Saturday, March 03, 2007

Black Panthers

My MO when teaching Joyce is to do all the reading for the seminar before the seminar begins; then to read along with the students as the syllabus progresses, both primary texts & critical essays; and at the same time to work my way thru a couple of “classic” pieces of Joyce criticism & a couple of more recent things. The “classics” right now are SL Goldberg’s The Classical Temper: A Study of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1961) (a bit of a slow go) & CH Peake’s James Joyce: The Citizen & the Artist (1977) (luminous). The recencies are Enda Duffy’s The Subaltern Ulysses (1994) and Geert Lernout’s The French Joyce (1990).

Lernout has in recent years become one of the big movers in Finnegans Wake-based “genetic” criticism, a peculiar, highly specialized tulip that seems to flourish best in the Low Countries. In The French Joyce, an early work, he’s probably trying to do too much – to provide a history of Joyce studies in France & simultaneously to offer a potted summary of post-structuralism. (Some would argue that the latter goal is hamstrung from the start by his reliance on the reactionary La Pensée 68 by Luc Ferry & Alain Renaut; I’m inclined to agree, tho I do find Ferry & Renaut useful for providing a history of Hegel’s reception in 20th c. French thought, as well as some institutional context for the rise of the new theory.)

But Lernout is mainly a close reader & a seeker-out of howlers – and one is amazed by the howlers he finds in the classics of French Joyce criticism: Hélène Cixous’s (Freudian?) slip of identifying the “Nothung!” of “Circe” as Sigmund’s sword; Jacques Derrida’s virtuosic juxtaposition of Bloom’s “I. AM. A.” (“Nausicaa”) & Stephen’s “I, I am I. I” (“Scylla & Charybdis”), hampered by the fact that the latter passage (presaging Bob Marley) actually reads “I, I and I. I”; Jean-Michel Rabaté’s identification of a Joycean source in “the Preface of the official Livre de messe of the Church of Dublin (the one Joyce must have used)” – which turns out to be the good old Book of Common Prayer, common to both the Church of England and the Church of Ireland, & which Joyce might have known, but which – raised as he was Roman Catholic – certainly wouldn’t have used.

Lernout can’t help coming across as what he admits he is – a guy who was really into theory in grad school, but who got disenchanted when he discovered what one could do with genetic studies – theory’s antithesis. He’s weakest on Lacan, relying largely on Stuart Schneiderman’s compulsively readable but not too illuminating Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero. But then again, I don’t know many of us who had much of an idea what Lacan was doing before Slavoj Zizek, the wise-cracking colossus of Ljubljana, showed up. Maybe he’s “saved” Lacan for another generation.

I recall a conference at Cornell 4-5 years ago where someone remarked that trauma studies seemed to have “saved” Freudian psychoanalysis for cultural studies – the poor old thing was on the verge of dying off, before the hip new discourse came along and applied the defibrillator. (Of course, Freudian psychoanalysis has been dead as a doornail for ages in practical psychiatric circles. Sometimes my inner skeptic wonders whether it’s as if the chemistry departments were getting on with the stuff they do best, while the humanities programs are building huge edifices of thought on phlogiston theory.)
Enda Duffy’s book – & I can’t get out of my head a Russian student, some years past, solemnly rambling on about Edna Duffy and her fatal flaws, even as I kept interjecting “ENDA” and “HIS” – is postcolonial studies by the numbers. It’s not enough that Joyce was the only one of the high modernists who treated Jews with anything like affection, or that he hated all forms of authority – we’ve got to have a Ulysses which is “the book of Irish post-colonial independence.”

But Duffy reminds me of a factoid I used to know & had forgotten. Remember Haines, the obnoxious English cultural tourist whose nightly panther-dreams & condescending hibernophilia help to drive Stephen away from the Martello tower (“We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame”)? Joyce based him, as Richard Ellmann (that’s “priceless Richard Helmann” in one Lacan text) details, on one Samuel Chenevix Trench, not an Englishman at all but an Anglo-Irishman of such potent nationalism that he had his given name changed to “Dermot.”

It seems that Trench was given to actually taking potshots at the black panthers he dreamed, one instance of which gunplay drove Joyce from the tower for good. Five years later he would turn the revolver on his own head.

What relation, I wonder, was Samuel (Dermot) Chenevix Trench to Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1866), Archibishop of Dublin, probably the crucial member of the troika (another was Herbert Coleridge, the poet’s grandson) who in 1858 set in train the compiling of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles – the OED?

Joyce’s preferred source was Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary; he does not appear in the index of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, tho every particle physicist knows that “quark” is from Finnegans Wake.

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