Joyce did not regard the letter or its brazen sister, the postcard, as a literary form of any consequence, but almost every day he burdened mailmen in different parts of his hemisphere with his sedulous correspondence. At letter’s length he felt comfortable, and wrote sparely and to the point. His letters adopt a stance which at first may appear the reverse of that in his books. His creative works are humorous, lyrical, daring. These qualities appear from time to time in his correspondence, but its prevailing tenor is wry, terse, pressed down. “I am in double trouble, mental and material,” he writes, and says in another letter, “my spiritual barque is on the rocks.” In both of these the statement has a sweep and finality which paradoxically imply that all may not be lost. His summaries of his condition are sometimes more epigrammatic: “My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.” And sometimes he relents a little to joke: “Well! (as Mr. Pater beautifully says) I have reached the low-water mark in Xmases this ‘ere time.” He is fond of deflating his life into a vista of ludicrous confusion. As Joyce writes later of Shem. “O! the lowness of him was beneath all up to that sunk to!” In an early letter he wrote that he could not enter society except as a vagabond, and there is perhaps always a submerged pleasure in his not being an upstanding British subject.
The sense of contradiction between his works and his letters is illusory. The attitude of resignation is not so far removed from that of confidence as it first appears. It contains, in fact, a peremptory note. Underneath themes which are favorites of Joyce from beginning to end—the meticulous exposition of his penury, his physical weakness, or his discouragement—there is the conviction that he expresses rarely because he holds it so unshakably, that his needs are trivial when weighed with his deserts. The letters simultaneously plead and berate. He tells his brother, “Do not delay so long executing my requests as I waste a lot of ink.” He demands patronage rather than charity. Joyce’s conviction of merit was justified in the event, yet he was imbued with it long before there were publications or even manuscripts to confirm it; confidence in his powers may be said to have antedated their manifestation.
BECAUSE OF THIS CONFIDENCE he has little patience with those who fail to pay tribute to his talent, and is likely to shift suddenly from supplicant to renunciant. He is regularly on the verge of scorning the help he requires. This readiness to “doff the world aside” is characteristic of him. He is like Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who counters his girl’s practical questions about his future by making “a sudden gesture of a revolutionary nature,” evidently a dismissal of everything in his present life. Joyce was given to such gestures, as when he went to Paris in 1902 and again in 1903, when he eloped with Nora Barnacle in 1904, when he left Trieste for Rome in 1906 and Rome for Trieste in 1907. A mood of this sort impelled him to write his brother from Trieste, at the age of twenty-three, “If I once convince myself that this kind of life is suicidal to my soul, I will make everything and everybody stand out of my way as I did before now.” In a letter to his aunt Josephine Murray he threatened to leave his new family as he had left his old one: “I suppose you will shake your head now over my coldness of heart which is probably only an unjust name for a certain perspicacity of temper or mind.” In later life, angered and pained by his friends’ dislike for Finnegans Wake, he said he would abandon the writing of the book to James Stephens. Many of these intentions were not carried out; Joyce did not leave his wife, and while Stephens was more or less willing to complete the book, in the end he was mysteriously not called upon. In retrospect, it is clear that Joyce’s secret motive in making most of his threats, though not all, was to compel the contrapuntal encouragement which would warrant his not fulfilling them. But the urge to renounce was always present in his mind as a strong possibility, and no doubt reinforced him in repudiating easy solutions to artistic as well as personal problems, thus making possible his elaborate and great solutions. As he said himself of his literary work, he wanted to feel that he had overcome difficulties.
Though his gestures of renunciation, and threats of gestures, might argue that Joyce was as he called Ibsen, an “egoarch,” they must somehow be reconciled with his other qualities. Joyce was gregarious, filial, fraternal, uxorious, paternal, in varying degrees, and surrounded himself with relatives and friends. His letters to his son George and his daughter Lucia demonstrate his talent, when they were in the dumps, for finding miseries of his own equivalent to theirs, with which he proposed to cheer them up. He needed to return from hours of isolation, it would seem, and to feel that a few people were in rapport with him. This handshaking (and Joyce ends most of his letters in Italian with “una stretta di mano“) affects his work as well, mitigating its more savage extremes. Accordingly, Stephen mocks his own gesture of renunciation by comparing it to “a fellow throwing a handful of peas up into the air,” just as Lynch mocks Stephen’s Flaubertian view of the artist, as a god paring his fingernails, by suggesting that these too may be “refined out of existence.” This comic questioning does not disprove the rhetoric, but lightens it, and effects a rapprochement which ostensibly was disdained. The rebel’s jokes, many of them on himself, allow him back into the human family.
Joyce’s lifelong reluctance to comment publicly on his work gives unusual value to his letters as evocations of his mental scenery. They do not, however, offer more than fragments of self-analysis, and we must relate them ourselves. Certain expressions appear often enough to claim special notice. Among them the word “artist” thrusts itself forward as a starting-point. Joyce’s conception of himself as artist had origins in his early life; if A Portrait of the Artist may be said to plead for anything, it is for the continuity of the artistic temperament almost from infancy. He apparently first articulated this vocation soon after he passed from childhood to adolescence. The words “artist” and “puberty” had, in fact, a relation that is several times hinted at in these letters. As early as the age of fourteen, Joyce said, he began to go to brothels, initially with a strong sense of guilt. The Church urged him to master these impulses, but he found himself unable, and at heart unwilling, to do so. At confession he could find comfort and pardon, but not sanction. He was unwilling to give up either the spiritual idealism which had sustained him as a child, or the erotic drive which was agitating his adolescence. If debauchery was a part of his character, and he sometimes said it was, then it must be justified. The word “artist,” which in the late nineteenth century had been invested with a secular awe, offered a profession which would protect all his soul instead of only its idealistic side, and might yet give it a profane sanctity. He thought of it as denoting something solid, unitary, and radiant, compounding into a new purity the errant flesh and the moral nature.
IN EARLY YOUTH JOYCE began to formulate the relation of art and the spiritual self into an aesthetic, as his letters testify; this aesthetic would vindicate him by establishing the primacy of the poet over the priest through a system rival to theology’s. The artist was to be shown as devoted to integrating human experience on a level higher than the priest’s, and without external or supernatural authority to make his work easier. This conscious definition of the principles of his art finds an accompaniment in his letters in Joyce’s reiterated insistence that his own behavior has been defensible and even praiseworthy. He tells his brother that his struggle with conventions “was not entered into by me so much as a protest against these conventions as with the intention of living in conformity with my moral nature.” He granted contemptuously, “There are some people in Ireland who would call my moral nature oblique, people who think that the whole duty of man consists in paying one’s debts.” He is not less but more moral than other people. A year before he had written Nora Barnacle, “Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently. I found it impossible for me to remain in it on account of the impulses of my nature…. I made myself a beggar but I retained my pride.” The words “nature,” “moral nature,” and “pride” stand for him as aspects of the one’s substance, the artist’s soul.
Although Joyce does not bother to mention his moral nature often, his awareness of it lies behind most of his letters. It enables him to assert to Grant Richards, Dubliners is “a chapter of the moral history of my country.” It underlies his criticism of other writers, such as Thomas Hardy. He writes his brother in December, 1906 to complain of a book of Hardy’s stories called Life’s Little Ironies, and says:
One story is about a lawyer on the circuit who seduces a servant, then receives letters from her so beautifully written that he decides to marry her. The letters are written by the servant’s mistress who is in love with the lawyer. After the marriage (servant is accompanied to London by mistress) husband says fondly, “Now dear J.K.-S-&c, will you write a little note to my dear sister, A.B X. etc and send her a piece of the wedding-cake. One of those nice little letters you know so well how to write, love.” Exit of servant wife. She goes out and sits at a table somewhere and, I suppose, writes something like this “Dear Mrs. X—I enclose a piece of the wedding-cake.” Enter husband, lawyer, genial. Genially he says, “Well, love, how have you written” and then the whole discovery is found out. Servant-wife blows her nose in the letter and lawyer confronts the mistress. She confesses. Then they talk a page or so of copybook talk (as distinguished from servants’ ditto). She weeps but he is stern. Is this as near as T.H. can get to life, I wonder? O my poor fledglings, poor Corley, poor Ignatius Gallaher!… What is wrong with these English writers is that they always keep beating about the bush.
Copyright © by Richard Ellmann