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 …

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