• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Politics of Joyce

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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print