Umberto Eco on James Joyce

The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: the Middle Ages of James Joyce by Umberto Eco, Translated from the ltalian by Ellen Esrock. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (1982), 1989. xii, 96 pp.

Note to the 1989 Edition by David Robey  vii
Translator’s Foreword   ix
Author’s Note  xi
I. The Early Joyce   1
       The Catholicism of Joyce  3
       The Medieval Model         6
       The Young Attempts       11
       Portrait of the Artist as a Young Thomist           14
       Epiphany: from Scholasticism to Symbolism    23
II. Ulysses  33
       The Poetics of Expressive Form                35
       The Poetics of the “Coupe en Largeur”    38
       The Poetics of the Ordo Rhetoricus          42
       The Symbolic Correspondences                52
       The Metaphor of the New Science            55
       “Ulysses” as a “Well-Made” Novel          56
III. Finnegans Wake  61
       The Poetics of Vico’s Cycles        62
       The Poetìcs of the Pun                  65
       The Coincidentia Oppositorum    70
       The Epiphany as an Epistemological Metaphor   74
       The Hysperic Poetic                     77
       The Poem of Transition                81
       Conclusion                                    85
References to Joycean Literature in this Work    91


But the paradox is a structural one: in order to make disorder detectable, the author must give a shape to confusion and destruction. The problem of Ulysses is to find the form of disorder. Joyce faces the task of translating the magma of experience to the printed page with absolute realism. Thus Joyce finds himself before Erebus and the Night, the underground powers unleashed from their origins, the curse of five thousand years of culture encrusted on each movement, each word. He wishes to give us the image of a world in which multiple events jostle against one another, attract and repel each other, as in a statistica! distribution of subatomic events, thus allowing the reader to design multiple perspectives of the “Work-Cosmos.”

In fact, the book is a sum of cultural references—Homer, Theosophy, Theology, Anthropology, Corpus Hermeticum, Ireland, the Catholic liturgy, the kabbala, memories of scholasticism, daily events, psychic processes, gestures, sabbatical illusions, the ties of blood and parenthood, physiological processes, odors and tastes, noises and apparitions. The possibilities for symbolic relationships among these cultural references are not those of the medieval Cosmos in which each creature becomes the “sign” of something else on the grounds of the univocal code of the Bestiary and the Lapidary, the Encyclopedia and the Imago Mundi. In the medieval symbol, the signifying-signified relationship is clear because of a homogenous culture. This homogeneity of a unique culture is lacking in the contemporary poetic symbol as the result of a multiplicity of cultural perspectives. In the contemporary symbol, signifier-signified are joined in a short circuit which is poetically necessary but ontologically gratuitous and improvised. The organizing key to this circuit does not rely upon an objective code lying outside of the work but upon an internal set of relationships which are ernbedded in its structure. The “Work as Cosmos” reproposes, ex novo, the linguistic conventions upon which it stands as the key to its own code. [pp. 44-45]

*     *     *     *     *

Thus Ulysses appears as the incredible image of a world that supports itself, almost by miracle, on the preserved structures of an old world which are accepted for their formal reliability but denied in their substantial value. Ulysses represents a moment of transition for contemporary sensitivity. It appears as the drama of a dissociated consciousness that tries to reintegrate itself, finding, at the core of dissociation, a possible recovery by directing itself in opposition to its old frames of reference. [p. 55]

Finnegans Wake

The “cultural” rationale of Finnegans Wake now becomes clear. Joyce has reduced reality to the world of myths, traditions, ancient fragments, the words by which man has designated his experiences. He has tried to meld these into the amalgam of the dream in order to find, in this original liberty, in this zone of fertile ambiguity, a new order of the universe delivered from the tyranny of the old traditions. The initial fall has established a cultivated state of barbarity, a primitive, uncivilized language built from the linguistic debris of many civilizations. Here everything moves in a primordial and disordered flow; everything is its own opposite; everything can collegate itself to all the others. No event is new for something similar has already happened; a ricorso, a connection, is always possible. lf history is a continuous cycle of alternations and recurrences, then it does not have the characteristic of irreversibility that we are accustomed to confer upon it today. Rather, each event is simultaneous; past, present and future coincide. But since each thing exists to the extent that it is named, this whole movement, this game of continuous metamorphoses can only happen in words, and the pun, the calembour, is the mainspring of this process. [p. 65]

*     *     *     *     *

The question is whether this repertoire of n-dimensional definitions is valid for us, for no one, for the author, for the eye of God, for the dream of a fool, or for the readers of tomorrow - for the readers of a possible society in which exercise in the multiplication of signs will not appear as a game for the elite but as the natural, constructive exercise of an agile and renewed perception. [p. 85]

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