An examination of the relations between Joyce, Dante, Augustine, and biblical typology
In his study of negative existence and how it affects James Joyce's principal characters, Gian Balsamo joins the ongoing debate about the Irish writer's relationship to Dante and considers the centrality of messianism to that relationship. Finding in Dante a negative poetics that becomes a model for Joyce, Balsamo suggests that the inception and cessation of life—two occurrences that conventionally are deemed impossible to experience personally and directly—typically frame the existential experiences of Joyce's main characters. Balsamo perceives Stephen, Leopold, and Shem as messianic figures because they rebel against this convention, clustering their lives around the very events of inception and burial.
Balsamo traces the engagement of each of the three characters in a negative existence immune from the rules and limitations of ordinary experience. Each struggles to express rather than exorcise the fecundity of his own mortality; each reinvents his biography as involving the pivotal transaction of one death—be it a mother's, a son's, or even that of his own body—in return for catharsis.
Drawing on the writings of Giambattista Vico, Saint Augustine, Émile Durkheim, and Noam Chomsky, Balsamo challenges the current debate by identifying the messianic thread that ties together the biographies of Joyce's three characters. Faced with the fissure between history and poetic vocation, Stephen embraces the sacrificial poetry of silence. Faced with the domestic squalor provoked by the loss of his son, Leopold renews at every meal the cathartic exchange of food and semen. Faced with a destiny of death and decomposition, Shem reenacts the tradition of the medieval cycle drama, stretching his own body like a parchment on a cross and then rubricating it like a sacred manuscript.
Gian Balsamo, an Italian writer, is a professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo. He has previously taught at Northwestern University and Stanford University. Balsamo is the author of Lettera alla Venere in pelliccia and Il fallo e la legge, as well as Rituals of Literature, Scriptural Poetics in Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," and Pruning the Genealogical Tree. He lives in Palo Alto, California, and Cairo.
"Not only an original contribution to Joyce and Dante studies, Joyce's Messianism is a deeply penetrating and subtly meditative work on the sacrificial aspects in Joyce. Gian Balsamo pushes our understanding into the noumenal and the miraculous while simultaneously adhering to the groundedness of Joyce's texts."—Roy K. Gottfried, Vanderbilt University