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Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 18-47

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Influence or Confluence:
Joyce, Eliot, Cohen and the Case for Comparative Studies

Alison Boulanger

The discipline of Comparative Literature is generally considered to be extremely open to all sorts of trends of thought imported from other disciplines, with a wide field for research. As a result, comparatists have tried to establish clear-cut criteria for comparison, taking into account considerations of time, place, and cultural traditions, in order to avoid vagueness and shapelessness. There is, however, one basic tenet about which they tend to disagree: the relevance of influence. In what appears to be a virtually limitless field of investigation, the category of influence is advantageous in that it provides at least one obvious boundary. Therefore it has occasionally been suggested, logically, that comparison should be limited to works which show at least some sort of tenuous link to one another.

This study does not propose to unearth the war-hatchet, only to contrast the strikingly different treatment met by three works at the hands of the critics. The first two of them, Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's Waste Land, hardly require identification. The third, Projections ou Après-Minuit à Genève, is a virtually unknown work by Albert Cohen (the author of the much better-known Belle du Seigneur), classed as a "prose poem" but essentially unclassifiable, which appeared in a 1922 issue of the Nouvelle Revue Française magazine and has never been republished since. All three works present startling similarities. Despite this fact, Cohen's text has never yet, to my knowledge, been linked to the other two--for good reason, in view of its relative obscurity and the fact that there seem to be no grounds for a study of influence. By contrast, the relationship between Ulysses and The Waste Land, and the obvious indebtedness of the latter [End Page 18] to the former, have often been examined by critics such as Day, 1 Litz, 2 Sultan, 3 etc. Moreover, those critics have used this relationship as a building-block from which they articulated their own position on the debated issue of influence. On the one hand, therefore, we have Eliot's poem as related to Joyce's novel, with a mine of criticism embracing their publication history and the "circle" the authors moved in (the wide field of reception studies), the writers' acknowledged and unacknowledged debts to each other, their creative habits and the formal similarities exhibited in their works. On the other hand, we have Cohen's work, a dark horse of a text, apparently unconnected to the other two, and yet displaying surprising parallels with them. My interest, therefore, is twofold: to uncover similarities in themes, structures and style between authors not primarily associated together, and to examine the criteria usually applied in comparatist studies.

Influence Versus Confluence

Whether Joyce had any influence over Eliot's The Waste Land has long been a subject of debate, and, on the whole, the case has already been aptly summed up by various critics. Thomas Lorch, 4 for one, carefully sifting through the available evidence, began by pointing out several of the major parallels between Joyce's and Eliot's works, and then went on to make a strong case for Eliot's having read most if not all of Ulysses prior to publication, through his connection with Ezra Pound and Harriet Weaver, and his position as contributor to The Little Review and assistant editor to The Egoist. Among the evidence were statements by Richard Ellmann and partially quoted letters. Eliot, Lorch concluded, must have been familiar with most, and might have been familiar with all, of Ulysses, by the winter of 1921, when he began work on The Waste Land.

When it became generally available, Eliot's correspondence confirmed Lorch's conclusions. In a letter to Joyce dated May 21, 1921, Eliot thanked him for giving him a foretaste in the shape of "three manuscripts," praised "the Descent into Hell," and commented on some details of Elijah's speech which firmly identify one...


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