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Joyce's Uncertainty Principle

Joyce's Uncertainty Principle

by Phillip F. Herring

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Phillip Herring distinguishes the solvable problems from the truly insolvable mysteries in Joyce studies. His unusual and often witty book contains enough background material to appeal to a beginning reader of Joyce, yet it will be of the utmost importance to the specialist. He argues that Joyce formulated an uncertainty principle as early as the first Dubliners


Phillip Herring distinguishes the solvable problems from the truly insolvable mysteries in Joyce studies. His unusual and often witty book contains enough background material to appeal to a beginning reader of Joyce, yet it will be of the utmost importance to the specialist. He argues that Joyce formulated an uncertainty principle as early as the first Dubliners story and that he continued to engineer impossible-to-resolve mysteries" through his creation of literature's most radical experiment, Einnegans Wake.

Originally published in 1987.

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Joyce's Uncertainty Principle

By Phillip F. Herring


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06719-3


Dubliners: The Trials of Adolescence

Gnomon and the Rhetoric of Absence

Joyce's seemingly contradictory strategy of producing both ambiguous texts and the keys to interpreting them may have the effect of keeping professors busy, one of his stated purposes, but it also reveals a genuine skepticism about our ability to get at the truth except in fragments, to understand finally and completely the impressions that our senses bring us, to analyze and interpret experience with a high degree of certainty, and to express ourselves unambiguously in eel-slippery language.

In Joyce's earliest work, however, skepticism was often a less prominent concern than politics, for in Dubliners he wrote with great bitterness and in considerable fear a political indictment of his city using a hidden rhetoric of absence. Out of this strategy grew his uncertainty principle, but it was surely no coincidence that it flourished only when he felt safe enough to condemn directly the sources of oppression.

Joyce's rhetoric of absence made its initial appearance on the first page of Dubliners, where we find the three words in italics generally accepted as key words for interpretation. (Most critics have said that they are keys to the first story alone; I say they are relevant to the entire collection.) While paralysis, the first key word, has been widely discussed, gnomon, the second one, has remained murky. The OED tells us that it is both a parallelogram with a smaller parallelogram missing in one corner and the pillar of a sundial, which tells time by casting part of a circle into shadow. One should give more credence to Euclidian usage, since in the story the boy's understanding is probably restricted to that, but Joyce surely knew that in both definitions the missing part is what is important, either as a space that defines a geometric shape or as a shadow that indicates the time of day. Gnomon signaled his creation of absences that readers must make speak if they are to gain insight into character, structure, and narrative technique. In Greek, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] means "judge" or "interpreter," which might provide a fanciful etymological link between the reader as interpreter in Dubliners and that which is to be discovered — significant but suppressed meaning. The richness of gnomon is precisely its vagueness.

"Gnomonic" language may contain ellipses, hiatuses in meaning, significant silences, empty and ritualistic dialogue. We note the continual emphasis on emptiness, incompletion, solitude, loneliness, shadow, darkness, and failure, which so affect the lives of Joyce's Dubliners and allow subtle expression of his political views.

Joyce must have been well instructed in the dictionary meanings of gnomon, because the concept is relevant to most of the major concerns of Dubliners. It suggests that certain kinds of absence are typical of the whole of Dublin life at a significant time in its history. (Here the sundial meaning of the word is applicable.) In effect, a gnomon may be a key synecdoche of absence, part of a political rhetoric of silence within a larger framework of language. In general, it indicates how selective examples such as the characters of Dubliners define life in their city, how shades illuminate presences, even how abnormality can define the normal.

The third key word in the opening paragraph of "The Sisters" is simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical preferment. If paralysis describes the moral and physical condition of Dubliners, given their need for freedom, transcendence, and fulfillment, and gnomon reemphasizes these absences at a particular time in history, then simony points to corruption in high places and illegitimate ecclesiastical authority as the primary obstacles to people's fulfillment. The first two terms describe the condition, telling readers how to arrive at meanings deeper than the textual surface, while the word simony places the blame squarely where Joyce thought it belonged — on institutions and their representatives who barter sacred rights. Ambition, energy, free will revolutionary zeal — these forces play no role and could not, Joyce thought, in a city and country where centuries of political and religious oppression had caused a general paralysis of mind and will. Transcendence came only through death or emigration.

John Fowles recently said in an interview that "academic critics seem often to me to be blind to a negative side of the novel: what it does not say, what is left out." A major exception is Hugh Kenner, who has become well known in Joycean circles for his gnomonic perspectives in revealing important textual lacunae, which have sparked both wide interest and controversy. His article "The Rhetoric of Silence" is the pioneering work in this area, and it has given me my chapter subtitle, but my emphasis is on absence rather than silence, and in Dubliners at least, politics as often as puzzles.

Bernard Benstock called Kenner "the man in the gap" ("The Kenner Conundrum": 434) for, as Milton's angel Gabriel might have said, "busying his thoughts with matters hid," but Benstock also said that Kenner's

speculations are important since they open up investigation into the missing sections of Ulysses and attempt to account for the events which must have taken place during the hours in which Joyce does not allow us to witness the progress of his characters. This exercise in gnomonic criticism focuses on the shadows conveniently overlooked by many readers of the novel, and regardless of Kenner' s success as a detective of the unsubstantial, his efforts force attention about the neglected pockets of darkness. (ibid., 428)

Benstock points to three examples of gnomonic criticism in Kenner's work: (1) In The Pound Era, Kenner discusses a vital bit of information, not present in the story "Eveline," about the boat from the North Wall. Presumably Eveline freezes at dockside because she has been promised that the ship would take her and Frank to Buenos Aires, but she now sees that ships from the North Wall dock sail to Liverpool. I disagree with Kenner' s interpretation, but the discovery of a vital missing detail, upon which any convincing interpretation of a story would depend, is a good example of gnomonic criticism. (2) Late in Ulysses Stephen complains of an injured hand, but there is scant evidence as to how this injury occurred. In his chapter on "Circe" in the Hart-Hayman book, Kenner recreates for us a missing scene at the end of "Oxen," where Stephen strikes Buck Mulligan at the Westland Row Station. (3) In "Molly's Masterstroke," Kenner sees importance in the fact that the furniture at 7 Eccles Street has been rearranged in Bloom's absence, causing him to bump his head (U 17:1275). My view would be that the Greek generals returning from the Trojan War were often startled to find their homes rearranged; Bloom, an Odysseus figure, comes into contact with tangible evidence of this. Kenner imagines a scene in which Molly has Boylan rearrange the furniture in order to tire him out and thus guard her virtue. In any event, Kenner's attempts to recreate missing scenes on the basis of scattered evidence are gnomonic exercises that J9yce would have applauded.

Even Leopold Bloom plays a gnomonic game when at the end of "Nausicaa" he writes with a stick in the sand "I.AM.A.," thus insuring future speculation about both his message and his identity as he sees it (U 13:1258-64). The difficulty, of course, comes in knowing which "pockets of darkness" will yield up secrets and which will not, for along with the invitation to probe into absence we have abundant evidence of Joyce's love for trickery. It is finally he who manipulates Bloom's stick, beckoning us to look closer.

Why Joyce should wish to employ subterfuge in Dubliners rather than targeting his enemies directly as he did in later works is obvious when one contemplates what actually happened to the collection of stories. Irish publishers such as Grant Richards and George Roberts, with whom Joyce negotiated about publication, anticipated censorship and demanded changes in the text; Roberts's printer John Falconer eventually destroyed the proofsheets. All had good reason to fear litigation that could have landed them in prison. Joyce's broadside "Gas from a Burner" (CW 243) was written out of a deep indignation at his treatment by Irish publishers.

Cheryl Herr mentions the heavy-handed intervention of Church and State in matters of publishing (176 n. 12) and clearly demonstrates by reference to "Aeolus" Joyce's "idea that art should not only circumvent the censor wherever possible but also eschew altogether the end-oriented rhetoric of politics, even when the end sought is the alleviation of ideological oppression" (142). Such cunning Stephen Dedalus would vow to practice; "per vias rectas" was the motto of the reactionary Garrett Deasy of "Nestor," but Joyce knew from the beginning that straight ways were dangerous. In 1915 Joyce's bitterness over censorship would equal D. H. Lawrence's at the suppression of The Rainbow. The key words on the first page of Dubliners reveal Joyce's concern with, maybe even his prediction of, censorship and persecution.

As Dubliners seek to fly by nets erected to keep them down, one of the chief benefits of an uncertainty principle emerges: stories may achieve greater depth and complexity and yet seem simple enough to have broad, popular appeal. (They are hence invaluable for teaching close reading to students.) Adopting a gnomonic perspective helps us to see more clearly the nature of Joyce's embittered social commentary, the interplay of presence and absence from the viewpoint of a subversive artist with a social conscience. Readers alerted to the implications of the three key words from the first, "trained" to read the stories skeptically, could feel more deeply the political impact they contain. In theory the author then need not fear censorship because libelous thoughts are in the reader's mind, not in the text. Gnomon therefore has the effect of enlisting a reader as co-creator in the production of meanings that are in harmony with the author's political concerns. Joyce thus evoked the odor of corruption that hangs over his stories, pointed the finger at the forces of oppression, and hoped to evade the consequences. "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter," not to mention safer to sing.

About a third of my book concerns Dubliners because readers associate Joycean experimentalism with the later works, but seldom if ever see that the uncertainty principle that generated much of the obscurity was in his work from the beginning. Still, such an approach is not without problems. While gnomonic structures often have political implications in Dubliners, or at least foster skepticism, some stories obviously fit the pattern better than others. We begin with a story about uncertainty in interpretation from a boy's more mature perspective in later years, and end with the mystery surrounding Gabriel Conroy's fading identity, but in between the three key words were not always uppermost in Joyce's mind. (Of course there is no reason why he should have felt bound by consistency.) But the general neglect of Dubliners in theoretical matters of broader scope has prompted me to say something about all the stories, and to argue that gnomonic absence in its early form often has moral and political implications, as when what is missing is some vital human quality such as love or compassion or empathy, emotions consistently absent in Dubliners. In some stories absence has little to do with mystery or uncertainty, but everything to do with privation. If this strategy is a weak link in my conceptual chain, then at the least it provides two useful correctives: it emphasizes the radical politics of Joyce's youth, and it saves us from yet another series of discrete interpretations.

Structure and Meaning in "The Sisters"

On numerous occasions Joyce provided guideposts to interpretation (see Herring, Joyce's Notes 121-23), but it has not been generally accepted that "The Sisters" itself functions in that capacity. Still, the story is clearly about ambiguity, about the impossibility of reaching certainty. The reader encounters several barriers to understanding: the text is full of elliptical language filtered through the consciousness of a bewildered youth who broods over the deceased Father Flynn and the meaning of their friendship. Readers are easily deceived into thinking that the boy is merely naive, and that greater maturity would be an advantage to him in wrestling with the holes in meaning, an illusion that should be dispelled at the story's end when we are denied access to the boy's final thoughts. His reaction to new and probably decisive information is cloaked in ellipses, while the reader is left to fill in the gaps. Both reader and boy are frustrated by an unsuccessful exercise in gnomonic interpretation.

The opening lines of the early version of the story, published in The Irish Homestead in 1904 (D 243) illustrate that the uncertainty principle was already present (italics mine):

Three nights in succession I had found myself in Great Britain Street at that hour, as if by providence. Three nights I had raised my eyes to that lighted square of window and speculated. I seemed to understand that it would occur at night. But in spite of the providence which had led my feet and in spite of the reverent curiosity of my eyes I had discovered nothing.

This theme of uncertainty was reinforced in the story's final version with the addition of our three key words. Here the boy's interpretative difficulty, first attributed to fickle providence and human frailties, is now located in language itself: "Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism" (D 9).

No logic binds these three italicized words together — only the strangeness of their sounds in the boy's ear. To him the meanings are private ones, perhaps only loosely connected, if at all, to dictionary definitions. The words seem to cast a spell over him and, at the same time, to point to many interpretive possibilities about which the sensitive reader may speculate. Father Flynn was a paralytic; what do gnomon and simony have to do with him? Can these terms be applied to anyone or anything else? Yet the reader, like the boy, is impelled to seek a truth he can never find: the three words provide no illumination, but neither are they meaningless. This is the dilemma of following the lead of the author-critic-tease who provides keys to understanding an ambiguous text. We shall see how it is possible to use one term — gnomon — as an instrument of interpretation within this curious epistemological framework.

Let us take a closer look at the key words. The narrator of A Portrait says of young Stephen Dedalus, "Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him" (AP 62). The comprehension of key concepts is also the primary means of orientation for the boy in "The Sisters," who, with the reader, may see that the magical word that has preoccupied him — paralysis — describes considerably more than Father Flynn's physical debility. In the final story of Dubliners, "The Dead," the word "dead" — that final paralysis — may refer not only to those faithful departed, but to their survivors; in this first story paralysis is applicable both to the priest (it has become his rigor mortis) and to those who mourn him, perhaps even his young friend in his interpretive dilemma, or even the reader. Upon reflection we are meant to see that it is epidemic in Ireland's capital (D 269; Joyce, Letters 1:55; 2:134).


Excerpted from Joyce's Uncertainty Principle by Phillip F. Herring. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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