Pierre Menard, Author of Ulysses

By Scott W. Klein, Wake Forest University

This paper was submitted to the 17th International James Joyce Symposium.

My thoughts here are inspired by a number of observations which cast Ulysses, and Modernism in general, in the guise of the period piece. The first occurred during a conversation about Ralph Ellison with a colleague who has written on Finnegans Wake. I made the perhaps politically incorrect observation that Invisible Man struck me as dated, at least in its racial politics with comparison, say, to Toni Morrison, and my colleague looked at me archly and replied "funny, I felt the same way the last time I read Ulysses." At the time I was taken aback, but a short time thereafter, while viewing the Vanessa Redgrave film version of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, I was struck with a small aesthetic shock at the sheer foreignness, the nineteenth century qualities of the costuming -- literally period pieces. And then, with Woolf still in mind, I read with pleasure Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, which weaves contemporary variations on Mrs. Dalloway, and realized that in a real sense the novels that we read and teach are now that oxymoronic thing, the Modernist classic, capable of being treated with the same force of historical and cultural weight as Ulysses treats the Odyssey, but surely no longer "new" in the sense implied by the very name "Modernism."
It's with a larger shock, I think, that we realize that we're now more distant in time from the publication of Ulysses than Joyce was from, say, Browning, and that Joyce and Ulysses necessarily look different to us in the early twenty-first century than it did for the first generations of Joyceans writing in the nineteen fifties, or even in the sixties, or the seventies. And that Ulysses, a modernization of a classic, may be open to reinterpretation in its turn as a "classic," not in the limited sense of a canonical text frequently taught and read, but in the deadened sense of a work no longer alive, still difficult but no longer fresh. Thinking about my colleague's comment, I wondered: what does "dated" mean? Surely that in part that stylistic, formal, and cultural issues, that are invisible "modern" or "daring" at the time of writing become recontextualized under the sign of humor, or irrelevance.
Has that happened to Ulysses? Surely the passage of time guarantees neither familiarity or relevance -- in "The Dead" indeed, Gabriel worries that Browning is still, after decades, too modern for his audience, used paradoxically to the popular airs of the even earlier nineteenth century Thomas Moore. And the issue of "dated" is really the flip side of a larger critical issue, that is, do we approach a work of art as an artifact of its time (and if so, what is that time?) or for its universal values (and if so, can those values be determined?). And I'd like to take that general opposition as a marker to a more specific issue: it's a salutary reminder than now in the early twenty-first century, we can no longer take the relation between Modernism and nineteenth century practice for granted. Indeed, what constitutes the nineteenth century comes to seem murkier at the dawn of the twenty-first: I recently received a call for papers for a conference at the University of Oregon whose temporal limits were the "long nineteenth century," that is to say 1800-1914. This view of the nineteenth century effectively subsumes early Modernism within a larger framework offered by Victorian studies.
In certain respects this linkage makes sense when looking at the British tradition. Art in England in the early twentieth century was largely conservative, particularly in its painting and music: in composition, England had the likes of the post-Brahmsian Elgar, or the mildly experimental and therefore widely misunderstood and unplayed Frank Bridge. What we call literary Modernism was largely a product of North American and Irish authors (including one expatriate Pole), and literature was in any case slower to respond to experimental modernity than were the other arts (let's think of the experiments of Picasso, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky in the 1910s and think of how many years it would still be to Ulysses and The Waste Land). But does this apply to Joyce? There is little experimental in his early work , even in Dubliners where the prevailing muses are arguably Flaubert and Chekov, and then, we have the issue of the novel itself as a kind of conservative and bourgeois form, largely associated with the burgeoning of literacy and cities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the issue of looking at Joyce within history of novel, which is also in a sense the nineteenth century aesthetic. Here is a Joycean paradox: a great deal of attention has been paid in recent criticism to the nineteenth century politics and history, that lie behind Ulysses. But what we tend not to do in contemporary discourse since the days of Muir and Leavis (talk about dated!) is to look at Joyce within the tradition of the English novel. In a roundabout sense this is an issue that cuts to the heart of what is now called Modernism, sometimes with a plural "s": how do we most fruitfully contextualize Joyce in the twenty-first century? Within Irish studies? The Avant-garde? Postcolonialism? Within a now somewhat discredited High Modernism understood largely through innovations in poetry (by authors such as Eliot and Pound)? And finally, is High Modernism understood as a collection of artifacts now been subsumed, reified, grown out of, as, say, the New York Times music critics are continually writing about serialism and Schoenberg in music?
Without answering that question directly, let me make an endrun into paradox (after all, Joycean hermeneutics have grown out of Wilde and paradoxes) and turn for the moment to the 1939 story/essay by Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." This wicked satiric parable about reading and interpretation posits an imaginary French poet, Pierre Menard, who attempts to write -- not copy, but write -- some pages from Cervantes' Don Quixote. After describing Menard's labors, an unnamed narrator (seemingly blind to the quixotic nature of the effort in the first place) interprets a passage from the original Quixote against the exact same words as written by Menard. The latter passage, he concludes, is far richer. Where Cervantes in his day wrote mere truisms, Menard's passage, written in the twentieth century, goes against prevailing orthodoxy, and in the wake of modern philosophy is nothing less than a radical rethinking of the nature of history and truth. The joke, of course, is on us as readers: we are reading the same words that were written in the seventeenth century, but we no longer have any access to them, because history has interposed between the culture in which they were written and our own.
Borges' parable has a particular relevance for readers of Joyce. Written less than two decades after Ulysses, the story's narrator compares scathingly Menard's attempt literally to rewrite his source text with "those parasitic books which situate Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannabière or Don Quixote on Wall Street…fit only…to produce the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or are different" (Labyrinths, eds. Donald A Yates and James E. Irby {New York: New Directions, 1964], p. 39). And at the story's end, the narrator imagines the liberation of interpretation is we only imagine that the texts we read were written by someone else, or in a different chronological order, imagining the fresh meanings that would emerge if we "go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid" or read the Imitatio Christi as though it were by "Louis Ferdinand Celine or James Joyce" (44). Although these citations show the pressure of Joyce's project upon Borges, the passage most relevant to my thinking occurs earlier, in a paragraph contemplating the impossibility of Menard's quest: "To compose Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable undertaking, necessary and perhaps even unavoidable; at the beginning of the twentieth, it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that three hundred years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is the Quixote itself" (42). We can perhaps rephrase that here: "To compose Ulysses at the beginning of the twentieth century was a reasonable undertaking, necessary and perhaps even unavoidable; at the beginning of the twenty first, it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that eighty years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to mention only one, is Ulysses itself."
Let me paraphrase: one of our greatest difficulties in charting the modernity of Ulysses is the existence of Ulysses -- and let's add, for good measure, Finnegans Wake -- as the monuments of modernity in literature. Because so many readers and scholars take Joyce's linguistic practices and experiments of form as the yardstick by which Modernism in measured in English prose, it becomes harder and harder to see links that connect him backwards to tradition, those links that were most thoroughly obscured by his early supporters and on occasion by Joyce himself. Part of the reason for this obscurity is the apparently anomalous place Ulysses holds within the English canon. It's easier to position most of his contemporaries within extant categories of fiction: the English novel comes either from the tradition of romance, or is either comic or moralist, sometimes both (here we can think of Austen and Dickens: Joyce's early description of Dubliners as a "moral history" approached through comic realism fits into this paradigm). Despite the European influence and claimed high moral seriousness of a Richardson, we have no real history of the "serious novel" until George Eliot, then Hardy, and James. E. M. Forster notoriously commented in Aspects of the Novel on the difference between the history of English poetry, for which one need offer no apologies within European literature, and the relative modesty of the English novel among its greatest peers. Joyce's best precedents within the English tradition are probably Scott and Dickens, and this fact alone helps explain F. R. Leavis' fabled problems with him, as well as the British academy's slow willingness to take Joyce into the fold of canonically taught novelists.
Yet precisely becuae he does not have a clear and apparent analogue among his nineteenth century predecessors -- as we can trace Conrad from Stevenson, Woolf from Pater and perhaps Wordsworth, Lawrence from Hardy, Forster from Austen-- he's been harder to pigeon hole, and therefore his status as the most canonical of the canonical novelists in twentieth English tends to elide both his relative uniqueness and, ironically, his links to tradition. Before Ulysses, H. G. Wells wrote in the preface to a reprinting of Tono Bungay disappointed in its modest sales: "the fully developed novel, like the Gothic cathedral, is a fabric too elaborate for contemporary needs and uses" (Preface to the Atlantic Edition, 1925; Lincoln and London,: University of Nebraska Press, 1978, p. 3). Yet there has never been a fully developed novel like Ulysses. Even its size suggests this: it's as big as a Victorian three decker, and even its division into admittedly unequal threes underlines the similarity, but to the best of my knowledge there is no recent literary history that charts out Ulysses as a kind of natural evolutionary successors to the large novels of the past (it's an interesting side note that enormous novels of the post-1922 era by Pynchon, Rushdie, or DeLillo tend to be called "Ulyssean" rather than the loose baggy monsters they also are -- Rushdie's use of Our Mutual Friend in Satanic Verses suggests a certain self-consciousness about this continuity). It's also difficult to see Ulysses in terms of nineteenth century continuities because the Irish novel in particular has no real analogues, and particularly because alone of his contemporaries Joyce showed no signs of retreating in his later work from avantgardism: Forster retreated into silence (or opera, if we count the libretto to Britten's Billy Budd) while Conrad, Woolf, and Lawrence all pulled back from their most experimental styles in their late works (think of The Waves and then The Years).
Joyce's continuing avant-gardism might be part of the critical problem. Part of this is to blame Finnegans Wake, which in a Borgesian or Menardian way is part of the history lying between Ulysses and ourselves that changes irrevocably what the words of Ulysses can be said to mean. Because Joyce forged into yet more avant-garde experiments with language the temptation has been to read the earlier work through the latter, and this has been done compellingly and well (see, for instance John Paul, Riquelme, Teller and Tale in Joyce's Fiction [Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983]). Yet the world of Ulysses is a nineteenth century world. This is true of small internal matters and of larger external contexts. If we take Stephen and his aesthetic concerns as key to the text, we have to deal with his Swinburnean poetry, plagiarized in its turn from the even earlier Thomas Moore, and his holding on to the Victorian conventions of mourning, and citations from Meredith, even Mulligan's allusion to Stephen as "Japhet in search of a father" (Ulysses, The Corrected Text, ed. Hans Walter Gabler [New York: Random House, 1986], 1.561) I've argued elsewhere about Joyce's cultural and perhaps unconscious fictional relations to the narratives of Scott (see "National Histories, National Fictions: Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor," ELH 65, 1998: 1017-38), and one needn't look too hard for allusions and analogues to nineteenth century fiction in Joyce's work: in "A Little Cloud," for instance, Gallaher cites Silas Wegg in "Our Mutual Friend" when he thinks about "his considering cap" (Dubliners [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992], p. 67) and much can be made of the Dickensian cityscape of Joyce's Dublin and its particularly minor characters, its Dennis Breens and Cashel Boyle Tisdall O'Farrells. Wyndham Lewis notoriously compared even Bloom's interior monologue to the Dickensian Mr. Jingle, and as Lisa Sternlieb has pointed out in a paper at a recent Joyce conference, one needn't read too far in Little Dorrit to find the underpunctuated speech of Flora to be a rough prototype of Molly.
Perhaps more importantly, the status of narrative in Ulysses, of story, although theoretically elided, bears surprising signs of the persistence of earlier narrative values. Jorn Barger has noted recently on an on-line discussion group that Joyce's library included the book 36 Dramatic Situations, a compendium of literary ur-plots, by a man named Polti. And Ulysses shows signs of two Victorian constructions: the plot of marriage (i.e., with whom will Molly end up, and will that choice between suitors represent a moment of moral enlightenment or maturity) and the multiplot novel, in which the center of interest is divided between two evenly graded parallel narratives, in which part of the larger narrative interest depends upon the moment or locus of final juxtaposition or completion between the novels' two halves (this reproduces itself in Joycean criticism, Robert Spoo has argued in James Joyce and the Language of History [Oxford University Press, 1994] as critics tend to align themselves with one part of the "plot" or the other, as Henry James did with Daniel Deronda: Joyceans become Stephenites or Bloomites, that is philosophers or cultural materialists). Ulysses still demonstrates, as Finnegans Wake does not, a continuing interest in plot as a carrier of meaning, even if narrative is beginning to become dissolved in what Derek Attridge, discussing the Wake, has called 'Narrativity" rather than narrative (see Joyce Effects [Cambridge University Press, 2000]), or what Seymour Chatman has usefully described as constituting the modern plot: a revelation of a state of affairs (Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film [Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978], p. 48) Ulysses depends, rather more than we typically admit, upon such nineteenth century novelistic virtues as character, psychology, and to a large extent, the raising and resolving (or at least the apparent resolving) of narrative expectations associated with realism.
Most importantly, the character's lives depend upon Victorian experience. Bloom's children were born in the Victorian age, as was his courtship and marriage to Molly and when one reads in "Ithaca" of the sequence of dates during which he had previously walked with friends before he walks with Stephen --1884, 1885, 1886, 1888, 1892, 1893, 1904 (17.60-61)-- it's with a shock that one realizes that the day described in Ulysses is in a sense Bloom's first twentieth century experience. In this sense Ulysses is also an historical novel, not necessarily simply in the postcolonial sense discussed by Enda Duffy and others, but in the nineteenth century tradition of Scott or even George Eliot, writing about the world twenty to fifty years before the author's time, delving into the past to reclaim the present. Indeed, this is perhaps true of what we call Modernist prose in general: for it is also true in Proust, in the Virginia Woolf of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, as well as Joyce.
In part, this is an old argument: Wyndham Lewis claimed in Time and Western Man, and critics such as S. L. Goldberg (in The Classical Temper [London: Chatto and Windus, 1963]) would later claim, that Ulysses was at heart an old fashioned novel with a technical scaffolding of unnecessary experimentation thrust upon it. But I'd like to complicate that notion somewhat through the Menardian question of a work's own position within literary history making its original nature to some degree invisible, and to suggest how this relates to what many recognize as a crisis, or at least a prolonged pause for reconsideration and reconceptualization, in Modernist studies. Is a kind of canonical revaluation that embraces the past a kind of capitulation to the most old fashioned kinds of criticism or, potentially, in the way that libertarianism takes conservatism and makes it radical, a kind of avant-gardism? I don't think either is entirely the case. Anne Quema, in her recent study The Agon of Modernism (Bucknell University Press, 1999) argues cogently that Modernism should be defined as the dialectical pull between avant-gardism and tradition, that what separates a Joyce or an Eliot from, say, a Tristan Tzara, in not experimentalism of form but the cultural context of that experimentation -- in the case of Dada a total break from the cultural and aesthetic expectations generated by form and tradition, in the case of the English poet and Irish novelist an anxious and central consciousness of the degree to which experimentation and tradition -- in Eliot's case, of course, with a capital "T" -- pull productively against one another, and in which experimentation can be said to give birth to a new form of tradition (and the existence of a novel such as Cunningham's The Hours can be said to provide a kind of verification of the hypothesis). And surely certain contemporary Modernists critics are discovering in particularly nineteenth century cultural analysis the interpretive roots of the modern, in Benjamin's Arcades project, for instance, or in Declan Kiberd's assertions that nineteenth century Ireland, adopting a new language and riven by political strife now more typical of a European postmodernity, was the most Modern place in Europe?
I don't mean to suggests merely that we should look at Joyce as either late-Victorian or as anti-Modernist, but rather to agree with Derek Attridge (in the final chapter of Joyce Effects) that we need to be conscious of Ulysses as a work both of its time and place and distinct from it: not universal, per se, but recognizably relevant both in and out of its time, to be conscious of the paradox, almost Heisenbergean, of judging Ulysses as a work of Modernist prose insofar as it is often itself the yardstick of reference. In "Pierre Menard" Borges' narrator writes "There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of the universe; with the passage of the years it becomes a mere chapter -- if not a paragraph or a name -- in the history of philosophy" (43). Such, it cannot be denied, is the case with literary criticism, and Joyce criticism as a subspecies. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, for the passage of time brings gains as well as loses. Menard's experiment "works" only insofar as his temporal distance from Cervantes is acute: a "new" Quixote written only a few years after the original would be almost the same. And perhaps we can identify one of the most compelling features of the Modernist narrative to be that it deals with exactly this kind of reconstruction of the past through present experience and memory: the way in which the past is refracted into the present, and how consciousness shapes the experience of self and culture. In this sense, Modernist narrative is still with us in contemporary writing: in Don DeLillo's Underworld, in Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in the excitingly oblique memoir narratives of the expatriate English/German W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn.
We are perhaps only now getting far enough away from Ulysses to rewrite Joyce's words in our own criticism in ways that can be once again truly new. And paradoxically, that may be because of our ability to recognize from the far end of the telescope the continuinties between Modern practices and the nineteenth century aesthetics from which they implicitly, and only partly accurately, declared their independence. And this is not to claim that the Ulysses we read now is any less experimental, any less unique, any less culturally or aesthetically challenging than it has always been recognized to be, only to say that it shows its investment in the world Joyce grew up in more clearly for the passage of time. Modernism is no longer, if it ever was, contemporary, and if Ulysses can be said to be "dated," it was perhaps already dated, already historical in its own time. And if, as Borges undeniably suggests, any analysis that posits its own truth value is doomed eventually to become a part of the history of philosophy rather than philosophy itself, perhaps Joycean criticism can be more conscious of the ways in which the truth value of literature, and of criticism, resides in the continuously shifting tensions between present and past, and in the hermeneutics both produced and blocked by the historical situating of the work at hand, and of the historical mind of the situating critic.

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