Retrospective arrangement

In Brief

The men in Bloom's carriage in Hades mock their friend Tom Kernan for using pretentious words like "trenchant." But the other expression that invites their ridicule, "retrospective arrangement," recurs half a dozen times more in the novel, only two of them connected to Kernan, and thus acquires significance beyond anything that he might intend. Mnemonic ordering operates in activities as diverse as history and music, and it is essential to the formation of personal and national identity. It is also a central principle of Joyce's artistic representation of human lives.

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In Wandering Rocks, Kernan uses the phrase as he thinks about the "Times of the troubles," i.e. the Rebellion of 1798: "When you look back on it all now in a kind of retrospective arrangement." There is no telling what particular insights he may have in mind, but this fragmentary sentence suggests that events acquire significance later, as people organize them in memory. In the blur of present action, with no clear beginnings and endings, no one can grasp the shape of a life or an era. With the benefit of hindsight, however, people construct narratives that give explanatory structure to otherwise random dates, events, actions, and developments. Historians find the kinds of things they are looking for, and they order them in ways that make sense retrospectively. Even when they aspire to objectivity they can never fully achieve it, because their stories are informed by political, experiential, temperamental, and intellectual investments.

The narrative of Sirens shows Kernan reminiscing once more as a song drives the listeners in the hotel bar deep into their own thoughts: "While Goulding talked of Barraclough’s voice production, while Tom Kernan, harking back in a retrospective sort of arrangement talked to listening Father Cowley, who played a voluntary, who nodded as he played. While big Ben Dollard talked with Simon Dedalus, lighting, who nodded as he smoked, who smoked." Again, there is no way to know which particular recollections Kernan may be engaged in, but the songs in this chapter frequently move people to think back on past events: memorable performances of songs, personal experiences, the course of Irish history. Music's ability to stir emotion, and the deep sense of meaning that most human beings find in it, seem to be intimately connected to its exercise of the powers of memory.

In Oxen of the Sun the phrase jumps to a new character whose thoughts are more available to the reader: "No longer is Leopold, as he sits there, ruminating, chewing the cud of reminiscence, that staid agent of publicity and holder of a modest substance in the funds. A score of years are blown away. He is young Leopold. There, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself." In this paragraph Bloom becomes engrossed in remembering himself as a teenager—going off to school in the morning, taking up his father's trade of traveling salesman, visiting a prostitute for the first time. The narrative poignantly emphasizes the chasm between that youthful man and the present one, suggesting that recollection does not really recover the past. It is only a facsimile of something lost, "a mirror within a mirror" in which the present observer "beholdeth himself."

The narrative of Eumaeus drives that impression home when Bloom reminisces about Parnell: "Looking back now in a retrospective kind of arrangement all seemed a kind of dream. And then coming back was the worst thing you ever did because it went without saying you would feel out of place as things always moved with the times." Even if his coffin were full of stones and Parnell could return, he would not come back to the historical moment that he dominated. Analogously, none of us can return to those moments that memory gives us the illusion of revisiting. The moments were evanescent as a dream, and all we can do is curate the memories—cherishing, repressing, preserving, interrogating, interpreting, combining, and frequently altering.

Just as nations and peoples constitute their identity though stories of how they came to be and to endure, individuals and families construct personal identities by selectively re-membering where they came from. Ithaca reports that Bloom's traveling salesman father did this in the most literal way possible, instilling a geographical sense of the family's origins in his young son. He "narrated to his son Leopold Bloom (aged 6) a retrospective arrangement of migrations and settlements in and between Dublin, London, Florence, Milan, Vienna, Budapest, Szombathely with statements of satisfaction (his grandfather having seen Maria Theresia, empress of Austria, queen of Hungary), with commercial advice (having taken care of pence, the pounds having taken care of themselves). Leopold Bloom (aged 6) had accompanied these narrations by constant consultation of a geographical map of Europe (political) and by suggestions for the establishment of affiliated business premises in the various centres mentioned."

The main characters of Ulysses all demonstrate the principle that Stephen articulates in Scylla and Charybdis: that I "am I by memory because under everchanging forms." They are known partly by their responses to present stimuli, but more by their abundant, though scattered, memories of the past. In this way they resemble their creator, who wrote prose fictions that have much in common with creative autobiography. "I have a grocer's assistant's mind," Joyce once said (Ellmann, Letters III, 304). Instead of inventing stories, he arranged them, selecting details from the universe of things that had happened to him, looking at them from different angles, altering them when he saw fit, fitting them into new structures. He reconstituted his existence by creatively re-ordering it in memory, a faculty which, Blake's disparagement notwithstanding, gave him a path to freedom and radiant clarity.

"Retrospective arrangement" is also a supremely apt name for what readers of Ulysses must do. Anyone who manages a first trip through this book deserves an award, so baffling are its thousands of obscure allusions, ideational fragments, and stylistic quirks. While much of the linear story (the one that chronologically follows the course of one day) can be grasped in an initial experience of the book, other kinds of patterning can only be appreciated on subsequent readings, because the non-linear connections insinuated on every page (say, by introducing an obscure detail whose significance will become clearer four hundred pages later) constitute structures that must be held in memory. To adapt what Stephen says about Gotthold Lessing, Ulysses must be read both nacheinander (temporally, one paragraph after another) and nebeneinander (quasi-spatially, arranging related passages beside one another). Notes like this one cultivate the second, retrospective way of reading Joyce's novel.

JH 2019
Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935 lithograph by M. C. Escher. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Cover of John Rickard's Joyce's Book of Memory (Duke University Press, 1999). Source: