For deconstructionist critics, Joyce's texts, along with Mallarmé's, provide the clearest illustration of the indeterminacy and dissemination of meaning that prey on all writing and that are taken on board by a writing worthy of the name. The infinite play of language, a terrifying Babel, is what Jacques Derrida is most attentive to in Finnegans Wake. But there is another side to Joyce's art that he scarcely glances at. Joyce is not only a surfer of polylinguality and hypertext; he is also a classical artist bent on establishing order over against the forces of chaos.
In Finnegans Wake Joyce unleashes all the powers of Babel, but also aims to dominate them, to recall them to the gathered force of a unified articulate word. The apparently infinite plasticity of sound and sense here is again governed by rules, notably the use of 'nodal systems' that 'may be built around or evolved from narrative sequences, descriptive tropes, clusters of words in an exotic language, song tags – indeed from anything remarkable enough to be isolated by the reader' (Hayman 1990:37). A series of narrative set-pieces offers stable landmarks comparable to the 'numbers' in traditional opera, and the surrounding leitmotival flux which threatens to engulf them is largely organized in groups or sequences that may be local (names of rivers in 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' and of popes in 'The Mookse and the Gripes'; motifs of space and time in 'The Ondt and the Gracehoper') or spread across the entire text (HCE and ALP; Thomas Moore's song-titles). Finnegans Wake is Joyce's Purgatorio (see Dawson 1987-88). Language descends to the underworld, falling prey to dream-distortion, Freudian slips and the peculiarities of 'schizophrenic' speech. Mischievous deconstructive agencies cause would-be plain statements to tumble clownishly. But the ultimate thrust of the process is one of regeneration rather than entropy. The restoration of order begins whenever an opaque passage is clarified by recognition of the interfering associations, and especially when these can be referred to one of the repertories of recurrent motifs. Readers are thus rewarded by an ongoing emergence of the luminous from the murky, comparable to Anna Akhmatova's experience with Ulysses: 'At first I had the feeling of not understanding it, but then everything gradually oozed through, you know, like developing a photograph' (Cornwell 1992:60). The motival sets do not govern all the interferences as the text constantly collapses into verbal slippage, but they do provide strong currents that orient the constant 'fall' of language toward a 'redemptive' triumph of form. Many readers will doubt if the game is worth the candle. Much depends on how we relate Joyce's confrontation with Babel to the current state that debased pluralistic behemoth, the English language. Here in any case Joyce carries to its logical conclusion the dialectic, at work in all his texts, between the free play of writing and the classic laws of textual unity.
In Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man we already find a density of allusion and a series of cryptic words and incidents that ensure the impossibility of a definitive, exhaustive interpretation of the text. Logocentric totalization is thwarted and an irreducible undecidability remains to tease the reader and keep the significance of the text open-ended. What exactly is the matter with Fr Flynn in 'The Sisters'? How genuine is Frank in 'Eveline'? How are we to evaluate the villanelle, the aesthetic theory, and the diary entries in chapter five of A Portrait? In Ulysses such unanswerable questions multiply, the classic one being: 'Who is the man in the Macintosh?' But the author remains firmly in control, his intentions being particularly marked in the carefully planned structural disposition of the material. These structures are usually not apparent at first, but when they finally emerge to view the effect is luminous and decisive, and renders obsolete much of the play of interpretation that was possible before their emergence.
Critics have attended to the motival threads running through Joyce's early texts, and they are a staple resource when teaching them. But the importance of structure is often underestimated. It is important, for example, in reading 'The Sisters' to notice that the story divides into three parts or panels (as in a triptych); the first section has three parts: the boy gazing up at the priest's house; Cotter's reminiscences of the priest; the boy's eerie dream; the second has three parts also: the boy's visit to the dead priest's house next morning; his reminiscences of the priest; his effort to recall the end of the dream; the third section has the boy and his aunt's evening visit to the house; Eliza's reminiscences of the priest, marked by the same suggestive ellipses as Cotter's; and the final eerie epiphany of the priest 'laughing-like to himself' in the confessional. The structural echoes illuminate the progress and significance of the story. They also confer a threefold rhythm on the text, in line with the fatidic opening sentence: 'There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke,' and the uncanny triad of gnomon, simony, paralysis.
Many readers of 'The Dead' take its first half to be a freely moving account of the casual events at a social gathering. Closer inspection shows, however, that the story is tightly structured in a series of closed sections, each exhibiting a musical structure such as ternary form (A – B – A) and ending with a marked cadence that points ahead to the grandiose conclusion of the story and of Dubliners as a whole. While death pervades the entire story, the pervasive presence of musical form seems to resist dissolution, conferring a supplement of significance on the fleeting words and gestures of the characters.
In addition to musical structure and motif, allusions to historical or literary contexts can also have a function of formal integration, rather than infinite dispersion. Some unexplained incident that seems an excrescence in the text will fall into place when the background context is supplied. This is the technique known in art as anamorphosis, a distortion of form that comes into satisfying perspective when we view it from the right angle. A famous example of the technique is Holbein's 'The Ambassadors,' in the National Gallery, London. In the foreground of the painting, at the feet of the splendidly robed ambassadors, lies an unsightly blob, something quite inexplicable. But if one looks at the painting from the right at a certain angle, the blob takes shape as a death's head, a reminder of the impermanence of worldly glory. Similarly, a literary text may display inexpicable 'bumps', which come into focus only when viewed from a lateral angle.
For instance, there is a curious scene in 'The Aspern Papers' in which the narrator communes with an equestrian statue. It is a beautiful moment, yet seems rather under-motivated in the tightly controlled and carefully paced progress of the narrative. As A. S. Briggs pointed out in 1972, there is an intertextual dimension to this scene. It can be read in light of a similar scene in Pushkin's 'The Bronze Horseman.' A bigger bump is formed by the narrator's rapt celebration of the fictional Aspern, a bump created by the reader's inevitable protest: 'But hold on! There cannot have been a great poet in America in the 1820's, the very idea is preposterous!' Again things come into perspective if we link Aspern with Pushkin, the no less preposterous poetic apparition in Russia of the same period. The name begins with the initials of A. S. Pushkin and evokes a Napoleonic defeat that chimes with the defeat of the Napoleonic Hermann at Muscovite hands in Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades,' a text constantly showing through the palimpsest of James's tale. For instance, when the narrator unexpectedly remarks, 'I expected her now to settle my fate' it is an echo of the ambiguous 'That moment decided his fate' at the moment in Pushkin's story when Hermann first sees Lisa. The final showdown between the narrator and Tita (Tina) in James's story is modeled on the last scene between Tatyana and Onegin in Eugene Onegin. Tita's sudden 'good-bye' that startles both the narrator and the reader alludes to Tatyana's final 'good-bye' in Tchaikovsky 1879 opera based on the novel, an opera admired by Turgenev who may have spoken of it to James. The hidden presence of Pushkin smooths away a series of 'bumps' in James's story, composed in the fiftieth year since Pushkin's death.
In Joyce such 'bumps' are more frequent and more palpable. In the early stories there are many incidents that have the shape of a gnomon, an incomplete geometrical figure, challenging the reader to fill in what it missing. As in James, the solution often lies in an intertextual reference. In 'The Dead' the scene in which Gabriel jokingly salutes the statue of Daniel O'Connell:
he nodded familiarly to it and waved his hand.
-- Good-night, Dan, he said gaily.
has the same under-motivated quality as the scene of the statue in 'The Aspern Papers.' The necessity of this passage becomes apparent only when we recognize the allusion to the scene in Mozart's opera in which Don Giovanni mocks the dead Commendatore's statue. Gabriel's nod recalls, and inverts, the silent nods of the Commendatore's statue. This allusion fits into both of the motif repertoires governing 'The Dead,' namely, the musical motifs and the motifs of death. The allusion also has dramatic value at this point in the narrative. The statue's words, 'You shall finish laughing before dawn' (Di rider finirai pria dell'aurora) and 'Bold scoffer, leave the dead in peace' (Ribaldo, audace, lascia a' morti la pace) fit in well with Gabriel's situation. Since the final guests left the Morkans' house with thirteen 'Good-nights,' images of judgment have been accumulating. The threatening morning landscape suggests doomsday as imaged in the Dies irae: 'the sky seemed to be descending' (picked up at the close of the story, 'the descent of their last end'). A house of judgment appears: 'the palace of the Four Courts stood out menacingly against the heavy sky'. Gabriel is heading to his hour of judgment in the hotel room. The allusion to the statue as a 'white man' anticipates the ghostly presence of Michael Furey in that last scene. The dead man's name doubly connotes judgment: the Archangel Michael summons the souls at doomsday and Furey suggests the avenging Eumenides of Greek tragedy. The name of the statue, Daniel, is that of the biblical book in which the names of Gabriel (Daniel 8:16; 9:22) and Michael first occur. In conversation with Molly Ivors and in his flippancy about Patrick Morkan and his horse, Gabriel has slighted the people whom Daniel O'Connell championed: 'your own people, and your own country.' We feel his hubris infringes a taboo and will bring nemesis.
Sometimes what is missing in Joyce's text is so thoroughly suppressed that it does not leave any trace of its absence, not even a slight bump in the text. The Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait is haunted by the historical incident in which quicklime was thrown in Parnell's eyes, during a speech at Castlecomer in which he attacked Davitt. We know that this would have been on Joyce's mind at the time from the lines in 'Gas from a Burner' (1912): ''Twas Irish humour wet and dry,/Flung quicklime into Parnell's eye.' A reference also occurs in a 1912 newspaper article Joyce wrote on Parnell in Trieste. Towards the end of his life Joyce is still referring to this incident as an epiphany of Irish treachery. The eye and blindness motifs in the Christmas dinner scene skirt around this traumatic memory, which has been repressed from explicit consciousness. At the end of this section Mr Casey's eyes are described in a way that evokes Nietzsche: 'scraping the air from before his eyes with one hand as though he were tearing aside a cobweb' ; compare: ‘our attitude to God as some alleged spider of purpose and morality behind the great captious web of causality' (Nietzsche 1969:113). In the next reference to his eyes: 'He stared before him out of his dark flaming eyes, repeating: -- Away with God, I say!,’ Nietzsche is doubled with Parnell, for the phrase is taken from Barry O'Brien's description of Parnell, in a book Joyce owned: 'his face pale with passion, his dark eyes flaming' (O'Brien 1969:294). In counterpoint, Stephen 'saw that his father's eyes were full of tears.’
Parnell's flaming eyes, we now see, have been present from the beginning of the passage: 'A great fire, banked high and red, flamed in the grate' (followed by a reference to 'ivytwined branches,' ivy being Parnell's emblem, and references to Mr Casey's and Mr Dedalus's eyes, the 'glowing fire,’ the 'great fire,' 'green ivy,' and the 'bluish fire' on the plum pudding. The ominous motif of blindness is lightly touched:
-- Simon, said Mrs Dedalus, you haven't given Mrs Riordan any sauce.
Mr Dedalus seized the sauceboat.
-- Haven't I? he cried. Mrs Riordan, pity the poor blind.
There are no references to eyes as the quarrel builds up to its climax in the story of Mr Casey's spit. Stephen's musings just as the story is about to begin reintroduce the motif: 'But his dark eyes were never fierce' ; Eileen 'had put her hands over his eyes' – a gesture of protection, which subliminally suggests that Stephen, like Parnell, is to be protected from blinding malice. Mr Casey's anecdote, whether we take it as factual or a wishful invention, inverts the Castlecomer scene; as a stand-in for Parnell he has avenged the throwing of the quicklime:
-- Phth! says I to her like that, right into her eye.
He clapped a hand to his eye and gave a hoarse scream of pain.
-- O Jesus, Mary and Joseph! says she. I'm blinded! I'm blinded and drownded!
He stopped in a fit of coughing and laughter, repeating:
-- I'm blinded entirely!
Stephen is obscurely aware of the overtones of blindness and castration in this talk of spitting: 'It was not nice about the spit in the woman's eye.' Dante introduces an image that will prompt Mr Casey to go on to spit in God's eye:
-- If we are a priestridden race we ought to be proud of it! They are the apple of God's eye. Touch them not, says Christ, for they are the apple of My eye.
It is interesting that the hidden reference to Parnell's eyes carries over to Ulysses, where Parnell's brother, the city marshal, has ghostly eyes, echoing the eyes of the ghostly marshal which terrify Stephen at Clongowes.
In 'Grace' the groupings of the male protagonists are suggestive of hidden significance (Lobner 1990-91). The three men at Mr Kernan's bedside, joined by a fourth, evidently echo the Book of Job. The three sections of the story correspond to the three books of the Divine Comedy, and this provides a clue to the significance of these groupings. Dante's infernal geography is recalled in the stairs and the circles ('a ring of men,' 'the ring of onlookers,' 'the ring of bystanders,' 'the circle of faces') in the first half of the first section. There could be a faint echo of terza rima and the ninefold division of the infernal circles in groupings of three in this scene: Mr Kernan and his two original companions; the two men and the curate who carry him up the stairs; Mr Kernan, the manager and the constable (who 'moved his head slowly to right and left and from the manager to the person on the floor'); Mr Kernan, the constable and the unnamed young man in a cycling suit; 'the three men,' Mr Kernan, Mr Power and the unnamed young man. Mr Kernan's threefold 'Sha,'s nothing' punctuates and concludes the section. It is hard to find a pattern in these movements, which the text nonetheless seems to thrust on our attention. But perhaps the very failure of a firm pattern to emerge is what is significant. The groups of three all break up: Mr Kernan's original companions mysteriously disappeared; the young cyclist declines Mr Kernan's invitation. In contrast, the trio who take Mr Kernan's rehabilitation in hand in the second section (all employees of Dublin Castle, as doctoral candidate Shimokusu Masaya points out to me), form a stable grouping about Kernan.
The last section contains a number of details which make full sense only when we see them as allusions to the Paradiso. In the sphere of Mars, Dante and Beatrice observe a cross (cantos xiv-xviii); in that of Jupiter, an M shape which develops into an eagle (xviii-xx), and in the sphere of Saturn a ladder (xxi-xx). One might seek a trace of the cross in the shape of the church interior: 'gentlemen entered by the side door and, directed by the lay brother, walked on tiptoe along the aisles.' The M shape occurs in the quincunx formed by the five men, centered on M'Coy: 'In one of the benches near the pulpit sat Mr Cunningham and Mr Kernan. In the bench behind sat Mr M'Coy alone: and in the bench behind him sat Mr Power and Mr Fogarty' – the stable Dublin Castle trio have now expanded to an even more stable quincunx: 'the party had settled down in the form of a quincunx'. Sir Thomas Browne makes much of quincunxes in 'The Garden of Cyrus', associating them with the perfection of the circle (he calls the number five the first spherical number and the measure of spherical motion). Dante's souls sky-write the words 'Diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram' (xvii 93, 95) before stabilizing in the letter M; 'Love righteousness, you who rule the earth,' in ironic contrast to the shabby dealings of the ruling figures in this congregation: 'Mr Harford, the moneylender, who sat some distance off, Mr Fanning, the registration agent and mayor maker of the city, who was sitting immediately under the pulpit beside one of the newly elected councillors of the ward. To the right sat old Michael Grimes, the owner of three pawnbroker's shops, and Dan Hogan's nephew, who was up for the job in the Town Clerk's office.' The ladder is represented by the stairs to the pulpit, up which Fr Purdue ascends with difficulty, in contrast to the natural upwards gravitation of Dante's blessed, and in recall of the lines: 'Now the modern pastors require one to prop them up on this side and on that, and one to lead them, so heavy are they' (xxi 130-2).
Another geometrical figure of importance is the point. In Dante God appears as a tiny speck of light in the distance: 'I saw a light which radiated a light so keen that the eye on which it blazes needs must close because of its great keenness; and whatever star seems smallest from here would seem a moon if placed beside it like a star with neighboring star' (xxviii 16-18); 'Beatrice was silent, looking fixedly at the point' (xxix 8-9). Compare Joyce: 'They sat well back and gazed formally at the distant speck of red light which was suspended before the high altar'; 'Father Purdon knelt down, turned toward the red speck of light and, covering his face with his hands, prayed.'
The Divine Comedy is a poem of restoration and ascent. In Joyce's Dublin, religious restoration chimes with social restoration, and the friends who labour on Mr Kernan's conversion are also saving him socially, bringing him back into the circle of 'gentlemen,' all very conscious of losses and gains in social status, and all vying subtly with each other for the esteem of their fellows. Mapping this little comedy of social advancement onto the sublime grid of the Divine Comedy, Joyce brings Dante's excessively lofty universe down to earth, perhaps suggesting, beyond the ironies, that this is the way 'grace' really operates. The Fall of Man reduces to the drunken salesman collapsing in the pub lavatory; Redemption is spelt as the rehabilitation of his hat and recovery of a secure place among his fellows: `Gradually, as he recognized familiar faces, Mr Kernan began to feel more at home.' The geometrical arrangements of the church -- the squares, circles and triangles that will also play a major ordering role in Finnegans Wake -- represent this restored security. In both the Wake and this early story, the geometrical patterns provide only a comic simulacrum of ultimate order. Nonetheless, such comic mimings of redemptive order are indicative that the ultimate drift of Joyce’s art is not simply identical with Derridian dissemination.
Cornwell, Neil (1992). James Joyce and the Russians. London: Macmillan.
Dawson, Hugh J. (1987-88). 'Thomas MacGreevy and Joyce.' James Joyce Quarterly 25:305-21.
Hayman, David (1990). The 'Wake' in Transit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lobner, Corinna del Greco (1990-91). 'Quincunxial Sherlockholmesing in "Grace."' James Joyce Quarterly 28:445-50.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1969). On the Genealogy of Morals, ed. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage.
O'Brien, R. Barry (1969). The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, 1846-1891 (1898). New York: Greenwood, 1969.
FROM: The Harp: Journal of Irish Literatures 15 (2000), pp. 112-18.