Joyce Scholar Offers Personal Portal into Wrong Author
A Contrary review by David M. Smith

        “Here the colon, a highly sophisticated punctuation mark in English, registers precisely one of         the earliest stepping stones on the way to consciousness, where two impressions for the child are brought into active relationship by a single mark, one dot above another."

        This sentence, from David Pierce’s latest book, Reading Joyce, elegantly expresses the problem that motivates Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: the connection between language and consciousness. As I read these words recently, however, I had a faint feeling that I had already seen them elsewhere.
Sure enough, when I consulted Pierce’s earlier work, Joyce and Company, I found the same sentence, word for word. This would seem to open Pierce up to the charge of self-plagiarism, if one does not dismiss that idea as oxymoronic. In certain situations, it can be seen as a serious ethical breach, or at least some sort of intellectual dishonesty; in my opinion, this is probably not one of those situations. But Pierce’s lifting does raise questions about the latest context in which he has chosen to couch his remarks.
        In contrast to Pierce’s previous, more academic work, Reading Joyce is marketed as a beginner's guide to Joyce. Since there are already so many of these, this one’s raison d’etre is that it comes “with a personal stamp on it.” Pierce’s personal stamp consists mainly of autobiographical remarks, which unfortunately are too infrequent and thin to serve as a coherent organizing principle. But even if Pierce had given us more personal memoir, it’s not clear how that would help us understand Joyce any more than would the Odyssey, Hamlet, Don Giovanni, the philosophy of Aquinas and Vico, Irish history, and so on. 
        In one perceptive moment, Pierce comments on Joyce’s use of the omphalos (the ancient Greeks’ “navel” or center of the earth): “Ulysses constitutes a profound meditation on the idea of a centre to the world, with this proviso, that Joyce assumes that there are many such centres." This is a promising start, but the problem here runs deeper than Pierce senses. If there are many such centers, the question turns to which, if any, should be privileged. In the end, it’s not clear how Pierce’s attempt at centering through his own lived experience is any more valuable than all those that Joyce himself proscribed for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
        One instance vividly illustrates this point. A promising feature of the book is Pierce’s reliance on illustrations, like maps and photos of Dublin circa 1904, that help us visualize the wanderings of Bloom and Dedalus in Ulysses. But then Pierce throws in a picture that has little to do with Joyce. He shows us a campaign button that reads, “Vote Bloom, Labour.” Pierce’s caption: "Years ago somewhere in Yorkshire someone was standing for the British Labour Party and had the engaging name of Bloom. He would have got my vote." Would we care in a Hemingway guide if the author showed us a “Nick Adams: Republican for Congress, 1994” button?  This is neither helpful nor amusing, and the "personal stamp” begins to look more like personal caprice.
        That caption, finally, points toward the most maddening feature of Reading Joyce. As we have seen from his self-plagiarized quote, Pierce is capable of producing graceful prose to make a solid, non-trivial point. But in all apparent earnestness, Pierce often writes in pointless, empty homilies of the sort that Joyce lampooned with such brilliance in the “Eumaeus” episode of Ulysses. Take Pierce’s quoting of some early Joyce critics and his subsequent commentary:
        “‘James Joyce did not subscribe to the journalistic fallacy that everything should be made easy to understand.’  To some extent [the critics] were right, though I wouldn't quite express it as they do. Ignorance after all can be dangerous and there's always a need for good journalism."
        Whereas Joyce’s deliberate banalities become what his alter ego Dedalus refers to as “the portals of discovery,” for Pierce, they are, alas, a mere weakness of the author.

David M. Smith is a writer living in Norway.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
Reading Joyce
David Pierce
2008,  Longman

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