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The Politics of Joyce

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.


Mining ‘Ulysses’ June 15, 1978

Muddled September 29, 1977

  1. 2

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

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