AS THEODORE SPENCER OBSERVES IN his introduction to the extant pages of Joyce’s early, abandoned Stephen Hero, “much of the talk sounds as if it had been taken down immediately after it had been spoken” (1963, 9). This impression, that Joyce’s early fiction represented photo-realist accounts (or Akashic records) of the Dublin circles in which he moved, is consistent with Joyce’s known approach of accurately reproducing dialogue and sensory impressions in his “epiphanies,” some of which he incorporated into the Stephen Hero manuscript. Certainly, the preponderance of the dialogue in Stephen Hero was either transcribed verbatim, like the epiphanies, or crafted in painstaking obedience to the social conventions of the world Joyce depicts—a social world punctuated by emotionally intense, semantically cryptic exchanges organized in relation to unspecified, enigmatic scandal referents.1
In many of these dialogues, it is possible to observe the relationship between the disconnect of the sentimental representation of children in public discourse from the actual treatment of children, and the circulation and socio-symbolic import of such cryptic scandal signifiers. The connections between child-love in theory and child-harm in practice, on one hand, and enigmatic scandal referents, on the other, is especially evident in two contiguous passages in Stephen Hero dealing with the harrowing death of Stephen’s younger sister, Isabel. Isabel has returned from her convent school so steeped in Catholic doctrine that Stephen finds he must either patronize her, by speaking in the thoroughly reified, formulaic language of Catholic piety, or threaten to corrupt her by speaking to her in any other way.2 In Isabel’s death scene, Joyce painfully juxtaposes children’s idealized spiritual purity—the Catholic valorization of which prompts their mother to bid Isabel rejoice in her own imminent demise—with Stephen’s reflections on all that Isabel’s restrictive upbringing has stolen from even the short life she has had:
Isabel seemed to Stephen to have grown very old: her face had become a woman’s face. Her eyes turned constantly between the two figures nearest to her as if to say she had been wronged in being given life and, at Stephen’s word, she gulped down whatever was offered her. When she could swallow no more her mother said to her, “You are going home, dear, now. You are going to heaven where we will all meet again. Don’t you know? . . . Yes, dear . . . Heaven, with God” and the child fixed her great eyes on her mother’s face while her bosom began to heave loudly beneath the bedclothes.
Stephen felt very acutely the futility of his sister’s life. He would have done many things for her and, though she was almost a stranger to him, he was sorry to see her lying dead. Life seemed to him a gift; the statement “I am alive” seemed to him to contain a satisfactory certainty and many other things, held up as indubitable, seemed to him uncertain. His sister had enjoyed little more than the fact of life, few or none of its privileges. The supposition of an allwise God calling a soul home whenever it seemed good to Him could not redeem in his eyes the futility of her life. The wasted body that lay before him had existed by sufferance; the spirit that dwelt therein had literally never dared to live and had not learned anything by an abstention which it had not willed for itself. (1963, 165)
In this agonizing passage, Stephen gazes into the prematurely aged face of his barely pubescent, dying sibling who has lived “by sufferance,” debarred from the gratification of her every vital drive: to explore and experience, to question and learn, to communicate with others in a language that makes possible both intimacy and insight. Isabel has ultimately been denied the opportunity even to experience herself as alive. In the passage that follows, an exchange at Isabel’s wake serves explicitly to indict the anti-sex, antibody piety that Dublin’s Archbishop Walsh already epitomized owing to his leadership role in Charles Stewart Parnell’s destruction.3 Stephen lays the responsibility for his dying sister’s grim fate—the systematic eradication of every satisfaction from her short time on Earth—on Walsh’s life-hating mode of Catholicism and the growing numbers of educated Irish nationalists who had, since the fall of Parnell, been embracing it in the name of social and career advancement.
Upon his arrival at Isabel’s wake, Stephen and Isabel’s uncle John is introduced in a single, breathless sentence as “a very shock-headed asthmatic man who had in his youth been rather indiscreet with his landlady’s daughter and the family had been scarcely appeased by a tardy marriage” (166). Once Uncle John’s three most distinctive characteristics are established, a friend of Simon Daedalus, “a clerk in the police courts,” ventures what seems a practiced conversational gambit. He tells nearby mourners about a friend of his in Dublin Castle whose impressive and somewhat titillating charge it is to “examin[e] prohibited books.” Getting wound up in response to his own icebreaker, possibly owing to the gravity of the occasion, the clerk bursts out, concerning materials that he himself cannot have seen, “such filth. . . .You’d wonder how any man would have the face to print it” (166). Uncle John, whose personal sex scandal, as the narrator’s establishing shot makes clear, is both known to and studiously concealed by his community, follows the clerk’s highly emotional bid—“such filth”—with his own enigmatic horror story about a youthful encounter with some kind of similarly reprehensible print material. He recalls that “when [he] was a boy,” he had gone to “a bookshop near Patrick’s Close . . . to buy a copy of Colleen Bawn” (166). On that occasion, he recalls, in a tone and with body language that clearly convey a sense of horror, “The man asked me in and he showed me a book” (166).
This utterly cryptic account of a scandalous outrage, in which a bookseller shows a book to a regular patron who had gone to the bookshop to buy a book, subsides in ellipses, and the clerk, alert to the inward shudder signaled by Uncle John’s pregnant silence, relieves him of the insupportable burden of going on by murmuring, “I know, I know.” Thus validated in the sense of horror this memory has inspired, Uncle John bursts out, “Such a book to put into the hands of a young lad! Such ideas to put in his head! Scandalous!” (166). Stephen’s brother, Maurice, gives his uncle’s declaration a moment to land before asking curiously, “Did you buy the book, Uncle John?” (perhaps mischievously treating the exchange as an actual, ordinary conversation). Uncle John’s auditors seem ready to laugh, but Uncle John himself grows angrier still, barking, “They should be prosecuted for putting such books on sale. Children should be kept in their places” (166).
These strangely unmoored and oblique allusions to unspecified books can have triggered the two men’s outrage only insofar as the books in question had also titillated their interest. In other words, the police clerk, by expressing his revulsion, makes clear that his friend has shared scandalous particulars with him—or, at minimum, that he has a fantasy about what those books might be like. For his part, Uncle John, a known fornicator, erupts with outrage and calls for a crackdown on publishing and on children in response to a question that threatens to reconnect his own suppressed and denied desires to the vague scandal signifiers that the two men have taken shared, self-congratulatory pleasure in condemning. In a final effusion of defensive sadism, Uncle John commits what might be described as the Freudian slip of all time, climatically calling to further restrict Ireland’s children at a gathering that centers on the body of a child who is already “in [her] place” forever, lying among them, dead in a box.
The men’s encoded interchange exemplifies a paranoid hyperawareness on the part of Irish nationalists of every stripe concerning the dangers of sex scandals that gained new purchase in Irish society in the wake of Parnell’s scandalous fall and subsequent death. A psychic and social mandate to misrecognize was broadly constitutive of adult civic subjectivity in post-Parnellite nationalist circles. Saturated with guilt, shame, and bitter disappointment and menaced by both social and psychic dangers associated with sexual exposure, Irish nationalists found in the pervasive encoding function of the scandal signifier both the means and the mandate to express and thereby exploit painful shared realities—personal, social, and historical—in encrypted form. The scandal-saturated air that James Joyce grew up breathing—what Joyce termed “the odour of corruption” that he sought to capture in Dubliners (1965, 89–90)—stimulated him to develop various techniques to amplify and play on the devious deniability that characterized turn-of-the-century Dublin’s scandal-coded vernacular. As is well known, Joyce’s obsession with the artfully encoded sex scandal reached its fullest expression (or got entirely out of hand, depending on whom you ask) in Finnegans Wake. As Margot Norris puts it, this sprawling word puzzle, seventeen years in the making, “greatly augments the normal tendency of discourse to consciously or unconsciously conceal, then inadvertently reveal those matters that are most important to the speaker” (1998, 5–6).4
The practical necessity of this pervasive scandal management is dramatized in the Christmas dinner-table scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce 1992b), when Dante, an aging female and poor relation, single-handedly demolishes paterfamilias Simon Dedalus and his friend, Mr. Casey, whose aura of heroic nationalism is enhanced by his time in a British prison. Oblivious to the newly emerging capacity of the scandal signifier to redefine and enforce collective moral priorities, Dedalus and Casey ill-advisedly enter into a verbal fight they cannot win. Still reeling from Parnell’s death, they denounce the Irish Catholic hierarchy for its part in his fall, which, as they believe, has destroyed the prospects for Irish independence. Importantly, their dinner-table jousting first careens out of control around the point when Dedalus specifically heaps scorn on Dublin archbishop William Walsh, or “Billy with the lip” (35). Dante, through her undeviating, fulminating emphasis on Parnell’s sex scandal, hammers away at her opponents as traitors to the nation—renegade Catholics, black Protestants, and blasphemers—because their focus on Ireland’s lost opportunity for independence evinces their sinful, failure to fixate on sex.
As they struggle to set aside the question of Parnell’s legally and clerically unsanctioned union with Katharine O’Shea in favor of what they understandably view as the weightier question of Irish independence, Dante repeatedly casts Casey and Dedalus as unforgivably indifferent to the enormity of Parnell’s sin and thus as secret enemies of the Catholic Church and Ireland itself. In his attempts to respond to Dante’s badgering accusations, Casey is at last provoked into open blasphemy, renouncing the Catholic Church altogether. This speech act precipitates both men’s collapse into inchoate shame, visibly and tangibly ousted from a national community over which Catholicism, in any and all matters touching on sex (which, through the enigmatic signifier, all matters can be made to do), now reigns supreme.
In this microcosmic reenactment of the Parnell scandal’s reconfiguration of the Irish national imaginary, Joyce reveals how censorious references to the Chief’s private life could readily be wielded, with destructive force, against anyone foolish enough to defend or downplay his adultery. Thus in modern Ireland did the enigmatic signifier give rise to an acute sense of threatened exposure that had to be constantly indemnified by means of impinging silences, evasions, and opacities, and in irrational or self-contradictory assertions.
JAMES JOYCE, SEXUAL INITIATION, AND THE ENIGMATIC SIGNIFIER
James Joyce and Nora Barnacle’s first, illicit sexual experience is famously commemorated in the date on which Ulysses is set. That romantic gesture has combined with Molly Bloom’s rapturous last words recalling her first sexual encounter—“yes I said yes I will Yes” (Joyce 1986, 18.1608–9)—to give rise to the “Joyce of sex” phenomenon, the popular, and sometimes scholarly, assumption that Joyce affirms the potential of human sexuality to be fully liberatory and gratifying (Beja and Jones 1982, 255–66). Concomitantly, the early puritanical efforts of Anthony Comstock and the Decency societies to have Ulysses banned in the United States as obscene pornography have served to discourage the examination of the darker, more skeptical side of Joyce’s erotic vision. Yet the sexual panegyrics in Ulysses, which align the novel with contemporary sexological discourses espoused by Havelock Ellis or Charles Albert,5 are in fact counterbalanced by constitutively traumatic specimens of sexual initiation, most notably Stephen Dedalus’s account of the seduction of William Shakespeare by Anne Hathaway, which corresponds to Stephen’s own first sexual encounter with an older prostitute in A Portrait of the Artist. If we expand our idea of sexual initiation from the classic first-intercourse variety to the many forms of introductory sexual knowing that pervade Joyce’s narratives, beginning with the earliest stages of infantile awareness, we discover that the alternative scenarios we have cited and the conflicting values they attach to sexual experience (shameful/validating, transgressive/compliant, exalting/scarring) are the outcroppings of a deep-structural aporia in the Symbolic Order itself: the mutual determination and disturbance of sexual affect and the signifying function. A kind of literary phenomenology of this aporia, Joyce’s writing registers the radical psychic ambivalence that it produces, an ambivalence imbricating the meaning of sexuality and the sexualization of language.
In pursuing this project, Joyce never forgot (or perhaps his deeply Catholic, quasi-Jansenist culture did not let him forget) the cauterizing as well as the exalting aspect of sexual enjoyment, and this unremitting double vision has given him an honored place in the annals of post-Freudian psychoanalysis—psychoanalysis après la lettre, if you will—which is likewise magnetized by the inherent ambivalence of the erotic.6 Joyce’s work has not, however, been brought to bear on certain of the long-standing debates in psychoanalysis concerning sexual identity formation, particularly its underexplicated relationship to collective identity formation. To begin this discussion, we propose to examine the status of sexual initiation in Joyce’s narratives of development—specifically, “The Sisters” and A Portrait of the Artist—focusing on aesthetic and representational strategies that achieve their effects by tapping a residue of sexualized trauma embedded at the level of the word.
Understanding the ways in which Joyce employs ambiguously sexual formulations that position both his characters and readers as imperfectly initiated allows for a fuller appreciation of the workings of his literary style. It also affords greater insight into how the social world leaves its most salient imprint on the individual subject through contingent personal experience and how, conversely, such highly individuated experience lends intense affect to larger social movements and ideologies. In Joyce’s case, the most consistently impinging of such ideologies is Irish Catholic nationalism. This simultaneously ethnic and sectarian ideology stands as his test case for the shaping power that collective priorities and concerns exert on a child’s ambiguously sexual stirrings, causing them to set and calcify within an always emergent Symbolic Order. Read in this light, Joyce’s work continues to elucidate and expand the vocabulary of psychoanalytic theory.
Late in his career, Jacques Lacan devoted his annual seminar to Joyce, for the purpose of introducing a last course correction in his long “return to Freud” (Lacan 1997a).7 According to Lacan’s model of subject formation at that point, the infant, on entering into language, forfeits or finds refuge from a traumatically intense mode of enjoyment—or jouissance—seated in the bodily connection to the mother. The child does so in acceding to the Symbolic Order, the register of cultural discourse, which is anchored by the nom du père (name/no of the father; Lacan 1997b). The reconciliation of the oedipal/castration complex, in other words, involves repression in its primary form. The paternal name or phallic signifier that forbids direct access to the maternal body likewise mediates and in a sense mummifies the child’s experience of his or her own body, insulating somatic tissue within the tissue of representation. The effect is to replace an overwhelming sexual pulsion, steeped in the Real, with an ineradicable lack or desire, enchained to the figural displacements of language, a process Lacan described as “the sliding of the signified under the signifier” (Lacan 1999, 153). On this account, sexual initiation coincides with the genesis of subjectivity and unfolds according to the same logic. The substance of being, jouissance, is alienated in the domain of meaning, the signifying grid, which functions as a sort of generative prophylactic giving rise to a life form by stanching its primordial vitality.
In Joyce’s work, however, Lacan discerned a reversal of this logic. From the “supple periodic prose” of A Portrait of the Artist to the portmanteau words of Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s method of writing works to access and exude jouissance instead of inhibiting it. His progressive exploitation of the paronomastic and acoustic properties of language and the flamboyant undecidability of meaning effected thereby struck Lacan as a materialization of enjoyment at the level of the signifier itself (Lacan 1998). Joyce’s exuberant wordplay even inspired Lacan to articulate his revisionary insights on this question in similarly homophonic terms. The traumatic enjoyment of jouissance finds its literary correlative in joyceance, which reveals that “punning . . . constitutes the law of the signifier” (Lacan 1990, 10). This discovery allows in turn for the possibility of jouis-sens, enjoy-meant, for which the signifier serves as vehicle rather than brake, vessel rather than limit. In the same motion, the symptom, the signifier of a pathic relation to the forbidden jouissance, becomes a sinthome, a primordial synthesis of being and meaning, the formation wherein jouissance lodges in the signifier.8
Lacan’s seminar “Joyce le sinthome” not only altered the direction of l’école Freudienne but also fostered a Lacanian approach within Joyce studies. What is surprising, however, is that the revisions introduced into Lacanian analysis under the name of Joyce were not extended to the dynamics of sexual initiation, which they clearly implicate. For their part, Lacanian Joyce scholars have yet to systematically explore how the accommodation of jouissance in Joyce’s writing might signal a different, less strictly repressive function of language in the emergence of sexuality; how, accordingly, Joyce’s experiment with the signifier correlates with an alternative version of sexual genesis; and, finally, whether such a genesis makes itself evident in the initiation scenarios that figure so importantly in every one of Joyce’s texts. It is this cluster of questions that we address here. But to confront them is to come face-to-face with the oldest, most stubborn dispute in psychoanalysis, one centered precisely on the problem of sexual initiation. Did Freud do the right thing, on therapeutic or heuristic grounds, in jettisoning his theory of primal seduction in favor of a theory of primal fantasy?
THE FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST
At the dawn of psychoanalysis, Freud held the syndrome of conversion hysteria, with its traumatically symptomatic modes of enjoyment, to derive from childhood molestation, typically committed by a parental figure. Increasingly doubtful as to whether incestuous abuse could be so rampant as his patients indicated, he concluded that their reported sexual encounters must be the unconscious, complexly mediated effects of repressed infantile fantasies.9 Correlatively, the origin of libidinal affect shifted in Freud’s account from the incitement of external contact that became sexualized on reaching a traumatic level of intensity to the endogenous operation of the “drives,” which impart a traumatic sexual charge to contingently selected perceptual cues. On this view, the unconscious of the child organizes further libidinal development by converting innocuous stimuli, such as those associated with parental nurture, into dangerous excitations that demand to be misrecognized, the raw material of the repressive-cum-substitutive operation of oedipal desire.
Lacan’s earlier model of subject and sexual formation presupposes the revisionist theory of primal fantasy. Traumatic jouissance is construed as endemic to the preoedipal stage, where phantasmatic, “primary process” thought predominates, and as impinging on the fully realized subject of language only in the distorted form of the symptom. With the Joycean sinthome, by contrast, Lacan locates jouissance in the body of the signifier, a move that implicitly binds the possibility of enjoyment to the social-symbolic order in which oedipal subjectivity is consolidated. We are left to infer that, far from issuing from the infantile fantasy of somatic continuity with the mother, jouissance (as jouis-sens) arises in connection with some external, socially intrusive force or presence, which would help explain its traumatic character. As we shall see, Joyce’s signature sexual initiation scenarios make just this case in narrative terms. Taken whole, then, as both poesis and diegesis, joyceance not only prompts an epistemological break within Lacanian theory but points to the need for a like break from that theory, specifically the need for a still more radical return to Freud, one that salvages by strenuously complicating his original theory of primal seduction.
In this regard, Joyce’s materialization of enjoyment in the written word may be seized upon less as an anticipation of the Lacanian phallic signifier, the signifier of lack, than as an anticipation of the so-called enigmatic signifier, the signifier of traumatic sexuality, conceived by Lacan’s foremost rival in the lists of French psychoanalysis, Jean Laplanche. In the process of affirming the oedipal and castration complexes as the twin engine of sexual development as well as gender/subject formation, Laplanche has critiqued Freud and his legatees, Lacan included, for eliding or minimizing the impact of the parental unconscious on the vicissitudes of infantile eroticism—a factor that Joyce, from the “mad” Father Flynn at the start of Dubliners to the “mad feary father” at the end of Finnegans Wake (1968, 628), remembers with an almost obsessive persistence.
Laplanche takes this psychoanalytic blind spot to be the result of Freud’s decision not just to replace primal seduction with primal fantasy but to oppose them in the first place (Laplanche 1997, 653–66). By separating fantasy from seduction as the prior psychic determinant, Freud tends to cordon off the unconscious as a sort of private reserve that is delimited by the social symbolic in a mainly negative (repressive) manner. Laplanche seeks to conceptualize the properly interdependent psychogenetic agency of internal and external stimuli, endogenous theories and social experience, by returning to the original hypothesis of seduction but on a basis that is more ecumenical for being more precise. His general theory of seduction introduces a distinction between the give and take of seduction and the brute imposition of sexual assault, and for this reason it need not exclude childhood fantasy from its calculations. At the inaugural stage of sexuality, Laplanche finds the seductive transaction to be no less dialogic for being traumatic.
Because parental figures harbor repressed libidinal stirrings, the care they give their children unconsciously transmits ambiguously charged signifiers that Laplanche calls “enigmatic” (1997, 661). An enigmatic signifier is coded material that enables without demanding, solicits without enforcing sexual constructions and responses at the unconscious level. For Laplanche, such enigmatic signifiers come freighted with a traumatic enjoyment that forms the substance of the child’s developing subjectivity. That substance in turn inheres not in the meaning but in the materiality of the signifier, which possesses the primary power to engender and elicit psychic affect in general and jouissance in particular. The sensory properties of the signifier (the acoustics of the word, the timbre of the voice, the sheen of the image) and the already felt anticipation of meaning constitute what we, paraphrasing Frantz Fanon (1968), call an “occult zone of undecidability,” wherein the virtualities of hidden parental desire are confounded with the libidinal possibilities that they awaken in the child. Because the signifier is inherently iterable, the jouissance with which it is vested in moments of sexual initiation remains available to be reactivated under special circumstances, as Lacan found in the work of Joyce. The profound impact of primary libidinal excitation is thus a contingently renewable resource that fuels sexuality in its various manifestations, including subsequent instances of sexual initiation—prepubescent, pubescent, and so on. On the one hand, because the sensory erotic penumbra of the signifier is constituted in anticipation of the meaning to be conveyed, the jouissance it comes to bear upon reactivation can never arise in the absence of specific, highly determinate objects or contents, even though it emerges only in exceeding those objects and contents. On the other hand, the same logic holds in reverse: it is the articulation of jouissance in the enigmatic penumbra of the signifier that eroticizes the objects or contents themselves. The concept of the enigmatic signifier thus permits us to understand:
- the dynamics of Freudian nachträglichkeit, or “afterwardness” (Laplanche 2016, xi): how an infantile episode of sexualized trauma and enjoyment may be not only recalled in but constituted by a cognate later episode, wherein the meaningful potential anticipated in the initial enigmatic signifier becomes accessible to re-cognition; and
- the dynamics of Freudian desire—how a wide array of objects, scenarios, and experiential categories come to be libidinally saturated and how their cultural importance might be constitutively tied to their eroticization. But more than that, in locating primary jouissance in terms of an already symbolizable, rather than a preoedipal, fantasy formation, the concept of the enigmatic signifier elucidates how various sorts of distinctively social attitudes and valuations, including those relative to ideologically charged predicates such as race, class, disability, and ethnicity, come to be integral to the sexual organization of the subject espousing them.
Such a dynamic, in which sexual initiation and ideological inculcation dovetail inextricably, has obvious importance for questions of nationalism across the board, but perhaps especially so in the case of a metropolitan holding like Ireland. There, entrenched identificatory ambivalence (between imperial and colonial, Anglo and Gaelic culture) gave birth to a wide array of ethno-national signifiers and figura that were enigmatic in their own right, not least in their gender/sexual valences—the undecidable markers of what Fanon did in fact call an “occult zone of instability” (1968, 215).
BECOMING JAMES JOYCE: THE ACOUSTICS OF SEX
The modern fictive portraiture of the child sex scandal in Ireland can be traced back to Joyce and has been so traced by many of his successors in the genre—Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, Keith Ridgway, Jamie O’Neill, Anne Enright, and others—for whom he has figured not as a daunting, inescapable shadow but as a welcome, empowering interlocutor on a difficult topic. The traumatic intrusion of adult sexuality into children’s lives and psyches runs throughout Joyce’s corpus: in “An Encounter,” “The Boarding House,” “Eveline,” the pandying scene in A Portrait of the Artist, Milly’s exile to Mullingar in Ulysses, and recurrently in Finnegans Wake. But the exemplary narrative for our purposes is Joyce’s first effort along these lines, which is also his first published fiction: “The Sisters.”
In a sense, the writer we know as James Joyce came into being with his discovery and deployment of the enigmatic signifier, the semiotic vehicle of a jouissance attendant on the scene of sexual initiation. Or to put it another way, Joyce’s treatment of the mysteries of sexual initiation in the short story “The Sisters,” which originally appeared in the Irish Homestead, constituted his own rite of passage into many of the signifying practices for which he is best known. For the story’s inclusion in Dubliners, Joyce altered the first paragraph so as to frame both the story and the volume as a whole. Most strikingly, of course, he added the three famous leitmotifs—paralysis, simony, and gnomon—which are correctly read as interpretive keys to the collection. There is prima facie evidence, however, that Joyce intended these leitmotifs to be read for something other than their meaning: “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. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (1992a, 1). It is the acoustic properties of the word paralysis, how it “sounded . . . in [his] ears,” that affect the boy primarily, that ground its relation to the other key words, and that give it a certain precedence over them (“but now it sounded to me . . .”). The effect it has “in” his ears gives the word paralysis its strange power to fill the boy with fear and fascination, an ambivalent state akin if not equivalent to traumatic enjoyment. As the material lining of the signifier, its acoustics not only house its capacity to transmit jouissance, they do so because they form a tissue of undecidability, registering in their fusion of possible sense and pure sensation how the life of the signifier at once affixes to and exceeds its meaning or content. In this case, significantly, the shadowy zone consolidated in the word’s sound stretches between opposed constructions of the term paralysis: ordinary paralysis caused by the three strokes Flynn suffered and general paralysis of the insane, or tertiary-stage syphilis, which might have caused those strokes. In the first take, paralysis would represent a properly “maleficent being,” a medical scourge, while in the second it would signal the priest’s own “sinful being,” implicating him in sexual misconduct. Accordingly, the kind of initiation that Flynn has given his young protégé remains properly enigmatic, soliciting without enforcing a libidinal diagnosis—both from the reader (who may or may not credit Oscar Wilde’s homoerotic “The Priest and the Acolyte” as a prototype of “The Sisters”)10 and from the boy himself, who suffers the priest’s death in ambiguously sexual terms throughout the story. Joyce hereby intimates that the problem of sexual abuse can be found already lurking in the dynamics of sexual initiation as such.
The enigmatically sexual nature of the priest’s relationship to the boy represents a point of discernible complicity or at least connivance on the part of his friends and family. An uneasy awareness of something awry emerges in their dinner conversation but remains frozen at the level of knowing non-assertion, marked by a series of ellipses: “No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion” (Joyce 1992a, 1). As these snippets indicate, the ellipsis serves as the punctual symbol of that staple of cultural scandal, the open secret, a shadowy form of group consensus designed to exist under erasure. Nowhere is Joyce’s work—an oeuvre preoccupied with such things—more prescient as to the dynamics of child sex scandal in twentieth-century Ireland, where revelations have often triggered retrospective acknowledgements of suspicions unpursued and apprehensions willfully uncorroborated.
This complicity of the boy’s family in the potential scandal is not unrelated to the central role played by the priest, who commands in his office all of the respect he fails to command in his person. Indeed, Father Flynn’s personal failure to meet the demands of his office serves as a metonym for the scandalous cloud that has gathered about his memory. His own sister and the boy’s aunt actually believe that this failure is the scandal: “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him” (9). But the narrative structure of the tale and the bullying nature of Flynn’s sexualized mentorship of the boy combine to suggest that he seeks to control and humble his charge in compensation for his “crossed” life and career. In this light, the lenient speculations of the women, like the accusatory but abortive pronouncements of “old Cotter,” appear as a most effective strategy of Freudian disavowal, half steps toward the truth that prevent or protect them from ever actually arriving. Joyce’s decision to render the sexual tenor of the boy’s discipleship fuzzy and obscure from the start enjoins upon the reader a like sense of complicity. In this way, Joyce refuses to portray the scandal of child sexual abuse as purely external to any imagined community his work might reach.
UNSEEING THE UNBEARABLE
The enigmatic force of the boy’s initiation in “The Sisters” begins with the impact of the signifier paralysis in the boy’s ears, in order to affirm the originary status of such an occult signifier to the always indefinite process of seduction. Is the uncanny stimulation that the word gives to the boy’s tympanum merely a symbolic residue of the often arcane and exotic knowledge the priest had poured into his ear during their daily sessions? Or does this stimulation figure forth the medieval notion of spoken communication as a variant on sexual penetration, with the ear serving as a displacement of the anus or vagina (a notion Joyce mobilized in the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses and again in the Persse O’Reilly section of Finnegans Wake)? To say that this electric signifier reverberates with both options but need not speak to either is precisely the point. The seductive force concentrated in the signifier and exfoliated in the narrative, their potential reservoir of jouissance, gathers experientially in the zone of uncertainty between the sexual and the nonsexual, around the enigma, if you like, about whether something—a word, a gesture, a relationship, a program of instruction—is properly sexual or not. That is to say, Joyce narrativizes what Laplanche would later theorize, an initiation/seduction that is all the more traumatically enjoyable and sexually charged for being indefinitely so. Since “The Sisters” is in turn the reader’s initiation to the eroticized textuality of Dubliners, it is cunningly apt that Joyce restages undecidable traumatic enjoyment at the level of the narrative action, the claustrophobic sexual power of which arises entirely from the boundless uncertainty as to its sexual tenor.
The enigmatic penumbra of paralysis radiates to other key signifiers in the story as well. On the one hand, its enigmatic quality is shared by the leitmotif simony, with its homophonic play on the word sodomy, which for its part names a practice strictly germane and yet largely inaccessible to the narration of the story. That the sound of a taboo sexual signifier should thus lurk (hide/linger) in the acoustic precincts of other signifiers serves to mirror, at the level of poesis, the relationship of sexuality to signification more generally. On the other hand, the sense of the word paralysis materializes in the oral incontinence of the priest, which images forth a sensual excess or avidity consistent with the more perverse, if deliberately indefinite, assessments of his character and agenda (“I wouldn’t like children of mine,” says Cotter, “to have too much to say to a man like that”; 2).
These two enigmatic signifiers (paralysis and simony) come together, appropriately, in the boy’s memory of his previous night’s dream, a theater of unconscious desire and its conflicted representation: “I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin” (3). Attuned as they are to power dynamics, our preferred methods of reading would doubtless identify the boy’s dream wish with the reversal of positions, wherein he assumes the divine authority of absolution and the priest assumes the boy’s more accustomed role as penitent.11 But to qualify the surplus enjoyment adhering to the boy’s wish, it is first necessary to recognize how far his dream scenario replicates the structure of his daily interviews with Father Flynn. After all, in the confessional, the priest’s latticed ear is carefully poised to “sound” with secret knowledge and with the effusions of the illicit, much as the boy’s ears were in Flynn’s “little dark room behind the shop” (4). And just as these conversations afforded the boy traumatic enjoyment so too does the prospect of hearing the priest’s sins, as the phrase “some pleasant and vicious region” betokens. Where the dream differs from the everyday experience—and here we can detect the distinctive pressure of the dream wish—is in the promise the confessional scenario affords for a simultaneous consummation and dissolution of that traumatic enjoyment.
In confession, the secret knowledge the priest receives is a secret knowledge about the illicit, particularly, in this case, whether and to what degree the penitent has in the past introduced his young confessor to the traumatizing element of adult sexuality. That this promise of the dream goes unfulfilled, and that the boy’s jouissance accordingly persists, can be inferred from several pieces of textual evidence: the use, at the point of absolution, of the term simoniac, which sustains the air of euphemistic eccentricity around the priest’s “troubles” (with simony serving as a substitute or malaprop for sodomy in this homoerotic context); the mirroring of the priest’s slobbering smile in the feeble smile of the boy, which suggests that the enigmatic message of the former has been received and internalized by the latter; and the boy’s insistence on returning to the dream, still fascinated and still unsatisfied, only to find a strange room furnished with the resolutely ambiguous motifs of orientalized sensuality (6).
After this confession scene, the boy’s occult, oppressive enjoyment progressively focuses on the sacramental and liturgical objects (vestments, chalice, confession box) and actions (prayer, last rites, communion) of the Roman Catholic Church. Like the transfer of sexualized acoustic energy from the word paralysis to the other strange leitmotifs, the narrative concatenation of fetish objects delineates how the jouissance concentrated in the enigmatic signifier in sexual initiation can, through mechanisms of symbolic association, disseminate its libidinal aftershocks across socially delimited fields of reference, identification, and praxis.
The founding conditions of this sort of transference are also the enabling conditions of that mysterious counteraction known as sublimation. Just as the exorbitancy of jouissance to whatever signifiers incite or animate it enables that libidinal affect to be readily displaced along a chain of associated symbolic forms and behaviors, so the same continuing exorbitancy lends those forms and behaviors an apparent yet effective margin of autonomy from whatever sexual energies infuse, enliven, and enhance them. The constitutive semidetachment of jouissance from its signifying source—to which it is wedged, not wedded—entails a like semidetachment of its signifying destinations from jouissance. If the riddle of sublimation, dating back to Freud, has been “how can the drive be desexualized yet satisfied without the pathological aid of repression,” Laplanche’s enigmatic signifier would seem to prise open a possible solution.12 Precisely because it is as peripheral as it is profound, the relation of libidinal affect to signifying cause does not always and inexorably tend toward recognizably erotic manifestation, the absence of which, accordingly, does not always and inevitably signal some degree of constraint.
To be sure, a given symbolic practice must express in some form the associated jouissance that fuels it, but owing to its “external” character, the association itself, which is the emergence of sexual feeling, may go unremarked yet unrepressed, operating unobtrusively or in other terms without being inhibited or concealed. What we have called, then, the enigmatic signifier’s “zone of undecidability” serves, and can only serve, as a space of transferential proliferation provided that it can alternatively function as a space of deferral and sublimation. As Slavoj Žižek argues, anything at all can be sexualized (Žižek 1994, 126), but, we must add, only on the condition that nothing at all can be categorically, exhaustively, or exclusively sexual. Institutionalized religious experience, particularly a variety as steeped in rite and symbol as Catholicism, clearly draws on both of these alternatives in their interdependency. In “The Sisters,” for example, the boy’s sexualization of the sacerdotal is part of his informal preparation for a celibate vocation. That Catholicism also represents the national religion of Irish Ireland extends the range of reflected jouissance and the corresponding opportunity for sublimation to include the dimension of ethno-national belonging, and in this respect points the way to the bildung of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist.
“FORBIDDING SUCH AN OUTLET”
The first two chapters of A Portrait of the Artist, leading up to Stephen’s first sexual experience, are punctuated with visions of adult romantic or erotic bonding that are explicitly contoured relative to national norms. Introduced by Stephen’s father, the moocow fable is at one level an adaptation of a nationalist myth, in which a white cow, allegorical of Ireland, abducts the child from home in order to school him in the arts of heroism (Gifford 1982, 131–33). At another level, the moocow is available to be read as a figure of the mother qua vehicle of nurture and pleasure. In the former case, Stephen is being interpellated to sublimate his domestic affections as a patriotic exponent of masculine virtue; in the latter, he is being inscribed within the likewise gendered plot of the oedipal romance, his desire catalyzed and canalized along approved heterosexual lines through the perilous pass of incestuous passion and taboo. Read in tandem, the national and oedipal romances validate mutually acceptable pathways of desire (the eroticism undergirding the patriotic love of “Mother” Ireland; the properly Irish Catholic embrace of reproductive heterosexuality) that remain parasitic on and haunted by the kind of proximate familial affections they help drive underground.
Stephen’s first awareness of people beyond his own family aptly involves people beyond his national-sectarian family as well, the Anglo-Protestant Vances. His ill-fated pronouncement that he will grow up to marry their daughter, Eileen, sets off the moocow fable in reverse: his mother-figures administer a frenzied chastisement for his “betrayal” of the ethno-religious tribe, driving him under the table and threatening to “Pull out his eyes” (Joyce 1992b, 4). Not unlike the paternal entertainment, however, the maternal punishment harbors a contrary sexual affect. While the threat to Stephen’s eyes plainly invokes oedipal castration, it also connects to Stephen’s later recollection of Eileen having put “her hands over his eyes: long and white and thin and cold and soft” (36). In these juxtaposed images of trauma and pleasure, we can sense the open-endedness of the sexual signifier for Stephen, its enigmatic quality.
Stephen recalls Eileen again amid the Christmas dinner set-to over Parnell, where the question of a sexual alliance between individuals once again fuels a violent debate over nationalist sexual norms and, hence, allegiances. Set against the furor, Stephen’s thoughts not only light on Eileen’s hands, “long and white and thin and cold and soft,” but merge them into a hitherto puzzling metaphor of the Blessed Virgin, “Tower of Ivory” (35). We are thus given to understand that libidinal desire for actual bodies, which can ignite national traumas, operates through signifiers whose lability allows for their sublimation into images of nationalist piety.
Shortly after his family relocates from suburban Blackrock to Dublin, Stephen reflects for the first time that “his father was in trouble” (66). The “slight change in his house,” which he had once deemed “unchangeable,” deliver many “slight shocks to his boyish conception of the world,” and with them comes an “ambition which he felt astir at times in the darkness of his soul” (67). Important for the image pattern that we will follow is the close relationship between Stephen’s “conception” of the world and the first “stirrings” in Stephen’s soul, words that connote fertilization and the quickening of a forming embryo, in a pattern that, as Richard Ellmann (1982, 295–99) and others have pointed out, structures the overall narrative. Significantly, however, the beginnings of the gestation model here mark, without making entirely explicit, the prepubescent awakening of sexual appetite. The “stirring in a dark place” that tropes the earliest movements of a fetus and, metaphorically, Stephen’s emerging artistic consciousness, also suggests the inadvertent but pleasurable stiffening of a penis under bedclothes.
As young Stephen begins a pattern of cruising—an apparent displacement of his sexual energies that ironically leads in time to actual sexual gratification—he fantasizes about a sexual encounter that will divest him of his body and purify him. He believes he will meet with an image that is insubstantial both because it is holy and because it is explicitly sexual and therefore, in a highly repressive society, indescribable. In language echoing the uterine “darkness of his soul” (67), Stephen envisions a sexual/spiritual coupling in some “secret place,” where he and his partner “would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence” (67). Rather than imagining this encounter in terms of physical or even emotional satisfaction, Stephen envisions it as a moment of self-transcendence. He “would be transfigured . . . would fade into something impalpable under her eyes” and through this sexual annihilation escape from both the limitations of his body and his emotions: “Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment” (67).
The relationship between Stephen’s worshipful and phallic attitudes toward the feminine has typically been taken as a version of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, which it undoubtedly resembles in certain respects.13 But to overlook how far the absolute bipolarity that defines this complex has been undermined from the outset is to miss the subtlety of the psychodynamics Joyce uncovers. Stephen’s fantasized Madonna figures are not set in opposition to lascivious whores; rather, sexual activity itself is fantasized as simultaneously an act of bodily conception and an exercise in spiritual transcendence. Thus, when “a strange unrest [creeps] into [Stephen’s] blood,” heralding the onset of uncontrollable sexual urges, he “rove[s] alone” in search not of the flesh that would satisfy them but of “the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld” (67).
As Stephen matures, he plumbs a similarly absolute yet traversable breach between “the real world” and “the unsubstantial image” that he wishes to meet in that world, enabling reveries that are simultaneously corporeal and incorporeal, carnal and pure. In his “Monte Cristo” fantasies, for example, his dignified renunciation of desire for the literary love object, Mercedes—encoded in the citation “Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes” (65)—holds her firmly within the universe of his bodily passion precisely by placing her beyond its limits. This type of sublimating discordia concors has its ultimate condition of possibility in the margin of undecidability, hence reversibility, intrinsic to the enigmatic signifier of intrusively adult sexuality. But Stephen borrows his specific strategy for conflating the sanctioned and the unsanctioned from a discourse of martyrology common to the Irish Catholic Church and advanced Irish nationalism. Both institutions infused their respective saints, secular and religious, with a potent eroticism insulated by their ambiguously rarefied status—that is, their voluntary, excess embodiment (as corpse) in the service of a spiritual ideal. This is also to say, both draw on their members’ psychosexual development—their riveting encounter with underdetermined and therefore ambivalent sexual signifiers—to manipulate their enjoyment, mobilize their efforts, and ensure their fidelity.
In what amounts to Stephen’s first adolescent “date,” he turns his sense of alienation at the “Harold’s Cross” party into a manner of attracting the interest of one of the girls in attendance. Taking the last tram home with her, Stephen experiences the sexually charged moment as a series of tantalizingly ambiguous signifiers—“her movements” up and down, in rhythm to the conversation; her eyes speaking from beneath a cowl; “her fine dress and sash and long black stockings” (72)—which entice but do not finally actuate him to fulfill their mutual desire for a kiss. Amid this near tryst, Stephen gives a passing but by no means insignificant thought to Eileen Vance (72–73). Her image puts in play a memory (unconscious in his case, conscious in ours) of his earliest infantile response to such riddling signifiers of sexuality, the direct expression of a romantic wish, and the painful humiliation it brought him from the most important women in his young life. Little wonder, then, that Stephen forgoes any direct expression of forbidden carnal longing in this case, but rather goes home to transform the fraught scene of seduction into the culturally mediated and approved form of a poem (followed by a long gaze at his own countenance in his mother’s bedroom mirror). What is more, encouraged by the post-Romantic association of verse with the fashioning of ethereal ideals, Stephen contrives to represent the kiss bestowed as bearing the same aura of immateriality as the kiss eschewed: “There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the trammen nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly. The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden luster of the moon . . . and . . . the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both” (74).
While poetry was conventionally taken to signal a commitment to the ideal over the real, writing also, as we have just seen, externalizes the ideal world and exposes its erotic motivations. Stephen’s growing awareness of the dangers inherent in writing as sexual sublimation is made clear just before the Whitsuntide play. Stephen reflects that “the old restless moodiness,” stirred anew by E. C.’s impending arrival, “had not,” this time, “found an outlet in verse,” owing to “the growth and knowledge of two years of boyhood . . . forbidding such an outlet” (81). The phrase forbidding such an outlet draws on the discourse of abstinence central to Catholic teachings concerning masturbation and points to the circle of authorities who enforce it. In this passage, poetry and orgasm are conjoined, and both are, as the older, wiser Stephen now knows, proscribed channels for his developing eroticism. It is unsurprising, then, that in the midst of Stephen’s angry response to Heron’s indelicacy on the subject of E. C.’s attractiveness, he recollects how a year earlier Heron had beaten him for defending the heretical Byron’s preeminence as a poet (84–86). In this passage too, sex and writing are conjoined and associated with blame and physical punishment. Stephen was, we are told, spending “all the leisure which his school life left him . . . in the company of subversive writers whose gibes and violence of speech set up a ferment in his brain before they passed . . . into his crude writings” (82–83). Here, the “subversive” writing of poets such as Byron is figured as a form of violently inseminating material that, having in a crude, vegetative manner gestated in Stephen’s brain, finds release in a form of literary ejaculation or birth.
Stephen himself has been singled out as heretical by the English master whose high assessment of his work had heretofore secured his predominance among his peers. He is then set upon by Heron, Boland, and Nash, who operate as the church’s unofficial policemen. By praising the conventional “rhymester” Tennyson, they goad Stephen into another quasi-heretical emission and maul him in response to his increasingly heated ejaculations, which are described in terms suggestive of incontinence and loss of bodily control. Stephen “turn[s] on [Boland] boldly,” crying out “hotly,” “I don’t care what he was,” and shouting, “what do you know about it?” (85–86). Wrenching himself away from the savage beating, he staggers off, “half blinded with tears, clenching his fists madly and sobbing” (86). Stephen’s open subordination of doctrinal purity and sexual morality to the sensuous concerns of aesthetics and craft incur a brutal form of Catholic nationalist discipline; the crude ejaculations of his writing are violently reconstituted and reflected back to him in an obscene and shaming light. Through a sequence of verbal and then physical insults, the presumably articulate defense of Byron that Stephen could have made is rendered inchoate, reduced to a series of monosyllabic negations and ultimately to wordless sobs. Poetry becomes all the more sexualized as a form of expression, something closer to Julia Kristeva’s “semiotike” (1980), for being muzzled in this fashion.
“WAKING IN DARKNESS AND SECRECY AND LONELINESS”
The novel’s images of an inner self under pressure, denied “outlet” and “hemmed in on all sides” while communing with “phantasmal comrades,” are themselves suggestive of masturbation. And immediately following the above passage, a brief description of backstage goings-on is couched in distinctly onanistic terms: the made-up boys touch their faces “with their furtive fingertips” while a young Jesuit “rock[s] himself rhythmically . . . his hands thrust well forward into his side pockets” (89). Unsurprisingly, Stephen is “aware of some desecration of the priest’s office or of the vestry itself” in these activities (89). Shortly thereafter, Stephen, made up himself and anticipating E. C.’s approving gaze, joins in the carnivalesque spirit of the occasion: “For one rare moment . . . clothed in the real apparel of boyhood” (90). But the masturbation imagery persists, legibly refigured in “the common mirth amid which the drop scene was hauled upwards by two ablebodied priests with violent jerks and all awry” (90), and it serves to extend throughout the scene the air of a sexuality all the more disturbing for being encrypted. In the end, the play, “lifeless” in rehearsal, has, like a quickening fetus, “suddenly assumed a life of its own” (90).
The closeted jouissance of the Whitsuntide play recurs more conspicuously when Stephen accompanies his father to Cork to sell off the family’s remaining properties. Combining this introduction to insolvency with an initiation into patrilineal fellowship, both of which bear the lineaments of colonial abjection, Mr. Dedalus takes his son on a tour of his alma mater. In the “darkness and silence” of an anatomy theater, Stephen comes upon the word Foetus “cut several times in the dark stained wood” (95). The evocativeness of this word for Stephen is richly overdetermined. At Whitsuntide, the “mocking smile” of the covertly masturbating priest presented a sexualized “legend” for Stephen to read (89), the outward sign of the enigma of another’s inner life, while, in Cork, the “sudden legend” that Stephen sees carved on a desk represents a shocking externalization of such sexualized spaces of body and mind (95). A gestating fetus is decisively internal, and information about fetuses and how they are created is also “internal,” both secret and associated with forbidden imaginings that Stephen lacks the words and the will to express. The legend “expresses” those imaginings for him in an uncannily intimate yet alienated form: the Queen’s College anatomy theater reveals “in the outer world a trace of what he had deemed till then a brutish and individual malady of his own mind” (95), grotesquely echoing Stephen’s earlier desire “to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld” (67). He finds this “trace” in an isolated and “startling” word of rich, obscure implication, a happenstance that serves to foreground, at a crucial point in Stephen’s psychosexual growth, the enigmatic power of the signifier.
To appreciate the occult importance of this legend, one must take notice, first, that Stephen responds to the medical graffiti as though the word were not foetus but masturbation: the “mad and filthy orgies” that it brings “thronging into his memory” surely involve not unborn babies but rather self-titillating fantasies that might, if acted on, create them (95–97). It is, moreover, the self-administered orgasms to which these fantasies drive him that occupy, in his internal sexual economy, the prohibited position of the illegitimate fetus in the external social order (24). This equivalency is what makes the term foetus monstrous and sickening, a traumatic sign of shame and abnormality. Just as in “The Sisters,” a contagion of taboo sexual energy involving a form of symbolic parent-child initiation unfolds here through the misrecognized substitution of ambiguously charged signifiers (simony, foetus) for unmistakably taboo sexual concepts (sodomy, masturbation).
But one must take notice, further, that the “legend” proves no less galvanizing than traumatic, or rather that it is galvanizing precisely owing to its traumatic force. Stephen’s vertiginous spell of eroticized self-estrangement provokes the single most lucid, detailed and imaginative mental picture that he manages to beget over the course of the novel, a promising “fetal” development halfway between evanescent private fantasy and objectifiable creative vision. The word “startled his blood: he seemed to feel the absent students of the college about him and to shrink from their company. A vision of their life, which his father’s words had been powerless to evoke, sprang up before him out of the word cut in the desk” (95). Since the question of Stephen’s aesthetic potential is at the heart of this kunstlerroman, it is of surpassing importance that the strongest evidence of his having a literary vocation (far stronger than his stilted villanelle) should find its catalyst in another intrusively yet ambiguously sexual signifier. Moreover, the word Joyce selects to describe this signifier, legend, not only denotes its engraved status, which answers to its searing impact on Stephen’s psyche, but also, in its other function as a narrative and symbolic intensifier, implicitly calls attention to the power of the signifier qua material signifier—to the power, that is, of its sensible properties on which its sense is raised. It is not simply a “legend” in the sense of inscription, but also a legend in the sense of hyperbolic semiological reality.
Joyce links the combined aesthetic and sexual inception and initiation in the Queen’s College anatomy theater with Stephen’s literal sexual initiation in Nighttown through a logic of superfetation, the wedging of one birth, one reproductive issue, within another—a logic that is normative and nonnormative at the same time. Both the anatomy theater and the Nighttown scenes complexly interweave key moments in the reproductive cycle, from arousal and ejaculation through conception and childbirth, in a multilayered sequence in which teleology is both maintained and disrupted. In the Queen’s College scene, insemination leads to conception, but the inseminating figure is the word foetus, so that while at the narrative level, insemination leads to conception, at the figurative level, an already-conceived fetus leads to insemination. The insemination in this scene leads, in A Portrait of the Artist’s subsequent Nighttown episode, to an initiatory act of sexual intercourse, with its attendant pleasure, figured forth as its reproductive terminus, a birth, with its attendant pangs. In the passage that precedes the sixteen-year-old Stephen’s scene of completed sexual initiation in Nighttown, the novel’s interwoven gestational and masturbatory images explode in welded tropes of violent sexual intercourse and childbirth.
Joyce further elaborates this sexualized/traumatized fetus imagery in Ulysses: in the imagined contents of the midwife’s bag in “Proteus,” in the ways the dead body of the eleven-day-old Rudy fragmentarily bobs to the surface in both Leopold’s and Molly Bloom’s streams of consciousness, in the simultaneously delectable and unthinkable contents of Plumtree’s Potted Meat containers, and in the “staggering bob” that evokes their contents. Indeed, Joyce’s enigmatic fetal imagery stands in a relationship of literary/cultural nachträglichkeit to the enigmatic/traumatic commodity sarcastically promoted in Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” wherein the tender corpses of Irish children are effusively commended as a delectable and readily replenished cash crop with the potential to set to rights all of Ireland’s imperially imposed misery. Viewed in light of Laplanche’s schema, whereby the enigmatic message is always being relayed both backward and forward in time, as both “the belated effect of the traumatizing event,” and a retroactive effect of “the second event” (Caruth 2016, 11–14), Joyce’s enigmatic foetus reverberates with the horror that Swift’s famous black comedy articulated but also occluded by way of knowing laughter. By the same recursive token, in its complex conjoining of sex/birth/life and violence/death/abjection, the scandal-charged fetal imagery of contemporary Irish literature activates Joyce’s historically freighted but also prescient enigmatic signifier—from the drowned Charlie in The Land of Spices, to the dead calf in The Country Girls, to Mary’s deceased sibling in Down by the River, to Grace’s drowned toddler in The Long Falling, to Veronica and Liam’s dead infant brother in The Gathering, to Ma’s stillborn child of sexual enslavement in Emma Donoghue’s Room.14
As Stephen prowls the streets of Dublin, “inarticulate cries and . . . unspoken brutal words rushed forth from his brain to force a passage” (106). Beginning with the phrase force a passage, the fusion of these image patterns continues in the description of “some dark presence” that Stephen feels moving “irresistibly upon him from the darkness, a presence subtle and murmurous as a flood filling him wholly with itself. Its murmur besieged his ears like the murmur of some multitude in sleep; its subtle streams penetrated his being. His hands clenched convulsively and his teeth set together as he suffered the agony of its penetration” (106). The tableau is one of being invaded and filled in an agonizing manner that figures Stephen both as rape victim and laboring mother. The curious simile, “like . . . some multitude in sleep,” evokes a more collective plight and subtly allows Stephen’s metaphorical condition to incorporate the iconography of Mother Ireland, poised between the rape of colonial occupation and the delivery of a new national being. The chain of symbolic associations linking Stephen’s sexual and ethno-national subjectivity at this point of crisis indexes how the desires and frustrations generated in the former register might be discharged or sublimated in the latter.
Having completed a laborious journey through a dark, filthy passageway that is, symbolically, both anus and vagina, Stephen abruptly emerges to find himself among “women and girls dressed in long vivid gowns” (107). Stephen’s sense of wonder gilds the scene with a mythic or fairy-tale exoticism. His initial guess that he had “strayed into the quarter of the Jews” suggests that Judaism is the greatest cultural alterity of which Stephen is aware, and locates the world of prostitutes on the periphery of the Symbolic Order of Victorian Dublin, at once within and beyond its purview. This world is the site of shameful transgression (Stephen’s labyrinthine progress through a “maze of narrow and dirty streets” evokes a descent into hell à la Stead’s “Modern Babylon” as well as Dante’s Inferno), and for that very reason, it is also a site of potential rebirth, creativity, and transcendence. Hence, upon arriving, Stephen feels “he had awakened from a slumber of centuries” (107).
The moment of Stephen’s ultimate initiation, of the “first intercourse” type, strongly reasserts the fusion of embodiment and immateriality that is Stephen’s quintessential mode of processing the enigmatic power of the erotic (“darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour”; 108). Indeed, the free indirect description of his sexual contact with the prostitute might stand as an exemplary characterization of the enigmatic signifier as such: “the dark pressure of her softly parting lips” penetrating to “his brain” act as “the vehicle of a vague speech” (108). Perhaps nowhere in literature do erotic sensation and the signifying function meld so completely or find their rapport staked on such a powerful sense of the equivocal, the cryptic, the estranged—a simultaneous intensification and disruption of the social communion that each might respectively be imagined to entail.
This climactic juncture in Stephen’s bildung not only crystallizes the operation of the enigmatic signifier but also interlinks the two signifying chains that we have seen proceed from that operation: the image pattern conflating bodily lust and spiritual transcendence, and the image pattern identifying sexual transgression and poetic expression. As we have noted, both of these chains unfold “in darkness,” taking the shadows as their proper or imposed milieu, and this scene, in which Stephen loses his virginity, brings together all the various symbolic resonances of this obscurity: the shroud of mystery or uncertainty, the fear of exposure, the hope of fertilization, the shame of ostracism, and the unconscious as the locus of both repression and untapped creativity. By this arrangement, Joyce frames sexual consummation as an enabling trauma in manifold registers simultaneously.
In phraseology that recalls both the Monte Cristo fantasies and the tram ride, Stephen achieves a sense of transcendence in and through the experience of bodily weakness, exposure, and vulnerability: “His lips would not bend to kiss her. He wanted to be held firmly in her arms. . . . In her arms he felt that he had suddenly become strong and fearless and sure of himself. But his lips would not bend to kiss her” (107). Stephen’s characteristic stance of proud, aloof insecurity collapses into a paralysis of inexperience that can be resolved only through the assertiveness of a sexually masterful woman who, in labially penetrating him, fulfills the logic of both chains of signification, her tongue a word made flesh and flesh made word. Stephen is thus confirmed as a subject by surrendering “belief in himself” to the “incertitude,” and specifically sexual incertitude, that will figure so centrally in his crowning aesthetic achievement, his Shakespeare theory in Ulysses (Joyce 1986, 9.463–64, 9.842).
JOYCE’S POESIS: THE SEDUCTION EFFECT
Once we consider the prominence of sexual initiation in Joyce’s fiction and come to understand the decisive operation of the enigmatic signifier in those narratives, important new light is shed on Joyce’s signature narrative style. In articulating his famous “Uncle Charles Principle,” Hugh Kenner observed that Joyce plied the indirect free style to develop a slippery relationship between the narrative voice and those of the characters. In Kenner’s words, “[Joyce’s] fictions tend not to have a detached narrator, though they seem to have. His words are in such delicate equilibrium, like the components of a sensitive piece of apparatus, that they detect the gravitational field of the nearest person. One reason the quiet little stories in Dubliners continue to fascinate is that the narrative point of view unobtrusively fluctuates. The illusion of dispassionate portrayal seems attended by an iridescence difficult to account for until we notice one person’s sense of things inconspicuously giving place to another’s” (Kenner 1978, 16). Whereas Kenner’s calibrated analysis emphasizes the representational agility of Joyce’s prose method, its innovation on existing modes of verisimilitude, we would like to call attention to the pragmatic implications of that “iridescence difficult to account for.” As we have seen, the instances of sexual initiation in Joyce’s early fiction hinge on a certain inscrutability of the exact valence, sexual and otherwise, of the seductive transaction.
The strategic withholding of information in these stories constrains the reader to share in the protagonist’s incertitude and in the state of anxious desire aroused thereby. What offense or misfortune, for example, has “crossed” Father Flynn’s life, and does it mark him out as reprobate, crucified, or both? Whose sister is being caressed by Davin’s, and not Cranly’s, hand in Stephen’s obscure incest fantasy, and in what form of sexuality does this imagined scene implicate Stephen himself? It is, however, that additional play with narrative detachment, the periodic shifts into and out of the protagonists’ own idioms, the variable participation in and distance from their points of view, that serve to reproduce, by sexual-textual analogy, the jouissance of seductive incalculability in the reader.
The eroticized indefiniteness of a seduction resides, for either party, in the imperfect but evolving legibility of the other’s intentions and their import, conscious and unconscious, in their mutually informing relation to the likewise imperfectly legible signals furnished by the context. That is to say, in Joyce and elsewhere, the seduction effect depends on the eroticizing absence of an erotic metalanguage. Joyce puts the reader in intimate yet “unobtrusively fluctuat[ing]” and so unreliable contact with the protagonist’s mental and emotional response to the unfolding seduction drama. He thus strives to relay the “enjoy-meant” of the highly charged interpretive suspension—the vivacity without transparency of apprehension—that characterizes his scenes of sexual initiation. Joyce inescapably impresses on the reader, through this “iridescence difficult to account for,” the eroticizing impossibility of a fixed sexual code. In other words, this “iridescence” both effects and marks a kind of erotic seduction of the reader that is the purport, in a pragmatic sense, of his invention of jouis-sens/joyceance, and may be a reason we so enjoy (in the properly psychoanalytic sense) Joyce’s writing. Certainly, the same enigmatic signifiers that mediate the seduction of the boys in these texts mediate the seduction of the reader by these texts. As such, they may be said to rivet the analogical or transferential link between the delineated and the interpretive experience, or, to be more precise, these signifiers constitute the textual joints at which the analogical aspires to the mimetic or the self-same. The acoustic properties of individual signifiers, like “the word paralysis” or “the word simony” (Joyce 1992a, 1), form an interface between the boys’ sexual and the reader’s textual initiations. The acoustic and visual properties of the oddly capitalized and italicized Foetus in A Portrait of the Artist do as well. As a result, the words that “sounded strangely” in the boy’s ears in the opening frame of Dubliners sound a little strangely in our own, the “legend” that leaps off the anatomy theater desk leaps off the page, and these uncanny sensory vibrations are the materially inscribed reserve of signifying jouissance, an effect/affect the words harbor in excess of their semantic determinations. The enigmatic signifiers focalizing the interpretive undecidability that the boys experience in their sexual encounters not only ground our own sense of interpretive undecidability as well, they do so on the same material, acoustic basis, producing a sort of (dis)harmonious convergence of traumatic enjoyment.
It has often been said that Joyce displays an acute sensitivity to the word as object, to its thingness. In recognizing that the erotic potential of language lay in the exorbitancy of its thingness to its meaning, its sensuality to its sensibility, Joyce contrived to strike not only an extraordinary connection between the psychosexual mysteries represented in the text and the textual surface of their representation, but also a correspondingly direct, even tactile connection between that textual surface and the hidden springs of interpretive erotics.
To summarize properly Joyce’s achievement in this regard, it is necessary to take into account the occulted relationship between sexual initiation generally and sexual abuse scandal in particular. Bathed in the light of public exhibition, the enigmatic signifier is alchemically transfigured into a scandal signifier, which is collectively enacted, consumed, and reacted to without giving rise to assured collective understanding. In brief, the scandalous is scandalous in that it draws on reservoirs of pleasurably traumatic excess originally formed and sealed at the very point from which individual, libidinal, affective, and social identity emerge: the traumatic/ecstatic encounter with the enigmatic message of the parental Other. Because that message remains taboo and therefore stubbornly unconscious, it can be processed or metabolized only in the form of misrecognition. Enigmatic signifiers must undergo some psychic defense—denial, disavowal, projection, and so on—in order to create the illusion of radical discontinuity between the universal, implicitly incestuous grounds of subjectivity and the monstrous or aberrant practices that scandalize. That is to say,
- We are all interested in sex scandals in the etymological sense of the word: interest, or “being between,” or, in this case, being between the potentiating condition and the actuality of the sex scandal scenario; and
- We are all equally concerned to dissimulate that state of inter-est, that being between, and to establish an absolute psychic, social, or moral cordon sanitaire structurally prohibiting any possibility of our being implicated in that scenario. In this respect, we are committed, as a part of our everyday ego-maintenance, to not understanding, or to misunderstanding, the general economy of child sexual scandal.
Joyce’s work proposes to elucidate the psychosocial operations of such scandal by mobilizing his audience’s inter-est in the act of reading itself. This is precisely a function of that analogical or transferential link, remarked above, between the delineated and the interpretive experience. The reader is situated between Joyce’s poesis, with its seduction effect, and Joyce’s diegesis, with its representation of child sexual seduction—between the enigmatic signifier, the sensory reverberations of which resonate with the reader’s own sexual initiation, and the signifiers of scandal, which unfold, in oblique fashion, various types of socially reprehended sexual initiations. The reader thus observes depictions of untoward sexual induction conveyed in a language with sensuous, material properties that evoke the traumatic jouissance imbuing their own infantile sexualization. Joyce not only stages thereby the irreducible connection between the enigmatic and the scandal signifiers, so that his reader might discern its reality, but does so interactively, so that his reader might feel its reality at a visceral level.
In grasping this irreducible connection as both intellectual proposition and sensory intuition, Joyce’s readers come to appreciate, or at least are given to appreciate, how the dynamics of child sexual abuse rehearse the dynamics of every passage into sexed subjectivity, including their own. Securely repressed, this structural implication of the primal roots of sexuality in its most reviled enactments fuels the pressure among observers of sex scandals to dissociate themselves and their “own” (their community, their church, their relatives) from the whole ugly business. They feign ignorance, avert their gaze, disavow their suspicions, discredit accusations, or impute the supposed atrocities to some unimaginable alien other. Once brought to consciousness, however, as Joyce’s fictions aim to do, this same structural implication imposes on scandal observers generally—all of us in sum—an ethical mandate to overcome those very pressures and treat the scandal of child sexual abuse as our collective responsibility. That Joyce’s attempt to represent this “censored chapter” in Irish history was itself subject to prolonged censorship as literature suggests just how difficult those pressures are to overcome, and the subsequent history of this Irish scandal, including its literary history, demonstrates how difficult is the ethical imperative to surmount them. But Irish history has also borne out Joyce’s sense of the stakes involved and his confidence in the indispensable role that literature has to play in addressing them. Writing to Grant Richards in an effort to secure publication for Dubliners at last, he proclaimed, with prophetic grandiosity, “I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass” (Joyce 1965, 64).
1. In the epiphanies, a series of short sketches written from 1898 to 1904, Joyce aimed to record verbatim interactions he had witnessed, capturing them immediately so as to maximize accuracy. In a detailed entry on the epiphanies, the James Joyce Centre website offers relevant insight into the particular effect Joyce was aiming to capture in these brief, immediate transcriptions, noting that “Joyce’s brother Stanislaus saw the epiphanies as something more like records of Freudian slips. Writing after Joyce’s death, Stanislaus claimed the epiphanies were ironical observations of slips, errors and gestures by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal. Further, Oliver St John Gogarty, a friend of Joyce’s and one of the models for the character Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, noted that Fr Darlington of University College had told Joyce that epiphany meant ‘showing forth,’ and that an epiphany was a showing forth of the mind in which one gave oneself away” (accessed November 6, 2018, http://jamesjoyce.ie/epiphanies).
2. Stephen’s unwillingness to speak to Isabel in a register that would, as seen from her perspective, signify moral and spiritual corruption is not due to pusillanimity. Rather, it stems from Stephen’s understandable unwillingness to attempt a form of communication that would be legitimately experienced by Isabel and indeed by Stephen himself as incestuously intrusive, owing to the Irish Catholic moral episteme’s hypersexualization of all discourses outside those of Catholic piety.
3. Simon Dedalus’s condemnation in A Portrait of the Artist of William Walsh, or “Billy with the lip,” for his part in Parnell’s destruction offers a vivid sense of Walsh’s central role in advancing virulently anhedonistic, post-Famine Catholicism. Walsh’s role would fully blossom once he successfully declared Irish children of the 1913 Lockout to be better off dead than outside Catholic oversight (Joyce 1992b, 33). For a fuller account of this subject, see this book’s introduction.
4. Yet Stanislaus Joyce was already noting this augmentation of language’s inherent capacity to simultaneously hide and expose when Joyce was still collecting epiphanies with the enthusiasm of a lepidopterist pursuing unusual specimens. “‘Jim,’ Stanislaus wrote in his journal, ‘is thought to be very frank about himself but his style is such that it might be contended that he confesses in a foreign language’” (Ellmann 1982, 148).
5. On the relationship of Joyce’s work to the thought of Ellis and Albert, see Brown (1985, 28–35, 52).
6. The phrase après la lettre here alludes to the famous essay “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” by Jacques Lacan, the foremost exponent of the linguistic turn that has come to define post-Freudian psychoanalysis.
7. For recent discussions of this seminar with reference to Joyce, see Thurston (2004, 94–97, 161–66), Harari (2002, 23–27, 171–77), and Rabaté (2001a, 154–82; 2001b, 1–23).
8. For discussions of the sinthome, see Harari (2002, 203–42), Rabaté (2001a, 157–62), and Žižek (1989, 71–79).
9. While Freud did famously shift his emphasis away from actual sexualized trauma to internal drives as the root of adult neurosis, this shift was never as absolute as many contemporary critics would have it. He argues, for instance, in his “General Theory of the Neuroses,” that “phantasies of being seduced are of particular interest, because so often they are not phantasies but real memories” (1917, 370).
10. In an unpublished essay, Roy Gottfried has discussed the influence on “The Sisters” of the story “The Priest and the Acolyte,” widely credited to Oscar Wilde when it appeared.
11. See, for example, the shrewd reading in Mahaffey (1988, 29–32).
12. For sublimation as the unsolved mystery of psychoanalytic theory, see Dean (2000, 257–59).
13. For an early and classic reading to this effect, see Kenner (1987). See also Henke (1982, 82–107); Day (1998, 59).
14. As Kathryn Conrad points out, conservative Catholic rhetoric in Ireland’s serial abortion debates aligns the Irish state and the fetus, each as “an autonomous entity threatened from without” (2004, 158). In addition to sharing a presumed external threat, as Irish nationalist scandal culture evolved, the always-imperiled Ireland and fetus also came to share and indeed mutually constitute each other’s absolute innocence. Images of fetuses—photo-realist or stylized, whole or mutilated—would eventually remain as the movement’s last, irrefutable trump card. Ostensibly appealing to the viewer’s protectiveness with its extreme vulnerability, the decontextualized fetus’s enigmatic charge inheres more powerfully in its subliminal, off-putting abjection. The anti-abortion fetus image works by arousing an immediate, visceral revulsion that in turn induces guilt, prompting, in a split second, the viewer to angrily project his or her initial, aversive reaction onto constituencies posing a known threat to children. This version of the scandal of imperiled innocence would remain potent in Ireland into the twenty-first century, long after other such scandal structures had given way. That even the scandalized fetus trope ultimately failed owes much to later authors’ development of Joyce’s enigmatic fetal trope, incorporating traumatic violation and desire in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century literature of scandal. In the spring of 2018, the graphic images of fetuses that have long been a staple of the anti-abortion movement in both Ireland and the United States burgeoned in all the cities and byways of Ireland, visibly representing what Ireland’s declining nationalist Catholicism had viewed as its final, unanswerable assertion of the movement’s scandalously assailed innocence. Yet even this last bastion of conservative Catholic ideology failed by a landslide in May 2018, at least partly owing to the alternative representations of the complexities of children’s relationships to sexual awakening, seduction, sexual molestation and abuse, and involuntary pregnancy—as seen through the eyes of Irish children themselves.