Accueil Discipline (Lettres et linguistique) Revue Numéro Article

Études anglaises

2005/2 (Tome 58)

Pages 131 - 140 Article suivant

In this paper, I would like to emphasize the ambiguous aspect of history in Joyce and Flaubert. My contention is that a central antithesis between history as narrative and history as hallucination informs both authors’ works and may explain why they are sometimes so strikingly similar.


Comparisons with Flaubert have been a dominant feature of Joyce studies ever since the early days of Pound’s articles in support of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, Pound’s praise for Joyce, until Ulysses, was largely based on a reading of Joyce’s prose as a modernization in English of Flaubert’s works, especially Bouvard et Pécuchet: “Bouvard is unfinished, Ulysses is gigantically complete, and the latter parts of Ulysses, notably Bloom’s conversational outburst, give one excellent ground for comparison. He has emitted what appear to be all the clichés of the English language in a single volcanic eruption” (Pound 335). In Pound’s wake, critics have focused on such categories as style (Topia), symbolism and the representation of desire (Schlossman 1990, 2004), or investigated the connection between the genetics of given texts and the genesis of the whole opus (Neefs). They have also noted, though less frequently perhaps, another similarity between Flaubert and Joyce: the tendency to turn fiction into archaeology.


This tendency is most obvious in both writers’ reliance on archives, which were presumably necessary in order to resurrect Carthage during the Punic Wars (Salammbô), produce a panorama of 19th-century knowledge and mores (Bouvard et Pécuchet), or recreate the city of Dublin as it was on June 16, 1904 (Ulysses). Such works demonstrate what David Hayman calls “the encyclopedic itch, the urge to include, control and record everything, … to reconstitute a universe” (Hayman 26).


But, at the same time, there is a gap between the author and the universe he reconstitutes—a gap which can be defined as epistemological rather than temporal. Indeed, both writers’ worlds seem to be frozen in time, immune to the forces of history or to any form of evolution. A similar sense of paralysis overshadows their works; it is expressed, for example, both at the beginning of Dubliners (in which Father Flynn’s predicament reads as a metaphor for the corpse-like condition of Dublin) and in the chilling last words of L’Éducation sentimentale, where Frédéric and Deslauriers unearth the corpse of their youth (“exhumèrent leur jeunesse”) and decide that the climax of their lives was the visit they paid to a brothel while still in their teens.


With both writers, in other words, history seems to be a major concern (as the painstaking recreation of their universes shows), but it also “happens” (if at all) far from the here-and-now of fiction. Which explains why contemporary events that should qualify as historical, revolutions and the like, do not: not (not only) because they are presented as pathetic masquerades (e.g. Flaubert’s satire of the 1848 revolution in both Éducation Sentimentale, ch. VI, and Bouvard et Pécuchet, ch. VI), but also because they leave the social order essentially untouched and, more profoundly, because there is no teleological sense underlying the reference to so-called historical events. Similarly, the evocations of Parnell or of the Irish revival, in Dubliners, are seen as deprived of any real impact on Dublin’s society, their initial momentum having inexplicably degenerated into heavy sentimentalizing (Hynes’s poem in “Ivy Day,” D 131) or squabbles about the Irish language (Gabriel’s conflict with Miss Ivors in “The Dead,” D 190).

History “branded and fettered”


The apparent immunity of both writers’ worlds to the forces of history is linked to the idea, first presented by Hugh Kenner, that these worlds are closed, and therefore remain essentially unchanged even if the various components are shifted about in a given story. Such closed worlds, revolving upon themselves until exhaustion, are characteristic of what Kenner calls their creators’ stoicism, the stoic being “one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed” (Kenner xiii).


Kenner’s definition brings to mind Stephen’s famous reflections in “Nestor,” while he is teaching history and speculating about its finitude:


Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a bedlam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death. They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

(U 2. 48)

Stephen digresses about an unchangeable, tragic and finished history of “great men”; a history that petrifies them at the moment of their deaths, marked by three verbs of finality and repression (“branded,” “fettered,” “lodged”), suggesting both the relentless chain of historical events and the relentless way history, once it is narrativized, seals the fate of its material, suppressing an infinite series of potential alternate versions. Stephen’s questions may represent, on his part, an impossible will-to-authorship of history, a self-defeating desire to rewrite, or at least modify, the canon, the way modern editors of classic texts, adding unnecessary footnotes at the bottom of a page, may betray their own unconscious desire to substitute themselves for the author. An unresolved antithesis is here hinted at, opposing to the dominant narrative of the canon the subdued but rebellious inner voice of the commentator, a voice that suggests the heretical possibility of other narratives before canceling itself out in the wind-weaving image.


This echoes a similar passage in Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which the two protagonists question the factors underlying the French Revolution:


Après tout ; que la reine ait eu des amants, que Dumouriez dès Valmy se proposât de trahir, en prairial que ce soit la Montagne ou la Gironde qui ait commencé, et en thermidor les Jacobins ou la Plaine, qu’importe au développement de la Révolution, dont les origines sont profondes et les résultats incalculables ?

Donc, elle devait s’accomplir, être ce qu’elle fut, mais supposez la fuite du Roi sans entrave, Robespierre s’échappant ou Bonaparte assassiné, — hasards qui dépendaient d’un aubergiste moins scrupuleux, d’une porte ouverte, d’une sentinelle endormie, — et le train du monde changeait.

Ils n’avaient plus, sur les hommes et les faits de cette époque, une seule idée d’aplomb.

Pour la juger impartialement, il faudrait avoir lu toutes les histoires, tous les mémoires, tous les journaux et toutes les pièces manuscrites, car de la moindre omission une erreur peut dépendre qui en amènera d’autres à l’infini. Ils y renoncèrent.

(OC, vol. 2, 239)

Bouvard and Pécuchet’s doubts grow so strong that they become lost in archaeology, unable to sift through the mass of data they come across (data which are not as given as they are meant to be), and eventually renounce history as a science, since there is no possibility of ascertaining either its facts or its methods. Their minds become haunted by the possibility of other versions of history—a possibility imminent and obsessive enough to destroy all belief in the canon. In other words, Bouvard and Pécuchet emphasize the unreliability of standard explanations of historical events, whereas Stephen challenges these events themselves. But, like Stephen, Bouvard and Pécuchet see themselves as the potential authors of alternate versions of history, the sources of a (short-lived) heretical digression (“supposez”; “had … not.”).


In Joyce, as opposed to Flaubert, the tyranny of history is felt less in its uncontrollable proliferation (“il faudrait avoir lu toutes les histoires …”) than in its power to suppress alternate versions. This is suggested by the episode of the history class in “An Encounter,” a passage which is based on a textual confrontation between teacher and student at a Jesuit school and may be read as an early version of the history class in “Nestor”:


One day when Father Butler was hearing the four pages of Roman History clumsy Leo Dillon was discovered with a copy of The Halfpenny Marvel.

— This page or this page? This page? Now, Dillon, up! Hardly had the day … Go on, what day? Hardly had the day dawned … Have you studied it? What have you there in your pocket?

Everyone’s heart palpitated as Leo Dillon handed up the paper and everyone assumed an innocent face. Father Butler turned over the pages, frowning.

— What is this rubbish? he said. The Apache Chief! Is this what you read instead of studying your Roman History? Let me not find any more of this wretched stuff in this college.

(D 13)

The dominant historical narrative, extracted from the suitably capitalized Roman History, [1]  T. Brown suggests that this may refer to “a compendium... [1] is reduced to five words in italics (“Hardly had the day dawned”): words “branded and fettered,” reminiscent of translations of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, with the Latin expression still “lodged” forever in the English syntax. It finds itself in competition with other stories, juvenile tales about the Wild West: the canon, towering solitary and inaccessible to the pupils’ minds, seems to generate a narrative inversion in the Halfpenny Marvel. Like a reincarnation of the Barbarians subdued by Julius Caesar in his Gallic wars, or a mock double of Julius Caesar himself, the Apache chief comes to challenge him (and the forces of colonization) where they still reign supreme (the history class), before being suppressed by force. In this connection, it is perhaps not insignificant that, in the same story, Joe Dillon (disguised as “some kind of an Indian”) should always come out a victor in every “siege or battle” and end with his “war dance of victory” (D 11). These victories can be read as symbolic counterparts of the Apache Chief’s defeat in the history class (already pointing to the ambivalence between history as repressive narrative and history as a liberating game, which I will look at later, in connection with “Circe”). But, at the level of the text’s political unconscious, they could also represent a symbolic revenge of the colonized Irish/Indians against the unseen British/Cowboys.


In “Nestor,” with Stephen now teaching history in the place of Father Butler, a similar disorder is triggered off, this time at the phonetic level, by the name of Pyrrhus:


— Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier.

All laughed. Mirthless high malicious laughter. Armstrong looked round at his classmates, silly glee in profile. …

— Tell me now; Stephen said, poking the boy’s shoulder with the book, what is a pier.

— A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out of the water. A kind of a bridge. Kingstown pier, sir. …

What then? A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise. Why had they chosen that part? Not wholly for the smooth caress. For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

(U 2. 26-43)

This passage hints at an important reason for the recalcitrant attitude of the boys struggling with history. The perversion of “Pyrrhus” into “pier” suggests, like the substitution of the Apache Chief for Julius Caesar in “An Encounter,” that classical history may be the locus of a conflict opposing “jesters,” who work heretically from the text, and their “masters,” whose job it is to have it learnt, transmitted and recited to the letter. It is important that classical history should, in both cases, be at the heart of this conflict since, as Terence Brown has pointed out, “analogies between Roman and British imperial experience were often drawn by imperialist ideologues” and “Latin was also the language of the Roman church’s imperium” (D 246). Brown’s remark adds another shade of meaning to Armstrong’s “silly glee” and seemingly innocent word-play: beyond the relationship between master and jester, or between the canon and its narrative or phonetic perversions, there looms the more sinister one opposing Ireland and the two “tyrannies” that occupy it, the British one and the Roman (Catholic) one. [2]  “I do not see what good it does to fulminate against... [2]


This enables us to reassess Stephen’s speculations in a different light. What they really focus on, it would seem, is the possibility of a different history, or indeed of any history, for the present. If Roman heroes are seen as distant and somewhat unpleasant figures by the boys in the class, for the grown-ups their meaning is entirely different. Their deaths, brought about by madness and treachery, echo the fall of Parnell, “Erin’s uncrowned king” in both Bloom’s (U 16. 534) and Hynes’s words, as lamented by the latter in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” Hynes’s elegy on Parnell enshrines the moment of the death of a hero who, like Julius Caesar, has fallen a victim to “treachery” and, like Pyrrhus, has been “laid low” by “coward caitiff hands” (D 131-32). Indeed, Pyrrhus and Julius Caesar may be regarded as avatars of Parnell projected into the classical past. Their deaths are relevant to Ireland after Parnell’s disappearance, as a nation’s destiny is paralyzed, its history turning into “a nightmare” from which, in Stephen’s famous words, it is “trying to awake” (2.378).


For Hynes, as for Stephen, history revolves around great men. All of Joyce’s works, at least up to Ulysses, give the impression of a sudden break in historical development after Parnell’s death, leaving a void which eloquence such as Hynes’s pretends to fill. Such verbal episodes are like excerpts from an endless wake, during which conversation, pieces of poetry and puns proliferate near the corpses of great men laid to rest.

Weaving the Wind


Which brings us to the other side of our antithesis—that of the wake, of dreams and heretical fancies. Stephen Dedalus has an image for it: wind-weaving. The image recalls Homer, suggesting an activity canceling itself out into nothingness like Penelope’s weaving and unweaving of her own tapestry. It may remind us, also, of T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” the dramatic monologue of an old man driven into the margins of history and whose random thoughts are described as “vacant shuttles” that “weave the wind” (l. 29-30). Like Stephen, the old man revisits classical history:

I was neither at the hot gatesNor fought in the warm rainNor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,Bitten by flies, fought.
(l. 3-6)

He takes the place of the persona in an epic version of the battle of the “Hot Gates” (the literal translation for the Thermopylae) but, though the epic form remains intact, it is inverted by a negation: history has become a tale which the speaker can tell only by, at the same time, canceling himself from it. The geographical exile of Gerontion, “an old man driven by the Trades/To a sleepy corner” (l. 72-73), is based on his linguistic exclusion from historical discourse, of which he fails to become the positive subject.


This paradoxical form of discourse may be seen as a refraction of the modernist author’s sense of impotence when confronted with a historical situation over which he has no control (World War I or the Irish problem); but at another level it is also an aesthetic necessity. The impossible involvement of characters in history is a prerequisite for the specular and spectacular visions of fantasized historical material that grow out of “Gerontion” and of Ulysses, in chapters like “Cyclops” and especially “Circe.” One can notice a similar dichotomy, in Flaubert, between the impotence of characters like Frédéric Moreau or Bouvard and Pécuchet, who are incapable of engaging in history, and, on the other hand, the seemingly-endless visions of Saint Antoine, who is busy hallucinating it.


The parallel between La Tentation and “Circe” has been a commonplace of comparative criticism of the two authors ever since Ezra Pound first drew attention to it: the masochism of Bloom and Anthony has been especially emphasized, as well as the recurrence of similar figures in their respective visions and, more generally, the dreamlike logic of both texts (Brunazzi, Mayoux). But if we oppose these hallucinatory texts to the more rational ones previously mentioned (the end of L’Éducation and Bouvard et Pécuchet; “An Encounter” or “Nestor”), a further similarity appears in the fact that they also may be read as the latter’s “historical unconscious.”


Bloom’s visions constitute the return of a historical repressed that cannot be “thought away”; and the same can be said of La Tentation de Saint Antoine, in which the passive anchorite is successively tempted by the Queen of Sheba, various heretics and magicians, including Simon Magus and Apollonius, Greek and Roman Gods, Hindu divinities, the Buddha, Isis and other creatures, all of whom represent various types of heresies condemned by Christianity, projected on an imaginary screen and resisted by Anthony at the cost of enormous self-repression. Heresies are linked to desire; they become organized, as Edward Said and Michel Foucault have pointed out, into a “theatrical, fantastic library, parading before the anchorite’s gaze” (Said 188). Anthony’s will to take part in these historical pageants can only take the form of imaginative identification with, and metamorphosis into, pre-existing stock characters; wishing to experience power, Anthony becomes Nebuchadnezzar; following which, in order to experience self-abasement, he turns into a bull:


Le Roi essuie avec son bras les parfums de son visage. Il mange dans les vases sacrés, puis les brise ; et il énumère intérieurement ses flottes, ses armées, ses peuples. Tout à l’heure, par caprice, il brûlera son palais avec ses convives. Il compte rebâtir la tour de Babel et détrôner Dieu.

Antoine lit, de loin, sur son front, toutes ses pensées. Elles le pénètrent, et il devient Nabuchodonosor. Aussitôt il est repu de débordements et d’exterminations, et l’envie le prend de se rouler dans la bassesse. D’ailleurs, la dégradation de ce qui épouvante les hommes est un outrage fait à leur esprit, une manière encore de les stupéfier ; et comme rien n’est plus vil qu’une bête brute, Antoine se met à quatre pattes et beugle comme un taureau.

(OC, vol. 1, 530)

I will not dwell too long on the obvious similarities between such episodes and Bloom’s fantasies in “Circe,” which show not only a similar contradiction between his self-abasement and his will-to-power, but more importantly a similar reinvestment of the historical field as an object of desire and grotesque empathy. Like Anthony’s, Bloom’s fantasized involvement in history is expressed by metamorphoses, as he becomes Jack the Ripper (U 15. 1153), Judas (15. 1177), or


contracts his face so as to resemble many historical personages, Lord Beaconsfield, Lord Byron, Wat Tyler, Moses of Egypt, Moses Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, Henry Irving, Rip Van Winkle, Kossuth, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Baron Leopold Rothschild, Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Pasteur

(15. 1844)

These metamorphoses can be said to represent the culmination of the heretical impulse to rewrite history which was already evinced by Stephen (in “Nestor”) or Bouvard and Pécuchet. Bloom’s hallucinations allow him to regain possession of an alienated history. In order for this process to take place, the implacable temporal logic of textbook narratives is broken down and replaced by a non-narrative “pantomime/puppet show/dream-play” (Hayman 25). This form recalls the Odyssey, morality plays and medieval mysteries, Dante, Goethe’s Faust, as well as magic lantern projections and above all the panorama, an important system of representation in the 19th century, involving the condensation of historical or allegorical scenes into continuous spectacles apprehended by the gaze of the spectator placed, like Saint Antoine and Bloom, at their center (Sternberger). The very typography is relevant to the panoramic intent: its disposition in “Circe,” the same as in La Tentation, enhances the immediate spatialization of the scenes. As Kenner puts it, “discrete speeches, capitalized speakers, italicized narration: the status of everything visible at a glance” (Kenner 47). As opposed to epic narratives focusing on Greek or Roman heroes, which unfold in time and are told in the past tense, the fantasized panoramic spectacles of Saint Antoine and “Circe” are staged spatially, by using the present tense:


(… Armed heroes spring up from furrows. They exchange in amity the pass of knights of the red cross and fight duels with cavalry sabres: Wolfe Tone against Henry Grattan, Smith O’Brien against Daniel O’Connell, Michael Davitt against Isaac Butt, Justin M’Carthy against Parnell, Arthur Griffith against John Redmond, John O’Leary against Lear O’Johnny, Lord Edward Fitzgerald against Lord Gerald Fitzedward, The O’Donoghue of The Glens against The Glens of The O’Donoghue. On an eminence, the centre of the earth, rises the fieldaltar of Saint Barbara. Black candles rise from its gospel and epistle horns. From the high barbicans of the tower two shafts of light fall on the smokepalled altarstone. On the altarstone Mrs Mina Purefoy, goddess of unreason, lies, naked, fettered, a chalice resting on her swollen belly. Father Malachi O’Flynn, in a lace petticoat and reversed chasuble, his two left feet back to the front, celebrates camp mass. The Reverend Mr Hugh C. Haines Love M.A. in a plain cassock and mortarboard, his head and collar back to the front, holds over the celebrant’s head an open umbrella.)


Introibo ad altare diaboli.

(15. 4660)

Such complex panoramas simultaneously dislocate and recreate not only Bloom’s daylight thoughts (as encountered in previous chapters) but elements from the whole of the novel and the symbols of Ireland’s political history. Placed in the center of his panoramic device, Bloom summons up the great names of Irish patriots and watches them take possession of the stage once again. The failures of history are redeemed in the comic pageant/duels/black mass which reverse the alienating historical conditions of the novel, just as Father Malachi O’Flynn’s formula reverses Buck Mulligan’s opening “Introibo ad altare Dei” (1.5). And the present tense is opposed to the past tense not simply from a temporal point of view but, again, from an epistemological one, as space is opposed to time and, ultimately, as hallucination is opposed to narrative.


Jean-Jacques Mayoux has argued that “Circe” deals with the destruction of a world and its replacement by another world, based on a new form of language. He suggests that this confirms language’s power to invent, transform and substitute new, sometimes impossible, objects for those we are accustomed to: “Un anti-cliché a remplacé un cliché. Une habitude a été secouée” (Mayoux 162). Such a vision of Joyce’s text posits the equal value (or lack of value) of what is negated by language and what is created by it: “Au terme d’une passion totale, universelle et en fin de compte purement formelle, un monde qui n’est jamais qu’une vision du monde formulée par le langage aura été anéanti. Un autre monde sur un autre mode de langage pourra naître” (Mayoux 164).


Though one cannot but agree with Mayoux for emphasizing the importance of linguistic invention in Joyce, the substitution of a new world for an old one in “Circe” does not seem, however, quite as open, free, or random, as his remarks could lead us to believe. Nor is this substitution simply a matter of “pure form.” For what is “invented” remains conditioned by what is not, in the same way that “Lear O’Johnny” originates in “John O’Leary,” and “Lord Gerald Fitzedward” in “Lord Edward Fitzgerald.” The inventions of “Circe” do not negate the objective, material reality of Dublin in 1904, nor transcend its historical conditions and limitations: they rather give a negative image of that reality. In other words, there is a direct correspondence between, on the one hand, history as an alienating determinism and, on the other hand, history as the locus of inventions or hallucinations generated by the protagonists or, more radically, by the text itself. In Joyce, as in Flaubert’s Saint Antoine and Bouvard, these antithetical modes are counterparts of each other.


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  • Cross, Richard K. Flaubert and Joyce; The Rite of Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
  • Gustave Flaubert. Œuvres complètes. Paris : Seuil, 1964. OC.
  • Hayman, David. “Towards a Post-Flaubertian Joyce”. Claude Jacquet et André Topia, éd., “Scribble” 2 : Joyce et Flaubert. 13-32.
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    —. Ulysses. Ed. H.W. Gabler. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992. U.
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  • Neefs, Jacques. “Ecrits de formation : L’Éducation sentimentale de 1845 et le Portrait”. Claude Jacquet et André Topia, éd., “Scribble” 2 : Joyce et Flaubert. 85-99.
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  • Schlossman, Beryl. “‘Che vuoi?’: Don Giovanni and the Seductions of Art”. Claude Jacquet et André Topia, éd., “Scribble” 2: Joyce et Flaubert. 133-53.
    —. “Madonnas of Modernism”. Laurent Milési, ed., James Joyce and the Difference of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003, 58-78.
  • Sternberger, Dolf. Panoramas du XIXe siècle. [1938]. Trad. Jean-François Boutout. Paris : Gallimard, 1996.
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T. Brown suggests that this may refer to “a compendium volume (probably with extracts from classical authors)”, D 246, note 8.


“I do not see what good it does to fulminate against the English tyranny while the Roman tyranny occupies the palace of the soul.” “Ireland, Island of saints and Sages” (1907), CW 173.



In both Joyce and Flaubert, history is never seen as a chain of events leading from the past to the present time, of which the protagonists could become the active subjects. The latter can only engage in speculations about history, not in history itself. In the paralysed situations of the narratives, history becomes the object of discursive fantasies, ranging from simple narrative digressions or phonetic perversions to complex hallucinatory panoramas. This perverse and hallucinatory logic can be read, in Flaubert as in Joyce, both as the symbolic compensation for an alienating historical situation and as a principle of literary creation.


Chez Joyce comme chez Flaubert, l’histoire n’est jamais présentée comme une suite d’événements menant du passé vers le présent, dont les protagonistes pourraient à leur tour devenir les sujets. Ceux-ci ne peuvent que spéculer sur l’histoire, non y participer. Dans les situations paralysées du récit, l’histoire devient un objet de fantasme discursif, allant de la simple digression narrative ou perversion phonétique jusqu’aux panoramas hallucinatoires les plus complexes. Cette logique perverse et hallucinatoire peut être lue, chez Flaubert comme chez Joyce, à la fois comme la compensation symbolique d’une situation historique aliénante et comme un principe de création littéraire.

Plan de l'article

  1. History “branded and fettered”
  2. Weaving the Wind

Pour citer cet article

Tadié Benoît, « The Room of Infinite Possibilities: Joyce, Flaubert, and the Historical Imagination », Études anglaises 2/ 2005 (Tome 58), p. 131-140

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