(M) Joyce Seeing Eye to Eye with Picasso?: A Review of “James Joyce and the Cubist Esthetic.” by JO-ANNA ISAAK 


Source: Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, WINTER 1981, Vol. 14, No. 1 (WINTER 1981), pp. 61-90 

Published by: University of Manitoba

 Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24780356 


I am neither a physicist nor an art historian. I do have a layman’s interest in these disciplines but claim no expertise. I know a bit more about the writings of James Joyce, so my comments will lean toward the written word and may ignore some important points related to Cubism, Futurism, Photons, and Quantum Physics. The breadth of Isaak’s analysis is impressive. However, the reader should note that her work is forty years old, and these sciences are dynamic, not in content but in our knowledge of that content.

While I appreciate Isaak’s analysis, I find her discussion to be a comprehensive review of the art forms that emerged at the outset of the Twentieth Century. Joyce’s writing reflects only a few of these concepts and devices. In this review, I address matters related to the plastic arts, Simulteism, artistic image reflection, fluidity, and most importantly, the parallax as a device connecting artist, characters, and audience. 


p.63 (Isaak’s pagination)

“…(what) Stephen takes issue with is that painting and sculpture are essentially spatial form and therefore static whereas poetry is temporal a realization of sequence in time, and therefore dynamic.”

Joyce first wrote Stephen Hero during the period from 1904 to 1905. In 1905, Einstein experienced his “Miracle Year” when he authored his Nobel Prize-winning paper on Photons and his papers on Brownian Theory and Special Relativity. Joyce was famously a voracious reader but how much of Einstein’s theorizing was available to Joyce as he wrote these words is unknown. We can determine from Stephen Hero that Joyce was considering the perspective of the artist interacting with external objects as he created his art. But even the artist looking at the creation sees only one perspective of an object at a time. Futurists might say that all sculpture is dynamic since the observer in motion around an object “changes” the sculpture’s image. If Mr. Bloom walks around the statue of Venus in the National Museum in Scylla and Charybdis, he might stoop and twist to create a new perspective. In the context of Joyce’s novel, it is probably more important that the character interacts with a statue’s objective reality by creating new perspectives to elicit an altered subjective fluidity. Poldy looks for a feature in the statue that is not present. Its absence shapes his experience as surely as anatomical accuracy would have. One interpretation might be that art does not and cannot reflect objective reality. Fluidity (not the school of art but the experience) may result nonetheless. 

If a “reality” is a statue, it is not merely the result of the artist’s vision. It is also a view of art itself, in this case by Poldy’s character influencing the author who created him as much as by the sharpness of a specific chisel. There are also perspectives of other characters created by the artist and the perspective of the reader/viewer too. In fact, an infinite number of reader/viewer perspectives must be allowed for (or summarily dismissed). There are three classes of reality then to be considered. There is an objective reality that exists within the object observed. At any time, there can be only one objective reality, but over time even objectivity changes. A block of ice evaporates, gradually changing the mass of the block and creating water from the lost mass. Eventually, the ice ceases to exist, and the reality is only a puddle. That reality then evaporates. The realities most often addressed by Isaak’s experts are artistic egocentricities. That is, they are concerned only with how the artist perceives reality. This is itself a subjective reality. 

What we know of reality, even at a specified instant, is also dynamic. Our planetary world is dynamic, rotating on its axis, circumnavigating our star, and as a component of an expanding universe. At the opposite end of our scale of measurement are our atomic building blocks, always in motion. Another possibility, if String Theory is correct, might be that there are nine, eleven, thirteen iterations of every reality.

Monet’s treatment of gently shimmering colors and lights was, in part, the result of his degenerated vision. Degas also reproduced a reality that only existed for him. One of every twenty viewers of their paintings suffered from blue-green color blindness. The reality for that audience is different than the reality of the other ninety-five percent of viewers. And those realities are different than those of Monet or Degas. 

Next, we might consider the reality perceived by Joyce. Joyce remarks that the rhythm of poetry is fluid, so is observed reality. When the author describes the Irish Sea in Proteus, fireworks over the Star of the Sea in Nausicaa, or Circe’s crashing chandelier, he does so without the benefit of depth perception since his left eye is blurred or covered with a patch. His reality is not the reality of almost anyone else.

For Einstein, Joyce, Poldy, Monet, Degas, you or me, there is no objective reality, neither fluid nor static.

Mutability of Plastic Art Forms

p.64 and p.83

“Form in the plastic arts, according to Lessing, is necessarily spatial. Literature, on the other hand, makes use of language; composed of a succession of words proceeding through time, it is necessarily sequential.” 

Lessing’s definition doesn’t completely reflect the artistic tastes and styles of the last two centuries. Sculpture and graphic arts often include words, numbers, and symbols. Sometimes to the exclusion of other content. Robert Indiana’s sculpture “LOVE” might be the best example. This piece was first created as graphic art in 1965, then transposed to sculpture in 1970. According to Lessing’s description, Indiana’s work must be called literature. View the sculpture here:


Indiana’s recorded description of the sculpture includes. a short discussion of his poem “When the Word Is Love.” The sculpture is also a poem, the verse a physical message. The sculpture, as I view it, is more than a single word. There are several translations of the WORD (AMOR being one), but, in English, “VE” support “LO.” The “O” leans away from its “L” but retains some contact, distinct but also part of something greater than itself. The communication is greater than the sculpture. The meaning is greater than the physical structure of the word.

Isaak makes clear for us how kinetic is HELY’S wander through Joyce’s prose and static newsprint headline and copy become symbolic in ways that extend beyond the meaning of the words themselves. The heroic-sized S-M-P that begin the books of Ulysses, Isaak might have added, are more than letters, more than the words “Stately,” “Mr.,” and “Pursuant.” They are monuments attesting to the stature of the gods and goddess of Joyce’s new mythology. 

Similarly, “Picasso’s stenciled letters and Gris’ fragments of newspaper” are, at the same instant, as plastic and as fluid as Joycean prose. As discussed, Bloom’s examination of The Venus is not merely the review of a static object but also an exercise in stretching perception through time, space, perspective, the page’s prose, and the reader’s interaction.

Reflection and Perspective


“Once the apparent deformations of Cubism are seen in relation to the Theory of Relativity, then “the fact of moving around an object to seize several successive appearances, which, fused in a single image, reconstitute it in time, will no longer make thoughtful people indignant.” 13 What Metzinger seems to be echoing here is Einstein’s statement that ‘the description of an event will vary according to the position and relative motion of the observer.’ 14 Metzinger’s idea was to use the new physics to justify the Cubist method by arguing that Cubism, while apparently ‘irrelevant to reality,’ did, in fact, present a truer picture of things because it represented time, as the new theories did, as a dimension of space.” 

I find myself disagreeing with Metzinger’s assessment of Cubism as “irrelevant to reality,” both artistically and scientifically. However, the Cubist must be willing to share reality with others. The artist’s perspectives are only some of the infinite varieties of perspectives that may be drawing on subjective reality. The artist’s generosity must extend to subjects of art and viewers who interact with the art. 

Sometimes there might also be perspectives working inside the art among its subjects. Velásquez’ “Las Meninas,” conceived in the mid-Seventeenth Century, is the only example I may ever have the need to know. Here the primary subjects are The Infanta and her attendants. Excluding the canine perspective, there are eleven sets of optics active in the painting’s amber instant. All but the perspective of the Infanta are those of “Meninas” whose roles are to attend the princess. Only two of them are attentive to their charge. Millions of other Meninas have also craned necks in The Prado, some kneeling in front of the crowd, some to the left, others right, a few may inch past the limits of the tape on the floor, a poor few may never approach the canvas but only view it from across the gallery. Similarly, in Wandering Rocks, young Master Dignam’s reflection is at odds with his current mental state. His reflection is unrecognizable even to its owner. He is thinking not of his father’s passing but of a boxing match, not of a corpse but of pork chops.


Page 73

“Fragmentation is one of the most familiar characteristics of twentieth-century art: Yeat’s reference to our pluralistic world as one in which “the centre cannot hold” has become a cliché. But for the most part, the modern artist is not concerned with things holding, for holding implies stasis. He is not interested in the perfect, static state of being, but rather in the dynamism of becoming which inevitably involves destruction.” 

One example of the denial of the constant center in Joyce is his use of the parallax, the intersection of perspectives for common understanding. Bloom’s internal dialog of shifting mental perspective considers the proximate and distant marking of time with totems: physical, mental, and artistic. 

Episode 8, Ulysses

“Now that I come to think of it that ball falls at Greenwich time. It’s the clock is worked by an electric wire from Dunsink. Must go out there some first Saturday of the month. If I could get an introduction to professor Joly or learn up something about his family. That would do to: man always feels complimented. Flattery where least expected. Nobleman proud to be descended from some king’s mistress. His foremother. Lay it on with a trowel. Cap in hand goes through the land. Not go in and blurt out what you know you’re not to: what’s parallax? Show this gentleman the door.” 

Here in the Lestrygonian Episode, Mr. Bloom is considering optics under the influence of spacetime. Confronted with Dunsink Time and Molly’s approaching assignation with Boylan, Bloom wonders how the sight of the proximate (Molly’s meeting) can be offset by viewing it with the backdrop of a distant event (Bloom’s first kissing of Molly across time and space). The consideration of the infidelity on Greenwich Time would delay its occurrence by twenty-five minutes. When the hour arrives, Boylan seems to have delayed his departure for Eccles Street perhaps by twenty-five minutes as Bloom wished.

Episode 14, Ulysses

“Agendath is a wasteland….Parallax stalks behind and goads them,…. magnified in the deserted heavens, nay to heaven’s own magnitude, till it looms, vast, over the house of Virgo (Molly’s birth sign, my parenthetical). And lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer. It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams, emerald, sapphire, mauve[…]”

The episode Oxen of the Sun is a song of birth held up against the parallax of death. Bloom begins in contemplation of Rudy’s birth and descends to the conclusion that dearth, drought, and death plague his race. Then behind the proximate horrors appear a celestial constant, the parallax of Molly, virgin, Mother, and the model for all females. She connects today’s sorrow with a yesterday filled with hope and joy that persists today and will shine again tomorrow.

Episode 15, Ulysses

“CHRIS CALLINAN: What is the parallax of the subsolar ecliptic of Aldebaran?”

Barbara Stevens Huesel used Kain’s theory in describing how “parallax” joins the artist’s perspective with the common man’s, creating an integrated and focused vision. Failing to develop that perspective results in absurd misinterpretations of universal truths. Callinan represents the resulting absurdity. He was a journalist, conspicuous for comical inaccuracies and miscues. 


Joyce intersects artistic point of view, the melange of perspectives, image reflection, audience interplay, and parallax in Wandering Rocks. Wandering Rocks appears neither at the beginning nor the end of Ulysses but near the center where time, space, motion, and personality vectors converge. It’s also fitting that Wandering Rocks is not present in the Odyssey, known but never observed in the epic. 

In the ballet playing out on Dublin thoroughfares, the reader sees Poldy from his dark back and Molly’s alms-dropping arm from below. The Blooms separately appear, disappear and reappear in an instant but also in a sequence of events. Father Conmee strolls, stops, sits on a moving tram, and dispatches a post without ever nearing the box. The atomic H.E.L.Y.’S, having split to announce Eli’s prophesy, now re-fuse in their original energy, silently broadcasting messages in obverse and reverse. There is a shuffling of living and dead in a game of names, and the cavalcade of the viceregent becomes the parallax against which Kernan’s battered hat marks his prominence. Wandering Rocks unsettles any belief in objective reality. This is how Joyce and Picasso would have it, although neither needed the other’s perspective for confirmation.

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