79. (James Joyce)

Once, in a graduate seminar on Chaucer, flailing and frustrated with the chatter, I blurted out to the professor, most becomingly for a graduate student, a demand more than a question: “But what is the point of it all?” At which point he patiently expounded on how this, and most, of The Canterbury Tales might be understood as fundamentally verifying and testing the conditions and circumstances in which our bonds of language, our commitments, vows, promises, implicit or explicit, hold true. The answer might seem too easy to be satisfying: but it is the sort of answer that might be given when asking about the point of any great narrative (and many non-narrative works).

Living with others necessitates promising, committing, and vowing; life puts more pressures than we can think on these essential bonds, but it also might be that the successful classifying of narrative structures is a classification of those pressures.

At any rate, Chaucer is a Joycean author, with his proliferation of voices, perspectives, his world of wanderers and revelers, his fascination in both procreation and recreation (as in Oxen of the Sun”). Here then is another answer to the question: why does Joyce change his relationship to style at 4:30 p.m., the approximate time of Molly Bloom’s infidelity and the moment when Leopold Bloom’s watch stops?

Ulysses, being a novel about citizenships, fatherhood, marriage, is a novel about obligations, debts, commitments and the expression, transmission, disfiguring, displacing, of these; perhaps because of nothing greater than Joyce’s commitment to writing fully about life in a city, a nation, an empire, and a family, these are frequent in the novel.

But among the bonds is the implicit bond between author and narrative voice; between the author’s language and the language of the characters; between the author and the characters. Up until 4:30 p.m., Joyce is faithful to not one character, but to a particular vantage point by which characters are understood from a perspective that might be their own, from a time that they inhabit; he is faithful, at the very least, to what might be thought a family of techniques, of abbreviated phrases, of concatenation of impressions, of shutter-speed transitions.

At 4:30, a change comes about. The act of infidelity does not really matter for Bloom in so far as it fits a pre-existing pattern of anxieties and fantasies, does not impair his love for Molly, does not entail a Tennysonian crisis of fidelity; it is another wrinkle in the inevitably wrinkled texture of marriage. Why should the vows and commitments of marriage be damagingly inflexible, brittle in their incapacity to bend, when the rest of the vows, commitments, and oaths that hold society together consist of conventions that, like all conventions, permit variation, deviation, and occasional lapses?

The 4:30 p.m. transgression does not really matter much for Joyce either—except in so far as its not mattering much matters:  the world has remained intact, and the vow of marriage is proven less rigid and frangible than it might have seemed. Joyce, at the same time, is liberated from a particular commitment to language. Pastiche, lampoon, farce, and imitation represent that new willingness to rethink commitment to narratorial voice, character, time, and lived experience that characterizes the novel’s first part. The trick is to see that Joyce is not refusing commitment, not breaking his vows or oaths to the characters, but he is seeing his earlier expression of them as one choice among many, a convention that permits of detachment and play.

Has Joyce gone, then, the way of Buck Mulligan’s ventriloquizing irreverence? Perhaps; Mulligan draws his jokes from the same root of verbal ingenuity and trickery as Joyce. But Mulligan also represents an extreme to which Joyce sometimes tends: parasitic upon creation, performing for the sake of performance, rather than for the sake of setting off the world. And here the novel offers a better model for the spirit, if not virtuosity, of Joyce’s post 4:30 technique: Bloom’s, the advertiser’s, willing to bend language not because of a personal commitment to it, but in order to fit it to showing off the world in whatever light; persuading us not of his relationship to language, but persuading us that the world could be seen a certain way—often, for Joyce though not Bloom, grotesque, duplicitous, fantastic, and sustaining, worth an investment of time.

 

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