Joyce Interpreter of Vico: Literature as Philosophy

Primary version of post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Joyce not just the link!

Picture shows James Joyce

In the 18th Century Giambattista Vico wrote New Science as a new kind of science which deals with human consciousness and the history that arises from human consciousness. He places literature at the centre of his philosophy of history, but mainly with regard to an early mythical history which is decoded through literature, particularly Homer.

In the 20th Century, James Joyce wrote two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, two of the most important cultural products of the century, and both amongst other things reflect an interest in Vico. Ulysses is the Latin name of Homer’s hero Odysseus, from The Odyssey. There are various ways in which the text refers to Vico, and Finnegans Wake does so even more. The title itself refers to the mourning and celebration (a wake is the party after a funeral) of an Irish hero. For Vico, Homer records early history in mythical form through the stories of heroes, From page one, Joyce inserts 100 letter words suggestive of explosive sound, and this is one way in which Joyce engaged with Vico, who thought the earliest humans interpreted thunder in primeval floods as speech of the gods.

Vico consigned the literary to the the time of myth, at least for literature at its most significant for the philosophy of history. Joyce suggests a way in which literature remains constantly philosophically significant. Through his ‘thunder words’ and through the vast mixture of mythical, historical, literary and linguistic references, Joyce suggests that we can read Vico as a guide to all history. Joyce uses the stages of history in Vico, and also the circularity. The last sentence of Finnegans Wake leads back to the first sentence. If history is circular, as Vico suggests than the mythical-literary stage is always coming back. We don’t need to accept the myth of circularity, what Joyce suggests is the constant repetition of the use of words and language to shape experience of the world. Since we live in a world of language, the strong focus in Finnegans Wake on linguistic possibilities is showing us something about how we experience the world. That experience always has myth, literature and repetition even though we not always focused on those aspects. Without those aspects there would not be any other form of language or experience. Vico’s account of the earliest human history becomes an account of all history, and Joyce shows how this is possible.

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