Joyce and Benjamin in Paris


André Kertész

by Catherine Flynn

Learning to read Ulysses means tracing a path through its strangeness. Becoming familiar with the twists and turns of its prose and the multitude of characters that pass through its pages can also mean forgetting the work’s initial effects of disorientation and fragmentation. It shares these effects with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, in which the reader is thrust into a massive collection of facts, quotations, insights and references.

Irish émigré author and Jewish Marxist theorist, comic and tragic in turn, James Joyce and Walter Benjamin might seem to have little in common other than the perceived difficulty of their work. Yet, the two share Paris as a location for their most important writing, Joyce composing and revising Ulysses and Finnegans Wake there from 1920 onwards, and Benjamin beginning his Arcades Project on a visit to the city in 1927, before working continuously on the text after his exile there in 1933.

In Paris, both Joyce and Benjamin adopt increasingly accretive styles, as they turn further away from the conventions of fiction and theory. Refusing the roles of engaging storyteller or authoritative interpreter, the writers become self-declared rag pickers, exchanging personal voice, linear narration and argument for an aesthetic of constant disruption and new, open forms that are crowded with fragments of fact, of the irrational and of the subliterary and that place new demands upon the reader to find his or her way.

Ulysses, of course, was begun years before Joyce moved to Paris but his earliest writing shows traces of an ambition to find a formal response to the metropolis. After meeting Joyce in Dublin in 1902, W. B. Yeats writes of Joyce’s “little prose descriptions and meditations. He had thrown over metrical form, he said, that he might get a form so fluent that it would respond to the motion of the spirit.” What Yeats does not acknowledge or perhaps even realize is that the young Joyce is echoing the great poet of nineteenth century Paris, Charles Baudelaire, who writes in Le Spleen de Paris:

Which of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the sudden starts of consciousness? It was, above all, out of my exploration of huge cities, out of the intersection of the innumerable interrelations, that this haunting ideal was born.

Joyce responds in Ulysses to this call for a new urban prose by piecing together fragments of Leopold Bloom’s thoughts and sensations, of advertisements and signs in the streets, of song and poems, of dialogue and of other texts. The stream of consciousness is only one of the disorienting and fragmentary forms through which Ulysses responds to the modern city.

Benjamin, too, is fascinated by Baudelaire’s desire for a new urban form and quotes these lines in The Arcades Project amidst fragments from Balzac, Dickens and Kracauer. The fragmentary form of the Arcades is a response to this ambition, rather than a sign of the text’s incompletion. Already in 1925, Benjamin comments that everything of value is to be found in the card index of the researcher. Yet, this does not mean that these notes are to be understood as static elements that together form a comprehensive account. In the Arcades Project, Benjamin declares that truth “lives solely in the rhythm by which statement and counterstatement displace each other in order to think each other.”

The fragmentary form of the Arcades Project, like Joyce’s stream of consciousness and the other innovative forms of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, expresses both the vagaries of experience and sensation in the new urban landscape and also the challenges of an urban hermeneutics. These new kinds of poetic prose concern themselves with the leaps of consciousness amidst the innumerable interrelations of the modern city not only by registering them but also by providing material and space for them to take place. Their writing is not a record but a response.

About the Author:

Catherine Flynn is a postdoctoral fellow in the Introduction to the Humanities Program at Stanford University. Her essays on Joyce, the avant-garde and material culture have appeared in Journal of Modern Literature and Éire-Ireland. This article is based on her talk at the recent XII North American James Joyce Conference at the Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California and is related her book project, which considers James Joyce and Walter Benjamin in a context that ranges from nineteenth century realist fiction to twentieth century surrealist works.