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Infinity and Ithaca

Wednesday, November 11, 2009; 05:00 am Leave a comment Go to comments

“Where Was Moses When the Candle Went Out? Infinity, Prophecy, and Ethics in Spinoza and ‘Ithaca’ “ by Elizabeth S. Anker, James Joyce Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007, pp. 661-677

Ah, JJQ strikes again. Fortunately, this time, it looks less like a weird, minorly related tangent and more like… ∞

Anker, drawing on several allusions (both concepts and structure), teases out a link between Spinoza’s philosophy/ethics and Ulysses, with a particular focus on “Ithaca”. The main components of Spinoza’s philosophy that Anker believes Ulysses draws most prominently upon are:

1)    Spinoza’s contemplations of the “infinite” + resulting revelations

2)    Bloom’s character as Spinoza’s conception of a Talmudic prophet

In addition to those two main points, Anker also notes that Ulysses’ “embrace of the visceral and the body in the novel captures Spinoza’s monism – his notion of unity of mind and body, his celebration fo the corporeal, and his deprivileging of the exclusively cerebral” (662).

As far as contemplation of the infinite goes, Spinoza’s philosophy “maintains that God ‘extends’ himself and is therefore immanent in all of physical matter (Ethics 40)… all physical substance is essentially indivisible” (663), but human interrelations, by extension of being part of the physical, are simultaneously filled with “infinite diversity or alterity” (663). To me, this seems like a more straightforward explication of one of the sections in Henry Staten’s article that I had some trouble understanding – that is, the very Joycean conflation of both the mechanical, infinitively replaceable and the infinitely differentiated in Bloom’s ruminations (in the answers we get in “Ithaca”) about infinity.

Anker reads the interpersonal relationships in Ulysses as exemplifications of this paradoxical infinity, most notably Bloom’s relationship to Stephen and Molly. For Bloom, the interpersonal is “at once unified and fractured, a source of inseparable commonality and difference” (663), which I think is made very apparent by his confusion about intermittent moments of identification (and sometimes consubstantial conflation) with and alienation from Stephen (something like “incertitude of the void”). So in the interpersonal, Bloom swings between what sounds like plenitude and the lonely isolation of individuation (Lacanian much?). Even his revelation seems to be at odds with itself: “Not verbally. Substantially”, which reveals that “Bloom can only attain the ‘known’ because of the existence of ‘incertitude’ and through an encounter with the ‘void,’… his inability to fully ascertain the Other paradoxically produces a form of ‘knowledge’, although it is knowledge of a congenital absence or deficiency” (665).

Anker then suggests that “[w]ere human relations not irrevocably divided and Otherness not inherently foreclosed, the world would need neither ethics or hope” (665) – that the infinite gulf between Other and Self (so Bloom/Molly, or Bloom/Stephen) permits “exuberantly intimate connections with that very same Other” (666). But any revelations that Bloom comes to in “Ithaca” are moody and fleeting, existing for a season before becoming clouded by doubt.

Then we get textual ties between Bloom and old testaments prophets (“Ithaca” tends to transform “Bloom’s actions into the sacramental” (670)); then specifically, Spinoza’s old testament prophet, by virtue of Bloom’s “abandonment of formal tenets of Judaism and Catholicism” as well as Spinozan “personal qualities” which “resound with… antiheroism” – and this interesting one “the prophet’s lack of identifiable intellectual capabilities” (671) – in Spinoza’s prophet, a privileging of the imagination over the intellectual. And then Anker offers the idea of the infinite as a way to understand how Joyce’s text operates – how the instability/failure of language the simultaneously “enables an illimitable wealth of meaning that can seemingly ‘universalize’ a text, extending its reference to an infinity of instance of irreducible particularity” (673). Pretty.

Then a call for more studies investigating Spinoza’s influence on Joyce.

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