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Joyce, Derrida, Lacan, and the Trauma of History
Reading, Narrative, and Postcolonialism

Christine van Boheemen-Saaf


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006
Paperback Re-issue ISBN-13: 9780521035316 | ISBN-10: 0521035317
first published 1999

Reviewed by Marie-Dominique Garnier
Université Paris 8



Conducive to the writing of this book and to its first publication in 1999 was the belief that “we need to learn to read in a wholly new way”—the book’s concluding statement.  The 2006 paperback re-issue of Christine Van Boheemen-Saaf’s  study  seems to be proof enough that it has lost none of its impact, or perhaps that the need to read differently has never been so vividly felt.

Written between two intellectual communities, the Joycean-Lacanian on the one hand, and the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis on the other, Christine Van Boheemen’s book examines the relationship between Joyce’s texts and the imposition of a colonial subjectivity in Irish history. The book’s first chapter devotes its main energies to redefining the concept of “trauma” and how it affects, disturbs, or silences representation. Transposing Lyotard’s description of the deadlock of signification that took place following the repression of the documentation relative to the extermination camps, a similar muting, Christine Van Boheemen explains, has afflicted Irish history, and Joyce’s voice is paradoxically bound to the colonial effect of a muted history of suffering which cannot be transmitted in the signs of a language no longer extent.  Lacking due confrontation and collective mourning, Irish cultural memory can only haunt the present.  Trauma, paradoxically, can only bespeak survival, and triggers off a series of repetitions.  Joycean writing, the author claims, inscribes the “death-in-life of the condition of being born Irish and lacking a natural relationship to language” [50]. Chapter two engages with the dilemma of “representation in a postcolonial symbolic” and explores the divisive, splitting redoubling of Joyce’s “embodied textuality,” after  a discussion of the unavailability of distinctions between modern and postmodern. One of the paradoxical conclusions the book reaches is that “unless we learn to read him properly, Joyce will keep haunting us all” [208] a statement which seems to recirculate the figure of the author as a version of Hamlet’s father. Fertile as it may be, “spectrology” needs, perhaps, to be explored from a different angle, in the case of Joyce, than from a position which operates, for example, in the post-romantic philosophy of Derridean haunting.

The concept of “trauma” on which the book is constructed articulates rhetoric and psychic processes. Like Poe’s purloined letter, Joyce’s texts express a purloined writerly subjectivity. What remains is a purely performative form of writing, coextensive with “life”. Joyce has no choice but to be a “Shem,” a provider of counterfeit representational texts, one who “erodes realism from within”, a procedure which, “like the work of termites” “may go undetected by those non-alert to it.” Rather than being a “cracked” mirror of Irish paralysis, Joyce’s corpus becomes, in the book’s last (and probably best) chapter, an allegory of its divided reception, as Derrida/Lacan become not only the ghostly sons of Joyce but also, on either side of their divided responses to Joyce, the body-doubles of Shem and Shaun, Jew and Greek—two rivaling views on the letter, one envisioned as incessant textual production or supplement, the other as littering. At the end of the day, or at least at the end of the book, Christine Van Boheemen concludes on her being disturbed by both Derrida and Lacan’s  avoidance of “story, narrative, or the pain behind the words” [185].

The “pain behind the words” is one of the author’s many re-phrasings of the notion of trauma, which surfaces throughout the book in a variety of guises: as Joyce’s inability to speak in his “own” words, as a “core of absence,” as a “presence which exceeds narrative discourse,” or, after Zizek, as a “point of failure of symbolization” that can only be “constructed backwards.” Elsewhere, trauma recurs as “death-in-life,” a fairly disappointing, less than conceptual phrase to be found more than once in the book, and most conspicuously in the book’s conclusion, where it is defined as “the curious condition of a split and yet redoubled state of being: death-in-life” [194]. The phrase which seems to hark back to the days of new criticism, sounds like a mere paraphrase of what Joyce once called “paralysis,” and, much later, a “ wake”—neither of which have the least thing to do with “death-in-life.”

Among the dense web of critical, theoretical, Derridean, Lacanian, post-colonial authors which Christine Van Boheemen musters (and masters quite remarkably, although, in the case of Lacan, not, it seems, on a first-hand basis, and only in translation), two subdued, insistent voices are heard: that of Zizek, acting as the book’s bass continuous, and that of Homi Bhabha (although there seems to be little compatibility between the two). Zizek’s touch is at work, for example, in the terms Christine Van Boheemen-Saaf uses to describe trauma, as the “transcendent presence of absence” or as a “matrix of negativity,” both of which peddle  Hegelian echoes. The indirect effect of such terms is to impose a distinctly Hegelian character upon Joycean textuality, which, it seems, is unfortunate, especially when it leads to statements such as the following: “Joyce’s sublimity—Hegelian rather than Kantian—is to have made a location for the presence of the Nothing to which colonial culture reduces the subaltern” [162]. Part of the force of Joyce’s writing is to resist, rather, such Romantic tenets as “the sublime,” along with “presence” (the “presence of Nothing” being as cloying as any form of presence). The use of such a term as culture, on the other hand, is oblivious to Joyce’s own ridiculing of “cult-” and (in anticipation) similar culture-related terms, perceptible in the critique of a “Cultic toilette” his texts engage with.

In spite of its Hegelian undertow, this book will prove, in its paperback version, useful to the undergraduate student, to whom it will provide quick access both to a number of key Joycean points of articulation and to the mainstream critical debates his works have generated. Although the book deals with only a few selections from the corpus (the opening lines of A Portrait, three chapters from Ulysses), its careful analyses of selected passages often yield valuable pieces of research. The book, however, retains its own version of a critical “trauma,” apparent in its discrete suggestion that a colonized voice can only be perceived in its hardly audible moments, when the “affective” meaning of the literary text emerges. Nowhere is this “affectivity” defined. One could remark, therefore, that the “traumatic condition of imprisonment in the hegemony of the oppressor’s language” [91] reads back, or strikes back, whenever the hegemony of theory begins to operate in ways similar to an oppressor’s language.



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