Looking back at the impact of an author much revered by Irish society today, Michael Collins discusses how James Joyce’s writings posed a threat to the status quo of his time.
James Joyce is widely celebrated by the great and the good of Irish politics today. His statue adorns North Earl Street in Dublin and streets are named after him. The annual Bloomsday celebration in June includes literary tours, pub crawls and dramatic re-enactments from Ulysses and attracts thousands, including luminaries such as Leo Varadkar, eager to honour the legacy of one of Ireland’s most celebrated literary figures. Just this month, President Michael D Higgins took the opportunity to visit the James Joyce Foundation and Joyce’s graveside in Zurich.
Despite the clamber by Irish politicians to associate themselves with James Joyce today, during his life he was viewed with hostility by elites in the Catholic clergy and Irish politics. When he wrote he posed a threat to the status quo, and wrote scathingly of both Church and Irish society, challenging time and again the boundaries of what was deemed morally acceptable in literature. When the Irish government was notified of his death in 1941, the Department of External Affairs (of which Éamon De Valera was Minister) responded saying, “Please wire details about Joyce’s death. If possible find out if he died a Catholic? Express sympathy with Mrs Joyce and explain inability to attend funeral.” Accordingly, no representative of the Irish state was to be found in attendance at the funeral.
Joyce often worked in abject poverty, estranged from his native homeland in a self-imposed exile, where he struggled to make ends meet or even get his works published. Ulysses in particular provoked such outrage that it wouldn’t find its way onto a bookshop shelf in Britain until 1936, some 14 years after it was completed. At the time, the British Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Archibald Bodkin banned the book and issued an official statement deciding Ulysses was “filthy” and that “it should not be allowed to be imported into the country.” This, despite Bodkin’s own admission of having “only read the final 40 or so pages of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.” 500 copies of Ulysses were duly burned by the US customs office, leading Joyce to despair. He wrote of these rejections, “It is not my fault the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs around my stories. I seriously believe you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one look at themselves in my finely polished looking glass.”
The novel’s profane words were cause for concern amongst the self-appointed literary watchdogs of the day. References to “the scrotumtightening sea”, “Telemachus”, and “well pleased pleasers, curled conquistadores” (penises) provoked a collective scowl from high-brow quarters. Many of Joyce’s contemporaries thought the experimental language itself had deviated wide of the mark of acceptable literature, and would be unintelligible to ordinary people. Amongst his critics was HG Wells who famously wrote of Ulysses, “Now with regard to this literary experiment of yours. It is a considerable thing because you are a 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 restrictive time and intelligence. What is the result? Vast riddles.” He ended by describing Joyce’s pending masterpiece a “dead end.” Virginia Wolf too, unceremoniously described Joyce’s work as that of “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
Not all of his contemporaries were so sceptical. T.S Elliot and Vladimir Nabokov were among those who lobbied publishers to print Ulysses, the latter admitting “compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.” Ulysses is now widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Western literature, invariably topping lists of best novel categories and holding the record as the most expensive 20th century first edition book to sell at auction.
Set entirely during the course of one day in Dublin (June 16th), the novel chronicles a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and his fellow Dublin counterparts and is a modern re-working of Homer’s tale The Odyssey. The twist, of course, is that while the Odyssey tells of Odysseus’ epic 10 year trek home to Ithaca following the Trojan war and the many adventures he must face, Joyce’s parallel story finds the epic in the most seemingly mundane and benign aspects of everyday existence. While Odysseus is a cunning warrior, the estranged King of Ithaca and the hero of the Trojan war, Leopold Bloom is a middle aged advertising salesman, estranged as a Jewish émigré living in Dublin. While Odysseus must battle a raging cyclops, defeating him by thrusting a burning stake in his eye and escaping a hail of boulders, Joyce’s parallel episode sees Leopold Bloom in an altercation with an anti-semitic pub-goer in Barney Kiernan’s bar. Bloom waves a cigar in his face and escapes from the pub as the man launches biscuits at him.
Joyce was undoubtedly an admirer of The Odyssey, but he believed that it celebrated war and violence by romanticising the tale of the Trojan war. As Ulysses was written during the period of the First World War, with unprecedented numbers being sent to their deaths in the trenches, Joyce set about his re-rendering of The Odyssey with a pacifist and anti- imperialist message.
Epic storytelling, for Joyce, was not about romanticising tales of death and destruction. He set out to show that the everyday aspects of human life could inform the most exciting literature. Some of the scenes which caused controversy in Ulysses, such as episode 4, Calypso, which ends with Leopold Bloom unceremoniously defecating, led critics like Ezra Pound to exclaim “Leave the stool to George Robey!”, a popular music-hall comedian who performed lewd humour at the time. The closing passages of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, which ends with her orgasm, was the enough to offend the sensibilities of every clergyman, publisher and politician in Ireland, and led Joyce to quip “Africa is probably the only place that will publish it.”
Yet Joyce remained adamant there would be no edits to Ulysses. He was appalled by suggestions from the literary purists that his work was obscene. He was committed to exploring the guilty pleasures of the human consciousness and the dark underbelly of Dublin life. George Bernard Shaw was another fellow writer who criticised Joyce’s use of obscenities. He described Ulysses as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation”, but to Joyce’s great pleasure Shaw added “but to me it is all hideously real. I have walked those streets and known those shops and heard and taken part in those conversations… At last someone has felt deeply enough about it to face up to the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it.”
It was this devotion to the realism of inner city Dublin life that stood Joyce in stark contrast to other Irish writers of his day. Others devoted their energies to the Irish Literary Revival, a movement which found artistic expression through Irish folklore and romanticised notions of the Irish peasantry. To Joyce this was nothing but “ill informed, formless caricature” and signified a step backwards for Irish literature. For him a story like Two Gallants, from his original publication Dubliners (also banned) was much more reflective of contemporary Ireland. It tells the story of two down and out Dubliners who wander the streets in the hope of procuring a drink, and conspire to swindle money from an aristocrat’s maid. He argued, “Two Gallants – with the Sunday crowds and the harp in Kildare Street and Lenehan – is an Irish landscape.”
Joyce often described himself as a socialist but in reality, no political tradition could legitimately try to claim him as its own. There is, none the less, more than a whiff of hypocrisy when people like Leo Varadkar or Michael D Higgins rush to celebrate Joyce’s achievements. Enda Kenny even went so far in 2015 as to name and commission an Irish Navy Vessel after him: the LE James Joyce. The bitter irony of this would not be lost on Joyce and his legions of fans. His family’s attempts to repatriate his body home to Ireland have fallen on deaf ears from successive Irish governments. In reality, he was a cause of great embarrassment to the Irish political and religious establishment. Joyce was a literary rebel in every sense of the word. If he was around today, it is likely that Varadkar and his cronies would be rushing to distance themselves from Joyce, just as their predecessors did.