Axioms on the Unthinkable

If it is unfeasible to produce, when reading Ulysses, a total image of the text, this is partly due to its retrospective construction. By this I mean that Molly’s account of her life, for example, differs from the images the other characters have formed of her over the course of the day. Although her private life and behavior, her indiscretions with Bloom’s various acquaintances—the details of which are reported to us by other characters, not least of all Bloom himself—are ever-present in Bloom’s mind throughout the novel, in Molly’s monologue they are revealed to have been exaggerated, imagined, unsubstantiated. To reconcile Molly’s image of herself with the image we, as readers, have formed of her, we conclude that our reading of the text has been flawed; the images we have formed and the way in which we have formed them are fundamentally unreliable. In order to make sense of these textual ruptures, it is necessary to go outside the text—turn to supplementary material: to the “archive” of literature, to an encyclopedia or to the internet—which puts the boundaries between the inside and outside of the text under “erasure," or at least temporarily suspends them. In this way, reading Joyce is almost like reading what Derrida calls “différance.” If each structural signifier (such as the parody of Spenser in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode or the mathematical catechism in “Ithaca”) is related to something other than itself (such as Spenser’s oeuvre or the discourse of the hard sciences) and if the text itself bears the mark of this very relation to what it is not, every signifier of meaning in Ulysses both differs from and defers its own signification, because it simultaneously signifies in several different directions: forward and sideways to other episodes in the text, outward to the supplement, backward to the oeuvre, inward to the landscape. But it never, ever signifies a center. “And even today,” as Derrida suggests, “the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself.”
              This is why, as readers, we don’t give up trying to construct a total picture of the text, won’t give up trying to reduce what is essentially the irrational and idiosyncratic human element of language to something easily comprehended and coherent. If we could, we’d realize that to attempt to know any text in the Enlightenment sense of knowing with “certainty,” is not only futile, it is precisely the sort of search for origin that Derrida warns against. Any search for truth, meaning or origin is always already flawed because instead of “being too large,” the text disrupts and fractures meaning precisely because there is “something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions.” Without a center to stop the play of signification, the search for it continues indefinitely and, as Joyce so sardonically put it, “that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

©2008 Dr. Lacy M. Johnson All Rights Reserved. contact