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  • James Joyce and Catholicism: The Apostate’s “Wake” by Chrissie Van Mierlo
  • Sam Slote (bio)
JAMES JOYCE AND CATHOLICISM: THE APOSTATE’S “WAKE,” by Chrissie Van Mierlo. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2017. viii + 161 pp. $108.00.

There have been several distinct, if overlapping, phases in the history of Finnegans Wake criticism after the earliest, tentative critical steps of Samuel Beckett et al.’s Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of “Work in Progress” and Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake.”1 The 1950s and 1960s saw a shelf’s worth of volumes that compiled references along single axes, whether linguistic (Helmut Bonheim and Dounia Bunis Christiani) or thematic (Matthew John Caldwell Hodgart and Mabel Parker Worthington and James S. Atherton).2 They gradually yielded to more synthetic and analytic approaches (notably Clive Hart and Bernard Benstock) that attempted to make sense of the whole book with varying degrees of blindness and insight.3 This, in turn, gave way to the age of theory and its various inflections and discontents. Growing up alongside these various trends within Wakean hermeneutics was genetic criticism, which itself negotiated between the theoretical and the practical (and, at least initially, not without discord). I have recapitulated this history in miniature because Chrissie Van Mierlo’s James Joyce and Catholicism belongs to the vanguard of a new wave of Finnegans Wake scholarship that consolidates and moves beyond past eras. Using a conjoined historicist and genetic approach, Van Mierlo draws on various material sources in order to educe Joyce’s complex responses to and against specific manifestations of Catholicism in the [End Page 355] Wake. Beyond the merits of this focused, thematic reading—which are considerable—Van Mierlo’s book is impressive for its critical disposition and outlook and the ways in which it combines elements of many different modes of approaching the Wake. Throughout her book, she analyses how specific sources related to discourses of Catholicism inform and inflect the voices of the Wake, but, wisely, she does not reduce the “proteiform” (FW 107.08) Wake to just the sum of these (and other) sources. In this way, her own critical approach runs parallel to her description of Joyce’s compositional practice: “[t]he aim is not to arrive at a truth per se, but rather to scan sources for snatches of useful material to be incorporated into a chaotic fictional universe” (55). (I have some quibbles about the word “useful” here, but this is more a matter of hermeneutic fine-tuning.) That is, Van Mierlo acknowledges the complexity of the Wake and the concomitant provisionality of Wakean interpretation, but she does not let that limitation stand as an absolute barrier to interpretations on both matters small and large. It is this precise, perspicacious, interpretive energy coupled with critical humility that marks her text as a model of Wake criticism and scholarship for the early-twenty-first century.

Contrary to other studies of Joyce and religion, Van Mierlo wisely limits herself to Joyce’s works and notes that his own personal beliefs—or unbeliefs, as the case may be—are unknowable. She argues that apostasy is the most amenable rubric to understanding the relationship of his writing with Catholicism. Apostasy is “an active choice to abandon one’s faith entirely” (6), as opposed to heresy, which is still a mode of belief but one that is not officially sanctioned. Joyce’s apostasy can be seen in the ways in which he attacks Catholicism—both the institution and its strictures—but he does not aim to replace it with a “coherent counter-system of thought” (46). This aspect is itself part of Joyce’s overall strategy in the Wake of a non-syncretic synthesis of (seemingly) all realms of discourse. Van Mierlo focuses on one such discursive realm (the Catholic), a territory that is metonymic of Joyce’s catholic “funferall” (FW 13.15). More importantly, she does not reduce the conceptual contours of Joyce’s apostasy to what is indicated in his earlier works. Instead, she specifically historicizes and contextualizes the connections between Finnegans Wake and the Irish Free State, which is mostly coeval with the...


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