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James Joyce and the Nature of Collage

BLOGGER’S NOTE I’ve taken my chem final and my Spanish exam. I think I did all right on both. I just handed in my James Joyce term paper—entitled “Stephen’s Vampire and the Ghost of Mrs Dedalus: Revenants in Ulysses”—and I am ready for a nap. While I am thus occupied, I leave you with on of the many Joycean meditations I composed this past semester.

How does collage work? I’m pondering this question because of Wolfgang Iser’s very helpful suggestion [in “Patterns of Communication in Joyce’s Ulysses”] that Joyce uses a kind of verbal cut-and-paste in Ulysses. It’s true that one generally thinks of collage as a visual technique, but the real Dubliners and snippets of newspaper stories Joyce inserts in his text are really no different from the advertising images appropriated by Hannah Höch or the comic strips détourned by the Situationist International.

Iser argues that, in most realist novels, verifiable details support the (implicit) stylistic claim of authenticity—they help create a world that the reader recognizes—but, in Ulysses, “realistic” details are decontextualized—they refer only to themselves, and they “revoke the normal assumption that a novel represents a given reality”.

L.H.O.O.Q.This idea—which I find inspired and inspiring—seems to negate the purpose of a lot of Joyce scholarship, the kind that is concerned with tracking down each and every butcher, milliner, and casual acquaintance mentioned in Joyce’s work. Myself, I haven’t found the encyclopedic references to the Dublin phonebook (or whatever the equivalent would have been) all that enlightening, just as my feelings about L.H.O.O.Q. would probably not be changed were someone to discover the newsstand where Marcel Duchamp bought his Mona Lisa postcard. Indeed, this approach seems a little obsessive-compulsive to me, and maybe a little desperatre—as if Ulysses can be fixed, as if its single, true, objective meaning will be revealed as soon as the precise location of Stephen Dedalus’s dentist’s office is identified. Iser argues that following such leads is a dead-end. I can understand how it might be fun and occasionally even interesting, but I’m inclined to agree with Iser.

So, collage. Nebeneinander. What happens when an image or a word is removed from a familiar context and placed in a strange, new one? Does it acquire new meaning or meaninglessness? If the former, does the new meaning contain vestiges of the old one? With some collage—and I would include Joyce’s use of real Dublin places and personages—the content of the appropriated material doesn’t matter so much as its form. Here he seems allied with other modernists—even postmodernists—in his willingness to use ostensibly worthless artifacts in the service of art, a move which offers an implicit critique of existing modes of art and art production. Joyce’s literary quotations and references seem like a different kind of collage, one in which old material retains its old meaning and acquires new ones, and this differs from a more straightforward kind of allusion, one in which existing literary material is cited without irony.

I think I’m wandering into the woods now, and it’s almost time for class, so I close with these words from Raoul Hausmann, which may or may not be relevant—I can’t tell anymore:

Seeing is a social process—we banalize things through visual allegory which takes from them their multiplicity of meaning… Our perception appears to be blind to the background, the space between things—and it is precisely this that the photomonteur lets us perceive and recognize. He creates his photomontage out of the insignificant inbetween-parts and uses the unperceived optics.

May 4, 2005 | Permalink

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