Joyce's Dislocutions

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Known chiefly on the Continent and within the province of Joyce specialization, Fritz Senn, editor of the James Joyce Quarterly and, until 1983, coeditor of A Wake Newsletter, has not gained comparable status in the United States beyond the field. With this book, a gathering of essays, he is likely to become a more widely circulated name. Bearing the imprint of the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Press and the imprimatur of Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner, this collection of essays is destined for rapid legitimacy. Such a statement suggests a young tyro just striking out on his own. Rather the contrary: Senn has been a prominent figure among scholars for some time, as demonstrated not only by his editorship but also by his numerous articles, retailed at some length in the back of the text.

Thirteen of these articles are here gathered by John Paul Riquelme, and in some ways they bear the mark of Senn’s own editorship. The editor, after all, is a person who must vet other works or arguments for acceptability as scholarship rather than to take as one’s chief duty the adopting of a specific perspective on a given subject. This is especially true of those who edit journals with a topic, rather than a critical or philosophical outlook, as their base. It is part of a good editor’s function to take into account the possible approaches of many sorts, without committing himself—or, in other words, the journal he edits—to any one approach. Such a professional position, combined with interest in an author whose name is often thought to be synonymous with multiple meanings, is bound to produce a tentative critical style whose hallmark is half assertion, trial balloon, and hesitant hint, rather than one straightforward, cumulative argument. Not surprisingly, then, perhaps, Fritz Senn, fresh from his editor’s duties, employs just such a tentative mode of attack in treating Joyce.

As an example of Senn’s critical prose, one might single out the last sentence of Joyce’s Dislocutions, from the chapter titled “Dislocution,” which concerns the concept, elaborated in the essay, of dislocution: “If anything, dislocution is an expediently blurred trope, a catalytic aid for discerning, a trifle more readily, the variants of that Protean energy that, while no single one of its symptoms may be entirely new, in its pluralistic, mercurial impact does set Joyce’s later work off from its many predecessors and from most of the works that have followed in its wake.” Characteristically, everything in this statement is hedged; indeed, “if anything” hedges the subject of the sentence, “dislocution,” even before the reader gets that far. What it is, then, is an “expediently blurred trope,” a “catalytic aid.” Here extravagant vocabulary (words such as “catalytic” and “trope”) is enlisted to mute the impact of definition, and even once meaning is espied, it is less than meets the eye. A trope is a figure of speech; an “aid” in this context is a help to the understanding. Few could object to such a heavily qualified sort of concept. What is it that one will be aided to understand with this already blurred figure of speech—and at that only “a trifle more readily” than one could understand it without such an aid? The answer seems to be energy that is “pluralistic, mercurial” and “Protean”; in short, energy that is so changeable that it can scarcely be grasped anyway. (Senn, throughout, is enamored of pointing out rapid transformations in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and the impossibility of seizing upon them or explaining them.) All that dislocution is, then, is a figure of speech that helps the reader realize that the energy of the later Joyce’s corpus is very hard to understand. This is not much of a claim to make, either about Joyce or for the concept of dislocution. The point that this linguistic energy does set Joyce’s later work off from other literature is closer to an actual assertion; it works toward establishing what the essay calls “one of the features that seem to set Ulysses apart from whatever happened before the shock of its advent.” One might say that Joyce’s “dislocutions” are really Senn’s way of saying that Joyce employs many puns and that his text programs multiple layers of meaning.

In any event, this sentence, analyzed in admittedly elaborate detail, does suggest in miniature some of the more general facets of Senn’s favored forms of discourse. There is clever nomenclature, a disdain for method of any kind, the feeling that something important is being said about Joyce, and the reader’s persistent difficulty in ferreting out just what that something is. The essays in this volume abound in insights, leads picked up and dropped, amusing and witty formulas, but the core of argument—the essay’s “whatness,” to use one of Senn’s and Joyce character Stephen Dedalus’ favorite terms—often eludes. This elusiveness is heightened by the tendency, above observed, for Senn’s prose to cancel itself out. As he says of Ulysses’ “Nausicaa” chapter: “Each new attitude is apt to invalidate the previous one.”

Senn has several repeated points that justify what the uninformed may mistake for a mere penchant for waffling. The first justification rests upon a generalized distaste for the practice of “reducing” a piece of art, as Senn expresses it, to a specific point of view. In chapter 7—“Dogmad or Dubliboused?”—he is clearest on this point and uses it to object to a variety of other critics’ remarks on the Joycean canon. He does not mind the “readings” of Ulysses (1922) or Finnegans Wake (1939), whether “Egyptian,” “psychoanalytical,” or “sectarian”: “The objection is to such delimiting formulas as ’nothing but,’ or ’fundamentally.’ They express some of our dearest ambitions: the intellectual imperialism of the mind makes us strive for the formula that would make us master, by categorizing and naming.” He is, thus, suspicious of this general “imperialism of the mind,” in the same way, he points out, that Joyce’s Ulysses hero Leopold Bloom is skeptical of all dogma. This leads to Senn’s second reason for shunning the usual procedures of assertion and proof: that the nature of Joyce’s work—at least of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, which is most of what Senn treats—is such that generalization itself is not only meaningless but also actively mocked by the text. For example, Senn calls Ulysses “a novel that also exposes the futility of judgments that aspire to be final.” He confirms this view elsewhere (in chapter 4, “The Dynamics of Corrective Unrest”) by discussing the character of Bloom as a man who corrects his own judgments constantly.

With this second point, one begins to see a contradiction in Senn’s rationale. After all, to define Ulysses as a work that exposes the...

(The entire section is 2849 words.)