Reviewed: James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist, by Stan Gébler Davis; Davis Poynter, London, 1975 / Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellmann; Faber & Faber, London, 1975 / The Exile of James Joyce, by Hélène Cixous, translated from the French by Sally A. J. Purcell; John Calder, London, 1976.
James Joyce was that typical hero of our times, a specialist. As Einstein specialised in physics, and Rockefeller in making money, so Joyce specialised in writing and outside his speciality his interests were almost as narrow as theirs. He once told Samuel Beckett that the demand he made of readers was that they should devote their whole lives to reading his works. Which was fair enough for one who lived only for his writing, always preferred a circle which revolved around him and him alone, and whose normal conversational gambit was to dismiss from consideration all subjects that failed to interest him.
The result of all this in his writing is hardly surprising. Joyce said to his French translator, Jacque’s Benoist-Méchin, of Ulysses: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.’ Accordingly, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are admired more often than read; when read, rarely read through to the end; when read through to the end, not often fully, or even partially, understood. From book to book Joyce’s audience declines from a public to an elite to a circle. The fact is that Joyce’s major works are appropriate to their century of specialist understanding — whether fragmented or compartmentalised. Like Einstein’s cosmology or the twelve-tone row, Finnegans Wake for instance is a token of our age. The route to the summit is never the Sunday stroll enthusiasm can make it seem, but a few may get there, and those who stop part way will enjoy at least a partial view. This, one feels, is the way Joyce, the specialist, would have desired it — as one who, no Promethean rebel, nevertheless deserted orthodoxy simply for the sake of a humanism based on self-knowledge, the right to leave questions unanswered and to develop his own creative faculty in freedom.
In exile Joyce maintained his one-eyed stance. At one point he took a bank job in Rome for seven months, but unlike T. S. Eliot in his London bank — po-faced, pin-striped with gold chain across black waistcoat — Joyce, like Stephen Dedalus, would not serve; he wore holes in his trousers so that he had to wear a tail coat even in the hottest weather and was reprimanded for slovenly posture. Joyce hated Rome as much as the bank. ‘Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse’, he wrote to his brother, Stanislaus. Henry James, he said, deserved a running kick in the arse for writing his ‘teaslop’ about beautiful Italy. In Zurich the Alps bored him – ‘those great lumps of sugar’.
Politics was also subordinated to his speciality. He thought of himself as a socialist partly because he hated the Catholic Church, partly because he thought that a political conscience would give his work distinction, and partly because he believed a state subsidy would provide artists like him with more freedom than they had under capitalism, an illusion still possible in 1905. But beyond drinking in working-class bars, he never did anything about socialism. He affected to be a Parnellite, but Parnell was safely dead when Joyce was only nine. As a young writer in Dublin he was unique in caring nothing one way or the other about Irish independence, and in later years he opposed it because he had a big literary investment in Ireland just as she was.
In Finnegans Wake Joyce narrowed his speciality still further, from writing to words. ‘I have discovered I can do anything with language I want’, he wrote late in his life. Finnegans Wake, essentially a collection of puns, is to other writing as abstract art is to other art. It was not looked on favourably by some of Joyce’s most important supporters. T. S. Eliot, who had written in the Dial of Ulysses: ‘It has given me all the surprise, delight and terror that I can require and I will leave it at that’ (he was magisterial even as a young man), never committed himself about Finnegans Wake. Ezra Pound of all people was hostile; even Harriet Weaver, most tolerant and indulgent of patrons, had to confess, ‘I am made in such a way that I do not care much for the output of your wholesale Safety Pun Factory. It seems to me you are wasting your genius. But I daresay I am wrong’. Nevertheless Joyce had continued to work on the book, revising it right up to his death in 1941.
Ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret. No-one stuck to his literary last like Joyce; even Pound was constrained to write to the American lawyer and collector John Quinn — ‘Thank God he has been stubborn enough to know his job and stick to it.’ This obsessed determination, and indeed all the other things we know about Joyce, have been revealed and discussed down the years in important works of Joycean scholarship, most notably by Richard Ellmann in his several writings and especially in his magnificent 1959 biography. It has further been added to by the three volumes of Joyce’s letters (two of them edited by Ellmann and one by Stuart Gilbert) which appeared some years ago. From the Letters especially it can be seen how, singularly uninfluenced by either academic tradition or avant garde fashion, Joyce worked out his solitary destiny as a writer, pushing through to completion each of his four major works.
Now suddenly, after years of comparative drought, three new books on Joyce have appeared — a biography, a selection of his letters, edited by the indefatigable Ellmann, and a mind-boggling critical study of 765 pages by a French scholar.
If, as we should imagine after dozens of books and thousands of essays on Joyce, we know him inside out, or think we do, what does this new scholarship offer? The Selected Letters, Professor Ellmann explains, introduces ten new letters and unpublished passages hitherto omitted from many others. Some of the new letters are of minor interest — a couple to Lady Gregory, one to Ezra Pound, another to Stanislaus. There are several to Harriet Shaw Weaver which are more important since they explain some aspects of Finnegans Wake — word lists, details of symbols and so on. However two of the new letters and most of the restored passages relate to his correspondence with his wife during his absences from her early in their married life. ‘This correspondence’, notes Professor Ellmann, ‘commands respect for its intensity and candour and for its fulfilment of Joyce’s avowed determination to express his whole mind … I hope that readers will not only countenance it but recognise its value as an extreme of Joyce’s, and perhaps of human, utterance.’
One wonders. Joyce was doing what had been done for centuries before him, indulging in epistolary excitation, writing to and receiving from his wife (‘write more and dirtier, darling’) erotic letters. There would be no point in quoting from these — their equivalents are on sale in most sex-shops and, in any case, for this reviewer’s part, one’s sense of the ridiculous would prevent it. So anal preoccupations loomed large in Joyce’s sexual life? That is no surprise to his readers. And lifting the veil on the private sexual life of James and Nora Joyce seems to accomplish as much as peering into the intimate behaviour and night thoughts of any couple, then or now. Literarily nothing.
The selection is otherwise satisfactorily representative of the three published volumes to date except that somewhat excessive space is given to his correspondence with his long-suffering brother, Stanislaus. Davis’s biography, in a way, has the same imbalance; his readable, racily written account — ‘my book is short on critical waffle and I do not recommend it to seekers after a Ph.D. in Eng.Lit.’ — uses a great deal of dialogue borrowed from the reminiscences and revelations of Stanislaus’ My Brother’s Keeper and Dublin Diary, sometimes obviously guessed at. But Stanislaus was an embittered old man when he wrote the former book and his recollections are suspect. Davis ventures even more riskily into guesswork when he advances the theory that as a result of Joyce’s haunting the brothels of Dublin as a youth he contracted syphilis (or perhaps inherited it from his dissolute and improvident father), this in turn probably causing his eye troubles and possibly his death. It is an extravagant surmise.
As a biography his book is lightweight against the scholarly depth of Ellmann’s. Davis makes no attempt to explore, as Ellmann did, the incredibly detailed relationship of Joyce’s life to his art to help us understand, in an extraordinary writer, something of the mystery involved in the relationship between art and experience. Nevertheless this biography has a certain value since it is likely to interest the average reader hitherto hesitant about tackling a ‘too hard’ writer.
But Mme Cixous’ study is purely for the reader who has reached the summit. Ellmann must now move over and share his dizzy eminence as the premier Joycean critic of our day. Mme Cixous has ingested and digested everything that has ever been written on Joyce — all of Ellmann, Prescott, Magalaner, Tindall — in fact, everyone from Atherton to Edmund Wilson, not excluding Australia’s Clive Hart and S. L. Goldberg. (There is a modest note at the beginning of the Bibliography: ‘We have consulted more than two thousand studies in the course of our researches …’!) She knows the works of Joyce like the fingers of her hands — from the major works to his poems, lectures, critical notes, and Giacomo Joyce.
I have referred to that mystery, so apparent in Joyce, of the relationship between art and experience. Mme Cixous feeds every bit of evidence available from sources primary, secondary or even (in some cases) those based on hearsay, into the grinder of her formidable critical methods, the machinery of which is made up of the cogwheels of her meditation, hypothesis, assertion, argument. Out of all this comes — after an exhaustingly complicated process — the neatly shredded patterns of her conclusions, but the reader’s concentration is tested to excruciating limits while all this is going on.
Mme Cixous accords fundamental priority — and we must give her the fullest credit for this — to the Joycean text, segmenting and ordering it in its entirety into five main divisions, so that a clear pattern of critical approach is indicated. First of all there is the nucleus out of which the artist developed — the family, with Joyce’s relationships to each of its members fully probed and explored; then Joyce’s heroic development as a writer, against a hostile society entrenched in age-old religious conservatism or worse: then the writer’s choice of heresy; then the acceptance of exile; and finally the ‘poetics’ of all these stages of Joyce’s development to his maturity as an artist.
Like Davis (one is not arguing in any way a critical comparison) Mme Cixous pays particular attention to Joyce’s relationship with his brother Stanislaus. Davis, as I have said, uses this aspect to develop a certain sensationalism (the effect is not unlike reading Strachey’s Eminent Victorians for the first time). But Mme Cixous sees the situation as the extreme case of the ‘cannibalism’ in James Joyce’s life and work:
… Jim claimed to be God the one and only. It was often enough for Stannie to discover some mode of thought or behaviour not yet used by Jim, for the latter to take it over. It was not Jim’s genius, but his insatiable faculty for despoiling other People’s personalities, that prevented Stannie from living fully. Jim despoiled him without a word of thanks:
What he calls the domestic virtues are words of contempt in his mouth. He does not recognise such a thing as gratitude. He says it reminds him of a fellow lending you an overcoat on a wet night and asking for a receipt. (Gratitude is, after all, such an uncomfortable sentiment — thanks with a grudge at the back of it.) As he lives on borrowing and favours, and as people never fail to treat him … as a genius while he treats them as fools, he has availed himself of plenty of opportunity for showing ingratitude. (Dublin Diary, pp. 49-50.)
Why keep a diary except for revealing one’s self? In principle it replaces the confident or confessor, but Stannie’s diary alone had a reader, and the confidences inevitably sounded false since that reader was Jim; ‘He has always read these notes, for there was always much in them about him, and if I was calling them anything I would call them “My journal in imitation of Jim” (August 1904).’
It is not only the importance as Mme Cixous sees it, of Stanislaus’ Dublin Diary and the agonies and revelations of My Brother’s Keeper — there is the fact of the brother’s appearances in Joyce’s works. A moving incident in Stannie’s life was his brief acquaintance with a lady whom he met by chance at a concert, something that gave a moment of reality to a lonely and repressed life. James stole this moment of reality — ‘took it over, disfigured and desecrated it’ and turned it into his short story ‘A Painful Case’, and Stannie into Mr Durry. Again, Mme Cixous sees the cannibalising of Stannie continued in the assumption of aspects of his character and personality into Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. The process culminates, of course, in Joyce’s translation of Stannie into Shaun the Post in opposition to himself as Shem (J(h)em) in Finnegans Wake. When Stannie had noted in his diary that James’ nature was ‘antagonistic to morality’, that he accepted no constraints, not even self-constraint, and always demanded the freedom to do wrong whether he used it or not, James had his revenge in Finnegans Wake with his litany to Stannie as Shaun pronounced by a chorus of twenty-eight charming girls as a perverse prayer to the pretender to virtue. Here Stanislaus is in chains, a confessor, pure, puerile, stainless, useless, rustless, everything Joyce detested:
Enchanted, dear sweet Stainusless, dearer dearest, we herehear, aboutobloss, Ocoelicola, thee salutant, unclean you art not. Outcaste thou are not … You are pure. You are pure. You are in your purity …
Mme Cixous is especially rewarding in her examination of Joyce’s exile which has, in the larger context, given the title to her work. She notes the transition ‘from the unhappy Dublin consciousness to a universal consciousness’ and hence ‘to a vaster world in which to set his works’. She asserts that exile is the very form of Stephen’s soul and of Bloom’s life in Ulysses. In the play Exiles she sees not only the emotional sum of five crucial years in the life of Joyce and his wife Nora, but also the ‘thematic embryo’ of Ulysses. She considers it a difficult play ‘almost inaccessible to the general public because of its dense, morbid ambiguities’, yet in it she sees Joyce dealing not only with the problems of conjugal doubts and jealousies, but indeed with the fundamental paradoxes of Ulysses — masochism as a creative force; the delicious torment of the cuckold; the recovery of all forms of separation and exile as the conquest of the necessary place of creation; and finally the theme of the unjust cruelty of God.
And since we are dealing with the Letters — Mme Cixous sees them revealing the continuity between life and writing. Although they were written with no concern for the production of a work of art, and often with a brutal plainness of speech — the letters are nevertheless ‘signed Joyce as much as his other work’. They reveal their author’s ambiguous nature — a mixture of pride and of vulnerability which ‘he was well able to make use of for the benefit of his creation’. They are essentially a part of his collected writing and yield up many secrets of the genesis of his work.
In the end, of course, there are Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Of the former, Mme Cixous concludes
As an harmonious work, an historical metaphor, representing that moment of the modern mind when the critical spirit of the nineteenth century has successfully challenged the theological world, while the sensibility of the twentieth century is still seeking for its place and its form in a fragmented universe, Ulysses is a whole, yet a whole dissociated by its relativist point of view. It is above all the book of the self’s reconciliation with the world by way of language, whose modem surface rests on ancient foundations.;
of the latter
… It is not a finite book but an example of this writing that withholds the last word, that is intended to last forever, mouthing a breath that never ceases to be, like Stephen’s lips when he walked on the beach at Sandymount. This was Joyce’s ambition and we must examine his success. The final discovery that keeps the reader forever in suspense on the brink of the last page of Finnegans Wake, that the which opens on recommencement, is an admirable but unique contrivance; but it is not that infinity of Joyce’s dream but rather the suppression of the ending, which is instead replaced by the beginning. In this, Finnegans Wake is indeed Joyce’s last will and testament. And after all, the work is still limited, by the very fact of its having a beginning. ‘At the end’, it succeeds itself, and since its beginning is its end, it is both mother and murderer of itself, giving both birth and death to itself; it is therefore not surprising that the word chosen to be the last and designated to be the first should be ‘the’ — the definite article, the word which points out but which by itself means nothing, a dead word, a sign which depends upon what follows it.
Yet, labyrinthine as Mme Cixous’ critical processes are, somehow she fails, just as Ellmann in a sense failed in his great biography, to help us see Joyce in the whole context of the modern movement. In the history of the specifically modern consciousness Joyce is at least as important as Baudelaire. With Pound and Eliot — I believe the achievement of the three is in many ways inseparable — Joyce attempted in the English language the expression of a more total, a more unified and a more honest view of human nature, soul and body, than was characteristic of the literature that immediately preceded them. Ulysses was and remains the first great masterpiece of anti-heroic literature; if the novel has survived it, one has the uneasy feeling that it has not quite recovered from the shock. Joyce extended enormously the recorded area of human experience, indeed, the scope of literature itself. And in so doing, he discovered — and this I believe to be his greatest achievement — a fitting subject for contemplation in the debased and the comic.
Image credit: Maxf