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The Undead

Terence Killeen

Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory, by Luke Gibbons, University of Chicago Press, 286 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-0226236179

Readers of a certain vintage may remember the cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost (indeed, he may still be around, though I can’t vouch for it). Well, Joyce’s ghosts, as Luke Gibbons reads them, are like that: they are a friendly bunch, non-threatening in general, sociable in the sense that they tend to haunt collectivities rather than individuals, and, very importantly, they speak our language – the haunting is not a lot of mumbo-jumbo, it is in our (Irish, modern) idiom, because these ghosts are familiars, close to us in many ways, different only in being dead, or being at best just (just?) a memory.

Across the eight diverse chapters and a lengthy introduction, Gibbons, who is professor of Irish literary and cultural studies at NUI Maynooth, develops an overriding and ambitious project: with Joyce’s work up to Ulysses as his key, to install the spectral, the haunted and the haunter, at the heart of the Irish colonial and postcolonial experience. So the originality of this work is to bring two discourses together: namely, the one which goes under the convenient but perhaps not entirely adequate name of postcolonialism and the currently very active and crowded theory of the ghostly, the revenant (a word that has gained recent prominence in another though not unrelated context) and of memory as “hauntology” (to use Derrida’s stimulating term).

Ultimately, the book is not just (just?) about Joyce; its horizon is the broader project that I have just described, and Joyce’s work is the means of bringing it about. This is not to say that Joyce is here a mere tool or lever for the fulfilling of a wider purpose: the book is indeed focused on his work, but it is also true that the ultimate scope is even more extensive than this writer alone.

The nature of Gibbons’s project is, very naturally, made most explicit in his twenty-page introduction (plus six-and-half-pages of closely printed notes), called “A Ghost by Absence”. Introductions, as has been noted before this, are strange entities: ostensibly preparatory to and anticipatory of what is to come, they are in fact almost invariably written last and often provide the occasion where a writer finally clarifies his or her project in retrospect. Here also, Gibbons’s introduction usefully brings together the various concerns that animate the individual chapters and outlines their essential unity. 

The very title, “A Ghost by Absence”, indicates the priority of this piece: the phrase comes of course from Stephen’s famous discourse on Shakespeare in the National Library in the ninth episode of Ulysses, the locus classicus of discussion on the spectral in Joyce. (Oddly, Gibbons does not devote any sustained attention to this crucial episode, despite using Stephen’s phrase as the title of his introduction.) A difficult balancing act is involved here: Gibbons wants to foreground the spectral, the uncanny, but he does not want to do so at the expense of the social, the communal, Irishness as a shared identity (or, some would say, a shared predicament).

Normally, haunting happens to an isolated individual, at most to a family (“The Fall of the House of Usher”); it is not generally experienced as a social phenomenon. The method he uses to bridge this gap is to put great pressure on the notion of “free indirect discourse”. In fact, his use of this concept (Chapter 3 is devoted to it) is highly original. Free indirect discourse is normally understood to refer to the method whereby apparently objective, detached narration is infected by the idioms of the character to whom the narration refers; the classic example is of course “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally rushed off her feet”, where we can easily imagine Lily herself, if she was recounting the experience, saying “I was literally rushed off my feet”.

It is usually seen as a precursor to the Joycean “stream of consciousness”, which does away with the fiction of narration, and brings us directly into the consciousness of the character, without the mediation of a separate narrative voice. Gibbons reverses the priorities: he finds free indirect discourse more interesting than stream of consciousness, in which he does not really believe.

The reason for this reversal is that he believes that free indirect discourse is essentially a social act, in the sense that it accommodates multiple (or at least two) voices in the one statement: that of the narrator and that of the character being referred to; sometimes indeed more than just the character, sometimes a whole society. (Some of Joyce’s sentences in Dubliners do in fact give the strong impression of being the voice of a whole society, conveying its tone, its values with the utmost economy. In a somewhat different way, the same is true of the “Eumaeus” episode of Ulysses.)

Gibbons’s issue with stream of consciousness has to do with the stress on interiority that the term implies; he does not accept that consciousness is structured in that way, with an intensely private, solipsistic existence isolated from the world around the subject (early reactions to Ulysses tended to stress this aspect of the work). Instead, he points to the social aspect of every inner utterance; he draws on Lacan to highlight that since Language is constitutive of the subject, and since Language is inherently communal, the subject is never the isolated entity that some phenomenological approaches once believed. Abstract though this sounds, it has a bearing on how Ulysses actually works: Gibbons points out how the thoughts of one character are often uncannily echoed by another, in a way that undermines the notion of a sealed off subject, impervious to outside influences and the world around it. This view, it must be said, has distinguished support: Gibbons cites Derrida’s statement that “nothing is less a monologue than Molly’s ‘monologue’”, which makes essentially the same point.

Highly sophisticated though the argument is, Gibbons ultimately subscribes to an old thesis about Irishness and the Irish historical experience: namely that because of the retarded nature of Irish modernisation and its colonial status, communal belief in ghosts, the spirit world etc, persisted, whereas in other modernised societies, such beliefs had been banished to the sphere of the subjective, the individual’s isolated experience.

He is convinced that Joyce’s writing fully shares in, and reflects, this exceptional relationship to the otherworldly: hence the curious mix of the extremely concrete and the strangely echoic and uncanny in Ulysses, particularly. This crucial conjunction of Irishness and the spectral will dominate many of the chapters to come.

The first chapter, “Text and the City” (Gibbons is good on witty titles and phrases) argues that Ulysses’s focus on the actuality of Dublin, its people, its places, rules out “any possibility of his fictive world functioning as a closed aesthetic system”. Strikingly, he does not believe that any particular privilege is possessed by those with specialised Dublin knowledge, or even by that archetypal Dubliner who was around in Joyce’s day and “knows it all”: Ulysses is not “closed” in that sense either;  it is a labyrinth without a centre that defies any master reading. And part of the reason for that openness is the hidden presence in the text of the otherworldly, which functions in subterranean ways to prevent any kind of closure.

“‘Shouts in the Street’” deals with a key concern for Gibbons: the status of inner speech (this chapter has as its epigraph the Derrida comment on Molly’s soliloquy cited above). As mentioned, Gibbons is out to undermine this concept, and he does so in detail here by showing how “Molly emerges from the internalised world of fantasy and resentment” through her affirmation of her body and through the massively public dimension of her meditations. There is also the dual tracking of her psyche with that of Bloom, the way in which their actions and thoughts echo each other (as is also shown, in a different way, in Luca Crispi’s recent Joyce’s Creative Process and the Construction of Characters in Ulysses), working again to socialise her reflections and to take her far from the “sealed jar” (Beckett) of solipsism.

If the book has a centre, it is probably in the third chapter, “‘He Says No, Your Worship’”, which deals with free indirect discourse and vernacular modernism. A key point is that free indirect discourse can give scope for the vernacular, since it involves the narrator abdicating some of his (sic) authority to the perhaps marginal figure who is the fictive character being invoked. This therefore allows for “vernacular modernism”, which means that a writer such as Joyce, who actually comes from a marginal culture, can use this literary device to install the vernacular at the centre of his work.

Gibbons gives many fascinating examples from nineteenth century Irish literature which come very close to doing this – a very different operation from the conveying in reported speech (as for example in Carleton) of an Irish character’s idiosyncratic idioms for the entertainment of a London audience. So Joyce’s practice pushes free indirect discourse away from a matter of subjective/objective psychology (its ostensible concern) towards what Gibbons calls “the politics of language in colonial Ireland”, a large claim, but one for which an impressive body of evidence is mustered here.

“‘Ghostly Light’” is a study of the voice in John Huston’s film of “The Dead” (cinema is, of course, one of Gibbons’s principal interests). While there are many fine insights into the film itself and the challenges it faced and overcame (for example how to visualise “the ghostly voices and presences that haunt the Morkan household”), the focus remains essentially on the same issue that haunted (yes) the previous essays and indeed the whole book: “nuances in the story that open up modernity to its own excluded voices.” Huston, so Gibbons believes, does manage to give a “visual tonality” to these nuances, and this is no small part of the film’s obviously very considerable achievement.

“‘Pale Phantoms of Desire’” (yes, they are great titles, mainly quotations) is a remarkable study of the effects of a modern invention, photography, on a pre-modern society such as that of nineteenth century Ireland. (Gibbons cites the well-known case of the Knock apparitions, which have sometimes been attributed to the effects of the magic lantern.) He links another well-known apparition, that of Bloom’s dead son Rudy, at the end of “Circe”, as another example of spectral modernity, since this apparition has distinct traces of an artificial projection about it.

“‘Spaces of Time Through Times of Space’” is perhaps the most focused of the chapters, since it essentially deals with just one episode of Ulysses, “Wandering Rocks”. It is a brilliantly clever exploration of temporal and spatial disjunctions within the episode and of what may lie behind them: historical flashbacks, colonial exigencies, the pressure of an equivocal modernity. For instance, the gap (both real and metaphorical) between Irish time and British time, a gap that was abolished in 1916, is reflected in “Wandering Rocks” when Bloom notices that the timeball on the Ballast Office relates to Greenwich Mean Time, while the actual Ballast Office clock (already immortalised in Stephen Hero) showed Irish Time; it’s almost too neat – and yet it’s real – as a metaphor for the relationship and the gap between the two social systems.

And this may be the place to mention that the book contains many fascinating historical details of this type, such as the fate of the Rev Thomas Connellan or of Bridget Cleary from Clonmel. These are not the work’s main concerns but they certainly enhance the texture.

“‘Famished Ghosts’” concerns the aforementioned Rev Connellan and his part in the “Bible Wars” in Dublin, along with some conjectures on the notorious “U.P.: up” on the postcard received by Denis Breen. It is the most directly “historical materialist” chapter, the least theoretical in its concerns. Connellan was originally a Catholic priest who staged his own suicide on the shores of Lough Ree and then resurfaced (literally) as a fiercely anti-Catholic pamphleteer and Protestant divine who had a bookshop on Dawson Street, Dublin and penned the tract Why I left the Church of Rome. Bloom passes the bookshop in the “Lestrygonians” episode and casually (casually?) reflects on the Rev Connellan and his crusade.

Another interesting find discussed in this chapter is the appearance of that perennially puzzling phrase “U.P.: up” in an article by the Citizen, Michael Cusack, in his journal The Celtic Times, though Gibbons’s speculation that Cusack’s target, the United Presbyterians (U.P.), may have some bearing on Denis Breen’s upset over the message seems somewhat unlikely.

“‘Haunting Face’”, finally, deals with an apparition that one has been expecting throughout the book: Charles Stewart Parnell. How could a book devoted to ghosts and memory in Joyce omit him? Gibbons contrasts the cryptic nature of Dublin social intercourse, the nods and winks and codes that are such a feature of the exchanges in Ulysses – an encrypted (in every sense) world – with the ambiguous status of Parnell as both ghost and revenant, a figure from the past who also has a potential bearing on, and presence in, the future.

This can be seen on the crudest level in the persistent rumour, frequently alluded to in Ulysses, that Parnell is not really dead but might return. Without, of course, endorsing this, Joyce’s Ghosts is interested in the future orientation that such beliefs imply – a method of revising, while not forgetting, the memory of the dead. So a book which has dealt so largely with the past ends with an ambivalent gesture towards a world to come.

Joyce’s Ghosts is a very substantial achievement: much more than kneejerk anti-postcolonialism or anti-theory will be required properly to engage with it. One or two reservations do, inevitably, come to mind: for one thing, it is certainly too packed with material. It feels as if there are two or even three books uneasily cohabiting here, or as if the author was determined to get everything in at all costs. If my attempted accounts of the various chapters do nothing else, they may convey some of this over-dense quality.

Thus, the twenty-page introduction boasts no fewer than eighty-three mostly substantial endnotes, Chapter 1 has 103 – and it’s not as if these feel superfluous, it’s just that it makes for a heavy read, to put it mildly. Similarly, on page 101, the suggestion is thrown out that Flaubert might have overdone the old irony in his handling of free indirect discourse. The idea, admittedly, is by no means devoid of context, but it still feels like material for a substantial essay in its own right, rather than something for a stimulating one-liner.

Again, there is an incredible profusion of citations, from Nicolas Abraham to Ewa Ziarek, not I think always helpful – sometimes they can only overcomplicate an argument that could be just as well made without them. Gibbons can be an entertaining writer, but this valuable quality can get lost in thickets of allusion and reference.

The spectral is a hot topic in Joycean and other literary discourse these days: Maud Ellmann and Shari Benstock are just two of a number of Joycean critics who have contributed substantially to the exploration of this motif. But it seems to me that Gibbons has actually done something original in this context. There is something counterintuitive in the idea of a communal ghost, of the haunting of a whole society rather than of an isolated individual. Some of the frisson, the shiver, of “real” haunting tends to get lost in this revised version of the spectral. But it is the achievement of this book successfully to overcome this dichotomy, to coax or call the ghostly out of the shadows of the Anglo-Irish Gothic and into the qualified half-light of the dawn of Irish modernism.

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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