A World of Objects
By representing the relationship between a subject and a particular object, key modernist writers offered paradigms for conceiving their literary aesthetics more explicitly. A World of Objects presents three interconnected narratives about literary making in the twentieth century by pairing James Joyce with the hoarded object, Elizabeth Bowen with the toy, and Samuel Beckett with the forsaken thing. The over-arching aim of this study is to prove the logic of these pairings by contextualizing the object within each writer's work. In addition to offering detailed analyses of specific texts by Joyce, Bowen, and Beckett, I explore the ways that their work participated in larger aesthetic movements made up of fellow writers, visual artists, cultural theorists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers. Focused on the objects that dangerously clutter Shem's inkbottle house in Finnegans Wake, my first chapter reopens critical questions about modernism's stylistic engagement with waste, obsessive cataloguing, and projects of indefinite scope. By integrating recent case histories and psychological discourse on compulsive hoarding, I probe both Joyce's increasing interest in the excesses of the object world and its effects upon his readers. Hoarders and critics of the Wake are alike prone to anxieties concerning the potential value of acquired items. These anxieties lead to an extreme tendency that psychological researchers and clinicians refer to as "elaborative processing." Whether encountering a piece of trash, like a pack of used matches, or an obscure signifier, like "fallen lucifers," (an item in Shem's house) both the hoarder and the Joycean create cognitively rich associative networks for accumulated material or linguistic objects. Through an understanding of the phenomenon of hoarding, I offer an analysis of Joycean objects that assumes their potential value within a range of deferrable symbolic registers. Such a reading calls for a reconsideration of Joyce's later aesthetics and a critique of the critico-stylistic techniques peculiar to Wake scholarship. I go on to argue that the consequences of Joyce's equation of litter with literature extend well beyond Finnegans Wake; and that a large number of modernist texts exhibit the same potential for the discovery of value in the seemingly valueless. Bowen's theories on toys and character--presented in a series of essays, memoirs, radio broadcasts, and novels, particularly The House in Paris--provide a rich resource for considering the object of play in twentieth-century literary aesthetics. Bowen had a life-long obsession with toys ranging from Edwardian toy-theaters to Japanese dolls to Czechoslovakian marionettes. In the unpublished essay "Toys," she argues that the highest form of play involves resourceful manipulation, or the faculty to turn a found object into something else. Bowen's resourceful toy, like the hoarded object, relies upon an individual's heightened creative tendency to invent infinite uses (or misuses) for things. This chapter employs Bowen's theory by reemphasizing trope's etymological meaning of "to alter or to turn one thing into another." This method of encountering the phenomenal world can be discovered in a strain of twentieth-century writers who share Bowen's preoccupation with the effects of troping subjects with objects. Bowen was attracted to the toy because of its abilities to create tensions between subject and object distinctions; its mimetic potential to contest, invert, or reflect established ontological assumptions; and its capability to underscore the inter-construction of interiority and exteriority. My project's culminating chapter appropriates the phrase "forsaken things" from Malone Dies as a term to signify the recurrent, infraordinary objects that litter Beckett's texts and the daunting critical trajectories necessary to understand his aesthetic projects. Predominantly critics have abandoned Beckett's objects as either bereft of symbolic value or confoundedly too symbolic. My approach counters these readings by accepting the object's status as purposely forsaken, or liberated from confining ideological and aesthetic frames of judgment. Beckett uses objects to bait his audience into accepting tempting, cogent interpretations (whether allegorical, existential, psychoanalytic, autobiographical, or another); however, his technique is to undercut any stable reading by endowing the object with a paradoxically determined indeterminacy. I develop this argument by tracing the ways that a series of objects (spent matches, pebbles, "pointless" pencils) purposely fail to exhibit or contribute to a consistent syntax of meaning across Beckett's novels and short stories. I conclude my chapter by looking at Beckett's first completed play, Eleutheria, and a series of short stories that he wrote between 1946-47. Though one associates Beckett with the absence of objects, analysis of these texts proves that like his contemporaries, he, too, was dependent upon them.