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 to find? A close reading of text is necessary but I should like to see it limited and controlled by more generous reference to context.
The best things in the book are bits of textual exegesis. Any reader can discard what he thinks silly—there is a chapter on the OS-motif in Ulysses which is my candidate for permanent oblivion—while feeling grateful for what he finds useful. An ingenious chapter on the transformations of Mark seemed to me one of the books soundest and most valuable contributions. In this work of close reading, Mr. Bonheim’s German is particularly handy, and the German word list of Finnegan’s Wake which he is preparing should be of permanent value to the vast symposium. Altogether, then, this seems to me a premature and loosely thought-out book with useful elements. Three photographs adorn the text. They show Joyce’s birthplace (a low drab brick structure), the Liffey (it’s invisible), and three or four Dublin gents by the quayside, their backs resolutely turned to the camera, staring into the gray distance. Are they thinking Wake thoughts? It seems probable, very probable indeed.
The Domain of the Self by Priscilla Washburn Shaw studies the poetry of Rilke, Valéry, and Yeats with a special eye to the varying relations prevailing within each of these poets, between the self and the outer, experimental world. These are somewhat slippery and interchangeable terms since what in one mood seems intimately and essentially part of ourselves may under other circumstances appear quite exterior, and vice-versa. In poetry particularly, or any imaginative work, the part played by the crude “world” may well be limited radically to what we can recognize as “obsessive” imagery—since the very act of putting the world in a poem is ordinarily a way of asserting dominance over it. These are elusive and baffling problems for our clumsy language to cope with. But Mrs. Shaw is wary and knowing in her handling of them. Sometimes, indeed, she moves so cautiously amid the psychological-philosophical bric-a-brac that we are in danger of forgetting the poetry itself. It is no derogation of either her work or her subjects to say that her interest in the problem of self is more sustained and systematic than theirs; the reader will be amused to see how even the most cautious treatment of this hydra-like topic tends to become an example of the problem it is analyzing. But she plays the game skilfully.
In Mrs. Shaw’s scheme of things, Rilke stands for the poet over whom external objects exercise most potent, almost despotic sway; Valéry for the poet most assured and dexterous at placing them beneath his own dramatic (conceptual-gestural) controls; while Yeats occupies a middle position, or if that smacks of an unworthy and un-Yeatsian compromise, vacillates with a bold and passionate urgency between extremes. Mrs. Shaw writes of these three very different figures with restraint, sobriety, and great lucidity; her book is impressive because it moves quietly from detail to detail until it has built a critical view more sizeable than one had anticipated. It is a book to be read slowly and mulled over at leisure—a hard, clear, thoughtful book of criticism, falling outside any organized “schools” I know of, but useful to most of them. The one major reservation I have is that the three poets subjected to this clinical light come out sounding very much alike—not that their differences within the chosen spectrum are unimpressive, but that the spectrum itself seems rather less than complete. This is due, of course, to the critic’s original definition of “self” as a product of abstraction, not the accumulation of gritty particulars. This matter needs special consideration; the problem of whether we are an essence or an action has a considerable history, to which Mrs. Shaw might have alluded in more than a passing word. But perhaps hers is the only basis on which a literary discussion of world versus self can proceed at all.
In a book so carefully worked out, it is unfortunate that some of the translations are close to being wooden or even incomprehensible, and that Mrs. Shaw isn’t always as careful as she should be to make clear what poem she is talking about at any specific point. She takes for granted that her reader has available, either physically or through the blessed gift of total recall, the Gesammelte Werke in six volumes, the Gallimard edition in two volumes and Yeats’s Collected Poems. This represents the serious professional quality of her work, but following an argument so wide-ranging and specifically selective can be hard on a reader who is not provided with good guideposts. Nevertheless, this is a thoughtful and painstaking book, which will lead to useful rumination, even where it does not fully convince or excite. I should add a word of praise for the genre of Mrs. Shaw’s book—the critical study that makes no effort to popularize, but lays the foundations of many different and ultimately determining forms of appreciation. It is an authentic work.
In Sacred Founts and Ivory Towers Maurice Beebe has set out briskly to write an historical account of the artist as hero in fiction from Goethe to Joyce. But this report has been allowed to bulge all too generously, till it includes novels with heroes who are artists by courtesy only—David Copperfield, Axel Heyst; books that aren’t novels at all—Rousseau’s Confessions; as well as thumbnail sketches of authors, such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, whose relation to a fictional tradition is not in any way apparent. This historical section of Mr. Beebe’s book, comprising its first 171 pages, must be judged very crude work indeed. It is literal-minded and uncritical to a degree; it ventures on great topics, handles them skimpily or inaccurately, and plunges hastily onward, vociferously calling attention to its intentions. Worst of all, its generalizations are schematic and primitive. Take those in the title: Mr. Beebe thinks there are two different artistic attitudes towards Life. “Ivory towers” want to escape it, “sacred founts” want to express it. Already, in the “sacred fount,” we have a gaucherie; since Mr. Beebe has appropriated to symbolic uses of his own a phrase which in James carries a quite different connotation. But, even overlooking that point, we cannot make much critical use of so flat and wholesale a distinction. An author like Huysmans, with his double affinity for Zola’s method and hermetic attitudes, makes hash of the whole division. But so, if carefully considered, would any literary artist worthy of the name; and Mr. Beebe avoids putting his major categories to the test of actual critical use.
Some delicacy of touch in the style might have atoned for the provisional structures; but, alas. For an analyst of literary and artistic nuances, Mr. Beebe writes with the finesse of a water-buffalo. Consider this sentence on Rousseau:
He made room for art in his ideal society, and behind his theories of life lay not the nihilism of the romantic rebel but an awareness of the sanctity of life not unlike that of many later artist-visionaries. (p. 39)
Or this YMCA secretary’s endeavor to say something delicate about Flaubert:
From all account, Flaubert was a manly, handsome person attractive to women and not without the usual instincts of the normal man.
Add to this sort of prose the citation of all foreign-language works—prose and poetry alike—in translations often desperately bad, a real failure to discriminate between foolish and respectable critical work, a great deal of detailed factual inaccuracy, and sloppy proof-reading. One is left with a sad sense of botched literary carpentry.
The book is redeemed, in some measure, by its final four chapters, which are detailed studies of James, Joyce, Proust, and Balzac. The points made are not weighty, but they are controlled and supported by close reading of specific books and stories. Nobody will be staggered by fresh insights, but the reader may be reminded of some useful connections. Presented as a series of such essays, the book might have been modestly useful.
Mrs. Shaw writes high criticism, Mr. Bonheim middle criticism, Mr. Beebe unabashedly low criticism; it’s a sad reflection on a naturally corrupt art that even the best of these books, at the peak of its achievement, commits on its subjects a violence not altogether noble.
October 22, 1964