When James Joyce was introduced to anthropologist Sir James Frazer he was asked:
'Joyce he said, 'James Joyce'.
'And what do you do?' asked Sir James.
'I write' said Joyce.
James Joyce was not a political writer. What little enthusiasm he had drained away over the years as he found fame and fortune, living in Paris, pampered and flattered, blowing a fortune on fine wine and cravats: an aging, half-blind dandy.
This is an easy story. It fits in nicely with the traditional legend knitted for radical authors. The scandalous rogue evolves into the solid man of letters or else gets burned in the fire of their own genius.
There is a contrast between the arrogant young man who wrote to a publisher, "I seriously believe you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland" by not publishing the collection Dubliners, and the frail old boy who hurried to translate his beloved Anna Livia chapter into French in case he forgot what the whole thing meant. But there's continuity there too.
What do you do, Mr Joyce?
Joyce was an author committed to busting literary taboos, in particular taboos about human sexuality. His determination to explore sexuality in life and in print gave an added twist to his anti-clericalism, which, in turn, was born out of his background in Irish nationalism. His family were bourgeois, followers of the Home Rule party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell’s political downfall in 1891 at the hands of respectable Irish society (he was caught having an affair with a married woman) coincided with the Joyce family’s tumble into poverty. Joyce’s father spent the rest of his life in semi-employment, grubbing amongst the members of the rabblement. His mother, Mary, died in 1903 from cancer of the liver, weakened by years of poverty and fifteen pregnancies. Joyce was barely 21 at the time. He described the scene in a letter to his future common-law wife:
When I looked on her face as she lay in her coffin – a face grey and wasted with cancer – I understood I was looking on the face of a victim and I cursed the system which had made her a victim.
In his works he took a long hard look at that system: a system that not only exhausted his mother but his mother country, Ireland. Joyce was an implacable opponent of British imperialism, in life and works, from start to end, from the imperialist allegory of After The Race to the shooting of the Russian general in Finnegans Wake.
Joyce lived through tumultuous times. The period of his life as an active writer, 1904-39, spanned a whole cycle of revolution and reaction.
Joyce was an avid reader of socialist and syndicalist literature (very much born out in his critial, political and journalist works). Living for many years in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he witnessed first hand many of the national movements of central Europe. His brother, Stanislaus, lived with him in Trieste was interned during World War One as an Italian Irredentist. At the start of the war Joyce a British subject on the wrong side of the battlefield. He sought refuge in Switzerland, where, incidentally, he dined at the same café as Lenin (no one knows if they met). After the war he moved to Paris, where he would find it easier to publish his masterpiece, Ulysses. It was eventually published on his fortieth birthday, February 2nd 1922. The Irish Free State was born the same year, although he refused all invitations to return. ‘The Blue Book of Eccles’, did not see the light of day in America until 1933, legalised the same month as alcohol. It wasn’t until 1937 that it was published in England, by which time the sequel, Finnegans Wake was nearing completion. Joyce’s nightbook foretold disaster, which was to come in the form of fascism and world war two. As war descended, he fought to protect his mentally ill daughter from imprisonment as well as helping to smuggle several Jewish friends out of German occupied territory. He escaped back into Switzerland in late 1940, dying the following year.
In 1907 James Joyce, aged 25, wrote what was to become the final story in the Dubliners series, called The Dead. It was a project he began in 1904: it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1914.
When author George Russell suggested Joyce write short stories for a magazine called the Irish Homestead he was pointing out a quick and easy way for young writers to make money. As adult literacy rose throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a huge new market opened up for magazines and newspapers. Part of that market was satisfied by short stories and serialised novels. Charles Dickens was an early pioneer. Later on Arthur Conan Doyle enjoyed success with the Sherlock Holmes series. Rudyard Kipling’s tales of imperial derring-do found a large audience.
The new form strongly influenced subject matter. While the novel remained a somewhat bourgeois pastime, the mass market demanded stories that reflected everyday life. Joyce was expected to deliver short, simple, moralistic stories for the Irish Homestead. He gave them something else: The Sisters.
The Sisters begins with an image. A small boy standing in a street staring up at a ‘lighted square of window’ where he knows a priest is lying dead. He repeats to himself the word ‘paralysis’, which brings to his mind the words ‘gnomon’, and ‘simony’. It sounds to him ‘like the name of some maleficent and sinful being’. He is afraid but longs to ‘look upon its deadly work’.
There was ‘something queer’ about the old priest, opines one the boy’s guardian over breakfast. The boy takes exception to this but bites his tongue. It turns out he used to go to the priest for religious instruction.
Later he dreams of the priest: he sees the ‘grey face’ desiring ‘to confess something’. The priest was disabled. The boy used to help him open his snuffbox, half of which ends up sneezed over his garments.
In their time together the priest taught the boy many things. ‘He had told me stories of the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte… he had explained to me the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest’. He repeatedly quizzes the boy on detailed religious questions. He leaves him with the impression that the duties of a priest were ‘so grave’ that he wonders ‘how anybody had found in himself the courage to undertake them’.
We then follow the boy, who goes with his aunt to see the body of the priest, lying in a coffin in his house. There they meet the priest’s two sisters. They eat together, swapping commonplaces and memories of him.
After about a page one of the sisters stops ‘as if she were communing with the past’. The conversation takes a turn. She too noticed ‘something queer’ about the priest. He was ‘too scrupulous’. Priesthood ‘was too much for him’. He was ‘a disappointed man’.
It turns out, during a ceremony, the priest broke a chalice, the cup Catholics believe to carry the blood of Christ. For a priest this would be a serious thing. The sky didn’t open up. The ground didn’t swallow him whole. Nothing happened.
There we have it, a simple tale undermining the institutions ceremonies of the church: clear enough even to the casual reader. The eagle-eyed reader, however, will go back over the pages. Why is the story called The Sisters when they play such a peripheral role? What’s with these heavily emphasised words ‘paralysis’, ‘gnomon’ and ‘simony’?
A ‘gnomon’ is a piece of a parallelogram (we spend much of the story making sense of half finished sentences and suggestive phrases). ‘Simony’, in the Catholic Church, is the act of buying spiritual favours or powers. Think again about the sisters, two unmarried, elderly women of independent means. What was their means? Their brother, of course.
In an impoverished Catholic country like Ireland, sons and daughters were often sent off to join the church as a good source of income for the family. Joyce leaves a few hints in the story as to the class background of the sisters, not least the description of ‘them new fangled carriages that makes no noise… them with the rheumatic wheels’.
The church is a good career move? This was political dynamite! Joyce followed this up with two more stories, one featuring references to mental illness and sexual perversion, the other drinking and gambling. They were turned down by the Homestead. There was further infamy when it was realised the ‘paralysis’ Joyce hinted at in The Sisters could’ve been the ‘general paralysis of the insane’, the latter stages of syphilitic infection.
Already we have teased out a number of themes that run through Dubliners (and on, through the rest of his work). Paralysis: in the form of the old priest’s illness or Mr Duffy’s hermit like life. Paralysis: like Eveline stuck on the wharf, or the canvassers huddling in the committee room because it’s raining. Moments of deception and betrayal are cast through the book. Mrs Mooney’s tender trap in The Boarding House; Corley swindling rich women; the nationalists’ betrayal of the principles of Parnell.
The book Dubliners is very much the product of Joyce’s youth. It is the stuff of a young bourgeois hurled down into Dublin’s petty life. An ex-student stuck in budget Bohemia, suffering intellectual unemployment, he saw his art being perverted by a petty nationalism that was backward looking and essentially put on for the benefit of the English. Dublin had been a capital city with its own parliament in 1800; by 1900 it was merely the fifth city in the British Isles, overtaken even by Belfast. Virtually de-industrialised, what there was of a Dublin proletariat existed almost exclusively for the purpose of shipping food to England. Instead of normal urban life we find the pages populated mostly with clerks, crooks and servants. There are numerous references to Dublin’s poverty in the book. Even the most opulent story, The Dead, hides a sad fact; Gretta and Gabriel are the only married couple at the party.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
… Is the most familiar of Joyce’s books, most obviously a novel. While it may not be Finnegans Wake, it’s far from conservative.
The book is a bildungsroman (more precisely a kunstleroman), a story of development, featuring a young man called Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is the first of Joyce’s major characters, a fictional projection of his youth, sharing many of the young Joyce’s experiences. Its in A Portrait… we see Joyce really putting his literary skills to the test. The techniques of mimetic prose and the epiphany come into their own, charting Stephen’s development.
A Portrait…is also the first occasion when Joyce uses with the ‘mythical method’. He chose Stephen’s strange name with care. Stephen is named after the legendary Greek character Daedalus, the inventor. In one story Daedalus invented a machine enabling a bull to mate with a woman. The result was the minotaur. To prevent the minotaur from running rampage Daedalus built the labyrinth, the world’s most complex and confusing maze, to trap the minotaur. He ended up trapping himself as well. To escape he built a set of wings, and flew away. In a later story, his son Icarus took those wings, flew too close to the sun and came crashing to earth.
In A Portrait…Stephen is both Daedalus and Icarus. Trapped in various mazes, prevented from fulfilling himself as an artist, Stephen tries to flee. Each time he tries to escape he comes back down to earth. Each chapter builds to a resolution, Stephen feels released, only in the following chapter to be recaptured.
In chapter four Stephen rejects the priesthood for life as an artist. Wandering down by the shore he sees the birdwoman, who captures his heart as an image of mortal beauty. Chapter five immediately swaps glistening rockpools and whispering waves for yellow dripping and pools of weak tea as Stephen contemplates pawning more items.
The book is not apolitical. The fall of Charles Parnell is dealt with most effectively, through the lens of a family argument round Christmas dinner. The ecstatic climax of chapter two conceals the fact it’s about the grubby hypocrisy of prostitution. This leads into the mental terrorism of the hellfire sermon in chapter three. Stephen finds religion to be a hollow con, the priesthood is offered to him as a good choice for a pious, diligent student.
Above all it is the story of someone trying to realise their identity in the face of society. In alienating each individual from the produce of their labour, the thing that makes each person human, capitalism warps personalities, swallowing each individual whole. By trying to realise himself as an artist, Stephen comes into conflict with ideas of the family, sexuality, religion and nationality. The ending is quite lonely. The list of protagonists dwindles throughout the novel until, in the final pages. Stephen ends up talking to himself, through his diary.
Through the novel Stephen realised himself as an artist. The same was true of Joyce. Ten years after leaving Ireland and seven years after beginning the book, Joyce was a published author. Before Ezra Pound discovered him, Joyce was a jobbing teacher, journalist and clerk; at one point he even considered becoming a tweed salesman. In 1914 Dubliners made it into covers and A Portrait…began to be serialised in English magazines, one of which, The Egoist, was edited by a woman called Harriet Weaver. She was a Quaker, a feminist and woman of independent means. Thanks to her financial and literary support Joyce was not only able to feed his family but become a full time writer.
What is Ulysses?
It is an epic of two races (Israelite-Irish) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day… It is also an encyclopedia.
This is a book where a day is as dense as a decade. This is a book exploring the innermost of the mind. This is a book that celebrates the human body, every movement and sensation. This is a book with a huge cast of characters, swarming across the Hibernian Metropolis and yet boils down to the simplest, most common intimate relationship (love, I mean the opposite of hatred).
Ulysses is about a day in the life of three people. Stephen Dedalus, star of A Portrait… Leopold Bloom, ad-canvasser and frustrated entrepreneur and Molly Bloom, opera singer and wife of Leopold.
Stephen gets up at eight. He is ‘displeased’. Having flown the nest in A Portrait…he is back in Dublin, living in a Martello tower with a patronising Englishman called Haines and his jester Buck Mulligan. After finishing his teaching job early, he heads off on an almighty bender, talking philosophy with the green fairy.
By contrast Bloom’s day begins with agreeably, with breakfast, a bath and a trip to an acquaintance’s funeral. He starts work late in the morning. He spends the rest of the day trying to secure an ad for the evening papers but finding himself getting sidetracked, at first trying to avoid his wife’s lover but more and more trying to look after this drunken lad he met in a hospital.
Bloom is unlike all the characters in Joyce’s books so far. He is temperate and kindly, quick-witted and intelligent, never at a loss for words. We notice something different about Bloom from his very first internal dialogue:
They call them stupid [cats]. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.
Bloom’s horizons are not blighted and narrow, like other Dubliners. He is sympathetic, imaginative and can see things from another’s point of view. He helps a blind man across the road, imagining what it would be like to be blind. At one point he listens to a printing press, imagining it’s talking to him. He later feeds birds in the Liffey, dreaming up verses in their honour.
Take a random sample of Bloomthought. He sees some Ceylon brand tea and thinks:
Far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing around in the sun, in dolce far niente. Not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Sleep six months out of twelve. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness.
Bloom is the son of a Jewish Hungarian immigrant. He is set apart from Dublin society, where anti-Semitism is rife, not just in the English (Haines) and the Anglo-Irish (Professor Deasy) but even the model Irish Citizen, the bigoted monster confronting Bloom in Barney Kiernan’s pub.
In creating Bloom, Joyce takes some of the most repellent anti-Semitic myths and subverts them. For all the machismo of his rival, Blazes Boylan, it’s Bloom who triumphs because ‘he knew or understood what a woman is’. He is something different; he is a new man. Despite being born in Ireland, Bloom is still considered an outsider. He may be the Wandering Jew of Dublin, but he is also its intrepid explorer, never at a loss, never paralysed.
He is also Odysseus.
There are many myths and backstories woven into Ulysses. The most prominent is the Odyssey. As we know, Bloom is Odysseus. In taking Stephen under his wing, Stephen becomes his ‘son’ Telemachus. Molly is his wife Penelope. Boylan is the suitor Bloom ‘slays’ at the end of the novel.
Each chapter of Ulysses parallels an adventure in the Odyssey. The minor characters, many of them from Dubliners, are also given mythical roles. Bella, the madam, becomes Circe, the sorceress. Gerty McDowell is the princess Nausicaa. The Citizen is the Cyclops. In the ‘Hades’ chapter, Martin Cunningham becomes Sisyphus; at the beginning of every week he has to redeem the items pawned by his drunken wife. In ‘Sirens’ the barmaids become mermaids. Why? Because barmaids wore their finest from the waist up to attract punters, out of sight, beneath the waist they wore work clothes.
But why did Joyce choose to do this?
There was a debate at the time amongst Joyce’s supporters. Some, like Ezra Pound, chose to see the use of myth as an aid to creativity, just as scaffolding is an aid to building a house. In his essay Ulysses: order and myth, T.S Eliot argued that Ulysses put an end to the narrative method, inaugurating the ‘mythical method’; authors were to impose order on a chaotic world not by creating stories but networks of allusion.
Both arguments are right and, at the same time, wrong. Ulysses is a fine story in itself. It is also a treasure trove of puzzles and allegories. However, the epic and the narrative are parts of the whole that is the book. For example, when Bloom tackles the bigot in Barney Kiernan’s pub he is not just a lonely man, out of his depths, tackling a gang of dangerous drunks, he is Odysseus, trying to escape from the Cyclops’ cave without being eaten. It adds to the sense of urgency. Bloom is in danger.
It’s worth noting that Joyce and Eliot represent political opposites within the trend of ‘modernism’. While Eliot saw the modernity as essentially distressing Joyce saw it as containing the potential for liberation. Eliot used myths to put ordinary people in their proper place. Joyce instead deflated myths to elevate the human. In The Wasteland Eliot describes the collapse of society as the end of civilisation. Later on, in The Wake, describes broken civilisation as ‘the midden heap’, the fertile ground on which a new and better society could be built. Perhaps it is coincidence Joyce ended up supporting progressive causes whilst Eliot, like many other modernists, swung hard to the right (Ezra Pound to the extent of visiting Mussolini’s Italy).
It would be senseless not to place Ulysses in a wider context. Joyce wrote the book between 1914 and 1921, a period of war and revolution, tremendous upheaval. Some see Ulysses as hiding from the war, just as Joyce did in Switzerland. It is, in fact, his response to the war: to deflate violent patriotism and heroics, emphasising decency and humanity. The ‘epiphanies’ in Ulysses are those moments where we see the potential for renewal in our old society. It was the kind potential that, for a short while, was unleashed in Russia by the revolution of 1917, something that enthused millions across the globe. While Joyce might not have meant him to be, Bloom, the ‘cultured allroundman’, is his portent of the future, when that potential will be revealed again.
Ulysses published in France in February 1922. For a year, Joyce diddled about, writing nothing. In early 1923 he overcame his block, scratching out a two-page sketch of ‘King Roderick O’Connor’, the last ‘pre-electric’ king of Ireland, as a boozy landlord. He’d begun writing what turned out to be his last book, Finnegans Wake. He expected to have it completed and published before the end of the twenties. It took him until 1939 to finish.
Say you’ve read Finnegans Wake and you’ll be met with either awe or disbelief. On page four, you’ll find:
Phall if you but will, rise you must: and none so soon either shall the pharce for the nunce come to a setdown secular phoenish.
The book is told in this language: English, but plastic and mutable (and funny), crammed with neologisms, portmanteau and multilingual puns. Joyce justified himself, saying:
One great part of human existence is passed in as state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and a goahead plot.
For the Wake is a book about a dream. The dreamer is a man, although we’re never quite sure who he is. He dreams about his life and family. He feels strangely guilty toward his kindly wife. They have three children, two boys and one girl, tended to by an elderly woman servant. The man is a publican. Twelve regular customers attend his bar.
These ‘characters’ come to life in the dream. The man becomes Humprey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle. Their daughter Isobel is a picture of beauty, their sons Shem and Shaun, typical warring brothers.
HCE as the man is known (his name changes but the initials stay the same) is haunted by two crimes. First, an incident in Phoenix Park, where a trio of soldiers catch him peeping at two temptresses (or exhibiting himself, or masturbating). Secondly, an incestuous longing for his daughter, who reminds him of his wife when younger, and in turn of his own youth.
The other part of the novel is taken up with the brothers and their struggles, with each other and to succeed their father. There’s Shem the Penman, who has an artistic bent, his aim is to tell the truth, he creates the word. Shaun the Postman is a politician at heart who aims to censor and control, he delivers the word.
The familial action in the book revolves around these two axes. They bring to mind the radical critique of the nuclear family. As the book developed, Joyce’s own family came under increasing strain. Throughout the twenties his daughter Lucia’s mental health deteriorated. She finally broke down in 1932. With the onset of blindness and his wife’s cancer, this greatly slowed Joyce’s work rate. His son George Joyce had problems of his own. Living in the shadow of his father, he found it difficult to make a life of his own.
The book goes beyond the mere rise and fall of generations. The characters within characters take on new roles. At points HCE is Moses, Zeus, the Flying Dutchman, Persse O’Reilly, Charles Parnell and so on. Shem and Shaun go through a variety of oppositions (and adventures), Mutt and Jute, Mooske and the Gripes, the Ondt and the Gracehoper. One of my favourite pairings is Butt and Taff, two television comedians (a story written in the late 1920s I must add).
HCE is also the city of Dublin. Anna Livia Plurabelle becomes the Liffey, washing away the dirt of civilisation. When she reaches the sea she is reborn as her daughter, a cloud. The twelve regulars become civilisation, as well as the gossiping ‘guinnesses’ who spread news of HCE’s crimes across Ireland.
The Wake is all this and more. Joyce’s use of flexi-English and the dream-form of storytelling roll back all boundaries, enabling him to encompass all of human history and experience in one book (or at least try).
Like Ulysses, the Wake the book is based on another form of scaffolding. Joyce based the structure of the book on the ideas of Italian Giambattista Vico, who saw history as a giant cycle, proceeding in four wheels, the ‘theocratic’, the ‘heroic’, the ‘democratic’ and the ‘chaotic’, which returned the process to its beginning.
We would recognise the stages as ancient, feudal and bourgeois society (perhaps we wouldn’t recognise the chaotic loop), the rise of each loop as the rise of each society and the fall the beginning of revolution, the hundred letter ‘thunderwords’ announcing the beginning of each age as the act of revolution itself. The process driving the book is history: conflict, cooperation, contradiction and struggle. Each new generation/society on the rise gives birth to the next, which proceeds to undermine and usurp the previous generation/society.
Joyce apparently wanted the Wake to be spiral bound, with no beginning or end. Escape from these loops of history, the end of the neverending book, comes with subjective input. The intimidating nightspeak becomes user friendly. The reader can bring their subjective impressions to bear on the book. You can read it looking for sexual references, historical allusions, myths, jokes and so on, each time finding a different book. The Wake is continuous and at the same time ever changing.
In Finnegans Wake Joyce once again shakes his fist at violent authority. Every ruler, every empire, every tyrant is destined to fall; something that might have seemed unlikely in 1939, when the book was finished, with war brewing and two great tyrants erecting edifices, one of them promising to last for one thousand years. After all the death and destruction, there is nothing left to do except pick up the pieces and start again, with the last sentence flowing into the first:
A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.