Joyce’s modernism

Continuing the theme of modernism from yesterday

… For six hundred years, English has been tinkered with until it has

become a fine instrument for describing what’s literally going on and

what people are thinking. The vocabulary is famously huge, the syntax

is supple, and there are narrative techniques for all occasions. As an

example of perceptive modern prose, consider James Joyce‘s spare

description of Leopold Bloom in a hearse:

Mr. Bloom entered and sat in a vacant place. He pulled the door to

after him and slammed it shut tight. He passed an arm through the armstrap

and looked seriously from the open carriage window at the lowered blinds

of the avenue. Nose whiteflattened against the pane. Thanking her stars

she was passed over. Glad to see us go we give them so much trouble


We don’t really know how the old woman talks or what she’s thinking.

Maybe she’s a police informant spying on the house opposite; maybe she’s

a he. But Joyce has focused his lens so that only Bloom’s mind

shows clearly. Thus we learn about the objects that Bloom handles—the

door and the armstrap—but only about their functions, because he

is too preoccupied to note accidental features like material and color.

His very name reflects his state of mind, for he experiences himself as

"Mr. Bloom" when he rides in a hearse. We might like

to learn more (for instance, what kind of buildings line the avenue?),

but such information would ruin the realism. Thinking is perspectival,

selective; and we know just what Bloom notices.

Modern literary English allows an author to choose almost any vantage

point, any focus, and any depth of field. Why then does Joyce use so many

other idioms? For instance, in the "Oxen of the Sun" episode,

he mimics every major prose style in the history of English. At one point,

Bloom has just entered a house where a woman is suffering her third day

of labor. He means to express his sympathy to the family, but he finds

himself among callous drunks who are loudly discussing whether it would

be better in the eyes of the Church for the woman or the baby to die.

Bloom mutters vague abstractions to avoid expressing a view, perhaps because

any opinion could be heard upstairs. Then …

in Joyce’s version ….

That is truth, pardy, said Dixon, and, or I err, a pregnant word.

Which hearing young Stephen was a marvellous glad man and he averred

that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was

of a wild manner when he was drunken and that he was now in that

taking it appeared efstoons.

But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still

had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their

labour and he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne

him an only manchild which on his eleventh day on live had died

and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous

stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on

a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock, lest he

might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst

of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild

for an heir looked upon him his friend’s son and was shut up in

sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him

failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real

parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for

that he lived riotously with these wastrels and murdered his good

with whores.

in a literal paraphrase …

"That’s the truth," said Dixon. "And a pregnant

word, if I’m not mistaken," he added, when the thought struck

him. Young Stephen roared at the pun and added sarcastically,

"He who steals from the Lord lends to the poor." He

was wild when drunk: his eyes shone and his voice was loud and


But Bloom was grave and quiet, for he still heard shrieking from

upstairs. The sound of a woman in labor always moved him, and

these particular cries reminded him of his wife Molly, who had

borne his only baby boy. The baby had died (of accidental poisoning)

after just eleven days. The doctors had said that nothing could

be done. Molly was so grief-stricken that all she could do was

to shop for the best little wool blanket so that their son wouldn’t

have to lie cold in the winter ground. Now Bloom watched brash

young Stephen, his friend’s boy, and grieved for his own dead

child. But as much as he mourned the baby (a beautiful child,

everyone said), Bloom was just as sorry to see Stephen wasting

his life with drunks and his money on whores.

Joyce’s prose resembles a thick but uneven hedge screening the literal

truth. Here, we can just about cut through the fifteenth-century language

to to see what’s going on. In other places, it is impossible to make out

even the basic narrative facts. For instance, we are almost never permitted

to overhear Bloom’s thoughts about what to do or where to go next. Much

like Odysseus, he just shows up in episode after episode.

Frustrated by this and other omissions, we might say: If only Joyce would

just tell the story! Why does he have to use a pastiche of past and present

styles, so many of which are opaque?

The question assumes, of course, that there is a truth to grasp. But

perhaps my "literal interpretation" above is simply one idiom,

a product of its time, just as Everyman reflects the culture of

England in 1500. In that case, Joyce has carried realism to its final

stage. He doesn’t describe the world or consciousness (either objectively

or subjectively), because to do so would be to forget the fact that all

seeing is from the point of view of a style. Instead, he describes some

past and contemporary ways in which life has been described. As in one

of Nietzsche’s magic tricks, the real world—disappears! Literature,

not life, is the subject of Ulysses; yet the book itself counts as literature

(in Stephen’s words, as an "eternal affirmation of the spirit of

man"), because it is perceptive, tender, and humane.

This rare combination—a declaration of the End of Art that is also

art—is characteristic of the greatest works of modernism. Note, however,

that Joyce must deny that there has been progress in the history of English

narrative style. The succession of idioms that he mimics does not evolve

toward clarity. If modern English prose has somehow surpassed its predecessors,

then Joyce would have no excuse to abandon it.