• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Joyce and Vico: The Middle Way

The Exile of James Joyce

by Hélène Cixous, translated by Sally A.J. Purcell
David Lewis, 765 pp., $15.00

Closing Time

by Norman O. Brown
Random House, 109 pp., $5.95

Vico’s Scienza Nuova and Autobiography are related to the familiar classics of Western philosophy rather as a dream is related to the waking workaday state. They are disturbing, confusing, and they have a multiple significance. They are apt to be remembered in fragments and they mean different things to different persons: and it seems, or has seemed, that they cannot easily be put to work for any practical necessary purpose, either as guides to action in politics, or as keys to the future, or as moral exhortation, or even as advice to historians on methods of history. In this respect they are utterly unlike the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Condorcet, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim. Not only are they not part of this continuous order of thought and ambition: they are opposed to it, and they would, if they could, undermine it finally. Vico’s science genuinely was new, both in his theory and in his practice; and the novelty remains even now, because he has only been partially understood, and understood usually in a tame, domesticated sense, which disguises his subversive meanings.

Vico is not just one more in the line of philosophers of history and prophets of the future social sciences: rather he should be seen as the end of the line, properly read and applied. He can now be properly read, perhaps, because the famous prose theorists of history, the wide-awake thinkers and their schools, have been losing credit, and have begun to fade and to seem dull, clear daylight-error, leading us away from an inquiry that is poetical, literary, philosophical, and finally, antihistorical: an inquiry that may yield the only close knowledge of our social ways and thoughts that we can have; and that we can have particularly now, at a moment of apparent decadence, in the apparent chaos of our ways and thoughts, as cities decay and urbanity is lost, and there is a turning back toward primitive origins and toward small communities, and to the interpretation of dreams and to distrust of learning.

Prose fiction and a historical consciousness each seemed inconceivable without the other in the last hundred years, even apart from the special connections that Hegel traced and even apart from the theory of the novel as bourgeois epic. For 250 years the story of developing social forms, and the presumed patterns underlying this development, have been the proper story of humanity. Such a story can be told in prose, whether as history or as fiction: illustrations of manners and of a sentimental education in the city, or of vanishing customs in the country, and illustrations of the gradual unfolding of the great city as a modern world. Unfractured prose is the medium for representing citizens to themselves in a social and historical setting which they can recognize as their own and which they believe determines their existence and identity. Novels made self-conscious citizens of the nineteenth century even more conscious of their historical place, and of their modernity. The public, social world is the formative reality, the occasion alike of action and of feeling, and myth and poetry and every form of fiction are at once indirect comments on, and indirect reflections of, the single social reality.

Joyce turned back across 200 years to Vico, in his own recorso, for a new humanism independent of social history, and independent of history of any kind: to one day in one city, and then to no clear day at all, but to nightspeech. The universal family of man is constituted by language and not by social structures. The unity of mankind is to be reconstituted, not through controlled and fact-respecting history, but through a wild, farranging, and imaginative philology.

The myths and puns, the metaphors and free associations, the condensations of dreamspeech and of childhood poetry and play, popular catchwords and songs, taken from many languages, are the story of mankind, except that they are not to be recaptured as story alone; they come to full consciousness as fractured prose, as a kind of pure poetry, and as an immense symbolism that combines strictly formal structures with mad, far-fetched, and also contrived, associations and coinages and metamorphoses. Fiction is rolled back to its prehistorical beginnings and prose to rituals of barbarism and to incantation, jingle, and pun. Bourgeois epic has been formalized and turned sometimes into poetry, in Ulysses; and in Finnegans Wake the dream philology, a summary of European thought in the roots of many-languaged words, has almost displaced story and wholly replaced prose. There is no public, social order.

The language is in two ways barbarously magical. First, the elaborate formal structures of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are carried through with obsessional care, as if one careless omission, or neglected symmetry or echo, might ruin the whole, and rob it of its force and integrity, like a false step in ritual or a broken rule in children’s street games. Secondly, coincidences in naming and association between names and etymological coincidences have explosive meanings that are independent of anyone’s intentions. In Joyce coincidences in language are to be treated like natural portents. One stumbles across the coincidences, as in the language of oracles and in memories of dreams and in the inventions of mythology, and they carry condensed messages to be slowly, speculatively unraveled.

That words have this power is not incidental to them, and the release of this compressed power in literature is not eccentric. The deeper and shared thought, and social and family experiences, of mankind are hoarded in elaborated words and names and phrases, and literary experiment has always opened the entrance to the hoard, knowingly or unknowingly; now knowingly, because we are in the decadence that calls for renewal from the primitive sources of poetry; in the fading daylight of reason we are in need of dreamspeech and the obscure meanings of the unconscious mind, and the need to regress is a conscious one. This was Joyce’s free romantic version of Vico’s theory.

The confluence of Vico and Joyce, from utterly separate sources coming together, is an amazing coincidence; it is possibly a portent of our future, or of one segment of it. Joyce adopted Vico late in his own development, in the early Twenties, because Vico had said what he for his own reasons needed to hear across the 200-year chasm. It was not a case of influence, but a Joycean accident of a coinciding conclusion. Reduced to a single prose point, the common conclusion was that humanity has a unity that transcends history; it is not a false totality of diverse cultures outside biology, and humanism can be given a sense, through an imaginative philology, which is not the sense that previous humanists have given it. The unity is to be found in the universal roots of the many languages that men have imagined and invented in their poetical moments, ever since they emerged, stuttering and babbling and gesturing, from their caves, and from an inchoate state of nature, unritualized, into the first symbolisms of family relationship, and to the knowledge of fear and dependence, with transcendental imaginings to relieve the fear.

Humanists had been apt to find the unity of mankind in the exercise of sovereign reason and in the history of its supreme achievements, particularly in the philosophy of the ancient world and in Roman law. Joyce, like Vico, looked for, and played with, the universal and primitive imagery, which is overlaid by the rational structures of the famous philosophies; and his humanism put the ordinary men and women of the modern city, representing the family of mankind, in place of the heroes of the ancient world. For Vico, and for Joyce also, a representative individual preserves in microcosm through his lexicon the range of ideas which comprise the imaginative resources of the race, the spiritual capital upon which we all draw, whether in mandarin writing or in the crude patter and songs of the streets and pubs.

Joyce winds together the rough, vital language of the Dublin streets with classical and philosophical allusion into composite Joyce speech, his style from Portrait onward until Finnegans Wake. The unity of the race is to be found in the universal grammar of common imagery, buried deep in the unconscious mind, and remembered from the childhood of the individual and of mankind, and built into the archetypes of family dependence and conflict. For Joyce, even more than for Vico, the family is, alongside the use of language, the institution that constitutes a common humanity: for Vico the rituals and gestures and mute symbols that precede speech are simultaneous in the ideal order with the recognition of the family. The family is not a biological unit, but is rather the universal basis of human culture; the idea of it pervades all our perceptions of social reality. A child is born innately ready for family relationships as he is ready for speech. He enters into a third and intermediate domain, which is neither that of rational thought nor is it the state of nature studied by the natural sciences.

Joyce could be polyglot, cosmopolitan, an exile, and invent a literature that draws on many of the languages of Europe. Still the family romance, in its full complexity, is the unavoidable subject of fiction. Not only history but also nature is originally interpreted by men in terms of family relationships, and then in terms of social relationships which are derived from them. Earth Mother, God Father, the sexual symbolism of natural kinds, the ambivalences of sexuality, the metamorphoses of gods, the rivalry of brothers, the incompleteness of sons reproached by the ghost of their father, the Christ-like emigration of the son who leaves to make his way and who repudiates his fatherland and his mother for his creative mission, the wandering of the experimentalist and adventurer, ruled by curiosity, who first deserts and then returns to his home, which is the fixed center of the earth, the triangularity of sexual relations which makes jealousy an aspect of human love and which inserts the imagination into the bare couplings of nature: these are some of Joyce’s themes, because they are selections from the necessary, radical themes of all European literature, which he is resuming, as Milton resumed the epic, in the form of philosophical parody. So far he and Vico are in accord.

As language constitutes the essence of man as a species, and not reason, so the family, and not the social order, is the setting that humanizes him. He is not political man at the deepest level, but family man, father, son, and brother, kinship-tied, race-respecting, inheritor of customs and rituals and songs, sometimes stranger and wanderer, the more Jewish the more representatively human, as Bloom is, always in emotion recurring in thought to the origins of his identity. But there is one divergence, or change of emphasis, which has disguised this extraordinary philosophical coincidence of view.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print