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Rather than formulating a general taxonomy of possible case-studies and research methods, the present study consists of various preliminary explorations of a relatively new field of study. By focusing on the literary resonances of Joyce’s defective eyesight and correlating the (prophetic) implications of his near-blindness with the literary tradition of the blind prophet, we can extend in both time and space the critical parameters of Joyce scholarship, thereby adding new dimensions and unforeseen interrelationships to the extensive critical industry of James Joyce.
Let me state beforehand that an adequate treatment of the literary work of James Joyce, in particular his later prose fiction, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, would require far more space than can be given here. Following some characteristics of the Dutch critical reception of Joyce, I largely “favour a non-theoretical approach in which close reading takes centre stage.” In the light of my original intention to unearth a relatively new field in Joyce scholarship, I therefore merely expect to work in a preliminary fashion, since “[t]o attempt to do more than scratch the surface of […] Finnegans Wake, [for example,] would clearly exceed any reasonable limits of time and space.”
The present study starts from the relatively simple premise of regarding the ocular disorder Joyce developed during his life as a clear influence on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, epitomized by the striking correspondence between sign and reference in the case of ‘irisitis.’
Although the common designation to describe an inflammation of the eye is ‘iritis,’ a word generally employed by Joyce and the majority of his critics to refer to the writer’s eye troubles, the alternative spelling ‘irisitis,’ an etymologically more exact orthographic rendering to be found in nineteenth-century medical lexicons, constitutes a proper denominator for the subject at hand, simultaneously conveying a distinct sense of Joyce’s textual play and extreme use of polysemy. Linguistically speaking, the word ‘irisitis,’ a derivational compound made up of the originally Greek morphemes ‘iris’ and ‘-itis,’ contains three unstressed syllables next to the stressed penult. Apart from the denotation of ‘irisitis,’ which refers to the inflammation of the colored part of the eye surrounding the black pupil, the term obviously echoes two defining elements in the life and art of James Joyce, namely his distinctly Irish background and his progressive loss of sight. According to a homophonic correspondence, the latter also echoes the (in)distinct historical geography of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and refers to the extensive intertextual references to be found in both works, which have excited such a vast amount of intellectual despair.
Interestingly, the obsolete term as a whole sounds much like the self-referential
pronouncement “I recite this,” which denotes the predominance of sound and musical
qualities in both Milton’s poetry and Joyce’s later prose, a fact that prompted T.S. Eliot to
proclaim James Joyce the greatest master of the English language since Milton, whom he
considered mainly to be a writer for the ear. Contrary to the more common denomination for
the inflammation of the iris, iritis (read: ‘I write this’), which clearly accommodates
Gottfried’s genetic reading of and semiotic approach to Ulysses, the term ‘irisitis’ fully
characterizes Joyce’s compromised eyesight and eventual near-blindness that progressively
led him to dictate his ultimate novel to various assistants.
When viewed in the light of temporal/spatial relations, moreover, the proposition’s implied modes of the audible and the visible, which Stephen Dedalus, following Schopenhauer’s example, designates as respectively Nacheinander (an image of time) and Nebeneinander (an image of space) in the “Proteus” section of Ulysses, immediately relate to Joyce’s revolutionary poetical program.
Already questioning the basic assumptions of temporal and spatial reality in his modernistic masterpiece, Ulysses, the linguistic cosmogony of Joyce’s ultimate novel would infinitely expand the relatively narrow parameters of fictional time and space. In “Circe,” for example, the invocation of Paddy Dignam’s servile ghost, who cannot but respond to his master voice, prompts Leopold Bloom to remark triumphantly, “You hear?” Echoing Dante’s startling encounter with his former mentor Brunetto Latini in the seventh circle of hell, the passage alternately summons up the modality of the audible (time) and the unity of place. Through the allusion to Dante, which transmigrates the scene and its protagonist into the past, and numerous acts of metempsychosis, involving for instance the image of a beardless William Shakespeare superimposed upon the reflection of Bloom and Stephen gazing in the mirror, Joyce crosses the traditional boundaries of time and space, although Ulysses as a whole remarkably adheres to the neoclassical principles of dramatic structure. It should be remembered that the polysemous affliction Joyce repeatedly suffered from partakes of a general tendency of mistakes and contingencies in his personal life which he, as a “man of genius,” deemed “volitional” and designated as “portals of discovery.”
As famously exemplified by Frank O’Connor’s anecdote about Joyce placing a picture of Cork in a cork frame, Joyce’s lifelong attempt to “establish a direct correspondence between substance and style” makes up one of his major artistic techniques. Accordingly, the meaningful coincidence of irisitis illuminates the important relationship between form and content in the literary work of James Joyce.
It is important to recognize, furthermore, that any artistic notion of chance Joyce may have had, whether observing in his life meaningful coincidences or downright ‘luck of the Irish,’ presupposes an intricate relationship between life and art. To be sure, the personal events of Joyce’s life are so inextricably woven into his work, that many believed his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to be a genuine autobiography. Even Joyce’s ultimate novel, which exhibits an apparent meaninglessness in the verisimilitude of everyday life, has been read by some as his confession and autobiography.
According to Thornton Wilder, for example, “Finnegans Wake is […] an agonized journey into the private life of James Joyce.” As Roy Gottfried, among others, has amply demonstrated, the systematic uncertainty and obscurity of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake run parallel to Joyce’s pathology. In this sense, the notion of blindness can be seen as more than an analogy, since Joyce “wrote over every square inch of the only foolscap available, his own body.”
Therefore, rather than attempting to deconstruct life’s intricate relation to art, we will proceed instead from the basic assumption regarding the significant mutual influence of Joyce’s personal life on the development of his fiction. Ultimately, the imperative mood of ‘irisitis’ (read: ‘Eye, resight this’) alludes to the notion of second sight which, following the internal logic of a subsequently primary and secondary order of vision, makes up the alternate, albeit related, point of departure for the present study.
A further observation that has instigated the current research has to do with the tradition of the
blind, prophetic bard to which the historical figure of James Joyce arguably belongs. Extending
from Homer, with whom the blind bard has become synonymous, the literary tradition
of the blind seer or the sightless poet who has been accorded the gift of prophecy includes the
illustrious cases of Tiresias, “the Theban seer whose blindness proved his great
illumination,” and John Milton, the blind epic poet who turned blind in mid-life and
subsequently used his own biography to develop the theme of blindness in his literary work.
Glasheen puts it in her offhand way, “[i]t probably mattered to Joyce that Homer was
blind.” The extent to which Joyce was preoccupied with the striking analogy is difficult to
retrace, although, in any case, Joyce, in 1922, had to be reassured by his ophthalmologist Dr.
Borsch that there was no imminent danger of glaucoma foudroyant, “the disease which […]
was probably the cause of Homer’s blindness.”
In Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (1990), for example, the rich allegory of the blind poet is celebrated in the title character, who possesses the gift of inner vision. In particular, Homer’s St. Lucian avatar, a blind old sailor named Seven Seas, presents “a fascinating genealogy composed of Homer, Demodocus, Joyce, as well as distant echoes of the mythical figure of the blind Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges.” When James Joyce, in a discussion with his language pupil Georges Borach in 1917, answered for his lifelong preoccupation with Homer’s Odyssey, he observed that “[t]he most beautiful, all-embracing theme is that of the Odyssey. […] Dante tires one quickly; it is like looking into the sun.”
Interestingly, Joyce’s observation regarding the blinding effect of Dante’s literary work precisely echoes the great symbolic value the latter attaches to light, darkness, vision, and blindness in his Commedia. In the twenty-fifth canto of Paradiso, for instance, Dante loses his sight when he looks into the luminous presence of St. John the Evangelist. In the following canto, the eventual restoration of his sight by Beatrice ends the account of his examination by St. John on the virtue of love. In the thirty-second canto of Purgatorio, the pilgrim Dante is likewise temporarily blinded, when he stares, for the first time in ten years, into the face of Beatrice. Subsequently, “her enamelled eyes” transmit the divine light that in effect will raise Dante to the first sphere of heaven, “indergoading him on to the vierge violetian.”
There is reason to believe that Dante had chronic eye troubles. Like Milton, who went blind by excessive study, Dante sometimes strained his eyes by “[p]oring over manuscripts late into the night by candlelight, as well as [by] naked-eye gazing at the stars.” In Il Convivio, after discussing at length the Aristotelian diaphane, to which Stephen Dedalus refers in the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses, Dante lists the painful experience of temporarily losing his sight as a result of an intense period of reading: [B]y greatly straining my vision through assiduous reading I weakened my visual spirits so much that the stars seemed to me completely overcast by a kind of white haze. But by resting at length in dark and cool places and by cooling the surface of my eyes with clear water, I regained that power which had undergone deterioration, so that I returned to my former state of healthy vision. Interestingly, Dante’s description of his convalescence closely resembles the incapacitating blindness Joyce repeatedly suffered from during the strenuous materialization of Ulysses. At such relapses of his earlier ophthalmological symptoms like iritis and glaucoma, Joyce, in fact, would lay immobilized in a darkened room, while Nora generally would stay at his side, “dipping a cloth into ice water and applying it to his eyes.” Apart from the fact that Dante occasionally overstrained his eyes by excessive study, it remains unclear whether he, like Joyce, suffered from a visual impairment that reached deplorable proportions. In any case, the Florentine poet’s real or imputed eye troubles, added to the recurrent theme of occluded and remediated vision in the Divina Commedia, underlines his distinct association with the literary tradition of the blind bard.
Comparable with the pilgrim Dante who, deprived of outer light, looks at the inner light of divinity through the eyes of Beatrice, the blind bard in the third book Milton’s Paradise Lost, through the medium of the heavenly muse, “may inhabit a landscape he cannot see and can be invited into the celestial vision that none of the seeing world can directly experience.”
Drawing upon extremely personal references, since his own eyes would “roll in vain / to find [God’s] piercing ray and find no dawn,” John Milton, in the so-called “Hymn to Light” at the beginning of Book Three, “is using his own biography to develop the principal themes of the digression, relating the paradoxes of deprivation of light to the hymn’s salutation to Celestial Light.” Evoking the figure of Maeonides (Homer) and emphasizing their biographical convergence, Milton creates a blind bard who, like the pilgrim Dante, “is a visitor to the realms of Chaos and Eternal Night, returned safely to the realms of light.” In line with the sharpened inner vision that traditionally compensates the visually impaired bard or seer, Milton further invokes the Celestial Light to “shine inward and the mind through all her powers / irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence / purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / of things invisible to mortal sight.”
As stated before, the theme of blindness has become a twofold expression in the literary tradition. Especially with the definition of the Romantic ideology of poetic vision, “the topics of blindness and second sight [became] closely linked.” As Patricia Novillo-Corvalán puts it, “[w]hat the unseeing, inert eyes of the poet cannot perceive is compensated for by the vast, unlimited vision afforded by the eye of the imagination, as the poet exchanges eyesight for the craft of versifying.”
In Romanticism, the seer might therefore be easily confused with the bard, since the prophetic or poetic vision attributed to the artist immediately relates to divine inspiration or inspired divination. Apart from the literary tradition of the blind bard, which originated with Homer, Joyce’s physical blindness as an appropriate indicator of his poetic vision has a distinct cultural background much closer to home.
In “The Celtic Bard of Romanticism,” Edward Larrissy, in fact, states that the topics of physical blindness and ‘second sight’ have been associated with the Celtic bard since the early eighteenth century, even before the appearance of MacPherson’s Ossian. According to Larrissy, “Irish tradition played a small but indubitable part in fashioning the image of the visionary, and sometimes blind, bard.”
The belief in ‘second sight,’ furthermore, “was part of the common inheritance of Ireland,” as famously rendered by Synge’s Riders to the Sea or Yeats’s folklore writings. The present study, in short, will not attempt to trace Joyce’s literary precursors or any precedent for the sightless poet in English literature or elsewhere, for that would be an unending task.
Apart from the fact that the important literary relationship between Joyce and respectively Homer, Dante, and Milton clearly lies beyond the scope of this thesis, various scholars, furthermore, have already explored a range of (intertextual) connections and formulated, through detailed parallel readings, significant theories of influence and intertextuality.
In the light of Joyce’s progressive eye troubles and his related affiliation with the literary tradition of the blind bard, this study will neither attempt to recover his private thoughts on these matters. We shall be concerned, instead, with Joyce’s explicit references to the topics of (figurative) blindness and myopia in his literary work, and especially with the sensory apparatus in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Rather than touching upon matters that have really been worked into the ground, such as the use of music or the aural mode in Joyce’s later prose fictions, or copying a simple study of influence from authoritative critical contributions, I will attempt to unearth a relatively new field of study in which blindness as a twofold expression constitutes a framework for the thematic discussion of Joyce’s occluded vision.
Myopia, Irisitis, and