Derek Attridge, Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce (London: Methuen 1988), 262pp.

CONTENTS - Chaps. [incl.] Chap. 6: Literature as Imitation: Jacobson, Joyce and the Art of Onomatopoeia [127-57; sects.: hermogenes or Cratylus; “Ff! Oo!” Nonlexical Onomatopoeia’ “Liquor for his Lips!”: Lexical Onomatopoeia; The Art of Onomatopoeia; Chap. 7: Literature as Deviation: Syntax, Style, and the Body in Ulysses [p158-87; sects.: Norms and Deviations; Lipspeech; With Apologies to Lindley Murray; Language, Ideology, and the Body]; Chap. 8: Deconstructing Digression: The Backbone of Finnegans Wake and the Margins of Culture [210-238; sects. Theme (from a Filleted Wake); Digress; Return: The Wake as Backbone.]

Quotes Aristotle: ‘a really distinguished style varies from ordinary speech through the employment of unusual words. By unusual I mean strange words and metaphors and lengthened words and everything that goes beyond ordinary diction. But if someone should write exclusively in such forms the result would either be a riddle or a barbarism. A riddle will result if someone writes exclusively in metaphor; and a barbarism will result if there is an exclusive use of strange words […] It is therefore necessary to use a combination of all these forms. The employment of strange words and metaphor and ornamental words and other forms of speech that have been mentioned will prevent the diction from being ordinary and mean; the use of normal speech will keep the diction clear. (Poetics, 1458a.)

Notes the paradox: The claim to stand completely outside the field of study and to make assertions about it that have no effect upon it, is one that muse be dubious in any discipline abut especially in the study of cultural phenomena. (p.6.)

In my view, nearly all literary theory and criticism (notably that which has been informed by the methods of linguistics) founders on the narrowness of its own assumptions about the processes of reading, and it is a highly questionable a priori judgement that renders the reading of literature - or any written text - as a single, homogeneous activity capable of being explained in terms of definitions, taxonomies, and rules. (p.7; See ftn., ‘As with reading, so with writing - no particular practice is neutral or ahistorical. My own engagements with specific texts owe more, I believe, to the example of Jacques Derrida than to any other writer […])

A further point I would like to make at the outset is that all three texts are examined as texts, not arguments conducted some prelinguistic conceptual level and then translated into words. (p.9.)

Finnegans Wake, although usually banished to the very edges of the literary canon as an inassimilable freak, can also, it appears, function as the canonical instance of the “literary” itself. (p.10.)

Joyce, perhaps more than any other writer, exploits the uncertain play between the two contradictory guises in which language presents itself to its readers: as a system of forms, in completely arbitrary relation to the meanings that those forms carry, and as impulses of imitation and motivation, constantly moving toward (though never reaching) a solidification of the connections between the sounds or shapes of language and their significances. (The first pulls literature toward the pole of “art”, the second toward the pole of “nature”.) [… F]or Saussure, apparent instances of motivation such as onomatopoeia are marginal phenomena, but for Jakobson they represent, in his phrase, “the essence of language”. Joyce’s texts contradict neither. It is the principle of arbitrariness, allowing infinite combinatory possibilities of form and content, which provides Joyce with his material and scope, while it is the principle of motivation, the never-fading desire on the part of the language-user to find or to make a system of signs in which form [11] and content indissolubly cohere, which produces the energy and pleasure by which Joyce’s texts, and their readings, are propelled. (pp.11-12.)

Joyce’s dexterity in handling the sounds and patterns of English is evident on every page of his published work, but one episode of Ulysses is explicitly concerned with music and imitative sound, the chapter known from the Odyssean scheme as “Sirens”. We can expect here not only Joyce’s customary linguistic agility and ingenuity but also some consideration - if only by example - of language’s capacity to imitate directly the world of the senses. [Gives the example of Leopold Bloom’s breaking wind: “Prrprr […] / Must be the bur. / Fff Oo. Rrpr. / Nations of the earth .” ( U, 11. 1284)] (p.136.) Notes by comparison that when Molly breaks wind [’Frseeeeeeefronnnng”, 18.595] ‘the context does not allow us to distinguish that trainwhistle from Molly’s own anal release.’ (p.144.) Remarks of the tendency in Ulysses (”Calypso”, “Sirens”) for bodily members and sexual organs (notably ‘lips) to operate independently of the subjectivity of their owners at the sentence-level: ‘One way to account for the independence of speech organs in “Sirens” is to appeal to the figure of synecdoche. [..] This synecdochic tendency in colloquial speech is most striking when the entire individual is substituted for the genital organs in euphemistic reference to sexual activity: “You can apply your eye to the keyhole and play with yourself while I just go through her a few times” (U15.3788) and it is no feat of interpretative subtlety to translate “yourself”, “I”, and “her” into the appropriate sexual organs. […] One way of regarding the variously busy lips of “Sirens”, therefore, is as a more literal rendering of human vocal activity than is normally [166] promulgated by the linguistic convention of representing all conscious human behaviour as if it were the produce of a single, coherent subjectivity and by the ideology that this convention serves and promotes. / A further effect of this organic liberation is erotic arousal […]’ (pp.167-68.)

Speaks of a ‘traffic between vocal and sexual organs [which] occurs throughout the chapter (e.g.,. “sure you’d near burst the tympanum of her ear, man” [U11.536]) […] The substitution here is not only of one powerfully penetrative male organ for another, penis for voice, but of vagina for female ear, and in the background is the similar displacement of one traditional account of the Virgin’s conceiving in Christian mythology. […]

The slippage from voice to genitals occurs frequently […] (p.169) […] the vocal and the vaginal also become indistinguishable at times […] One can almost conceive of the chapter as a version of Diderot’s Les bijous indiscrets: a conclave of talkative (not to say musical) genitalia . (p.170.)

The “Eumeus” episode, on the other hand, seems to be at the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum: instead of newly coined lexical forms we have all-too-familiar clichés, instead of an intense concentration of meaning in a confined linguistic space we have sense spread thinly across a seemingly endless flow of words, instead of syntax that flaunts its disregard of the rules we have pedantic adherence to conventional forms, and instead of rhythmic and sonic patterning that approaches the aural salience of verse we have flaccid and sprawling prose.’ (p.172.)

Adverts to what Kenner calls “the Uncle Charles principle” (p.173-74; cf. Kenner, Joyce’s Voices.)

If Bloom is not asked to should responsibility for the style - which has always seemed to me to attribute both too little and too much to him (he would be capable neither of the dreadful pomposity on the surface nor of the brilliant parody and verbal play that underlies it) - an alternative is to think in terms of an individualised narrator or even of Joyce himself at a moment of exhaustion in his artistic labours. (p.174.)

Attridge places the types of word-play in ten categories (pp.175-78.)

Notes that ‘I looked for the lamp which she told me’ is an allusion to Tom Moore’s “Song of O’Ruark”, the continuation being: ‘Should shine when her Pilgrim return’d’ - the whole referring to a husband who returns to find his wife has left the home. (~p.177.)

Although the episode is sometimes referred to as if it were a compendium of bad examples, a treatise on how not to do things with words, the fluidity and instability of language demonstrated so hilariously in this chapter is effective in ways that go beyond comedy. (p.180).

The possibility that one feature of Bloom’s sexual universe at this moment is an interest in arousing Stephen’s desire for Molly - as a physical object - emerges in part through words that are trying to remain on the level of the aesthetic; the trouble is that the clichés of aesthetic conversation, like “drink in” and “treat”, have physical shadows that appear when the context permits them. (p.181.)

The Wake has […] been subject to a reading that attempts to locate all its exfoliating semantic suggestiveness and its frequently incompatible multiple meanings within a single mind, but this reading is testimony to the strength of interpretative conventions and readerly desires rather than to the qualities of Joyce’s writing, which takes to its limit the demonstration of language’s capacity to exceed the confines [183] of mental representation, character, or intention. (pp.183-84.)

Both the system of differential patterning which allows for an infinite sense of replacements and the arbitrary relation between the resistant materiality of the signifiers and the senses they bear threaten the efficient transmission that relies on the illusion of words which perfectly serve their meanings, without slippage and without residue. Yet these properties make the functioning of language possible. Without them there would be only some clumsy, ostensive method of communication like that which Gulliver encounters in the Academy of Lagado. Time and time again in Ulysses these properties are foregrounded and exploited, and [186] they become the structural principle of the language of Finnegans Wake .

In “Sirens” these two processes come together: bodily displacements and substitutions are enacted in the displacements and substitutions of language, and the apparent naturalness of both systems of meaning is challenged by the specificity and unpredictableness of its elements. The episode explores the way in which the body is conventionally conceived of as unitary and simple, without recognition of its potential for multiple, shifting, and ambiguous significations, its separability into independent parts whose meanings are not given in advance, and its limitless openness to new interpretations and new sources of pleasure. As with language, this potential exists because of, not in spite of, its material being, and language has to conceal its own materiality in order to promote the ideology of an indivisible and biddable body. Throughout Ulysses there is a questioning of the straightforward blending of a mind and a body in a unity that can be called by a single proper name or pronoun; most obviously, “Circe” and “Ithaca” use deviant language to disturb and dissolve that unity, and the uncertain reference of many ) of Molly’s pronouns in “Penelope” is another well-known instance ‘. “Eumaeus”, too, dethrones the controlling subject, whose language is seen to be a tissue of slightly soiled phrases, all too available to the first-comer. These episodes, by means of their play with organs and with words, and the desires that pass between them, insist that neither language nor the body can be seen as merely secondary and subservient to a nonmaterial, transcendent, systematic, controlling principle, whether we call that principle “meaning” or “the self.” More important, they demonstrate some of the pleasures, sexual and textual, that we owe to this fact. (pp.186-87.)

The question I left unanswered at the end of part 1 - in true Shandean style - was whether Finnegans Wake should be seen as a digression (a flagrant digression, no doubt) from the central path of the novel as a tradition and a genre. Certainly this is how it has been treated, in obedience to the law I have already described, whereby the classification of something as “digression”” helps reinforce the centrality and importance of what is not so classified. Certainly, too, the grounds on which this exclusion has been effected are the ones we have just been considering: Finnegans Wake is a digression because it fails to conform to the expectation that novels reflect a pre-existing reality, foregrounding instead the properties of language, its instability and shiftiness, its material patterns and coincidences, its intertextual slidings, its freedom from determining sources or goals, its independence from its referents, even its refusal to be bound by a single language system. The literary tradition (which now embraces most of Joyce’s earlier writing) needs limit-texts against which to define itself: its sanctification of the novel tradition’s “central” concern [231] with the “real world” or “humane values” or “common sense” is strengthened by the gesture with which it excludes Finnegans Wake for what its calls its “artificiality”, its “shallowness”, its “inaccessability”. (pp.232-33.)

Chap. 8 takes issue with Anthony Burgess’s filleting of Joyce’s last work in the Shorter Finnegans Wake which he purports to capture ‘the gist of the book’ to a ‘backbone’ which, in fact, is ‘a matter of moral as well as structural fibre produced by the injection of evaluative attitudes into the connective tissue whence they seep into the text. (p.214.) Illustrates Burgess’s ‘reductive and moralistic view of marital sex in the Wake.’ (p.214n).

To treat Finnegans Wake as paradigmatic, as the backbone of the literary corpus, is also to undo the opposition between narrative center and digressive periphery in every novel we read. One can, after all, keep reducing the most complex novel until one reaches a sentence at the level of “How Buckley Shot the Russian General” (and perhaps further), and at no particular stage is it possible to say that the “centre”, as an irreducible given, has been reached. […] By the same token, Finnegans Wake itself becomes readable in its own terms, not those of a naturalistic and humanistic tradition, as a text [234] whose lack of centre and equal lack of digression is as radical as it is productive. Every sentence in the Wake can be taken as the key to the entire work or can just as well be ignored. The please that so many readers experience of tracing through the text a motif or an allusion […] need suffer no dimunution from the awarenes that a multitude of other motifs and allusions wait to provide similar pleasures in equal substance. (pp.-234-35.)

I am not suggesting that there is the remotest possibility of the anglophone cultural establishment’s going back on its exclusion of Finnegans Wake from the central, defining core of the literary tradition […] (p.237.)


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