Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

“There is no writer can touch sir Walter Scott”: Joyce and the Wizard of the North by Richard Alan Barlow, on the OUP blog

“There is no writer can touch sir Walter Scott”: Joyce and the Wizard of the North

While Walter Scott was one of the greatest novelists of nineteenth-century literature, at least in terms of sales, James Joyce was probably the major novelist of the twentieth century in terms of impact and influence. According to Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, the Irish writer “couldn’t stand” the Scot’s work. Be that as it may, Joyce kept a copy of The Bride of Lammermoor in his Trieste library and, in 1924, Joyce memorised 500 lines of The Lady of the Lake while recovering after one of his many eye operations. There are also important similarities between Scott and Joyce as thinkers— both were fascinated by the histories of their respective nations, in the relationship between their home country and English power, and in the historical development of societies.

Scott is associated with forms of onanistic self-obsession and incest in Joyce’s texts. In “An Encounter”, a “queer old josser” asks a group of young boys if they have read any of Scott’s works. It is then heavily implied that the man goes off to masturbate. In A Portrait, a “dwarfish”, and “monkeyish” figure with a “shrunken brown hand” called “the captain” (an acquaintance of Stephen Dedalus), says he is reading The Bride of Lammermoor and announces that Scott “writes something lovely.” The captain adds that “There is no writer can touch sir Walter Scott.” Here Scott’s work is associated with a rather uncanny, degenerate character whose family possibly has a history of inbreeding: “was the thin blood that flowed in his shrunken frame noble and come of an incestuous love?”

According to Scott Klein, “the captain acts […] as a figure for Stephen’s national and sexual fears, a potentially apocalyptic image of the end of Ireland through inbreeding and Romantic absorption in its own past.” However, it is noteworthy that the captain is fascinated with the work of Scott, who worked primarily on Scottish history, rather than an Irish novelist with an Irish focus (although Scott’s national tales were heavily influenced by the Irish novels of Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson). In other words, the captain is not directly absorbed in Ireland’s past. However, since Joyce viewed Scotland as Ireland’s “Poor sister” and part of the “Celtic family”, the captain is attracted to representations of the past of a “close relation” of Ireland’s. Furthermore, since Joyce saw attraction to family members as a veiled mode of self-obsession, the captain’s attachment to Scott and Scottish historical fiction can be read as a warped, indirect form of Romantic obsession with Ireland and Ireland’s past. The attention paid to the hands of the captain in A Portrait and the suggestive use of the word “touch” add vaguely onanistic connotations to the passage mentioned above.

In Dubliners and A Portrait, Scott is associated with sterility and decline rather than with the possibility of progress, despite societal advancement being a key theme in Scott’s work. Scott’s “stadial” view of history, influenced by Scottish Enlightenment figures such as Adam Smith, involves societies advancing and developing through set stages towards fixed states and is reflected in novels such as Waverley. This thinking is rejected in Joyce’s work in favour of a cyclical vision of history influenced by the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico. Scott’s Smithian “barbarism to refinement” sequence of development is reflected in the postscript to Waverley, when Scott considers the transformation of post-Culloden Scotland:

the change, though steadily and rapidly progressive, has, nevertheless, been gradual; and, like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the nowdistant point from which we set out.

The obvious comparison to this image in a Joycean context is, of course, Joyce’s use of flowing rivers as a symbol of history and the passage of time in Finnegans Wake. On the face of it, Scott and Joyce have similar ways of thinking about history. However, Scott’s river image conceives of society moving towards completion and stasis while Joyce’s river of history in Finnegans Wake is linked to the sea and rain and is, therefore, associated with continuity and recurrence. This model of history is mimicked by the circular structure of Finnegans Wake, a text that that nullifies teleology and resists its own closure or completion. For Scott, progress is largely about the “gradual influx of wealth” and the “extension of commerce”, as mentioned at the conclusion of Waverley. To paraphrase Garrett Deasy, Stephen’s boss in Ulysses, all human history in Scott moves towards one great goal: the manifestation of capitalist modernity.

Scott’s work is informed by what Catherine Jones has called a “poetics of distance,” the exploration of how present society came into being, and an emphasis on the differences between “then” and “now.” In contrast, Joyce’s work is structured by what might be termed a poetics of parallel, where the present echoes the historical or mythic past. His use of the Odyssey as a scaffold for Ulysses is perhaps the best-known example of this feature of his work.

Featured image: Čeština: Adolf Hoffmeister, James Joyce, 1966 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.