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  • Riffing on ShakespeareJames Joyce, Stephen Dedalus, and the Avant-Garde Theory of Literary Creation
  • Irina D. Rasmussen (bio)

In his literary biography of James Joyce, Richard Ellmann draws a parallel between Joyce's overall compositional method in Ulysses and Stephen Dedalus's Shakespeare theory in the novel's ninth episode, "Scylla and Charybdis," to show how both are based on the aesthetic principle "that the artist and his life are not distinct."1 Stephen does take his cues from the famous dramatist's works to speculate about Shakespeare's self-understanding. From our contemporary literary-critical point of view, however, his extensive riffing on the playwright's biography can be read as lampooning a literalist, biographical approach to texts. Not only is his theorizing met with his audience's skeptical response, but Stephen ultimately admits that he does not believe his own theory.

Nevertheless, scholars have credited Stephen's theory with being one of the first serious attempts to attend critically to Shakespeare's plays in the context of the playwright's "self-representation."2 Another weighty reason to read Stephen's theorizing seriously is the general critical understanding that Stephen's aesthetic theory and Joyce's literary experimentation inform each other, though the extent to which they are reciprocal and interdependent is still open to debate. To explore this connection in a new light, I suggest reading Stephen's theory as a Joycean iteration of the contentious rhetoric and tactics deployed by the early twentieth-century critical avant-garde. Using this framework, I will argue that Stephen's theory, despite his caution about offending or directly confronting his audience of Dublin literati, aspires to be an aesthetic and political tour de force that tests a new model of literary creativity. Despite Stephen's extravagant celebration of Shakespeare as a timeless genius, his theorizing [End Page 33] puts also into practice the avant-garde premise that modern art and life are one and that their convergence registers the impact of the age.

Contextually, Stephen's theory draws on familiar, contemporary Shakespeare biographies, such as George Brandes's William Shakespeare (London, 1898), Frank Harris's The Man Shakespeare and his Tragic Life-Story (New York, 1909), and Sidney Lee's A Life of William Shakespeare (London, 1898). Philosophically, his theorizing revisits paradigmatic debates within aesthetic thought between Scholasticism and Mysticism, Aristotle and Plato, and realism and idealism. Diegetically, however, two per-formative features distinguish the episode: namely, Stephen's non-confrontational delivery of a theory that he knows will affront his listeners, and his uneasy awareness of Russell, Eglinton, and others watching him perform. Throughout the episode, Stephen's interaction with his listeners is interspersed with his thoughts about how his ideas are being received. In other words, the dynamo of the episode is Stephen's challenging attempt both to impress his listeners with his prowess as an aesthetic theorist and to unsettle these intellectual opponents. His rhetoric is conditioned by his personal grudges against the influential seniors gathered in the National Library for not recognizing his literary potential and by his desire to both read and oppose them. Stephen's and his audience's differing understanding of literature is reflected not only in his irreverently imaginative recasting of Shakespeare's biography, but also his method of moving discursively between philosophical thought and historical temporalities in order to understand his own status as a contemporary writer. To read "Scylla and Charybdis," in other words, requires measuring what Stephen says in relation to his carefully rehearsed phrasing, but also asking what prompts his rhetorical strategies, apart from his apparent desire to dazzle and outwit his listeners.

To undertake such an analysis, I suggest shifting the critical focus from reading Stephen's prowess and encyclopedic grasp of the playwright's oeuvre as implicit homage to Shakespeare and instead considering the historical context of his theory and, especially, the rhetorical circumstances that condition his delivery. Placing Stephen's theorizing within aesthetic debates of the teens and twenties about the uses of literature suggests that Stephen's bold treatment of the national poet—made by the nineteenth century synonymous with England—not only defies tradition and the Irish literary scene, but partakes in the...


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