Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2849
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...
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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 futility of final judgments is to render a fairly dogmatic judgment about the nature of Ulysses. In order to chastise the dogmatism of his fellow critics, Senn seems to resort to a counterdogmatism of his own: one that makes relativism the truest absolute in approaching this work of Joyce. (One notes, by the way, that Senn has once again inserted the word “also,” which at least allows him to escape the charge that he is “reducing” the novel in his turn to “nothing but” this function.) For all that, there are few Joyce readers who could criticize Senn on this point. Every reader of Ulysses, from the critic Wolfgang Iser to the lowliest graduate student, is painfully aware that reading such a text is closer to translating it than with most novels. Indeed, in one of his best and briefest essays—chapter 12, on “The Rhythm of Ulysses”—Senn argues that with chapter 10 of Ulysses, “Wandering Rocks,” the book becomes radically more allusive and indirect, less “realistic” in its mode. There is no doubt that any critic applying a rigid schema of any sort to the later Joyce is likely to come to grief. Senn, however, falls into no such trap.
Nevertheless, one would have hoped for a treatment of Joyce that would not have been so content to avoid any attempt at characterization of larger movements in Joyce’s works. (Senn is fond of pointing out that the linguistic transformations of Ulysses are accelerated farther out of realistic orbit in Finnegans Wake, but such points require no in-depth knowledge of either work: A random opening of any page of Ulysses alongside any page of Finnegans Wake will establish it.) Senn is, not surprisingly, at his best in taking up microtextual matters, as long as his urge to leave no allusion unturned stays reasonably in check. Some of the bits recur once or more times too often, though. Polytropos and chrystostomos, two Greek words that appear early in Ulysses, are repeatedly plumbed for significance; the injunction to treat Ulysses’ chapters as “individuals” is repeatedly issued; the fact that Bloom is wrongly thought to have bet on a winning horse and that the list of those at Paddy Digham’s funeral misspells Bloom as “Boom” are too often cited; Bloom’s mistranslation from Italian of a line from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni is mentioned quite frequently; and so on. It should be stressed, however, that these repetitions are chiefly the result of the fact that this is a collection of essays written on diverse occasions for diverse publications. Quite apart from what editing could have done to spare the reader some of these needless redundancies, the frequent recurrence of details might arguably provide continuity of some kind at least. They also suggest the utility of Senn’s vague umbrella notions, such as dislocution, as a way of giving a certain appearance of import to what are really various points of detail that can be arranged or presented in different ways as any given occasion requires.
It is unfair of any reader to expect a collection of essays to contain a cumulative argument; it is, however, surely not too much to expect that at least within one essay a line of argument be discernible. While often fascinating in paragraphs or on textual details, Senn’s analysis seldom fares well for longer stretches or on larger swatches of text. There are three exceptions to this rule: the aforementioned chapter on the rhythm of Ulysses; chapter 10, entitled “Bloom Among the Orators”; and chapter 11, on “Nausicaa.” These pieces contribute much to a Joyce reader’s understanding of Ulysses, and at least the first two mentioned have a clear thrust. In the “Nausicaa” chapter, as the longest of the three, the argument is occasionally waylaid by Senn’s perennial interest in curious detail, but what coherence Senn cannot build into his argument is here at least supplied by “Nausicaa” itself, a self-contained chapter of Ulysses with its own narrative movement and thematics.
To conclude from these reflections that Joyce’s Dislocutions is anything less than a valuable source for wisdom on the Joyce canon would be an error. One is not a linchpin of the Joyce industry for as long and as prominently as Senn has been without acquiring formidable acuity as a reader of Joyce. This acuity is on display at every turn in the book, often with esprit. His lengthy treatment of the figure of Gerty MacDowell—as a counterpart of Bloom’s wife, Molly, as an emblem of the paradoxes of fashion and the play of appearances, as one means of entry into the question of how the clichés of kitsch inform and even enrich so-called high culture—shines with prismatic lights. In general, one could hazard that Senn’s observations on characters are especially worth consulting, the above-mentioned chapters on Bloom being further instances of this gift.
Perhaps the operative word, however, is “consult.” A student of Joyce, much less the general educated reader, would be ill-advised to take up this volume and read it from one end to the other. For one thing, the style of the pieces is quite erratic, and for every well-turned remark there is a sentence closer to the one analyzed at the outset. For another, the fact that Senn is Swiss (from Zurich, that city so pivotal to Joyce’s literary career), while properly stressed as a positive point by Riquelme in his introductory essay “The Use of Translation and the Use of Criticism,” may also make it harder to steer a straight course. The very cultural and linguistic diversity that allows Senn to open up implicit meanings in a phrase of Joyce impels him to slide into frequent irrelevancies whose main effect is to illuminate not so much Joyce’s meaning as Senn’s own linguistic versatility. Hence, the very weakest chapters in the book are the first three, which deal explicitly with translation. Chapter 2, paraphrasing a line from Finnegans Wake, is called “Transluding off the Toptic,” and that indeed is what these initial chapters seem designed to do. More than that, they seem dedicated to keeping a topic, or an optic, from emerging in the first place.
To all of this, though, Senn would probably have a ready and seemingly legitimate reply. After all, as that paraphrase from Joyce above demonstrates, Senn is only following the master’s example. As Joyce’s later canon frustrates the desire for plot or even elementary meaning, so Senn’s criticism—laced with puns as is Joyce’s prose—coyly turns aside the desire of the reader that the critic follow an approach, guide his argument from thesis to conclusion, provide pat answers, and so forth. There is a certain plausibility to this position, but it runs afoul of something often called the “imitative fallacy.” This is the fallacy that assumes that the critique of a work of art should at its best be itself like that work of art; that to have cognitive value, an article about Robert Frost’s poetry, for example, should somehow approach the condition of Frost’s poetry itself. In Senn’s case, there is at times the implicit assumption that criticism of Joyce must be itself “Joycean.” The subtitle, with its invocation of “reading as translation,” is one clue to this problem. In translation, one writer does in fact attempt to reproduce or parallel the writing of another: Imitation here makes perfect sense. In the reading process, a kind of mental translation, an attempt by the reader to reproduce in his or her own mind the world presented by the writings of another, is also involved. In a critical essay, however, the point is to go beyond either translation or reading and to employ the writings of another in constructing one’s own assertions, in saying something of one’s own. One instance of this procedure, taken more or less at random, would be an essay on Joyce’s Ulysses by the Italian critic Franco Moretti entitled “The Long Goodbye,” from a volume called Signs Taken for Wonders (1983). This essay, unabashedly polemical, attempts to link the production of Joyce’s work to the monopoly capitalism then taking over much of the economy of Europe. One questions the wisdom of such a linkage and the extent to which the critic has mastered all the complexities of the Ulysses text; the essay is “reductive” with a vengeance, in all the ways Senn cautions against. Yet Moretti’s essay, wrong-headed though it may be, has something to offer that is largely missing in the cautious, self-effacing, and studiedly even-handed remarks in this volume. Moretti employs certain aspects of Ulysses to construct his own set of assertions, for which he then tries to adduce proof and plausibility through an argument. He does not attempt to imitate Joyce, to demonstrate mastery of his canon, or even to suggest the impossibility of mastering that canon; what he does attempt is to situate Joyce within larger currents of life and culture and to say something new about these.
Senn frequently approaches similar feats—most clearly in the “Nausicaa” chapter—and these approaches are what make his reflections most intriguing. Unfortunately, just as frequently Senn retreats from those same approaches as if from an Alpine precipice. The editor’s vantage point that allows him to glimpse so many different perspectives on Joyce’s infinitely variegated corpus also forecloses him from taking the leap of adopting one of them as his own—or, better, of developing his own from them. He remains a kind of customs officer, admitting this and that argument as possibilities, never declaring himself in favor of any one but not rejecting any either. This role is appropriate to an editor, and it accounts for much of the variety of perspective that the collected essays evince. By the same token, such a stance of Swiss neutrality betrays a reluctance to risk engagement in any of the controversies of Joyce criticism: an above-the-battle position. It is this refusal to risk assuming a polemical stance in favor of remaining on the mountaintop, with the attendant retreat into appeals to complexity and ambiguity, which causes the many and varied perspectives afforded by these essays increasingly to resemble an embarrassment of riches.