England, Ireland, and the United States used imagery of degeneracy and disease to describe what they saw as the immorality, incomprehensibility, and lowness of his writing. They saw his work, and his status as an icon of innovation, as indicative of a spreading moral, mental, and artistic decline. Joyce, responding creatively to these [End Page 84] reviewers, transformed hostile criticisms of his work into sites of literary exchange through which he negotiated the significance of disability to modern art. By crafting a radical disability aesthetic, Joyce challenged the metric of beauty by which art had traditionally been assessed. In “Shem the Penman”—book I.7 of Finnegans Wake (1939)—Joyce reworks material borrowed directly from his negative reception, honing in on representations of degeneracy. In I.7, his critics’ reliance on disability as a master trope of inferiority gives way to Joyce’s defiant disability aesthetic: Shem, a composite of disability-rife representations of the author, plays with his own excrement as gleefully as Joyce reworks the detritus of modernist print culture. The modern age may be one of decline and waste, but Shem uses waste to produce something at once derivative and new. Shem, a proud degenerate, is a revisionary portrait of the artist that asserts the generativity of the deformed, disabled, degenerate body. If Shem the Penman’s many defects and dysfunctions mirror the breakdown of language in Finnegans Wake itself, the text is rich with significance because of, and not despite, these deviations from the norm.


Gould’s joke about hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain,” follows an ongoing pattern in Joyce’s reception of pathologizing the author and his writing. The trend saw expression in the Sporting Times’s famous article, “The Scandal of Ulysses” (1922). The journalist, Aramis, claimed that Ulysses “appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine,” and “the book suffers from being written in the manner of a demented George Meredith.”4 Even positive reviews of Joyce incorporated disability metaphor: John Middleton Murry’s defense of Joyce in Nation and Athenaeum saluted the author as a “half-demented man of genius.”5 Reviews like these blur the lines between innovation and genius on the one side (Colum and Murry), and infantilism and insanity on the other (Gould and Aramis). In Joyce’s mixed-bag reception, hazy references to disability-related concepts found constant expression. Often, reviewers projected further decline: James Douglas wrote in the Sunday Express, “if Ireland were to accept the paternity...


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