Postmodern Joyce: Chance, Coincidence and the Reader
By Derek Attridge

The following is the substance of a talk given at the MLA in 1990. An updated and revised version of this paper appears in Attridge's Joyce Effects, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In the "Ithaca" episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus narrates two short fictions to Leopold Bloom, one a scene in a solitary hotel, the other his "Parable of the Plums" (already familiar from earlier in the book) (17.611-641). Bloom, occupying the place of the reader, has two responses. The second, an entirely typical one for Bloom, is to speculate on the commercial possibilities of a collection of Stephen's works; it's the first, however, that interests me here. What strikes Bloom most forcibly about the initial story is Stephen's choice of the name "Queen's Hotel" for his fictional setting, a name which prompts in him a detailed memory of his father's suicide -- recounted in the clinical detail typical of the chapter -- in the Queen's Hotel, Ennis. Whereupon the catechistic voice enquires: "Did he attribute this homonymity to information or coincidence or intuition?" The answer is concise and unambiguous: "Coincidence." To the two modes of knowledge that might explain the chiming between the worlds of narrator and audience, "information" and "intuition," Bloom prefers that unaccountable falling together of events that we call coincidence. In response to "The Parable of the Plums" Bloom notes a further "coincidence," this time unspecified in the text (perhaps it's the similarity between the interest shown by the Dublin dames in the statue of the "onehandled adulterer" Horatio Nelson and his own earlier investigation of the mesial grooves of classical sculpture). Without wishing to claim that the passage offers us an allegory of the reading of Ulysses, I would suggest that it draws attention to an aspect of Joyce's art that is becoming more evident as we look at it in retrospect, from a cultural viewing platform for which "post-modernism" seems the best name, however contentious and ill-defined it remains. I wish to argue also that, although no works of modernism remain unchanged in this perspective, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake come out looking more different than do their illustrious companions of that age, and hence more different from them as well.
I don't intend to offer any totalizing description of post-modernism; all I wish to observe is that one feature of some of the most interesting and pleasurable art of recent times has been an openness to the operations of chance, including an openness to the contingencies of the particular context in which the work is enjoyed. That is to say, the fact that the work of art is experienced every time as a singular event, by an individual with specific (and changing) needs, expectations, memories, and associations, at a particular time and place, is not factored out as far as possible -- which I see as the goal of most modernist and pre-modernist art -- but is factored in as an essential part of the work's mode of operation. I'm not thinking of the kind of neo-Dadaist aleatory art that flourished briefly in the sixties -- play your own notes or assemble your own book -- but on the contrary of an art in which the very complexity and heterogeneity of the forms and representations crafted by the artist produces possibilities of connection and correspondence when they engage with an individual consciousness at a given moment. Post-modernism's commerce between elite and popular culture, its amalgamation of the exceptional and the quotidian, its employment of pastiche and quotation, its games with self-referentiality, its preference for mixed and open forms, its courting of the arbitrary and the random, its resistance to the "serious" or the "natural": all these features of recent art in a variety of media could be thought of as producing not the sense of necessary cohesion that characterizes most modernist and pre-modernist art, but a sense of the constantly renewed possibility of connection, in which the history and situation of each interpreter provides one set of elements in the network of potentialities. Rather than art which exploits its culture in an attempt to transcend it, it's an art which celebrates its embeddedness in that culture, and remains open to changes within it.
While the complex texturing of works like these is clearly dependent upon the new possibilities first introduced by modernism and then left relatively undeveloped for about forty years, they seem to be reacting against the modernist deployment of these new resources in the service of a transcendentalizing or monumentalizing urge. The Cantos or The Waste Land or The Waves stake a claim against time and chance: they're stamped with the will to specify, to capture, to purify, to preserve. Proust and Lawrence, though their novels are minutely responsive to their cultural moments, struggle to determine psychological absolutes. Yeats searches for moments of transcendence in the ephemeral round; Kafka (and Freud) attempt to exemplify and enunciate laws of familial and social relations encompassing every human community. All these highly varied attempts to secure permanence, purity, and asoluteness -- and many others -- entail, ultimately, a resistance to ungrounded effects of meaning, even though we may now be able to read them against the grain of their grand projects, finding in their failure a success of another and more relativist kind. In particular, their aims entail a driving of the specificities of the reading situation to the margins, rather than an embracing of them as part of the experience of art (which, of course, they always are, whether acknowledged or not). This is not to say that the major works of modernism have fixed meanings, but rather that even their avoidance of fixed meanings is something that doesn't, in principle, change from reader to reader, period to period, doesn't willingly interact with the concrete situation in which text and interpreter find themselves. Though meaning may be suspended, everything in the text is presented as self-justified, immune from grafting or dividing. The art-work wrests necessity from arbitrariness, permanence from the historical flux, universality from culturally-specific detail. Think of the superb certainty of a Mondrian painting, the self-authenticating power of a Mies building, the assured self-validation of every note of a Schoenberg twelve-tone composition.
Now it goes without saying that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have similar "modernist" pretensions. They assert their own massive monumentality, their own pre-programming of every interpretive move. The unparalleled scholarly attention that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have attracted bears witness to their aura of achieved certainty: every detail is assumed to be worthy of the most scrupulous editorial consideration, the most minute genetic tracing, the most careful historical placing, the most ingenious hermeneutic activity -- all in the name of greater fixity, permanence, and truth. Yet the particular manner in which Joyce accumulates details, multiplies structures, and over-determines interpretation achieves something else as well, and something that I believe sets these texts apart from most other modernist works while it relates them to our own cultural moment: it makes possible, and relishes, the random, the contingent, and -- emerging out of these as a necessary effect -- the coincidental. Rather than attempting to control the mass of fragmentary detail to produce meaning, Joyce's major texts allow meaning to arise out of that mass by the operations of chance.
This is not to say that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are torn apart by two drives, towards Joyce's grand encyclopedic schemes and towards the haphazard and the coincidental that undermines them (which would be a version of the tension in modernist writing I mentioned earlier). Rather, it's the rich systematizations of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, their ordered heterogeneity and multiplicitous coherence, that render their meanings forever unsystematizable -- because of the inevitable outbreaks of coincidence that defy all predictability and programming. Joyce's own ambiguous attitude towards the structural frameworks of these texts -- his removal of Homeric chapter titles rom the published Ulysses while circulating them in the schemata, for instance -- merely confirm the texts' own ironic play with their ordering principles, whether Homeric comparisons or Viconian cycles. Monuments they may be, but they are also, and in the same gesture, comic dismantlings of the urge, so prominent around Joyce, to monumentalize.
It's from this open network of possibilities that the text's engagement with the reader's own situation arises. No single reader can comprehend every possibility of felicitous conjunction in Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. The specific situation you are in as you read, fed into by your personal history, the configurations of your knowledge, your cultural context, highlights certain connections both within the text and between the text and the constituents of that situation (though the distinction between what is inside and what is outside the text is precisely what collapses at these moments). It's this that accounts for that frequent experience of recognition that characterizes the reading of these two works, which is not an experience of finding one's own beliefs (or ideology) confirmed in the text, but of being surprised at the sudden public manifestation of what one took to be a private memory or quirk. This process is most obvious in Finnegans Wake, whose portmanteau style is entirely built out of the multiple coincidences of language, both within languages and across languages. Re-reading the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" chapter recently I came upon the phrase "bakereen's dusind" (212.20), and there before me was the name of the South African river next to which I grew up (the Umsindusi, or in its familiar abbreviated form, the Dusi), and, like the small boy Joyce imagined in justs uch a situation (1), I felt a momentary pleasure in this unlooked-for bond between the work and me -- a pleasure in no way diminished by my awareness that, if asked whether I could be sure that this was an intended allusion or whether it could just as easily be a coincidence thrown up by the chapter's dense web of names, I would probably have to answer, like Bloom, "coincidence." But the opposition between the "intended" and the "accidental" begins to break down at this point: if Joyce intentionally builds a machine of such complexity that unforeseen connections are bound to arise when it comes into contact with a reader possessing equally complex systems of memory and information, we can't call them "unintentional" in any straightforward sense of the word. And this means we can't say that the openness to chance and to the reader that I'm arguing is Joyce's link with postmodernism is only an "accidental" effect of his overloaded monumentalization; that would be to re-erect precisely the opposition that his writing, and the notion of coincidence, undermine.
Of course coincidence is, as my opening comments will have suggested, first of all an internal and fully thematized principle in these works. The chimings and echoes that criss-cross Ulysses, gradually revealing themselves to the assiduous reader and re-reader, and the extraordinary multiplication of such effects in the Wake, invite a relishing of coincidence while constituting the network of detail that makes possible an infinite series of new coincidences. In Ulysses, it's Bloom who functions as Vergil to the reader's Dante as they explore the world of the coincidence. (Bloom's pleasure in coincidences is in no way opposed, as I hope will now be clear, to his enthusiastic appreciation of grand systems). The word "coincidence" itself is something of a Bloomian leitmotif: its fourteen occurrences in the book are all associated with Bloom's consciousness, prompted by a dozen different events during the course of the day.
None of these is a major coincidence, like the parallel between the quotidian peregrinations of a Dublin citizen and the heroic journeyings of a Greek warrior: they are the little comings-together that characterize any excursion on the busy streets of a metropolis. Thus, for instance, in "Lestrygonians," Bloom is walking the Dublin streets thinking of a thousand thing sincluding -- very briefly -- the political charisma of Charles Stewart Parnell, when he notices John Howard Parnell:

There he is: the brother. Image of him. Haunting face. Now that's a coincidence. Course hundreds of times you think of a person and don't meet him. (8.502)

Having thus rationalized away the coincidence, Bloom is startled a few moments later when another recent occupant of his mental world, George Russell, materializes in the flesh:

And there he is too. Now that's really a coincidence: second time. Coming events cast their shadows before. (8.525)

Bloom even produces a fantasy involving a multiplication of this new coincidence, imagining that the young woman to whom A.E. is holding forth is one of the unsuccessful respondents to his solicitation for feminine aid in the columns of the Irish Times.
The other coincidences that Bloom remarks on are of a similar kind. In the Ormond Hotel he's about to begin writing to the successful respondent to his ad, whom he knows as "Martha," when Simon Dedalus launches into a song from the opera of that name (11.713). In the same chapter he remarks to himself on the coincidence of seeing Blazes Boylan three times that day (11.303), and in "Circe" uses coincidence as a defense against the charge of peeing into a bucket of workmen's porter (15.593). In "Eumaeus," he remarks on no less than four "coincidences" in the course of his unsuccessful attempts to engage Stephen in conversation (16.414, 890, 1222, 1776) --though, caught up as they are in the web of misinformation and bathos that characterizes the chapter, they don't qualify very obviously for the label. In "Ithaca," in addition to the response to Stephen's narratives that I've already mentioned, he recalls the coincidences that might have led him to predict the result of the Gold Cup that afternoon (17.322).
These occurrences of the term "coincidence" are, of course, only explicit namings of a constant preoccupation; Bloom is always son the lookout for connections across time and place, verbal echoes, patterns in the heap of fragments that characterize his consciousness and his surroundings. Stephen, by contrast, seems driven by the traditional (and I include here the modernist) artist's need to make connections, to fuse and shape them, rather than to find and celebrate them in passing; his performance in the library, postmodernly self-parodying though it is, offers his audience pleasure and satisfaction in its achievement of just such a willed and wrought integrity. The enigmatic fictions he relates to Bloom in "Ithaca" are more modernist than post-modern, and to this extent Bloom's response is wildly inappropriate, its insistence on the specific connections between the story and his own situation deflating Stephen's earnest yet ironic narrative art.
What, then, is the importance of coincidence to Joyce? As Bloom's experiences indicate, a coincidence is an instance of contingency bearing the marks of necessity, or, as the OED has it, "a notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connection." Notice the hedging implicit in that "apparent": part of the fascination of coincidence is that it always may not be a coincidence -- it thrills or chills us with a sense of hidden connections, loops in time, secret correspondences. "Coming events cast their shadows before," muses Bloom after seeing A.E., momentarily denying that what he has experienced is a coincidence -- not, as when seeing Parnell's brother a moment before, because the connection isn't marked enough, but because it may be a real (if supernatural) connection between phenomena. Though the Ithacan catechist definitively excludes "information" and "intuition" in the doubling of the name "Queen's Hotel," there must remain a suspicion that Stephen, perhaps even subliminally, has absorbed the gossip about Bloom's father's suicide, which only that morning had passed from Martin Cunningham to Jack Power just out of Bloom's hearing (6.529-30); or that the insistence on coincidence is actually a reflex of Bloom's uncanny sense of something like telepathy at work. Who can say of any apparent coincidence that it isn't in fact the punctual culmination of a vast and perhaps ancient system of connections? (At least one writer usually classed as postmodern, Thomas Pynchon, has made of this question a fundamental narrative resource.) Finnegans Wake's portmanteau style is a continuous exploitation of this potential in language and culture, languages and cultures. Joyce values coincidence precisely because of this undecidability between chance and necessity; he's offering us not a Romantic theory of inherent correspondences, but a staging of their ever-present, though always uncertain, possibility. Meaning is never grounded or guaranteed; but, as the product of the complexity of our cultural systems, it's always available, always utilizable. One has only to compare Yeats' use of the gyre with Joyce's use of the Viconian cycle to gauge the difference between an attempt to wrest coherence from the chaos of history and a rejoicing in the patterns of repetition thrown up by the chaos of history. Joyce may find the motif of the fall occurring at every level of cultural narrative, from the Crucifixion to Humpty Dumpty, from Paradise Lost to his father's jokes, but he's not offering a psychological or historical paradigm that will control and encompass that abundance of story-telling. On the contrary, the motif of the fall is precisely an encoding of the inevitable collapse of such attempts, narrated over and over inhuman history. Finnegans Wake can be understood as one great coincidence, if we allow the word its etymological sense of co-incidere, "falling together." And the inevitable failure of the grand designs of Modernism is only one more example of Tim Finnegan's ignominious plunge from the ladder.
Coincidence has a venerable history in comedy, of course, but its traditional use in the genre is precisely to suggest the providential hand -- clasped firmly in the authorial hand -- that guides the paths of men and women, thus draining it of its contingency and arbitrariness. Joyce's comedy is very different: it celebrates precisely that contingency and arbitrariness, offering us an alternative to set beside the modernist bid for transcendence (which so frequently involved a reactionary politics of transcendence as well): a future-oriented opening of new spaces in which difference, otherness, the unexpected, the unknown, the comic, the coincidental, may flourish.

Note

(1) I have a recollection of reading a comment of Joyce's in which he imagines a small boy in some far-flung part of the world (Tibet?) being delighted to find his local river in the "Anna Livia" chapter, but I haven't been able to track it down.

Works Cited

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Viking Press, 1939. Cited by page and line numbers.

-----. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior. New York: Random House, 1986. Cited by episode and line numbers.

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