In a short discussion over at Jacob Russell's blog, I echoed something I wrote in an earlier post. I said: "My sense of Modernism, before reading Josipovici, was that it was simply this moment in time in which new techniques expanded (or advanced) the modes available to writers. Since reading Josipovici, most references I see to Modernism appear to be based on the same conception." Jacob replied that "[n]ew techniques were more than a reaction to old techniques: they were reactions to modes of perception, to ways of conceptualizing the world" and that it seems that Josipovici is less "concerned with techniques in themselves, [than] with the broader agenda they were meant to serve". I've been a little uneasy diving into discussions about literary Modernism, primarily because my reading in the critical literature has been so shallow, outside of Josipovici. And yet, his work has struck such a chord with me, that I feel compelled to step into the fray, with him as my primary guide.
To return to this question of wholeness, I want to talk a little about Josipovici's take on James Joyce. Joyce, it seems to me, is for many people the quintessential Modernist. This is how I had viewed him in the past, and it was because of this view that I saw the Modernists as a whole as a particularly difficult group of writers. I was thus surprised and intrigued when I noticed, well over a year ago by now, a comment from Steve Mitchelmore (I don't remember whether it appeared at This Space or in comments elsewhere) to the effect that Ulysses was less the greatest 20th century novel (its customary panel-selected position) than the last great 19th century novel. If I looked at the idea long enough, I could almost feel as if I understood what he meant, though I'd yet to read Ulysses (and, in fact, have still not read it). Steve made a similar comment at least one other time, specifically referencing Josipovici. When I'd read Josipovici's On Trust, I had a better idea what might be meant by this idea, but he doesn't spend any time on Joyce in that book.
Recently, I asked Steve if there was an essay in which Josipovici writes specifically about Joyce. He referred me to an older collection, The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews 1977-1982. I promptly found the book for cheap online. The piece in question is titled, ironically enough, "The Last Great Book". In retrospect, it's a good thing that I wasn't hoping for a lengthy essay or interested in the book only for this piece. The review is only a few pages long and doesn't say a whole lot more than what Steve had already said (happily, the rest of reviews in the book are well worth reading). But there are some choice lines worth attending to. One of the books under discussion is Hugh Kenner's fine study, Joyce's Voices--which Josipovici calls "criticism of a very high order":
Nevertheless, a doubt remains. Not about Kenner, but about Joyce. No objective style, Kenner rightly insists, can be said to exist; no truth can be discovered by aligning so many words to so many things; every attempt to simulate such a Truth will, as in the case of Hemingway, itself quickly become a 'style'. 'The True Sentence, in Joyce's opinion, had best settle for being true to the voice that utters it.' Yet what Kenner fails to see is that in the end Joyce does, against his own deepest insights, cling to one unquestioned Truth, that of the complete work. If there is no True Sentence, then why is there a True Work? This, it seems to me, is a major weakness of Joyce, his refusal to recognise the vulnerability of the Muse, his insistence, against the evidence, that to make a book is itself a valuable activity.Whereas we seem most often to be concerned with new techniques established by the Modernists writers, especially if we buy into progress, into advancement of the arts, here the techniques themselves are of less concern. I realize that this is one of the reasons why Ulysses has seemed so forbidding. Perhaps I get on better with the more exploratory, less domineering fiction of Proust, Beckett, Kafka, and now Woolf.
Compared with Proust and Beckett, Kafka and Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Joyce presents a strangely rigid attitude; he refuses ever to let go, to trust the work to take him where it will. Every 'letting go' has to be carefully fitted into its place in the overall design, even though there is no longer, by his own admission, any authority for the pattern the design itself assumes.
[. . .] there is ultimately something cosy and safe about Ulysses: underlying it is the belief that the mere accumulation of detail and complexity is an unquestioned good. Far from being 'the decisive English-language book of the [twentieth] century,' as Kenner suggests, it is perhaps the last great book of the nineteenth.
If we return to Kafka's fragment, we see ourselves, we overrun it, return to it. "It opens a space and lives in it, a space which we too can enter and in which we too can live. . ." So writes Josipovici, again in his introduction to the Collected Stories (itself collected, as "Kafka's Children", in The Singer on the Shore), in language recalling his remarkable essays about the Bible, including The Book of God itself. In the 19th century novel, the novelist takes over from God, controlling his or her created world, without doubting the justification for this move.
In the short piece on Joyce, Josipovici is reviewing what are, in effect, "reader's guides" to Joyce's writing. Such guides abound, of course, and point to another factor keeping Ulysses at arm's length for me. As Josipovici puts it, Joyce's "works cry out for explication, footnoting and the exercise of those crossword puzzle skills at which the academic mind excels." This, he suggests, is indicative of a weakness in Joyce's art. With Joyce acting as God, academics serve as the priests and Talmudists explaining and interpreting his every word. With this in mind, the first sentence of Josipovici's review is hilariously apt: "If Joyce had not existed the professors would have had to invent him."