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Ulysses and the past disaster

with 4 comments

Read this post as an extended footnote to my previous one. It’s very easy to forget, I suppose because it’s set in 1904, that Joyce wrote Ulysses during and after the First World War. For instance, Badiou does in The Century:

The twentieth century kicks off in an exceptional fashion. Let us take the two great decades between 1890 and 1914 as the century’s prologue. In every field of thought these years represent a period of exceptional invention, marked by a polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance or the century of Pericles. It is a prodigious period of excitement and rupture. Consider just a few of its milestones. […] This period also sees the publication of the vast novels of James and Conrad, the writing of the bulk of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the maturation of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Badiou is making a point here about the relationship between culture before and after the First World War, so it does matter that he’s a few years off with the dating of the development of Ulysses. And it mattered to Joyce, apparently, that we take heed of the dates of the texts “maturation.” Remember what happens at the very end?

watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921

The dates and places mark the text as itself marked by the particularly brutal time and place it was written. They are arguably – traditionally – considered to be a part of the text itself, rather than “supplementary” materials added on like an author’s note on the last page of the text.

What do we miss when we read Ulysses without attending to what Joyce clearly wanted us to know (if only retroactively, retrospectively) about his novel? One way to put it is that this novel about 1904 wants to announce itself as a sort of dialectical image, if a strange sort of one. Here are the requisite quotes from Benjamin, the first from the Arcades Project, the second two from the Theses. You’ve probably read them before…

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. ‘The truth will not run away from us’: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)

The historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand [einsteht] and has come to a standstill. For this notion defines the very present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism offers the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called “Once upon a time” in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers – enough to blast upon the continuity of history.

I’d argue that the dates at the end of Ulysses, particularly if they’re taken (as I take them) to be part of the text proper, force us to take the novel as something in line with Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image rather than, say, simply a “historical novel.” 1904 is summoned / presents itself because it was 1914-1921 in Trieste-Zurich-Paris, rather than the alternative.

But it’s a strange sort of dialectical image or collection of dialectical images. First of all – but I suppose this is true of all images of the sort – it’s not clear what exactly we’re supposed to take from what Joyce has collected. Franco Moretti in Signs Taken for Wonders brilliantly claims that Ulysses is a sort of retrograde dystopia, one that predicts the worst of all possible bad futures, the bad future that has already come to pass:

Ulysses is indeed static, and in its world nothing – absolutely nothing – is great. But this is not due to any technical or ideal shortcoming on Joyce’s part, but rather his subjection to English society: for Joyce, it is certainly the only society imaginable, although he just as certainly condemns it, through a hyperbolic presentation of its worst features, to a future of paralysed mediocrity (a future that Joyce, with a stroke of genius, places in the past, as if to underline his consummate scepticism: one can always hope never to reach the negative utopias of science fiction, but if a negative utopia came into being twenty years ago, and no one realized it, then the die is truly cast…)

But there’s something else that’s strange and complicating about all this. June 16, 1904 is also (we know, we know) the date when Joyce first went out with his future wife Nora Barnacle and when, according to semi-official legend, she gave him a handjob. * This fact somewhat over or underdetermines all that I’ve written above, hard to say which, but nevertheless does lead on to the next of my thetically arranged series of posts, in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found…. Coming soon….

* I’ve always been a bit curious about this whole handjob thing, as the letters indicate that it really did mean quite a lot to JJ, but also JJ clearly had been with women – prostitutes – before Nora and assuredly in a more than manual sort of way. Somehow the handjob from a non-prostitute was more, well, epiphanic than anything else that had happened with prostitutes. Which makes sense…. And doesn’t. No it does actually. But for a good time, read this exchange. Just found it.

Written by adswithoutproducts

January 11, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Posted in badiou, benjamin, joyce, war

4 Responses

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  1. […] * See my next post… […]

  2. It’s fun to watch all this stuff coming together, knowing a little bit about your work as I do. Kind of like lifting up a tapestry to look at the back side, this watching of someone writing.

    But this I’m going to have to take exception to:

    in which I attack Benjamin for always fantasizing about explosions where none were to be found….

    Nooo! Not my Benjamin!!!! What about Buck-Morss on the dialectical image as materialist pedagogy, or Buci-Glucksmann on him and the baroque and desire? The explosion is supposed to be in your head, you see, the aha moment … no? There’s no way I can convince you? Sigh.

    PS I’ve been reading around in some stuff on the everyday and popular culture … is the concept of “the everyday” developed in contrast to anthropology and the sacred? Like ritual time, sacred time?


    January 12, 2009 at 4:59 am

  3. Ha funner to watch than to do perhaps. But I am trying to calm down and work, yes.

    Yes, he’s mine Benjamin too. I’m, erm, going to try to do a little job on him. We’re far too respectful to our favorite theorists, aren’t we? It’s the most respectful thing I can think to do, and I love him probably as much as you too.

    What have you been reading in re everyday / sacred? You know the deep origin of my project is probably wondering to myself about the parts of the RC liturgical calendar called “ordinary time” (i.e. not lent or advent or what’s the stuff before pentecost?) When I was a kid, I thought it was so interesting and strange to call time “ordinary time” like that.


    January 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  4. actually I’ve been teaching the kiddies: “once upon a time there was the birmingham school and Adorno and Stuart Hall and then Mike Featherstone and now we are all about consumer culture.”

    But the groups of people I am teaching about are more usually studied by anthropologists, and they write about their subjects in weird, exoticist ways, and the few ethnic studies people who write about pop culture spend a lot of their time attacking the anthropologists … so I was wondering if the emphasis on the everyday came about in part as a reaction to this portentous notion of the sacred … ‘course de Certeau wrote about the everyday and studied like, um, Carnival, I think.


    January 14, 2009 at 7:31 am

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