Key Theories of James Joyce

In his book on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (Derrida 19871) Jacques Derrida relates how James Joyce (1882–1941) was present in his very first book, the Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry (1962), and present again in a key essay, Plato’s Pharmacy, first published in 1968 (see Derrida 1981: 67–171). Derrida further confirms the importance of Joyce for the understanding of his works, Glas (1974) and The Postcard (1980). As opposed to Husserl’s univocity of meaning, Derrida poses Joyce’s ‘generalised equivocity’ (Derrida 1987: 28). ‘Plato’s pharmacy’, for its part, refers to Thoth (present in Finnegans Wake), the Egyptian god of writing, said by Plato to be the inventor of a false memory: memory as mnemonics (as opposed to lived memory). Thoth would be present as the inspiration of Joyce’s mnemonic procedure where links may be forged between the most unlikely elements. For such a procedure, the point is not to produce the thing itself in the memory, but to produce a procedure which would make recall possible. Plato, in the Phaedrus, calls mnemonics defective memory without seeming to recognise that it would not be necessary if memory were not already defective. Mnemonics, therefore, is a confirmation of the arbitrary nature of the sign as proposed by Saussure. Glas, says Derrida, is also a kind of wake, this time, in the sense of mourning. Finally, Derrida claims that The Postcard is ‘haunted by Joyce’: ‘[I]t is above all the Babelian motif, which obsesses the Envois (Derrida 1984: 151) – in the sense, among other things of: meaning as a multiplicity of voices, meaning as always open.

Reference to Derrida reminds us that as well as being a fundamental influence in literature and literary criticism in the English speaking world and elsewhere, Joyce has also been the inspiration for new ideas – a focus, in the twentieth century, for a new understanding of writing: a force that has brought about a re-evaluation of the relationship between art and reality. Again, reference to Derrida reminds us that there are few philosophers or writers in the latter part of the twentieth century who – either consciously or unconsciously – have not been touched by Joyce. Although Joyce wrote a number of important works – such as Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – in addition to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the focus here will primarily be on the latter two texts, as it is these which have had the greatest impact on thought and writing.


Life and Intellectual Trajectory

James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882. He attended Clongowes School and Belvedere College in Dublin before completing a degree in modern languages at University College, Dublin. Upon graduation in 1902, Joyce was fluent in Italian, French, German and literary Norwegian, as well as Latin. To his chagrin, Joyce never studied Ancient Greek, even though he was fascinated by Greek myths. Determined to make a name for himself, he left Dublin for Paris soon after graduation in order to study medicine at the Sorbonne.

In 1904, Joyce lived in the Martellow Tower made famous by his novel, Ulysses, and began to write Stephen Hero, the forerunner to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, first serialised in the Egoist in 1914. The latter work was published while Joyce was living in Trieste with his wife, Nora Barnacle, with whom he had eloped in 1904. Also published in 1914, after much difficulty with the censor, was Dubliners, a collection of short stories each introducing a particular aspect of the ‘paralysis’ (Joyce) of Dublin life. As one critic put it, ‘Dubliners is, in a sense, justification for Joyce’s exile’ (Arnold 1969: 26). After spending the remainder of the War in Zurich, Joyce and his family arrived in Paris in 1920. It was there that Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 in an edition of 1,000 copies, and it was there, too, that Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake from 1923 to 1938  In May 1939, Finnegans Wake was finally published by T.S. Eliot’s publishing house, Faber & Faber, an advance copy being sent to Joyce in time for his fifty-seventh birthday on 2 February.

One year after the war had begun, Joyce was still undecided about what to do. He had the opportunity to go to America, but elected to apply for Swiss visas for himself and his family, and in December of 1940, the Joyces arrived in Zurich where Joyce had sat out the First World War. Suspected of having a stomach ulcer, Joyce’s health progressively deteriorated. In January 1941 he died of a perforated duodenal ulcer and was buried in the Fluntern cemetery in Zurich.


Ulysses is ostensibly a day (16 June 1902) in the life of Molly and Leopold Bloom, presented within the framework of the popular, romanised version of Homer’s poem and containing, in displaced form, biographical elements as well as many details deriving from the history of Dublin and the history of English literature (e.g. Shakespeare). While it is true that Homer’s poem and Joyce’s biography provide the reader with relatively fixed reference points in relation to which many of the novel’s details may be understood, contingency is also a key aspect here. Contingency fascinated Baudelaire, we should recall, and gave him a clue to the nature of a truly modern experience centred on consciousness. ‘To be away from home and yet to feel at home’ – this, according to Baudelaire distinguished modern experience from all other (Baudelaire 1972: 399–400). Here, to be away from home means being opened up to the new and the ephemeral, the fleeting and the transient. Prior to modernity, experience could be ‘homely’ – i.e. predictable and familiar. Modern experience, then, is confronted with, if it does not actively search it out (as did Baudelaire), the unpredictable, the unfamiliar, change and novelty. To be at home, by contrast, is to exist in a closed system,
where equilibrium and repetition (of the familiar) always prevails and the new is excluded or repressed.

How can a Baudelairian framework be applied to Joyce’s Ulysses when, in speaking of the novel, we have just pointed to Homer and biography as two stable – and quite ‘homely’ – points of reference? An attempt to answer this question should give a deeper grasp of Joyce’s project here.

While Homer’s Odyssey – as well as Catholicism – provides a kind of anchorage for the text, this is only of the most provisional kind. What is notable and relevant in Homer vis a` vis Joyce, is that the hero of the Odyssey leaves home, wanders about, takes undetermined trajectories, even if, in the end, he also struggles to return. So it is with Leopold Bloom. He leaves 7 Eccles Street returning only at the end of the novel, a return which is in no sense predictable. Indeed, apart from the title (what Genette would call the ‘paratext’) and structure, no other explicit evocation of Homer is visible – Joyce having erased the Homeric chapter titles in the definitive version of the novel. Much of Ulysses, then, is ‘coincidence of meeting, discussion, dance, row, old salt of the here today and gone tomorrow type, night loafers, the whole galaxy of events’ (Joyce 1986: 528), events which serve to make ‘up a miniature cameo of the world we live in’ (Joyce 1986: 528). Chance thus plays a role. Joyce’s writing is effectively situated at the point where chance – or contingency – and structure coincide. This is his great contribution to literature in the twentieth century – and certainly to the English language version of it.

The problem of writing evident in a text like Ulysses is that of how to give a literary – written – form to chance and contingency; in other words, to the events of the here and now. Kristeva has called this aspect of Joyce’s writing a ‘revelation’ – by which she means that the text is a writing of what cannot be predicted by a (symbolic) structure, or framework. This might seem to be an odd thing to say, given that Joyce’s writing seems to deal with the very banality of existence, that is, with those things which seem to be as far away as possible from the exotic or the heroic. The kind of passage which brings the issue into sharp focus would be one like the following, from the opening of Chapter 5:

By lorries along Sir John Rogerson’s quay Mr Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill Lane, Leask’s the linseed crusher, the postal telegraph office. Could have given that address too. And past the sailor’s home. He turned from the morning noises of the quayside and walked through Lime Street. By Brady’s cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt. A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead eyed him, listlessly holding her battered caskhoop. Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow. O let him! His life isn’t such a bed of roses. (Joyce 1986: 58)

Bloom’s walk is, in almost surrealist fashion, a series of chance encounters. It is a walk of almost pure contingency. ‘Almost’ – because the text has to be written down. The insignificant unpredictable detail has to be turned into a sign in order that it might then give up part of its ephemeral status and be communicated, that is become part of Joyce’s novel itself. To avoid denotation in passages such as the one cited above from remaining a pure inventory, two strategies emerge: (1) the development of a minimal narrative structure; and (2) the development of a definite style. For Joyce, style makes words – or specific units of writing, like phrases – count for themselves in their relation to other words. Poetry is the ultimate presentation of a style in this sense. If Homer forms a structural, or narrative, backdrop to Ulysses, this is to be understood as an open structure which can accommodate an almost infinite series of contents. And few commentators have failed to remark on the poetic quality of Joyce’s writing – Molly Bloom’s monologue in the last chapter being cited as a prime example. Fewer, however, have been able to link Joyce’s style to the problem of writing that he was grappling with. Style is Joyce’s answer to the problem of how contingency can appear in the novel. Thus while nineteenth-century realist writers worked to make contingent details appear necessary to the whole of the novel’s narrative fabric, Joyce’s strategy, by contrast, is to place the very possibility of narrative at risk by making the contingent detail relatively autonomous, subordinate to nothing other than its own (poetic) existence.

For a nineteenth-century sensibility, Joyce does the impossible: he founds his novels on contingency and indeterminacy. Indeterminacy arises precisely because a complete narrative structure, founded on a logic of causality, is only ever partially visible. Events that occur by chance, contingently, unpredictably, have no discernible origin. Joyce develops the spoken, active side of language, rather than the side, in Saussure’s terminology, of langue, or fixed system. As chance, speech– act events are, in principle, unique. They defy the logic of causality. This is what makes them indeterminable. The classical nineteenth century narrative follows the principle of causality as verisimilitude to the letter. Everything has a reason and there is a reason for everything. If Joyce, too, partially subscribes to verisimilitude in Ulysses, the greater part of the novel – its most innovative aspect – defies it. Any doubt as to Joyce’s position here is swept away in Finnegans Wake.

Finnegans Wake

Ulysses, as Joyce continually proclaimed is the ‘story’ of the day. By this he did not simply mean that the events of the novel take place during the day. Nor did he only mean that seeing is the dominant sense used in the work. He also tried to make it known that, in terms of its syntax, grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure, Ulysses is perfectly readable. At an immediate level, in other words, Ulysses communicates with the reader. To gain a better grasp of what is at stake in Finnegans Wake we first of all return to a key passage in Ulysses. In it, Stephen Dedalus ponders a theme that is also important in Homer, namely, the nature of fatherhood, ‘Paternity’ Stephen says, ‘may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?’ (Joyce 1986: 170). Stephen is leading up to the idea that fatherhood is clouded in uncertainty – if only, to begin with, that no one can be absolutely certain as to who their father is. If, second, it is through the father principle that a name is given, the aforementioned uncertainty becomes an uncertainty with regard to one’s very identity.

As psychoanalysis has emphasised, the father principle – the Name of- the-Farther – is crucial to the communicative function of language. The father principle, then, is the principle of determinacy, meaning and causality. Joyce challenges this principle in Finnegans Wake by rendering meaning entirely fluid. The scene which enables him to do this is the night – the world of dreams. One technique he uses is agglutination: running words and phrases together so as to make them ambiguous. Possible meanings are multiplied – as with ‘meanderthalltale’ (Joyce 1939: 19), ‘automutativeness’ (Joyce 1939: 112), ‘chaosmos’ (Joyce 1939: 118), and ‘continuarration’ (Joyce 1939: 205) – what could be called, following Finnegans Wake, a ‘polygluttural’ technique (Joyce 1939: 117). In addition, we find what contributes to the distorting, or ‘warping process’ (Joyce 1939: 497) (= a work in progress): a writing which uses rhythms, intonations and modulations to render fluid all fixed communicative forms. However, to render meanings fluid is not to render the text meaningless. It is, though, to be made aware of the repressed semiotic (Kristeva) level of language. Once immersed in the text, the reader often finds that it takes over, that criticism of the usual kind – where the critic comments on the text – becomes extremely difficult, if it is not made impossible. In short, it becomes difficult to objectify Finnegans Wake, the very thing for which the ‘father principle’ would be the pre-condition.

Questions, then, as to what happens in the novel, who the main protagonists are, who the actual dreamer who dreams is, are impossible to answer with certainty, although many have tried. Joyce himself forecast that, with Finnegans Wake, he had set critics a task which would last for three hundred years. Such a claim is misleading – at least in one sense – for it suppresses the possibility that, in the end, Finnegans Wake is an indeterminate text, which, as such, has no final meaning, or meanings. Rather, its poetic function renders meaning indeterminate; it definitively challenges the father. It is an analogue of the principle that there is no essential core to language – only a system of differences.


Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

1 The second half of this book is in English as ‘Two words for Joyce’ (Derrida 1984: 145–59).

Arnold, Armin (1969), James Joyce, New York: Frederick Ungar.
Baudelaire,Charles (1972), The Painter of Modern Life: Selected Writings on Artand Artists, trans. P.E. Charvet, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Derrida, Jacques (1981), ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ trans. Barbara Johnson, in Dissemination, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
—— (1984), ‘Two Words for Joyce’, trans. Geoff Bennington, in Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (eds), Post-Structuralist Joyce, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
—— (1987), Ulysses, gramophone. Deux mots pour Joyce, Paris: Galile´e.
Joyce, James (1939), Finnegans Wake, London: Faber & Faber.
—— (1986), Ulysses (The Corrected Text), London: The Bodley Head.

Joyce’s  Major Works
(2004 [1914]) The Dead, Hoboken, N.J.: Melville House Publications.
(1986) Ulysses (The Corrected Text), London: The Bodley Head.
(1963 [1944]) Stephen Hero, London: Jonathan Cape; Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, Revised edn.
(1939) Finnegans Wake, London: Faber & Faber; New York: Viking Press.
(1922) Ulysses, Paris: Shakespeare & Co.
(1918) Exiles, London: Grant Richards.
(1916) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, New York: B.W Huebsch.
(1914) Dubliners, London: Grant Richards.
(1907) Chamber Music, London: Elkin Mathews.

Further Reading
Attridge, Derek and Ferrer, Daniel (1984), Post-Structuralist Joyce, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Benstock, Barnard (1988), The Augmented Ninth, Proceedings of the Ninth International James Joyce Symposium, Frankfurt 1984, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press (See pieces by Kristeva and Derrida).
Bulson, Eric (2006). The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Connolly, Thomas E. (1997), James Joyces’s Books, Portraits, Manuscripts, Notebooks, Typescripts, Page proofs, Together with Critical Essays about Some of his Works, Lewiston, N.J.: Edwin Mellen Press.
Ellmann, Richard (1982), James Joyce, New York: Oxford University Press.
Ellmann,Richard (1984), Ulysses on the Liffey, London and Boston: Faber & Faber.
Hart, Clive and Hayman, David (1977), James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’: Critical Essays, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Lernout, Geert (1990), The French Joyce, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Litz, A. Walton (1964), The Art of James Joyce. Method and Design in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, London: Oxford University Press.
O’Neill, Patrick (2005), Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation, Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press.



Categories: Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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