Books: Guidebook for a Labyrinth

  • Share
  • Read Later

JAMES JOYCE—Harry Levin—New Directions ($1.50).

The review of Finnegans Wake by Harvard's Harry Levin was one of the few that gave James Joyce the sense that his book had a reader. Mr. Levin's volume on Joyce is designed to be read along with Joyce's works. On Joyce's powers of characterization, on his Swiftian moral grandeur, and on that almost Shakespearean humaneness which alone could delight the plainest of readers, he is obtuse as only a hyperintellectual can be. But on those intricate obscurities which put off most plain readers, and on Joyce as a technician and theorist, he has written the best guidebook and the most brilliant criticism to date.

Of all modern artists, Joyce was the most bitterly uncompromising, the most torturously responsible to his vocation; as a result, he was "the most self-centered of universal minds." His obsessive subjects, the city and the artist, bracketed the whole conflicted matter and spirit of modern civilization. A Portrait of the Artist is self-centered, naturalistic; and Levin tells a tantalizing little of its earlier 1,000-page version, which was far more so. The multitudinous data of Ulysses vibrated like cold made-lightning between the cathodes of the most fluoroscopic symbolism and the most granitic naturalism. In Finnegans Wake naturalism and the artist himself all but disappear; the book is a shimmering death-dance of chameleon-like symbols; an attempt at nothing less than a complete serio-comic history of human consciousness—in Levin's neat phrase, a "doomsday book," culminating in a Phoenician paradox of dissolution and resurrection.

Though history was, to Joyce, "a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," he made some frightening images of the history of his time. Finnegans Wake derives much from the philosopher Giambattista Vico's cyclic theory of history, which is highly apposite to the present. According to Vico, and Joyce, the first of a civilization's four phases begins, and the last collapses, in fear of thunder, and a rush for underground shelter; and in that sheltering cave, religion and family life begin again. Today the ambiguous thunder talks above every great city of the earth, and the shelters are crowded, and a civilization, if it is ending, is no less surely germinal. In one great warning work of literature after another, meanwhile, a similar mental cavern is retreated to and explored (Joyce's was a Dedalean Labyrinth). Levin quotes St. John's "Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone, but if it die, it beareth much fruit." That, says he, is "the burden of the manifold texts of Finnegans Wake," and of Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Zola, Gide, Eliot, Mann.