Michael Hollington, ‘Svevo, Joyce and Modernist Time’, in Malcolm Bradbury & McFarlane, eds., Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1976; rep. [with rev. pref.] 1991), pp.430-42.

Sect. 1
“Non-events” are a distinctive features in Modernist writing [...] Bloom is barred from the sight of high-class underwear by intervening tramcars or people. More deeply, Stephen Dedalus’s refusal to spend the night at Eccles Street frustrates our [430] desire for a satisfactory conclusion to Ulysses. This absenceof events refelcts a contemporary sense of irony; it is also rooted in Modernist feelings about time.

[...; Takes sides with Frank Kermode, in Sense of an Ending:] He takes literary form, especially in hte arrangementof beginnings, middles, and ends, as a reflector of ideas about time and history. Because there is something irremedially temporal about literary form, he argues that modernist writing does not forsake sequential arrangment entirely; rather it uses our normal temporal expectations, and then frustrates or complicates them. He takes up a position contrary to that critical orthodoxy which sees “spatial form” as the norm of Modernist writing. This idea, most clearly promulgated by Joseph Frank in 1945, depends on the Imgist aesthetic in assuming that novels like Ulysses are designed as single, static images outside time, to be simultaneously apprehended. In its cruder forms the idea tends to suggest that Modernism escaped the tyranny of logical sequence in order to embrace the tyranny of “spatial form”. For me, the keynote of Modernism is liberation, an ironic disgust of all absolutes, including those of temporal or spatial form.

[At the close of Section 2 Hollington quotes from Italo Svevo’s Zeno: ‘One is often led to say things because of some chance association in the sound of the words, and directly one has spoken one begins to wonder if what one has said was worth the breath spent on it, and occasionally discovers that one has started a new idea. / I said: ‘Life is neither good nor bad; it is original.”’ He then remarks:]

Zeno’s discovery is of great importance to Modernist writing, representing a positive evaluation of the sense of uncertainty and [436] relativity with which Modernism is preoccupied. Lukács [Meaning of Contemporary Realism], a critic hostile to Modernism, yet more illuminating than many of its admirers, regards the absence of perspective as a quintessential feature the modern. Perspective, he argues, issues from the standpoint of the end of affairs; it is, in the phrase that haunts Ulysses, a “retrospective arrangement”. […] The reminder that all fictions inevitably lie comes a second time, when Zeno is suddenly transformed by the war into a successful businessman; this unexpected ending, he says, confers quite a different pattern on his autobiography, and he must rewrite it. Of course it does, and the pattern could go on changing until there were only one perspective - and therefore none - from which the life could be seen. The contemplation of how experience resists coherent temporal order certainly portrays, as Joyce said, “no absence of wit” [vide Joyce on Zeno, quoted earlier here, p.434].’ [End sect. 1.]

Sect. 3
And nor, surely, does Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel which has most fully supported modern views of spatial form, acquired [sic] that timeless mythical content which for many critics has seemed one of the great modern literary achievements. Most of these accounts give us a highly solemn version of the novel; the frequent assumption that the novel communicates profound truths - or could, once the allusions industry has completely decoded what is in it - frequently goes hand in hand with the belief that these truths concern correspondences between characters, symbols, and themes within the book and mythic counterparts without, transcending temporal distance, achieving coherent spatial order. Often images and allusions are lifted from context, often an ironic one, to join their confrères in space - a separation of theme from stylistic milieu which perhaps began when Stuart Gilbert relegated the comic dimension of the book to a secondary position: “The greater the theme, the greater the parody.”

The seriousness of Ulysses would, to my mind, stand in sharper outline if that formula were simply reversed; and here the comparison with Svevo is tonic. Ulysses shares with Svevo’s book a radically sceptical attitude to all absolutes. I take its version of Modernist relativity to be (as Ellmann and others have held) a humanistic “wise passivity”, its formal experimentation being the means of conveying the state of affairs where such an attitude makes sense. Like Svevo, Joyce is acutely conscious of potential significance; by flooding the day with an immense amount of experience and a very large number of lines of interpretation, he intends us to feel the comic arbitrariness of the patterns we are able to construct.

I presume, therefore, that the book’s basic technique is associative and that structure and pattern are built up in a way that is essentially the same as the way in which both Bloom’s and Stephen’s minds operate. As matter is accumulated in contingency and in consciousness, so it is in narrative, largely through verbal association, the staple diet of all the narrative voices of Ulysses. The novel provides, as one of the most important perspectives on the events of the day, an oceanic feeling in which the vastness of time and space dwarf any human individual whatsoever; this perspective obviously contains the [438] possibility of limitless ironies concerning the trivialities which concern the characters, so that it is legitimate to see Ulysses - as Hugh Kenner does - as the culmination of Flaubertian indifference. But let us consider the particular preoccupations of the characters, taking them at face value. As with Zeno, they attempt a mental shaping of their experience of time. They are concerned with growing old, or growing up; they want to improve themselves, or alter course, to recover or restore or perpetuate some aspect of a past felt to be happier, more promising, or more energetic. Bloom has a variety of “practical” projects to stave off old age: these include courses of exercises, masturbation, reading one’s own obituary, or keeping ahead of the sun by perpetual journeying from East to West. For Molly the panacea for ageing is sex, and particularly the prospect of a young poet (the joke is that she thinks Stephen will be a “clean young man”, while we know he hasn’t washed for ages). Correspondingly, both Bloom and Molly are nostalgic about their pasts; their thinking about time organises it primarily in terms of the fall. In the past is a lost paradise, the present is fallen, in the future they hope to regain paradise. For Molly the lost paradise is Gibraltar, in particular the kiss with Mulvey: “after that it’s just the ordinary do it and think no more about it”. Bloom meditates on various states of “forepassed happiness” - the halcyon days at school, the proposal to Molly on Howth promentory, the smell of lilacs at Mat Dillon’s, the days at Lombard Street West. At least two events, one comic, one poignant, have the status of the fall for Bloom - masturbation twenty-two years previously on a high school excursion in the country (at the time of Stephen’s birth!) and the suspension of full sexual relations with Molly, after the death of Rudy. The back-garden at Eccles Street also bears the same myth - the Whit-Monday bee that stung Bloom is the serpent of that paradise, to be regained with cowdung.

The paradise-fall-return pattern governs many readings of the novel. It makes the reader seek clues of a return to bliss; and we scrutinise Bloom’s meeting with Stephen, the return to Eccles Street, and Bloom’s unusual request for breakfast in bed for signs of significant improvement in this world, a Homeric return of Ulysses to Penelope’s bed. Whether this enables us to read the novel in terms of mythical and symbolic elevation is another question. For Mircea Eliade, and a whole school of critics, this is the book’s theme; it is [439] “saturated with nostalgia for the myth of eternal repetition and, in the last analysis, for the abolition of time”. The events are cyclic, the analogues mythic: Bloom’s wanderings like Odysseus, Christ, Parnell, Moses, Rip Van Winkle. In fact, if we look at the way in which these figures are introduced, we will surely be struck by the satiric inexactness of the supposed correspondences. Thus Bloom meditates at dusk on the links between now and seventeen years ago: “June that was too I wooed. The year returns. History repeats itself.” Wooing at the present moment means masturbating at the sight of Gerty Macdowell, this compared with the prelapsarian bliss of wooing Molly at Mat Diflon’s; the link is they both take place in June. A little further on, the first meeting in the garden at Mat Dillon’s is itself thought of as a repetition of shadowy earlier meetings: “Curious she an only child, I an only child. So it returns”, an interpretation to which Molly herself gives assent: “the first night we ever met when I was living in Rehoboth Terrace we stood staring at one another for about ten minutes as if we met somewhere I suppose on account of my being jewess looking after my mother.” I think we are meant to laugh at the flimsiness of such theories of recurrence - as we are again at the parallel between Bloom and Parnell, wearily erected in the “Eumaeus” episode, on the basis of supposed relationships between Bloom’s sexual misdemeanours and Parnell’s, between Molly and Kitty O’Shea, between the hostile forces facing Parnell on his return to Ireland and Bloom’s sense of unfamiliarity on his return to Irishtown Street. The search for mythic “eternal returns” is in fact so promiscuously pursued here that the appropriate comment is that delivered on the correspondence between Bloom’s return home with Stephen and his earlier return home with a dog: “not that the cases were either identical or the reverse.”

The similarities are surely possibilities deriving from the uses of association, which is the dominant method of the novel, prosecuted through puns, alliterations, homonyms, rhyming phrases, as well as events. The same is true of the Odyssean voyage parallels. which elaborate one potential among many, and elaborate both the idea of repetition and the idea of newness - as when in “Nausikaa” Bloom’s heroic materialism overcomes the attractiveness of return, to the prelapsarian past, in the episode: “Returning not the same. Like kids your second visit to a house. The new I want.” The same is true of the [440] apocalyptic pseudo-patterns that abound in Enysses as they do in The Confessions of Zeno. Predictions and premonitions are plentiful: Alexander J. Dowie’s proclamation of the coming of Elijah is echoed by other voices prophesying Home Rule for Ireland, disaster for England, new Jerusalems of various sorts, and significant forthcoming meetings and relationships. They are fed from indiscriminate sources: the supposed jewish infiltration of England’s economy, the Boer War, the clap of thunder, the eclipse due in September. “God’s time is 12.25”, says Dowie in the “Circe” episode; in “Oxen of the Sun”, Lynch speculates about a paradise of numerology, for “both natality and mortality, as well as all other phenomena of evolution, tidal movements, lunar phases, blood temperatures, diseases in general ... is subject to a law of numeration as yet unascertained”. But Bloom perhaps delivers the essential comment: “One plus two plus six is seven. Do anything you like with figures juggling. Always find out this equal to that, symmetry under a cemetery wall.” The purpose of such juggling surely links with the chimera that pursues both Bloom and Stephen throughout the day: the idea of a mystical relationship between words and the things they signify. Language, for Stephen, is tainted by the fall: a Babel sets in in his description of the cocklepicker who is Eve after the expulsion: “She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load.” Bloom later notes the redundancy of languages: “… there being more languages to start with than were absolutely necessary …” For Stephen’s symbolist soul, this is a serious issue, for with the link between word and thing broken, language becomes matter, subject to time and history. But that situation too is part of the comic content. The author is a kind of super-tyrannical fate pursuing his characters with remorseless, ubiquitous motifs. “Don’t eat a beefsteak. If you do, the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity”, ruminates Bloom, in a vegetarian mood; when we find that cow in the “Circe” episode, it is Staggering Bob (after the drunkard Doran) proclaiming that it witnessed Bloom’s fatal high school masturbation. On this basis, history can indeed be a nightmare from which we struggle to awake.

It is in this context that the “wise passivity” of Ulysses operates; it is the appropriate attitude where so many patterns art pursued and held with such tenacity. Thomas Mann, who is a novelist of similar temper, perhaps provides the key:

“Beautiful is resolution. But the really fruitful, the productive, and hence the artistic principle is that which we call reserve ... In the intellectual sphere we love it as irony ... guided as it is by the surmise that in great matters, matters of humanity, every decision may prove premature; that the real goal to reach is not decision, but harmony, accord. And harmony, in a matter of eternal contraries, may lie in infinity; yet that playful reserve called irony carries within [sic] itself as the sustained note carries the resolution.”

Like The Confessions of Zeno, Ulysses has perhaps no meta-language such as myth - to offer; it rejects transcendent absolutes. It is thoroughly Modernist in its ironic, relativistic sense of the ways in which we shape our experience into meaningful temporal patterns, give it a manageable shape. Its vision is essentially comic, its aim to exorcise the enslaving structures language imposes upon experience.


Incls. refs. to A. A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel (New York 1965); Joseph Frank, ‘Spatial Form in Modern Literature’, rep. in The Widening Gyre (New Brunswick, N. J. 1963); Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellmann (London 1966), Vol. 3, p.87; P. N. Furbank, Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (London 1966); Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (London 1962); D. H. Lawrence, ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, in Phoenix (London 1936), p.424; Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study (NY 1930); Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (NY 1954), p.153.

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