Rilke, Valery and Yeats, the Domain of the Self
Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts
In Joyce’s Benefictions, Helmut Bonheim has a cute title for a bold thesis which he advances so timidly that one doesn’t know quite how to take it. He proposes that Joyce was a consistently anti-authoritarian writer, and that the trend to satirize fathers, gods, kings, and authority-figures generally is responsible for the increasing darkness and complexity of his style. But the further Mr. Bonheim raises his molehill to the proportions of a mountain, the more dubious he himself becomes of it, and his doubt rapidly infects the reader. In fact the central generalization has some truth to it, about as much as its opposite. Joyce satirizes many authority-figures, of church, family, and state, in the Portrait and Ulysses; but he has strong feelings of loyalty toward them, too—Parnell, for example, the Jesuit fathers, and St. Thomas Aquinas. In his later years, he doesn’t become more and more hostile to authority-figures; on the contrary, as he identifies more and more closely with the old and established, he becomes more and more understanding of, more and more ambivalent towards, the figure whose apparent success is only the prelude to a fall. In an incautious moment (p. 137) Mr. Bonheim says as much. Dubliners, it appears, is the most negative book in the canon. This dictum minimizes much of the warmth and delicacy of “The Dead,” but it is true in general; and where it leaves the doctrine of Joyce’s increasing hostility to authority, I leave Mr. Bonheim to explain. But then, I cannot see how the generalization, even if it were fully supported, could be made to explain the stylistic qualities of Finnegan’s wake, or the development of Joyce’s prose style.
The book, then, stands a little askew on its generalizations; and it is the more troublesome in this respect because of the rather brisk, categorical manner in which it says what Finnegan’s Wake is about. It is not simply that in reading Finnegan’s Wake Mr. Bonheim operates more like a concordance than like a reader—that seems to be a condition of the enterprise. He operates on all the other books in much the same way—picking out a word or a syllable or a phoneme here, and joining it with another one 200 or 400 pages away (forwards or backwards as the Boyg put things, it’s just the same) to make an esoteric point. That too is all right—the books do work this way, sometimes. But Mr. Bonheim like many other Wake zealots operates on the principle that what can be found in the text by any process of exegesis must be significant to it. This doesn’t always work out—the cost is a good deal of mess. “Patrarc” (269.24) means “patriarch” and “Patrick,” why not “Petrarch” and “father’s ark,” and “pattering rainbow” as well? And if all these things are meant at once, what happens to the clear, clean, anti-authoritarian argument which Mr. Bonheim professes …