Empson on Joyce

Sun Feb 14, 2010

William Empson was a man of strong opinions:

This horrible nastiness of Eng. Lit., which makes the teachers preen on themselves on being too smart to attend to the story (so that they can tell any holy lie they choose instead) must I think derive from the short-story technique of Chekhov, though he would have been astonished and exasperated by it. (Selected Letters, ed. Haffenden, p. 481)

The context there is a discussion of King Lear, and I just chose it to illustrate the often-vehement intentionalist-line that Empson took in much of his criticism. (It’s remarkable how often he’s grouped by loose reference to the New Critics.) Empson’s theory of Ulysses is that Joyce wrote it to honor not his meeting of Nora Barnacle but rather to commemorate his sexual encounter with an older woman which gave him the self-confidence he needed to leave Ireland with Nora. The projected end of Ulysses, for Empson, is that Stephen takes up Bloom on his offer to sleep with Molly (in addition to Italian lessons, etc.), thus increasing the chances that Molly would bear him another son (by him, not Stephen, in Empson’s view).

It’s fascinating to see how Empson formulated this idea before either the notes to Exiles or Ellmann’s biography were available and then updated them in accordance with that evidence. Here is a late rendering:

As it happens, no contact will be needed: that is the point of making Bloom a voyeur. Still, Bloom has to be gazing while Stephen and Molly perform the act, and when Stephen has reached crisis the thoughtful husband will need to see that the condom is still in place and unbroken. Stephen will then retire to the spare bedroom, no doubt making one of his jokes, and Molly is pretty sure to be still unsatisfied: thus the married couple are in an ideal condition to overcome their obstacle. It does not much matter whether Joyce was medically correct concerning this treatment for the phobia: the point is that he labours throughout the book to offer it as a plausible one. (from a LRB review [subscriber only, I’m afraid] of Kenner’s Ulysses)

I haven’t investigated the matter completely, but it does not seem as if there’s a Joyce critic who agrees with Empson about the plausibility of this scenario, with several using biographical evidence of Empson’s own personal life to explain why this would occur to him and seemingly no one else. I’m currently writing about a piece on Exiles, which I’ve worked on for some years now intermittently; and Empson believes that Joyce first treated the Edwardian triangle problem there, unsuccessfully. The notes to the play are immensely suggestive and strange, and I’m not sure that I’ve yet read a plausible explanation of them.