Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 6, 2010

Joyce, everyday

Ever notice that the word “bed” looks like a bed? On last Thursday’s Caxton Club, Professor Vicki Mahaffey gave a talk entitled “On Beds: Joyce, Books, and Dreaming” and announced the winners of the Howard Wilson Prize in Literary Criticism.

Professor and chair of English Rob Smith introduced Mahaffey. Her talk was an excerpt from her work in progress called The Joyce of Everyday Life, which uses “a reading method loosely modeled on Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life. [Mahaffey ranges] through Joyce’s entire corpus to illustrate what words can tell us about everyday objects and activities.”

Mahaffey is the Kirkpatrick Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of York. She is a prominent scholar of Irish literature and modernism with an emphasis on gender and the work of James Joyce. Her books include Modernist Literature: Challenging Fictions, States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce and the Irish Experiment, and Reauthorizing Joyce.

Mahaffey judged and then announced the first, second, third and honorable mention place winners of the Howard Wilson Prize for writing the best pieces of literary criticism during an academic year. Senior Montana Standish won honorable mention. Seniors Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez and Paige Barnum won second and third place, respectively.

Before announcing the first place winner, Mahaffey said, “I just want to say that all of these essays were unusually sophisticated, well-written, and illuminating and that this was a really difficult choice.” The first place prize went to senior Deanna Wendel.

“On Beds: Joyce, Books, and Dreaming” focused on the work of James Joyce and how beds relate to and are used as symbols in literature. Mahaffey had hand-outs of the quotations she used in her talk passed amongst those in the room.

“A bed is an everyday object that Joyce places in the center of domestic existence. Moreover, Joyce makes the bed inside his fiction a counterpart for the book the reader is holding. Both bed and a book offer rest, renewal and possibly even transformation,” said Mahaffey in her opening.

“Exploring the kinship between books and beds can subtly but significantly change our understanding of reading in relation to our everyday lives,” she said.

Mahaffey cited other ordinary things that contain important symbolism of human life such as tables. She made surprising connections of beds to books and other every day things people might ignore or take for granted.

“Beds serve as sites for birth, growth, and death…The bed also metaphorically designates the destination of writers. Books, like humans, are found between covers. These various interconnections transform a simple and everyday bed into a powerful symbol for the beginning, middle, and end of life. Both imagined and real.”

Sheena Leano


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