In April 1912, hard up as usual, tired of eking out a precarious living in Trieste, James Joyce went to Padua to take a series of examinations which would qualify him as a teacher of English in Italy. He received very high marks for his performance—421 out of a possible 450—but his scheme for settling down foundered when the Italian government refused to recognize his Irish degree. In the course of his examinations, Joyce wrote two essays, one in Italian on “L’influenza letteraria universale del rinascimento” and another in English on “The Centenary of Charles Dickens.” Louis Berrone, a professor of English at Fairfield University, has found these essays in the archives of the University of Padua and now prints them for the first time, adding an introduction, a translation of the Italian essay, a letter from Joyce saying he intends to appear when he is supposed to, a record of Joyce’s marks in the separate examinations, a great deal of desultory and pedestrian commentary, and a note on the examiner’s squiggles and corrections on Joyce’s Italian script. James Joyce in Padua is not so much a book as a sequence of (unsuccessful) strategies for making seven or eight lightweight pages look like an archaeological find.
It comes as no surprise that Joyce should do well on such an occasion. He was good at fulfilling requirements and enjoying himself at the same time, and we might even describe his books as severe tests which he set for himself, and passed. But his academic success, in Padua and elsewhere, has more to do with his character and the cast of his mind than with his gifts as a “master prose stylist,” as Berrone calls him. Berrone is following Richard Ellmann here, who found Joyce’s passing these examinations “an achievement not altogether astonishing for the major prose stylist of his century.” Ellmann’s irony is engaging, but all the same one shudders to think of Flaubert or Henry James presenting himself in Padua. Berrone in any case misses Ellmann’s irony entirely, and the level of his discussion of these essays is well indicated by his finding “strength of mind” in the fact that during the examinations Joyce could more or less remember the gist of a lecture he himself had given a month earlier.
The essays are not in any way “seminal,” as Berrone says they are, but they are charming. The Italian piece is a bold rhetorical number full of epigrams and exclamations. “Strana cosa davvero!” Joyce writes, “A strange thing indeed”: the whole Renaissance was really a secret lament for the medieval world that was lost. This is not quite such a strange thing as it seems, since the Renaissance, in Joyce’s view, appears to take place mainly in the nineteenth century. Its major representatives are Turgenev, Wagner, and Maeterlinck, and its major consequences are progress, the theory of evolution, and “il materialismo“—“che discende in linea retta dal rinascimento.” Modern man, Joyce says, has skin instead of soul (“Si potrebbe dire infatti dell’uomo moderno che ha un’epidermide invece di un’anima“), and we have replaced the monk by the journalist (“Il rinascimento, per dirla in poche parole, ha messo il giornalista nella cattedra del monaco“). “Shakespeare e Lope de Vega sono responsabili, fino ad un certo punto, per il cinematografo.”
This is heady stuff, as you see, and Joyce’s ambition, evidently, was to knock his examiners over with his brilliance. They were not knocked over, and gave him only thirty points out of fifty. For the Dickens essay, on the other hand, Joyce assumes another character, that of the elegant and judicious Edwardian man of letters, who is drawn to words and phrases like “nay” and “not a little” and “pending such final judgment” and “unless my memory misleads me.” Joyce has little to say about Dickens, except that his reputation, although probably undeserved, is probably unshakable (“And yet is not Thackeray at his finest greater than Dickens? The question is an idle one. English taste has decreed to Dickens a sovereign position…”), but the impersonation is well done and seems at times to anticipate some of the very funny parodies in Ulysses:
Dickens, in fact, is a Londoner in the best and fullest sense of the word. The church bells which rang over his dismal, squalid childhood, over his struggling youth, over his active and triumphant manhood, seem to have called him back whenever, with scrip and wallet in his hand, he intended to leave the city and to have bidden him turn again, like another Whittington, promising him (and the promise was to be amply fulfilled) a threefold greatness. For this reason he has a place for ever in the hearts of his fellow-citizens….
In such sentences we can almost hear the slightly older Joyce delighting in the plod of clichés down well-worn paths, but Joyce’s examiners appear to have perceived only a fine old English manner, and they gave him full marks, fifty out of fifty.
Today’s topic in Padua might well be “L’influenza letteraria universale di James Joyce,” and the discussion, if it were not too serious, could do worse than start with the crucial word itself. Is it possible for a reader of Joyce to contemplate the topic without thinking of a literary ‘flu, “a bad influenza,” as Joyce himself says in Finnegans Wake, and what is happening to our language once a major writer not only endorses this sort of erratic association but spends his last years and his failing eyesight concocting such things and putting them in a book? Or to take another simple tack, how many times do we have to read the passage I have just quoted from the Dickens essay before we feel it to be full of clichés? And once we feel this, is there a way to get rid of the feeling, and aren’t we likely to find clichés skulking in the most respectable pieces of prose? Joyce’s impeccable assemblies of platitudes in the later parts of Ulysses make even the most strenuous of modern writers seem half-hearted by comparison—it is as if they worried less about the right words than Joyce does about the wrong ones.
Joyce’s legacy, then, or part of it, is a double vigilance, both playful and strict. He encourages us to look for jokes and banalities everywhere, and our wits and our stylistic scruples are sharpened by knowing him. Of course, we don’t have to make all the jokes we see, or reject all the clichés we find, and curiously enough, Joyce’s example doesn’t seem to be daunting. My own response to reading Proust, for instance, is usually to feel I ought to spend the rest of my life writing a commentary on him. My response to reading Joyce is to want to write a very good book that has nothing at all to do with him. But perhaps we should step back on to what looks like firmer ground.
Robert Martin Adams’s Afterjoyce, in spite of the disagreeable intimations of its title (aftermath, afterthought, aftercare, afterglow, afterbirth), is a lively and sensible discussion of Joyce and his influenza, and it has useful things to say about Broch, Gadda, Pynchon, and Lezama Lima, as well as the more predictable cases of Beckett, Nabokov, Faulkner, and Woolf. Adams has a vivid (if rather lugubrious) sense of the pain that mixes with the fun at Finnegans Wake. “Hahahaha, Mister Funn,” as Joyce says, “you’re going to be fined again!”
Opaque and elaborately contrived though it is in general, the language of Finnegans Wake reflects lucidly the agony that went into its creation—the sense of a priestly vocation missed, fouled and corrupted by the dirty tools of a dirty language, under the direction of a weak and dishonest mind.
We should add, no doubt, that it also reflects, with equal if not greater lucidity, the pleasure of play and the joy of catching manifold realities in comically crowded words. Writing on Beckett, Adams manages a similar eloquence and a rather more delicate balance, and the following comment on The Unnamable, with its abrupt shift of values between the sentences, actually imitates Beckett’s performance while describing it:
In these closing passages the counters get fewer and more familiar, the moves are shorter and bump more abruptly into their own contradictions, the transitions blur, and the pace quickens, as the prose seems to slide irresistibly under its own momentum toward the last, utterly simple, impasse. It is a supreme imaginative achievement.
As these two quotations indicate, Adams writes very well indeed, but at times the desire not to be caught out being pompous saps his prose a bit. The notion of trying to “paddle down the stream of a character’s consciousness” is funny, I think, in a rather gawky way, but “shrink-time,” “the pedantry-shtik, “the yin and the yang” of the comparison between Joyce and Beckett, the “odd-ball narrators” of Nabokov, and the realization “that Joyce had started a whole new ball game” seem to take the casual tone to the point of actual laziness. Indeed, the book as a whole, for all its considerable virtues, does not seem to have been anxiously meditated, and its principal argument shows that Joyce’s stature is a good deal more evident than his influence.
It may well be, as Adams says, that posterity will decide “that one of the major systems of [our] literary weather” turns on Joyce. But the metaphor begs the question. Joyce certainly influenced Eliot, Beckett, Faulkner, and Woolf—they would not have written quite as they did had they not read him. For Nabokov, Queneau, and a few others he seems to have been mainly a grand example, something like an illustrious literary uncle. And for the rest, as Auden said of Yeats, he has become his admirers. He might be anywhere; can be shown to be in only a very few places.
Adams knows all this, of course. “In the simplest chronological terms, what novel of the last fifty years is not a post-Joycean novel?” More:
Any post-Joycean novelist in the loose chronological sense is also a post-Kafkan, a post-Freudian, a post-war novelist…. Every novelist who lived after Joyce is no doubt a post-Joyce novelist, but none is simply that.
But even when the question is narrowed to “specific technical or spiritual debts,” there are still snags, and the basic, disappointing strategy of Adams’s book is to dance up to what looks like a connection, and then decide it isn’t one. With Joyce and Woolf, Adams says, we should speak of “congruence, perhaps, not influence.” For Lezama Lima and Broch, he offers “the loose formula of affinity”: “There is very little question of influence, but in the hazier fields of affinity one might wander widely for a long time.” But this is a way of saying that nearly anything goes, and Adams has to keep roping his authors back into his book by means of a trick which recalls Groucho Marx setting up one of his watertight contracts. Between the Acts, for example, “does not overtly resemble anything in Joyce,” as Mrs. Dalloway does. Nevertheless, it is “the most essentially Joycean of Mrs. Woolf’s books.” “By abandoning Joyce in order to pursue himself, Beckett rediscovered Joyce.” “The Sound and the Fury, which shows fewer traces of direct influence or imitation [fewer than Soldier’s Pay or Mosquitoes], is in fact much closer to the techniques and structural energies of a Joycean novel.” These are thoughts that would not occur to anyone who had not decided to find Joyce wherever he looked, and one expects better of a critic with the nerve and intelligence of Robert Adams.
I’m not suggesting a return to meaner notions of influence. I am suggesting that Joyce will not stand as firmly in the middle of his age as Adams wants him to. He is the major writer in English in this century, but his influence, in all but the most elusive sense of the word, has not been nearly so great as that of Eliot, or Pound, or James. In their quite different ways, they changed the map of modern literature, while Joyce seems simply to occupy a large part of it. This is not to say, as so many have said, that his work is a dead end—it is far from that—but it is to insist on his powerful eccentricity. He was an experimental writer, for instance, in ways that Proust and Thomas Mann would never have dreamed of risking, but he had a positively old-fashioned conviction that reality was bearable, and in this respect scarcely seems a modern writer at all. We should not confuse Joyce’s narrative and linguistic antics with the epistemological worries of Kafka or Conrad. It is because his world is so stable that Joyce can take such liberties with it, and even Finnegans Wake rests on the rhythms and syntax of a firmly idiomatic Anglo-Irish usage. To take a pair of samples at random, a phrase like “the deep deep deeps of Deepereras” betrays a reckless confidence in our knowing the words of the song about its being a long long way to Tipperary, and the following half-sentence relies heavily on turns of speech like sooner or later, if not sooner, take it or leave it, and on our ear for a Biblical inversion:
Life, he himself said once, (his biografiend, in fact, kills him very-soon, if yet not, after) is a wake, livit or krikit, and on the bunk of our breadwinning lies the cropse of our seedfather…
In the wake of the Wake, an issue of Triquarterly devoted to the followers and continuers of the later Joyce, collects writing by Beckett, Maurice Roche, Philippe Sollers, Haroldo de Campos, Christine Brooke-Rose, John Cage, Gilbert Sorrentino, William Gass, Italo Calvino, and others, and a very mixed bag they all make. It’s hard to see what Calvino, for example, is doing here, and a number of these writers—Roche, Sollers, de Campos, Brooke-Rose—are plainly working in the wake of Mallarmé rather than Joyce, so that Joyce is not so much an influence as a piece of ammunition, rather recently acquired in some cases. Others, like Cage and Sorrentino, have simply produced pastiche—lame pastiche in Cage’s case, mildly funny pastiche in the case of Sorrentino, who cooks up some eleven pages of text out of old song titles, sometimes simply listed, sometimes slightly deformed (“falling in love with gloves,” “dancing in the dreck,” “a shantih in old Shantihtown”).
There is a very good essay by Michael Finney on Joyce’s relation to Eugene Jolas and his magazine transition, where pieces of Finnegans Wake first appeared, and there is a murky piece by David Michael Levin which twists a few strands of Derrida, the Kabbalah, and Tantric Buddhism into the proposition that we can free ourselves from the shadow of the ego by hurling ourselves into the arms of language:
When we throw ourselves unreservedly into the fateful itinerary of language, recognizing ourselves in the vibrant center of that incarnation, there will be no more alienation (in its familiar aspect) from the meaningfulness of language.
Levin, I think, has thrown himself into the wrong itinerary, since he still writes things like “the present is the presence of the present and the present of presence,” and “only the mindfulness of memory can liberate us from memory’s thrall and let us rest in the mindfulness of non-memory.”
The whole collection would be fairly negligible were it not for a fine excerpt from Beckett’s Fizzles, published last year, and for two other items: a patch of work in progress by William Gass, and the text of a lecture on Joyce by Philippe Sollers. The Gass piece, which comes from a longer fiction called The Tunnel, sets us down inside the troubled mind of one Professor Kohler, who is trying to dig himself out of his distress by thinking about books and writing and reading. The piece is funny and moving in its own right, but it is also a genuine response to an important implication of Finnegans Wake: culture, language, books, libraries, and the hopelessly overstocked, poorly catalogued individual memory of each of us are all both wonderful playgrounds and fine places to go raving mad in.
The language. Who is it? Is it Mr. Mallory? the prisoner? or Raleigh? Who constricts my chest?… Confucius? that old chink? Livy then? Gibbon? Tacitus? Gilgamesh. How many times have I fallen inside a sentence while running from a word? Winckelmann. Kafka. Kleist. You would not believe that long bodiless climb from Descartes to Leibniz. Lewis. Lemuel Gulliver. Catullus. Gogol. Constant. Sterne. I live on a ledge—a sill—of type—a brink. Here. Pascal. Alone. Among the silences inside my books…Frege, Wittgenstein…within the rhythms of reason…the withheld breath, the algebra of alliteration, the freedom of design…Dryden, Zeno, Stevens, Keats…the perpetual hush, blood in the penis, the deductions of rhyme…. Here. James and James and James and Joyce: the: the Breakers. Charmes. At the quick edge of space. In The Faerie Queene. In “Jabberwocky.” In the slow mind of time.
Mater Matuta, I beg you, let me come out alive.
“One may doubt,” David Hayman writes in his introduction to this anthology, “that Sollers has read and understood all of the Wake,” but surely we can entertain this doubt about almost anyone, and Sollers’s lecture is an attractive if quirky attempt to draw out the politics and the psychology of Joyce’s works without losing sight of them as literary texts. It is true that Sollers’s desire to be courteous and radical at the same time can produce comic effects: “At the risk of seeming to go too far, I want to tell you that you are all of you, men and women, potentially paranoiacs….” Are we to believe that he is not trying to go too far, that that is not the name of the game?
But Sollers understands very well that Joyce writes “everything but not just anything”:
No fragment of language [in Finnegans Wake] which is not in situation, said at such and such a moment by such and such a voice, such an accent of such a voice and to such a purpose without purpose—resonance.
Even Sollers’s fancier rhetorical flourishes seem lurid or telescoped rather than simply wrong. To be sure, Finnegans Wake is not “the most formidably anti-fascist book produced between the two wars,” but the politics of Finnegans Wake would be a good subject to look into.
That every one of us is an open combination of a plurality of voices is perhaps as difficult to conceive, as sacrilegious, as the infinity and plurality of worlds in the sixteenth century.
Well, it’s not that difficult to conceive, and “sacrilegious” is just a hectic figure of speech, but it is difficult to conceive, and it is what Joyce is after.
Richard Ellmann’s The Consciousness of Joyce is an easy-going study of Joyce’s relation to Homer, Shakespeare, and politics. It has a list of the books Joyce possessed in 1920, and the presence on this list of a volume of Fabian tracts and of works by Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Proudhon seems to have nudged Ellmann into his thoughts on Joyce’s political inclinations and activities.
Ellmann’s Joyce is only apparently committed to the plurality which appeals to Sollers. He doesn’t like to “proceed singlemythedly,” as Ellmann nicely says, but “if he offers multiple perspectives, his own view shows through.” He wants to “accomplish the revaluation of the world,” and he is “more radical than Homer or Shakespeare, the least willing to accept the world as he found it.” In Ulysses he takes a Dublin newspaper “as his principal emblem of modern capitalism.” Ellmann concedes that Joyce’s attack is oblique, but insists: “His obliquity was in the service of a point of view, an idea.” This argument is propped up by a number of loaded phrases—Bloom and Stephen “wage the battle of Dublin,” “pierce the windbags of Dublin,” Bloom “mines the city” by the independence of his spirit, and Joyce himself engages him in “guerrilla warfare”—and at one point Ellmann seems willfully to misread a text. “It was not a part of his life,” the autobiographical protagonist of Stephen Hero thinks, “to attempt an extensive alteration of society.”
Ellmann quotes but ignores this fairly categorical statement, and seizes instead on the cagey remark that Stephen Hero “might have been supposed not unjustly an ally of the collectivist politicians,” presumably the socialists. What Joyce means is that Stephen’s revolt, personal and stylistic, was at least not at odds with the revolutionary ambitions of others, but Ellmann takes him as saying that Stephen’s revolt was actually political. This allows Ellmann to say that “literature is a revolutionary instrument, however roundabout it may move,” and, a little later, that “Ultimately Ulysses too constituted a political act….”
We need to disentangle some of this. It is true that Joyce was not an other-worldly aesthete, that he was not indifferent to politics, and it is also true, in a rather distended sense, that Ulysses was a political act, since it sought to scuttle the notions of authority and paternity in many kinds of ways. But it is not true that Ulysses attacks particular people or institutions, or that Bloom and Stephen are the heroic battlers Ellmann sees in them, or that Joyce’s own view, if he has a view, always “shows through,” or that Joyce’s view really matters. Joyce’s business is not to lure us into “sharing his perspective,” as Ellmann says. It is to compound our perspectives to the point of dizziness, so that we reach for the simplifications that Joyce himself will not provide.
In the “Cyclops” episode in Ulysses, Bloom articulates what has often been taken as Joyce’s opinion on the requirements of human community (the narrator is a nameless Dublin gossip):
—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
Bloom then makes off quickly, embarrassed perhaps by his own eloquence, and within a few lines the narrative is taken over by a sneering sing-song:
Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentleman. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant….
Now we can insist that Joyce is really with Bloom here, and we can interpret the sneering voice as a nervous reflex, an apology for the author’s sudden seriousness, his lapse into what Stephen calls big words. But the behavior of the text is perfectly clear. Joyce’s view, if this is his view, is no sooner revealed than it is swallowed up in the burblings of apparently random association, and the effect is to float Bloom’s utterance in irony, and to hand over to us any decisions to be made about the importance of what he is saying. Joyce, so tyrannical in the patience and hard work he requires of us, leaves the meanings of his work very largely to his readers. Which is not to say that his work doesn’t mean anything, or that he doesn’t care about its meanings.
Stephen Dedalus, drunk in nightown, paraphrasing Blake, taps his brow and says, “But in here it is I must kill the priest and king,” which is close to Stephen Hero’s thought about not attempting an extensive alteration of society. Ellmann says this is “a political remark,” for which Stephen is “promptly knocked down.” There is a little more to it than that. An English soldier with whom Stephen is already quarreling says, “What’s that you’re saying about my king,” and Stephen replies,
I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. This is the age of patent medicine. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, suppose…. Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want it to die. Damn death. Long live life!
Various exchanges follow. The soldier remarks that he will “wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king,” and finally knocks Stephen down. Now leaving aside the fact that the soldier wants to knock Stephen down even before he says anything about the king, and the fact that a number of phantasmagoric figures also intervene, including Edward VII himself, sucking a red jujube and holding a plasterer’s bucket marked Défense d’uriner, nothing is said here about Anglo-Irish relations, and the soldier is not both right and wrong, as Robert Adams says he is, but drunk. It is clear that the soldier insults his king more thoroughly than Stephen does, and it is clear that Stephen is looking for a formulation which will allow him to say that he wants neither countries nor people to die. The whole thing is a brilliant comic picture of politics swilling about in muddled heads, and it refers, of course, to a genuinely muddled political situation. But it gives us no instructions about this situation, even in the most roundabout way, and the full context of the phantasmagoria makes this even clearer. Edward VII, for example, appears to be ready to referee a boxing match between Stephen and the soldier (“We have come here to witness a clean straight fight and we heartily wish both men the best of good luck”); he then levitates over “heaps of slain,” presumably borrowed from the Boer War, and is instantly associated with Christ.
Hugh Kenner, in a recent essay,* has said that Joyce’s myths, allusions, and ultimately his style(s) are “intricately inappropriate.” I think this is right, but I don’t find it leads to Kenner’s gloomy conclusion that Ulysses is “the great affirmation of meaninglessness.” Surely it suggests the opposite. Meaning is everywhere, the mind produces meaning like a plant branching out in a science-fiction movie, and the question is what to do with this ludicrous, proliferating excess. How are we to get back from the Boer War to Ireland, and what do we do once we have connected Christ with Edward VII? When Joyce suggests, in the later parts of Ulysses and throughout Finnegans Wake, that every one of us might be someone else and that every story might end another way, he is not proposing a mystical melting of narratives and identities, but an immense, speculative reconsideration of the relation of our minds to the world.
“Everything could be other than it is,” Wittgenstein says, and once we have refused the temptations to wistfulness which such a sentence may arouse, we can see it as an unsettling comment on the eagerness with which we have accepted as reality a whole bundle of orders of our own invention. On this reading, the words might be Joyce’s motto. He invites us to rethink the very concept of possibility, and the hours of ideal insomnia he wished on us are to be filled with the weeding out, on whatever terms we find we need, not of sense from nonsense but of plausible, personal sense from the thousands of other senses which offer themselves. “We are in for a sequentiality of improbable possibles,” he said in Finnegans Wake, and we may well feel this is less comforting than a simple run of probable probables. A bad influenza.
October 13, 1977