James Joyce
Jean-Michel Rabaté

Tim Conley has published a wonderful book entitled Joyces Mistakes: Problems of Intention, Irony, and Interpretation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). I have rarely laughed as hard and as often while reading a book on Joyce. Not just that it contains hilarious one-liners and facetious remarks but also that it forced me to look at basic issues of literary hermeneutics in a new key. Conley questions concepts like sense, authority and intention all of which are not entirely circumscribed by Joyce. This is the book about Joyce that Wittgenstein would have written if he had read Finnegans Wake and concluded that Joyce suffered from dyslexia. If philosophy begins with wonder and ends with therapy, the field of hermeneutics opens out when one catches oneself reading or writing a mistake. From Rimbaud’s fatidic ”Il faute être absolument moderne” (quoted p.39)) to Benda’s classic La traduction des clercs (quoted p.42) via Defoe, Melville, Moore, Pound, Lewis, Woolf, Blanchot, Pessoa, Saramago, we are ushered into a gallery of accidental errors and productive misreaders, enlisted in Spooner’s confederacy of compulsive blunderers, punsters, stutterers, manglers and distorters of homely truths. As the Appendix states, quoting Fred Allen, “Hanging’s too good for a man who makes puns, no, he should be drawn and quoted.” (p. 152) Conley’s humor is not of the wisecracking type we meet with cultural critics like Slavoj Zizek. It is closer to Nabokov’s unforgettable Kinbote from Pale Fire, without the touch of paranoia, or germane to a Pierre Ménard who would copy assiduously entire pages of Don Quichote but would misspell, skip lines and indulge in countless slips of the pen, Conley has the knack of performing or dramatizing what he talks about, which is error, error and again error.

Allen’s quip is taken from the Appendix in which Conley lists all the misquotations he has found in books he has quoted so far (I am sure that he forgets a few, quite deliberately). If he does not spare Robert Graves or Cixous, John Bishop or Anthony Burgess, he proudly includes himself in the list. This is perhaps why, in half the quotations one finds in this book, the last “unquote” sign is missing. In Joyces Mistakes, quotes and misquotes seamlessly bleed into one another, thus generating a meta-discursively self-conscious text that provides a critical rationale for their pervasive osmosis or anastomosis. This almost invisible process actually begins with the title: “Joyces Mistakes”. It is likely that younger readers will not have winced; after all, apostrophes are small diacritics whose absence is rarely caught by a Spellcheck (which might be why more and more students spell the possessive “its” as “it’s”). Here, one has to wait until p. 83, after having followed a stormy discussion of Romantic irony via Schlegel’s view of the bad infinity created by an unstoppable ironization of irony by itself to find something like a confession: “One reader of this book may look at its title’s lack of apostrophe and say, ‘how ironic, how clever of Conley,’ with whatever degree of enjoyment or distaste. (…) Another reader may certainly see nothing in the title Joyces Mistakes but incompetence on the part of the author, and say, ‘how ironic that Conley should err in a study or errors.’” (p.83-84) After all, we have the example of Joyce himself, and Conley has not missed the presence in our libraries’ comedies of errors of “that oft-cited but undiscovered volume, Finnegan’s Wake.“ (p. 51)

In a chapter that goes even further in this ludic performativity, Conley multiplies typos: “Intermittences of sullemn fulminance” begins a first-person narrative with “it is a sumny afternoon in April.” (p.95) I have to confess that I read “sunny” the first time—so much for hurried readers: their error is not to see, in their normativizing precipitation, the beautiful mistakes carefully, strategically planted by authors. But when we stumble upon “Cvortazar”, “Jouyce” and “attenmtion”, a doubt creeps in. A man of genius makes no mistakes, we have learned our lesson: errors are volitiommal and open the mortals of discovery, please pay more attemntion. Note however that “(t)he last thing I want is to be ironic”. (p. 97) We are at our most ironic when we don’t want it. Isn’t this how we should read Finnegans Wake anyway? The same strategy for misreading ought to be generalized to the whole corpus of Joyce’s works. Conley has a lot of ground to cover in these pages. It is clear that the vexed issue of textual studies and the heated discussions of Ulysses’s competing editions provide an irrefutable proof of the principle’s validity as most scholars will agree. Drawing heavily upon Vicki Mahaffey’s groundbreaking “Intentional Error” and the formidable array of evidence mustered by Christine Froula in her now classic To Write paradise: Style and Error in Pound’s Cantos (1984), Conley has no difficulty in multiplying instances of erroneous tangles and textual riddles that abound in the publication history of Joyce’s works.

Conley has a few wonderful pages on the famous telegram Stephen received in Paris: COME BACK NOTHER DYING FATHER. In fact, was it Mother or Nother who was dying? This sustained discussion is excellent and uses the Morse code to show how close an M is to an N. It leads to a comparison with Hamlet’s famous textual hesitation between “brother” and mother” in Hamlet, V, 2, line 247. Debunking terms such as “final”, “authorial” and “intentions” — often used precisely in that order and without their scarequotes - Conley attacks convincingly two fundamental critical “fallacies”: intentionality and authority. If this looks at time like the rehearsing of post-structuralist arguments, they are deployed in a very convincing fashion. He shows very subtly how Joyce decided to delete from Stephen Hero the passage mocking “he hand of Jesuit authority” firmly placed upon Stephen’s heart, only to re-inscribe that mockery more cunningly in subsequent rewritings and expansions (p.60). In a bold comparison of how passages are anthologized and annotated in student’s editions, he forces us to steer away from the idea of accuracy and editorial perfection. He points out rather viciously the paradox of McHugh’s Finnegans Wake Experience, an experience of reading assuming that one can be a “virgin” facing the text and yet leading to a series of guides and commentaries for other readers. Conley is at times sympathetic to Umberto Eco’s semiotics although of course much more skeptical when it comes to defining what an “ideal reader” of Finnegans Wake can be, and comes hard on E. D. Hirsch’s idea of an “objective interpretation,” showing how Jerry Hobbs and Hirsch both offer mere “banalities” couched in “ludicrous sentences” (p. 120).

Conley is convincing in his critical readings of other critics while failing at times when he uses his method as a procedure for reading the texts themselves. He pays close attention to lapsers in the wording of McGee or Hayman’s books, or provides ironical parallel accounts of the Wake’s architecture in Campbell and Robinson, Tindall and Glasheen, but often remains at a level of self-awareness that prevents him from grappling with the text. This limitation comes from a constant hesitation between a skeptical position – there is not truth, all we have are varieties of error, and a more positive assessment of Joyce’s strategies half-way between Fritz Senn’s cautious philological probity and Michael Groden’s textual and historical knowledge. At times, the position is almost Derridian but with a Rortyan slant: “The ghosts of erroneous interpretations – and all interpretations, I propose to argue in this chapter, can be thought of as errors – mean that reading is a haunted act.” (p. 118) There is nevertheless a crucial difference between concluding that we will never be able to explicate the full truth about a text (in its meaning or in its textual history) and the somewhat glib comment that all interpretations are erroneous. We fall back quickly in all the paradoxes of lying: how could one lie without knowing the truth? How can one speak of an error without having at least an adumbration of what the true meaning might be?

One example will serve here. Conley quotes the moment of almost slapstick comedy in “Cyclops” when Alf Bergan claims that he has just seen Paddy Dignam walking in Capel Street with Willy Murray, adding: “He’s no more dead than you are.” This allows Joyce to use his father’s famous reply: “Maybe so… They took the liberty of burying him this morning.”’ After this, Conley comments: “The reader cannot positively confirm or deny that Alf Bergan, whom Bloom guesses to be the author of the ‘U.P.’ postcard, saw Paddy Dignam in Capel Street; because the reader is not privy to such a scene. This is a remarkable lacuna in a novel that so exhaustively provides data and has its own kind of positioning system by which characters’ whereabouts can be confirmed. Alf’s response that Dignam ‘is no more dead than’ Joe is a metafictional wink in that it is correct: Dignam the fictional construct is as alive or as dead as any other fictional construct.” (p. 130) Here, I think that Conley’s skepticism makes him miss the point: the joke can only be a joke if we assume that the scene ‘Hades’ had evoked earlier so masterfully concerned Paddy Dignam and not a heap of stones for instance. There is no doubt that Paddy Dignam is “dead” in Ulysses – the limitation provided by its being a fiction that we, as readers, cannot verify by opening his grave, say, cannot change anything to the matter: there can be a consistent truth in fictional worlds. To seem to think that the only criterion for truth would be real life verifiability is a negation of fiction’s autonomy.

In fact, Conley generalizes the principle of error or erring-ness to modernism as a whole. Modernism would be an esthetic movement intent upon “failing” as no one dares fail. Such a rush to over-generalization follows the pattern of a passage to the limit, often the counterpart of mainly thematic readings listing all the occurrences of sentences that imply mistakes, typos and errors. The idea of a pervasive modernist failure was endorsed by Blanchot and Sartre more or less at the same time, but it seems at first blush anachronistic to apply it systematically to Joyce’s modernism. Can we ascribe the idea to Joyce who would then have passed it on to Beckett? Beckett often reiterated that “to be an artist is to fail” and perhaps he is echoing Stephen Dedalus’s proud claim that he is not “afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake.” Each time Beckett develops this idea (as for instance in the German letter of 1937), he opposes his decision to “fail” to what he perceives as Joyce’s mastery over language and indisputable artistic triumph. Joyce’s triumph is predicated on a mistake that will lead him upward while one finds no such confidence in the redeeming powers of art in Beckett. It might help to distinguish between “failing better” and “failing worse” as Ill Seen Ill Said tends to suggest. As we know or soon learn, there are many ways of failing, and one might want to distinguish between sin and error, and also between the triumphant failure of an esthete who takes Lucifer as a guide and stakes all on heresy as a mode of salvation and the subjective destitution that a confrontation with radical negativity and the “night” of non-being entails—to allude once more to Blanchot. But it does not suffice to multiply ironical strategies or use rhetorical indirection so as to avoid being caught in an error. As Lacan brilliantly showed, it is precisely those who want not to be “dupes” that are most prone to err, and Conley is no exception to the Dupin syndrome. It is because there is something like truth that Les non-dupes errent will always double and invert the “law” upon which Symbolic systems are based, les Noms-du-Père. Lacan agrees with the later Wittgenstein.

In Wittgenstein’s Poker, David Edwards and John Eidinow have described quite entertainingly how all the Cambridge students who worked with Wittgenstein started imitating his mannerisms, the most remarkable being the habit of pondering a difficult question in silence for a while, until a formidable slapping of the forehead with one’s fist, accompanied by a loud “Ach Ja!”, would signal a solution. Although this masochistic way of thinking offers no guarantee of avoiding mistakes, we would need to apply such a procedure when we are bogged down in semantic uncertainties and perverse Joycean coincidentia oppositorum. Another cautionary tale is provided by paragraph 506 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “The absent-minded man who at the order “Right turn!” turns left, and then, clutching his forehead, says “Oh! Right turn” and does a right turn. – What has struck him? An interpretation?” A Joycean or a Freudian “intrepidation of our dreams”, yes.

A more recent book by Lee Oser exemplifies the principle of “true mistakes” with a vengeance. Lee Oser, The Ethics of Modernism. Moral Ideas in Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and Beckett, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007) is a surprising, often baffling, at times challenging book. It will leave no-one indifferent since it is a book with which one will enjoy arguing, wrestling even. Lee Oser, who is the author of a thought-provoking T. S. Eliot and American Poetry (1998), announces The Return of Christian Humanism for the end of 2007 while a slim and nervous novel, Out of what chaos (2007), is just out. I have read the novel and enjoyed it fully, while noting that even in his portrayal of rock-band members finding their way through many temptations, a concern for an ethics of salvation affirms in the end a religious “humanism.” In Oser’s vocabulary, “humanism” means a concern for human nature and human character taken together as criteria of pragmatic ethics.

There, the main textbooks are Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Matthew Arnold’s essays, the enlightened criticism of a defender of the values of liberalism for whom art must turn into a critique of life. There is a refreshingly nostalgic aspect in the enterprise. Oser, a worthy debater, has no qualms reviving the discussion between Stephen Dedalus and Father Butt, whom he takes as a spokesman for his views. In a lucid comparison between Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Oser lingers for a while on the scene of Stephen’s paper at the Royal University in Stephen Hero. Father Butt, as we recall, refuses to denounce ex cathedra the young rebel who “kneels at the shrine of art.” As most of us will remember, Father Butt reminds his hearers, all visibly upset by Stephen’s esthetic radicalism that it is not impossible to re-read Aquinas to re-define art, but that one should not forget external, concrete and practical considerations such as use and context that will inevitably qualify or question the cult of beauty. Fundamentally, Oser regrets that such a character’s role should be greatly reduced in APAYM, since he stands out as the voice of reason and moderation facing Stephen’s theoretical excess and his fellow-students’ political zeal. Oser praises Father Butt unequivocally: “My point is that in the Portrait Joyce must diminish such well-rounded figures as Father Butt, whose balanced and intelligent views which reflect well on the authority of church and state, threaten to blunt the diamond edge of Stephen’s authentic life.“ The last terms refer clearly to the undercurrent of Paterism in Stephen, a drift always interpreted as a mistake if not a sin by Oser. Quite often, when he discusses the main modernist authors, one feels as if father Butt had come back more than one century later, and, having taken things in his stride, was denouncing quietly, dispassionately, without any inquisitor’s virulence, all the dead-ends and indulgent obfuscations of modernist estheticism. Father Butt, too long neglected, unjustly swept under the rug by an increasingly narcissistic narrative, gets finally his due and is allowed to make a belated come-back.

One consequence of this posthumous revenge is that the book’s title is somewhat of a misnomer. Oser does not attempt to show that something like an ethics of the other, of the mot juste or of the right relationships between masters and servants will emerge from the esthetic project of modernism. This he leaves to critics whom he finds misguided like Derek Attridge or Gabriel Josipovici, and he does not even glimpse at books like Marian Eide’s Ethical Joyce. These are too “intellectual” (meaning Levinassian or Blanchotian) or too “nihilistic” for him. Like Father Butt, he parades his being a “practical person” while begging “theorists” to be patient with him. Oser insists that he is a practical American, and refutes Levinas with a sweeping and surprising statement: “Considered from the angle of practical living, Levinas does not speak adequately to the harsher elements of the embodied soul, for example, our need (even our sexual need) for social hierarchy.” One can bet that Levinas would agree, with a deep sigh of relief, that his thinking has little to do with a (sexual) need for social hierarchy.

Similarly, Heidegger is rejected because he fails “to see how human nature helped shape the life of the polis.” (ibid.) Against these “abstrusities,” Oser praises the “common reader,” thus he offhandedly dismisses Hélène Cixous’s debunking of character as being too “intellectual”: “Common readers, if they exist, can believe in characters without recourse to any “model of transcendence” – only intellectuals need drag such heavy luggage around. Experience argues that immense practical gains attach to believing in character, not the least of which is literature itself. Put another way, human nature supports character because without it we cannot flourish.“ I am not sure what is meant by “flourishing” in a context that smacks of F. R. Leavis’s notion that some works are more “life-affirming” than others. By such high ethical standards, indeed, most of the modernists are measured and found wanting.

Beckett inevitably marks the lowest point in the spiral leading to nihilism: how terrible it is to realize that his savage irony makes fun of the fact of being human! At some critical moments facing utter nihilism, Oser seems to betray a fear of losing his sanity that is endearing in its frankness. One sees this in his conclusion to a critical discussion of Gabriel Josipovici’s superb book on “Trust.” Josipovici had asserted that Beckett can provide a different sense of ethics that bypasses liberal beliefs in the “human” of humanity: “Josipovici stays true to Beckett by refusing the personal and religious convictions that hold like locks on our sanity—at least for those of us who need locks. That is my way of saying that Josipovici has a point. But what American, coming out of William James, has ever subscribed to the notion of a complete and rational self, such as European thought has debated from Hegel to Derrida? We are story-telling animals.” It is surprising to object this to Josipovici, whose entire critical and novelistic work is built on this last sentence.

In his Introduction, Oser develops the idea that there is a direct line of thought going from Descartes to Kant and Hegel, then moving on to Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida. In spite of some minor discrepancies, Oser nevertheless ends up lumping them together. Even Derrida and Foucault are presented as anti-Cartesian Cartesians, although this contradicts the idea, quoted earlier, that Derrida and Hegel base their philosophies upon a “complete and rational self”: “Even the anti-rationalist, anti-Cartesian legacy in France, associated with Derrida and Foucault, repeats the Cartesian bias against nature.” Any “European” will scoff impatiently at such heavy-handed and reductive readings. They betray a curious and willful blindness not only to “continental philosophy” as a whole but to important bridges that have been established by American philosophers like William James himself, or like John Dewey, not to speak of Stanley Cavell. One cannot simply rely on Martha Nussbaum (although she is criticized too) and Alasdair McIntyre’s reviving of virtues in a revamped Aristotelian mode. Symptomatically, Dewey is faulted by Oser who finds him too “modernist..” In an interesting passage, Dewey is called a “quasi-modernist” and blamed for his “revolutionary fusing of ethics and aesthetics through faith in the imagination.” Unlike James who traces his lineage to Aristotle, Dewey chose Bacon as a model (Oser does not mention that he flirted with Hegel as a young philosopher—this would have been too damning and totally un-American). I cannot sum up the whole discussion, but I’ll just observe that the main problem of this reductive adherence to Aristotelian principles for a discussion of modernism is that it ends up confusing Romanticism and Modernism—in Oser’s view, both are to be rejected in so far as they attack “human nature” in order to promote a fake gospel stressing the formal perfection of art.

If Oser appears so quintessentially American, one may wonder why he has avoided engaging with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, who both together would figure the most “American” in the group of canonical modernists. A lesbian writer who started in the school of William James and stressed the constitution of an autonomous language for art, and an often misguided poet who nevertheless always insisted on the need for practical ethics—even to the point that they inevitably turned into politics—how would they fare in front of Aristotle’s pragmatic and life-affirming realism? We know that both saw their modernist efforts as inseparable from a discourse about human nature, and Pound at least, spent a precious portion of Guide to Kulchur discussing Aristotle’s ethics. No doubt Oser would criticize them for the same defect—like Eliot, they have a strange urge to “change Aristotle into a modernist.” I had always believed that this was what made Joyce’s unconventional use of Aquinas and Aristotle so exciting, and I thought that, on that point, I would have Father Butt’s approval. Obviously, I might not have Oser’s approval…

Why read this book, then, if it boils down to a wholesale attack on modernism in the name of a limited definition of human nature that, on top of that, may only be valid for those who have had the luck of being born in the United States? In spite of all my hedging, I would argue that Oser’s book should be read, first of all because it is outrageous, pithy, with a very strong chapter on Eliot, an author whose concerns are closer to Oser’s. His book is written seriously, with a rare intensity, with an ethical urgency that prevents it from reducing his commentaries to preconceived opinions or rash philosophical generalizations. Oser’s quaint belief in human nature never prevents him from offering us astute and accurate close readings. And finally, one of the book’s many draws is that like Father Butt, Oser never hesitates to play the advocatus diaboli; it is as if he was punning on his name in French: Il faut oser! He is passionate even when misguided and tries to get as much as he can from the authors whom he reads. We still hope with him that the “language of angels” of the main modernists’ esthetic endeavors and stylistic experiments will reach us unimpeded.