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2005.07.06 =>

yes

I have been meaning to answer a reasonable response to June 22, below:

hey, improve your attitude! i'm a bi/feminist girl who loves ulysses and I think you could say some interesting things about women and sex and the last chapter. not sure WHAT exactly, but I don't think the q. is completely dumbass. v. woolf probably thought the same thing as mr. bersani and she still took ulysses seriously enough to write mrs. dalloway in response.

Right, if I were a grown-up I would have taken the mention of Mr. Bersani as an entrée into a discussion of gender in "Penelope," which certainly is a fruitful topic. Unfortunately my dander was raised by the double whammy of "heteronormativity," which is not a bit of jargon I had previously encountered, and the easy way it nestles up with the verb "accuse." I do not know who Leo Bersani is, and maybe he is actually the best critic since Coleridge, but this sounds like the sort of criticism where, from the comfortable vantage point of your own enlightened age, you level an accusation against a book written decades ago, as if it were a corporation with discriminatory hiring practices or something, and that's the end of it. It's probably correct to say that the last chapter of Ulysses presents men and women as essentially different in certain ways. But the form of the question, and the various definitions that cluster under the term "heteronormativity", suggest that an ought necessarily accompanies the is, that to represent gender difference as anything other than social construction is necessarily to reinforce the usual cluster of repressive beliefs that a woman's place is in the home, that homosexuality is deviant, and so on. I find that a terribly uncritical and unsubtle way to think, and this kind of thing is my number-two problem with jargon, right after the basic issue of obscurantism.

Molly Bloom does not get the same depth and variety of narrative treatment as her husband. Her chapter returns us to the stream-of-consciousness technique that Ulysses largely abandons after its first third, so instead of the pyrotechnics of the later Bloom chapters, we appear to get a woman's unmediated thoughts, centering on matters that we traditionally associate with the feminine: love, sex, the body, the home. One account of the narrative arc of Ulysses, which I quite like, suggests that it combines the mythic and mundane by cranking up its technique into ever more complex and surreal elaborations until at last, in the homecoming chapters, it returns to something like realism. But it's repetition with a difference; having been taken through the mythopoeic possibilities of daily life, the reader is now equipped to see them even in a monologue such as Molly's, which formally doesn't stray a whit from realism. Her thoughts and judgments about herself and others oscillate as much as Bloom's, and the previous seventeen chapters have trained us to see how, like any of us, she becomes a very different person from one moment to the next. It might be objected that the possible roles between which Molly shifts are only the same old confining categories that Western society has instituted for its women: the virgin, the whore, the mother, and so on. That may be true. But Joyce was working with the culture he had—it wasn't his project to reimagine the feminine from the ground up. For that we may be thankful that V. Woolf came along. If she did hold the same opinion as Mr. Bersani, she certainly made better use of it.

 

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