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The Capital of Modernity

Terence Killeen

James Joyce and the Matter of Paris, by Catherine Flynn, Cambridge University Press, £25.99, 252 pp, ISBN: 978-1108585579

James Joyce’s destination for his first solo journey abroad was quite clear: it was Paris. Why this clarity? What was it about this city that made it such an automatic choice, given that London was larger, nearer, and the classic destination for young Irish writers who aspired to a career beyond these shores?

The reasons are no doubt complex, being partly negative and partly positive. On the negative side, moving to London was not really moving at all, given that Ireland and England were then the same country; if you were really set on a change of context you had to go further afield.

More importantly though, to follow the well-trodden path of an Irish writer in Britain was to play out a preordained paradigm: the writer from Ireland was essentially an entertainer (Wilde, Sheridan), providing amusement for British audiences. This was not a role for which Joyce was in any way suited; nor was he geared to providing an outsider’s critique of British society, à la Shaw. This was not how he conceived the artist’s role.

On the positive side – and this mattered most – Paris seemed the epicentre of a “Europe” that was utterly different from the Anglo-Irish world in which he had grown up: a world of possibilities, of openness, both intellectual and sexual, of experiment – in short, of full modernity, with all that this term implies. To put it in Finnegans Wake’s words, which I think in this case are quite accurate in relation to Joyce himself: “ … he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea”.

Catherine Flynn’s James Joyce and the Matter of Paris makes wider claims than any yet advanced for the importance of this Paris experience in late 1902/early 1903 (he then came home because of his mother’s terminal illness) for Joyce. She also argues for the city’s ongoing relevance to Joyce’s work both in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (and of course the fact that he spent most of the last twenty years of his life there can hardly be irrelevant).

She attempts the difficult feat of relocating the roots of Joyce’s Modernism from Dublin in the very early years of the last century to Paris in the same period. In other words, Flynn contends that it was during his original visit to Paris that Joyce first encountered the “shock of the new”, the massive sensory overload that the modern city visits on its inhabitants.

In Flynn’s terms, he was fully exposed to the “pervasive distortion of social relations by commodity capitalism” during this first Paris trip. Then, she argues, in a clever retrospective arrangement, this experience, as in a mirror, enabled him to recognise these same features incipiently in his native city: thanks to Paris, Joyce was enabled to turn Dublin, of all places, into the capital of modernity.

Flynn pursues this argument in the early chapters of her book with considerable ingenuity. A phrase that is constantly repeated is “sentient thinking” (to such an extent that I found myself unable to resist the recollection of a work that had considerable popularity some seventy years ago, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking: replace “positive” with “sentient” and you have the idea). “Sentient thinking” is essentially a mode of thought that reconciles the sensual and the intellectual; it overcomes the abstraction of mind that has characterised modern intellectual experience and also overcomes the unmitigated materiality that is the other side of the coin and that the overwhelming experience of full-scale capitalist hegemony can tend to induce.

In this sense, it is not so very different from the very issue that TS Eliot was attempting to grapple with many years ago: Eliot, with his “objective correlative” and “dissociation of sensibility” (a historicisation of the objective correlative) was also seeking a mode of experience that would combine the sensible and the intelligible. Indeed, as a quest it is a foundational feature of twentieth century experience, and “sentient thinking” is just another name for it. This does not mean that it is not a real problem, but it does mean that it is not as new or radical as may appear here.

Flynn can adduce plenty of evidence that Paris did indeed have a profound effect on the young Joyce. Quite a lot of his aesthetic theory, as partially expounded in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was worked out in Paris (Joyce backdated it somewhat for A Portrait, where of course Stephen leaves Ireland only at the end) and the remarkable intellectual advances that these theories demonstrate may well owe something to the stimulation that Paris afforded.

Flynn is anxious to see the influence of the poètes maudits (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud) on Joyce at this point, believing that they are the figures invoked in an important epiphany at the end of A Portrait. This may well be, but it is important to stress that Joyce was already moving beyond this particular mode into a fuller assumption of modernity than could be embodied in mere moral transgression. It is true that he calls himself “the self-doomed, unafraid”, which certainly is a poète maudit motif, though it also has links to Milton’s Satan and to William Blake. But this is a posture, a pose, of an artist who has moved past such nineteenth century manifestations. Even in Ulysses (let alone Finnegans Wake) Stephen mocks his Paris persona, seeing it as a manifestation of youthful hubris:

“You were going to do wonders, what? Missionary to Europe after fiery Columbanus.” And his later evocation of the city in the Circe episode is far from triumphant, dwelling almost entirely on the more bizarre of Paris’s sexual attractions. It is ironic that he summons up this vision in a Dublin brothel. This, though, suits Flynn’s argument, which is that the greatly heightened polymorphous sexual perversity of Paris was indeed a portal of discovery for the young Joyce, bringing home to him the complete conversion of the sensory experience into capitalist exchange (in short, paying for sex of every shade and hue).

A lot of Flynn’s work, which, as will probably be clear from the foregoing, has a moderately Marxist orientation, (as befits someone based in the University of California at Berkeley) is aimed at restoring the word “exchange” to a meaning less pernicious, less dehumanising, than its capitalist connotations. One site where she perceives such an alternative meaning coming into view is in Stephen’s brief vision of his “beloved”, Emma Clery, as she leaves the National Library (not the “museum library”) while Stephen is standing on the steps. He reflects after: “She had passed through the dusk. And therefore the air was silent … ” This is a very minimal moment indeed on which to construct a theory of exchange that is non-commercial but rather grounded in a real interaction.

It runs up against the old problem with Stephen, namely that he is so solipsistic, so self-absorbed, that it is very difficult to get outside his mind. In what sense Emma is engaged in this “exchange” it is very hard to disentangle. As with that strange moment when Stephen tells Davin about the birth of the soul during his sexual encounters with prostitutes, leaving one to wonder what becomes of the prostitute’s soul, it is nearly impossible to penetrate beyond this singular consciousness to a sense of the reality of other people. Emma remains a cipher. Nor do I think the Rimbaud of “Voyelles” is particularly present in Stephen’s misquotation of Thomas Nash: “Darkness falls from the air.”

In subsequent chapters Flynn pursues the relationship of Joyce and Paris, seeing it at work in the Lestrygonians (Davy Byrne’s) episode of Ulysses and, more convincingly, in the Circe (brothel) episode, bringing Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine very effectively into play here. She also strives – and one has to admit and admire the intensity of her effort – to make something of Bloom’s sexuality, to see it as more than “an external, visual assessment of a woman’s form, or an objectification in sexual congress”, aiming instead at “an interpersonal experience, an experience situated at the boundaries of the individual”.

This is a tricky area, complicated by the fact that the prevailing mode of Circe is comic, so that all the activities described and commented on in it have to be taken a little sceptically. For instance, Flynn is inclined to take seriously Bloom’s claim that his assumption of the woman’s position on the toilet bowl while urinating is inspired by “Science. To compare the different joys we each enjoy.”, arguing that he is “motivated not by greed [sexual greed, presumably] but by sensual curiosity”. An acknowledgement that the word “Science” is more than a little absurd here would not undermine the more basic claim that Bloom’s sexual “perversity” is the very factor that does indeed redeem his sexuality from the trammels of the object relationship.

Flynn is quite right to regard Bloom’s crucial encounter with the Nymph as a moment when both idealism and objectification are overcome, are abandoned. The breaking of the spell cast by Bello and the Nymph is signified by the (actual, non-fantasised) popping out of a button at the back of Bloom’s trousers (a suitably comic epiphany) and Flynn describes this well, though again, the invocation of Nerval and Rimbaud – Flaubert is fine – remains problematical in this context.

A chapter follows on Walter Benjamin, for whom Paris was the unequivocal capital of the nineteenth century. Benjamin is a major preoccupation of Catherine Flynn, but this chapter is hampered by the fact, as Flynn readily acknowledges, that Benjamin’s knowledge of Joyce was rather scanty – his English wasn’t up to reading Ulysses in the original and it appears he did not even read the German translation when it appeared in 1927. So the chapter is largely theoretical and expository, also taking in Apollinaire and Aragon. James Joyce gets somewhat lost in the midst of all this.

Flynn sees Finnegans Wake as the triumphant culmination “of Joyce’s ongoing interest in a somatic art that works within and against commercial space” – this is also Flynn’s ongoing interest, incidentally. She is good on the sense that one of the things the Wake does is to generate its own ideal community, one to which anyone who wants can gain admittance – despite its formidable complexity it is also a very open work, with something to offer to everybody: “The quad gospellers may own the targum but any of the Zingari shoolerim may pick a peck of kindlings yet from the sack of auld hensyne” – a quotation that no doubt makes the situation perfectly clear: the relevant phrase is “the sack of auld hensyne”. Finnegans Wake is a sack full of bits and pieces, containing all sorts of goodies – and baddies.

True to her Parisian orientation, Flynn spends much of the chapter trying to trace the presence of the proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry in the Wake. He is present, but not to the degree that is here argued, and in the course of the argument Flynn is sometimes inclined to force the issue, leading to the surprising lapse of writing that a sentiment uttered by Jaun (not Juan) in Part III Chapter 2 has been stated (or “declared”) by Joyce. As any disciple of Fritz Senn (who is thanked in the acknowledgments) knows, this kind of direct transference from character to author is generally an unwise procedure and equally so here. Still, Finnegans Wake is capacious enough to accommodate Jarry and a great deal more.

“Paris”, for Flynn, is more than just a place. She does give an account of Joyce’s actual stays in Paris, especially the first one, but that is not her primary focus, and those who come to it expecting such a history will be disappointed. (There is a book, A Little Circle of Kindred Minds: Joyce in Paris, by Conor Fennell, which does deal with Joyce and his circle in the Paris of the 1920s, excluding both earlier and later periods.)

For her, Paris is an attitude, a symbol, a state of mind. It stands, in the first place, for the full force of modernity – the speed, the dislocation, the depersonalisation – among other things. It also stands, though, for artistic resistances to, along with co-dependency on, these processes and she wants to put Joyce at the centre of all these streams.

The most problematic – and perhaps contentious – part of her book, for some readers, is the displacement of the experience of Dublin as being at the centre of Joyce’s writing in every respect, including the impact of modernity. Writers such as Enda Duffy, Declan Kiberd and, earlier, Hugh Kenner have argued that Dublin already incorporated, in a weird way, all the features of the modern, while retaining a village atmosphere.

So the book, as claimed in the blurb, does stand at an angle to current postcolonial dogma. And given that Catherine Flynn is from Co Cork, there may even be an element of “et tu Flynn” in some of the reaction to this work.

It would have been interesting to see Flynn engage a little with these writers, but she does not: Kiberd’s and Kenner’s names are not mentioned in the book. (The absence of a bibliography is unusual these days, though of course all works cited are fully referenced in footnotes).

For all that, this is a challenging, provocative work that deserves much credit for the tenacity and thoroughness with which it argues its thesis, and especially for its very genuine commitment to art as a site of resistance to the alienating effects of capitalist hegemony. 

It would be nice, finally, to hail this work as another monograph on Joyce by an Irish academic based in Ireland but of course it is not, so the figure still stands at a grand total of four.

1/4/2020

Terence Killeen is Research Scholar at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin, and the author of Ulysses Unbound: A Reader’s Companion to Ulysses.

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