qui lætificat iuventutem meam
In Joyce’s Voices Hugh Kenner does many appealing things. The chapter on ‘the Uncle Charles Principle’ – the narrator’s adoption of a character’s verbal tics to provide a savor of the character’s worldview – is a masterful piece of criticism, presented with aphoristic aplomb. It is a style, surefooted and strong and cavalierly sophisticated, to carry the reader along from innocence to understanding. One wants to surrender to the critic who can command this style – to believe in that literary promised land, to believe in the promises criticism makes.
Enter the serpent, discovered through the meddling intervention of women, as always. In this case:
Fiction’s individuating detail has traditionally been external, an affair of quirks and mannerisms which belong to the self presented to an observer, and vanish once we plunge beneath surface behavior. How very alike are the half-conscious minds presented by Mrs. Woolf or Dorothy Richardson!—one semi-transparent envelope much like another, ‘stream of consciousness’ an undifferentiating verbal soup (23).
Ah, yes, the undifferentiating soup! The mess, the muddle, the poor hostess’s gambit (half-conscious herself, poor dear), whether she goes by the too courteous title of ‘Mrs.’ or whether we are forced into the familiarity of first names to avoid confusion with the author of Clarissa. They are so very similar, these women, they could practically be the same, couldn’t they? Your satisfaction, you are afraid, is not her concern.
You will protest that the book is about Joyce, not these women, who surely cannot be fully considered here, in this slender book, or more than mentioned in passing, in just this way – though there was room enough for two pages of Swift, three of Dickens, and another three of Flaubert – and it is of no note that one of them did inspire the translation of William James’s too notorious phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ to the realm of literary criticism … the art is long, the life is short, and this one must accept: women have no place here, unless they are for moony musing (like Martha Fleishmann (21)). An overstatement? Yet in the appendix (and no nearer) one finds:
The origins of religion interested Joyce—witness his preoccupation with Vico—and there are signs that he had read Jane Harrison’s Themis […] The argument of Themis—I quote the useful summary of Mr. Bush… (109f.)
One might think that if there were signs that your chosen subject (or more than one of your chosen subjects) had read a book, that you yourself might choose to read it. One might think that. You have taken the time to read the criticism of Wyndham Lewis, after all. Yet Prof. Kenner – behold one’s politeness, one recollects oneself eventually – does not provide his own précis but cribs from a scholar who presents so jaundiced a view one wonders which dram he used to pickle his liver. This is wearing one’s household slippers to deliver a lecture, this is the primrose path, this is … not something that does more than alienate, than emphasize an artificial, unnecessary distance which you might call criticism, but which is … stop. ‘Tiresome kind of a job. But he has to say something.’
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And what I really wanted to talk about was Gerty McDowell, but that will have to wait for some other occasion.