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Clever, Very: Katherine Ryan

Doll with appearance of fair-skinned blonde girl with light eyes in a light green dress and holding a white rose to her nose.For this “Clever, Very” interview, Katherine Ryan spoke with us about her exploration of family and inheritance in her latest article, “Milly Bloom as Blind Spot in Ulysses“, which appears in the latest issue of the JJQ (52.1).  Dr. Ryan is a Professor in English at the San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas.

James Joyce Quarterly:  In your article, “Milly Bloom as Blind Spot in Ulysses”, you mention that while inheritance in Ulysses has been heavily studied through the Bloom’s deceased son Rudy or the pseudo-patrilineal relationship between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the possibility of Milly Bloom as Bloom’s heir has been largely ignored. Why do you believe scholars have preferred to explore the former rather than the latter?

Katherine Ryan:  I think the Bloom-Rudy-Stephen dynamic has been the preferred object of study for scholars interested in inheritance largely because the text itself nudges readers towards this alignment.  Parallels to the Odyssey obviously contribute to a reading of Stephen as a potential Telemachus for our hero, an heir who can replace his deceased son.  However, while Joyce departs from the Odyssey in providing Bloom, or Ulysses, with a daughter, Milly is elided rather than foregrounded by the text.  In this way, her significance is hardly apparent for Bloom, let alone the reader.  I suggest that her role as a blind spot in the text accounts for her elision from criticism as well.

JJQ:  What inspired you to become interested in this line of investigation?

KR:  Margot Norris provided the inspiration for this piece.  During the course of a graduate seminar dedicated to the novel, she mentioned that she had always found Milly Bloom a particularly troubling character and one that bore further investigation.  I took her questions about Milly’s role in the text as a challenge and attempted to explain what I saw as Milly’s simultaneous registration and displacement in the minds of all the main characters.  This article grew out of that seminar and my continued preoccupation with Milly and Bloom.

JJQ:  As you mention in your article, ideas of inheritance around the time in which Joyce came up with the idea for Ulysses were a little different from how we think of it now. Could you briefly explain this difference?

KR:  My article takes Allan Hepburn’s claim that the modernists widely preferred “affiliation over filiation” as its starting point for discussions of inheritance.  Simply put, the modernists overturned ideas of genetic predisposition, instead preferring to choose their own genealogies based on cultural and ideological likeness.  Rather than adhering to more conventional views that familial inheritance is largely defined by the genetic transmission of traits, the modernists chose their own forbearers and, in equal measure, their own inheritors.  While this alterative definition of heredity could validate Stephen’s role in Bloom’s inheritance complex, I agree with scholars who have pointed out Stephen’s own inability to disentangle himself from biological heredity in Portrait.  I hope to show in this piece that we can take Portrait’s more conservative view of heredity as a precursor for Bloom’s inheritance-complex in Ulysses.  Like Stephen, Bloom can never dislodge himself from the family tree.  Stephen leaves 7 Eccles Street, perhaps never to return, because ultimately he is an unfit inheritor for Bloom’s legacy.  Milly’s potential as heir is only highlighted as Boom hallucinates her presence during his final conversation with Stephen and in the final episode, as Molly’s life-affirming “yes” most likely emphasizes the moment of Milly’s conception.  It is only Milly, the living, biological heir, who can extend Bloom’s lineage into the future through the distaff side – through her own children, or Bloom’s grandchildren.

JJQ:  What do you think the examination of Milly as her father’s heir brings to our understanding of Ulysses?

KR:  I think envisioning Milly as Bloom’s heir helps us see a new reason for the life-affirming potential most critics read into the ending.  It is not the reunion of Bloom and Molly or even the chance for another son that gives the final scene such a powerful note of hope.  It is the fact that “what was lost is given back to him: his daughter’s child” (U 9.422).  Bloom’s inheritance anxiety stems from his belief that because he has no son, he has no heir – a belief as baseless as it is overpowering for Bloom throughout the course of 16 June 1904.  The final lines of the novel suggest that Bloom has a reproductive futurity because he has always-already had an heir.  He still has a daughter, if not a son.

JJQ:  Where do you see the future of inheritance studies regarding Joyce and modernism in general?

KR:  By examining Milly’s elisions from, and ultimate importance within, the textual inventory of Ulysses, we might re-frame our thinking of other modernist texts and extend this textual logic to imagine new, potential reproductive futures.  I would love to see the father-daughter dynamic of inheritance discussed in future scholarship on Joyce and/or other modernist writers.

This interview was conducted by Marie Sartain via email January 30-February 4, 2016.