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Living Streams: Continuity and Change from Rabelais to Joyce


Gerald Gillespie

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.

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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...

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