The Politics of Joyce

James Joyce
James Joyce; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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