Fabled by the Daughters of Memory

At the end of my last post, I was discussing the question of who paid the rent for the tower (and I should have given credit to my friend Nick Fargnoli, who first pointed this issue out to me), and I invoked the biographical record of Joyce’s actual life. Now, I understand the risks of the biographical fallacy (which is especially prevalent in Joyce-studies, for obvious reasons, especially after Ellmann): however, the relationship between “life” and “art” is a crucial one in Ulysses, and one which is particularly foregrounded in the second episode, for which Joyce specified the art of “History” in his schema; but he could just as well have said “memory,” or “fiction.”

The second episode begins with a history lesson, regarding the empire-building battles of ancient Rome. Memory is evoked from the outset:

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of some impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then? (2.7-10)

The allusion to Blake in the first sentence (which, for once, Stephen is kind enough to tell us from whom he’s quoting) sets up an interesting dualism by which to consider Joyce’s craft: Fable vs. Memory. Ulysses is fiction (fable), but it was born from memory, as the Muses were born of Zeus and Mnemosyne. And yet, it is not memory: it is “in some way… not as memory fabled it.” What is the relationship of the memory to the fiction? For that matter, what is the relationship of memory to history (which is really just another form of fiction, as historiographers such as Hayden White [certainly not the first to say so] like to tell us)? “History [is] a tale like any other too often heard” (2.46-7).

Memory is fallible, as the first page of this episode goes to great lengths to establish: the students “forget the place,” which Stephen is only able to remind them of by glancing at his “gorescarred book”: writing, of course, is just a form of “mnemotechnic” (a favorite word of Bloom’s), and evolutionary psychologists point out with the rise of writing a concomitant decline of  memory: see the difference between oral and written cultures (a difference especially pertinent in this book of all books, where a great oral epic provides the “basis” for a very written epic).

And why is the book “gorescarred”? This word cuts several ways. We can consider the abuse a school textbook is likely to suffer leaving it stained and marked; but perhaps the “gore” is the gore of the battles being described on the page. Consider, also, the circumstances under which the book we are reading was written. Ulysses (whenever Joyce mentions a book, one can assume, narcissist that he is, he is talking about his own), written in a Europe in the grip of the First World War: the compositional circumstances of this book leave it more than a little “gorescarred” itself. Granted, the scene is set before the war, but Joyce licenses a collapse of time, of writing and memory, in the above-quoted paragraph: “I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame.”   Note the subtle sliding of tenses, “shattered glass” (past) and “toppling masonry” (present), calling to mind images not of the ancient battle of Tarentum, but the more contemporary vision of Europe in flames. (I owe this observation to a lecture of Eddie Epstein’s).

Joyce possibly gives us a clue to his use of history in the address of one of Stephen’s students: “Vico Road, Dalkey” (2.25). While certainly a reference to a rather prosperous suburb of Dublin, the name Vico evokes for any fan of Finnegans Wake  the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, whose circular theory of history dominates Joyce’s final work. History, like memory, is a repetition: we don’t “member” something, we “REmember” something. Memory is always a coming-again. The argument of this passage seems to be that history is, as well. (For an interesting reading of Joyce’s sense of history in this episode, see this brief post by my fellow Wakean, David Auerbach). 

The sense of repetition is crucial here: the students ask Stephen to tell them a ghoststory, a tale of the dead coming back again. And Ulysses is certainly haunted: we have already seen how Stephen is pursued by the wraith of his mother, and he’s not the only one dealing with ghosts in this book. Instead of the requested story, Stephen has them turn to “Lycidas,” a memorial elegy to Milton’s late friend: so, perhaps a sort of ghoststory after all. But the student reading aloud doesn’t turn the page, instead repeating the lines he just read. These kinds of repetitions riddle the chapter: another student is instructed to copy problems from the board, but is unable to do them for himself. Later he dries his page with blotting paper, creating another copy-trace. (I’m tempted to go all poststructuralist here, with “traces” and “iterability” and all that floating around, but I will restrain myself [for the time being]).  “Futility,” thinks Stephen, in the face of these repetitions. 

His subsequent meeting with Mr. Deasy only reinforces this sense: “As it was in the beginning, is now” (2.200-1); “The same room and hour, the same wisdom: and I the same.” (2.232-3). Stephen fingers shells, traces of life; Deasy gives him money, traces of labor and value, and lectures him on history and memory:

I saw three generations since O’Connell’s time. I remember the famine in ’46. Do you know that the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O’Connell did or before the prelates of your communion denounced him as a demagogue? You fenians forget some things. (2.268-72)

The same words from the first page recur: “remember,” “forget”: we also add “repeal” to our list of “re-” words, giving a political valence to our repetitions. Deasy is playing in Irish politics, writing letters: Stephen has to wait while he makes copies, transferring from manuscript to typescript, erasing errors (again, one thinks of Joyce’s own struggles to get his text together). In contrast to Stephen’s Blakean/Viconian vision of the timeless reiterations of history, Deasy presents the orthodox teleological Christian vision: “All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” (2.379-80). One can guess what Joyce thought of that idea by Stephen’s response: “That is God […] A shout in the street.”

All these reflections on the endless repetitions of history lead Stephen to utter his famous remark, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (2.377). I can’t help but think of Freud, whose Beyond the Pleasure Principle was published a mere two years before Ulysses, so it is unlikely that Joyce would have read it. But in this episode he provides us with his own, fully realized vision of the repetition compulsion made famous in Freud’s essay.