The Decomposing form of Joyce’s Ulysses by Henry Staten
It’s a pretty long, complex article, so at the risk of being overly reductive (actually, I don’t think there’s anyway I can avoid reductiveness), I’ll try to sum it up as best I can.
Thesis: “What is in question here is, rather, the movement of form-making and of the dissolution of form that is the common matrix of text and body. […] What seems clear is that Ulysses achieves some of its most characteristic effects by pressing the internal logic of mimesis to the limit, above all through onomatopoeia, which manifests itself in a peculiarly condensed way the self-contradictory character of the realist project” (380-81)
Staten addresses some of the ideas (and a lot of the obsessions) we’ve been sort of circling about in class – waste, in/out, death/sex, self/anxiety of individuation: “And this ruin of form reverberates at every level of Ulysses as the undoing of all ontological security and the unleashing of the anxiety of individuation. How this anxiety, linked at one pole to onomatopoeia and the ruin of mimetic form, is linked at the other pole to the fear of infidelity is the substance of my argument” (381).
Staten first focuses on onomatopoeia (esp Stephen’s wavespeech in “Proteus”: “seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos” (3.457)) as signature, a medium through which one might attempt to access the referent (in this case, the sound of the waves), but through which (as the logic of onomatopoeias operates) direct access to the referent is impossible. Staten, referencing the repeated use of onomatopoeia in “Sirens” (and, y’know, all those other instances where Joyce uses onomatopoeia), argues that part of Joyce’s project in the composition of Ulysses is to decompose the mimesis of language.
He pulls tons of examples where Joyce’s imitations/rearrangements of letters and syntax reach beyond imitation and double back on themselves in a kind of deconstructive way, such as the un-pronounceable “Mkgnao”, “Mn”, “Sllt”… Then he ties in, with these self-deconstructive onomatopoeias, ideas of infidelity (to mimetic language, and Molly), self-cannibalism, and (Staten’s words) the “sacramentalization of shit” (384). Staten sees Joyce as prescient of the ideas Derrida later expounds.
Symmetry: Staten asserts that the “principles of reversal and reversibility condense the signification of death in Ulysses” (383), and draws on the idea of reversibility of doubling in Ulysses, most textually prominent in instances when Joyce “for no apparent reason” repeats an active sentence in passive form: “Grossbooted draymen rolled barrels dullthudding… dullthudding barrels rolled by grossbooted draymen…” (7.21-23); we get more doubling and doubling back on self: active/passive, eater/eaten (8.~123), act/acted on (Shakespeare) and ultimately (stemming from all this), ties with the Eucharist (with eating, and adjectives that couch other humans in terms of their edibility – “hams”). These symmetries eventually bring Staten to tying beginning/ending with sacrament/shit (we haven’t quite gotten here in the text, but Bloom’s fixation on Molly’s posterior serves as a kind of precursor for the eventual meeting of the in/out holes).
More on onomatopoeia: later (ep.17), with Bloom’s anagrammatic play on his own name, Staten raises (again) the disintegration of mimesis via words and even alphabet, and raises the idea of narrative as likewise being able to be rearranged (at almost random) to be something else entirely (he calls it “alphabetic combinatorium”, p. 386).
Infidelity apparently makes “one feel so imminently contingent and replaceable, this circumstance sets off an anxiety of nonbeing that resonates with the pain of death” (387). And then there’s this stuff about Aristotle’s ineluctable modality/doctrine of possibility. Which Stephen is especially concerned with, and which Bloom becomes tied into (with his dead son Rudy, who does not exist)… so eventually, (I’m skipping so much, sorry!) because Stephen identifies as Bloom’s surrogate son, there’s an overwhelming anxiety from both parties about the fragility of existence (although Staten articulates that it is “grief” where Bloom is concerned).
Okay, I’m going to update this post on either Thursday or Friday, because it is so dense, and this is an extremely inadequate summary.