James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

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.

Joyce’s early imagination was linked with erotic feeling which was to some degree autonomous and which he saw as the negation of the Manichean Catholicism of his childhood and also as part of the aestheticism of the Nineties, of the literary cultivation of the flowers of evil. The tone lingers even in Ulysses, though self-consciously distanced and even parodied, and it has almost disappeared in his true Viconian work, Finnegans Wake, which is neither specifically Christian nor pagan in a romantic sense. The original sin that comes with the thunderclap of monotheism and monogamy is no more than a humanizing sense of shame surrounding sexuality and its proper secrecies, and a humanizing fear of unknown and superhuman powers.

Such a coincidence in rejecting history for anthropology between a Neapolitan philosopher and legal theorist rejecting Descartes in the 1720s, and a Flaubertian Irishman, rejecting romantic nationalism and rivaling Dante and Milton in his literary ambitions, calls for understanding. But it also requires one to take sides for or against, to evaluate the claims made as philosophy by Vico and as fiction by Joyce.

The claims are that the story of the human race can only in part be told as a progress, as of a man growing up from childhood through maturity to old age and decay; it must also be told as an overlapping of great circles, like the circle of the seasons; so that the winter of rational argument and conceptual thought, with its bare outline of clear definitions and sparse foliage of associations is always to be succeeded by a renewal of imagination and by untidy flowerings of poetry and linguistic invention; that mature, rational thought, whether in the individual or in the race, becomes sterile and uninteresting as soon as access to the unconscious sources of the imagination, to the sources of poetry, is lost; that the concrete thinking of childhood, with its free associations and its conflation of myth and history, its respect for the coincidences of language, for rhymes and synonymies and assonances, for primitive imagery and absurd and obscene nonsense, is always the material of literature; that language, myths, and the early literature of men are the true depositories of knowledge of human nature, because these are human creations, and men can know themselves only through their own creations, and not as observers of themselves. The claim is that the true anthropology, science of man, is therefore not an experimental science, in its methods like the physical sciences. It is rather a combination of philology and literary culture, and it is also a study of the structure of languages and of systems of myth and of the symbolic activities that complement them.

That the social orders of the past, before the ages of reason and of phgilosophy, are best understood through reflecting on the irrationalities and imagery preserved from childhood occurs in the thought even of the most methodical historians and most careful followers of Durkheim and Weber. But for Vico the history of nations and of races, in the great circles of their rhythmical rise and fall, is the natural history of humanity, revealing human nature, as the succession of seasons in the circling year shows the nature of speechless species. This history is the history of language; it is the recall of the unconscious, or at least of the unformulated, pictures of the social world built into the grammar and metaphors of a people’s symbolic behavior; therefore the history that yields self-understanding and self-knowledge is the history of art and of literature, and particularly of the popular arts, conceived not in the linear way of social history, but as revealing the recurring archetypes of the inner world of imagination.

This is the claim, antihistorical and against prosaic knowledge and scientific method in human affairs; a defense of literature and of poetry which Shelley was to repeat; also a defense of philology, of linguistic studies generally, and of an imaginative structural anthropology. The chasm of 200 years between Vico and Joyce is the period in which historical method and the idea of social change dominated literature and popular thought; it was the period in which positivists and men of the Enlightenment, and not only they, were in accord with popular thought in seeing history as the evolution of higher forms of thought, and of a more rational social order, from lower, superstitious forms of belief and social organization; the period in which even the pessimists, such as Flaubert, thought of the modern social world as something entirely new, a unique transformation of man, whether for good or for evil.

The accompanying literary ambition was that of the realistic novel, in Lukacs’s sense of realism, which shows a distinctively modern consciousness developing from an older social order and which self-consciously thought of fiction as an imaginative offshoot of social history: as in different ways Scott, Balzac, Flaubert did. The language of fiction, particularly in Flaubert’s intention, gradually assumed a sophisticated impersonality and objectivity which was represented as peculiarly modern, and as unattainable in other times. The story of a simple heart should be dryly told, without the induced poetry of romanticism; the power of prose, and of prose fiction, ought now to be as great as the power of poetry and of epic had been, giving back to society a noble consciousness of itself and overcoming the degeneration of the age. The nobility was to be found in subtle prose rhythms, in restraint, in literalness, in a spare beauty in describing the minutiae of the modern city and of a sentimental education, and triviality was to be redeemed by hard-won exactness on the surface.

Joyce, in accord with Vico, went beyond Flaubert into the last phase of the cycle of language, and turned back, still in the interests of a naturalism, to a portrayal of the modern city and the modern social world as an instance of the universal history of peoples and nations, at a deeper level always and everywhere the same. “Teems of times and happy returns. The seim anew. Ordovico or Viricordo.” The universal, recycling family romances, and the always renewed epic of adventure and discovery, are to be presented “sub specie temporis nostri,” in Joyce’s words, and this calls for a combination of Defoe-like veracity in naturalistic detail with a dense, symbolic language, which condenses the myriad references to echoing themes of previous family romance and previous voyages of discovery, to primal falls and metamorphoses across literatures and mythologies of the past.

Finally, it is logical that the language of fiction should become fluid, musical, condensed, freely associating, over-determined, dreamspeech, because dreamspeech is the furthest removed of all prose from narrative sequence, and dream happenings have the least possible temporal structure, and he who tells the story of a dream is the most unlike a historian of all storytellers. The primary processes of thought common to every man, everyman’s order of imagination, are recaptured in a dreamspeech that can condense in multiple allusion: the overlapping mythologies of different cultures, the poetry of the streets and of the nursery, ancient philosophies and the adventures of world-historical heroes. Everyman’s falls and fortunes, and his family’s fights and returns, are, in this presentation of them, the falls and fortunes of everyman naked, unclothed in a particular historical circumstance, and in this sense natural: natural for the word-governed, mythmaking, tale-telling species that recycles its unconscious memories perpetually.

There is therefore in Joyce no intention of belittling the modern social world and the city by parody; not ancient heroes with modern little men in their place, which is the ordinary use of parody. Certainly our time, June, 1904, is a late phase in the cycle of ideal history, an age of prose and philosophy, not an early day of heroic language-making and of dark myth and poetry. Naturalists in fiction, and positivists in philosophy, in 1904, still prevailed. But it was possible to restore in a new cycle the full mythopoeic power of literature, and Ibsen had just barely begun to show the way. Everyman, complete with his family or deprived of family, is of the same stature at any time, Bloom as Ulysses, and there is no spiraling descent or ascent into the modern world for this one time only. Humanity ascends and descends only as day into night, or spring into winter, in the long cadence which allows one leading nation or leading family or leading hero to succeed another in the returning and renewing circle of spiritual seasons.

History is the nineteenth-century dream, a liberal and nationalist dream turning into nightmare, from which Joyce had awakened, confirmed in wakefulness from 1922 onward by the light from Scienza Nuova. He had slowly rejected Irish, and all, nationalism, because nationalism is a belief in a particular historical destiny and at a particular time and place: a secular derivative of a historical religion. His writing will be of and about all time. Joyce, linked to Vico, is not to be grouped with the modern writers who have seen modernity as anarchy and alienation following an Eden of pristine faith and integrity in some past age, any more than he is to be grouped with liberal humanists and Marxists who thought they were escaping from superstition and alienation.

In a famous essay, at once self-revealing and revealing of its time, T.S. Eliot wrote of Ulysses that the use of formal parallelisms in it is “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy, which is contemporary history…. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.” Eliot reverses the historical attitudes of liberal humanists. For him also history has a constant sense and direction, and it is temporarily downward, from the classical world and the Christian synthesis to modernity, which is disintegration. Dante is a whole writer at a center point of history and in an unfractured order. For Eliot only the self-conscious contrivances and imitations of order, obvious symbolic artifices, are now possible, because the fracture in history, modern consciousness, otherwise allows only broken speech. In orderly and aristocratic societies, in which due subordinations are recognized, the art that reflects the social order, literature, can be coherent and orderly without contrivance in its expression. Partly through F.H. Bradley these Hegelian thoughts about history and society had come to be Eliot’s.

For Eliot there is an aristocracy of ages, an elite of the timely born; the new rich, the self-made in philosophy, the modern writers in serious search of a faith—Blake, Hardy, Lawrence—are censored for their hard-won beliefs, and for the earnest, vulgar, anxious display that they must make of them in their writing. For Joyce, Dante is no more a natural, rightly born, aristocrat of letters than is Giordano Bruno or Swift or Blake. In respect of historical moments, Joyce was a populist, as he was in other respects: the philosophy of cycle and renewal required him to be. All ages exhibit contingency, accidents, falls, misfortunes, conflict, and waste as part of recurring human conditions, perpetual disorder, which still has its recycling patterns and themes: and these themes from Homer and Ovid and the Old Testament wind their way in and out of Christian iconography, are reclothed and represented in Dante, and are echoed in popular songs and operettas and fairy tales, and can be found again in Irish mythology and in the sagas of the North. There never was an orderly Christian commonwealth, nor is the modern world without precedent and its alienation without a precursor. Men repeat themselves, and not least in the recurring belief that they are a generation unlike any other.

A historian, Michelet, was Vico’s first effective defender, inspired by the idea of the self-creation of a people by itself through its memories of its history. History is useful in so far as it gives examples of the archetypal relationships which recur in cyclical forms from one period to another: this is the significance of the chronicles of glorious reigns, of the pageant of class war and revolution. For Joyce every true history symbolizes something in the ideal history of the human family, as does the story of Noah and his family, or the fiction of Ulysses and Nausicaa, or the story of Hamlet, Hamlet’s father, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or the tale of Humpty-Dumpty.

The institutions that historians describe have a symbolic significance in the minds of everyman, whether this symbolism is rendered explicit or not. For example, legitimacy, as from father to son, can become a grandiose legal and philosophical notion for the sake of which millions have fought and died, and they will continue to do so; its power comes, not from the arguments of philosophers, but from the deep levels of the unconscious, family-centered mind of the race. Republican brotherhood, as in ancient Rome, or among the modern and philosophical Jacobins, has equally a concrete root, which develops into an abstract, even philosophical idea, and then regresses to its primitive familiar associations. The abstract notion of emancipation, still strong in our minds and in literature, has developed from unconscious memories of slavery and from the early ceremonies and rituals which gave men freedom. The word “emancipation” condenses the history and preserves the roots of the emotional idea.

One thinks of a recent school of social anthropologists and of linguists who may be called structuralists, and particularly of Professor Lévi-Strauss. There are two closely connected features of some anthropological theories which make them seem a regression to Vico’s philosophy, a recycling in which the rational empiricism of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown is supposed to be superseded, as Grotius’s and Descartes’s philosophical anthropology was to be superseded by Vico’s, at least in Vico’s intentions. First, some anthropologists, like Vico, find themselves interpreting the practices and institutions of a social group as parallel to a system of classifications of natural kinds, and as part of a total grammar and vocabulary which are revealed in actual family and legal relationships and in sexual conventions, and also in the forms of explanation that are given of these relationships and conventions. The way of entry into the mind of a people, and into their world as they have constituted it for themselves, is not principally through recording their behavior, neutrally described; but rather the entry is through studying the structures of their speech and of their storytelling, which will suggest the method of projection of the map of reality determining their behavior.

Such anthropologists think of the ritualized practices and institutions of a people as resembling a kind of “language,” in an intelligibly extended sense of language. Therefore they find themselves coming to anthropology through a kind of philology, in the sense that understanding a phase of human development different from one’s own involves entering by imagination, and by scholarship, into a different symbolic structuring of the world; and this in turn requires one to draw on some buried memory of an earlier phase of one’s own experience, usually from childhood, when the structuring was still imaginative and fluid. From this Viconian standpoint, true knowledge of the past comes from an understanding of the language in which a people interpret their institutions and conduct themselves rather than from observations and description of the institutions and conduct from an external, scientific point of view, as functionalists might require. True social science therefore has more in common with literary understanding, and with a scholar’s translation from one language into another, than with the methods of the physical sciences.

Secondly, there are anthropologists and others who follow Vico in being suspicious of any theory of history, or theory of human development, which makes some normative contrast between an earlier primitive and magical mentality, and the mentality of the enlightened social observer who comes after Newton and who, belonging to the modern world, has a clear, because scientific, vision of social realities. They may be merely skeptical and doubt that there is any Archimedean point from which one system of classification of human relations can be preferred to another in any absolute sense, and not relative to a particular already-formulated purpose; or they may think of the self-congratulatory culture of modern Europe and America as potentially the great destroyer of other cultures which represent equally vivid phases of development. They may therefore think of the earnest, prosaic inquirers from Europe as the destroyers of the sources of renewal for the race. Perhaps a return to a way of life which is nearer to the unconscious sources of energy is needed, and perhaps deritualization and faith in abstract speech and abstract argument have reached the limit of endurance; perhaps the time for recurrence is now, and perhaps the illusion of superiority has ended.

It is clear, I think, that Vico’s Scienza Nuova offered a middle way in human knowledge; neither the study of man as the classical social scientist conceives this study nor the study of man as the historian, or the theorist of history, conceives it: a middle way also between a definition of human nature as an unchanging structure of powers and needs, and a definition of human nature as essentially always changing and as open to development without limit. Vico and Joyce were both educated to be pious Christians within the Catholic Church and both knew its philosophers. Vico was writing about the foundations of law, and looked for a middle way between the classical doctrine of natural law, everywhere the same and open to reason, and the mere relativism that made law the temporary and arbitrary will of the sovereign power: between Grotius and Hobbes. Joyce wanted a middle way between the naturalism of the best modern fiction of his time and the contrary ambitions of the Celtic revival and of poetic drama. He found a poetical naturalism, a renewal of language with a wholly modern reference in Ulysses.

Most of Vico’s and of Joyce’s readers have been educated as Christians or as Jews. Christianity is the religion that finds its theodicy in history whether one adopts the standpoint of the human race or of the individual person. From the standpoint of the race, history is to be explained by the Incarnation, and by the revelation of God’s design at that time, and it moves toward a final redemption which will justify and give sense to that “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” which is otherwise inexplicable history. From the standpoint of the individual, the microcosm, his falls and recoveries are explained and justified, as he moves toward death, as being preparations for an attainable final stage of salvation, if he is a believer who accepts the history.

Judaism also places its theodicy, and consequent morality, in a historical destiny and in an anticipated prolongation of the revealed history of the Jewish people. When supernatural beliefs lost their hold upon leading political moralists and historians, they invented a humanism which still looked for explanations and justifications of contingencies, both in the race and the individual, in a development toward salvation; either they looked forward to an ideal social order or they looked back to restoring some utopian order lost in the past. For the individual, the explanation and justification of his fortunes were to be found in his historical situation and in his contribution to social improvement. This shadow of a historical theodicy is so deeply implanted in European literature that it has been almost impossible until now to be just to Vico and Joyce and to take their common thought, the middle way, seriously.

But now there are signs of a beginning, signs that there is a Joycean awakening from what he called “the nightmare of history,” and a new skeptical, detached anthropology which has cut its roots to European positivism. It is skeptical and detached in that it neither finds a justification of massacres and wars and the horrors of the twentieth century in the simple-minded teleology of Marxists and of Christians and of positivists; nor is salvation to be found in an early Eden of innocence before the fall into alienation and modernity. There is no suggestion of salvation in any particular social order or political transformation or moral conversion. The story of the salvation that follows upon the fallen state, of Humpty-Dumpty put together again, is itself part of humanity’s dream, and one of its perpetual myths. The fall is the beginning of a properly human culture in the age of the gods, as men emerge from the caves into monogamy and shame and ritual and into poetical speech, and as they form social orders. There is no salvation, because there is no finality. In Joyce there is only acquiescence, and harsh pleasure, in the renewing cycles of human cultures, in the rebirths of literature and of imagination, and in the return of the perpetual myths in new disguises.

In Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake, Joyce celebrates the renewals and returns and disguises in a style that takes him further from pessimism than any other modern writer. The thin complaint of modernity, the melancholy and bitterness of modern literature, persist from Tennyson and Arnold to Eliot and Lawrence and rise to a climax of self-pity in contemporary poetry and fiction. There is nothing of this in the later Joyce, for whom modernity is only one more disguise of one phase of human mythmaking, an episode in the metamorphoses of the human family and of its fictions, an episode in the pageant of languages and of their renewal and of the imagination of social forms. He had found the style and form of fiction, the linguistic invention, which could be a lyrical affirmation of the continuing unity and survival of humanity through all the cycles of its ideal history.

The learned and interesting books on Joyce, recently published, do not greatly stress the philosophy of Vico. Perhaps this is partly because it seems clear that Joyce had arrived in his own thought, and pursuing his own literary ambitions, as artificer and creator of a new world of words, as successor and synthesizer of Homer and Dante, of Defoe and Blake, of Flaubert and Ibsen, at the new truly catholic humanism, which absorbs modernity and the historical consciousness into a summary of European culture. Mlle Hélène Cixous writes principally of Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and of Joyce’s philosophical development and literary theorizing before Ulysses. This is an original book, sometimes obscure and repetitive, but often also surprising and stimulating. Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey is a brilliant, elaborately contrived set of variations on both the overt and the concealed themes of Ulysses. It is splendidly imaginative, often useful as interpretation and, in the spirit of its subject, not always to be taken too literally.

Closing Time by Norman O. Brown consists principally of excerpts from Joyce and Vico interspersed with aphoristic reflections by the author. For Norman O. Brown, as for the present writer, the coincidence in thought between men of such utterly different purposes and circumstances has been a revelation; and also a liberation. For Norman O. Brown, I think, a liberation particularly from historical determinism. For him, the revelation is not so much of a middle way between the humanism that is based on consciousness of history and humanism based on psychology and the social and biological sciences: rather for him the revelation is of the necessity of a return to the irrational, mythical, primary processes of thought, and of the necessity of regression to more primitive play with words and thoughts and unconscious associations, and of the necessity of relief from the restraints of high culture. As readers of his Life Against Death and Love’s Body know, there is a sense of historical crisis, a nonconformist energy, and a design to save in Professor Brown’s returns to the unconscious mind and to his rejection of the habits of rational discourse. He points to a way of salvation by changing minds after revolutionary changes of institutions have turned out to be either no change at all or a change toward tyranny rather than a liberation.

Professor Brown accepts Vico’s phases of the cycle of culture very literally and believes that we are now in a state of decadence leading to chaos, which is leading to a regression to a more free, imaginative, nonrational, childish culture that will revive and renew vividness of mind, now dimmed and lost in the pale corruption and caution of modern societies. I cannot respond to this Protestant, literal, and immediate interpretation of Vico. For me Vico’s philosophy implies the negation of any literal historical prophecy and any clear idea of salvation. The seasons of style and of literary language, of popular myths and of the accompanying social orders, succeed each other in the great revolving years of ideal history. The family patterns and the necessary myths recur in new clothing in literature and social customs. Modernity is only one more episode in the spiraling turns of the human world, neither crucial nor penultimate: no more than the Flood was or the death of Parnell.

This Issue

October 18, 1973