- "One Man Like a City"Masculinity and History in Finnegans Wake and William Carlos Williams's Paterson
We sit and talk and the
silence speaks of the giants
who have died in the past and have
returned to those scenes unsatisfied
and who is not unsatisfied, the
silent, Singac the rock-shoulder
emerging from the rocks—and the giants
live again in your silence and
Williams killed Joyce's giants. In the cyclical structure and redemptive vision of Finnegans Wake, Joyce's giants had enjoyed immortality. But it was short lived. In his uses of the Wake in the composition of his American epic Paterson between 1946 and 1958, William Carlos Williams ensured that the cast of the Wake had a chance to meet the same fate as the rest of us. In the first book of Paterson, a reader of the Wake (in a state of chronic untreated insomnia) will encounter a familiar cast of characters: man/city and his mate, twin boys, and a spectrum of young women. But with a difference. Joyce's and Williams's constructions of character mirror their poetics in that Joyce's characters accumulate identities while Williams's disintegrate. Vike Plock has described Wakean characters as "trans-historical," while Richard Lehan and Robert Spoo have called them "superimposed."2 Scarlett Baron sees Wakean intertextuality, which shapes character as well as form, as mosaic.3 All of these observations rightly gesture toward a gathering. Although Robert Lowell has famously [End Page 147] asserted that everything in Paterson "strains toward marriage," Frederic Jameson notes that Paterson of all "modernist epics" realizes the "necessity of failure."4 This performance of failure—of poetic form, language, a culture, a nation—results in a poetics of distance and distancing, even when a palpable desire for unity courses under its surface. And so Paterson's exploded or shattered figures stand in stark contrast to the Wakean giants. These differences emerge through contrasting deployments of language and history. Joyce synthesizes characters from literature, history, and his imagination in order to create the manifold effect of each Wakean character. Historical figures appear in Paterson only as they occur in the mind of the fictional poet, Paterson, as he ravenously consumes American history and current events, much like his creator.
While a few scholars, like Jameson and Sara Sullam, have begun to fold back the layers of intertextuality between Joyce's and Williams's works, the rich depths of this relationship remain largely unexplored.5 This might be because Joyce and Williams spent the greater parts of their lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic, having only ever met once and not having written to each other. Their relationship then is almost purely textual, a dialogue through poetics. Given both writers' close personal relationships with other important artists—like Joyce's mentorship of Beckett and Williams's ultimately heartbreaking friendship with Pound—it could be easy to overlook an exchange whose only traces lie in poetics. Yet we know that Williams genuinely admired Joyce's writing, despite his famous and perhaps exaggerated distaste for esoteric European modernism. As a contributor to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, he was among the first critics of the Wake, and "A Point for American Criticism" roundly rebukes Rebecca West's critiques and claims a natural alliance between Irish and American writers. Clear allusions to the Wake abound in Paterson, but Williams transforms Wakean poetics to better suit his mid-century American historical moment, which seemed to gravitate toward apocalypse rather than recurrence. Exploring this less personal and more purely poetic intertextuality can provide better insight into the intersections of poetics and history.
Joyce's and Williams's views of history were shaped by their geographic origin, and both chose to animate peripheral cities: Dublin still struggling to find its identity as the capital of a newly independent nation and Paterson idling in the shadow of New York. Williams thought that the people of a secondary city like Paterson were truer representations of how average Americans lived and spoke. This underdog perspective comes not only [End Page 148] from Williams's New Jerseyan identity...