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James Joyce and postmodernism: A conflicted catechism

June 16, 2009 |  1:29 pm

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Jim Ruland, contributor to the Book Review, host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount and author of the short story collection "Big Lonesome," has followed Joyce's footsteps in Dublin.

What’s so special about June 16?
On June 16, 1904, James Joyce met the great love of his life, Nora Barnacle. To honor the occasion, Joyce famously chose June 16 for the date on which nearly all of the action of Ulysses takes place.

Then why don’t they call it Barnacleday? It didn’t stick?
Bloomsday comes from Ulysses’ main character, Leopold Bloom.

Is Bloom Joyce?
No. Bloom is Bloom. Joyce is Joyce. They share certain qualities but they are not the same.

Does Bloom have a love interest?
He does. His wife, Molly.

And does Molly Bloom share certain qualities with Nora Barnacle?

She does, but in a work of fiction it’s always a mistake to conflate a character with a real person.

There you go with the postmodern gobbledygook. Is it any wonder nobody can get through Ulysses?
Plenty of people get through "Ulysses" and Joyce isn’t a postmodernist.

Didn’t I read on Jacket Copy that Joyce is the grandfather of postmodernism?
James Joyce’s work, particularly "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake," takes modernism to its limits. Ultramodernism if you will, but still modernism.

Can you define ultramodernism?
In his essay about Joyce’s relationship to postmodernism, Derek Attridge asserts that "the particular manner in which Joyce accumulates details, multiplies structures, and over-determines interpretation achieves something else as well, and something that sets these texts ['Ulysses' and 'Finnegans Wake'] apart from other modernist work." In other words, close but no cigar.

What about Derrida? What did the most postmodern of all the postmodernists say about Joyce?

Not much: "I have the feeling that I haven’t yet begun to read Joyce, and this 'not having begun to read' Joyce is sometimes the most singular and active relationship I have with Joyce. This is why I’ve never dared to write on Joyce."

What does that mean?
Joyce is a modernist, but distinct from other modernists and because one can't be something and post-something simultaneously, he creates crises of classification. It might be helpful to think of Joyce as the twilight of modernism, and postmodernism as the period that followed Joyce. Most scholars put the beginning of postmodernism at 1941, the year that Joyce and Virginia Woolf died.

What a minute. I see what you’re doing. You’re deconstructing the blog post format into a kind of question-and-answer free-for-all. Just like that chapter in Ulysses. That’s so postmodern!

Actually, it isn’t. The rest of the answer... after the jump.

The so-called Q&A format displayed in Ithaca -- the penultimate chapter of "Ulysses," which describes Bloom's journey from the brothel to his home at 7 Eccles Street -- is rendered in the form of a catechism. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church used this device to help instruct devotees the rules and regulations of the faith.

That’s still pretty innovative, isn’t it?
In the sense that writing stories down is innovative, yes. The practice of incorporating catechism into narrative may very well have begun with the Irish monks who recorded the gospels and early church history in illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. The monks employed catechism as a kind of mnemonic device in order to segment a long and involved narrative into manageable chunks.

Chunks? That doesn’t sound very postmodern.
About as postmodern as one individual asking another to tell a story. If you’re looking for an example of how a playful use of form dislocates meaning, you're looking in the wrong place.

Where else do we look?
Nowhere, that’s the whole point of postmodernism, which leaves us --

All Joyced up with no place to go?
Precisely.

-- Jim Ruland

Photo: S sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Switzerland. Credit: Robert Scarth via Flickr

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