Thursday, 22 April 2010

James Joyce: Ulysses and rhetoric


There is no innocent position. Even those who claim that it is possible to say ‘I do (not) like Ulysses’ without taking positions, are already taking positions. They belong to the group who are ‘for’ Ulysses. They deny the idea that Ulysses requires preparation, because they already have that preparation – and therefore they are claiming that what they have is not ‘preparation’ at all, but the normal condition of things. People who are against Ulysses claim that they are the normal guys, who should not be expected to do the ‘hard work’ of reading it, while those who are in favour claim themselves to be the normal ones, because you don’t need anything in particular to enjoy Ulysses.


Ulysses is a mark of belonging. It asks, ‘do you belong to our clan?’ And saying that you do or do not like the novel is one form of answering yes or no. Ulysses is the keyword one needs to give to the gate-keepers to be allowed into the village. Those outside form their own clan. They need it to survive.


As an aside, one may complain that it took me more than twenty ‘chapters’ to actually start discussing the text itself, rather than its reputation. But what could I possibly write as a way of close-reading that has not already been said, and better, by the academics? As I mentioned, Ulysses has given way to a golden era of academic criticism and analysis. Other than Shakespeare, I don’t know if there’s an author in the English language with more books of criticism behind him/her than Joyce.


The intellectual world has been given a gold-mine by Joyce – that, and a password. If you read Ulysses, then you are or aspire to be an intellectual, implicitly. And so this is the clan to which the novel gives access. Of course this is why it is so flustering to an undergraduate, above all others. S/he is, after all, an aspiring intellectual. Joyce poses the conditions for that. There’s other novels which are ‘hard work,’ but they are not hard work which you are expected to do, because they are not keywords for being an intellectual. And undergraduates are expected to become intellectuals (once they graduate). After all, these other books are only ones among several; they are not the final book, they are not the key book, and therefore they are not the key-word. Ulysses is the final book; and what is beyond the final book? The reward of the books, the one you have always been seeking in all the books you have been reading, and after all, this one contains them all. The covers of Ulysses are like the gates. You can be before it or beyond it.


‘Intellectual’ is not to be confused with ‘intelligent.’ That is not what I am talking about at all. Intelligence is not a club; it is an aristocracy. As with ‘talent’ and ‘looks,’ you do not gain access to it, regardless of the keywords or exchange items you may possess. If society sees you as an intellectual, that is a position of power; if they see you as intelligent, that is a position of privilege.


The intellectual is defined by his/her rhetorical register, one which is a direct reflection of Ulysses (and, to some extents, one which was produced by that selfsame novel). This rhetorical register is one of the things they teach you in academia, alongside the critical skills (in the literary departments, anyway). It is the register you find in the writings of Derrida or Barthes. Much like Ulysses does not settle on a final anything, so the rhetoric of the intellectual mitigates all forms of finality or conclusiveness. You do not say, ‘this statement is wrong.’ You say, ‘the statement seems incautious.’ The verb ‘to be’ is consistently replaced with verbs of appearance: it seems, it appears, it would look like this author is stating such and such. When speaking of a poem or a novel, the most general and widespread synonym you can find for ‘good,’ and the only one which will always apply to all texts regardless of period or genre, is ‘subtle.’ The Aeneid is incredibly subtle, Eliot’s metaphors are particularly subtle (I have never encountered ‘clear’ as a statement of merit).

Default academic register is the first person plural. ‘We shall now consider,’ ‘we shall go on to discuss,’ ‘we cannot help but notice…’ It is the same mark of belonging as that of Ulysses. ‘Perhaps’ is the queen word of intellectual discourse. This is perhaps the greatest poem of the modernist period, perhaps the greatest intellectual paradigm shift of the century was psychoanalysis, no theorist compares to him other than perhaps Aristotle. Clearly, statements of deferral abound: I can’t give a complete answer to the questions this raises, we do not have the space to discuss the full implications of, and shit yo. It’s also custom to say that ‘the boundaries of these two issues are blurred.’

If you cannot choose words other than ones with ‘final’ implications, you suspend their value by means of quotation marks (as I’ve just done). So Joyce will be writing an ‘epic,’ and tragedy will be a discussion of the ‘truth,’ and we will be the ‘spectators’ for the unfolding of ‘history’ (this trend was very much in vogue a few years ago, but thankfully it seems to be dying out). There is never such a thing as a final, discernible reason or social use for starting a thesis. Rather, it is attributed to a candid emotion: what interests me or intrigues me or fascinates me about this proposition… (or, when you condemn it: this concerns me).

One general term to say that a text is bad is to say that ‘it is problematic.’ This leads to some extraordinary rhetorical turns. In the great tradition of deconstruction, the act of identifying the problem is already the solution. Generally, the ‘problems’ of a text are posed by the act of analysis in the first place. As ‘problems,’ they do not have solutions: but they allow for the act of staging the ‘interpretation’, which is already the redemption to the problems posed by the text. The problems themselves are retrospective products of their own solution. In fact, this is why they do not have solutions: because they are solutions in the first place, albeit disguised as problems. A rhetorical question is its own answer. Rhetorical problems are just one version of rhetorical questions. And this kind of intellectual rhetoric employs problems, questions, issues, fallacies of all sorts.

And so on so forth. A person who masters this rhetoric is an intellectual.

The last entry is coming tonight or tomorrow, fellas. A brief post to wrap it all up.


Mory said...

Interesting observations. I wonder, do you see the "intellectual" as a bad thing? Because on the one hand I get the sense you're laughing at them, and on the other hand you seem to enjoy being one.

John Silver said...

A good question. I don't see it as a role invested with an ethical dimension. The intellectual, to me, is simply a position within the power hierarchy of society (specifically, a position of power within discourse). Like priests used to be, for instance. Is a priest a good or a bad thing? S/He is simply a person who controls a certain degree of power. What use they make of it is a different question, and I guess they can be judged on that.

hiron said...

Deconstructing the deconstruction. This is pretty next level. As a former English major, I enjoyed reading this.

The Judge said...

Glad you enjoyed it, hiron, and thanks for stopping by! :)