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‘Signatures of all things’: Writing photography in James Joyce’s Ulysses

6 December 2021

Katharina Rajabi (University of Munich)

From the descriptions of photographs in Kafka’s prose, to the photographic metaphorization of memory in Proust’s Recherche (1913-1927), or the subversive gendered use of photographs in Woolf’s Orlando (1928), modernist literature incorporates photography beyond the non-specific image, mere literary motif, or illustration. Modernist writers consider photography as a complex configuration of various discourses essential to modernity – visual perception, representation and reference, time, space and perspective – introducing what Philippe Dubois terms the photographic ‘dispositif’ into the text – a specifically photographic approach to these discourses.[1] In writing, narrating and fictionalising photographs, modernist prose at the same time shapes this ‘dispositif’, often anticipating key ideas of later photographic theory – which, in fact, frequently draws on these authors in developing its arguments (like, for example, Walter Benjamin on Kafka, or Roland Barthes on Proust).[2] The most complex of these modernist writings of photography, centring on the problem of (linguistic) representation, occurs in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

Although in Ulysses photographs are described just in a few passages, they are of great importance not only as part of the novel’s discourse on visual perception, but as a medium of reproduction (as they reproduce as well as being reproducible) connected to the central theme of transference and transformation. The transmission processes photography is connected to are memory, genealogy, and, as we shall see later on, literary tradition or intertextuality. The mnemonic and memorial function of photography is contemplated by Bloom during the funeral of Patrick Dignam in ‘Hades’: ‘the photograph reminds you of the face. Otherwise you couldn’t remember the face after fifteen years, say’.[3] As an ‘hereditary taste’ (U 128), the photography profession constitutes a family tradition in the novel, tying photographic to biological reproduction. One of Bloom’s ancestors owned a ‘daguerreotype atelier’ (U 128), and Bloom himself is the owner of most of the photographs described in Ulysses. His interest in the medium crystallizes in his own dreamt-of activity as a ‘snapshot photograph[er]’ (U 587) (a sort of artistic-technical implementation of his voyeurism), while his daughter Milly works in a photographer’s studio in Mullingar.

In Ulysses, the term by which all the various notions of transfer, tradition, and transformation are conceptualized is that of metempsychosis – the idea of the transmigration of the soul into another body after death – which haunts the text. Joyce introduces photography in conjunction with metempsychosis. In ‘Calypso’, the first photographic picture the novel describes, a poster supplement from the penny weekly Photo Bits, is connected explicitly with metempsychosis.. It is thus in connection to photography that metempsychosis is established as a term which problematises language through signification. This signification process, relating the word to its meaning, takes its course starting from Bloom’s question ‘Met him what?’ (U 52), apparently repeating Molly’s phonetic (mis-)interpretation of the term while enquiring him about its meaning: 

– Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.


– Met him what? he asked.

– Here, she said. What does that mean?

He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.

– Metempsychosis?

– Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?

– Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

– O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

He smiled, glancing askance her mocking eyes. […]That we live after death. Our souls. That a man’s soul after he dies, Dignam’s soul ….

[…]Reincarnation: that’s the word.

– Some people believe, he said, that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives.

[…]Better remind her of the word: metempsychosis. An example would be better. An example?

The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: splendid masterpiece in art colours. Tea before you put milk in. Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer. Three and six I gave for the frame. She said it would look nice over the bed. Naked nymphs: Greece: and for instance all the people who lived then.

He turned the pages back.

– Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example. (U 52-53) 

Bloom’s struggle with the term’s meaning, shifting between the signifier (the word) and the signified (the concept it refers to, its ‘meaning’) in the act of providing synonyms can, in fact, be described as the performance of a ‘metempsychotic’ signification of metempsychosis: letting the term’s elusive ‘meaning’, its ‘soul’ migrate into ever new word-bodies (‘transmigration’, ‘reincarnation’). Nevertheless, Bloom fails; the signified cannot be grasped and slips away. Why? In Bloom’s trying out a way of realising metempsychosis through signification, something goes amiss. And that something is the actual word itself, the signifier, the ‘body’ which is being discarded and left behind for a new shell (‘transmigration’, ‘reincarnation’). But, Joyce’s text insists, without its word-body, metempsychosis cannot be captured ‘in a way a body can understand’ (U 620), as Molly states in ‘Penelope’. Locating comprehension in the body, the text simultaneously appeals to the corporeality of language and the primacy of the signifier. Accordingly, a ‘metempsychotic’ signification of metempsychosis fails precisely because it abandons the sign-body, the word, in its focus on grasping the seemingly essential, transcendent signified. Thus, the text simultaneously collapses the language model figured in metempsychosis: the transcendence of a constant, attainable signified is negated, the attempt at signification refers back to the signifier and remains stuck in the concatenation of different words. Is there a way out of the spiral of going back and forth between signifier and signified? 

After restating the original signifier’s importance (‘Better remind her of the word: metempsychosis’ (U 53)), Bloom arrives at the conclusion: ‘An example would be better’). ‘An example?’ (U 53). It is now precisely this blank space that photography fills. The Bath of the Nymph quite obviously, and ironically, references and visualises literary tradition and intertextual relations by alluding to the nymph Calypso and Homer’s Odyssey. It also playfully undermines the status of the Odyssey as a literary model by referencing a different intertext, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and by linking it to a medium whose artistic value was still very much debated at the turn of the century. The context of Photo Bits is particularly dubious, as its content could be best described as ‘pin-up’. At the same time, The Bath of the Nymph also exemplifies and visualises metempsychosis: Bloom circumvents the difficulty of signification by transferring the linguistic sign into a visual one. The visualisation of metempsychosis in the medium of photography marks a shift into a sign system where, in contrast to language, the signifier (the image) has, like a trace, a direct physical connection to the referent (the real ‘thing’ a sign refers to, in photography’s case the photographed object), and exhibits the referent precisely in its absence.[4] The visibility of photography’s sign structure enables the figuration of a model for signification that is reflected back onto language and the text itself: a model which prioritises the signifier, where ‘meaning’ is not to be found beyond the sign-body, but in it. Consequently, this model shifts from a desire for the signified to a desire for the absent referent, which in the sign is only present as a trace. This becomes apparent in the positioning of Molly in the photographic-metempsychotic line of transfer: while the Photo Bits nymph becomes a reincarnation of the Homeric nymph, Molly (‘not unlike her with her hair down’ (U 53)) becomes a reincarnation of the reincarnated nymph, and simultaneously the ultimate referent in the whole context of reference here as well as in the context of photographic reference within the novel. 

Photography embodies ‘metempsychosis’ as a language model which it simultaneously subverts by insisting precisely on the body.[5] From this point, this embodiment is released into the text, pervading the whole of the novel. Photography as a medium of transmission thereby negotiates metempsychosis in the constant recurrence, transformation and variation of its referents: all the photographs presented in Ulysses are interconnected as signifiers, every one of them makes reference to other photographs, and, ultimately, all of them either directly or indirectly reference Molly, the ever-elusive and desirable referent. 

[1] Philippe Dubois, L’acte photographique (Paris: Nathan 1983), p. 57.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Kleine Geschichte der Photographie, in Gesammelte Schriften II-I, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 1977), pp. 368-385. Roland Barthes, La chambre claire. Note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard 1980).

[3] James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. by Hans Walter Gabler (New York: Vintage, 1986), p. 93f. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text as follows: (U 93f.).

[4] Cf. Barthes, p. 18; pp. 119-124. 

[5] And by insisting on the body (Greek: morphé) also bringing the concept of metamorphosis into play, with which Bloom increasingly seems to confound metempsychosis (‘They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance.’ (U 53)). The importance of the concept of metamorphosis being superimposed on the one of metempsychosis can only be underscored here – as well as the implication this has for the significance of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as  an intertext of, I would argue, at least equal status as the Odyssey.

Image Credit: British Library/Photo Bits: 12 November, 1898


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