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Joyce’s Influenza

In response to:

Joyce's Influenza from the October 13, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

The fate of Joyce criticism has not been a tranquil one. Michael Wood precipitates yet another grand mal in “Joyce’s Influenza” (NYR, October 13). In discussing the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses, Wood tells us that King Edward VII appears ready to referee a boxing match between Private Carr and Stephen; he quotes from the text to the effect that the king wants to witness a clean straight fight and then wishes them both good luck. Wood adds that the king “then levitates over ‘heaps of slain,’ presumably borrowed from the Boer War, and is instantly associated with Christ.” The text tells us that the king “(Levitates over heaps of slain in the garb and with the halo of Joking Jesus, a white jujube in his phosphorescent face)” (591). The king then recites (in the text of Ulysses) two lines from Mulligan’s “Ballad of Joking Jesus”:

My methods are new and are causing surprise.
To make the blind see I throw dust in their eyes.

The king is not “instantly associated with Christ.” There is a difference between being associated with Christ and being associated with “the garb and halo of Joking Jesus,” which is to say, with Malachi Mulligan and his blasphemous ballad, parts of which are heard in Chapter 1 of the novel: the same Mulligan who in “Circe” is associated with celebrant of the black mass and the anti-Christ! The king like Mulligan is a fraudulent showman. It is an imposter’s joke to call for world peace as Edward VII did and then allow England to be embroiled in the Boer War; to call for a fair fight between Stephen and the soldier, and then levitate or dance away from it.

Wood poses the question, “How are we to get back from the Boer War to Ireland, and what do we do once we have connected Christ with Edward VII?” We get back easily enough from the Boer War to Ireland from the perspective of Irish opposition to English imperialism in 1904. And “what do we do once we have connected Christ with Edward VII?” What do we do? Who can say, since it is not in the text? What we do not do is launch into Wood’s pretentious response to his own misleading and meaningless question: that Joyce is proposing “an immense speculative reconsideration of the relation of our minds to the world.” It must be “immense” to include as the force behind it an impetus which Joyce never created. We might perhaps with some modesty reconsider a serious relation of our minds to Joyce’s work.

Joyce is not a dadaist. His art in Ulysses is ideational in the sense that he explained ideational art (as opposed to art of circumstance) in his Paduan “Influenza” essay with reference to Dante’s Inferno: “notice how the poet’s hate follows its path from abyss to abyss in the wake of an idea that intensifies; and the more intensely the poet consumes himself in the fire of the idea of hate, the more violent becomes the art with which the artist communicates his passion.” This theory, based on the art of the poet Joyce most admired, helps to explain the transitions in Ulysses from its more-or-less realistic art in Chapters I-VI to the less realistic, more “violent” art, in Chapters VII-XVIII.

As Joyce’s idea and hatred of the evils (among others) of British imperial oppression of Ireland intensify after fourteen chapters, so does the art to express his passions become fiercer, “more violent.” As opposed to children buying sweets (“Bad for their tummies”) below an imperial licensing sign over a candy store that elicits visions of the king sitting on his throne sucking jujubes in Chapter VIII, Joyce in Chapter XV, “Circe,” projects the image of Rumbold, the king’s executioner, hanging “The Croppy Boy” (the Irish rebel heralded in song). The Dantean ideational quality of the scene is unmistakable. The Croppy Boy’s tongue protrudes “violently” after he is hung; his “violent” erection sends gouts of sperm out into the street. Rumbold then “plunges his head into the gaping belly of the hanged and draws out his head again clotted with boiled and smoking entrails).” “My painful duty,” he says, “has now been done. God save the king!” Preceding this hallucinatory scene, the king (sucking his jujubes) levitated and sang a few lines from the “Ballad of Joking Jesus.” After Rumbold “coronates” himself with the Croppy Boy’s entrails, the king dances by and “with soft contentment” sings—

On Cornation day, Cornation day,
O won’t we have a merry time,
Drinking whiskey, beer and wine.

This is another song that Mulligan sang in his gaudy suit and Panama hat in Chapter 1. The idea of British imperial rule casually introduced in Chapter 1 comes to white hot intensity in these scenes. Subsequent events lead to more and more counterpointing between violent insults, Anglo-Irish conflicts, civil conflicts, and hallucinations. One effect of Carr’s threat to “wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king” (597) is to prompt the hallucinations of Haines Love’s head and collar wrung back to front in the black mass (599). Carr’s effrontery as a soldier in the British Imperial Army to native Stephen evokes the poetic justice and violent art of the “wrung neck” of Haines Love since Haines is the main apologist in Ulysses for British imperial rule over Ireland. The scene, moreover, suggests the “violent art” of the magicians’ and deceivers’ necks wrung back to front in Canto XX of Dante’s Inferno. Violent reversals and distortions are commensurate with iniquities in both Dante’s and Joyce’s practice of ideational art.

Wood does not think that Joyce’s Paduan essays are in any way seminal. He thinks that I have tried to make them look like an archeological find. Needless to say that thought did not occur to me. But in retrospect and in the wake of Wood’s weird reading of Ulysses and the disquieting thought that many readers of NYR may have taken him seriously, I do now tend to look upon the essays as just such a find. After reflecting on the confusion of Wood’s “Joyce’s Influenza,” Joyce’s Renaissance “Influenza” essay seems more and more to me to be a Rosetta stone for understanding the form and meaning of his later works.

Louis Berrone

Fairfield University

Fairfield, Connecticut

Michael Wood replies:

Of course, Mulligan’s Jesus is not the Church’s Christ; but Leopold Bloom is not Odysseus either, and one of the working principles of Ulysses appears to be that all allusions count, however frivolous or blasphemous or erroneous they may be. How they count, is one of the questions I tried to raise in my essay. It is a question which is evaded, it seems to me, whenever we reach for elementary notions of what Joyce intended to say. Historical details are extremely important in Ulysses, but if Joyce had been looking simply for an image of “imperial oppression” he would have found something better than Edward VII sucking a jujube, or than Rumbold the Demon Barber up to his gory and impossible tricks.

I’m puzzled by Professor Berrone’s last paragraph. If he didn’t think Joyce’s Padua essays were a find until my follies prompted him to such a view, why did he call them “seminal” and say they provided “so many important insights?” Why did he write “The Renaissance essay is an important discovery?” Come to that; why did he publish the essays at all?

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