Print
PRINT
James Joyce
Mark David Kaufman
SLICES OF LIFE: THE ARTIST AS VIVISECTOR IN GIACOMO JOYCE

Perhaps it is appropriate that the antivivisection debate of the late nineteenth century, which so polarized Victorian naturalists, should have found its way into aesthetic discourse through the person of John Ruskin. Ruskin, an ardent opponent of animal experimentation, actively transposed the terminology of the sciences to contemporary literature—to the denigration of both. In “Fiction, Fair and Foul”(1880), Ruskin wrote deploringly of the writer’s fascination with mental and physical “aberration”: “There is some excuse, indeed, for the pathologic labour of the modern novelist in the fact that he cannot easily, in a city population, find a healthy mind to vivisect: but the greater part of such amateur surgery is the struggle, in an epoch of wild literary competition, to obtain novelty of material.”(1) For Ruskin, the nineteenth-century industrial city had become the theater of a new “science of fiction,”(2) an anatomy of abnormality masquerading as art. But not all were as disparaging. Indeed, Ruskin’s appropriation of vivisection as an aesthetic operation reflects a contemporary interest in pseudoscientific approaches to literature. Gustave Flaubert, a surgeon’s son, was perhaps the first to adopt an objective aesthetic method in which all the flora and fauna of modernity became fair game for literary representation. Anticipating modernist preoccupations with “low” subjects—the quotidian, the base, and the scatological—a “vivisective” aesthetic may be said to participate in a similar equalization of subject-matter, a leveling of subjects fair and foul in which style becomes, as Flaubert was well aware, “an absolute way of seeing things.”(3) The late nineteenth-century novelist could now emulate the grim impartiality of the anatomist’s knife. When Émile Zola endorsed the phrase “slice of life” (une tranche de vie)as the master trope of literary naturalism, he formulatedwhat Vasily Tolmatchoff has called “an equation between life and meat.”(4) These metaphors evince an aggressive carnality, an almost predatory sexuality, in the guise of a pseudoscientific aesthetic. Ruskin and Zola were eerily prescient in their characterization of the writer as a kind of serial killer, a proto-Jack the Ripper whose surgical precision and questionable taste in women have something in common with the modern artist who murders to dissect.

A quarter of a century after Ruskin’s diagnosis, the young James Joyce, a former medical student, would also assert the vivisective quality of modernity. In Stephen Hero, Joyce has Stephen offer his friend Cranly what amounts to a modernist manifesto: “The modern spirit,” Stephen announces, “is vivisective”:

Vivisection itself is the most modern process one can conceive. The ancient spirit accepted phenomena with bad grace. The ancient method investigated law with the lantern of justice, morality with the lantern of revelation, art with the lantern of tradition. But all these lanterns have magical properties: they transform and disfigure. The modern method examines its territory by the light of day. Italy has added a science to civilisation by putting out the lantern of justice and considering the criminal in […] production and in action. All modern political and religious criticism dispenses with presumptive States, […] presumptive Redeemers and Churches. […] It examines the entire community in action and reconstructs the spectacle of redemption. If you were an esthetic philosopher you would take note of all my vagaries because here you have the spectacle of esthetic instinct in action. The philosophic college should spare a detective for me. (SH 186)(5)

As Christine Froula has argued, vivisection may be considered Joyce’s modus operandi, “a master metaphor for Joyce’s autobiographical art” which also “gestures toward an art that will lay bare the inner workings of the self-professed ‘modern’ artist, not as a purely subjected subject but as one who critiques and resists the laws, structures, and strictures of the social order that shapes him.”(6) As it investigates “the spectacle of esthetic instinct in action,” Stephen’s vivisective posits the artist as representative of the modern analytical subject. However, if Stephen’s Italian “science” is, as some have suggested,(7) a reference to Cesare Lombroso’s positivist criminology, then Stephen’s declaration also has the effect of criminalizing the artist. The aesthetic operation takes on the connotation of a crime that calls for detection—a rendering which is also a rending. What Ruskin terms the “pathologic labour” of the novelist becomes, for Joyce, the focus of the analytic artist whose anatomizing eye is turned inward, who makes himself a synecdoche for modernity. In this sense, the vivisective is not simply a metaphor for a critique, nor is it solely a “method” for representing a “community in action”; it is writing about writing, the embodiment of a will to mastery which operates with the logic of a self-reflective gaze.

That Joyce excised this passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may suggest that his conception of the vivisective position had changed. Indeed, in Joyce’s later work, we find that all perception seems to have “magical properties” which “transform and disfigure.”My analysis will focus on the figuration of vivisection in Joyce’s enigmatic Trieste “sketchbook,” posthumously published in 1968 as Giacomo Joyce. Whether or not Joyce had in mind Ruskin’s “Fiction, Fair and Foul” when he composed his own “pages, foul and fair” (GJ 13),(8) Giacomo Joyce presents us with a portrait of the artist as vivisector—a voyeur whose victim, an unnamed girl-pupil, suffers his gaze as she does the surgeon’s scalpel. Here the vivisective is not only the expression of a modern process or “spirit,” but a designation for textual representations of cutting, opening, and dissecting. A “lady of letters” (GJ 12), the girl’s fragmentation mirrors the fragmentary manuscript, whose sense of immediacy—of having, as John McCourt has suggested, “been written down live”(9)—gives it an uncannily organic quality. Louis Armand has suggested that Giacomo’s “I” engages in an “‘anatomical’ desire of analysis” in which the “hidden part” or fragment metonymically figures the “unknowable whole.”(10) This desire for mastery is further manifested, I would suggest, in the animalization—the zoomorphic transformation—of the object. As it figures a metamorphosis, the vivisective phantasmagorically—or perhaps cinematically—reasserts the animal-object which had been lost in the initial turn from a literal vivisection to a tropological vivisective. However, this illusion of mastery is underminedinsofar as the vivisected animal-object looks back at the vivisector, calling into question the subject’s “humanity” while threatening annihilation in its image of material evisceration. Through the machinations of these intra-diegetic gazes, the vivisective thus constitutes the artist as his own vivisector, a subject whose failure to master the desired object instantiates a chronic “Unreadiness” (GJ 16), a state of disarticulation in which inanimate objects substitute for the fragmented body. In examining “the esthetic instinct in action,” the artist ultimately confronts the materiality of both body and letter, the disembodiment of the signifier as an organ of representation in the operating theater of desire.

Much has been made of Giacomo Joyce’s significance as a transitional text between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. If Giacomo Joyce was itself destined for the cutting room floor, many of its passages found new life in Joyce’s published works. In a sense, Joyce’s manuscript is itself cannibalized, its images transplanted and reanimated within the larger corpus. Among these passages is the flower episode which serves as the subject for one of Joyce’s most famous poems:“A flower given by her to my daughter. Frail gift, frail giver, frail blue-veined child” (GJ 3). Here the daughter’s flesh is but a translucent veil, an intimation of mortality. Giacomo’s x-ray vision reminds us that Joyce’s “sketchbook” is also a collection of physiological studies. In an early review, Adaline Glasheen notes the almost painterly way in which Giacomo deconstructs the nameless girl: “[He] notes her anatomical parts from jawbone to entrails; sometimes he isolates a part of her and paints it alone.”(11) In a passage which Joyce would later incorporate into “Oxen of the Sun” (U 14.1082-85),(12) Giacomo blazons his love, whom he compares to a “filly foal,” with the eye of an amorous zoologist: “Grey twilight moulds softly the slim and shapely haunches, the meek supple tendonous neck, the fine-boned skull” (GJ 3). As he stalks his pupil in the twilight of the piazza, Giacomo’s mental scalpel works diligently, taking her apart bit by bit—not unlike Leopold Bloom, who observes Gerty MacDowell in “Nausicaa” with an equally penetrative gaze, his eyes “[burning] into her as though they would search her through and through, read her very soul” (U 13.412-13).

These poetic dissections have the sinister air of an artist who can only create at the expense of his model. For Giacomo, who sees the skull beneath the skin, there can be no beauty without the reminder—or threat—of death.Just as Stephen’s allusion to the Italian “science” constitutes the artist as a criminal, Giacomo gives the impression of a pathological voyeur, lurking outside the girl’s house, watching her window and envisioning the scene within:“A light in the upper room. She is dressing to go to the play. There are ghosts in the mirror . . . . . Candles! Candles!” (GJ 6). Giacomo’s imaginative violation of the girl’s private chambers culminates in a more invasive rending and rendering of the girl’s body as she undergoes surgery:

Operated. The surgeon’s knife has probed her entrails and withdrawn, leaving the raw jagged gash of its passage on her belly. I see her full dark suffering eyes, beautiful as the eyes of an antelope. O cruel wound! Libidinous God! (GJ 11)

Mirroring the incestuous violation of Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci, whose appearance on the same page reinscribes the operation as a scene of sacrifice, the “passage” effectively eroticizes surgical incision. Writing in the 1970s, the surgeon-writer Richard Selzer would capture this libidinous dimension of surgery with a certain Joycean resonance: “One enters the body in surgery, as in love, as though one were an exile returning at last to his hearth, daring uncharted darkness in order to reach home.”(13) While Joyce’s vignette anticipates the problematic association of surgical penetration with sexual violation which would result in the censorship of such imagery in later cinema,(14) there may be a more immediate visual context for this carnal spectacle. Shelley’s dramatic Beatrice has a cinematic counterpart who also haunts the operating theater of Giacomo Joyce. When Joyce opened the Cinematograph Volta in Dublin in 1909, his opening night attraction was, indeed, The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci,completed that same year by the Italian expressionist filmmaker Mario Caserini. While Shelley’s tragedy draws to a close with a tableau of the condemned heroine in her prison cell, Caserini’s film apparently ended with her on-screen beheading.(15) Beatrice’s ghostly presence in the operation vignette reminds us that, in the sectioning and suturing eye the cinema, the cut of the camera is tantamount to the slice of the knife.

In some sense, Giacomo’s student is one “cut pupil” among many. If, as Louis Armand has suggested, Giacomo Joyce is “a story of the eye,”(16) then it is an eye in distress, for Joyce’s textforegrounds images of diseasedand mutilated eyeballs. On the first page of the manuscript, we find a close-up of ocular penetration: “The long eyelids beat and lift: a burning needleprick stings and quivers in the velvet iris” (GJ 1). Here the penetrated eye of the other reflects the impalement of the subject, his transfixion within the gaze. As it simultaneously figures and disfigures the organ of sight, the vivisective image violently exposes the artist’s own vision, the “spectacle of esthetic instinct,” as predicated upon self-mutilation. In essence, the violated eye is the image of a modernist aesthetic looking at itself, an image which would find its most graphic instantiation in the infamous lacerated eyeball which opens Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929).(17) In the film, a middle-aged man (played by Buñuel himself) idly sharpens a razor while he stares at the moon from his balcony. He then returns indoors where a young woman sits passively. As a thin slip of cloud cuts across the moon, he slowly slices her eyeball. The eye—which is actually the eye of a cow—oozes a transparent fluid, presumably the white from an egg which has also been placed in the socket.(18)

un_chien_andalou_1.jpg un_chien_andalou_2.jpg

What the viewer finds most unsettling is perhaps the self-conscious image of the assaulted eye looking back. Such an image of “cleaving” has the double-effect of yokingthe spectator, uncomfortably, with the spectacle, dramatically actualizing the skewed uncertainty of the gaze, while simultaneously teaching the viewer how to perceive a surrealist film.

That Buñuel used a cow’s eye for the close-up of the incision appropriately literalizes the zoomorphic tendency of the vivisective. Giacomo’s pupil, whose “full dark suffering eyes” are as “beautiful as the eyes of an antelope,” undergoes many such metamorphoses in the course of Joyce’s sketchbook. Within Giacomo’s libidinous menagerie, the girl becomes, among other things, “a sparrow under the wheels of Juggernaut” (GJ 7), “a pampered fowl” (GJ 8), “a bird twittering after storm” (GJ 11), and a skittish “black pullet” (GJ 12).Both fair and “fowl,” the girl is at once the vivisected patient who gazes back and the ornithological object of bird-watching Giacomo. The zoomorphic—or more properly ornithomorphic—propensity of the vivisective operates in a similar fashion to the image of the mutilated eye in that both turn upon the subject’s own construction of self. Like the text’s initial “Who?” (GJ 1)—which is also the question of the owl—the analytical gaze that interrogates the object returns to challenge the “I” of the subject. Who is the girl? And who, indeed, is Giacomo? In the end, it is the subject’s own frail autonomy which is brought into question by the “quizzing-glasses” (GJ 1) of the object, by the penetrated—and penetrative—eye of the bird-girl.

Participating in what John McCourt has called Giacomo Joyce’s “multimodal” textuality,the vivisective phantasmagorically reconstitutes the object of desire as an animal in a manner suggestive of early trick cinematography. Clare Wallace has suggested that Giacomo Joyce may function as a kind of “zootrope”:

The zootrope is a nineteenth century proto-cinematic optical device consisting of a revolving drum within which a stationary series of images or models (usually of animals or birds) is arranged either parallel with the inner wall or drawn on its surface. The wall of the drum is pierced regularly with slits and when the drum is set in motion the viewer peers through these slits as they pass before the eyes. The result is the illusion that this succession of stationary images or models blends into a single “moving image.”(19)

Like the “Mutoscope pictures” that Bloom recalls in “Nausicaa” (U 13.794), the zootrope creates an illusion of life-like motion.As is evident in its most common spelling, the word “zoetrope” is a compound of the Greek zoē (“life”) and tropos (“turn”). However, as it signifies a “wheel of life” which animates an inanimate animal-image, Wallace’s choice of “zootrope” is perhaps more appropriate in that it suggests the Greek or New Latin zōon (“animal” or “beast”). In the tropological turn from human to animal, the figural vivisective reanimates the original scientific object of vivisection, the literal animal to be opened, and in doing so posits the object as knowable. However, in its attempt to dehumanize—and thus master—the object of desire, the vivisective privileges an aesthetic of fragmentation that reflexively operates upon the subject. “[The] ‘mechanism’ of desire,” Wallace suggests, “consists of a double ‘turning,’ one towards the identity of the object of desire (the assumption of desire as identity) and the other towards sublimated carnality (the fragment which simultaneously suggests and denies the whole).”(20) The carnal fragment—the slice of life—comes to figure the subject’s own vivisected disarticulation within the logic of the gaze.

Giacomo’s failure to master the object results in a state of virtual impotence or sterilization in which the material remains of desire are effectively biopsied:

Unreadiness. A bare apartment. Torbid daylight. A long black piano: coffin of music. Poised on its edge a woman’s hat, red-flowered, and umbrella, furled. Her arms: a casque, gules, and blunt spear on a field, sable. (GJ 16)

The visceral and eviscerating qualities of the text render even inanimate objects—a hat, an umbrella, a piano—into organs without bodies, fragments of an exquisite corpse. Curiously, as these lifeless objects take center stage, we are once again reminded of the cinematic quality of the vivisective. As early as 1915, the American poet Vachel Lindsay suggested that film technology had a unique way of “making all the inanimate things which, on the spoken stage, cannot act at all” into “celestial actors” on the “mirror-screen” of cinema.(21) Arguably, in laying bare the organs of desire, Giacomo Joyce achieves a similar animation of the inanimate through a metonymical substitution of object for subject: “Envoy: Love me, love my umbrella” (GJ 16). And just as the cinematic animation of the exquisite corpse has the inverse effect of exposing the inanimacy of its constituent parts, the vivisective ultimately renders the materiality of the signifier itself as a libidinal investment in both carnal and textual fragments. Like Giacomo’s girl-pupil, whose metamorphoses and associations complicate her legibility, objects in Joyce’s text are “animated” insofar as they are overdetermined—a phenomenon best illustrated by the umbrella itself, an object taken by various critics to represent a prosthesis, a prophylactic device, a hieroglyph for “shadow,” and even a letter “J,” the signatural trace of Joyce as the ghost in his own mirror.(22)

The metonymical shift in Giacomo Joyce from living organ to lifeless object bears a curious resemblance to Lautréamont’s famous image of beauty as “the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.”(23) The comparison is important if we are to consider Joyce’s notebook within the context of a greater aesthetic of dissection, or what we might call a “vivisective modernism,” born in the negotiation of naturalism with symbolism, proto-surrealism, and pre-cinematic expressionism. A decade after Ruskin denounced the modern novelist as a species of vivisector, the metaphor had arguably come to characterize an emerging aesthetic consciousness. Indeed, the vivisective seems to figure some of the earliest descriptions of modernist methodology. In 1890, Knut Hamsun wrote of the “[s]ecret stirrings that go unnoticed in the remote parts of the mind, the incalculable chaos of impressions, the delicate life of the imagination seen under the magnifying glass; the random progress of these thoughts and feelings; untrodden, trackless journeyings by brain and heart, strange workings of the nerves, the whisper of the blood, the entreaty of the bone, all the unconscious life of the mind.”(24) And while, as we have seen, this multimodal vivisective would achieve a particularly effective realization in surrealist cinema—the cinema which Jean Epstein appropriately termed a “theatre of the skin”(25)—we also find its trace in the most canonical works of high modernist literature—in J. Alfred Prufrock’s image of “a magic lantern [which throws] the nerves in patterns on a screen”(26) and in the disturbed mind of Septimus Warren Smith, who could “see through bodies, see into the future, when dogs will become men” and “the flesh [will be] melted off the world.”(27) But the most significant manifestation of the vivisective may be in Joyce’s own anatomy of the body politic, in the organ schema of Ulysses which opens and exposes the inner life of the city, and in Finnegans Wake, whose sprawling and spread-outhero is “by mortisection or vivisuture, splitten up or recompounded” (FW 253.34-35).(28) Indeed, Giacomo’s European theatermay anticipate the “cellelleneteutoslavzendlatinsoundscript” (FW 219.17), the celluloid (and cellular) montage of Celtic, Teutonic, Slavic, and Latin elements which animate the “reel world” (FW 64.25) of the Wake. Ultimately, each vignette in Giacomo Joyce is also a cell for an elle, a shot in the dark which frames a dark lady, a carnal fragment in the wake of desire.

1 John Ruskin, “Fiction, Fair and Foul,” The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings,ed. John D. Rosenberg (Charlottesville and London: U of Virginia P, 1998) 444. Here Ruskin is primarily referring to the “literature of the Prison-house,” the type of Dickensian melodrama which takes as its subject the criminals and lowlifes of the city. However, in its larger implication, the vivisection metaphor designates all “modern fiction” (437)—all writing which is, in a sense, cutting-edge.
2 Ruskin 437.
3 Gustave Flaubert, Selected Letters, trans. and intro. Geoffrey Wall (London: Penguin, 1997) 171.
4 Vasily M. Tolmatchoff, “Flaubert, ‘Slice-of-Life’ Aesthetics and Naturalist Novels about Art,” Excavatio 16.1-2 (2002): 284.
5 James Joyce, Stephen Hero, ed. Theodore Spencer, with additional manuscript pages, eds. John J. Slocum, and Herbert Cahoon (New York: New Directions, 1963).
6 Christine Froula, Modernism’s Body: Sex, Culture, and Joyce (New York: Columbia UP, 1996) 2.
7 See John Gordon, Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2004) 8.
8 James Joyce, Giacomo Joyce, ed. and intro. Richard Ellmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1968) 13. All future references are to this edition andwill be cited parenthetically.
9 John McCourt, “Joycean Multimodalities: A Preliminary Investigation of Giacomo Joyce,” Journal of Modern Literature 26.1 (Fall 2002): 19.
10 Louis Armand, “Resistances: Symptom and Desire in Giacomo Joyce,” Giacomo Joyce: Envoys of the Other,eds. Louis Armand and Clare Wallace (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006) 324.
11 Qtd. in Murray McArthur, “The Image of the Artist: Giacomo Joyce, Ezra Pound and Jacques Derrida,” Giacomo Joyce: Envoys of the Other 81-2.
12 James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler et al.(New York: Random House, 1986). All future references are to this edition andwill be cited parenthetically. Joyce was working on both “Oxen of the Sun” and “Nausicaa” during his brief return to Trieste in 1919, during which he presumably re-read the Giacomo Joyce manuscript (see Ellmann’s note in Giacomo Joyce xxxii).
13 Qtd. in Susan E. Lederer, “Repellent Subjects: Hollywood Censorship and Surgical Images in the 1930s,” Literature and Medicine 17.1 (1998): 108.
14 See Lederer for a discussion of Hollywood censorship and its interwar context.
15 See Philip Sicker, “Evenings at the Volta: Cinematic Afterimages in Joyce,” James Joyce Quarterly 42-43.1-4 (2004): 110.
16 Louis Armand, “Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on the Other Joyce,” Giacomo Joyce: Envoys of the Other 7.
17 Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), dir. Luis Buñuel, perf. Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí (Les Grands Films Classiques, 1929).
18 In both Giacomo Joyce and Un Chien Andalou, the metonymical movement from eye to egg to (implied) womb identifies the crisis of vision with a crisis of origin, a splitting of both eye and “I.” Moreover, in its conflation of wound with womb, Giacomo Joyce anticipates the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, in which Stephen (as knife-like “kinch”) and a group of riotous medical students violate the maternal sanctuary—a “crime,” as Joyce described it in a letter to Frank Budgen, “committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition.” (18a)
18a See Phillip F. Herring (ed.), Joyce’s Ulysses Notesheets in the British Museum, (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1972) 31. Joyce’s notesheets for this episode included a diagram with nine concentric loops representing the nine gestational months of a fetus, but the drawing also suggests a cross-section—or vivisection—of the womb itself.
19 Clare Wallace, “‘Ghosts in the Mirror’: Perception and the Visual in Giacomo Joyce,” Giacomo Joyce: Envoys of the Other 213.
20 Wallace 225.
21 Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture, intro. Stanley Kauffmann (New York: Liveright, 1970) 8, 295.
22 See Wallace 227 for more on the “visual message” suggested by the relative position of these objects.
23 Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror, trans. Guy Wernham. (New York: New Directions, 1965) 263. Also cited in Armand, “Through” 12. Lautréamont goes on to write that Mervyn is “as handsome as the retractibility [sic]of the claws of birds of prey; or again, as the uncertainty of the muscular movements of wounds in the soft parts of the posterior cervical region.” Here, as in Giacomo Joyce, the inanimate object is juxtaposed with the (animalizing) vivisective gaze of the urban observer who scrutinizes from a distance.
24 Qtd. in James McFarlane, “The Mind of Modernism,” Modernism 1890-1930, eds. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (New York: Penguin, 1991) 81-82.
25 Qtd. in David Trotter, “T.S. Eliot and Cinema,” Modernism/Modernity 13.2 (2006): 254.
26 T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Selected Poems (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1936) 14.
27 Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1925) 68.
28 James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Penguin, 1976). All future references are to this edition andwill be cited parenthetically.