James Joyce has been in the news over here in the UK a surprising amount over the last few days. Today — 16 June 2019 — is, of course, Bloomsday, and whilst it’s not uncommon for there to be some press coverage talking about the festivities that take place in Dublin this time every year, the main reason was that Jeremy Corbyn came out and said it was his favourite book.
This isn’t all that surprising — I remember Stephen Fry making a fuss about it a few years back and that surely renders its critical acclaim mainstream amongst the British public — but it was Corbyn’s somewhat endearing acknowledgement of its difficulty that had most people talking.
In an interview with Corbyn for The Guardian, Peter Carty writes:
He says, like many people, at first he found the book “incomprehensible”. But then “you stop trying to focus on the narrative and start just enjoying the vignettes”. Back then he didn’t tackle it from start to finish, and that is not the way he has read it since, instead regularly just dipping into passages. It is an approach he recommends to first time readers today: “Read a little bit at a time and think about it and then move on, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t understand it.”
A lot of people think Corbyn should be cancelled for this shameful toe-dipping approach but, as someone pointed out earlier, this is also the oft-recommended approach for first-time readers of A Thousand Plateaus, which perhaps isn’t a total coincidence…
[A]s Bloomsday approaches [Corbyn] urges more people to read the novel that, among many other things, captures a society going about its business in uneasy times.
“Joyce references and richly describes what’s happening in the street,” he says. “So somebody is holding forth about a big political issue and then the refuse cart goes by. Whenever there is a big political issue on, I walk around the streets in my area. We might be totally obsessed with Brexit or some other issue but many people are not. Their daily lives are more important. Politicians should never forget that people have lives to lead and they often have dreams they don’t talk about.”
I’m not writing this post just to highlight that Corbyn likes a particular book, however. In fact, today being Bloomsday ended up being quite serendipitous for a completely different reason in the XG Discord.
We held the first session of our Difference & Repetition reading group earlier this afternoon — it was this afternoon for me, anyway; coordinating timezones ain’t easy — and at one point we spent a short time talking about Joyce’s works in the context of Deleuze’s doctoral thesis.
I’m not just going to parrot everything we talked about — if you’d like access to that discussion or if you’d like to join in with future ones, sign up to the Patreon! — but what struck me and others was how Corbyn’s comments resonated with Deleuze’s own.
In the first chapter of Difference & Repetition, Deleuze describes one of his most central concepts: “transcendental empiricism”. In a lengthy passage I’ll quote a considerable chunk of, he writes:
Empiricism truly becomes transcendental, and aesthetics an apodictic discipline, only when we apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible: difference, potential difference and difference in intensity as the reason behind qualitative diversity. It is in difference that movement is produced as an “effect”, that phenomena flash their meaning like signs. The intense world of differences, in which we find the reason behind qualities and the being of the sensible, is precisely the object of a superior empiricism. This empiricism teaches us a strange “reason”, that of the multiple, chaos and difference (nomadic distributions, crowned anarchies). It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. Each difference passes through all the others; it must “will” itself or find itself through all the others. That is why eternal return does not appear second or come after, but is already present in every metamorphosis, contemporaneous with that which it causes to return. Eternal return relates to a world of differences implicated one in the other, to a complicated, properly chaotic world without identity. Joyce presented the vicus of recirculation as causing a chaosmos to turn; and Nietzsche had already said that chaos and eternal return were not two distinct things but a single and same affirmation. The world is neither finite or infinite as representation would have it: it is completed and unlimited. Eternal return is the unlimited of the finished itself, the univocal being which is said of difference.
Whilst Deleuze’s prose might be most Joycean in its difficulty — and here he is referencing Finnegan’s Wake rather than Ulysses — we might also argue that the lesson contained within — distilled by Corbyn — is nonetheless the same.
A politician out for a walk … A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world.