Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Learning of Lucia Joyce

Another position paper from my biography class, this time on the professor's own book about Lucia Joyce. A fascinating and rewarding experience, reading an excellent book with its author.

What constitutes the “text” of a life like that of Lucia Joyce? Where does Carol Shloss turn her critical reader's eye, exactly, in the course of reading that text? So much of Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake rests upon secondary and tertiary sources, and there are so many interpretations of Lucia herself, that locating a coherent narrative – let alone a true one – is a daunting challenge for both author and reader alike.

What strikes me most, however, about the issue of coherence, and the attendant issue of reliability, is the inescapable desire to characterize the what and the who of a person, rather than the ever-present process of becoming. As a student of education, I cannot escape questions of learning. As a learner, born into a culture that purports to value “life-long learning,” I wonder how static the picture of any human being can really be. It is hard enough, I suppose, to explain who any given person is at any given time, and still harder to describe the developments and regressions that mark the narrative of all human lives. It is all but impossible to create that kind of narrative out of the wispy air of destroyed records and withheld information that Shloss had to contend with.

Even so, Shloss does not paint a static picture of Lucia. Rather, there are definitive moments of generation and regeneration in Lucia's adult-life, moments of crisis and moments of transition. She stops dancing. She takes drawing classes. She goes to Ireland. She is admitted to her first sanitarium. She is given protoformotherapy treatments. None of the events themselves tell us who Lucia is or what she thinks, but the combination allows for the construction of an external narrative, and the inference of an internal one. Above all, they paint the picture of a woman who's life was continually changing, resisting the formulaic, modern, and highly Apollonian tendency towards a static (and linguistic) categorization.

It is a fairly recent trend in learning theory (though not educational policy) to reject the kinds of narrow, behavioristic categories to which Lucia was subjected, both in her time, and in subsequent biographies of her contemporaries. Lucia, instead, fits comfortably into Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's theories in their 1991 work, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. The argument is, in essence, that we learn not through the transmission of decontextualized information, but that we instead are members of “communities of practice” wherein knowledge and understanding are co-constructed, and learning is embedded in the very environment in which it occurs. The implications of this insight go far beyond the classroom, spreading throughout the life of a learner, reclaiming and elevating the role of culture in the process of education. Lucia – as a cosmopolitan raised by cosmopolitans in a world still uneasy about cosmopolitanism – found herself dispersed among many “communities of practice,” and in some sense her dance through life strikes me as a fragmented journey of discontinuous learning.

“She would slip from English to French, and from French into Italian, in the course of going from one side of the room to the other” (Shloss, 222), wrote Joyce of his daughter. But what else was there for her to do? All of Lucia's cosmopolitan knowledge was meaningless to her, situated as it was in a limited and largely artificial world. Lave and Wenger write, “We have thus situated learning in the trajectories of participation in which it takes on meaning. These trajectories must themselves be situated in the social world” (L&W, 121). It is easy to imagine Lucia, then, constructing her own social world, or demanding one of her father. Joyce was not only a rare fellow member of her intellectual community, but in many ways he was the master to her “princeable” (Shloss, 304) artistic apprentice, a dynamic that was both a privilege and a curse.

In the absence of a meaningful social world that fit with her previous learning – especially after she stopped dancing and was increasingly taken from her father – Lucia learned to adopt the trajectories found within new social worlds. Learning dance was a communal experience, no doubt, but so was learning to be crazy. It is not that she willfully took on “schizophrenia,” a category so poorly defined that it would be hard to be an apprentice to it. Rather, the definitive seven months Lucia spent institutionalized were a new kind of apprenticeship. Shloss observes that, “After a certain point, it becomes difficult to distinguish the effects of the treatment from the symptoms of the supposed illness” (Shloss, 365), a fact undoubtedly true of both the experimental injections to which Shloss refers and to the experience of institutionalization. What kind of social world was Lucia repeatedly forced to enter? What kind of community of learners was she unwillingly and unwittingly made a part of?

These questions, rhetorical though they may be, point to the more difficult and genuine questions that, I suspect, are the source of the Joyce estate's resistance to Shloss's revisions of the Joyce family story. Why did Lucia stop dancing, really? How could James Joyce maintain such a paradoxically loving and yet unhelpful relationship with his daughter? Who thought that pairing Lucia with Jung was a good idea? Why did Giorgio resent his sister so much? It is far simpler to turn Lucia into an archetype, to deny her existence as a living, breathing, and developing human being. The label, “crazy,” is just that; it asserts that there is no growth or development, no membership in a community of intellectual or artistic practice. The insane are empty shells of disconnected and decontextualized cognition. The insane do not learn.

It is not clear to me whether the story Shloss tells of Lucia Joyce is a cautionary one, a literary one, a cultural one, or a moral one. Perhaps it is all of these, perhaps it is simply a reclamation of a girl abused both in her own time and by the whimsical history of the 'Great Man' that was her father. It seems to me, however, that the real reclamation of biography is a reclamation of a learning human being. Lucia was forced to learn a role that did not suit her, thanks to a mysterious family and a culture in which she was tragically anachronistic. But the important thing is that she did learn, or, we might say, she did breathe and love and laugh and dance. Biography may be accused, sometimes, of reducing the lives of its peripheral characters into the kinds of formulated phrases that Eliot's Prufrock so much despised, but it can also do the opposite, turning a static picture into the complicated and shared dance that is a life.

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