Friday, January 28, 2005

The Novel: Ulysses and the Role of Style

‘Man prefers to represent himself in finitude, whose sign is death, rather than know himself traversed, and surrounded, by the omnipresence of the infinite.’
[Alain Badiou, L’Etre et l’événement, p. 168; translated in Hallward (2003)]

[1] The title of this piece perhaps states the obvious when it links Joyce’s Ulysses to the question of style. It is a work characterised by the breakdown of communication, of signification, representation and even, for some, of the novel itself. That it functions as a break in the history of the novel is beyond question and that it works to disrupt the self-understanding of humankind is evident. There are many disruptions, spirals and anarchies in Ulysses and these are inherently textual. They do not refer to anything outside the text because they are its connections to a self-sufficient and productive ground in imagination. This is not a faculty but a ground, an unconscious productivity beneath all forms. Yet this need not lead us to infer that the novel is dead, that it was a western or patriarchal or repressive or elitist institution. It should not lead us to abandon the rigor of literature for the relativistic flux of opinion and self-expression, equalised, effortless and thus without purpose or depth. It should not lead us to abandon rigor but to embrace it in the form of the profound complexity of connections. These can form a whole, which is the novel, which isn’t predictable and delimited by its author or reader but precisely the novel thinking through itself. The text has the power to connect with an unconscious that is inaccessible to conventional thought and representation. As such, the self-sufficient, imaginative, and disruptive prose of the novel would be its own world. It would liberate human experience to the creative possibilities of the imagination, the results of which would be unique at each instance of artistic composition. This very creativity – and not the representation of a single reality – presents the unconscious nature of a reality united in its groundlessness. It would express the production of reality and not represent its essence (what it is). What role does the groundless ground play in the structure of Ulysses as the source of its overcoming of the conceptions of its author and readers?

[2] We might say that the novel comes to play out, explicitly in its later chapters, an immanent and textual creativity. One must still wander if this is ultimately nihilistic. Does the breakdown of signifier and objectivity herald the free for all of interpretations in which what becomes known is only the impossibility of knowledge? However, if there is nothing outside the text of Ulysses then this includes creation in all forms. There is no place for an external creator – whether divine, authorial or the reader. Instead the creative element must be impersonal, unpredictable and immanent. Leaving the meaning up to the reader risks leaving it up to their own conceptions, drowning aesthetics in culture, subjectivity and pretension. The religious theme of Christ’s birth is not without any meaning but is treated by the text as follows:

‘But as before the lightning the serried stormclouds, heavy with preponderant excess of moisture, in swollen masses turgidly distended, compass earth and sky in one vast slumber, impending above parched field and drowsy oxen and blighted growth of shrub and verdure till in an instant a flash rives their centres and with reverberation of the thunder the cloudburst pours its torrent, so and not otherwise was the transformation, violent and instantaneous, upon the utterance of the Word.’(p. 553, the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter)

The text creates this episode in a fresh genre, with vitalistic terms that repeat a familiar idea with much difference. It is an episode with difference internal to it, expressing heterogeneous imaginative possibilities for the text to proliferate. Creation is a problem for humankind, one that expresses itself singularly in these lines of text, This would not be possible if it had a fixed essence but is if it is a problematic idea, universal and yet intensely singular in its different manifestations. We therefore cannot determine creation in advance because it is irreducibly new. This notion is not represented but presented by the style of the novel itself, with epiphanic instances disrupting the continuity of an ordered, traditional, economic and everyday world. The ‘word’ that is mentioned in the passage is not an otherworldly or transcendent emanation but immanently explosive, a singular undermining of what came before, solely and violently for the sake of the new. Its purpose is cosmic since it aims at nothing in particular but a destructive clearing away of anything for the sake of creation, a clearing of the ground for new throws of the dice. This connects such a common (and heavily over-coded) episode with new forces, to allow it to express itself fully. This violent and transforming creation is mythical in a fresh way, without having to serve anything other than the imagination and the excess of the idea. This is the substance of Joyce’s epiphany – the emergent and singular expression of immanent creativity. Such intensities of the text emerge in this chapter of their own accord, not for the purposes of description but through the narrator’s openness to the possibilities of an impersonal imagination. The concern is therefore less with understanding creation than with evoking the intensity that this idea produces. If ‘The Oxen and the Sun’ rethinks creation and reproduction it is in terms immanent to their own potency as problematic, affective and open ideas, rather than in terms of the categories that might reduce them to the understanding.

[3] The epiphany is always something sudden and accidental. This is different from the ordinary memories that are recalled by a ‘chance word’ and in different circumstances (p. 552). These have a wide, psychological dominion and recur without warning, a heavy, represented and negative past. They cannot give rise to anything new because it has been explained, represented and understood as a duty, a burden to be endured as inheritance and are never rendered problematic. For Joyce the past is this great weight since religion and inheritance have turned it into a limitation that reminds everyone of their sin and duty. At a moment of epiphany Bloom is open to the possibilities of a future, of thinking of himself without reference to a past, an inheritance, an essence, a signifier… This is great innocence, never trying to accuse what he experiences, never trying to pin it down to an essence, is being connected and possessed with experience and its possibilities:

‘No longer is Leopold, as he sits there, ruminating, chewing the cud of reminiscence, that staid agent of publicity and holder of a modest substance in the funds. He is young Leopold, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself. …
No, Leopold! Name and memory solace thee not.’ (p. 540-1)

Bloom’s reflections upon himself are at one point interrupted by the heavy and solemn remembrance of his duty to bring up a son – one in which he has failed. He cannot meet his duty to extend the tradition and norms which society upholds. Yet there is not simply a failure here but a break down in what he should signify as father and man. This is dramatised as the text dissolves his selfhood, dismantling his inheritance. This textual freedom from the representation of reality is its revelation of an unconscious groundlessness to which Bloom, as a wanderer and lonely individual, is open. The recurrent theme of metempsychosis is also forming new ideas in the text, making into problems what before were certainties about creation and life. This shows imagination’s ability to play with certainties – the signifiers - and so reveals the unconscious elements from which they arise. This is the thought that nothing has an essence. Here the depth of the productive and groundless ground is revealed in a rigorous experimentation with style in the progressive breakdown of representation. Such unbounded but rigorous activity forms the novel itself, the whole of the texts own unspecified movements.

[4] ‘The Whole Escapes Us. We are not quick enough to keep everything together.’ (Deleuze, ‘Cours Vincennes,’ 25/11/1980,
This comment upon Spinoza’s Ethics perhaps sums up the nature of Ulysses in the sense that, with the singular instances of creativity at work in the text, it is possible to connect with the profound sense of the whole but never to grasp it. There is as much rigor in Ulysses as there is in Spinoza’s Ethics. The connection with the infinite in both cases is complex and spiralling in the sense that it is a cosmic thinking-through of what a body. This begins from there being no essence and from the possibility of realising the infinite within finitude. This concerns the logic of being as becoming, one that is unconscious and non-representational. In the epiphany forces that exceed the particular situation rise to the surface. This allows it to be grasped in these singular instances but not totalised as a whole since it is precisely an open-whole, productive through its internal power of difference. In Ulysses this whole is opposed to the past – which for Joyce is associated with patriarchy, nationalism, tradition – and is light-footed in its innocence, playful and without the limitations of inheritance.

[5] It might be objected – with some reason – that novels are too often centred upon the lone wanderer in the world, struggling to make sense of his (rarely ‘her’) existence [this was a comment that I think Brian made some time ago]. Yet do we not see in Stephen and Bloom the intensification of this perhaps overused and tired scheme into a different realm. They certainly don’t simply seek justification for themselves in an overcoming of the external world. Instead the singular points that possess the wanderer resonate in their connection to the groundlessness of imagination, something they experience and participate in. This is disruptive of the path of self-justification and angst since it is innocence in the play of the text, or of the text as world, immersed in an unconscious and creative practice. The starting point is therefore the text and its possibilities. The self emerges not as an essence but as a blockage or a stage of these cosmic movements. It is the ‘stage’ of these movements and so can participate in their cosmic drama if we don’t deny it. Inheritance and memory deny freedom to this theatre, weighing it down with duties. Irony has the function of removing us from the grounded and serious existence of an essence, rooted in a past and its conventions, and bringing a cosmic perspective into play. Dublin is seen out of the window of carriage:

‘The high railings of Prospects rippled past their gaze. Dark poplars, rare white forms. Forms more frequent, white shapes thronged amid the trees, white forms and fragments streaming by mutely, sustaining vain gestures on the air.’ (p. 126, the ‘Hades’ chapter)

Profound and meaningful human concerns are always caught up in this impersonal flow, one which only Stephen and Bloom take notice of in their different ways. There are rhythms and movements as opposed to essences, changes and movements as opposed to something that should be taken seriously. It forms a stifling atmosphere and yet one deflated by the perspective of irony, one seen for what it is in higher and cleaner air. Irony therefore allows for the individual to be undone and the real, mobile and liberating individuating factors to be presented. The individual is a product, open onto productive forces and their potential (whether it is blocked and repressed or embraced). This can only be uncovered when irony has cleared the ground. Playing with the pretensions of society, of individuals, of tradition, of egos, of professions, of understanding and so on to potential infinity in the universal textuality. Mighty ideas get lost and lose their integrity in the Dublin that now flows with different perspectives. It is this distance achieved in the first half of the novel as we rise above Dublin that allows the closeness to be achieved in the second half as we become immersed in the expressions of the unconscious forces that are beneath all that is conscious. Without this it would leaves us meditating only upon the limits of the given, of an essence striving to justify, without uncovering, itself. It would be the disposition of seriousness and tradition as oppose to that of light footed and joyful practice, embracing the possibilities of life. Thus the autonomy of the text is progressively intensified, developing through the book as its creation gains greater autonomy, in a way that relies upon this starting point. Seriousness is replaced by experiment, essence by experimentation. If the starting point were individual freedom and perspective upon the world then this distance wouldn’t be possible. Instead of judgement being central, as it is perhaps in the existential tradition, there is a focus on the epiphanies that sustain the journey of the wanderer. Equally, these wanderings are not the conscious plans of the individual. There is no seeker being represented in his or her desire for enlightenment. Bloom and Stephen seem mostly to be carried along by the experiences to which they are open. This is a tribute to their innocent practice. They are individuated not by their plans but by their open and connective dispositions, ones that the text allows us to appreciate fully. They do not seek answers but find connections to a free and futural rhythm that then faces them with epiphanies that are suppressed by the otherwise constant memory of the past (more akin to piped music than to a cosmic rhythm). These singular moments are those of cosmic dance in a perspective to which the text itself has introduced us by distancing us from the ordinary. It is not a thesis but a textual practice, meaning that the reader does not consider the idea but experiences its affective movement.

[6] Hesse’s Steppenwolf seeks to uncover the multiplicity of the personality, with a dramatic course given to the seeker in his own true nature. However, in Ulysses the text dramatises the unconscious forces present within the ordinary and explicit in the epiphany. This is a style that does not in any sense ‘represent’ an uncovering but is this very uncovering, creating its own world from the forces always covered over by the ordinary forms. It is musical in the sense that nothing is represented but the text embodies and reveals the forces that are vital. Stephen and Bloom are productively multiple in their connections, in their wandering that is as dramatic and extensive sitting upon a beach as it is when they walk through the street. For the many other figures caught up in their inherited past it seems as if everything is one and finished, each thing has its essence. Yet this is shown to be a multiple blocked and made static. It is unable to express its creative potential by embracing without shame the possibilities of Life, of chance and of the future. Instead of representing this Ulysses embodies it, showing that a world is always a particular configuration of the groundlessness that can be uncovered in only the most rigorous fashion (as a skilled literary practice). Living life needs to be as rigorous as literature is. He finds that the different epiphanies resonate in their expression of an open whole that is this groundless ground. This uncovering is as difficult as a cosmic psychoanalysis, an attunement to the immanent forces beneath the ordinary forms. His experiments in style are these exercises in analysis of the sometimes violent and excessive forces. Too put this in Deleuzian terms we might say that two multiplicities are present, intensive and extensive. Their folding allows the actualisation of events in space, a medium where otherwise nothing ‘occurs.’ Becoming-intense is an epiphany, a singular instance that does not rely upon an agent. This may only arise through Stephen or Bloom’s connections – they are most individual in the folding that opens them infinitely. To practice this becoming is a task of overcoming and intensive life.

[7] At this point we might introduce a different perspective that illustrates one of the dimensions of the text in its elaboration of an unconscious and groundless ground. This can be found in Frances L. Restuccia’s ‘Molly in Furs’, an essay exploring the role of Masochism in Ulysses from a Deleuzian perspective. It starts from the common characteristics of irony and masochism. They are strategic and practice self-abasement. The former disarms one’s critics whilst the latter disarms one’s super-ego. Masochism is a textual possibility because it can be a factor in its playing out of the forces within all human life and thought. It is something bodily but in the universal element of textuality there is both mind and body, with all individuals open onto its movements. Restuccia’s essay traces the tradition, which is strongly represented across Joyce’s writings, of the father whipping his son. She suggests that Joyce himself wanted to get out of this tradition, to find in the text a re-thinking of the past he had been lumbered with (p. 226). The father is reflected in the mirror of his son. He is punished by life and so punishes and identifies himself with the child he beats. This satisfaction of desire, with its basis in guilt and tradition, is as stultifying and futile as the related nationalistic pretensions of many of these males. Deleuze therefore finds that the masochist challenges repressive patriarchy in his expression of this negative energy. He is caught in a circle, attached to his inheritance and revealing this condition in the text. Such characters think from certain signifiers, moving solely within their ambit. Their positive self-expression and potential is blocked and the text can take this to great heights, presenting the death of all freedom through irony. This leads to the conclusion that Joyce rids himself of resemblance to his fathers in his writing, in the style that he develops (p. 230). Instead of representing a personal intellectual quest he presents the undoing of patriarchal signifiers. This is found in the play of the text that was forbidden by the law of the father, a liberated style where negative desires do not flow across generations and individuals. Instead, a common participation in creation is possible, an experience or participation in the genius of the imagination that is presented progressively in the text.

[8] In this way Restuccia presents the humiliation of the father through the text, which breaks down the patriarchal seriousness in its progressive affirmation of play. She reads the first half of the novel, up to the ‘Sirens’ chapter, as Joyce’s attempt to ‘father the world that fathered him’ (p. 231). This is an apocalyptic effort to give a signifier for every signified, one bound to fail but glorying in its destructive destination. Words progressively become anarchic – making crazy connections and links, recombining and expressing themselves without order or control. Yet this groundlessness is something out of which sense is to emerge, in the context of which rigor is demanded in a new practice. The mother expels the father (p. 232) because it is Molly who closes the novel in an epiphanic and affirmative birth. Restuccia reads Molly as a cipher for Joyce himself, through her he speaks the language of the torturer he is to himself. Her playful and non-representational language gives us a retrospective understanding of all the earlier language that subverted Joyce’s realist (phallic) task – it is part of her punishment of him (p. 233). Molly is a transversal movement in the text, an individuated force that is formed by its intense practice. This is one of no great seriousness, one jumping from topic to topic, arbitrary and playful. Words are self-sufficient and so singularly connected with the creativity that is possible outside of the seriousness of the patriarchal signifiers. This is the activity of the text in re-thinking reality whilst being its universal element. It is that which the novel captures and to which it gives free reign. Therefore, Restuccia can also read Molly as Joyce’s mother with his pen serving as her whip (p. 234). She also refers to the constant punning in Ulysses, with ‘pun’ being short for ‘punishment’, where its multiple referents do not preserve the stability of a realist scene. Instead they explode into elements of a text (p. 235). Thus punishment – that inherited from the fathers – disrupts the patriarchal signifiers, letting forth a Heraclitean text. But in introducing Heraclitus’ river of flux he also introduces the cosmic rhythms (the river’s banks) that transverse it as universals. This makes Joyce’s construction of Dublin in great detail the re-creation of that from which he had to release himself physically, psychologically and literarily (p. 236). It was to be disrupted from out the unconscious its was grounded in – grounded in groundlessness. This takes from Masoch the idea of a world of pure imagination as counterpart to, and not description of, the world (p. 237). This ideal world is liberated by its lightness, its imaginative release from reality. In this way it reveals the nature of reality as always produced, determined, rather than being fixed. It reveals the transversal rhythms that give it form – showing ‘how’ things are produced – as opposed to the essences that are inherited as ideas of what everything ‘is’ and must be. The productive but unconscious violence and excess of the world is contained in this counterpart such that it is given free reign. Restuccia concludes that Joyce writes bisexually, oscillating between representation and non-representation (p. 237). He thus overcome the all too human limits of his condition through the violent excess with which he makes contact, through which his novel is given unpredictable form and structure.

[9] This review has of necessity been brief and inadequate. I know that most, and perhaps all, of the members of the Parallel Campaign have looked at this book. I am interested in whether people find it valuable to literature. Does it damage or advance the novel? Does it even challenge the idea that the novel is now a worthwhile form of expression? Do aphorisms and fragments beckon us out of the dying embers of Joyce’s destruction of this form? If my distinctly Deleuzian and committed reading is provocative then I suppose this may be productive. I have offered very limited consideration of the text and I run the risk of thus limiting the text by my characterisation of it. I am infinitely open to criticisms and wouldn’t wish to appear closed or certain in relation to the text. It is rather that in an encounter with the text requires a commitment and affirmation (fidelity perhaps, if this turn of phrase is more pleasing). My readings of an impersonal imagination – plus its identification with the unconscious and groundless ground – is ontology, I also employ the terms of differential ontology. I draw on Masochism in order to open up further the nature of the autonomy of the text, its ability to affect its author so extensively and intensely. It is a novel closer to those of Kafka or Musil than Sartre or Beauvoir. This can be seen in its concern with freedom only through that which is impersonal, arriving at the personal through that which animates it most intensely, unpredictably and transversally. This is because the text constructs a truly cosmic perspective and then draws out its full implications and explications. It is the willingness of Bloom to accept what is unpredictable, open and different that marks him out not as one who understands all but is open to all (to the new).


Deleuze, Gilles. (25/11/1980) ‘Cours Vincennes,’ (‘Sommaire’ section)

Hallward, Peter (2003) Badiou: a Subject to Truth, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Hesse, Herman. (1965) Steppenwolf, trans. Basil Creighton and revised by Walter Sorell, London: Penguin.

Joyce, James. (1992) Ulysses, London: Penguin.

Restuccia, Frances L. ‘Molly in Furs: Deleuzian/Masochian masochism in the writing of James Joyce’ in Gary Genosko (ed.) (2001) Deleuze and Guattari: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers, London: Routledge.


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