There’s an anecdote in Ellman’s biography of James Joyce that I really love:
“… one day he dined with Vanderpyl and another writer, Edmond Jaloux, at a restaurant in the rue St. Honore. As they drank champagne and Fendant de Sion, Jaloux, who happened to be carrying a copy of Flaubert's Trois Contes, began to praise the faultlessness of its style and language. Joyce, in spite of his own admiration for Flaubert, bristled, 'Pas si bien que ga. II commence avec une faute.' And taking the book he showed them that in the first sentence of'Un Cceur simple,' 'Pendant un demi-siecle, les bourgeoises de Pont-l'Eveque envierent d Mme Aubain sa servante Felicite,' envierent should be enviaient, since the action is continued rather than completed. Then he thumbed through the book, evidently with a number of mistakes in mind, and came to the last sentence of the final story, 'Herodias,' 'Comme elle etait tres lourde, Us la portaient altemativement.' 'Altemativement is wrong,' he announced, 'since there
are three bearers.”
Oh that High modernism! So elegant, so intelligent. What Joyce does to Flaubert here is what Flaubert, in his letters, did to Balzac – he trumps the master.
The implication is that a literary text is something made with precision. It is like a ship, where every plank must be tongue-and-grooved closely with every other plank to resist the elements.
Yet put this way, it seems wrong. Shouldn’t the novel seek, instead, to be penetrated by the elements? Or at least to reflect them – as per Stendhal’s image of the mirror walking down the road. Isn’t the mistake in Herodias, in fact, related to the fact that the description – the mirroring – involves three bearers?
Of course, Stendhal’s mirror shows up in Ulysses as the cracked looking glass of a serving girl. The crack is not simply a matter of distortion, but a reminder that the mirror’s smooth surface doesn’t really model what is happening in writing. Writing has parts and dimensions – words and sentences and paragrahs and chapters, among the parts, and denotation, sound, connotation and history, among the dimensions. I look at the page and see a smooth surface that I recognize as the printed page, but when I read, when I am initiated into what is going on, the surface breaks up. Joyce, that Jesuit, saw the old Latin alter in alternativement. It was the kind of second hearing that Flaubert had, too.
Still: the ship metaphor that I used seems not to capture what is going on here, although it does suggest that the text resists – it resists first. It doesn’t show, although part of it is certainly evoking images.
But I don’t want to discard the ship image just yet, because it leads me to one of my favorite passages in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Here, too, the story becomes an image for a view of language and its effects:
“Le vaisseau Argo ~ The ship Argo
A frequent image: that of the ship Argo (luminous and white), each piece of which the Argonauts gradually replaced, so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its
name or its form. This ship Argo is highly useful: it affords the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest actions (which cannot be caught up in any mystique of creation): substitu-
tion (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts): by dint of combinations made within one and the same name, nothing is left of the origin: Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.”
I think Joyce would have been intrigued by this passage, but I don’t think he would have quite agreed with it. And yet, couldn’t one say that the infinite circularity of Finnegan’s wake leads us to Barthes conclusion?