James Joyce and the Epiphanic Inscription: Towards an Art of Gesture as Rhythm
1. Epiphanic Inscriptions1
a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech and gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.
2. Gestures and Words, Seeking New Rhythms
3. Dramatic Epiphanies: Symptomatic Gestures and Ellipses
The small gesture of gripping the stick reveals the beggar’s nervousness, while the moving of the stick up and down invests a potentially neutral statement with a menacing tone. The beggar’s bodily movement precedes his verbal threat, which appears as a semantic follow-up to the movement of the stick.7 If theatrical gestures placed themselves in a well-defined circuit of meaning and signification and were used to outwardly emphasise the words spoken by actors, the small and elusive gestures recorded by Joyce are able to reveal the hidden motives of the speaker, moving from a studied consolidation of meaning to a subconscious dissemination of information.The Lame Beggar — (gripping his stick)….It was you who called after me yesterday.The Two Children — (gazing at him)…No, sir.The Lame Beggar — O, yes it was, though…(moving his stick up and down)….But mind what I’m telling you….D’ye see that stick?The Two Children — Yes, sir.The Lame Beggar — Well, if ye call out after me any more I’ll cut ye open with that stick.
While Tobin’s speech could unravel smoothly if the suspension dots were cut, the presence of ellipses complicates its reception, making it impossible to tell whether the pauses are due to an indecision from the part of the speaker, or an omission of information from the part of the writer. Thus, the ellipses create an open space of potential interpretation, while pointing to the inability of language to faithfully and unequivocally record lived moments. According to Michael Naas, ellipses offer “the impression of entering into the very intimacy that the narrator or author share with their work” (Naas 1996, p. 93). By disseminating ellipses in most of the dramatic Epiphanies, Joyce underlines their personal dimension, as the gaps work as a constant reminder that the subjective impressions which caught the author’s attention won’t be recovered by written words. The additional information which these gestures provided is now buried in the space of a few dots; a space, however, which is ultimately not a negation but an opening to new possibilities and relations, and becomes in itself a meaningful “linguistic” gesture. In her article on gestures, Kristeva introduces “the concept of interval: an emptiness, a jump, which does not oppose ‘matter’ (that is, acoustic or visual representation) but is identical to it” (Kristeva 1978, p. 272). Similarly, the void created by the ellipses is far from a meaningless pause, but seems to add a visual element that contributes at the level of signification. The most indicative example is probably given by Epiphany 19, one of the most touching Epiphanies concerning Joyce’s brother George.Tobin — (walking noisily with thick boots and tapping the road with his stick)….O there’s nothing like marriage for making a fellow steady. Before I came here to the Examiner I used to knock about with fellows and boose….Now I’ve a good house and…..I go home in the evening and if I want a drink……well, I can have it….My advice to every young fellow that can afford it is: marry young.
At first, there seems to be a contrast between the sense of urgency which emerges from the dialogue, and the slow movement of suspension created by the pauses, as the ellipses following the stage directions seem to be inconsistent with both Joyce’s surprise and Mrs. Joyce’s impatience. This discrepancy would be unexplainable if the ellipses were simply meant to provide a pause in the talking of the actors, a way to counterbalance noise and silence. However, this does not seem to be the function of suspension dots in this particular context. Rather than creating pauses of indecision, the ellipses produce an empty space which complements the full space of the written words, bringing the explicitly said and the unsaid onto the same level. Throughout the Epiphany, words are placed side by side the rhythmic movement of emotions, until they are replaced altogether by the gestures which conclude the dialogue. While the actual word which would describe the "hole we all have” is replaced by Mrs. Joyce’s finger pointing to that particular part of the body, Joyce’s movement of standing up is offered as a closing reaction, a voiceless remark. As Jesse Schotter notices, “a language of gestures would be purely embodied, with no gap between writing and human movement, but if Joyce cannot reach a purely gestural language when using the medium of writing, as Stephen Daedalus desires, then he must strive for a visual one” (Schotter 2010). The ellipses of the dramatic Epiphany seem to move precisely in that direction, rendering visible on the page the necessary gap between writing and human movement, while producing a visual rhythm which, as a “pulsating movement of ‘concealment and revelation’" (Milesi 2010), makes this gap participate in the overall signification of the fragment.Mrs. Joyce - (crimson, trembling, appears at the parlour door) … Jim!Joyce - (at the piano) … YesMrs. Joyce - Do you know anything about the body?…What ought I do?…There’s some matter coming away from the hole in George’s stomach….Joyce - (surprised)…I don’t know….Mrs. Joyce - Ought I send for the doctor, do you think?Joyce - I don’t know…what hole?Mrs. Joyce - (impatient)…The hole we all have…here (points)Joyce - (stands up).
4. Narrative Epiphanies: Gestures Guiding Narration
In this fragment, communication happens mainly through movements and gestures. The children are warned that they are getting the last tram by the horses which “know it and shake their bell to the clear night in admonition”. Two conversations take place, and both of them are defined not by the words exchanged, but by the movements of the speakers: the conductor and the driver “nod[ding] often in the free light of the lamp”, while the girl, in the gesture which more than any other defines the rhythm of the Epiphany, moves up and down the step of the tram. While the conversation which accompanies the movement of the girl is not revealed, her gesture is not simply described but seems to be reproduced through pauses and repetitions. The rhythm is articulated by the words “go down”, repeated three times and always followed by a pause mimicking the motion happening “between our phrases”. Arresting the movement is another rhythmical reiteration separating the motion of the girl and the final sentence of the Epiphany: “…Let be; let be…”. Divided by a semicolon and enclosed within ellipses, the invitation is expressed but not explained, acquiring importance not in virtue of its meaning, but because of its repetition and position. In a similar way, the motion of the girl is reproduced in its rhythm, but its significance is never spelled out. If a potential significance is precisely what distinguishes a gesture from a movement, the specific meaning of the girl’s motion can only be guessed, in the same way as the overall meaning of the Epiphany is never specified and becomes a matter of conjecture. While the motion of the girl does not appear as a neutral displacement of her body, as it discloses a certain tension or awkwardness between the boy and the girl, it is hard to identify its actual significance with certainty. If in the dramatic Epiphanies the revelatory significance of the gestures remains unexpressed or is expressed simply by gaps in the text, the meaning of the gestures in the Epiphany above is not revealed, but simply rendered through the movement of the sentences and the repetition of key words. Thus, the transcription of gesture becomes a practice “of an indicative but not signifying type” (Kristeva 1978, p. 269), emerging before any potential meaning is cast on the written words. According to Kristeva, the basic function of gesture is anaphoric, as gesture “indicates, establishes relations” (Kristeva 1978, p. 270). Thought as rhythm, the gestures of the Epiphanies start to create a relation between words even as their signifying meaning remains unclear.The children who have stayed latest are getting on their things to go home for the party is over. This is the last tram. The lank brown horses know it and shake their bell to the clear night in admonition. The conductor talks with the driver; both nod often in the free light of the lamp. There is nobody near. We seem to listen, I on the upper step and she on the lower. She comes up to my step many times and goes down again, between our phrases, and once or twice remains beside me, forgetting to go down, and then goes down…Let be; let be…. And now she does not urge her vanities — her fine dress and sash and long black stockings — for now (wisdom of children) we seem to know that this end will please us better than any end we have laboured for.
The almost circular dancing of the boy is reproduced by the word “movement” itself, repeated three times in short sequence, and by the consonance of the words “whirling” and “wheeling” in subsequent sentences, words not only expressing analogous ideas but also reproducing similar sounds. As the boy’s body moves round and round upon itself, the reader goes back to the same words and sounds, expressive of a gesture once more rhythmically conveyed through the disposition of words. A similar motion of circular dancing is portrayed in Epiphany 26, where the features of a dancing girl appear at the beginning and end of the Epiphany, in a circularity that is able to convey the effects of her dancing body.[…] He begins to dance far below in the amphitheatre with a slow and supple movement of the limbs, passing from movement to movement, in all the grace of youth and distance, until he seems to be a whirling body, a spider wheeling amid space, a star […]
The repetition of the sentence “she dances with them on the round” highlights the continuous movement of the girl, while the reprise of the white spray in disarray and the intense tone of the glowing cheek suggest the effects produced by her prolonged dancing. Epiphany 24 evokes a subtler gesture, as the opening motion of an arm touching the knee of the narrator for an instant to then retract seems to work as a preamble for the development of the entire fragment. It is this simple gesture that triggers the intertextual echoes which appear in the Epiphany.She dances with them on the round - a white dress lightly lifted as she dances, a white spray in her hair; eyes a little averted, a faint glow on her cheek […] She dances with them on the round, evenly, discreetly, giving herself to no one. The white spray is ruffled as she dances, and when she is in shadow the glow is deeper on her cheek.
Filled with intertextual references from the Song of Solomon, the entire fragment progresses in a constant movement of disclosure and concealment mimicking the first sudden gesture of the arm, extended and then withdrawn, as well as the eyes which reveal the girl’s secrecy. All the references to the Song of Solomon — the enclosed garden, the red and white colours, Amana and the mountain of leopards, the image of the spouse — are disseminated in the Epiphany without being explained in any way, thus rendering through a veiled intertextual movement the soft touch which introduces the Epiphany. The closing sentence transcribes the retraction of the arm in written form. As the arm is laid and then withdrawn, the verse from the Vulgate Song of Solomon, left in Latin and not explained, creates a final, wider gap between the words of the Epiphany and their potential intelligibility.Her arm is laid for a moment on my knee and then withdrawn, and her eyes have revealed her — secret, vigilant, an enclosed garden - in a moment. I remember a harmony of red and white that was made for one like her, telling her names and glories, bidding her arise as for espousal, and come away, bidding her look forth, a spouse, from Amana and from the mountain of the leopards. And I remember that response whereunto the perfect tenderness of the body and the soul with all its mystery have gone: Inter ubera mea commorabitur.
5. The Gestural Quality of Words
The fragment is scanned by the movement and noises of a dog, which produces both the rhythm and the atmosphere of the scene as “from time to time he lifts his muzzle in the air and utters a prolonged sorrowful howl”. Considered by William Martin as “a rhythmic gesture” (Martin 2012, p. 21), the dog’s periodic lamentation defines the movement of the people around it, causing them to “stop to look at him and pass on” while “some remain, arrested”. The “prolonged sorrowful howl" seems to confirm the idea that “affective and emotional states are not simply qualities of subjective experience, rather […] they are expressed in bodily gestures and actions, and they thereby become visible to others” (Zahavi 2007, p. 30). The cry of the dog, expressing the “voiceless” lamentation of the people, undefinable by words but rendered visible through one single repeated gesture, rings in tune with the general atmosphere of the Epiphany, created by the recurrence of words such as “sorrowful”, “lamentation” and “sorrow”, and the “dull clouds” which, menacing at the beginning of the Epiphany, release rain at the end of it. The choice to describe the clouds as “dull” is particularly interesting, as the adjective presents a multiplicity of meanings which can be related to the scene. If limited to the description of the clouds, the word most likely defines something “not clear or bright; cheerless, gloomy, overcast” (OED 2018). Several different layers can be added to this first designation, connecting the clouds to other elements in the Epiphany. Defining “a state approaching gloom, melancholy, or sadness” (OED 2018), the word allows the clouds to be related to the sorrowful howl of the dog and the mood of the people. Finally, the word can be synonymous with something “sluggish”, linking the atmospheric condition of the sky with the “swampy beach” where the scene takes place. The different connotations of the words, and the significance they all have in relation to the epiphanic scene, exemplify its gestural quality, its openness to an array of potential significations. “Dull” manages to create a relation of part to part, what Joyce would define as a rhythm, played this time on the semantic level, linking the sensations of the dog and the people with the elements of the depicted scene’s surrounding. Words like “dull” approximate the work of “elaboration of the message” done by gestures, indicating without fixing, creating connections between different elements, and laying bare the expressive potential of language. Rather than imposing a predetermined and fixed structure to fluid movements, Joyce’s Epiphanies maintain their fluency intact through a constant play of different significations and meanings conveyed by individual words. The fluidity of this gestural language is one of the elements which is able to create a stronger link between the sensations and movements of subjects, and the scene’s surroundings, gathering under the rhythm of the page these different elements, creating a collaboration and mutual influence between interiority and exteriority. In James Joyce and the Art of Mediation, David Weir points out how the concept of epiphany has often been considered a “mediating link between subject and object” (Weir 1996, p. 40). In his book, Weir recognises that “epiphany involves some correspondence, or mediation, between the world without and the world within” (Weir 1996, p. 40). The gestural quality of certain words creates a particular sound and rhythm which generates this kind of correspondence, as can be seen in Epiphany 25.Dull clouds have covered the sky. Where three roads meet and before a swampy beach a big dog is recumbent. From time to time he lifts his muzzle in the air and utters a prolonged sorrowful howl. People stop to look at him and pass on; some remain, arrested, it may be, by that lamentation in which they seem to hear the utterance of their own sorrow that had once its voice but is now voiceless, a servant of laborious days. Rain begins to fall.
In the short description of the girls leaving shelter, words are linked by more than a simple alliteration on the letters “p” and “r”. The particular choice of adjectives offers an illustration which is only apparently confined to their exterior looks and attire. “Prattle” mediates between boots and girls, connecting the sound of the moving boots on the wet ground with the chatter of the group of girls. In a similar way, the adjectives “pretty” to define the action of the petticoat, and “cunning” to describe the angles of the umbrella, communicate something about the girls as much as they do about their garments. An analogous effect is produced through the description of the convent as “demure corridors and simple dormitories, a white rosary of hours”. This time, the attention is caught by the word “rosary”, potentially referring to the botanical display of roses, echoing the “shrub” where raindrops hang like “a cluster of diamonds”, and to the religious prayer to the Virgin Mary. This second denotation could clarify the expression “rosary of hours”, linking the monotonous passing of time with the litany of repeated Hail Mary. The several connotations of different words manage to create a description encompassing various dimensions without ever fixing on a specific one, and are able to link the attitudes and bodies of the girls with their clothes.The quick light shower is over but tarries, a cluster of diamonds, among the shrubs of the quadrangle where an exhalation arises from the black earth. In the colonnade are the girls, an April company. They are leaving shelter, with many a doubting glance, with the prattle of trim boots and the pretty rescue of petticoats, under umbrellas, a light armoury, upheld at cunning angles. They are returning to the convent — demure corridors and simple dormitories, a white rosary of hours — having heard the fair promises of Spring, that well-graced ambassador.
A constant play of light and shadow, strength and weakness animates a sea acting like an animal. In the darkness of a moonless night, the glimmer of the waves is faintly visible, like the eye of a predator hiding in darkness, ready to ambush its prey. The central simile makes this comparison apparent, linking the unrest of the sea with the moment of tension preceding the animal’s attack. The feeble gleam is thus opposed to the vigour of a sea “charged with dull anger”. A similar contrast is kept in the following sentence, which is also able to keep the connection made by the central simile through the word “wooded”. Etymologically, “wood” evokes the idea of going mad, of raging and become furious. While describing the calmness of the flat land surrounded by light trees, the word brings back the idea of the ferocious animal “about to spring”, and links the apparently serene land with the charged sea. Creating a different connection, Epiphany 37 describes the sea as “mov[ing] with the sound of many scales”. The word “scales” links the movement of the sea with the “bright, even voices of boys singing before the altar” appearing at the end of the fragment, bringing together in one word the scales of fish and musical scales, as Scarlett Baron has noted.10A moonless night under which the waves gleam feebly […] the sea is uneasy, charged with dull anger like the eyes of an animal which is about to spring, the prey of its own pitiless hunger. The land is flat and thinly wooded […]
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In the article, the term “inscription” will always be linked to the act of writing, therefore referring to the action of inscribing words on a page. Used in the context of Joyce’s Epiphanies, the term is meant to stress the idea of permanence. As it will be further explained, by tracing signs upon a surface (in this case a blank page), Joyce aimed at recording and collecting specific moments of his life, fixing them on the written page.
Throughout the article I will capitalise the term Epiphany when referring to Joyce’s sketches, in order to differentiate the textual composition from the more general concept and theory of epiphany as presented in Stephen Hero.
As Vicky Mahaffey points out, “the main difficulty presented by the Epiphanies lies in the broad application of the word itself, which Joyce used not only to designate the slivers of life that he punctiliously preserved in prose and dialogue from 1900 to 1903, but also as a metaphor, drawn from classical and Christian myth, for the revelation of the spiritual and the actual” (Attridge 2004, pp. 176–77). Critics have followed two main approaches in their analysis of the epiphany within Joyce’s writing. Criticism on the theory as exposed by Stephen in Stephen Hero (Joyce 1963, pp. 211–13) has often considered the theory in its ties with ideas on beauty and aesthetics by Aristotle or Aquinas. Notable examples include Maurice Beebe "Joyce and Aquinas: The Theory of Aesthetic” Philological Quarterly (Beebe 1957); S.L. Goldberg The Classical Temper (Goldberg 1961); Morris Beja Epiphany in the Modern Novel (Beja 1971); William T. Noon Joyce and Aquinas (Noon 1957). The second common approach considers the theory of epiphany and Joyce’s own fragments in relation to Joyce’s subsequent texts. Irene Hendry (Hendry 1946) is amongst the first to consider the theory of epiphany in relation with other texts by Joyce, advancing the claim that “Joyce’s work is a tissue of epiphanies” (Hendry 1946, p. 461). In her study “A Portrait of James Joyce’s Epiphanies as a Source Text”, Ilaria Natali examines the changes which several of the original fragments undergo when included in a broader narrative (Natali 2011). A similar enterprise, limited to only two epiphanies, had been undertaken by Robert Scholes in his essay “Joyce and the Epiphany: The Key to the Labyrinth?”, The Sewanee Review, 72/1 (Scholes 1964, pp. 74–77). Overall, as Mahaffey claims, “criticism has tended to favour the concept of epiphany over the prose sketches that bear the same name” (Attridge 2004, p. 179). My article parts from these tendencies, focusing almost exclusively on Joyce’s fragments.
This vision of language can easily be aligned with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to language, as developed in Signes (Merleau-Ponty 1960), and Phénoménologie de la Perception (Merleau-Ponty 1945). Conscious that a direct engagement with such theories goes beyond the limited span of this article, I chose to engage with Kristeva’s essay “Gesture: Practice or Communication” to develop this line of thought. Kristeva’s essay draws from the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, while focusing more specifically on gestures.
Sticks, and the gestures related to them, seem to have particular relevance in the works of Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen is almost inseparable from his ashplant, while Bloom uses his Freeman to create a baton. The blind piano tuner similarly wanders around the streets of Dublin tapping with his cane. Helen R. Whaley examines the importance of these sticks in the novel, pointing out how they all seem "filled with creative power of one sort or another" (Whaley 1970–1971, p. 535).
In James Joyce and the Difference of Languages, Milesi states that “One may even still register something of the former epiphany in the multi-layered portmanteau word or syntactico-rhythmic modulations of the Wake’s nonce-idiom” (Milesi 2009, p. 2).
In her analysis of the passage, Burns states that Stephen barely alludes to the song, taking only its elemental rhythm and running it through his own medium, the body, without explanation or verbal thematics. He mimes the sensual aspects of the song rather than its theme, perhaps conveying a mood, but without sounds or words (Burns 2000, p. 25).
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Tondello, A. James Joyce and the Epiphanic Inscription: Towards an Art of Gesture as Rhythm. Humanities 2018, 7, 109. https://doi.org/10.3390/h7040109
Tondello A. James Joyce and the Epiphanic Inscription: Towards an Art of Gesture as Rhythm. Humanities. 2018; 7(4):109. https://doi.org/10.3390/h7040109Chicago/Turabian Style
Tondello, Alberto. 2018. "James Joyce and the Epiphanic Inscription: Towards an Art of Gesture as Rhythm" Humanities 7, no. 4: 109. https://doi.org/10.3390/h7040109