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R.P. Blackmur on James Joyce

They say the best criticism articulates what you sensed but couldn’t conceptualize, and I think Blackmur hits a very major nail on the head here, identifying the ever-growing problem of literature for the last 200 years or so and showing Joyce as one of the few to have come up with a truly satisfactory (but immensely difficult) answer:

Precisely because Joyce could not assent to the official version of his Dublin-classical-Christianity, he was all the more condemned to the damnation of imposed orders. Imposed order–forced order–always mutilates what is ordered and tends to aridify it. Not the observation of Stephen or of Bloom (or Molly) is imposed order, but the conceptions of those characters under the observation and the aesthetic frames in which the book chooses to see them: e.g., the parodies of English prose style in the hospital scene, the theory of hallucination in the bawdy house, or the dialectic in the homecoming scene.

Perhaps all art is imposed order, but it ought to be the order called for by the substance in terms of the governing concepts of those imaginations which are not aesthetic. These Joyce’s experience of his society did not provide; his only providence was the gratuitous one of the whole undistributed flux of sensation and possibility; and into this, every order he chose to use poured willy-nilly. Neither parody of old orders nor that substitute for order, research-naturalism, could restrain the flow of the parade into the mob.

Perhaps that is why he distrusted–or at any rate never for long used–either of the “great” modes of traditional prose literature, the full narrative or the full drama. Joyce had none of that conviction which is the inward sense of outward mastery; and those who feel the lack of that sort of conviction tend to truncate their merely outward skills: truncate, mutilate, and mock. In such a predicament it is almost the normal solution to choose, instead of full statement in narrative or drama, some dessicated dialectic and try to make it pass for fresh because it was chosen. Such trials are self-laceration, as the monastic impulse, denied access to its own insight in the body’s life, becomes ascetic fury.

So it happens in some artists; as in ordinary people similarly deprived you get hair-splitting in extremis despite the major issue of love or security, where the categories of relation are argued as if they were reality itself.

R.P. Blackmur, “The Jew in Search of a Son” (1947)

What Blackmur seems to see as pathology rather appears to be the norm. The sort of trust that Joyce could not possess–trust in a given order–comes off today as antiquated at best, disingenuous and reactionary at worst. The parallel of structural with cultural order is well-drawn. If you aren’t one of the lucky few to have been gifted with a strange, compelling inner order (I’m thinking of Kafka here), what’s one to do?

1 Comment

  1. Like most conservative critics, Blackmur grossly overstates the negatory affect of Joyce’s works, at least on non-conservatives. (Perhaps in reaction, some of the more fannish Joyceans portray him as an Irish Mr. Pickwick.) His mocks are easily imitated; more uniquely difficult and rewarding is the feel of warm and resilient flesh beneath them.

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