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Joyce: A Postal Inquiry

In discountenancing Hardy, Joyce was attacking not only a kind of fiction but a way of seeing or failing to see. Hardy appeared to him to lack the directness which he had taught himself by accepting nothing because it had been accepted before. As a result, the characterization in Hardy’s stories was a false one based upon conventional ideas of class. Joyce, living with a servant girl himself, was particularly entitled to detect the improbability here. He rejected as well the whole idiom as “copybook talk.” For Joyce Hardy had lacked the courage to break through, and so was already dated, the moral fault breeding a literary one.

IN HIS FIRST YEARS AWAY Joyce associated artistic intrepidity with political self-consciousness, and he declared himself emphatically to be a “socialistic artist.” The character of his socialism was never made clear; he mentions Wilde and Lassalle rather than Marx, and planned to translate Wilde’s essay on the subject into Italian. He was closest to Wilde in conceiving of socialism as a means of protecting the self and enabling it to be free. The particular abuses in society which made socialism necessary were the property system, which offered no provision for writers; religion, with its burdensome load of belief; and marriage, perpetuating property arrangements and disregarding individual freedom. Joyce does not condescend to argue the case for socialism on an abstract level, but he names rich and church-married Oliver Gogarty as his epitome of the “stupid, dishonest, tyrannical and cowardly burgher class.” Gogarty appears in these letters as a kind of mythical adversary, a Hayley to Joyce’s Blake, and the later use of him as “Buck Mulligan” was not accidental in the moral scheme of Ulysses.

Joyce did not hesitate to disclose that his socialism had a personal motivation, the hope of securing for himself a subsidy from the state. He wrote his brother:

Some people would answer that while professing to be a socialist I am trying to make money: but this is not quite true at least as they mean it. If I made a fortune it is by no means certain that I would keep it. What I wish to do is to secure a competence on which I can rely, and why I expect to have this is because I cannot believe that any state requires my energy for the work I am at present engaged in.

Stanislaus objected that this socialism was thin, and his brother unexpectedly agreed, “Of course you find my socialism thin. It is so and unsteady and illinformed.” But any other system was tyranny, he maintained. Then on 25 February 1907, he reported, “The interest I took in socialism and the rest has left me…. I have no wish to codify myself as anarchist or socialist or reactionary.” He never calls himself a socialist again.

Sometimes the moral note of Joyce’s letters is more equivocal. There is, for example, the extraordinary letter he sent his mother from Paris soon after his twenty-first birthday:

Dear Mother Your order for 3s/4d of Tuesday last was very welcome as I had been without food for 42 hours (forty-two). Today I am twenty hours without food. But these spells of fasting are common with me now and when I get money I am so damnably hungry that I eat a fortune (1s/-) before you could say knife. I hope this new system of living won’t injure my digestion. I have no news from “Speaker” or “Express.” If I had money I could buy a little oil stove (I have a lamp) and cook macaroni for myself with bread when I am hard beat. I hope you are doing what I said about Stannie—but I daresay you are not. I hope the carpet that was sold is not one of the new purchases that you are selling to feed me. If this is so sell no more or I’ll send the money back to you by return of post. I think I am doing the best I can for myself but it’s pulling the devil by the tail the greater part of the time. I expect to be served with my bill (£1-6-0 with oil) any day and then my happiness is complete. My condition is so exciting that I cannot go asleep at night often till four in the morning and when I wake I look at once under the door to see if there is a letter from my editors and I assure you when I see the wooden floor only morning and morning I sigh and turn back to sleep off part of my hunger. I have not gone to Miss Gonne nor do I intend to go. With the utmost stretching your last order will keep me Monday midday (postage half a franc probably)—then, I suppose, I must do another fast. I regret this as Monday and Tuesday are carnival days and I shall probably be the only one starving in Paris.


On the back of the letter Joyce transcribed a few bars of a song called “Upa-Upa,” which he said was played “before the queen of some Indian island on occasions of state.”’

THIS LETTER DOES NOT INSPIRE an instant sympathy or a desire to join in singing “Upa-Upa.” Its young writer is not self-sacrificing, not virtuous, not sensible, although he waves his hand distantly at these attributes. At first we see only self-pity and heartlessness in this assertion of his own needs as paramount. He takes unfair advantage of the fact that his mother’s love is large enough to accept even the abuse of it. Yet there are twinges of conscience, sudden moments of concern for her, and there is evidence that he depends upon her for more than money, as if he could not live outside the environment of family affection, badly as he acts within it. The postscript about “Upa-Upa” is a kind of humorous palinode; it seems to say, “Never mind. We can still sing.”

Throughout the letter the emphasis is on his lenten fasts for his art. In other correspondence with her too, Joyce asks his mother to approve his artistic plans while he is fully aware that they are beyond her grasp, just as later he makes the same demands of his less educated wife. He writes that he will publish a book of songs in 1907, a comedy in 1912, and an aesthetic system five years after that. “This must interest you!” he insists, fearful that she may regard him as a starveling rather than as a starved hero. Her reply to many such pleas is a naked statement of maternal love:

My dear Jim if you are disappointed in my letter and if as usual I fail to understand what you would wish to explain, believe me it is not from any want of a longing desire to do so and speak the words you want but as you so often said I am stupid and cannot grasp the great thoughts which are yours much as I desire to do so. Do not wear your soul out with tears but be as usually brave and look hopefully to the future.

To his harshness, and the defense of harshness by reference to his art, and the muted note of apology in her son’s letters to her, May Joyce responded with a faultless simplicity.

The subdued ferocity of Joyce’s letter was consistent enough with his consciousness of the difficulties of the life he had chosen. In his private phantasmagoria, which he never laid aside but had less use for later, he saw the world as giant and himself as Jack. He must evade, hide away in Pola and Trieste, and scheme (in “silence, exile and cunning”), and one day the world would topple at his feet. To get out of Ireland was a step of this strategy. It was justified in two ways: the loftier was Rousseau’s, “If one wishes to devote one’s books to the true benefit of one’s country, one must write them abroad.” Joyce rephrased this as, “The shortest way to Tara is via Holyhead.” A Parnell of art, he would “create a conscience at last in the soul of this wretched race.” He predicted in a 1912 letter to his wife, “I hope that the day may come when I shall be able to give you the fame of being beside me when I have entered into my Kingdom.” His images of departure evoked balancing images of return, which displayed themselves not only in his trips back to Dublin but in the ironical homecoming of Exiles, the “eternal return” of Finnegans Wake, and the saturation of almost all his work in Irish times and places.

THE SECOND MEANS OF JUSTIFYING departure was more reactive than independent. Joyce felt he had been “betrayed” by his countrymen, not of course by all but by those on whom he might have expected to rely, his friends. In certain moments he conceded that his decision did not depend upon his friends’ behavior; he wrote his brother that it was “a youthfully exaggerated feeling of this maldisposition of affairs which urged me to pounce upon the falsehood in their attitude towards me as an excuse for escape.” We may even add that, without meaning to, he courted betrayal. As if to prepare the ground, he made great demands upon his friends, and in asserting his own freedom of action, he hampered theirs, to draw them into what he himself described as “the Daedalean spell.” He tested their loyalty by making them his creditors, by leaning upon them, by asking their responses to his works and acts. The demands grew greater. His friends were like his readers, who had only to accept one difficult work when he devised another much harder for them to accept, in an ascending series. They, for their part, had never met anyone so enveloping, at once so contemptuous of their abilities and so avid for their allegiances. Their own individuality seemed jeopardized by Joyce’s quiet importunacy. As signs of their resistence multiplied, Joyce saw these as inevitable; he did not recognize that the friendship he required of them was inordinate, yet his own doubts that they would persist in it contributed to that failure of which he then complained.

Sometimes he granted that he might himself be a little at fault, and this admission, rare as it was, lends support to his claim that he could free himself from his preconceptions when necessary. He allowed to Nora Barnacle that he had “a contemptuous suspicious nature.” His habit of representing himself as worse than he was also offered encouragement to those who wanted to leave him. Before he went away from Dublin with her in 1904, he admitted that he had a propensity “a little devilish…that makes me delight in breaking down people’s ideas of me and proving to them that I am really selfish, proud, cunning and regardless of others.” But even as he denigrated his own character, he mustered support for it. So he wrote his brother in a burst of anger, “My irregularities can easily be made the excuse of your conduct.” Others, with more faults than he, dared not risk his candor. He has only to ask, in selfdepreciation, could I deserve more from the world than exile? when the question changes to: could I deserve less? as if to ask, who would want to be anything but an outcast?

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