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Derrida’s thoughts on Ulysses

Monday, November 16, 2009; 09:40 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Derrida, Jacques. “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear say yes in Joyce.” A Companion to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ed. Margot Norris. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

I was attracted by the title of Jacque Derrida’s article “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce,” since it explicitly mentions ‘yes’ up front. Though Derrida’s conclusions in the essay span much further, I think it’s worth examining his thoughts on ‘yes’ in Ulysses as it represents a somewhat more casual, everyday approach to reading Joyce.

Quoting Joyce himself, one of the things that Derrida talks about in reading Ulysses is the relationship between the postcard and publication. He writes: “Any public piece of writing, any open text, is also offered like the exhibited surface, in no way private, of an open letter, and therefore of a postcard…with its coded and at the same time stereotyped language, trivialized by the very code and number.” He then lists several of the scenes in Ulysses explicitly about postcards and letters, including Mr. Reggie Wylie’s postcard to Gerty Macdowell, “his silly postcard”; a postcard to Flynn from Bloom which he forgets to address ( “underlining the nature of anonymous publication,” according to Derrida); Bloom’s memory of Martha’s letter; and Molly’s rendering of Denis Breen’s u.p:Up fiasco. All of these examples illustrate Joyce’s ability to provide commentary on his own methods within said methods themselves. He builds memorable characters and allows us to enter their minds, only to show them being encountered by the same textual and interpretive issues we face ourselves as we read Ulysses. Regardless of what we think “u.p:Up” can mean throughout the novel, the fact that Breen thinks it has to mean something is part of the point. Breen’s case highlights the anonymous nature of the addresser, while his failure to address the postcard to Flynn highlights the opposite.

As for “yes,” Derrida says it is “gramophoned.” That is, “yes can only be a mark in Ulysses, a mark at one written and spoken, vocalized as a grapheme and written as phoneme, yes, in a word, gramophoned” (78). The incorporation of the word “eyes” helps focus this idea. As we have talked about in class, “eyes” is an interesting word because it easily connects with “ayes,” the alternate way of saying ‘yes’ throughout Ulysses, especially in Eumaeus. Given this link, it also corresponds simply because we read ‘yes’ upon scanning the word ‘eyes.’ I think we discussed the possibility of ‘eyes’ corresponding with parallax, in that the plurality of multiple ‘eyes’ suggests multiple perspectives on what is occurring. Is there a ‘yes’ perspective, then, within this framework? I think Molly’s narrative in Penelope goes well with this, although Joyce tends to resist the constraints of the dichotomies he wants us to notice. As Derrida puts it at the end of the essay: “Everything we can say about Ulysses has already been anticipated…you are captive in a language, writing, knowledge, and even narration network” (89).

Overall, this essay is classified as a work in deconstruction in the Margot Norris “A Companion to James Joyce” book. Derrida’s style is very informal, which relates to his message about the novel, in that one needs to hear Ulysses as well as read it to get the best grasp of what is possible. Derrida originally gave this reading as a lecture to a group of Joyce scholars in Germany, and he uses this informal style to indirectly demonstrate an alternative method of reading Joyce, one that is not as rigorous but perhaps more revealing. Suggesting his own incompetence as an authority on Joyce, Derrida also brings into question the idea of literary competence. Does a first-time reader who encounters Ulysses, anonymous postcard that it is, have any more competence than a reader with background knowledge? For the purposes of the essay, Derrida’s answer is no, because words like ‘yes’ are part of a gramophonic narrative that everyone must struggle with.

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