The Signatory Imagination: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Don DeLillo

This dissertation examines a twentieth-century lineage of writers and poets concerned with signatory inscription. By this, I mean the writing, tracing, branding, embossing, tattooing, or engraving of the name of a person onto various kinds of surfaces, as well as other forms of marking that approximate autography. My contention is that James Joyce’s novels demonstrate an explicit, underexplored concern with signature and the different imaginary investments (psychic, legal, libidinous, preservative) that accompany its presence in the world. In Joyce’s wake, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, and Don DeLillo all produce texts that both engage with Joyce’s novels and think carefully about the potential of the signature as a material object.


My first chapter, entitled ‘Ulysses and the Signature of Things’, explores how nineteenth-century developments in graphology and forensic identification inherit ideas from the older medicinal doctrine of signatures. I argue that this expanded sense of signature offers a unique perspective on Joyce’s taxonomic representation, which questions the boundaries between a body of text and (non)human bodies. The presence of legal trials in Ulysses, such as the Dreyfus Affair, the Tichborne trial, and the Parnell Commission, evince a forensic element to Joyce’s signatory imagination. This element is taken to its logical extreme in ‘Nausicaa’, where scents, sounds, and impressions become bodily, as opposed to alphabetical, signatures — produced by humans, waves, and stones.


The second chapter, entitled ‘Samuel Beckett and the Fantasy of Lithic Preservation’, continues this line of argument, showing how Beckett inherits Joyce’s interest in nominal inscription, but employs it for different ends. While the epitaphic tradition relies upon hard materials such as stone and metal to preserve lettering, Beckett’s interest in excrement (‘First Love’) and mud (How It Is) remaps inscription onto immanence. Rather than seeking immortality through lithic preservation, Beckett’s characters yearn to ‘return to the mineral state’, to have their bodies subsumed and dispersed throughout a greater container. In explicating Beckett’s material imagination, I reveal seldom considered source material including Frank Wedekind’s Lulu Cycle and biologist Ernst Haeckel’s theory of Urschleim.


The third chapter turns from the names of persons to the names of places, from prose to poetry. Explicitly glossing poems like ‘Anahorish’, ‘Toome’, and ‘Broagh’ as inspired by Stephen Dedalus, Heaney performs a critical repatriation of Joyce’s work. Joyce uses fictional, motivated relations between names and referents to construct a linguistic correlative for Stephen’s youthful naivety – a technique that personalises his lexicon, privileging Stephen’s own associations over those of nationality, language, or religion. Heaney, on the other hand, politicises this process, utilising phonetic association to forge imaginary correspondences between Irish place-names and the people and places they denote.


The final chapter turns to Don DeLillo and his interest in signatory technologies. Drawing upon archival research conducted on the manuscripts of Americana, Ratner’s Star and The Names, I show that Joyce influenced the composition of these texts to a greater extent than previously thought. In particular, DeLillo uses Joyce to think through the technological dimensions of writing, comparing older methods of inscription like boustrophedon to modern communication techniques such as the Telex by means of Ulysses.