Monday, July 15, 2024
Google search engine
HomeUncategorizedJames Joyce was a complicated man

James Joyce was a complicated man

I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world.

James Joyce

After Nora Barnacle masturbated James Joyce under a bridge, she became his muse. It was their first date, and Nora thought it a way of keeping her ardent admirer at bay. The glove that Nora had removed, Joyce kept by him in bed as a young man. But this was more than infatuation. That day became the centre of Joyce’s imaginative work, the day on which Ulysses was set. 

A few years earlier, Joyce had been seduced by a prostitute, down by the River Liffey, an encounter which began his retreat from religion and religious authority. Now Nora was bringing him towards his central idea: the role of love in human affairs, and the notion that, as Richard Ellmann put it, the ordinary is the extraordinary; Joyce’s novel is the “justification of the commonplace.” What happened between him and Nora that day wasn’t crude or immoral or disgusting: it was life. And it became the foundation of Ulysses.

Nothing marked Joyce’s reputation as much as this openness about the functions of living—defecation, menstruation, masturbation, and micturition (urination). Joyce’s universalism, his depiction of all of the human experience, repulsed even fellow modernists. Upon the publication of Ulysses, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield decided that Joyce was “low bred”. Ezra Pound worried his high art had become “arsthitic”. 

Strange as it might be, there was sympathy between Joyce’s fellow writers and the censors who banned his work. Ireland—the country that now celebrates Bloomsday every year, hosts statues of Joyce, and runs tours of the routes taken by the main characters in Ulysses—was the most stringent country when it came to banning Ulysses. Richard Ellmann wrote, in his celebrated biography of Joyce, “To his Irish countrymen he is still obscure and very likely mad; they, alone among nations, continue to ban Ulysses.” That was in 1959, more than thirty years after Ulysses was published, and some eighteen years after Joyce’s death. Ireland never printed or imported the book. It was only available as contraband until the 1960s. The 1967 film was also banned, only released in 2001.

The feeling was perhaps mutual. Joyce left Ireland first in 1902 to study in Paris. He returned in 1903, when his mother was dying. He met Nora on 10 June 1904: they left Ireland that October. From then on, Joyce lived in Europe. In 1906, he tried to get his short story collection Dubliners published, but controversial passages caused anxiety. These sections would hardly be noticed today—implied sexuality, mild swearing, petty violence—but the publishers demurred. In 1909 Joyce visited Dublin, hopeful that a publisher would take Dubliners. It took them three years, until 1912, to finally reject the book, which was deemed so unsuitable the galleys were burned. 

So it was that James Joyce left Ireland and never went back. The man who is today claimed and proclaimed as the great genius of Irish literature was rather ambivalent about his country. Just as Ireland rejected him, he had rejected Ireland.

In a draft of Stephen Hero, an abandoned work which became the basis of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his early autobiographical novel, Joyce described the way that attending school had “paralysed” his heart—saying of his alter ego Stephen Dedalus, “in a stupor of powerlessness he reviewed the plague of Catholicism… the spectacle of the world in thrall filled him with courage.” Stephen feels he is living at “the farthest remove from the centre of European culture” and resolves that he will live “according to the voice of a new humanity, active, unafraid and unashamed.” So it was with Joyce and Norah living in Europe—and it would be a long time before Ireland was comfortable with Joyce’s unashamed new humanity.

It wasn’t just censorship that distanced Joyce from Ireland. The Irish Revival movement (most commonly remembered today in the work of W.B. Yeats) looked to Ireland’s ancient, mythic past as part of a burgeoning national spirit. To Joyce, this was parochial. “Just as ancient Egypt is dead,” he wrote, “so is ancient Ireland.” His aim was not to become bound to a romanticised notion of the Irish past, but to show modern Ireland to itself and to make an Irish literature that was truly European. By exposing the cultural paralysis of Dublin, he would seek the universal in the particular. 

When Dubliners was rejected, he said that would “retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished glass.” Like Jonathan Swift, Joyce believed (or claimed) that the unspeakable details of daily life would shock people into improvement. Swift had said that “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own”. Joyce’s problem was that Ireland could see itself all too clearly in his work.

Ulysses was a further departure. When Joyce wrote Dubliners, Ezra Pound compared him to Gustave Flaubert—the ultimate realist, whose prose is classical and precise.  Joyce as Flaubert is very far away from the Joyce of Ulysses, and indeed many passages of Dubliners read like the final perfection of nineteenth-century prose. Like Beethoven shepherding late classical music into Romanticism, Joyce was the last great High Victorian, before he became the quintessential modernist. 

In Ulysses, Joyce’s modernism was so new, so complicated, so polyphonic, polyrhythmic, polysemous, polysonic, polytropic, it discombobulated even other modernists. Ulysses was largely reviewed as a curate’s egg: full of original brilliance, but full, too, of confounding, immoral, buffoonery. Virginia Woolf exclaimed: “Never did I read such tosh”. Woolf denigrated Ulysses as “extravagant”, “mannered”, “uproarious”, “ill at ease”, and “obscure”. For Woolf, Joyce couldn’t be realistic and write burlesque at the same time. For Joyce, that was the only way he could be realistic.

This fractured set of opinions is apt for modernism, which is the high art of fragmentation. Fragments had been made central to literature by the Romantics a century earlier; now the modernists were using fragments not only as their technique, but as their theory of the world. Consciousness is fragmentary and so, to depict consciousness, novels must become fragmentary too. As T.S. Eliot said, “the number of aspects” in Ulysses “is indefinite.”

Eliot thought Joyce’s innovations had “the importance of a scientific discovery.” Joyce had found “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” For Eliot, this meant collecting fragments of contemporary life and arranging them with fragments of the whole tradition of literature. 

For Joyce, the fragments are always Irish, always from Dublin, but arranged in a Homeric pattern. This European complexity is what makes the question of Joyce and Ireland so fraught. What has been admired about Joyce’s style and art is precisely what complicates his position as an Irish writer. Famously, when asked late in life if he would ever return to Ireland he replied, “Have I ever left?”. From Trieste, he often wrote home asking for gossip and local newspapers. But it was once wisely said that “Ulysses is no more about Ireland than Moby Dick is about a whale—although no less”. Moby Dick very much is about a whale, but it is also about everything else, and to see Joyce as primarily a writer about Ireland and her politics is to mistake his fundamental aim. He wanted to reform his country, but he was loyal to art first. 

Like Flaubert, Joyce cared most about aesthetics, language. In 1938 he snapped: “Don’t talk to me of politics, all I am interested in is style.” To claim Joyce on any political side, despite his expressed political opinions (both in newspapers and his fiction) is to somewhat misunderstand his intent. The critic who made that remark about Ireland and Moby Dick, Bernard Benstock, also said this: “Art does not follow life in Ulysses; it subsumes life.” Or, in Edna O’Brien’s words, “language is the hero and heroine” of Ulysses.

Still, Ireland is everywhere in Joyce’s writing, or Dublin is. Style, to be great, must have a moral purpose. Joyce wanted, from the early stories of Dubliners onwards, to show Ireland to itself, to spark a sense of self-abnegation and reform. Little wonder, then, that the style of his books was primarily admired outside Ireland, notably in the British and American universities. As Bruce Stewart wrote.

[T]he establishment which embraced Joyce was predominantly Protestant and Anglo-American. Joyce’s agnosticism was, of course, a help. That his mind was ‘Irish’, ‘Catholic’, and even ‘medieval’ thus seemed less important than the fact that he conceived of the world of culture as a huge jigsaw of interlocking pieces in which no one narrative, still less one national tradition or one religious dispensation, easily prevailed.

Joyce does erupt into commentary on Ireland, most notably in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when the family has Christmas lunch and quarrels about the Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell. The scene ends with a character modelled on Joyce’s father crying out, “Poor Parnell! … My dead king!”  

In the 1880s, Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of the Protestant gentry, became the voice of the growing Irish Home Rule movement in the British Parliament. After W. E. Gladstone won a large majority in 1880, the conditions for Home Rule were more favourable in Westminster than they had ever been. But that was the year Parnell met Katharine O’Shea, a married woman, with whom he began an affair. 

In 1885, Gladstone proposed a Home Rule Bill. The odds of any such Bill passing into law were always small, but Parnell was working democratically with Westminster. In the next election, Parnellite MPs were the third-largest party in the Commons.

Then Katharine O’Shea got divorced. The court case exposed Parnell’s adultery. Parnell’s carefully balanced coalition began to break. Parnell was a moderate, but Victorian Society was unable to accommodate itself to his fornication. Faction ensued; the party split; the Catholic Church condemned Parnell. And when he married Katharine O’Shea, many Irish Catholics were shocked at the breach of her wedding vows, unbreakable by Catholic doctrine. 

Parnell’s supporters, including W.B. Yeats and the young James Joyce, felt deeply, inconsolably betrayed. Parnell was being abandoned by the people he had led. The moderate Parnellite cause was dead. And it was partly Ireland that had killed it. “What?” as Mr Dedalus cried in Portrait, “Were we to desert him at the bidding of the English people?” Caught between the English bayonet and the Catholic censor, Ireland was stuck, unable to confront itself, unable to reform. In Portrait, Joyce opens up the division at the heart of nationalism. What good is it to be free of England’s colonial rule, only to submit to the yoke of the Catholic Church?

Rather than take sides in Ireland’s national debate, young Stephen Dedalus (the artist of the title, and Joyce’s alter ego), leaves Ireland, in pursuit of art. His name, Dedalus, is taken from Greek mythology, the name of the artist who built the labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur. Joyce was attempting something similar. “I have put the great talkers of Dublin into my book, they—and the things they forgot,” Joyce said of Dubliners. The same is true of Ulysses, which often feels like a labyrinth, geographically, psychologically, and narratively. (Though I have found some light in the labyrinth of Ulysses, I have never made my way through Finnegans Wake, a book that only the most obdurately dedicated readers can parse.)  

George Bernard Shaw, a fellow Irishman who left Ireland, was an early observer of Joyce’s Swiftian purpose—to lead his Irish readers into the labyrinth and confront them with everything they were in denial about themselves. In a characteristically vituperative letter, Shaw wrote about the squalor of Dublin,

[A]t last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat clean by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject. I hope it may prove successful.

Joyce’s politics are best expressed in his collecting of Ireland’s realities, its daily life, the idioms and idiolects of the people. Partisan political commentary diminishes his moral purpose: by trying to find and express the universal in the particular, he wanted to show Ireland how much more it could be. Were it not such a vastly unclassifiable book, we would think of Ulysses as satire.

Like Swift before him, Joyce’s satire is at once local and universal. Thus he constantly spills over from Ireland to humanity, from politics to art, from life to myth. 

Ulysses is modelled on The Odyssey. The opening of the Odyssey describes Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan War, as πολύτροπον, or polytropon, which is infamously difficult to translate. Polytropon is the man of many-travels, many-turns, but has depths of implication: much-turned can figuratively be taken as changeful, versatile, wily, even adulterous, perhaps. Odysseus is much-travelled and the Odyssey is primarily a story of many-travels. But he is also changeful—he disguises himself, takes up with lovers, lies to his advantage. Odysseus is polytropic in the biggest sense: many-sided, complicated, shifting, shifty. 

So was Joyce. He ran away from Dublin with Nora, only to descend into the drunken dissatisfaction of coupled life with a baby. He kissed one of his female students, suggesting marriage to her. He swore off sex with Nora to avoid any more pregnancies (they had no money), sometimes sleeping head to toe; but within days he wanted to “sink into the womb of her being.” He drank prolifically, to the point of blacking out; he swore off drink; he drank again. Although he wasn’t rageful, like his father, some of this behaviour is reminiscent of John Joyce, a hard-drinking, spiteful, aggressive man. James was the only child who didn’t hate his father, recognising that they were both sinners. Like Odysseus, James Joyce was something of a shape-shifter.

Ulysses is polytropic in this sense too. It is a book of voices, registers, tones, and moods; it shifts constantly, from place to palace, perspective to perspective. It is a novel full of stichomythia interleaved with digressive satire. Layers fold upon layers, voices upon voices. It is one of the most polyphonic books in English. In its plot, characters, sentences, registers, style, structure, form, it is a book of many turns. Nora used to write letters home, threatening to leave Joyce; he looked over her shoulder while she did, scornfully suggesting she capitalise the word “I” (he was, of course, much more lenient in the use of capitalisation in his own work). When they were apart, James and Nora’s letters reach a pitch of erotic gore that appalled many when they were published. The frenzy of their lust—their letters full of frenetic exhortations about whipping, tickling, frigging, straddling, costuming, ripping, spluttering, and “cockstand tearing”—was the basis of their love, their desire to dissolve into each other. This is not smut: it is a bond of trust, intimate and revealing; many-sided.

The multiplicity of Joyce’s personality and his life with Nora became the fragmentary compositions of Ulysses. The more we know about their life, the more personal Ulysses comes to seem. But the book is national, political. These compositions focus on the question of Irish nationalism in the Citizen scene, which corresponds to the episode in The Odyssey when Odysseus must escape from the Cyclops. Like the Cyclops, the Citizen, who is a representative of Irish nationalism, is a crude, vigorous figure. He sponges drinks, spouts conspiracy-theory politics, grumbles pugnaciously about the British. The Citizen embodies all of Joyce’s problems with the nationalist movement: the obsession with history, the narrow-mindedness, the drink. Several times, the Citizen is openly anti-semitic to Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses (who is Jewish). Several times the Citizen and his cronies try to press Bloom into joining for a round of drinks. Bloom wisely refuses, not wanting to be caught in the swirling Irish trap of having to constantly reciprocate rounds of drink, which leads to more and more drunkenness and deeper and deeper financial strain. As he so often does, Bloom stands apart; Irish, but not of long Irish descent; part of the group, but briefly, before retreating to his thoughts; certain of himself, but not of others.

The Citizen becomes increasingly offensive (making remarks about immigrants that are uncannily relevant to the recent Dublin riots). Nationalism might be a good idea in principle, Joyce seems to be saying, but not like this, not in this evil manner. Sick of the angry, chauvinistic, ranting of the Citizen, Bloom stakes out the central belief of Ulysses.

—But, it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

—What? says Alf.

—Love, says Bloom. I mean just the opposite of hatred.

These are the words around which Ulysses revolves. It is love that links the presentation of micture and masturbation, the Irish material and Homeric frame, the Flaubertian love of style and the modernist love of fragmentation. All of Ulysses is written in the service of human love, of the rejection of distemper and riot, in opposition to the view of life that calls foreigners “bugs” and wants to squash and deny the impulse of lust.

Ulysses is made of Irish material, down to the last word, but it is an attempt to remake Ireland, to show the country back to itself almost unrecognisable. “To forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” Stephen declares as his purpose in Portrait. Joyce may have held strong political views, and expressed them strongly in his work, but he was not joining in the arguments of the day. When Joyce denounced the national movement for selling out Parnell, he wasn’t merely being partisan: he was expressing the same frustration that Stephen Dedalus felt about Ireland’s culture, and which he knew that only art could resolve.

When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

Maybe the strange web of contradictions about the relationship of Joyce’s work to Ireland is best expressed in what he said about his father,

He never said anything about my books, but he couldn’t deny me. The humour of Ulysses is his; its people are his friends. The book is his spittin’ image.

James Joyce was complicated—Odyssean, a man, as Edna O’Brien said, of blatant inconsistencies. “Joyce’s chaos is our chaos, his barbaric desires are ours too, and his genius is that he made such breathless transcendations out of such torrid stuff.” Ulysses is as Irish as a novel can be, but it is also personal, universal, chaotic, and confounding. Joyce was deeply shaped by Ireland, both his love and his hatred of it, and his work emerges primarily from his paradoxical personality, his ambivalent relationship to his homeland. 

In his own words, “the measure of a work of art is from how deep a life does it spring.”

Henry Oliver writes The Common Reader. His new book, Second Act: What Late Bloomers Can Tell You About Success and Reinventing Your Life, is now available for pre-order. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Read More



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -
Google search engine

Most Popular

Recent Comments