Thesis of the Month: Schrödinger’s Joyce

 

ulysses 2aIn the inaugural selection for our thesis the month, Sophie Corser, PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London, speaks about her complicated relationship with Ulysses and Joyce, and the experience of reading a text which both denies and affirms the presence of the author.

(Thesis title: ‘Reading Joyce(s): Authorship and the Reader in Ulysses)

It would be fair to say that I have been ‘stuck’ on Ulysses since first attempting to read it in 2008 as an undergraduate (I read it in three days – it occurs to me now that I have spent these last seven years atoning for that error). It was whilst writing my MA dissertation, a comparative study of Ulysses and several short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, that I realised I not only saw James Joyce’s 1922 novel as one of the most exciting, intriguing, and puzzling texts through which to explore my interest in how we read authorship, but that Ulysses itself had sparked that curiosity.

As a reader of Ulysses I feel enjoyably trapped between two modes of reading. I desire and experience the limitless freedom of an ‘authorless’ text that encourages an active and creative reading, yet cannot help but accept the unavoidable control of the creator of a text so intricately woven. In Ulysses opposites can simultaneously be true, which is both confusing and absorbing. We learn to accept the disconcerting state of being trapped within various paradoxes whilst reading the novel: revelling in ‘Eumaeus’, a brilliantly wrought episode of terrible writing; or finding errors, lies, and humour in the cold, scientific, ‘objective’ episode ‘Ithaca’. I think that this lesson of holding two conflicting realisations together in harmony leads to a rewarding, intriguing, and useful way of understanding reading, textuality, and authorship.

My thesis asks what it is about this famously unread, difficult, semi-autobiographical novel written by a famously revered ‘genius’ writer that might encourage a reader to query the authority of an author. Rather than look at the authorial theories spouted by Joyce’s pseudo-self-portrait Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, my approach considers how readers of the novel themselves form attitudes towards the author – and how such attitudes in turn form readings. The development of Joycean criticism, a history of readings, and its relationship to the author figure has been of particular interest to me. Ulysses criticism has at its roots a small collection of authorially-authorised critical works written by early readers to whom Joyce lent a hand (or used to his own ends). Tracking the changing reception yet continued use of such studies alongside shifting attitudes towards the authorial figure over the last ninety years has been one way in which I find I can argue for the necessity of a reappraisal of how the author functions in Joyce studies. My other areas of investigation vary from a playful look at how biography functions in Joycean criticism (with the added fun of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties), to an argument for the relevance of the author-seeking habits of Homeric scholarship to readers of Ulysses.

As an exploration of the specificities of Ulysses which prompt a questioning of the roles of readers and authors, my thesis involves a great deal of close and even closer readings – and an unfashionable engagement with anti-authorial post-structuralist literary theory. The project is nevertheless pointedly informed by practical and contemporary concerns of authorship. From the ‘Joyce industry’ of summer schools, symposia, workshops, and decades-long reading groups, to the ‘Joyceana’ of postcards, T-shirts, mugs, pencils, stamps, badges, and finger puppets (yes, I have one), I see ‘Joyce’ as an exaggeration of academic and commercial understandings of an author. How Joycean tourism and memorabilia might impact perceptions of Joyce-the-Author for critics, publishers, and readers is of as much interest to me as how our perceptions of Joyce-the-man might shape readings of Ulysses.

How criticism, biography, and the text of Ulysses perpetuate, tear down, and are in turn affected by a model of an infallible untouchable Author drives my research, as does the wider relevance of this Joycean encounter. I believe that it is the seeming idiosyncrasies of Joyce – the very aspects which seem to separate his works from other literature – that cause Joyce’s texts to be relevant to central questions applicable beyond Joyce studies. How does a reputation for writing ‘difficult texts’ inform the perceived status of an author in critical and popular literary spheres, and vice versa? In what ways does a famously unread text involve a reading of its author? I look forward (in my daydreams of life after the PhD) to exploring these questions beyond Joyce and Joyce studies, building upon the foundation of my current research.

 

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