This essay questions the customary deference given to Joyce’s quest for and belief in “the perfect order of words,” by arguing that Joyce’s work frequently expresses and evinces confusion and anxiety about the function of sequentiality in meaning. Part of his “aesthetic of error” (that is, Joyce’s evolving interest in textual disorder) lies in how his works test by varying degrees the resilience and value of order and sequence in language, narrative, history and logic. The essay contends that Joyce’s narrative, syntactic and lexical reversals and derangements simultaneously disorient and liberate the reader.
That Joyce was fascinated by the infinite is well-known: we see it in the overpowering (and also not a little ridiculous) vision of hell in A Portrait, in Bloom’s sense of his being but a momentary figure in a progressive, extended, and potentially infinite series of humans in history, including Molly’s sexual history, and most startlingly in the apparently interminable circularity of Finnegans Wake. Yet one need not contemplate eternity to find stretches of time and eras that are so vast and so remote from human experience as to be incomprehensible and beggar expression. This essay argues that one of Joyce’s strategic efforts to get free of the constraints of “history” on the one hand, and the at least as repressive threat of eternity on the other, is to imagine time out of history, a time outside of our experience of it, an imagining of time that is notably different from those of other modernists with whom Joyce is most often compared.