PARALYSIS, GNOMON, SIMONY
It is not the events of ‘The Sisters’ that make the story so enigmatic and disturbing, but the variety of devices by which Joyce arouses throughout the story a sense of unease in the reader’s mind. Literary critics have reached a point of exhaustion in their puzzling over the work, which has become more a rebus than a narrative at their hands. But exegesis has acquired a new lease of life with the recent infiltration of Joyce studies by psychoanalysis, notably that of Jacques Lacan. Knowledge of psychoanalysis is no longer reserved for its practitioners, as doctoral courses become available to those who wish to know about this discipline for critical rather than therapeutic purposes. Such literary psychoanalysts can listen to the discourse of Joyce’s characters, deciphering the hidden meaning of their language and behaviour, and can treat Joyce’s own text as an implicit analysis of this material. The reason why the encounter between Joyce and Lacan has been so fruitful lies in the objet trouvé character of the thousands of detailed observations which are the basic material of Joyce’s four masterpieces. The encyclopaedic cast of these works stems not from baroque pedantry but from boundless curiosity about the texture of the real, and particularly about human life and language. The realist and naturalist passion of his models, Defoe, Flaubert, Ibsen and Hauptmann, remained with Joyce to the end, though scarcely recognizable in Finnegans Wake. This focus allows his works to stand with Freud’s as the century’s most subtle scrutiny of human consciousness.
The narrator of ‘The Sisters’, like so many Joycean characters and like Joyce himself, is obsessed with words and sees himself as an interpreter of obscure signs; an obsession which Joyce very successfully spreads to his readers and critics. The readers are given a set of signs to decipher, and are spurred on by the curiosity and puzzlement exhibited by the characters: Old Cotter scrutinizing the sullen boy’s expression and throwing out hypotheses about the dead priest; the avid questions of the aunt, agog with suppressed curiosity; the prudent interpretative musings of Eliza; the narrator’s sedulous recital of his observations, as if he were a detective placing clue after clue before us.
The clues the boy works on are provided chiefly by the talk of his elders, echoed, for example, in the opening words of the story: ‘There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke’. But he checks this talk against his own empirical observations. He broods on written signs and mute objects such as the square of window in the second sentence: ‘Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly’. There is a Beckettian inscrutability and blankness about that ‘faintly and evenly’. lt could be taken as emblematic of the kinds of ‘epiphany’ the story will offer: haunting both in their pregnant translucency and in their refusal of transparency.
One word in particular has lodged in the boy’s mind: ‘paralysis’, which has direct physical reference in the condition of the dying Father Flynn, but for the boy it may have wider associations. As the story takes place in July 1895, the age of the narrator, if we attribute to him Joyce’s birth date (February 2, 1882), would be thirteen, the age of puberty. When the boy repeats the word to himself, he experiences a pleasantly strange sensation, suggestive of a connection with awakening sexual curiosity: ‘Every night as I gazed up at the window l said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism’. Paralysis arouses morose delectation: ‘It filled me with fear, and yet l longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work’. Associations with syphilis and ‘general paralysis of the insane’ (alluded to in Ulysses I) are not far from the surface; Ibsen had exploited the uncanny aura of this unmentionable disease in Ghosts; however, the view of some critics that Father Flynn’s paralysis is actually syphilitic introduces a distorting concreteness and spoils the hovering suggestiveness of the writing. The other two Greek-sounding words also carry an erotic charge, both by their general uncanniness and by association with ‘Greek love’, with ‘simony’ standing in for another sinister name of a sin, as one of Joyce’s editors, nervous about a writing so porous to scabrous suggestion, divined: ‘He asked me very narrowly was there sodomy also in The Sisters and what was “simony” and if the priest was suspended only for the breaking of the chalice’ (Joyce 1966, 2:305-6). [This dimension of the story has now been highlighted by Sipe, 137-46; he notes the hint of a behaviour more serious than breaking the chalice – ‘They say it was the boy’s fault’ – but perhaps is too quick to disambiguate this hint.] The boy’s interpretative activity is not that of a detached observer, but is a working-through of his personal confusion as he tries to grasp the strange world of adults and the unspoken mysteries of sexuality.
For the reader, the three words have a thematic or programmatic significance. ‘Paralysis’ refers to the indecisive, ineffectual lives of the Dubliners and the stagnancy of their city. ‘Simony’ – derived from the Simon who tried to buy the power of conferring the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:19) - refers to how spiritual values are commercially exploited throughout Dubliners: those of romance at the bazaar in ‘Araby’ (26-8), in the thieving transaction of ‘Two Gallants’ (55) and in the forced marriage of ‘The Boarding House’, those of religion in ‘Grace’ (173-4), those of nationalist idealism in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ (117) and ‘A Mother’ (147). ‘Gnomon’ (a parallelogram with a missing part) is a pointer to the fact that Joyce’s stories are gnomonic both as wholes and in the local details: readers must draw on their own resources of imagination and ingenuity to fill in the gaps, and the gaps can never be satisfactorily filled in. Certainly there are some local satisfactions, as when one supplies the word ‘golliwog’ as a missing verbal link between ‘goloshes’ and ‘Christy Minstrels’ in ‘The Dead’ (181) or when one identifies the episode in which quicklime was thrown in Parnell’s eyes as a repressed referent in the Christmas dinner quarrel in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I (see O’Leary 1993, 1996). But there will always be a residue, something undecidable, that resists integration into a reassuring totalized set of meanings. The opacity thus created can be mistaken for a failure to realize an intended ‘epiphany’ or to establish an objective authorial distance from the characters. But the more one reads Joyce, the less applicable such strictures come to seem. For the obscurities and undecidabilities of Joyce’s text do their work on its readers quite effectively, paralyzing easy resolutions in order to force them to keep on groping and guessing. Finnegans Wake in particular has the intimations of highly charged significance characteristic of dreams or of the language of schizophrenics. It may be seen, indeed, as Joyce’s effort to save the language of his schizophrenic daughter for art and to shield it against the reductive dismissal of rationalistic psychotherapists.
‘Paralysis’ in association with ‘gnomon’ suggests that the incompleteness of the stories will paralyze the interpretative activity of the reader. ‘“The Sisters” sets up a context which gives the reader the expectation that he, or she, will be given a meaning and then withholds the meaning while allowing the reader to experience the dissolving of the context which created the expectation of meaning for the reader in the first place’ (Roughley 1991:151). The ‘context’ is the boy’s puzzlement at the mystery surrounding the dead priest; the ‘dissolving of the context’ means I suppose the final epiphany of the priest laughing insanely to himself – presented as the story’s ultimate revelation, yet one in which the possibility of a satisfying meaningful resolution of the puzzles recedes farther away than ever. This paralysis of interpretation (including a frenetic activity of over-interpretation) to which the reader is condemned is not entirely a bad thing. It teaches the reader to live with incertitude and the undecidable instead of pressing the phenomena of the world into a dogmatic framework. This educational purpose runs through all of Joyce’s writing; in Portrait religious dogmatism is exposed as tyrannical, yet one is not allowed to rest in a simple anticlericalism; conversely Stephen’s libertarian creed is undercut by indications that it is a new dogmatism; the retreat of certitude and novelistic closure in Ulysses forces us to face human beings in their potentiality rather than fixing their identity through a definite plot-line. Paralysis thus both binds and frees the reader. Another sense of ‘gnomon’ is the stylus of a sundial that marks the hour by the shadow it casts. Joyce’s stories, for all their undecidability, retain the indicative, judgemental force of a gnomon in this sense. The chronological progression of the stories from youth to age measures the lengthening shadow over the lives of the Dubliners. But as paralysis both binds and frees the reader, so the gnomon both judges and refuses judgement. Joyce’s moral and psychological probing rarely allows the easy satisfaction of a moralistic condemnation; rather the gnomonic stylus points threateningly toward the reader’s own conscience. ‘Gnomon’ also has the obsolete sense of ‘nose’. The references to Father Flynn’s nose in the story – ‘he raised his large trembling hand to his nose’ (4); ‘pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately’ (5); ‘black cavernous nostrils’ (6) – suggest a phallic symbol of paternal authority. Part of the power of Father Flynn over the narrator is his role as the only father-figure in his life; he is ‘a kind of archetype of fatherhood or the father-principle’ (Tindall 1995:14). Hélène Cixous detects an unconscious parricidal element in the boy’s attitude to the old man (see Roughley 1991:154), betrayed in the Schadenfreude his paralysis occasions, the involuntary sense of release at his death, and his guilty fear of the dead man’s coming back to haunt him. Eliza also ‘laid a finger against her nose and frowned’ (9) and the boy’s own nose detects ‘the heavy odour in the room’ (6). Here the nose is a gnomonic judge, nosing out buried secrets. [Or Eliza’s gesture can be a warning to say no more in the boy’s hearing, ensuring that he is left with an unfinished gnomon; see Sipe, 142.]
PSYCHOANALYSTS AT WORK
Every incident in Joyce’s stories can be sifted in terms of its relation to the Lacanian dimensions of the Real, the Symbolic and the lmaginary. In ‘The Sisters’ the Real (a raw residue that cannot be mapped or integrated into the symbolic codes and imaginary identifications that ensure the coherence of everyday life) emerges in odd sensations and objects - ‘I noticed how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back and how the heels of her cloth boots were trodden down all to one side’ (6) – and in words or signs which seem meaningless or to have an uncanny meaning, such as Old Cotter’s ‘faints and worms’ (1).
Each of the three sections into which the story divides begins with an interpretative interrogation of signs, outside the priest’s house, and ends with a climax of this interpretative activity in which the Real breaks through, in such a way as to dissolve the imaginary and symbolic parameters of the quest for meaning. At the start of the second section the shop sign Drapery echoes the curtains in the boy’s dream; the unintentionally punning notice Umbrellas Re-covered is an absent sign, replaced with the card announcing the priest’s death: ‘The reading of the card persuaded me that he was dead’ (4) – the Real (death) is borne home by a written sign; the ‘theatrical advertisements in the shopwindows’ (4) are contrasting signs that promise escape back to the Imaginary. The umbrellas notice falsely promises the retrieval of the most losable of objects, just as the story falsely promises the retrieval of lost meaning. The boy is also busy interpreting the signs gathered in his memory. The priest had taught him to find arcane complexities in apparently simple things: ‘His questions showed me how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the Church which I had always regarded as the simplest acts’ (5).
The third section also begins with a view of the house from the outside: ‘the window-panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds’ (6). Is this also a sign of something? To answer this question, the reader is sent tracing the web of images of light and shade spun throughout the story, and may even have to consult the motif of the west in ‘The Dead’. We recall the ‘lighted square of window’ and ‘the reflection of candles on the darkened blind’ (1; the last word evokes blindness); ‘the dark of my room’ (3) where the priest’s image haunts him and which matches ‘the little dark room behind the shop’ (4) where he used to meet the priest. In his dream there was ‘a swinging lamp of antique fashion’ (6) which perhaps anticipates the ‘light’ that reveals Father Flynn’s final degeneration at the end of the story. ‘The sunny side of the street’ (4) reflected the freedom he felt at the priest’s death: ‘I walked along in the sun’ (5). The reflection of the sun in the windows continues this sense of freedom; the light from the west constrasts with the oriental lamp of the dream. Even the priest’s dark house is penetrated by the sunlight: ‘The room through the lace end of the blind was suffused with dusky golden light amid which the candles looked like pale thin flames’ (6).The death of the paralyzing father-figure has released the boy from blindness (the mental blindness of the priest’s complex theology), and let back the light of nature to eclipse the deathly light of the churchly candles. This is one of the retouchings in the final version of the story which give it a more positive thrust, even suggesting that the tale is a mini-portrait of the artist on his way to liberation and vision. One recalls that the tale was first published under the pseudonym ‘Stephen Daedalus’ on the first anniversary of the author’s mother’s death.
The first section ends with a dream, seemingly fraught with significance, yet raising more questions than it answers. The boy has been puzzling his head ‘to extract meaning from [Old Cotter’s] unfinished sentences’ and his dream pursues the work of interpretation by other means, throwing up obscure images of corruption: ‘I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region’. The second section ends with his unsuccessful effort to recall the end of the dream. The exoticism of the dream invites us to suppose that a sexual climax has been repressed from awareness: ‘l felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange – in Persia, I thought... But I could not remember the end of the dream’ (6). The final scene marks an eerier penetration of the Real, for it is a scene of actual life which is as strange and disturbing as any in the dream: ‘Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself... So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him...’ (10). The confession-box (which would have curtains) in which the priest is found echoes the confession scene and the curtains in the dream. The priest’s smile had spread to the boy in a sinister way in his dream: ‘I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin’ (3); now it has further degenerated into the feeble laughter of insanity. The repeated ‘that’s in Eliza’s faltering report create a sense of paralytic enfeeblement as do the repeated ‘to’s in what seems a more elaborate version of the same sentence in Portrait III: ‘We knew perfectly well of course that although it was bound to come to the light he would find considerable difficulty in endeavouring to try to induce himself to try to endeavour to ascertain the spiritual plenipotentiary and so we knew of course perfectly well –’ (Joyce 1992:147).
The unpleasant sensations which are the signature of the Real all centre on the physical presence of Father Flynn: ‘When he smiled he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip – a habit which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance before I knew him well’ ‘(5). The tongue carries a vague suggestion of lewdness – a phallus playing dead’, says Cixous (Roughley 1991:150) – and the phrase ‘I knew him well’ insinuates a secretive intimacy. Note that Father Flynn’s problem with ‘the duties of the priesthood’ suggests sexual incontinence, emblematized in the snuff he cannot help spilling and that dribbles through his fingers (4)and his lips ‘moist with spittle’ (3) in the boy’s dream. Cixous’s remark is particularly brilliant, for ‘playing dead’ is perhaps the chief vice of Joyce’s Dubliners and the most stifling way in which the dead hand of patriarchal authority imposes itself. Joyce is so attuned to this pathology that he can capture it in the lightest touches:
-- Miss Furlong, what shall I send you? he asked. A wing or a slice of the breast?
-- Just a small slice of the breast.
-- Miss Higgins, what for you?
-- O, anything at all, Mr Conroy. (198)
Eveline’s assumption of a cosy victim-role as a protective camouflage to shield herself against her father’s blows is another instance of this strategy. The conventional conversational gambits of the elders in ‘The Sisters’ are a form of playing dead which frustrates and mystifies the boy. In contrast to the claim of Greek Orthodox theologians that tradition is ‘a source of life’, the scruple-ridden priest reduces it to a set of dead codes: ‘he told me that the fathers of the Church had written books as thick as the Post Office Directory and, as closely printed as the law notices in the newspaper, elucidating all these intricate questions (5). These are emblems of a musty clericalism. The priest is trapped in a paralysis of interpretation which sets him searching desperately through ancient tomes and makes him too scrupulous to assume his role in the Symbolic order with the unproblematic efficiency of a Father O’Rourke. Like Gabriel Conroy, he has set up a protective shield of books between himself and the Real. When he actually dies, the boy feels he is still merely playing dead. Just as the ghost of Hamlet’s father eludes his clutches and the sword-thrusts of his companions, so Father Flynn has a hold over the boy by being only half there, and by the same token cannot be thoroughly got rid of in a way that would satisfy the boy’s parricidal instincts.
One might object that Joyce himself is ‘playing dead’ in the inscrutable irony of his deadpan prose. But just this is the dividing line between the good and the bad senses of paralysis: Joyce’s neutrality is that of a psychoanalyst, a suspension of judgement and intervention which heightens attentiveness to what the analysand is saying and assists him or her to come to self-knowledge. Cixous’s ascription to the boy of ‘a homosexuality that is only admitted in the dark folds of a confessional’, quoted, Roughley 1991:154) is not quite on the mark. The Joycean adolescent is certainly conscious of homosexuality, but his experience of it is as something alien and eerie, and only attractive in the mode of perversion; the collusion in sadomasochistic fantasy is what excites the narrator of 'An Encounter’, and there is no hint of any erotic attraction between him and his classmates, for example. Homosexuality is linked with the fascination and terror of the uncanny in Freud’s sense, which is closely connected with what Lacan calls the Real. Thus it conjures up those dank, clammy sensations through which the Real usually impinges on Stephen Dedalus’s awareness: when his classmates gossip about ‘smugging’ in the ‘square’, Stephen recalls: ‘It was all thick slabs of slate and water trickled all day out of tiny pinholes and there was a queer smell of stale water there’ (Joyce 1992:43). It is also connected with a fear of loss of identity, of being turned into a woman, as conveyed in the scene in which Stephen is mistaken for ‘Josephine’ (Joyce 1992:71) or in the effeminate figures of ‘Lady Boyle’ and Bertie Tallon (Joyce 1992:43, 78). The threat that hangs over Joyce’s adolescents is the lure of a masochistic passivity that will unman them. This castration-anxiety is induced not by a threatening father-figure, who would prompt heroic resistance (as at the end of Portrait I), but by a weak or absent father. The shiftless Simon Dedalus is one who has become a parody of a real father; his name connects him with ‘simony’: he has sold out on the sacred responsibilities of fatherhood; Stephen has to reclaim his birthright by projecting a mythic father for himself in the figure of Daedalus. Father Flynn’s smiles anticipate all the sinister smiles of the priests and the school bullies in Portrait, and have a similar power to put the boy in a submissive feminized position. But he, too, is a weak and absent father, hardly more than the ghost of a priest. ‘The narrator is very much in the company of women, and he is excited by this unlawful gnomonic atmosphere, but he has also heard his uncle’s warning to “box his corner”, to become a man’ (Leonard 1993:49). The ‘excitement’ in question – if not a figment of the critic’s imagination – arises from a lawless feminization of the boy’s identity. This feminization is, however, associated with paralysis, as the priest’s feeble smile is stamped on the boy’s face in his dream. Some see the obscure title of the story as referring to ‘the effeminate relation between the priest and his disciple’ (Brandabur 1971:42).
Comparison with the second story in the collection, ‘An Encounter’, is illuminating. Its protagonist dreams of ‘unkempt fierce and beautiful girls’ (12); it is through espousing the boy’s Imaginary heterosexual desire that the man in the park attempts to lure him into his own sadistic fantasy. The boy hears the man’s final ‘monologue’ with some complicity: ‘his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him’ (20). The excitement he feels (see Ingersoll 1996:43-4) reveals that the monologue has struck a masochistic chord in him. ‘Homosexual’ identifications in Joyce (e.g. between Gabriel and Michael in ‘The Dead’, between Richard and Robert in Exiles, or between Bloom and Boylan in Ulysses) are mediated by a shared object of heterosexual desire and involve masochistic humiliation.
The old men in the two stories are linked by their dress: Father Flynn’s ‘ancient priestly garments’ have a ‘green faded look’ (4) and the man in the park is ‘shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish black’ (16). His ‘bottle-green eyes’ (20) provide the climax of the story, linking up with the scene in which the boy ‘examined the foreign sailors to see had any of them green eyes’ (15). In the period in which the stories are set, the early 1890s, green had been promoted by Oscar Wilde as ‘the sign of a subtle artistic temperament’ which ‘in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals’ (quoted, Beckson 1992:54). Later it was replaced by yellow (The Yellow Book), used elsewhere in this sense by Joyce (the end of Portrait II). As the boys’ quest for Imaginary adventure runs up against the Real, the man exhibits repellant physical traits similar to those of Father Flynn: ‘The man, however, only smiled. I saw that he had great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth’ (17).
Much of the speculation of Lacanian critics is unverifiable. Indeed, one can hardly pursue psychoanalytical reading if one is afraid of over-interpretation. But some Lacanian readings admit of being falsified, and this is a valuable control on what might develop into a situation of hermeneutical anarchy. Thus Leonard’s interpretation of the old man in ‘An Encounter’ as one whose sexuality escapes from the paralysis that besets the other Dubliners can be rejected as unconvincing. The narrators of both ‘The Sisters’ and ‘An Encounter’ are ‘repelled by paradigms of rigid masculinity and powerfully drawn to characters who seem unable to subscribe to this myth’ (Leonard 1993:61). Father Flynn and the man in the park represent the Real that disrupts the confining conventional representations of the boys’ elders (the Symbolic Order) and is also outside the reach of the narrator’s bookish imaginings and romantic self-image (the Imaginary). In ‘An Encounter’ the boy returns to the reassuring conventional world of Mahony at the end – ‘He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little’ (20) – terrified but fascinated by the irruption of the Real that has undermined his conventional identity. Between the sterile conventions of the world of family and school and the threatening lure of a world of perversion and paralysis the Joycean adolescent treads a difficult path. Leonard claims that the boy is ‘thrilled to meet a man whose objects of desire are as variable and unstructured as his own’ and who is ‘perverse in the sense that he is polymorphously perverse – he demonstrates the directionless sexual instinct of a child’ (Leonard 1993:61). Against the critics who see the man’s desires as fixated on the sadistic fantasy of his second monologue, Leonard points out that the man is equally mesmerized by his own rhetoric in the first monologue (the one about girls), so that it cannot be written off as a falsification. But could it not be that the two monologues represent the two sides of the same fixational fantasy? It is at least clear that the apparent sexual liberalism of the man is certainly a falsification covering over his obsessional desire, as the narrator dimly realizes: ‘He seemed to have forgotten his recent liberalism’ (19). For Leonard, the old man almost becomes a sexual culture hero like Leopold or Molly Bloom: ‘The old man does not believe in the monadic authority of the phallic signifier, so he has no need to connect himself to preexisting gender myths that typically help the masculine subject deny symbolic castration’. ‘Rather than generating substitute objects to fill the gap of human desire. tbe pervert hovers over the void of his own incertitude’ (Leonard 1993:66, 68). But it is unconvincing to claim that the man assumes symbolic castration, incertitude, or lack-in-being; his frenetic pursuit of his obscure object of desire signifies rather an incapacity for such acceptance of lack. ‘Because it is obsessively circular, the pattern of his speech is also rigorously meaningless and does not masquerade as something obsessively linear that will eventually achieve closure (as do all of Father Butler’s pronouncements)’ (Leonard 1993:65). This valorizing of the old man’s monotonous repetitions seems incompatible with their obvious Freudian associations with the repetition-compulsion and the death-drive or with their connection with analogous enactments of paralysis elsewhere in Dubliners: Eveline’s repetitive ruminations, or Gabriel Conroy’s grandfather’s horse going ‘round and round’ (209).
Lacanian psychoanalysis makes much of gaps and incoherences in the discourse of the analysands and attempts to frustrate hollow gambits of conversation in order to allow a significant speech of the subject to emerge. In ‘The Sisters’ the characters often speak in a cryptic and elliptical way or in hearty conventional platitudes. ‘No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly... but there was something queer… there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion...’; ‘I think it was one of those... peculiar cases... But it’s hard to say…’ (1-2). The elisions conjure up all sorts of sinister possibilities: insanity, sexual depravity, ecclesiastical scandal. After a decisive declaration – ‘I wouldn’t like children of mine, he said, to have too much to say to a man like that’ – he slips into the conventional vein: ‘let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be… Am I right, Jack?’ (2). Leonard, who believes that ‘Old Cotter is glad his rival for the boy’s attention is dead’, suggests that the ellipsis here could be filled in as follows ‘[seducing old men like me and Father Flynn into playing his perverse, mystical games]’ (Leonard 1993:37, 38), which is more refined than an alternative suggestion: ‘playing with an old man’ (Ingersoll 1996:26). But perhaps it is unwise psychoanalytical practice to rush to fill in the ellipses. We should leave the gap in meaning and articulation open, in its painful unfulfilledness. The impossibility of closure applies not only to the story as a whole but to each of its local enigmas.
The conventional tones of Old Cotter are taken up by the uncle: ‘That’s what I’m always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that’s what stands to me now’ (2). Unease about the boy’s sexuality is conveyed in the uncle’s reference to exercise and cold baths, traditional antidotes to sexual temptation. The boy’s morose, surly, secretive nature is reflected in the epithet ‘Rosicrucian’ with its suggestions of a secret society devoted to the occult. The aunt, too, adopts a conventional language of piety, which can admirably gloss over any uncomfortable aspects of life: ‘God have mercy on his soul, said my aunt piously’ (2). She is ‘strategically pious’ (Leonard 1993:40-41). Her apparently naive questions – ‘How do you mean, Mr Cotter’ (2); ‘But why do you think it’s not good for children?’ (3) – mask a tacit sense of the underlying implications. In the conversation with Eliza it is clear that she is aware of the disgrace surrounding the priest: ‘And everything...?’ (7; she fears the priest has been refused the last sacraments); ‘And was that it? said my aunt. I heard something....’ (10).
Pious convention prevails in the final conversation between Eliza and the aunt, though the Real threatens to emerge in some elliptical gaps: ‘Did he... peacefully?’ (7). Eliza’s ‘I know he’s gone and all to that…’ (8) requires completion by ‘other world’. Convention lapses when Eliza ‘said shrewdly: -- Mind you, I noticed there was something queer coming over him latterly’ (9), but it is only on the last page that her narration broaches this topic directly. Most of the conversation smothers over the actual details of the priest’s decline and demise: ‘He had a beautiful death, God be praised’ (7). The account of the broken chalice multiplies devices for inducing a sense of the uncanny: ‘Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean. But still... They say it was the boy’s fault’ (10). Note the reassuring ‘of course’ which fails to reassure, and indeed points up the suspiciousness of the following ‘they say’ (‘Of course that’s what they would say, isn’t it?’). [Sipe, 247, comments: ‘ “They” still usually say it was the boy’s – or girl’s – fault’.] Again the reassuring ‘all right’ is undercut by the embarrassed explanation: ‘that it contained nothing. I mean’, which conjures up all the sacred terror surrounding the consecrated wine. ‘But still...’ allows ample room for undermining any reassurance given so far. Then the extra explanation, ‘They say it was the boy’s fault’, suggests a desperate effort on the part of’ ‘they’ to hush up the scandal. Moreover. the phrase resonates as an accusation of the only ‘boy’ we have met so far, the one listening intently to these words.
‘What the individual knows is always a translation of the Real into whatever the subject can afford to understand; knowledge operates as a sort of organized ignorance, and the primary effect on the subject is a feeling of stability and indivisibility’. ‘Language, which the boy tries to employ in this story with a conspicuous truthfulness, functions as a defense against unconscious truth’ (Leonard 1993:51, 52). Take the sentence: ‘There was a heavy odour in the room – the flowers’ (6). Like other unsettling phrases in the story, for instance the ‘faints and worms’ (1), terms used in the distillery, this borders on black comedy. Joyce is teasing the reader, who had been expecting the sentence to end with the words ‘the corpse’. What adds to the uncanniness of the sentence is the realization that in reality the flowers do serve to stifle the odour of corruption, just as the characters’ conventional language represses and betrays their uneasy awareness of the unspoken. Now if we take the sentence as an utterance of the boy-narrator, a further dimension comes to light: it reflects his own anxious desire for reassurance. ‘Increasingly, he is aware ofsome lack at the center of his own being that he would like to fill with the truth about himself’. Hence, ‘he is drawn to those objects whose presence is undercut by an absence’. ‘The sentence begins ominously and then ends with a reassuring bump – the signifier, after all, has a signified’ (Leonard 1993:26). But the boy’s narration, by its very excess of scrupulous assertion, fails to reassure the reader, who is haunted by a desire to fill in its gaps: ‘As critics, readers have become as fascinated with various objects in the story as the narrator (the crackers and wine are a prominent example) and they interrogate each object hoping that it will provide them with a glimpse of truth by revealing itself as a signifier with a veritable signified’. Their quest is vain: ‘as Lacan makes clear, an object can only function as an object of desire _because_ it embodies within itself the incompleteness readers seek to deny about themselves’ (Leonard 1993:29). The story frustrates our desire to close its gaps, and instructs us in the art of living with gaps, with lack and incompleteness. ‘Truth is elsewhere in the narration of “The Sisters”, but truth is always elsewhere when people use language’ (Leonard 1993:32).
THE FORGOTTEN FATHER FLYNN
It is remarkable that while Lacanian readers are careful to reconstruct the subjective viewpoint of Old Cotter and the man in ‘An Encounter’ they persist in viewing Father Flynn as merely a sinister presence in the boy’s life. Yet Joyce goes out of his way to provide an alternative perspective. The man who looms as a massive father-figure, representative of the Symbolic order, and object of Imaginary fascination, in the boy’s mind is an ordinary human being to his sisters. Perhaps the title of the story wants to draw our attention to their perspective. The Lacanian critics seem to have missed the touching character of Joyce’s portrayal of these women. Thus the boy’s observations of Nannie’s worndown boots are seen as a gnomon and discussed in terms of the boy’s interpretative activity, but no attention is paid to the epiphany of a humble, impoverished life conveyed here. The homely kindness of the sisters, a pair surely modelled on Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42; John 11), casts an elegiac glow about the Lazarus-figure of their brother: ‘But still and all he kept on saying that before the summer was over he’d go for a drive one fine day just to see the old house again where we were all born down in Irishtown and take me and Nannie with him’ (9); note the rhythm of this, how it heaves from one sighing phrase to another (‘still and all’, ‘he kept on saying’, ‘before the summer was over’). Eliza’s reminiscences show the priest returning to his family background, now that he has been dropped by the Church, except for the loyal Father O’Rourke –’there’s no friends like the old friends’ (8).
The story is not bereft of sympathy for the human plight of Father Flynn. Joyce, having had ‘Catholicism’ injected the wrong way, could empathize with the absolutely stymied state of a lonely old man for whom ‘priesthood’ had gone wrong and who is left clutching desperately at the shreds of a dead tradition; I put scare quotes here to signal a gap between these cultural constructions or fantasies and the authentic theological realities. Eliza’s malapropism ‘rheumatic’ for ‘pneumatic’ (9) –characteristic of the broken wheeziness of her English – erases the Greek ‘pneuma’, spirit (or Holy spirit), another indication of the triumph of the letter over the spirit in this rundown religious world. But the extinction of spirit here is less a sinister perversion than an all-too-human fatigue. The Eucharist, in the desiccated representations of a fetichised theology, has ceased to be a spiritual banquet and become an occasion for scruples and paralyzing anxiety about ‘the duties of the priest towards the Eucharist’ (5), echoed in Eliza’s ‘the duties of the priesthood was too much for him’ (9). Yet the hospitality of Eliza and Nannie as they offer the boy and his aunt sherry and biscuits (an echo of the Eucharist: Eliza sits in the priest’s chair and the sideboard figures as an altar) need not be viewed one-sidedly as just another of the failed communions that are found throughout Dubliners, such as the drinking scene between Chandler and Gallagher (76); Joe Donnelly serving wine to Maria. who has lost her cake (99, 101); Mr Browne serving Freddy, whom he calls Teddy, lemonade (185).
Nannie’s disappointment that the boy refuses the crackers lends some colour to Leonard’s interpretation of Eliza’s conversation, which parallels Old Cotter’s in its ellipses and caution: ‘the performance of her narrative in front of the boy masks the same intention: undermine Father Flynn’s authority and make the boy dependent, once again, on the message of the family: “You are what we see you as”. The haemorrhage in the family has been staunched by the death of Father Flynn, and it now remains for the sisters to apply the tourniquet to the narrator’s dangerously extrafamilial sense of self’ (Leonard 1993:40. To accept food, in these stories, is to be lured into a false, enslaving community. The boy’s surreptitious sipping of the wine matches his cautious mistrust of the adult world. However, an alternative reading is possible: the boy is infected with Father Flynn’s scrupulosity and is ‘so immersed in details that he misses the ordinary kindness of the sisters. Instead of moving toward the liberating power of metaphoricity, the boy has allowed himself, like the “paralyzed” priest, to be feminized by metonymic details’ (Ingersoll 1996:30). It looks as if Joycean critics, too, have to tread a tightrope between gullibility and sentimentality on one hand and a cynical sifting of dissociated details on the other.
As Eliza spills the beans on her brother, she is haunted, like the narrator, by a fear of his ghostly presence. ‘She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast’ (10). This echoes the earlier passage in which the narrator’s fancy ‘that the old priest was smiling as he lay there in his coffin’ is dispelled by the sight of him ‘solemn and copious [a pun on ‘cope’], vested as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice. His face was very truculent’ (6). The repetition of ‘solemn’ and ‘truculent’ reflects the boy’s developing verbal skill. Unlike some critics, I do not find any presence of an adult narrator in the story; rather the elision of such an instance allows the language to reflect not only the consciousness but the linguistic development of the boy; of course there is a strong authorial presence in control, but that is a different matter. ‘The boy is thrilled with an increasing command of language that allows him to narrate silently his own story... in deliberate contrast to the narration of the various adults who frequently surround him – but only rarely include him’. ‘He is frightened, however, that in gaining the use of the word he may have lost touch with the world (it is clear to him that the adults have)’ (Leonard 1993:24, 25), hence the scrupulous empiricism of his narration, which is almost psychotic in its obsession with detail. That may seem a far-fetched diagnosis, but it chimes well with the account in Portrait II of Stephen Dedalus’s alienation from the fatuous talk of his elders and his sense of the unreality of his own literary fantasizings. If a triumphant air attaches to the image of the dead Father Flynn, it may indicate that his presence in the boy’s life is not as entirely negative as most critics assume. As an ambassador of the Real, in all its eeriness, from outside the constraints of the conventional Symbolic order, against which his whole tragic career stands in truculent contradiction, the priest awakens an independence of language and observation in the boy that ultimately frees him from the paralysis of dead words.
[Sipe notes that Joyce described the first three stories in the collection as ‘stories of my childhood’; Joyce may have felt the same uneasy empathy with the originals of the two strange men; in both stories the boy is imaged as hearing the men’s confessions; for the pervasive presence of this type of ‘homosexual panic’ in Joyce’s texts, see Valente.]
TEXT: James Joyce, Dubliners. Introduction and Notes by Terence Brown. Penguin Books, 1992.
Beckson, Karl (1992). London in the 1890s: A Cultural History. New York: Norton.
Ingersoll, Earl G. (1996). Engendered Trope in Joyce’s Dubliners. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Joyce, James (1966). The Letters of James Joyce. Vol. 3. Ed., R. Ellmann. New York: Viking.
Joyce, James (1992). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin.
Leonard, Garry M. (1993). Reading Dubliners Again: A Lacanian Perspective. Syracuse University Press.
O’Leary. J. S. (1993). ‘Notes on the Soul-Motif in Joyce’s Portrait’. The Harp: IASAIL-Japan Bulletin 8:61-9.
O’Leary, J. S. (1996). ‘The Musical Structure of “The Dead”. The Harp 11:29-40.
Roughley, Alan (1991). James Joyce and Critical Theory: An Introduction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Sipe, A. W. Richard (2007). The Serpent and the Dove: Celibacy in Literature and Life. Westport, CT, and London: Praeger.
Tindall. William York (1995). A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. Syracuse University Press.
Valente, Joseph (2003) ‘Thrilled by His Touch: The Aesthetizing of Homosexual Panic in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ in Mark A. Wollaeger (ed.) James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook, Oxford University Press, 245-80.
From English Literature and Language 33 (1996)