Review of Three Pillars of Modern Western Culture: Richard Wagner’s Impact on James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

Review of Three Pillars of Modern Western Culture: Richard Wagner’s Impact on James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—Leitmotifs, Endless Melody, and Gesamtkunstwerk (2nd edition) by William H. Pastor (2021) [available through Politics and Prose Bookstore:

Review by Linda and Michael Hutcheon

The full and descriptive subtitle says it all: this well-researched and well-argued study of Wagner’s influence and impact on two major modernist writers does indeed focus on the carefully defined Wagnerian concepts of leitmotifs (as they are linked to create) “endless melody” (within the novels that are shown to be literary versions of) Gesamtkunstwerk. Going beyond the many thematic references to and citations from Wagner and his works in Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time (as identified by scholars over the years) William Pastor argues instead for the structural function of the three concepts and for their conscious deployment as such by the novelists.

Though it is difficult in a brief review to give a sense of the depth and detail of the exploration, a convincing example of a leitmotif “at work”, so to speak, is clear in the analysis of a single word—“throwaway”—in Ulysses: it begins as a misunderstanding of a remark, expands to drive the plot action, and accrues more and more meaning over time. The discussion of “endless melody” turns for evidence to modernist narrative devices, such as the “interior monologue”–Joyce’s borrowing of French writer Édouard Dujardin’s literary adaptation of Wagner’s musical innovation—as deployed in Molly Bloom’s famous 22,000-word stream-of-consciousness soliloquy at the end of the novel. And, finally, it is Joyce’s creation of “an encyclopedia of human history seen through the eyes of an early twentieth-century Dubliner” and Proust’s style—weaving “a multi-spatial, multi-temporal barrage of arts, sciences, sociology and psychology” into almost every sentence—that Pastor uses to argue, somewhat less convincingly, we feel, for the works as examples of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

This is an impressive work of real passion by a philosophically-trained data analyst (retired)—and it shows: the philosophical (and literary) insights are sound and the eye for (massive) detail is impressive (and shared with the reader in helpful tables of references and additional information in the Appendices). But this is also the work of a dedicated and committed Wagnerian, eager and willing to tease out the ways Wagner and his music work to structure these two very different but equally encyclopedic literary masterpieces. The different historical and cultural contexts of Joyce and Proust are carefully laid out, as are their different aesthetic aims and achievements. But so too is what both share: that “inward turn” that marked modernism’s shift of focus from representing external reality to exploring internal, psychological, subjective states, especially in the perception of time. And this is where Wagner comes in—though in different ways that are well explained and well illustrated with extensive textual examples.

This is a book for all Wagnerians interested in a more extensive analytic exploration of Wagnerism in literature to complement Alex Ross’s wider-ranging study, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. They will recognize in it the kind of passion we all share.