Living Streams: Continuity and Change from Rabelais to Joyce

by Gerald Gillespie (Author)
©2019 Monographs 208 Pages


This book examines how a long line of imaginative writers, starting from Rabelais and continuing over Cervantes and Sterne down to such modernists as Proust, Mann, Joyce, and Barth, has reaffirmed the picture of an enduring Western civilization despite repeated crises and transformations. The humanist capacity to recapture a sense of European greatness as exhibited in Antiquity was paralleled by and continued in the guise of newer vernacular works, achievements regarded as vital forms of a shared cultural rebirth. This was amplified most notably in the tradition of the ironic encyclopedic novel which surveyed the state of successive phases of culture. The evolving heritage and revitalization of the arts constituted main subject matters in the series of major self-conscious epochal movements, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernism, which Postmodernism reflexively now struggles to supersede.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introdution
  • Part One: The Joys of Vision and Rewards of Retrospection
  • Chapter 1: The Dangerous but Joyful Venture of Cultural Rebirth from Rabelais to Joyce
  • Chapter 2: Looking Through Windows of Time: Illustrative Moments of Vision in Literature since the Renaissance
  • Chapter 3: The World as Music: Variations on a Cosmological Theme
  • Chapter 4: Traveling into the Abyss
  • Chapter 5: Some Shape Shiftings of the Divine Feminine in Nineteenth Century Literature
  • Chapter 6: Peripheral Echoes: “Old” And “New” Worlds as Reciprocal Literary Mirrorings
  • Chapter 7: North/South, East/West, and Other Intersections
  • Part Two: Hindsighted (Post)Modernism and Polysemous Multiplexity
  • Chapter 8: Swallowing the Androgyne and Baptizing Mother
  • Chapter 9: “Paradox Lust”: The Fortunate Fall According to Joyce
  • Chapter 10: Ondts, Gracehopers, and Quarks; Joyce Never Gets Quit of Faust
  • Chapter 11: The Tantric Strain in Western Literature and The Arts Since Romanticism
  • Chapter 12: Newer Archaeologies of the Soul: By Way of a Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← 10 | 11 →


Living Streams explores major themes that have attained special prominence in recent centuries. Had Hemingway not pre-empted the title Islands in the Stream for his own purposes, it would be tempting to use that image as title. The notion of stopping at islands of varying size and features that constitute an archipelago in time suggests something that actually has occurred in cultural history as an imaginative act. The metaphor of island-hopping serves to bridge an actual theme of discovery or connection that reaches all the way from the questing of Rabelais’ enthusiastic Renaissance explorers in books 4 and 5 of Gargantua and Pantagruel down to the present. Rabelais’ questers find a series of islands in remote waters and in the process they link many discoveries of past and future importance. Eventually the metaphor of exploring watery pathways leads us centuries later to Joyce’s depiction of joyous Saint Kevin in antiquity as he builds and bathes in a baptismal pond upon an island in the Liffey. The river Liffey, in moving through the island of Ireland into the world ocean in Finnegans Wake, pictures Joyce’s sense of his own version of the supreme grand narrative whereby the ancient and modern traditions ultimately flow together in glorious rebirth, in analogy to the formation of the Liffey from the conjunction of its two main sources. Given the complexity of the civilization that comes into evidence from Rabelais to Joyce, modesty compels any reader of today to realize that in fact multiple interactive streams are flowing. Now we are attracted to one cluster of impulses, now to another, not always of equal dimension or duration; but, as the present set of chapters in the book Living Streams attempts to suggest by selectively focusing on illustrative major and minor themes more familiar in their latter-day instantiations, the ensemble rewoven from age to age constitutes our larger heritage.

The title Living Streams seeks to make plain the emphasis on cultural participation in a greater context and flow. This durable consciousness is well grounded in relationships which have emerged in European and Western Hemisphere literatures over many centuries and has come to include the story of innumerable shifts and adjustments. The proposition holds true ← 11 | 12 → even in cases where the purported rejection of particular cultural stances and contents on the part of certain authors indirectly acknowledges the norms and achievements upheld by other authors, especially predecessors and cultural rivals. The “rejections”, too, have a recognizable identity, even if in some measure the act of what I will term “negative recognition” amounts to a distortion when viewed from other longer-term perspectives. In fact, rejecting aspects of the local ruling culture of an era is itself now a thoroughly well-grounded tradition in Western literature. It stands proudly alongside the reality of having accepted or still accepting many aspects of the reigning culture as a major feature of a shared history. Upon more careful examination, such moments of rejection fit into a longer-term pattern of resilience, even when they initiate deeper shifts as in revolutionary periods. There is nothing new either in the willing invocation of established literary realities or in attempts, successful or not, to break away onto fresh ground. It does not matter whether the purpose is to renew important gains or to inaugurate a more satisfying practice of storytelling art. After writers of the Renaissance like Rabelais have proposed sweeping programs for thoroughly revising the repertories of Western culture, and beyond the multifaceted invention of two prior eras labeled Antiquity and the Middle Ages by Renaissance writers, there is actually very little innovative in the past few centuries of the present era about the primary literary activity of positing a radical restart of cultural consciousness or of fearing an apocalyptic collapse thereof. Sensing or dreading or welcoming an ending is built into the grander repertory of our collective literary tradition, just as much as is celebrating the dawn of a new era or a rebirth of cultural greatness.

Even apophatic statements, aleatory jumbles, parodic dismemberment of and play with celebrated materials, and rebellious over-turnings of norms of expression in more recent centuries indirectly mirror and remind us of the larger cultural framework of the literary art which is being rejected or re-construed. In fact, in order to be comprehended and take some hold in cultural discourse, even outright ventures at rejection or renewal or foundational re-grounding depend at least initially on the cultural vocabulary artists wish to supersede. This situation exists whether or not the innovation is more immediately successful or requires a longer gestation period for reception. After centuries of evolutionary revision and reconstruction, our larger vocabulary is today a complex cultural heritage which embodies innumerable layers of changes and interwoven continuities. For example, in effect, the long since waned episode of so-called “deconstruction” (dating roughly from the late 1960s to 1990s ← 12 | 13 → in its heyday) has amounted to an added iteration of the now centuries-old act of analyzing and trying to manipulate, dislodge, and supplant predecessor modes of expression. Part of our enjoyment as self-designated “experienced” (in contrast to naïve) readers stems from our recognizing more acutely the special qualities in variant cultural moments and the special character that a particular work imparts to the repertory over time.

The present mix of chapters in Living Streams examines several among the many ways of approaching the natural constellations of the vast accrued super-repertory of Western literature. It concentrates on strands of the legacy since the Renaissance period and mainly on themes and modes which burgeon during Romanticism and Modernism. But it freely delves into the larger history of literature prior to the Renaissance and follows traces into later cultural episodes. In general, most chapters avoid exploring the history and contests of literary and cultural theory as a central obsession that has spilled over from the 1960s to the present and they ignore on purpose especially current theoretical disputes and fading obsessions. A notable exception is the case of Schopenhauer, whose “totalizing” philosophic efforts in the Romantic period became a prominent part of later modernist canonical literature, especially because its fundamentals were re-contested by another influential philosopher, his successor Nietzsche, on the threshold of Modernism. This happens also to be a good example of how major figures who deeply influenced Modernism could dip back directly into the ancient world for metaphors and intellectual frameworks, as tacit beneficiaries of many intervening centuries during which the cultural inheritance from antiquity was painstakingly recovered and exploited for new initiatives, most notably thanks to the zeal of Renaissance savants and artists and later generations stirred by them.

Another dimension of literary works prominent in the Western tradition is the movement of certain themes and forms across works written in a variety of newer languages from the Middle Ages down to the present. We take for granted today that the revival and maintenance of traditions, but also new expression in the classical languages, was especially prominent during the Renaissance and onward into the eighteenth century. Humanistic cultivation of Hebrew as well as of Greek and Latin helped to stabilize in modern languages the enormous panoply of cultural references derivative from biblical lore and the ancients. Thus despite the natural limits of translation and the subsidence of training in the classical languages in more recent centuries, as against the Renaissance and its immediate successors, an interchangeability and sharing of motifs ← 13 | 14 → across distinct cultures has long been a hallmark of Western literatures and eventually ceased to depend on schooling in the ancient languages. Both open sharing and unmarked shadowing of the classics – something already built into much of modern expression – gradually was accompanied, then proportionately outpaced, by open cross-references and tacit allusiveness among the modern idioms themselves as they prospered and produced their own canonical repertories. And that accrual of growth rings included appreciation of the special qualities, achievements, and histories of the several prominent modern traditions themselves in their own right as well as through cross-hatching among modern idioms.

All of the foregoing background is taken mostly for granted in the volume Living Streams. The kinds of literary experience highlighted here involve aspects of sharing – at different levels of reader competence and with different degrees of complexity – in the referentiality of works in modern idioms. The chapters have varying kinds of focus that can range from appreciating the simple development of a favorite theme or generic structure in authors from different cultures, to exploring the encyclopedic playful cross-cultural references in exuberant moments, for example, in Joyce as a single author. In this volume sometimes the pattern of relationship is diachronic; sometimes it is synchronic; sometimes, both intermixed. The purpose of the present selection is to celebrate literary reading, not to attempt to promote a theory of literature, at least none that goes beyond the natural fact or proposition that, both tacitly and overtly, many of the finest literary artists in grasping certain aspects of their own and often of other language traditions felt motivated to work with these allusive means in mind or as an implicit second nature. If literary referentiality can range from the cultish esoteric to the democratic exoteric, so too today’s readers will, in degrees varying according to their personal histories and temperaments, participate in a wide assortment of responses to particular works. The consciousness of the aggregate of readers will also metamorphose over time in the natural succession of stages of reception in particular societies. However, reception aesthetics and reception theory are not my primary subject; rather, my aim is to highlight selected angles and modes of appreciation that beckon on our immediate modern-and-postmodern horizons.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, New York, Oxford, Warsawa, Wien, 2018, 208 p.

Biographical notes

Gerald Gillespie (Author)

Gerald Gillespie, Professor emeritus at Stanford University, has served as President of the International Comparative Literature Association. Among his many book publications is the companion volume Echoland: Readings from Humanism to Postmodernism (Peter Lang, 2006) in the series "New Comparative Poetics".


Title: Living Streams: Continuity and Change from Rabelais to Joyce
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