James Joyce and Irish Nationalism

Gently does it, now! Careful with those white corpuscles! The repossession of Joyce by Irish writing and Irish nationalism has been going on nicely for decades past. Probably wrapped up by now – though there has been a quietude over Easter. Perhaps the annual James Joyce┬áSymposium will return different news. But, at any rate, it’s not all that simple. And now, in the age of Brexit when Irish people are cordially bemoaning the British flight from the European Union, their own historic flight from the other union might well invite interrogation. I personally regard it as a very mixed blessing in the century-long view. Joyce had a view too. He greatly resented the fact, for instance, that the new State adopted the Irish island on its stamp. He thought that, having broken the island in two – “split little pea” – it was deficient in authority to do so. Hard to quarrel with that. In fact, it took seventy years for the Irish Government to accept the point that its territorial claim was … impractical, at the least. So where did Joyce stand on Irish separatism? His journalism shows him partisan to a Sinn Fein nationalism minus the Gaelic-Catholic dimension (which, frankly, never could happen).GPO_Unionx500

Recently Colm Toibin has pointed out that the “Cyclops” episode ought be read as his response to 1916 – and this seems right. In earlier days, Emer Nolan laboured to show that the chapter isn’t the unambiguous satire of Michael Cusack and the GAA that American critics supposed. (Richard Ellmann & Co. were utterly dismissive of nationalist Ireland in a relatively unreflective way.) But to an unacknowledged extent Stephen Dedalus is much more of a cultural unionist that we often suppose – and so, of course, is Bloom. Item. Bloom has a Union Jack behind his parlour door. Item. In Stephen Hero, Stephen Dedalus (aka Joyce) prates about the difference between the language of the market-place and the language of the literary tradition. And when he colloquises with the Dean of Arts about the famous “tundish” scene in A Portrait, he notes the difference in the reception of English words in Ireland but does not bemoan “our own dear Irish” has Mrs Rooney does in Beckett’s facetious “All that Fall”. (“Baaa!”)

Seamus Heaney has wryly called that episode in A Portrait “The Feast of the Holy Tundish” and, in fact, no cadet critic in Ireland is without a spiel on the postcolonial gist of the episode. Today, in colleges and schools, it is assumed to be a marker for Joyce’s apprehension that the Irish language was “taken” from us, &c. &c. In fact the episode – and its codicil in the final diary entries of the novel – call for no such interpretation. Stephen simply shows himself to be a Skeat loyalist – loyal, that is, to Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1882 & edns.) which he “read by the hour” – as Stephen Hero tells us. With what effect, Finnegans Wake may tell. By contrast, his portrait of Patrick Pearse as Mr Hughes – an appropriately English-sounding-name as befits the neurotic son of the English stone-mason – reveals a sweaty-palmed puritan writhing with discomfort at the word “gra” (love) in Irish. Joyce’s point was that these men were literary and moral infants – like the egregious nationalist poet whom he mauled in a Daily Express review , citing the lines: “Where art thou / My ideal / with your baby on your knee?” (How did it get there? Joyce implies.)

Hardwicke Stx500All of this suggests to me that Stephen Dedalus is a Home-Ruler with strong attachments to the domain of English culture in Ireland. He also flirts with Protestantism, but rejects it on well-known grounds relating to the superior coherence of Catholic religious symbolism. In ethnic terms, Joyce is Norman rather than Gaelic – as befits his own name. (He was also, of course, of O’Connell descent and in fact that was where the money came from.) Likewise he is very much a contemporary Clongowian in his general disdain for the local nationalists – including Yeats, when the Anglo-Irish poet descended from his Tower to that “motley” plane.

Otherwise regarded, Joyce occupied an entirely singular position as being distanced from all the major formations by factors of class and family fortune. There was, in fact, an extraordinary sanity in his personal distantiation from contemporary Ireland – but there is also a residual Clongowian snobbery in it, as of the noble scion thrown into the company of the lower-middle class Dubliners whose “lights” he very happily tore out in the collection of that name. The ingredient of class hatred in this is difficult to estimate but by no means absent – warranted perhaps by Flaubert’s precedent in “Bouvard et Pecuchet” and the like evisceration of petty-bourgeois France – and it speaks legions for Joyce’s actual predicament as the son of a bankrupt. Perhaps he could have fled into nationalism and blamed the British Empire for everything, but he did not. He remained, in a crucial degree, a Castle Catholic which, for all his rumbunctious Corkonianism, is what his father was before him. And many another bourgeois Catholic Irishman of various dates and epochs.

Kingstown HarbourThere is a famously a bad joke in the “Nestor” episode of Ulysses when Stephen adverts to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) pier as “a disappointed bridge”. This is often taken to refer to some shortcoming in Irish consciousness that failed to grasp its postcolonial identity and “link up” with the other postcolonial nations of the earth – a notion which has been widely explored in a recent book of just that title by Richard Pine (“The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland the Post-colonial World, 2015). Apart from the glaring anachronism, the trouble with this interpretation of Joyce’s pontine trope is that it skates off the most obvious sense – and the one which, if they were not so stupid, the Prep-school boys would understand (“rich and thick” to the last). Probably, in parenthesis, Joyce was aware of the troubled history of harbour-building in Dublin – Howth first, then suicides, the silt and Captain Bligh, &c. &c. – but that is another matter and another day’s work. For Stephen, while teaching in a distinctly subaltern prepubescent academy in Dalkey, isn’t offering the nationalist “riposte” to Mr Deasy so much as an elegy for an Ireland that could have been – an Ireland properly assimilated to Britain and to the body of English culture. Hence his “lapwing poet” in the following chapter is Edward King, Milton’s friend who “s[a]nk beneath the watery floor” of the Irish sea.

This version of Stephen as a forlorn cultural imperialist is not entirely a fictional construct for purposes of that novel and in other contexts we generally embrace Stephen as an autobiographical character. No one doubts the literalism of the self-portraiture in “Stephen Hero”, for example, a portrait which in some respects more resembles Stephen in “Ulysses” than in the interim production. (I would argue that Joyce when back to Stephen Hero when he created Stephen of Ulysses and for that reason he told Budgen that ‘Stephen has a shape that cannot change.’)

After 191GPO 1916x5006 – which disturbed him greatly – Joyce was extraordinarily taciturn about Irish politics except when berating the Ireland of “Fr Murphy” and other excesses of the confessional state. During the First World War, which he passed in Zurich, he adopted the persona of Mr Dooley, not so much an anti-war platform as an equal-handed disdainer of both parties. Mr Dooley had “enough to do paddling his own canoe” – a sentiment in line with his later query, ‘What did I do during the War? I wrote Ulysses .. What did you do?” In that period, too, he staged Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” with Nora delivering a “very authentic brogue” as Maurya in 17 June 1918. A fracas about loaned trousers with one of the staff of the British Consulate gave him a splendid opportunity to fight his own Anglo-Irish war, but be it remembered that he was also the recipient of a British literary pension which Yeats had secured for him against some rather warm remonstrations from other figures in the British literary establishment.

in 1919 Joyce told a French-Swiss lady journalist that he had nothing to say about the position of “his race” and must rely on his “elastic art ” for any pronouncements of that kind. It is a marvellous phrase – “art elastique”, suggesting that the formal dimensions of his writings would convey what he disdained to tell an opinion column. This is not to say that he lacked opinions. He certainly disliked the Free State regime which he called “Healiopolis” – after Tim Healy – but he also seemed to regard the country’s fractured condition as a just correlate of his own cultural outlook and his own central concern with the fragmented nature of reality – a phenomenological vision which informs the psycho-linguistic character of every page. There is certainly, I think, an immensely important postcolonial basis for this way of feeling, this way of being “l’homme plume”. Ever since Sean Golden launched the idea in The Crane Bag in 1979, it has been a standing challenge to get the postcolonial ingredient in Joyce right. Under the impact of the Northern Troubles, the generation of Seamus Deane notably failed to get it right because they were incapable and unwilling to countenance the resilience of the idea of an English literary tradition in James Joyce. Granted, “sovereign English [s] punned to petery pence” in Finnegans Wake, but it remains the bedrock of the book.

This idea requires very careful elaboration. Everyone feels, I think, that without the colonial and postcolonial ruptures of modern Ireland there could be no Finnegans Wake and probably no Ulysses. Otherwise stated, the epic and cosmic order of those books respectively is an attempt to suture the fragmented world created by those ruptures. Nothing else can explain the felt necessity to unify the world by such extravagant symbolic means with Nicholas of Cusa and Giambattista Vico lending arcane frameworks which Joyce exploited at full stretch throughout the whole. Yet the world which is being thus-unified is not the Gaelic world and there is no resort to nativism in either of those texts. On the contrary, they seek unity in a wider constatation of European culture and, in so doing, they are unionist in a fundamental sense. For this reason alone Joyce merits being called the laureate of the European Union. He certainly was not a British Unionist but he is not an Irish Nationalist either, and this should be remembered and (at the risk of pleonasm) not forgotten.


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