Modernist literature at the museum: history, memory, and aesthetics in Proust, James, and Joyce
Jones-Williams, Benedict Colm
This thesis brings together three well-known authors of the early 20th century, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce, in order to explore the similarities and divergences in their work when it comes to the treatment and depiction of museums and galleries. Each author differs in their interpretations of such spaces but, significantly, engages with a number of related discourses: the consequence of a rising materialism in society, the risks (and rewards) of collecting, and the importance of history for both societies and individuals. As each of these authors has been extensively studied since rising to renown, the scope of my investigations is broad and spans a number of areas of scholarship in order to draw together what I see as their responses to what Peter McIsaac calls the ‘museum function’. I also make use of their correspondence and nonfiction writings in order to build as comprehensive a picture as possible. The Introduction provides a short history of the development of museums in the Western world, as well as looking at the work of several authors such as H. G. Wells and Edith Wharton, in order to assess the cultural impact of museums throughout their rise and heyday towards the turn of the 20th century. My first chapter looks at the work of Henry James, especially his interest in collectors and their motivations, as well as questions of aesthetics and historicity, as expressed in such signal texts as The Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl. I have endeavoured to engage with ‘minor’ texts of James’s such as The Spoils of Poynton and The Sense of the Past. My second chapter is concerned with exploring James Joyce’s construction of an aesthetic practice predicated around resistance (in many forms) to the power of institutions such as the National Library of Ireland and, in a more abstract sense, the legacy of colonialism as exemplified in monuments such as the Duke of Wellington’s obelisk which still stands in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. I demonstrate how Joyce uses humour as his main weapon in the dismantling of such spaces and sites in order to argue for the primacy of individual agency. My third chapter deals with Marcel Proust’s multifaceted interest in museums, galleries, and the visual arts, which he makes use of in sometimes contradictory ways throughout his writing, both fictional and otherwise. I contend that Proust believes a ‘Museum of Memory’, built along exacting lines, to be the solution to a wider memory crisis afflicting French society as typified by the upper classes at the end of the 19th century. In my conclusion I discuss the possible legacies of these literary treatments of museums, bringing modern-day writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Daljit Nagra to the fore.