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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Gerald Gillespie: Michelle Witen. James Joyce and Absolute Music. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 299. ISBN: 9781350014220.

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Michelle Witen. James Joyce and Absolute Music. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 299. ISBN: 9781350014220.

This monograph has grown out of Michelle Witen’s 2013 Oxford dissertation “Perceiving in Registers: The Condition of Absolute Music in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.” It boldly ventures to reopen one of the most trafficked areas of Joycean studies, his deep personal involvement with music and the pervasive presence of music in his life’s work as a novelist. There are two main tracks Witen follows: the complete trajectory of Joyce’s cumulative creativity as an author; and within that span, the special peakings of musicality in the “Sirens” and “Circe” parts of Ulysses (U), but then a further major shift in his approach to music in Finnegans Wake (FW). Along the way, as background, Witen reminds us of key European writers and critics involved in often intertwined longer-term efforts to attain to a “pure” music and/or to marry music and language in poetry.

Crucially, she cautions against imposing on Joyce’s own earlier aesthetic orientation the increasingly austere views of others during Modernism regarding pure or absolute music. That carefulness greatly helps to prepare today’s readers of Joyce for rethinking the complicated development whereby, on the one hand, FW is radically experimental in its use of language, yet on the other hand arrives at an independent, more flexible view of music in relation to language. In order to focus on the issues surrounding music, Witen chooses to screen out a myriad of tangentially interlocking structural, thematic, and motivic features of Joyce’s works which spring to mind. Unavoidably, however, her surgical avoidance of the amazing Joycean repertory of co-extensive competing directions in his narratives tends to blur the line in much of the monograph between how the relevant enthusiasts, above all Joyce, felt about the role of music during the apogee of Modernism and how more sober analysts today perceive in retrospect what the actual pieces of older art produced by Modernists demonstrate. But Witen’s “Conclusion” to her book then distinctly pulls her use of terms back into stricter historical perspective and avoids the threat to critical independence.

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Her “Introduction” lays out neatly the critical context which obtained in Joyce studies until the recent availability of hitherto neglected materials, above all an outline by Joyce in Italian detailing his idea of a “Fuga per Canonem,” which Witen designates “A genetic turning point” (Witen 126) in his development as a writer. She provides a very useful broader history in ch. 1 of the broader trend in Europe “Toward a Modernist Condition of Absolute Music” and then in ch. 2 focuses specifically on “Joyce’s Early Use of Music,” before proceeding with a detailed application of Joyce’s terminology to “Sirens.” This analysis copes with structure in ch. 3 and with effect in ch. 4.

Witen follows a long tradition in crediting Walter Pater’s famous statement about poetry aspiring to the condition of music as a kind of standard and loadstar among the illustrative variety of nineteenth to early twentieth century opinions which she cites in ch. 1 in outlining literary attempts at, and critical promptings in favor of, a melding of music and language. And in juxtaposition to that train of cultural history she rehearses the aspirational march within newer music during Modernism toward its complete independence as a medium. Her weaving of pertinent materials is so skillful that the reviewer wishes (of course, unfairly!) that she would violate her tighter focus on music and writing and would expand judiciously in ch. 1 to areas such as attempts at radical synesthesia (e.g., “painting” in Impressionistic poems and prose; “narrating” story development in musical scores; creating a cinematic rather than operatic Gesamtkunstwerk by the 1930s; multi-media “happenings”; etc.). Likewise, it would be good to hear in abbreviation about attempts at radical independence in a few other arts during Modernism (e.g., non-representational sculpture; abstract expressionism in painting; pure aleatory movement in dance; etc.). Witen lends due attention to the unfolding disaccord of Wagner and Nietzsche, so important to the moment when Joyce’s U comes on the scene. In the reviewer’s opinion, nonetheless, it would have been more helpful if, first, she had expanded on Schopenhauer’s seminal importance for both Wagner and Nietzsche and for Modernism at large. Schopenhauer theorizes in The World as Will and Representation (1818) not only that music is an evolutionary product which encompasses all levels in the human psyche as eventually known in the annals of time – what Marx will crudely rewrite in positivistic terms as the material basis of life, the class struggle, and dialectical movement in history, and Freud as the interrelating id, ego, and superego. But in addition, Schopenhauer specifies that music contains and conveys ←178 | 179→all developmental levels of the total cosmic structure and reflects all correlated levels exhibited in the hierarchy of all the other arts whether material or linguistic, ranging from architecture over sculpture and painting to poetry, epic, and finally tragedy at the pinnacle of human consciousness. Schopenhauer’s radical reframing of Kantian rationalism and of the successor Romantic model of the psyche, with his emphasis on music’s universality of reference, attained its epochal impact in high Modernism.

Witen turns in ch. 2 to Joyce’s early poetry and prose in order to provide a contrastive backdrop for her intensive scrutiny of his more extensively elaborated uses of music in U and FW. Unsurprisingly, she finds the strong thematic presence of music from his start and even true experimentation to musicalize language as in Chamber Music (2007) and Pomes Penyeach (2013), lyrical collections which indeed have attracted composers. She neatly identifies the many ways – for example, as a core activity depicted in various social settings, as a force or theme, as a favorite topic in Irish society, as intrinsic to the identity of a specific figure – in which music makes a frequent appearance in the stories of Dubliners and the novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In detailing Joyce’s special relationship to music from his earliest days, Witen aims not only to reconfirm his impressive expertise in general, but to buttress her claim that he had a firm intellectual grasp specifically of the intricacies of the fuga per canonem, an older, lengthy, and very complicated musical structure. In the absence of fuller “external” documents, many talented Joyceans earlier doubted the direct relevance of its specific mention by him.

In order to establish her analysis in ch. 3, Witen must grapple with the heady mix of other meritorious views of the musical character of “Sirens” and with the dating of its textual layers. After first having offered us “A brief history of the fugue as absolute music,” she dares to assign specific passages in the completed U to compositional features that reflect Joyce’s sense of how to exploit an older fugue rooted in the traditions of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This moreover is complicated by her hypothesis, in the course of rejecting “Critical (mis)interpretations,” that Joyce, in outlining a double fugue in “Sirens,” incorporated a canon as well. Witen’s exposition involves a bold step-by-step assemblage of passages in an order which she thinks exhibits the specific named fugal categories and stages of Joyce’s “Sirens” chapter, where in her reading the fugue as a whole conducts readers through Bloom’s psychological ←179 | 180→struggles, as a modernist avatar of classical Ulysses, toward ultimately safe passage. In a tour de force about 50 pages long, she marches through the text of “Sirens” on two levels, marking the extent of each named fugal section and summarizing each segment’s plot contents. Under space constraints the reviewer must forgo any replication of this very astute, but voluminously detailed close reading, but he feels it is obligatory to note a natural problem.

Witen announces that she is tracing “absolute music” at a high point in Joyce’s artistic development – and assuredly, recalling the brilliant language of “Sirens” as a vivacious tour de force is downright thrilling. However, the reviewer notes the language also includes moments of poetic synesthesia, as in the chromatic-metallic marking of the two barmaids’ hair; as colors these motifs surely amount to more than surrogate musical tones. Moreover, Witen’s (overall excellent) readings of the motifs in each fugal section in terms of story emplotment essentially show that a powerful narrative drive is everywhere at work; and that, in the hard light of reality, we do not actually have any pure medium before our eyes and our observant minds, even though our ears are certainly enchanted with a kind of music by delegation (unless perhaps we or someone reads “Sirens” to us out loud). As so often elsewhere, Joyce the magician is doing several things at the same time. In the late hours of Modernism, without Joyce specifically in mind, Susanne Langer explained the actual situation in general in Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942). She realized that, unless it devolved into random neutral noise, language could never shed its doubleness as a medium combining structures that were both auditory and discursive, whether spoken or read.

Witen acknowledges that there is a looser correlation of fugal markers in the vast “Circe” or “Hades” chapters. Many commentators have noted that by its girth and recapitulation of motifs using “hallucination” as method, “Circe” seems virtually synecdochic vis-à-vis the whole novel. As she asserts, this would not in itself militate against associating Joyce’s continuing fascination with fugue construction observable in some elements in “Circe.” But when Witen eventually turns to FW, she indicates that, as Joyce began a new phase of creativity beyond U, he was drifting away from any simplistic wish-dream about music as a pure medium. In considerable measure, his statements about some new way “music” will reign amounts to cheerleading. Her ch. 4 intimates that that direction is already underway beneath the wonderfully composed “music” of “Sirens,” ←180 | 181→insofar as she offers us a very attractive argument about how in its totality the enacted fugue is a device to replicate Bloom’s psychological temptation and recovery as an avatar of Odysseus. Consonant with that pattern, ch. 5 argues that in “Circe” Bloom’s reorientation in freeing himself from the enchantment of absolute music also suggests Joyce’s increasing realization that “literature can be adapted into ‘music for the eye’ and ‘music for the ear’ ” (212), as we will experience this pairing in FW.

Understanding this relationship in FW, to which ch. 6 turns, is complicated by the fact that Joyce clings creatively as well as metaphorically to music. Although it is clear he is reaching for a symbiosis of sound and sense, on a grander scale he is also creating the copious text and references of FW as the surrogate for a multifarious universe. These are dimensions which Witen largely must screen out to maintain focus on her topic. She acquits herself well in balancing between her own critical conclusions and the heady metaphoricity of Joycean terms. There are many points Joycean critics supportively could add on: for example, that Stephen’s earlier “hearing” the murmur of nature in U as it strives toward speech was already a venerable idea in late Renaissance writing and was happily appropriated in Romanticism; or that citing music in print as a written score, notably the ballad of Pearse O’Reilly in FW, is an almost ostentatious reminder of the moment in Tristram Shandy when Sterne prints out the musical score of a popular song; and so forth. For its relevance to her focus, Witen quite usefully singles out in FW (within Joyce’s own colossal evolutionary timeframe!) the historical theme of a very recent transition from oral to written literature. Recognition of this larger developmental trend indeed undergirds Joyce’s marked interest in bringing forward the eye and ear motifs which he detects in the mentioned ballad among other places. The densely packed section on this topic which Witen offers from p. 218 to p. 223 is a sparkling cornucopia, admirably assembled. It cites the brilliant crisscrossings of nostalgic yearning at a much later date by great modernist spirits for a lost era or redeemable future which was/is ruled by “music,” but which inevitably has ceded to the power of the eye and prose. It is no accident that the finest critics of Joyce’s work are virtually unable to describe his great prose masterpiece FW without resorting to metaphors dependent on the modernist characterization and developmental history of music! The important fact which Witen emphasizes is that Joyce accepted the medium of an exponentially re-imagined prose in FW as the best option for the future.

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Witen very openly and fairly addresses the plethora of critical opinions regarding the degree of Joyce’s dedication to musically linked experimentation in “Sirens.” She demonstrates a remarkable gift for formulating a range of high-level propositions that bear on a very complex event, the creation of “Sirens” within the bigger story of the creation of U and in relation to the partially overlapping story of the creation of FW; and she does so while presenting her own findings in a very nimble and lucid way. This monograph bodes well for the health and vigor of Joyce studies as a worldwide pursuit now on the threshold of its second century!


Gerald Gillespie

Stanford University