BookReview: R. BROWN. 1985. James Joyce and Sexuality.

By C. George SANDULESCU, Monaco.

    (This book Review by C. George SANDULESCU (Monaco) was published in Études Irlandaises, December 1985, No. 10 Nouvelle Série, pages 318-320.  Université de Lille III, "Pont de bois", B.P. 149,   F-59653 Villeneuve d'Asq, France.)

Richard BROWN. 1985. James Joyce and Sexuality.Cambridge University Press. 216 pp.        

           Books, and critical studies in particular, are more often than not triggered by other books: writing on Shakespeare, for instance, one is in duty bound to know the texts of Shakespeare; and in order to be able to write on the Bible, one must necessarily know the Old and New Testaments.

            Not so about Sex. At least on the surface, D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, genuine paragons of the 'subgenre' of sex-in-fiction, dropped down books rather than looked up to them. So too did Sigmund Freud, and Henry Havelock Ellis, and Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebbing. They seem to have turned to the Book of Life instead. And so did Joyce, I would have thought; and more particularly so when Richard Ellmann managed to publish, not so very long ago, his (Joyce's !) dirty little letters, quite in spite and against the will of grandson Stephen Joyce, who vociferated quite loudly about it on Bloomsday 1984 (what's in a number ?) in Frankfurt when he received what Ellmann termed only minutes afterwards The Ulysses-am-Main (see the 'published' texts of Richard Ellmann's and Stephen Joyce's talks at the Presentation Ceremony that very morning ...).

            I did not mean by this that books were ignored out of existence; rather, that they were assigned the subsidiary position they deserved when Life, in the Lawrentian sense, got the upper hand. Not so with Richard Brown, who is an exception to the exception: I mean by it that his view (or vision ?) of "Joyce-on-Sex" -- the topic under scrutiny -- is most certainly mediated by Michel Foucault's Histoire de la Sexualité, given birth in French in 1976, and in 1979 in English (about the time when Brown must have started pondering about the topic of his doctoral dissertation).

            The other equally important thing is that the English lexical item sexuality was largely a medical term before Foucault -- and now, after Brown -- it has become, with any luck, a philosophical term (and even less than that), consistently encroaching on the semantic territory of the plain English sex. To put a long matter short, it is quite plausible, at least in my opinion, that Richard Brown carried this word over into English from the 1976 & 1979 French and English versions of Michel Foucault, and then elaborated upon it in writing.

            However, the "getting-sex-from-books" attitude, by and large a masochistic attitude be it said in passing, is not merely restricted to the title and to this major source of inspiration. For Brown's fundamental area of investigation falls under the potential label "what sex did Joyce get out of his famous Connolly-cum-Ellmann-listed-Library items ?"  This emerges of course very clearly in the first place from the Section B of a most didactically organized bibliography; I quote, "this section contains those works that Joyce read and that are discussed in this study" (page 197).  And it is under this very heading that we find mentioned Ellis's seven odd volumes on sex (sic! the title there saying "The Psychology of Sex", not sexuality !) by the side of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (another SEVEN volumes ! what's in a number ?) and, of course, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.  This Section B of the Bibliography is a very strange piece of scholarship indeed, for after stating "where the edition cited is not certainly known to have been the one read by Joyce an asterisk is used to note the fact" (page 197); all this is good and well, but then what difference does this bookish emphasis make ?  And then, in the very same listing, there is mention of both Freud 1953 and Jung 1953 (sic !) English editions, which are NOT asterisked . . .   

            Let me make it very clear: the point at issue is NOT which scholarly edition Joyce may have consulted, for he also read, at least according to Tom Stoppard, in Zurich Public Libraries, and we will never have a "record" at all as to what he went through in such disreputable company (Russian & Rumanian. . .) in those libraries, situated (even then ?) in the reddest of all red light districts so close to the Limmat ... The real point at issue is "How much  on sex did Joyce get out of books, and how much out of non-books ?". In a computer day and age, with its inherent fixation on the recorded aspect, Brown adopts the oversimplist attitude that (a) Joyce KNEW, and had SCANNED (sic !) from cover to cover ALL the dear possessions in his personal library, (b) Joyce never read selectively but, on the contrary, RETAINED every piece of information on an equal footing of importance, and finally, (c) never disregarded (or rejected) anything that he had read out of existence. These three fundamental assumptions, I repeat, apply quite well to a computer, though not to Joyce, with his so idiosyncratic manner of quotation (SEE the Quinet Sentence in Finnegans Wake, and the Meredith Sentence in Ulysses).  

            Since the title of the book is excessively (and unnecessarily) neologistic, the critical apparatus establishes irrelevant taxonomies, and the fundamental research assumptions are widely off the mark, it is not easy to assess the real merits of the book. However, let us begin afresh, and look first at the epigraph, then at the table of contents, and then at its materialization into coherent discourse. With due respect, I find the Yeats-Ellmann epigraph of very little relevance to the topic under discussion: at its very best, it shows Yeats mis-understanding a Joycean epiphany-like utterance: it would have been easy to find something more to the point. And the Table of Contents is a strange jumble of a rather pedantic sex treatise ("LOVE AND MARRIAGE. Modern Love. The fiction of marriage. The letter of the law." etc.) combined with the far-reaching Joycean implications of the Garnier-Nardi-Matharan slogan in Latin "Emissio seminis inter vas naturale" and its alternative possibilities. I personally believe that repeated reading and careful study of, say, D. H. Lawrence's essays on the meaning of the novel would have perhaps more profitably clad many of Joyce's more eloquent silences (Brown's approach suffers most acutely from the fact that Joyce never wrote essays, theorising on his art, the way T. S. Eliot or Henry James were very much in the habit of doing);  more profitably, I mean, that all the deadweight listed in Section C of the Bibliography ("... works which Joyce need not necessarily have known at first hand ..." (page 205)), ranging from George Drysdale and Friederich Engels, through Cesare Lombroso and Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, to Herbert Spencer  and Mary Wollstonecraft. 

            The actual manner in which the book is written is quite another matter: Richard Brown writes in a most entertaining way, captivating the reader with the straightforwardness of his presentation. Information is put across smoothly and attractively, and it is on this very point that his journalistic experience with better or lesser known periodicals stands him in good stead. It is beyond any shade of doubt that the author is well informed about his subject, which is both sex and Joyce. However, being knowledgeable about sex from books is not at all enough, and James Joyce was well aware of this fundamental truth. Apparently, Brown is not.