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L’Empreinte des choses

André Topia
Marie-Christine Lemardeley

Roman : de l’objet à la chose

Doing Things in the Kitchen: chez soi with Joyce and Lawrence

Michael Bell


In literature, a thing is in the first instance a word. The word “thing” need not denote a concrete material object, but an activity or value. Heidegger, in his essay on “The Thing”, seeks to recover the original Germanic meaning of “thing” as a matter of concern in order to focus the lost relation to Being that characterises Cartesian modernity, the world of external “objects”. The history of the English novel, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shows a shifting ontological presentation of the world focused in the relation to specifie things. In Dickens and George Eliot the world is commonly replete with human meaning of a poetic and mythic kind. As modernists, Joyce and Lawrence, like Heidegger, sought to recover a primordial relation. In Joyce it is through a comédic exposure of language as the medium in which the thing is experienced. Lawrence is closer to Heidegger in dramatising the human relation to the thing overlooked in the most common daily contact and activity, such as washing dishes.

Texte intégral

1The literary representation of things is in the first instance a matter not of things but of words and the word “thing” contains a significant spectrum of meanings. At one end, it denotes a merely existent entity outside ourselves: the object, or Gegenstand, that confronts us with a zero degree of felt meaning. Yet we also use the word to define a focus of value and purpose with no material correlative at all, as the Romans could speak of the res publica or, at a more humble level, when D. H. Lawrence says of ordinary household chores: “The actual doing things is a joy” (Lawrence, Reflections 151). This spectrum of usage is significant because the two opposed meanings are not entirely separable. Heidegger, in his lecture on “The Thing”, argues, by a characteristic appeal to etymology, the ancient connection of these meanings:

[...] the Old High German word thing means a gathering, and specifically a gathering to deliberate on a matter under discussion, a contested matter. In consequence, the Old German words thing and dinc become the names for any affair or matter of pertinence. They denote anything that in any way bears upon men, concerns them, and that accordingly is a matter of discourse. (Heidegger 175)

2He goes on to argue that this ancient connection was lost by the Romans, and increasingly so by medieval thought, and then in Kantianism, as the noumenal “thing in itself” became completely inaccessible and the phenomenal object more inert. He also remarks in passing, however: “In English ‘thing’ has still preserved the full semantic power of the Roman word” (Heidegger 175).

3Seen in this light, to think that the “thing” stands before us as a merely neutral existence, or as a metaphysical problem, is a highly developed cultural illusion. Such a view of the “thing” is the equal and opposite illusion to what Heidegger saw in the apparent datum of the isolated Cartesian consciousness.

4Whether or not we accept Heidegger’s specific reading, our conscious relation to the “thing” is the symptomatic focus for a larger, background relation to the world which may in itself be quite unconscious. Modem literature should be a primary arena for bringing this fact into consciousness, but readers have repeatedly missed this opportunity and merely adopted the world view of one or another author as their unexamined criterion. Modernity has often been defined through one of the powerful world-views of Beckett, Eliot, Joyce, or Lawrence rather than using these authors to problematise these world-views as such. I propose therefore to offer a comparative reading of two authors generally recognised as diametrically opposed: Joyce and Lawrence. Above all, the response to the “thing” as a focus of world reveals our sense of being at home, or not at home, in the world at large, and modem literature shows a sharpening awareness of this. At the same time, the notion of the neutral inanimate thing is principally defined by opposition to animate beings, and especially human ones, so if things ain’t what they used to be this is reflected in changed conceptions of the human. In literary terms, this is most obviously a matter of characterisation. Both Joyce and Lawrence radically deconstruct traditional conceptions of character in ways that reconfigure the boundaries between human and nonhuman. A preliminary glance at some elements of preceding tradition may help to define the significance of this.

  • 1 See Charles Johnstone, Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea (London, 1760) and Thomas Bridges Th (...)

5Eighteenth-century and modem fiction are often in a relation of inverse parallel, and this applies to the mid to late eighteenth-century vogue for fictions about circulating objects. The adventures of a guinea piece, for example, or a bank-note, as told through these objects in first person narrative, are most basically satiric techniques for continuing, with an air of contemporaneity, the traditionally picaresque method. Just when the more demanding fiction of the period was acquiring expectations of development and structure, the device of the circulating object provided a perfect alibi for episodic method and two-dimensional characterisation.1 In keeping with this model, the items themselves are thoroughly humanised: the guinea adopts the role of servant to successive “masters”, and the bank-note, conceived of as male, spends a whole Shandean chapter describing the sensations of being secreted in a young woman’s bosom. Deirdre Lynch, however, in The Economy of Character, gives a further twist to the humanising of objects with a monetary symbolism. The bank-note ceases to be a mere piece of paper, and is “fathered” as a literary character, by virtue of the graphic character, the signature, written upon it. Lynch develops the parallel between graphic and novelistic “character” to suggest that three-dimensional psychological depth, the stock in trade of the subsequent novel form, is itself a kind of endorsed fictional convention; an accepted currency sustained by economic advantage. Increasing numbers of the population could, as it were, afford such a wealth of inner life. For the present theme, however, one may note the unembarrassed use of the humanising device. The categories of the human and the inanimate are obviously secure enough to sustain their fictional elision.

6In the post-romantic worlds of Balzac, Dickens and George Eliot, however, the boundaries of these categories are less secure as the human is sustained by its continuity with the natural, or the world takes on the colours of the spirit as a way of representing psychological depth. In a classic episode, Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke feels herself “part of that involuntary, palpitating life” and the London of Dickens’s Bleak House is morally figured by its opening vision of fog and mud. (Eliot 788). But of course the categories here are far from being merely elided. All these writers have a fine sense of metaphor, of psychological symbolism, and above all of the crucial function of the imagination whether in fiction or in the moral life. At its best, this mid-century fiction combines the twin impulses of poetry and realism; a significant interrelation between surface and depth. By the last two decades of the century, however, such a philosophical, moral and social synthesis seemed no longer sustainable, a shift figured in the quite different London of George Gissing whose study of Dickens expresses both his admiration for the achievement and his irritation at its impossibility for him. The Dickensian mythopoeia no longer seemed possible, which means that it never really was although Dickens, magnificently and infuriatingly, got away with it. As the practice of fiction split into the self-conscious separatisms of naturalism, aestheticism, realism and romance, etc., it would take the modernist generation to create a variety of new syntheses: syntheses which would bear on, and indeed be focused by, the human relation to things.

7An important turn in this regard was to internalise the anxiety of naturalism and to accept in a positive spirit the thing-like existence of the human. Lawrence made the point most explicitly in his well-known letter to Edward Garnett: “I don’t care so much about what the woman feels [...] I only care about what the woman is—what she is—inhumanly, physiologically, materially [...] what she is as a phenomenon (or as representing some greater, inhuman will), instead of what she feels according to the human conception” (Lawrence, Letters 182). Yet of course, as Lawrence went on to insist, he was still concerned with the human dimension too, unlike Marinetti who, he thought, wanted only the scientific conception. Joyce, whose impersonalising techniques were so much more self-evident, needed rather to emphasise in such obiter dicta his human interest in his characters, but he likewise sought to escape the humanistic viewpoint along with all the other cultural nets. His presentation of subjectivity turns subjectivity itself into a thing, placing it on a dramatic footing with other things in the world. We understand better now how, far from subjectivising the world into a “stream of consciousness” as early accounts had it, he rather dissolves the categories of inner and outer. In Ulysses the process of consciousness is not only inseparable from the objectivity of the world, it increasingly partakes of that objectivity. Joyce could, therefore, take over the animated world of Dickens while understanding it under a different sign.

  • 2 “The task of properly seeing what we have had in front of us all along may appear to be very simpl (...)

8We tend not to describe Joyce as poetic, and if we think of him as mythic it is in a radically different sense from Dickens. Joyce’s genius was for turning depth into surface. In his own way, he would agree with Heidegger that the hardest thing is to see what is in front of your eyes.2 Joyce was acutely aware that human beings are inescapably meaning-making animals, and the medium for achieving this, language, is one in which meaning inevitably both congeals and proliferates. Hence, we overlay the world with illusory, redundant or otherwise mischievous meanings even beyond those more obviously invested in the “big words that make us so unhappy” (Ulysses 26). And there can be no saving recourse to a simple degree zero of meaning, an unmediated relation to the thing. Cunningly, therefore, Joyce adopts in the realm of meaning a technique familiar from theatrical staging. To create the effect of emptiness on stage you could have an empty stage, but this would not in fact express emptiness, only a stage, as it were, in neutral gear. To express a more positive emptiness of meaning it would be more effective to fill the stage with rubbish, as Harold Pinter effectively did in The Caretaker. So Ulysses is packed with meanings neither endorsed nor denied, but always relativised, by the text. The plethora of internai interpretations is like a vast and complex-looking equation which finally cancels out to a zero. We arrive at the significance of an unmediated vision, accepting the world simply for what it is, and things for what they are, through the very impossibility of literally doing so. The comedy of reduction is far from reductive: it allows us to experience the thing for its own sake.

9In achieving this effect, Joyce’s other great weapon, apart from cunning, was exile. In Ulysses he imports the estranged standpoint of exile into the heart of the Hibernian metropolis through the viewpoint of the assimilated Jew, Leopold Bloom. As Bloom, for example, watches a priest giving communion, he provides a striking example of the effect that Brecht later defined as “alienation”:

A batch knelt at the altarrails. The priest went along by them, murmuring, holding the thing in his hands. He stopped at each, took out a communion, shook a drop or two (are they in water?) off it and put it neatly into her mouth. Her hat and head sank. Then the next one. Her hat sank at once. Then the next one: a small old woman. The priest bent down to put it into her mouth, murmuring all the time. Latin. The next one. Shut your eyes and open your mouth. What? Corpus. Body. Corpse. Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first. Hospice for the dying. They don’t seem to chew it: only swallow it down. Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse. Why the cannibals cotton on to it. (Ulysses 66)

10Referring to the “thing” in the priest’s hands, Bloom is ignorant of the technical terms which would give the inner meaning of what he sees. The transubstantiated host represents the ultimate extreme in investing a brute thing with meaning by virtue of language: a wafer of bread becomes the body of Christ. But Bloom, who is not part of this linguistic communion, sees what is physically before him with a startling accuracy; as any pre-1960s Catholic would recognise. Just as the women’s hats and heads sink equally in the gesture of piety, so his mistaking the priest’s hurried sign of the cross for shaking water off the host describes the action itself more vividly and truly than reference to its internai meaning would ever allow. Meanwhile, Bloom’s reflections on language, drugging, cannibalism, and swallowing whole, sketch the essentials of a nineteenth-century anthropological deconstruction of Christianity. In substance, it is a devastating critique but Bloom himself is not in secure possession of this viewpoint, and nor does the Joycean narrative simply enforce such an analysis, as Brecht might do. Anthropologists, after all, are also wordmongers and world-makers, and the invoked critique is not allowed to replace the communion with a supposedly superior wisdom. The episode is rather an example of the text’s complex cancelling out of meanings. The communion continues undisturbed, but shot through with an x-ray vision of its cultural meaning as precisely that. Meaning itself becomes a thing.

11By contrast, in The Rainbow, Lawrence’s character, Will Brangwen, enters a church building, Lincoln Cathedral, observed critically by his wife, Anna. Will is a pious and emotionally idealistic young man, with a Ruskinian enthusiasm for medieval architecture, which he wishes to share with his wife although the outcome is to make her feel excluded. His excitement builds to a Wagnerian crescendo from which she reacts with increasing anger. From the several pages of this emotional process, the following sentences give a summary sense of his emotion and her response.

And there was no time nor life nor death, but only this, this timeless consummation, where the thrust from earth met the thrust from earth and the arch was locked on the keystone of ecstasy. This was all, this was everything. Till he came to himself in the world below. Then he gathered himself together, in transit, every jet of him strained and leaped, leaped clear in to the darkness above, to the fecundity and the unique mystery, to the touch, the clasp, the consummation, the climax of eternity, the apex of the arch.

She too was overcome, but silenced rather than tuned to the place. [...] His passion in the cathedral at first awed her, then made her angry.

[...] She claimed the right to freedom above her, higher than the roof. She had always a sense of being roofed in.

So that she caught at little things, which saved her front being carried forward headlong in the tide of passion [...] And it was as if she must grasp at something, as if her wings were too weak to lift her straight off the heaving motion. So she caught sight of the wicked, odd little faces carved in stone, and she stood before them arrested.

These sly little faces peeped out of the grand tide of the cathedral like something that knew better. (Lawrence, The Rainbow 188-189)

12The prose of Will’s ecstasy indicates how Lawrence could have acquired, for casual readers, his reputation for bad writing in the service of an obscurantist sexual mysticism. But the writing precisely, if riskily, enacts Will’s condition of emotional onanism. The vocabulary of aesthetic and religious idealism, combined with the sexual straining of the syntax, indicates the emotional enclosure from which Anna is pointedly excluded. None of this is clear to Will, of course, as the obscurantist vocabulary dramatises the self-projected emptiness of his idealistic feeling. Lawrence’s great theme was otherness and if, like Joyce, he was a psychological exile, the foreign for him has a different meaning. The foreign theme of this novel, as introduced by Anna’s Polish mother, Lydia Lensky, represents the unknowable, the otherness which cannot be epistemologically possessed, of all human beings, even in the closest relationship; and of the external world generally. After all, if Anna is excluded, the cathedral too is drawn into Will’s emotional solipsism. Anna, however, although she has no articulate awareness of what is happening emotionally, withstands the tide of false passion by clutching at little “things.” She is able to start her challenge to Will through the gargoyle faces but in the first instance she notices them only as undiscriminated things, as clutchable realia. The two characters represent, as an incommunicable contrast, the semantic poles of the word “thing”: she clutches at these physical entities while he, in a later idiom, is “doing his thing” in dangerous divorce from reality.

13Yet while dramatically diagnosing Will’s emotional dualism, and using Anna’s response to focus this, the narrative employs no distancing irony at his expense, nor does it entirely endorse Anna who from this point on becomes increasingly limited and undemanding in her earth-bound domesticity. Lawrence, in any case, is more concerned with the impersonal, or phenomenal, play of emotional forces, than with moral judgements of individuals. And more importantly, although Will has lost his way emotionally, he still believes in something beyond himself, the kind of belief that allowed Lawrence to describe himself as a deeply religious man. Of all Lawrence’s longer works, The Rainbow gives the fullest and most explicit weight to this backdrop of religious consciousness. In this regard, the contrast with Joyce is especially illuminated by the opening chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.

14Like other admirers of Auerbach’s book, I find it comparatively weaker as it approaches modernity and in respect of these two modem writers it is his opening discussion of “Odysseus’ Scar” which is most pertinent. As he contrasts two ancient representations of reality, the Odyssey and the Old Testament, we may see in Joyce’s choice of Homer and Lawrence’s of the Bible as their mythopoeic models, a trans-historical contrast of temperamental possibilities in world-view and literary expression. Auerbach sees in the extended digression on Odysseus’ scar, occurring so close to the end of the story, and while the outcome hangs fatefully in the air, a quite different value from the suspense that might motivate a modem narrative at such a moment. He argues rather that in Homer’s world all human objects and relations have an intrinsic interest so that the story of the long-ago hunting accident has an equal narrative value with the suspenseful present. To appreciate these incidents properly for themselves is to regard them as equally present. Joyce’s elaborate modernist spatialising of the narrative in Ulysses achieves, and thematises, a modem equivalent for this Homeric impersonality and eternal present. Just as the successive narrative techniques deconstruct the claims of competing Systems of meaning, so the overall narrative, in its overtly aesthetic construction, avoids naturalising its own internai momentum and thereby imposing this on the subject matter. As in Auerbach’s Homer, things acquire human meaning. In Auerbach’s Old Testament, by contrast, the world is represented only in terms of its relation to the divine. Objects corne into view when irradiated by this significance. If this world, in Auerbach’s phrase, is “fraught with background” (Auerbach 12), then the world of The Rainbow is a modern equivalent of it. The “divine” in the novel, of course, is no longer the traditional metaphysical principle, and is more a psychological property of the characters. But the overriding relation between the characters and the “something beyond” themselves by which they live provides the psychological and metaphysical dynamic of its narrative world.

15Both these modem writers, then, transpose their originals to make them viable within the apparently incompatible context of modernity. In their respective ways, they seek to make modernity habitable, or make habitable their respective understandings of modernity. Likewise, although their nomadic lives are clearly reflected in their work, it is with an equally strong motif of domestic rootedness. Ulysses moves to its culminating phase of spatialised impersonality precisely in parallel with Bloom’s nostos in 7 Eccles Street. In what Joyce claimed as his favourite episode, the impersonal catechism of “Ithaca” finds Bloom negotiating a world of familiar, useful, if sometimes intransigent, things such as key, railings, and rearranged furniture. As he turns on the kitchen tap, he releases, at least from the common human standpoint, a comic deluge of language and meaning (Ulysses 548). But as the human is assimilated to this inhuman perspective, so the inhuman itself is made available through human language, and in a spirit of comedic acceptance. Bloom’s final wisdom, in the face of his cuckoldom, is to accept his own existence as a kind of thing. Along with the return to Homer under whose sign this occurs, the book in this respect also returns to the eighteenth-century circulating objects, but not by virtue of Bloom’s totem objects, his piece of soap or potato, so much as in Bloom himself. In him, “character” has sought a return to the status of thing, just as in the linguistic consciousness of the narrative it threatens to return to the graphic signature on a page.

16Lawrence’s very different response to modernity is also focused by the relation to things. In contrast to the common forms of utility and possession, as in his story “Things”, he seeks to recover the otherness of ordinary things in the most familiar contexts, such as domesticity. Although he is primarily concerned with the individual as a centre of life, this is to be known only through the connection to the not-I. Even in the act of writing, he says,

My hand, as it writes these words, slips gaily along, jumps like a grasshopper to dot an i, feels the table a little cold, gets a little bored if I write too long, has its own rudiments of thought, and it is just as much me as is my brain, my mind, or my soul. [...] Whereas, of course, as far as I am concerned, my pen isn’t alive at all. My pen isn’t me alive. Me alive ends at my finger-tips. (Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy 193)

17In seeking to recover the true, non-Kantian meaning of the “thing in itself”, Heidegger saw in a deliberately ordinary object the active, verbal sense of the Old High German “gathering”:

The jug is a thing neither in the sense of the Roman res, nor in the sense of the Mediaeval ens, let alone in the modem sense of object. The jug is a thing insofar as it things. (Heidegger 177)

18Although quite different in his mode of expression, Lawrence typically presses upon us a comparable recognition to be seen most clearly in the humblest rather than the highest things. As he continues the thought I quoted at the outset, he strongly combines the two polar meanings of “thing” and, in doing so, suggests what it means for him to be at home:

The actual doing things is in itself a joy. If I wash the dishes I learn a quick, light touch of china and earthenware, the feel of it, the weight and roll and the poise of it, the peculiar hotness, the quickness or slowness of its surface. I am at the middle of an infinite complexity of motions and adjustments and quick, apprehensive contacts. Nimble faculties hover and play along my nerves, the primal consciousness is alert in me. Apart from all the moral or practical satisfaction derived from a thing well done, I have the mindless motor activity and reaction in primal consciousness, which is a pure satisfaction. If I am to be well and satisfied, as a human being, a large part of my life must pass in mindless motion, quick, busy activity in which I am neither bought nor sold, but acting alone and free from the nerve centre of my active isolation. Not watching my own reactions. If I wash dishes, I wash them to get them clean. Nothing else. (Lawrence, Reflections 151)

19Once again, this parallels inversely Bloom’s phenomenal view of himself. Lawrence’s aliveness involves meeting things on something like their own terms and yet, to do so, the things as external objects must equally exist as aspects of a “thing done” He meets the world of things half-way. Doing things in the kitchen, both Joyce and Lawrence found a renewed sense of the human through a new relation to the inhuman as experienced in the thing.



Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1953.

Bridges, Thomas, The Adventures of a Banknote. London, 1770.

Eliot, George, Middlemarch, ed. Rosemary Ashton. London, Penguin, 1994.

Gissing, George, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. London, Gresham, 1903.

Heidegger, Martin, Poetry, Language, Thought. Transl. Albert Hofstadter. New York, Harper, 1971.

—, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik (The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), ed. Wilhelm von Hermann. Frankfurt am Main, Vittorio Klostermann, 1983.

Johnstone, Charles, Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea. London, 1760.

Joyce, James, Ulysses (1922), ed. Hans-Walter Gabier. London, Penguin, 1986.

Lawrence, D. H., The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol ii, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1981.

—, “The Education of the People”, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1988.

—, The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1989.

—, “Why the Novel Matters”, Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1985.

Lynch, Deidre, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1998.

Pinter, Harold, The Caretaker. London, Eyre Methuen, 1960.


1 See Charles Johnstone, Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea (London, 1760) and Thomas Bridges The Adventures of a Banknote (London, 1770).

2 “The task of properly seeing what we have had in front of us all along may appear to be very simple, yet this kind of seeing and grasping is actually very difficult” (Heidegger 338).


Professeur De Littérature Anglaise Et De Littérature Comparée À L’Université de Warwick (Grande-Bretagne), et directeur du Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts. Ses publications incluent D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge UP), Literature, Modernism and Myth (Cambridge UP), Sentimentalism, Ethics and the Culture of Peeling (Palgrave), Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority front Jean-Jacques Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (Oxford UP).

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