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The Politics of Joyce

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.

  1. 1

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

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