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The Politics of Joyce

James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

“Consciousness” denotes the movement of the mind both in recognizing its own shape and in maintaining that shape in the face of attack or change. James Joyce’s consciousness declared itself in certain initial choices. The first came when, encountering pomp and pretense, he elected nakedness. At a point in early adolescence, he saw surrounding him an array of spiritual and secular satraps, whom he called “Intensities” and “Bullockships.” Rather than accept the patterns of behavior they endorsed, he sought a primal accuracy of response, the “utter nakedness” of which Richard speaks in Exiles. To keep a kind of stripped-down innocence when worldly wisdom, sanctioned by a time-worn creed and crown, was the fashion, required faith in himself and his intention. This was the faith of which he wrote at the age of twenty to Lady Gregory, “I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.”

Joyce was not the only young man in the late Victorian period to quarrel with established powers; socialists and atheists were common enough. But for him these were adjectives rather than nouns, the term they modified being “artist.” “It is a mistake for you to imagine that my political opinions are those of a universal lover: but they are those of a socialistic artist,” he wrote his brother in 1905. He had a considerable sympathy for large ideas, so long as they could be subsumed under art.

Joyce’s rebellion against the Church was the first outward act of his inner resolution. As a boy he had been outraged when the Catholic clergy, weak-kneed in politics and stiffnecked in religion and morality, aided English Gladstone in toppling Irish Parnell. He had then from the start a political concern. He was motivated also by a conviction—no less intense though it took him longer to express it—that there could be no substitute for “the individual passion,” a large term that included sexuality, “as the motive power of everything—art and literature included.” The point at which religious and secular morality impinged directly upon him was its demand that he restrain his sexual impulses, or, as he interpreted the doctrine, that he masturbate rather than copulate. The whole conception of sin became repugnant to him. He allowed instead for “error.” To quarrel with the Church, as at first, according to the original draft of A Portrait of the Artist, he did outwardly, led him to quarrel with his mother and by extension with his motherland, in which he saw a secret collusion of Catholic and British authorities threatening hell or jail.

Aesthetics Without Aesthetes

During the period in Irish history when Joyce was coming of age, the usual political gestures, such as voting in Parliamentary elections, had no meaning. The word “political,” however, as Roland Barthes says, describes “the whole of human relations in their real, social structure, in their power of making the world.” Joyce is not often recognized as having functioned as a political writer. The theory of art and its practice which is usually drawn from his writings is that the artist is too godlike to take sides for or against his characters. Joyce, it is said, offers instead multiple perspectives on the action, in the form of different styles and different narrators, without choosing among them. This is to malign God as well as Joyce. The view has caught on a little because Flaubert sometimes expressed it, and Joyce is held to be another Mauberley having Flaubert for his true Penelope. Yet Flaubert’s explicit statements about artistic detachment are inadequate to explain Madame Bovary, where the author, however unconfiding, describes the feelings of his characters with an attentiveness that may be poker-faced but is not heartless. So much patient, detailed consideration hardly jibes with the artist’s being indifferent. Joyce exhibits this attentiveness too, and with characters more obviously likable than Flaubert’s. Like Stephen, he accepts responsibility for learning “what the heart is and what it feels.”

His true Penelope was not Flaubert: he was even captious about that master’s allegedly perfect artistry, and dared to find fault with his choice of tenses. The writer Joyce did praise almost unreservedly was Tolstoy, who made no show of indifference at all. If, as Joyce wrote his daughter, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” is the finest of all short stories, it is so because of its sympathy for men in their follies. The quality for which Joyce praised people he admired was sincerity, for him the supreme virtue as well as the rarest. It was one he sought for himself, which he did not intend his elaborate means to conceal.

A second theory of art may be drawn from Joyce’s writings. It has less to do with the qualities of the aesthetic object, its wholeness, harmony, and radiance, though these are not renounced. To think of artistry alone was for Joyce a mark of the aesthete rather than of the true artist; if Stephen is sometimes taken for an aesthete, that is a misunderstanding. An aesthete is what he is not. The imagined and concocted were of no value beside the known and experienced; or, as Joyce said, the foot-print Robinson Crusoe saw in the sand was worth more than the eternal city envisaged by St. John.

A classic statement of Joyce’s program comes at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The peroration of Stephen’s journal reads, in part, “Welcome, O Life!…” Jaundiced critics have attempted to find an absurdity here, as if Joyce could write an exclamatory sentence only ironically. Of course Joyce was like Stephen aware that big words can make us unhappy, but he and his hero adopt the florid capital L for Life without fear. It does not matter that Stephen sounds more youthful here than in Ulysses: Joyce had a keen sense of the fervor and high spirits of youth, and Yeats remarked that in no one he had met, except William Morris, was the joy of life so keen as in Joyce. The whole of A Portrait prepared for an emotional release, and these words denote that Stephen is experiencing it. Nor was there irony in Stephen’s following words, “I go to encounter counter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In the encounter with reality he is the millionth; in the forging of his race’s conscience he acknowledges no predecessors.

This declaration on Stephen’s part was one of those that Joyce allowed himself or his characters only at rare intervals. Another, which he made in propria persona as well as through Stephen, indicates that the purpose of the artistic conscience is to say yes rather than no. He first certified this function of art in his essay on James Clarence Mangan in 1902, where he held that the artist takes part “in the continual affirmation of the spirit.” Shortly afterward he has Stephen express the same view twice in Stephen Hero: “Thus the spirit of man makes a continual affirmation…,” and “The artist affirms out of the fulness of his own life….” In Ulysses Stephen reiterates, this time to Bloom, “the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man in literature.” Far from being inclined toward the position of the aesthete, Joyce has both Stephen and Bloom expressly disavow it, Stephen at the end of A Portrait, where he abjures retrospective beauty, and Bloom in “Lestrygonians” and “Sirens,” where he dismisses the “creamy dreamy.” In the service of an ampler art, Joyce practiced humility before the workings of the universe. No partial art, such as the aesthetes endorsed, could satisfy him, nor could any distillation of life, however refined, that ignored grossness.

For him the mind was profoundly physical, containing all the organs of the body. An art which failed to suggest that its characters were capable of defecating, urinating, masturbating, copulating, menstruating, was for Joyce a falsification. Bodiliness was a measure that could be applied to books as to lives. To be sentimental was to deny the body, an offense just as serious as to deny the soul, and meant shirking responsibility by evasion. It was a form of Not-Life, an appeal to an old order which was not less vicious for that order’s having never existed. As such, it was one form of self-blinding, which the newly forged conscience must prevent.

This conscience is communal, or racial as Joyce said. Dante hoped to bring his readers from the state of misery to one of felicity, and Joyce undertook such a venture too. Homer and Shakespeare may have had similar aims, but they show little sign of wishing to change the forms of society. Homer’s Ulysses wishes, after all, to restore the ancien régime in Ithaca.1 Shakespeare’s Ulysses (in Troilus and Cressida) defends degree as fervently as Bloom, following Dante, defends a love which passes all degree. Joyce was more radical than Homer or Shakespeare, the least willing to accept the world as he found it. That he considered this quality important is substantiated by a letter he wrote to his brother on March 15, 1905, at a time when he was establishing his character as artist: “I believe that Ibsen and Hauptmann separate from the herd of writers because of their political aptitude—eh?” He had his own idea of how this aptitude might best be displayed.

Guerrilla Warfare

In the first draft of A Portrait of the Artist, which comes closer than any of his works to nonfictional autobiography, Joyce indicated that at one period in his development he had been outspoken in his rebellion against institutions, specifically against the Church. “But that outburst over,” he then writes, “it was urbanity in warfare.” The term “urbanity” is misleading, it suggests indulgence and tolerance, and its relation to “warfare” is antithetical; a term less paradoxical would be “obliquity.” This is the quality which shapes Joyce’s treatment of institutions in all his works. It went with the distaste for didacticism, shared with Flaubert. Sometimes he is so oblique that he is believed in some quarters not to have been conducting warfare at all.

Apologists for his Catholicism have pointed out that he repudiates the Church in A Portrait only to the degree that it impinges upon his hero, and not absolutely. But that is merely to say that he keeps within the frame of his fiction; it does not reduce the authority of Stephen as a model. Joyce’s attitude toward the state has also been misinterpreted, not least by Marxist critics. At the Congress of Writers in Kharkov in 1933, Karl Radek accused him of being a defender of bourgeois capitalism, and some non-Marxist critics, reading Ulysses the same way, have marveled at what they take to be Joyce’s complacency about the social order, or what Lionel Trilling has called his indifference to politics. Still, the author of Dubliners could scarcely be considered complacent, and the misconstrual arises from his indirectness.

S.L. Goldberg has lamented that Joyce failed in Ulysses to display the evils of modern industrialism as D.H. Lawrence in Women in Love exposed the horrors of the coal mines. There would in fact be a difficulty in placing coal mines in an Irish setting. (Mr. Goldberg concedes this point.) Yet Joyce was not altogether at a loss because of the lack of heavy industry in his country. He used instead as his principal emblem of modern capitalism the newspaper, wasting the spirit with its persistent attacks upon the integrity of the word, narcotizing its readers with superficial facts, habituating them to secular and clerical authority. Even here Joyce’s attack is oblique, but it is not indulgent, not tolerant, not indifferent. His obliquity was in the service of a point of view, an idea.

At the start of his career, he all but gave the idea a name. In the same draft, “A Portrait of the Artist,” he concluded in a cryptic manner, “Already the messages of citizens were flashing along the wires of the world, already the generous idea had emerged from a thirty years’ war in Germany and was directing the councils of the Latins.” The generous idea was socialism, not particularized as to school; by the “thirty years’ war in Germany” he may have meant the period after the Gotha agreement of 1875 when the socialist factions agreed to work together, and by the “councils of the Latins” he must have meant the socialist parties in the Latin countries. Not naming socialism except as “the generous idea” was probably part of that obliquity upon which he had set himself.

But at the close of this essay he makes another of his eloquent perorations: “To these multitudes, not as yet in the womb of humanity but surely engenderable there, he would give the word: Man and woman, out of you comes the nation that is to come, the lightening of your masses in travail, the competitive order is arrayed against itself, the aristocracies are supplanted, and amid the general paralysis of an insane society, the confederate will issues in action.” The tone, if not the purport, is like that of other manifestoes, including the communist one. He seems to agree with Marx that capitalism bears within itself its own destruction, and that aristocracies must go. The confederate will seems to mean the will of like-minded revolutionaries.

His own function was that of a sentry sounding an alarm, in the name of what in Stephen Hero he called “a new humanity, active, unafraid and unashamed.” As he said there,

He wished to express his nature freely and fully for the benefit of a society which he would enrich and also for his own benefit, seeing that it was part of his life to do so. It was not part of his life to attempt an extensive alteration of society but…from his general attitude he might have been supposed not unjustly an ally of the collectivist politicians….

“Supposed not unjustly an ally of the collectivist politicians”: the double negative may be oblique but its meaning is clear.

By the time Joyce rephrased this in the completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it had become the question: “How could he hit their conscience or how cast his shadow over the imaginations of their daughters, before their squires begat upon them that they might breed a race less ignoble than their own?” To catch the conscience of the people in his book must be his motive. Literature is a revolutionary instrument, however roundabout it may move.

Ulysses is in fact Joyce’s Trojan horse: a monument, but full of armed men; a comedy, but with teeth and claws. Stephen’s insistence upon reconsidering time and space has another purpose besides the extolling of art’s independence of these categories. It is political as well. For Stephen associates space with body and time with soul; the one is visible, the other invisible. He thereby relates them to the servitudes he has acknowledged in the first chapter of Ulysses: “I am the servant of two masters…. The Imperial British state…and the holy Roman apostolic church.” There is also a third, he says, who wants him for odd jobs—mother Ireland, herself the servant of a servant. The secular and spiritual powers, visible and invisible worlds, are equally extortionate. “Are not Religion and Politics the same thing?” asks Blake in Jerusalem.

Stephen allies himself with another conviction of Blake’s, that “the king and the priest must be tied in a tether.” Stanislaus reports in My Brother’s Keeper that Joyce was fond of quoting this line before he left Dublin. As Blake said in his commentary on Dante, we must “go into the mind in which everyone is king and priest in his own house,” and Yeats, in Ideas of Good and Evil, which Joyce had with him in Trieste, explained that “The phrase about the king and priest is a memory of the crown and mitre set upon Dante’s head before he entered Paradise.” The passage in Canto 27 of the Purgatorio (“io te sopra te corono e mitrio“) was then much in Joyce’s mind, and he used it for symbolic effect as his predecessors had done. The priest lays claim to an eternity of time, as the king if he could would rule over infinite space; and against these forces, anthropomorphized in earthly authorities, Stephen and Bloom have to muster their own forces.

Ulysses provides a measure against which British state and Catholic Church can be evaluated, and Ireland as well, both in its patent collusion with these forces, and in the callousness which the desire for independence could evoke. If British tyranny was brutally materialistic, so was Irish fanaticism. Persecution, by church or by state, whether of Jews or of artists, went with other forms of materialism, such as sexual cruelty and lovelessness. On the other side was an etherealism which included the diseased ideals of religion and patriotism, ideals without body and essences without form, antisexualism or love cheapened by sentimentality. The statues of Nelson and Moses, evoked in the newspaper episode, symbolize the two poles, while Parnell, whose image in the cabman’s shelter seems equally false (“Dead he wasn’t. Simply absconded somewhere”), is the local focus for political extravagance and violence.

What Joyce does is to bring pressure to bear at different points and with different degrees of intensity. It would have been possible for him to sharpen his pen by representing as ogres both Father Conmee, as a high functionary of the Church, and the Viceroy, as the chief representative of the State. But he is careful not to do that. The Viceroy and Father Conmee, who traverse Dublin emblematically in the “Wandering Rocks” episode, are allowed to be personally inoffensive. Even the Cyclops, as Irish chauvinist, has a turn of phrase, though it’s a wrong turn, and likes his dog, though it turns out to be somebody else’s. Yet each is obliquely repudiated. Benevolent Father Conmee has no sense of the strength or value of the appetites he seeks to repress, or of the rigidity of the Church which he serves so devotedly. But Bloom and Stephen, each in his own way, remark its sadomasochistic elements, and Stephen especially sees it as a nightmare preying upon the living.

As for the Viceroy, Joyce represents him mildly enough as on his way to a charity benefit. The clatter and ringing of the viceregal carriage are grand. On the other hand, it is viceregal spies who report on the native populace to the Castle, and the viceregal soldiers who bully Stephen. Bloom, hearing the phrase, “Our lovely land,” asks with a pertinence which is emphasized, “Whose land?” He fully supports Irish independence, but he challenges the Citizen on the use of force, and has to endure the Citizen’s attempt to use force against him. He challenges etherealism, too, in a small way by refusing to see a newspaper publisher as “the image of our Saviour,” in a larger one by shrewdly anatomizing the rites of confession, communion, and extreme unction, by rejecting chastity, by repudiating the false idealization of both woman and of country.

Stephen is equally unwilling to accept the occupying authority, and he too has this for one of his targets. He savagely mocks both British glories and Irish chauvinism with his Parable of the Plums spat out upon Ireland’s promised land from Nelson’s pillar. Like Bloom, he repudiates the use of force to achieve independence, so will have nothing to do with Old Gummy Granny who offers him the glorious opportunity of dying in armed struggle for Ireland. After a booklong attack upon the etherealism of Dublin rhetoric, whether in the service of piety or patriotism, Stephen combats materialism when he tells Private Carr that he must kill the priest and king in his own mind, a political remark for which he is promptly knocked down.

Political Antecedents

The attack on space and time, then, is elaborately coordinated with an attack upon the visible and invisible authorities in Ireland. The attempt to destroy space and time through art becomes a similitude of the attempt to overcome state and church through language, by rendering them ridiculous, by disclosing their secret natures, by flouting them directly and indirectly. Joyce’s political awareness was based on considerable reading. His library in Trieste included especially books by socialists and anarchists. He had, for example, the first 173 Fabian tracts bound in one volume. Among related writers who interested him were notably the two anarchists Kropotkin and Bakunin, and the social reformer Proudhon.

Peter Kropotkin’s pamphlet on Anarchist Morality denied any validity to the old dichotomy of egoism and altruism, on the ground that, willynilly, people’s interests are mutual. Kropotkin might be borrowing from Joyce, rather than Joyce from Kropotkin, when he declares, “the condition of the maintenance of life is its expansion.” Joyce read Proudhon’s Qu’est-ce que la propriété? with equal attention. Proudhon defines slavery as murder and property as theft. His views appear to underlie the discussion in Exiles of robbery. Little Archie asks his father, Richard Rowan, whether there are robbers in Ireland as in Rome, and receives the reply, “There are poor people everywhere.” Richard then goes on to ask, “Do you know what it is to give?…While you have a thing it can be taken from you…. But when you give it, you have given it. No robber can take it from you…. It will be yours always. That is to give.”

Richard in the play tries to apply this principle to love as well as to money. When Proudhon quotes an old definition of trade as the “art of buying for three francs what is worth six, and of selling for six what is worth three,” he might be priming Stephen to reply to Mr. Deasy’s attack on Jewish businessmen, “A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?” Proudhon’s injunction, “Speak without hate or fear: say what you know,” is also in the Joycean manner. “On then: dare it,” Stephen tells himself. These radical reformers fascinated Joyce by the sweep and finality of their writings as well as by their subversiveness.

His principal political authority was, I think, Bakunin, whose God and the State2 examined the relation between certain philosophical and political concepts in a way Joyce could put to use. Bakunin condemned on the one hand a brutal materialism, and on the other its seeming opposite, a lofty idealism; to both, he pointed out, matter was vile, a representation of “supreme nothingness.” Joyce could take advantage of this hint by displaying the collusion between the brutal materialism of Buck Mulligan, his indifference to the consequences of his acts and words, and the mysticism of George Russell, for whom acts done in this world are merely lying semblances.

Bakunin connects the materialism of the State with the idealism of the Church, and sees them both as united in the enslavement of humanity. “All religious are cruel, all founded on blood,” he declares, and concludes that all religious “rest principally on the idea of sacrifice, that is, on the perpetual immolation of humanity to the insatiable vengeance of divinity.” Bloom concurs: “God wants blood victim. Birth, hymen, martyr, war, foundation of a building, sacrifice, kidney, burnt-offering, druid’s altars.” During the day both he and Stephen delineate the bloodthirstiness of Church and State, their cruelty and their urge to flatten out individual freedoms.

While Bloom’s remarks, though a little muddled (“foundation of a building” does not fit in so well), are close to Bakunin’s in their expression, Stephen is allowed by Joyce to put his own view more gnomically. So in Nighttown Stephen tells the soldier Carr, “You die for your country, suppose. But I say, let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want it to die.” He is a little drunk, but he means that sacrifice can enslave as well as free. The purpose of nationalism is the expansion of life, not its abbreviation. Later Stephen remarks somewhat testily to Bloom, “You think I am important because I belong to the Faubourg Saint Patrice called Ireland for short. But I think Ireland is important because it belongs to me.” The State is the instrument of its members, not their enslaver.

Notwithstanding such bursts of impatience, Stephen keeps in Ulysses as in A Portrait a basic loyalty to his country, and repudiates those who, as he shrewdly conjectures of Mulligan, will betray it. Whatever tendency Stephen has to wash his hands of Ireland, he cannot be anti-Irish for long. So at the end of A Portrait, having devoted one entry in his journal to mocking the Irish mentality, he comes to the conclusion, “Then into Nile mud with it!” But in his next entry he rebukes himself with the words, “Disapprove of this last phrase.” In Ulysses he recognizes his kinship with even the grossest of his compatriots, “Their blood is in me, their lusts my waves.” One of his most pro-Irish statements is unreported and has to be inferred from a remark which his music teacher makes in reply to something Stephen has just said. The teacher says (in Italian), “I once had the same ideas when like you I was young. But then I became convinced that the world was a beast.” What Stephen has just said, discreetly omitted by Joyce as too close to the knuckle, is that he intends to write for the benefit of his race; Artifoni’s reply only shows that he himself has fallen into the idealist error of treating the world as vile.

Since they anatomize and deride Church and State alike, Bloom and Stephen might be mistaken for anarchists. While neither offers a coherent program of change, neither is satisfied with simply laying bare the inadequacies of Irish spiritual and secular governors. Stephen is bent upon affirming, and needling his compatriots into affirming, the disused possibilities of life. He wants them to walk untrammelled by petrified dogmas. For Bloom what is truly life is love, possibly a crude term for his sense of mutuality of concern but at least a traditional one. As a young man he was a socialist, and annoyed Molly during their early acquaintance by informing her that Christ was the first socialist. The Church he finds bloodthirsty and prone to make victims, the State the same. He has vague humanitarian goals. On this plane Bloom appears ludicrous, and Bloomusalem is an appropriate emblem for his Utopian hopes of social regeneration. But clearly Joyce is here exaggerating to the point of absurdity Bloom’s kindness and goodhearted civic feeling.

Beyond Parnell

Bloom’s politics do not stop here. If his ultimate goals are (like most people’s) indistinct, he has an immediate one that he understands very well. For what it is we have to look at the final chapter. Since Molly Bloom is apolitical herself, her monologue is not the place we would expect to find political information. But she is distressfully aware that her husband has views. They are likely to get him into trouble, she feels. She mentions them, in fact she cannot help mentioning them both early and late in her monologue. Even during their courtship Bloom was for Home Rule and the Land League. She complains, “he was going about with some of them Sinner Fein lately or whatever they call themselves talking his usual trash and nonsense he says that little man he showed me without the neck is very intelligent the coming man Griffith is he well he doesnt look it thats all I can say still it must have been him he knew there was a boycott….”

She is leery of her husband’s losing his job with the Freeman’s Journal: “well have him coming home with the sack soon out of the Freeman too like the rest on account of those Sinner Fein or the Freemasons then well see if the little man he showed me dribbling along in the wet all by himself round by Coadys Lane will give him much consolation that he says is so capable and sincerely Irish he is indeed judging by the sincerity of the trousers I saw on him….” These references are insistent enough.

Joyce is sometimes said to have had no politics except regret for Parnell, yet he was not the man to worship the dead. For a long time now he had had his eye on a living leader, Arthur Griffith. Griffith, eleven years older than Joyce, had after some years of preliminary work founded in October 1902 the separatist organization which in 1905 was christened Sinn Féin (Ourselves Alone). (Molly Bloom anticipates by sixteen months the later name.) His principal coadjutor had been William Rooney, a patriotic poet, who had died in 1901 at the age of twenty-eight.

In 1902 Griffith published Rooney’s poems, and it fell to Joyce to review them in December of that year for the Unionist Daily Express, for which Gabriel in “The Dead” also writes. The review attacked the poems first for being derivative, but more importantly, for being “full of tears and curses.” “And yet he might have written well if he had not suffered from one of those big words which make us so unhappy.” Griffith for answer quoted most of the review in an advertisement in his own newspaper, the United Irishman, and after “big words” added “[Patriotism].” It was a stroke Joyce could admire, even if aimed against himself.

He followed Griffith’s subsequent activities closely, and in 1906 he made up his mind. A letter to his brother asserted flatly that a recent speech in Dublin by Griffith had justified the existence of his newspaper. In this speech Griffith advocated the boycott of English goods that Molly mentions, and also an educational system, a national banking system, and a national civil service. He agreed with Bloom, and with Joyce, in not being a “physical force” man.

Although he refused to endorse the revival of the Irish language, Joyce was in other ways on the side of the separatist movement, and particularly of Griffith’s program. He thought that the time for parliamentary action, of the sort espoused by Parnell, was over, and that an economic boycott would have more hope of succeeding. Of course the fanaticism of the extreme Sinn Féiners did not attract him, and he satirizes it in the Citizen, whose battle cry, Sinn Féin amhain (“Ourselves Alone forever”), serves as a stick to beat anyone he doesn’t like. Stephen also speaks of the “archons of Sinn Féin” as giving Socrates his noggin of hemlock. But if Joyce did not like the extremist wing of the party, he approved Griffith’s moderate program.

He had personal and literary reasons as well for admiring Griffith. In 1911, when Joyce addressed a public letter to newspapers in Ireland about the suppression of Dubliners, most of the newspaper editors ignored it, only two published it, and of these two only Griffith risked libel action by publishing it in full. The next year, when Joyce was in Dublin, he asked and received Griffith’s help for Dubliners, this time against the pseudo-nationalist machinations of an Irish publisher. From what he writes of his conversation with Griffith, he evidently won his help by insisting that his literary purpose was “the spiritual liberation of my country” (a phrase he used to Grant Richards on May 20, 1906)—Dubliners was not a summons to action, yet it exposed the shortcomings of Irish life under British rule. He also pointed out that he was the only Irishman on the Adriatic coast writing articles for Home Rule in Triestine newspapers.

In Ulysses Joyce was encouraged by Bloom’s Hungarian origin to relate him to Griffith’s program. Martin Cunningham says Bloom gave Griffith the idea of the Hungarian system, that is, of a dual monarchy for England and Ireland, on the model of the Austro-Hungarian empire. For much of his life Griffith espoused it, but the Easter Rising of 1916 made such a compromise impossible. Now total independence became his goal. He kept in the forefront of political activity, and in 1921 when the Irish Free State was in process of being created, he took a principal role. More to the point, for Joyce, was that on January 8, 1922, Arthur Griffith was elected first president of Ireland.

This was just the moment when Joyce was completing Ulysses, a coincidence he could not and did not resist. The references to Griffith in his final chapter are more than coincidence; Joyce wished to salute Griffith’s at last successful efforts. Bloom is described as having once picked up Parnell’s hat and handed it back to him, a homely gesture more attractive than rhetorical ones. Joyce offers Griffith, through the unwitting agency of Molly, a backhanded tribute, homely too. It was Griffith’s program, and not Parnell’s, which had eventually won through. Ireland was achieving independence just as Ulysses was achieving publication. The political emancipation of Ireland had been accomplished by his old ally Griffith, and the emancipation of its conscience—Joyce’s own lifetime work—was also approaching culmination. Bloom’s sometime socialism, and Joyce’s sometime socialism and anarchism, are put behind in order to hail, in Joyce’s own fashion, the new country and the political leader to whom he felt most closely allied.

Ultimately Ulysses too constituted a political act, in the oblique fashion that Joyce used to express himself. Its humor was not offhand but a means of comic exploration of the shortcomings of life in Ireland as lived under British and Catholic authorities. To those who lived meaninglessly in a brutal and consuming present, Joyce offered a world of accountability and did not shrink from calling it spiritual. To those who, nursed by locally distorted Catholic doctrines, spoke of spiritual realities as if they alone existed, he pointed to the realities of the body’s life. Like Dante he felt empowered to confer mitre and crown, a new politics of mind and body. That Ulysses like the Free State could come to exist was a major blow against those who wished to envisage life in a narrower style than it sponsored. The book summons into being a society capable of reading and enjoying it because capable of as frank and open an outlook on life as the book manifests. Ulysses creates new Irishmen to live in Arthur Griffith’s new state.

For Joyce the creation of the Irish Free State was the culmination of his hopes. After 1922, the complexities that came with it interested him, and he followed them as he could from across the Channel. He mentions those who came after Griffith, De Valera in particular. The tergiversations of the Irish parties understandably did not arouse him to any strong partisanship. By this time, the political awareness demonstrated by his book made lesser maneuvers redundant. On the other hand, the international situation pressed in upon him more and more. Joyce did not sign protests, and maintained his aloofness from all particular events except one, the Nazi butchery of the Jews. On this point—which was the touchstone of politics in the ‘930s—he did what he could, and by means of his intercession perhaps a dozen people were helped to escape from Germany. Such assistance meant more than many protests, and the idea of personal help pleased him best as his skepticism of institutions mounted.

The Politics of Aesthetics

Joyce’s politics and aesthetics were one. For him the act of writing was also, and indissolubly, an act of liberating. His book examines the servitude of his countrymen to their masters in Church and State, and offers an ampler vision. While the criticism is severe, its aim is to unite rather than disunite. The central action of Ulysses is to bring together Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom by displaying their underlying agreement on political views which the author thereby underwrites. The agreement is countersigned by Bloom’s rescue of Stephen from army and police after the young man has mentally defied both Church and State. That the two men converge only partially does not diminish the exemplary value of their partial convergence. For a moment Bloom and Stephen, coming from the two ends of the alphabet, can become Blephen and Stoom.

So the pun on names is also a pun about existence, and the pun is Joyce’s stock in trade beyond what is generally acknowledged. In a pun the component parts remain distinguishable, and yet there is a constant small excitement in their being yoked together so deftly and so improperly. An equivalence is at once asserted and questioned, sounds and senses in mutual trespass are both compared and contrasted. Puns are of different kinds, and their effects are also various, so that they make us laugh or wince, are random or substantive, conjure up lofty associations or vulgar ones. Words are expatriated and repatriated like Dubliners. Joyce exploited all these nuances, and the pun becomes the key to his work—a key both aesthetic and political, both linguistic and moral. Each pun in effect wreaks havoc with space and time, and with every form of settled complacency. Words are fractioned by ineptitude, yet the force that fractions also draws the world together. Near-misses of sound, sense, and, finally, of form constitute the fabric of creation. Out of malapropisms, spoonerisms, bloomisms, the world is born.

The pun extends beyond words. The same process goes on with people and incidents. A law of the Joycean universe is that every single thing is always on the verge of doubling with another. Doubling reaches a nightmare pitch in Circe, when Bella becomes Bello, when Bloom doubles as Henry Flower and also as a woman, and when wallpaper and pictures assume human voices. The characters also tend to double with mythical archetypes, divine and human. The implications of the meeting of Bloom and Stephen, their connections with Ulysses and Telemachus, with King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet, with Shakespeare and Hamnet, are infinitely extensible. To the complaint that they do not fuse Joyce would doubtless have answered that the essence of the pun is not complete but incomplete juncture. To have them fuse would be to abolish the reason for their having been brought together. The parts of the pun keep their identities even while these are demonstrated to be less isolating than they appeared. And the resemblances between two men, and two sounds, are themselves made up of further resemblances to other people and other sounds.

What is Joyce implying here? I think he is implying first that the system is closed and not open, that the number of human possibilities is limited and that, as we struggle for uniqueness, we discover that we are doing something not for the first time but for the millionth time. But if closed, the system is still fertile. The mind attempts, impartially, to multiply instances of itself in all possible slight variations. Simultaneities are everywhere. “Think you’re escaping and run into your self,” says Bloom, as if undoubling were necessarily doubling too.

With this recognition of universal intermingling Joyce attained his final unstated statement about life. Before him as before Whitman stretched democratic vistas, and he could say that he contained multitudes. Yet he did not sentimentalize. What he had discovered was not that all forms were one form—a mystical conclusion—but rather that all forms proceed by incessant doublings and undoublings in which they remain enantiomorphous—that is, resembling each other but not superposable. Hierarchies disappear and the “aristocracies are supplanted,” for all elements are common elements. The pun, verbal emblem of coincidence, agent of democracy and collectivist ideas, makes all the quirky particles of the world stick to each other by hook or crook. Such adhesiveness is unity or the closest to unity that can be envisaged.


Muddled September 29, 1977

Mining 'Ulysses' June 15, 1978

  1. 1

    Ruskin claimed Homer as, like himself, “a violent Tory of the old school.” 

  2. 2

    London: Freedom Press, 1910, translated by the anarchist Benjamin Tucker, himself one of Joyce’s admirations.