The subaltern Ulysses

HOEL


In 1935, John Eglinton published an account of Joyce in Irish Literary Portraits. It must have seemed to Joyce, wrote Eglinton, ‘that he held English, his country’s spiritual enemy, in the palm of his hand’. Alas, the English language ‘found itself constrained by its new master to perform tasks to which it was unaccustomed in the service of pure literature. . . . Joyce rejoiced darkly in causing the language of Milton and Wordsworth to utter all but unimaginable filth and treason.’ Eglinton argued that Ulysses was an act of ‘treason’ fuelled by an ‘ironic detachment from the whole of the English tradition.’ It was Joyce’s ‘Celtic revenge’ on the colonial power.

Andrew Gibson

« En 1935, John Eglinton publia un compte rendu sur Joyce dans Portraits littéraires irlandais. Il doit avoir semblé à Joyce, écrivait Eglinton, ‘qu’il tenait l’Anglais, l’ennemi spirituel de son pays, dans la paume de sa main’. Hélas, la langue anglaise ‘se trouvait contrainte par son nouveau maître à exécuter des tâches auxquelles elle n’était pas habituée dans le service de la littérature pure…. Joyce se réjouissait sombrement en faisant prononcer à la langue de Milton et Wordsworth toute l’obscénité et trahison inimaginable.’ Eglinton soutenait qu’Ulysse était un acte de ‘trahison’ alimenté par un ‘détachement ironique à l’égard de l’ensemble de la tradition anglaise’. C’était ‘la revanche celtique’ de Joyce sur la puissance coloniale. »


Ulysses, for reasons to do with the politics of its critical reception, has almost without exception been read as a text that ultimately despised the city, the people, and the would-be nation in which, paradoxically, it shows an obsessive interest. I, rather, will read it as the starred text of an Irish national literature. It plays the same decisive role in redefining the issues at stake in imagining an Irish national identity as, to choose at random, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice does for the English, Cervantes’s Don Quixote does for the Spanish, or Melville’s Moby Dick does for the American sense of nationhood.

Enda Duffy

« Ulysse, pour des raisons qui ont à voir avec la politique de sa réception critique, a presque sans exception été lu comme un texte qui en définitive méprisait la ville, le peuple et l’aspirante nation pour lesquels, paradoxalement, il montre un intérêt obsessionnel. Je le lirai plutôt comme le texte majeur d’une littérature nationale irlandaise. Il joue le même rôle décisif de redéfinir les questions en jeu dans l’imagination d’une identité nationale irlandaise que, pour choisir au hasard, le Henry IV de Shakespeare ou le Pride and Prejudice de Jane Austen pour le sens anglais de la nation, le Don Quixote de Cervantes pour l’espagnol ou le Moby Dick de Melville pour l’américain. »


For Joyce, language itself – the medium of his art – was inescapably structured by colonialism and nationalism, and he consistently embedded the complexities of colonialism and nationalism in particular words.

Marjorie Howes

« Pour Joyce, le langage lui-même – le medium de son art – était inéluctablement structuré par le colonialisme et le nationalisme, et il incorpora systématiquement les complexités du colonialisme et du nationalisme dans des mots particuliers. »

       Ulysses and the Sirens (Herbert James Draper, v.1909)

                               Might an IRA bomb and Joyce’s Ulysses have anything in common? How might an IRA terrorist read Ulysses? Or how might a victim of terrorism read the novel, given the opportunity? How can Irish people generally read the novel? Could it be placed at the heart of an Irish national literature?

In 1935, John Eglinton published an account of Joyce in Irish Literary Portraits. It must have seemed to Joyce, wrote Eglinton, ‘that he held English, his country’s spiritual enemy, in the palm of his hand’. Alas, the English language ‘found itself constrained by its new master to perform tasks to which it was unaccustomed in the service of pure literature. . . . Joyce rejoiced darkly in causing the language of Milton and Wordsworth to utter all but unimaginable filth and treason.’ Eglinton argued that Ulysses was an act of ‘treason’ fuelled by an ‘ironic detachment from the whole of the English tradition.’ It was Joyce’s ‘Celtic revenge’ on the colonial power.

Andrew Gibson – Joyce’s Revenge. History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses

My dear Joyce,

I’ve been studying you and thinking over you a lot. The outcome is that I don’t think I can do anything for the propaganda of your work [Work in ProgressFinnegans Wake]. I’ve an enormous respect for your genius dating from your earliest books and I feel now a great personal liking for you but you and I are set upon absolutely different courses. Your training has been Catholic, Irish, insurrectionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want language and statement as simple and clear as possible. You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality. Your mental existence is obsessed by a monstrous system of contradictions. You really believe in chastity, purity and the personal God and that is why you are always breaking out into cries of cunt, shit and hell. As I dont believe in these things except as quite provincial values my mind has never been shocked to outcries by the existence of waterclosets and menstrual bandages—and undeserved misfortunes. And while you were brought up under the delusion of political suppression I was brought up under the delusion of political responsibility. It seems a fine thing for you to defy and break up. To me not in the least.

Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It’s a considerable thing because you are a very considerable man and you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles. Your last two works have been more amusing and exciting to write than they will ever be to read. Take me as a typical common reader. Do I get much pleasure from this work? No. Do I feel I am getting something new and illuminating as I do when I read Anrep’s dreadful translation of Pavlov’s badly written book on Conditioned Reflexes? No. So I ask: Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?

All this from my point of view. Perhaps you are right and I am all wrong. Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I would go out of my way to save it from destruction or restrictive interruption. It has its believers and its following. Let them rejoice in it. To me it is a dead end.

My warmest good wishes to you Joyce. I cant follow your banner any more than you can follow mine. But the world is wide and there is room for both of us to be wrong.

Yours
H. G. Wells

in James Joyce, Richard Ellmann

Might an IRA bomb and Joyce’s Ulysses have anything in common? How might an IRA terrorist read Ulysses? Or how might a victim of terrorism read the novel, given the opportunity? How can Irish people generally read the novel? Could it be placed at the heart of an Irish national literature? As it has always been seen in some sense as an exception among the masterpieces of patriarchal modernism, could this be because it stage-manages a different kind of intervention within the realities of nation, race, class, even gender? Could its difference make it the representative text, even the original text, of a different strand of modernist writing? The recent history of critical responses to the venerable monolith “modernism” has been characterized by a successive uncovering of modernisms previously unseen; here modernist women’s writing and African-American modernism are exemplary. Exploring the relation of Ulysses to the colony in which it is set, and the nation that was emerging from that colony at the moment the novel was being written, might we uncover a postcolonial modernism? Could this postcolonial textuality have its origin in early twentieth-century Irish writing, given that the Irish Free State, European yet marginal, was the first postcolonial nation to gain independence from the British Empire in the modern period?

I want to reclaim Ulysses in these terms for Irish readers as the text of Ireland’s independence, and by doing so, return it to readers everywhere as a novel preoccupied, in ways not suspected heretofore by its metropolitan critics, with both the means by which oppressed communities fight their way out of abjection and the potential pitfalls of anticolonial struggles. Ulysses, for reasons to do with the politics of its critical reception, has almost without exception been read as a text that ultimately despised the city, the people, and the would-be nation in which, paradoxically, it shows an obsessive interest. I, rather, will read it as the starred text of an Irish national literature. It plays the same decisive role in redefining the issues at stake in imagining an Irish national identity as, to choose at random, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice does for the English, Cervantes’s Don Quixote does for the Spanish, or Melville’s Moby Dick does for the American sense of nationhood. Each of these texts derives its resonance in part from the way in which each accentuates elements at stake in a nexus of material and ideological forces becoming manifest in England, Spain, and the United States at the historical moment when each was written. Henry IV educates its readers in the cohesive potential of nascent British nationalism, Pride and Prejudice reworks aristocratic matrimonial codes for its newly monied bourgeois readers, Don Quixote dwells on the foolishness of traces of feudal decorum to a new renaissance merchant class, and Moby Dick recasts the masculine explorer narrative in a grandiloquent American grain. In the case of Ulysses the convergence of a historic national transformation and its literary reworking is marked extraordinarily clearly. Joyce’s novel was written, as its very last words (beyond the famous syllabic chain of “Yes … yes … yes”) inform us, between 1914 and 1921, which was exactly the period in which Ireland gained its independence from Britain in a bloody rebellion and anticolonial guerrilla war. These crucial years in modern Irish history witnessed the Irish Volunteer mobilization and gunrunning of 1914, the Easter rebellion in 1916, when whole streets of north-central Dublin were destroyed by shells and over four hundred people were killed, the setting up of the secessionist Sinn Fein Irish parliament in Dublin in 1918, and the guerrilla War of Independence of 1919-21. This war ended with the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 that led to the establishment of an independent Irish state. It is striking to think of Joyce writing in 1916 about Bloom wandering down Dublin streets that had already been half destroyed in the Rising. (O’Connell Street, Henry Street, Moore Street, Middle Abbey Street, and Eden Quay all suffered severe damage; in all, there were three thousand casualties in the Easter Rising alone). Ulysses, written during the same seven years, encodes successive reactions to the events occurring in Ireland. For example, “Circe,” the phantasmagoric tour de force and the episode that is the climax of the novel, was written in nine anguished drafts between June and December 1920 while the Irish guerrilla War of Independence was at its height. The book, which was published in Paris one month before the treaty that guaranteed Irish independence was signed in London, is nothing less, I suggest, than the book of Irish postcolonial independence. That it has not been acknowledged as such before this bespeaks the power of New Critical interpretation, which has had an unspoken ideological interest in sustaining an anational cadre, unsullied by any specific politics, of high modernist texts.

Enda Duffy – The subaltern Ulysses

Joyce’s life spans a period in history in which material conditions, political structures, and intellectual life throughout the world were profoundly shaped by the growth and decline of European empires and the flourishing of various nationalisms, both imperialist and anti-imperialist. When Joyce was born in 1882 the ‘scramble for Africa’, and the era that one historian has called the ‘age of empire’, had just begun. When he died in 1941 the world was engulfed in the Second World War, a conflict that would fundamentally alter the balance of global power, and the age of decolonization was under way. A good deal of recent Joyce scholarship has explored Joyce’s relation to this historical trajectory. Much of this scholarship is informed by debates in post-colonial studies, the academic field most explicitly committed to examining the complex set of issues we can group under the headings of ‘colonialism’ and ‘nationalism’. Colonialism and nationalism were among the period’s most visible and important sources of conflict and change, and were the subjects of much discussion and debate. At the same time, they were so important and pervasive – both as realities and as ideologies – that they became part of contemporary conceptions of ‘reality’ and ‘common sense’ and supplied many of the unspoken rules and assumptions of the time. Post-colonial scholars study colonialism and nationalism in their visibility, as the subjects of explicit discussion and struggle, and in their invisibility, as the secret structures that underlie much of Western intellectual and political life. Ireland’s double status – as both an agent and a victim of British imperialism – is important to any investigation of how Joyce’s works engage with these issues. Equally important is Joyce’s interest in the international and global dimensions of colonialism and nationalism, and his insistence on the many internal divisions and local variations within Ireland. To grasp the full significance of colonialism and nationalism in Joyce’s writing, we must examine the methods he uses to traverse and connect these different horizons and contexts.

One of these methods operates on the level of the individual word. For Joyce, language itself – the medium of his art – was inescapably structured by colonialism and nationalism, and he consistently embedded the complexities of colonialism and nationalism in particular words.

Marjorie Howes – Joyce, colonialism, and nationalism

(The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce)

Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce’s Ulysses at the Playground - Eve Arnold (1955)

“We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet. As far as I remember (it is some thirty years ago) I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it—but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned—but almost more her input.”

Eve Arnold, cited by Richard Brown

‘Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses. Goddess or Post-Cultural Cyborg?’,  in Joyce and Popular Culture