Vike Plock, Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity

Vike Plock, Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity (Miami: University of Florida Press, 2010). pp 187. £57.95 hb. ISBN 081303423X

James Joyce’s interest in all kinds of medicine—past and present, formal and folk—leaves multiple traces on his writing. Dubliners (1914) is bounded by illness, from its opening on Father Flynn’s fatal ‘third stroke’ to its close on Julia Morkan’s projected decline and sick Michael Furey’s broken heart. Stephen Dedalus’s health anxieties in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) are more the products of a vivid adolescent imagination, but are no less resonant for that. In Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom calls in at a chemist, flicks through a luridly illustrated copy of the seventeenth-century midwifery manual Aristotle’s Master-Piece, worries about the progress of a friend in childbirth, calls in at the maternity hospital, and meanwhile ponders his own ailments and the steps he has taken to remedy them. And Finnegans Wake (1939) is, in its own words, ‘dosed, doctored and otherwise’, thereby ‘making mejical history all over the show’. The physician and medical historian J B Lyons made a start on this subject with James Joyce and Medicine in 1973. Since then, medical and pseudo-medical themes have been explored by other scholars who have been chiefly interested in Joyce’s representations of the body, gender and sexuality. But Vike Plock’s Joyce, Medicine, and Modernity offers a fresh, vital and valuable approach in its admirably literary exploration of the impact of medical discourse on the fabric of Joyce’s fiction.

Joyce, Medicine and Modernity modestly introduces itself ‘a collection of essays organised around a specific theme’, rather than a comprehensive study, but it soon becomes clear that this is necessitated by the capaciousness of the topic. ‘Medicine’ is defined very broadly, ranging from late-Victorian neuroscience to quack remedies and physical culture regimes. A clear and helpful introduction outlines the history of Victorian medicine and its resonances for Joyce, a one-time if half-hearted medical student himself. Here, Plock makes clear what is at stake in this study: the complex network of associations between ‘medicine as a modern progress narrative’ (p. 23) and literary modernism. Although Plock suggests that Joyce was, at times, seduced by medicine’s claims to modernity, she is also attentive to his discomfort with, and at times rebellion against, medicine’s cultural authority. This frisson proved intensely productive, as subsequent chapters show.

Beginning with the Dubliners short story ‘Counterparts’, Plock convincingly demonstrates Joyce’s debt to late-Victorian understandings of alcoholism. The chapter goes further than simply diagnosing downtrodden clerk Farrington as a classic ‘case history’, who displays during the course of one disastrous night many of the somatic and psychological symptoms which, to contemporary doctors, marked a drinking disorder. It also reveals how Joyce’s narrative method parodies the formal style and ideological framework of the ‘case history’ itself, most conspicuously through its unsettlingly repeated reduction of Farrington to ‘the man’. This attention to the relationship between medical context and literary form is one of the book’s key strengths, and it is developed in the second chapter on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Plock reads Stephen’s adolescent worries about his developing sexuality against contemporary medico-moral discourses about masturbation, but innovatively argues they inform his artistic as much as his sexual development. Noting that many writers against masturbation associated the ‘solitary vice’ with similarly solipsistic pleasures of reading and writing, Plock speculates that ‘the intellectual infertility of Joyce’s artist hero’ (p. 65) is in part produced by those prophecies. Her reading of Stephen’s sole artistic production within the novel, his ‘villanelle of the temptress’, is particularly deft in its understanding of the imbrication of sexuality and textuality.

The second half of the book turns to Ulysses, focussing on the ‘Oxen of the Sun’, ‘Eumaeus’, ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Penelope’ episodes to investigate Joyce’s appropriations of very different medical discourses. Chapter four offers a fascinating reading of the relationship between obstetrics and what Plock terms ‘the aesthetics of reproduction’. Identifying Aristotle’s Master-Piece as a point of intertextual convergence between the ‘Oxen’ episode and one of its key sources, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the chapter develops into a agile account of the importance of copying, plagiarism and what Finnegans Wake termed ‘stolentelling’. Bodily and literary reproductions are brought together in what is arguably the most stimulating and provoking chapter in this study. Chapters on the less frequently analysed sixteenth and seventeeth episodes of Ulysses are also most welcome. ‘Eumaeus’ is read alongside contemporary developments in neuroscience to suggest that its prose style is not, as so many other critics have argued, the work of an exhausted and tired narrator. Instead, the episode’s frustratingly mixed linguistic register offer evidence of what some neuroscientists would have understood as an over-stimulated, nervous and animated consciousness. The closing two chapters return to gender to explore the impact of popular discourses of the body on both Leopold and Molly Bloom. Celebrity strongman Eugen Sandow is an acknowledged influence on Bloom in ‘Ithaca’, and Plock explores how his presence illuminates the chapter’s exploration of the relationship between scientific discourse and the creative imagination. The sceptical reading of Sandow’s self-help regime in ‘Ithaca’ is developed in the closing chapter on ‘Penelope’, which focuses on Molly’s engagement with folk medical beliefs. Molly’s often vigorous resistance to medical authority and its often reactionary moral assumptions stands, Plock argues, for Joyce’s own creative yet subversive appropriations of discourses of medicine.

Joyce, Medicine and Modernity is an important and rewarding intervention in both Joyce scholarship and the study of literature and science. Its thoughtful research and admirably clear written style are the building blocks of its major contribution: an attentiveness to how science might shape not simply fiction’s content but, more intriguingly, its form. In a nice touch, Plock describes her own chapters as ‘case histories’, enabling the diagnosis of Joyce’s own sustained fascination, and she closes with an indication of what future work might be done in the field. Her book is, to be sure, no final diagnosis, but an important and generous part of an ongoing evaluation.

Katherine Mullin, University of Leeds