“Beauty is not there. Nor in the stagnant
bay of Marsh’s library where you read
the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas.”
James Joyce, Ulysses
In Aesthetics of Chaosmos, Umberto Eco acutely implies that Ulysses starts with a rebellion, a liturgical parody of the old and pre-constituted axioms of the Aristotelian and Thomist assumptions. But Stephen’s rebellion had already started with the Portrait’s forerunner Stephen Hero where the young artist had firmly stated:
In this quotation it is already possible to foresee some pivotal issues and prerogatives of the Joycean aesthetics: the progressive conscience and parting from the “plague of Catholicism” and the firm will to escape from the paralyzing and parochial Irish situation. Already in Dubliners, Joyce interprets the Irish paralysis in terms of a spiritual paralysis, say, as the blind acceptance of an unquestioning Catholic as well as of an authoritarian national tradition. Somehow, a historical paralysis coincides, in Joyce’s opinion, also with an interpretative paralysis. Keith Booker has pointed out that «[…] Joyce identifies the tendency to be locked into literary as one of the symptoms of the paralysis that he attributes to his fellow Dubliners» (Booker 85). By the same token, the last words of the excerpt also reveal an important feature about Joyce’s willingness to tackle a new artistic attitude. His subsequent works will actually stage the shaping of these four prerogatives: they will widely and strongly echo the voice of a new humanity (the modern humanity tout court), they will deeply articulate a new reading and writing disposition which actually could be defined, broadly speaking, as active, making use of unafraid and unashamed language ploys.
Much has been said about the basic structures of Ulysses but it is all the way apparent that Joyce cannot help but use them in order to deconstruct them from the inside, ‒ and this is true both in relation to the mythical subtext and to the Thomist frame. As Seamus Dean has rightly implied, “subversion is part of the Joycean enterprise” (Deane 39) as results quite clearly from the book’s structuring and content, and even more intriguing for what concerns its sporadic and intense meta-literary chinks.
It would be worthwhile to consider allegory as the instrument of this subversion and, at the same time, as the critical means through which it will be possible to understand the Joycean text as representative of this ambit. In point of fact, the application of the allegorical method to the interpretation of Ulysses’ third chapter makes it possible to give due to its aesthetic weight and value as well as its representativeness in the context of modern allegory. Allegory, according to Benjamin’s dictate, represents a moment of self-consciousness of modernity and, in the meantime, acts as a potent instrument of demystification, being able to highlight a pivotal element of the new relationship established between artist and reality, and artist and landscape that, in this chapter, appears as fragment and rune, letting shine through the Baroque and thus modern divorce between subject and reality, words and things, signifier and signified. Furthermore, the allegorical category, as theorized in The History of German Tragic Drama, allows an approach to the Joycean text that compounds History as a critical value, avoiding the danger of losing ourselves in the maze of language tricks. Nonetheless, the relevance of Benjamin’s work in relation to modernism‒ and precisely to Ulysses‒ is suggested by the outstanding premise to Benjamin’s work on the Trauerspiel by Georg Steiner who maintains:
The Italian critic Giorgio Melchiori has claimed that Ulysses illustrates the apex of Western literary activity in its definitive consumption of the Decadent and Symbolic experience(1). But this is not true just in relation to the age-old concern with the theory of the novel but from the perspective of the compositional strategies as well. The end of the Romantic and Decadent era actually demarcates also the re-evaluation of allegory as a form of representation and interpretation of the new modern reality of which Ulysses offers a roundly drawn image. In this regard, Benjamin’s allegorical theorization is useful in helping us to analyze Joyce’s enterprise more appropriately, making out a clearer distinction, within his compositional parabola, between symbol and allegory. This latter distinction also serves to identify a sort of swerve within Joycean aesthetics by the time of the writing of Ulysses ‒ and that had progressively started with Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The first three chapters of the Telemachiad appear as an extremely dense and coherent ideological foreword to the work, re-crossing the principal underpinnings of Stephen’s early theoretical reflection and, at the same time, delineating the three pivotal topics around which all the book will be built on. Theology, History and Philology are, in fact, more than ever reciprocally implied in the Ulysses and are cardinal in the Joycean progressive approach and moving towards modern allegory.
T.S. Eliot has once affirmed that approaching Joyce is like approaching Shakespeare: one gains understanding of his last work through the first one and, conversely, of the last one through the former ones. This is particularly true of the relationship between The Portrait and the first part of Ulysses, which represents not only the completion but most of all the revision and the ideological evolution of Joycean aesthetic points. Somehow it would be possible to infer that the passage from The Portrait to the Ulysses not only marks that from the Decadent, Romantic novel to the modern one, but that it also traces a progressive passage from the symbolic to the allegorical experience, even more emphasized by the gradual abandonment of epiphanies, precisely immortalized in the “Proteus” chapter as something belonging to a lost past, to a young ingenuity(2). The deconstruction as well as the rebellion against the Thomist system, metonymy of his early education, seems to be within Ulysses,a natural as well as a modern necessity: if in Stephen Hero, in fact, Aquinas’ theories appear as the basic support for the epiphany’s theorization, by the time when epiphany is not applicable anymore, the Thomistic assumptions automatically fall by the wayside.
In order to give an idea of this aesthetic shift, it would be helpful to draw a comparison between the fourth chapter of the Portrait and Ulysses’ “Proteus”. The former allows a return to the previous theme of “rebellion”: at this point, Stephen, after the interview with the director of the College, decides to refuse to take part in the Jesuits’ order: «The oils of ordination would never anoint his body. He had refused. Why?» (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 188)
The answer to this question can be detected some pages before: Stephen walking home, feeling the smell of the rotted cabbages, «smiled to think that it was this disorder, the misrule and confusion of his father’s house and the stagnation of vegetable life, which was to win the day in his soul» (185). The stink of rotted cabbages and the stagnation of vegetable life denote a deep break between the former and the latter part of the chapter: a mortified nature marks the overcoming of the “disorder”(3).
The incipit of the chapter was marked by the tidy and mystic scheduling of Stephen’s day, an order that was to epitomize the Aristotelic and Thomistic awareness, the symbolic self-assurance of coincidence between things and their sense: «the phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord» (189). The reader witnesses as Stephen progressively wakes up to his convictions (the repetition of “hither and thither” and other time clauses like “on and on” seems to underline a sort of crescendo)(4). Walking on the foreshore of the Dublin bay, Stephen becomes aware of the end of his childhood and takes upon himself his artistic destiny with conscientiousness: «he would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul» (193). There’s an intense interweaving between the sea movements and Stephen’s state of mind, a profound permeation between subject and nature, the colors of the waves which change continuously seem to interpret Stephen’s mood: «On and on and on and on he strode, far put over the strands, singing wildly over the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him» (196). The apparition of the girl standing on the mainstream provokes in Stephen “an outburst of a profane joy”(5). The symbolic attitude is undermined –his joy is profane‒ but it is not defeated yet. In this final part of Portrait’s chapter, it appears to be still possible a sort of Romantic analogy between nature and thought, a deep interaction between man and nature that becomes manifest through a metaphorical continuity and a symbolic collusion(6). The symbolic possibility, the Erlebnis, appears as still potential in the Romantic image of the artist who does not feel any distinction between inner and outer world, eventually representing an analogical unity of nature and consciousness: the symbolic unity of language and sense. It would suffice to pass to Stephen’s Telemachiad’s final act to realize the subversion into an allegorical pattern.
The “Proteus” chapter sets out a disarticulated nature, a panorama made of debris. As Benjamin would put it, nature starts meaning something different from what it actually represents, and it becomes comprehensible only by he who meditates and ponders. And Stephen is actually caught in his Aristotelic meditations, trying to read, to interpret the signatures of all things: «seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs» (Joyce, Ulysses 37). Colors, according to Dedalus’ reasoning, are the signatures of all things which transposed, it could be said that are the allegories of all things. The alternation of the terms signs and signatures is quite important from this perspective, as colors appear as the signifiers of a potential number of signified. According to Benjamin, within the reign of allegory things are not as such but signs, monograms of Being and every person, everything, every relationship can mean anything else. This arbitrariness of sense testifies a non-recognition between the human subject and natural scenery, the impossibility of a transcendence of meaning and the perception of a progressive deterioration.
Richard Ellman has rightly underlined that the “Proteus” starts with an image of birth and ends with a vision of death: «This is not growth but corruption. Stephen sees all created things in a process of decay, everyday dying a little, as if death were a concurrent process» (Ellman 24). This passage is actually filled with images of a lavish sense of death.(7) In this piece, nature is dumb and enigmatic and bears the wounds of History. Death‒ as Benjamin implies‒ marks the definitive divorce between physis and sense, in the Baroque skull resounds the loss of coincidence between words and their meanings and on the face of nature is written the word History with the characters of transience(8). Thus, History appears in the face of nature and in the central image of the drowning man with whom Dedalus seems to identify: «A drowning man. His human eyes scream to me out of horror of his death. I…with him together down…» (46). Differently from the radiant image of the bird-girl of the fourth chapter of the Portrait, there’s no possibility of an immediate revelation or salvation, nor an immediate possibility of understanding here.
The incipit of “Proteus” actually stages an important comparison between the knowledge process and the (literary) interpretation. The splinters of the fragmented panorama of Sandycove beach must be interpreted, but there’s no objective or natural connection between the signifier and the signified. Nonetheless, according to Benjamin, interpretation is not completely absorbed in the subjective perspective(9), but it must be oriented by a rational and communicable re-constellation. Namely, Terry Eagleton has pointed out that Modernism represents a profound crisis of and lack of trust in the subject’s potentialities: «If the subject is accordingly fractured and dismantled, the objective world it confronts is now quite impossible to grasp as the product of the subject’s own activity» (Eagleton 317). As the American critic implies, it is not by accident that is precisely in this period that structuralism arises. Nonetheless, Joyce does not yield to the lifting of responsibilities stemming from the mistrust of the subject. And it is actually philology ‒ to which this chapter is linked to according to the Linati schemata‒ that governs the objective recollection of the particulars, and somehow it could be possible to state that “Proteus” precisely displays the Benjaminian tension between semantics and philology, understanding the latter also as a compulsory self limitation to the contextualization of the interpretation. Stephen actually thinks about space and time, the ineluctable ways through which the human knowledge is possible. Ineluctable could stand, in fact, for objective. From the outset of this passage from Ulysses, the issue of time appears crucial: Stephen reflects on the categories of human cognition, the limited modes of the audible and the visible intended respectively as the spatial and the temporal dimensions. Allegory whose “constitutive category” is precisely time, as both Benjamin and De Man(10) would put it, implies a meaning’s recollection which engenders an intellectual as well as a temporal process. As Joyce suggests precisely in this chapter, borrowing the term from Lessing, nacheinender, say, step by step, “a very short space of time through very short times of space” (Joyce, Ulysses 37). According to Paul De Man, this time margin reveals an irreconcilable distance between the represented image and its origin, producing a language suspended in the void and thus generating a perpetrated confusion between the figural and the referential utterance. At any rate, even if with this regard, de Man’s possible understanding would appear quite appropriate and intriguing, his suggestion would fall into an ineluctable nihilist reading, or rather, in the “impossibility of reading” which sounds possibly attainable when speaking about Joyce’s Ulysses. But that would fail to pinpoint the value of allegory, or rather, of the allegory of modernity, within the Joycean text. As Benjamin implies, in fact, allegory has also a conservative function: the fragment still presents the signs, the signatures of the totality it stems from. The allegorical margin allows Joyce to avoid the entropy arising from the semantic historicism of language. Joyce unfolds the Benjaminian “critic act” wrenching the text, the words, from their deadly historical circular continuum, hence escaping from the risk of a linear and progressive sense of history. Even in the Modernist use (or re-use) of myth, Joyce highlights the divorce, the arbitrariness of the self-regulating and orienting subtext. Nonetheless, allegory provides a conventional and expressive means capable of giving life to an incredible richness of meanings. Allegory actually becomes structural of periods of decay, of dryness of interpretability, of cultural and historical decadence which is possibly pertinent to Stephen’s perception of the alienated condition of the artist, of art, of Ireland, and of Irish History as precisely here in the Proteus episode results evident from his statement: “House of decay, mine, his, and all”(39) referring to his personal exile in Paris and to that of his compatriot Kevin Hegan.
Somehow Stephen’s rebellion can actually be understood as a rebellion towards a symbolic interpretation, to that “illegitimate talk of the symbolic” (Benjamin 160) that “has an immeasurably comforting effect on the practice of investigation into the arts”, as Benjamin asserts. From the outset, Stephen rather brings about an “hermeneutic of suspicion” as Paul Ricoeur would define it. He actually tests the applicability of the Aristotelic theories: «[the Aristotelic doctrine] is reconsidered in the light of Berkeleyan idealism and is adjusted to a more protean vision of reality as flux, and to a different, non mimetic conception of the role of the artist» (Vitoux) Stephen’s statement “I am here to read the signs of all things” (37) can be understood as a return towards a phenomenological role of the artist whose task is that of extrapolating and unfolding the true content from the material one, in Benjamin’s terms. “Proteus” indeed represents the end of the symbolic possibility along with that of a totalizing experience between artist and nature. Significantly enough, there is a sort of hiatus between “Proteus”, the Telemachia, and the rest of the novel that unmistakably stages the triumph of the city, of the Marxian, or rather, the Lukaksian “second nature”, of the allegory that, as Franco Moretti has implied, becomes “a sign run amok”(11).
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso, 2009.
Booker, Keith. Joyce, Bakhtin, and Literary Tradition. University of Michigan Press, 1998.
De Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality." De Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1992. 187-228.
Deane, Seamus. "Joyce the Irishman." Attridge, Derek. The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetics. Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.
Ellman, Richard. Ulysses on the Liffey. Oxford University Press US, 1986.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London: Penguin, 1996.
—. Stephen Hero. London: Johnathan Cape, 1957.
—. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Luperini, Romano. L'incontro e il caso. Narrazioni moderne e destino dell'uomo occidentale. Bari: Laterza, 2007.
Melchiori, Giorgio. Joyce: il mestiere dello scrittore. Torino: Einaudi, 1994.
Vitoux, Pierre. "Aristotle, Berkeley, and Newmann in Proteus and Fynnegan's Wake." James Joyce Quarterly (1981): 161-75.