JOYCE IN EXILE
Patrick Kavanagh wrote the rhyme "Who killed James Joyce?" He accused foreigners of the murder. This was unfair. It was foreigners who assisted at Joyce's birth and who made him immortal. In Ireland, Joyce was dead before he was born. Patrick Kavanagh saw in Joyce's writings hate and pride, and later the delirium of a man with no more to say. But he also admitted to John Jordan that he read Ulysses twenty times - a curious mixture of admiration, envy and hatred.
Why did Joyce choose exile? What was he escaping from?
The first-born is a family of ten children, James was the favourite child. Since he was a gifted boy, they provided him with the best education they could afford - the Jesuit Colleges of Clongowes and Belvedere, and then UCD. Joyce was a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a gift for languages. His interests were literature, drama, and aesthetics, but his friends were talking about politics, religion, and whores. Oliver St. John Gogarty, a poet and a medical student, was a worthy intellectual opponent, but Joyce resented his mockery and his wealth. Joyce felt isolated, alone.
In his first published piece, privately printed because the college authorities rejected it as unsuitable for the UCD student journal, Joyce attacked the Irish nationalistic parochialism of the Irish Literary Theatre. "No man can be a lover of the true or the good," wrote nineteen-year-old Joyce, "unless he abhors the multitude. If an artist courts the favour of the multitude, he cannot escape the contagion of its fetishism and its deliberate self-deception. Until he has freed himself from the mean influences about him - sodden enthusiasm and clever insinuation and every flattering influence of vanity and low ambition - no man is an artist at all."
His stakes were high. A few years later, he expressed the same uncompromising ideas even more forcefully: A poet must keep his soul spotless, he should not prostitute himself to the rabble. Artistic life should be nothing more than a true and continual revelation of spiritual life... he should abstain from proffering confessions of faith... in sum, the poet is sufficient in himself."
In The Day of the Rabblement, he wrote that "a nation which never advances so far as a miracle play... affords no literary model to the artist... The artist must look abroad." In Dubliners, the mitching schoolboy reflects that real adventures do not happen to people who remain home: they must be sought abroad." In The Portrait, the proud and embittered budding artist makes exile one of the weapons which he allows himself to use. Nothing was happening in hibernating Hibernia, while in Europe, Sigmund Freud and Alfred Jarry had published their main works; France had broken off diplomatic relationship with the Vatican; and Einstein had announced the Theory of Relativity. In 1904, 22-year-old Joyce and his girl-friend Nora left Ireland for good, amidst sneers from his acquaintances. This was inevitable. Refusing to serve the church and Nationalism, he had to break the social ties as well. After arriving in Trieste, Joyce said in a public lecture: "I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against the English tyranny while the Roman tyranny occupies the palace of the soul."
Sixty years later, an Irish writer seriously suggested that after Ulysses was published there was no reason why Joyce should not have returned and relaxed in the Free State. How could Joyce have returned, when The Dublin Review wrote about Ulysses: "No Catholic publicist can ever afford to be possessed of a copy of this book, for in its reading lies not only the description but the commission of sin against the Holy Ghost", the book "the screed of one possessed", "the devilish drench... without grammar and sense", "a Sahara that is as dry as it is stinking", a book in which the author "splutters hopelessly under the flood of his own vomit." The reviewer - who preferred to remain anonymous - most earnestly hoped that Ulysses would be placed on the Vatican Index of Prohibited Books, where, till then, of all the Irish authors and heretics, only Eriugena, the Cork scientist Robert Boyle, Oliver Goldsmith and Laurence Sterne had the honour to be listed.
This was four years before the Committee on Evil Literature was set up by the Irish Government. The Irish Vigilance Association objected to the sale in Dublin shops of books by James Joyce. There was no need to ban Ulysses because the Irish Customs would never let it in. Although the "mediaeval legislation" (Yea's words) of the censorship of publication Act has not yet seen the light of the day, Ulysses was on the Customs' black-list. Other English speaking countries were no better. It was the English Customs who burned Ulysses in Folkestone, following the example of their American colleagues who were so vigilant that they confiscated excerpts of Ulysses even before it appeared in book form. Book burning, under the biggest statue of Liberty in the world? And that after proofs of Dubliners had been burned in Dublin and The Portrait had been rejected by seen English printers.
When Arthur Power met Nora in Paris after Joyce's death, she complained of loneliness, and he suggested that she should go over to Ireland. "What?", she cried, her voice hysterical, "They burned my husband's book". We should not forget that Ulysses was a symbolic engagement present to Nora from Joyce, to commemorate their first date; later to become known all over the world as "Bloomsday".
When Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses in Paris (another American who killed James Joyce?), asked Bernard Shaw for subscription, he replied: "I have read several fragments of Ulysses in its serial form. It is revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation, but it is a truthful one. I escaped from it to England at the age of twenty, and forty years later I have learned from the books of Mr. Joyce that slackjawed blackguardism is as rife in young Dublin as it was in 1870. It is, however, some consolation to find that at least one man has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down, and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat cleanly by rubbing its nose in its own filth - Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject. I hope that it may prove successful."
It was a strange feeling for me to see in The Irish Times a couple of years ago a photograph of a few secondary school girls receiving copies of Ulysses as a prize. Did somebody get mixed up between Homer and Joyce? Or had time change so much since that article in The Sunday Express which described Ulysses as: "leprous scabrous horrors... all secret sewers of vice canalised in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words; unclean lunacies larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies." Joyce knew what he could be returning to. When Desmond Fitzgerald, then the Minister for Publicity, wooed Joyce to return to Ireland, promising that he would propose Joyce's name to be nominated for the Nobel Prize, Joyce warned Fitzgerald that he would be sacked. In fact, when Yeats got the Nobel Prize instead, it was dismissed in an Irish journal, edited by the President of the Gaelic League, as a reward for paganism, from money provided by a deceased anti-Christian manufacturer of dynamite.
It is often said that Joyce was anti-Irish. This is an Irish bull. When Nora complained that Ireland was a wretched country, dirty and dreary, where they eat cabbages, potatoes and bacon all year round, where the women spent their days in church and the men in pubs, Joyce quipped: "Dublin is the seventh city of Christendom and the second city of the Empire. It is also the third in Europe for the number and quality of its brothels. But for me it will always be the first city in the world." He aspired to become the Dante of Dublin and he wrote a human comedy of his beloved city.
As an artist, Joyce was against every state. He believed that poets were repositories of the genuine spiritual life of their race and that priests were usurpers.
Joyce left Ireland not because he hated Ireland but because he detested the Irish State which threatened the freedom of the soul. Joyce's friend, the painter Frank Budgen, perceptively noticed that la patrie (the fatherland) asks for our bodies in war time and for our money all the time, but Ireland demands other sons a continual service of the soul as well. This service Joyce would not give. He would not serve. Joyce left Ireland because he felt that the economic and intellectual conditions prevailing in Ireland did not permit the development of the free artistic spirit. He saw the soul of the country weakened by centuries of useless struggles and broken treaties, and individual initiative paralysed by the influence and admonition of the church. Ireland was a house of decay, a shut door of a silent tower entombing blind bodies, a cultural desert, the dead centre of paralysis.
Joyce was also afraid to return. He once said to his friend Padraic Colum: "Don't you remember how the prodigal son was received by his brother in his father's house? It is dangerous to leave one's country, but still more dangerous to go back to it, for then your fellow-countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart."
Joyce compared his plight to that of Parnell. Irish political history was plagued by betrayals. Joyce believed that in Ireland, just at the right moment, and informer always appears. The political idol of his childhood, Parnell, was the epitome of the betrayal - by O'Shea, by the bishops, by Healy and by Piggott. Parnell going from county to county, from city to city, like a hunted deer, a spectral figure with the sign of death on his forehead. The citizens of Castlecomer threw quicklime in his eyes. "'Twas Irish humour, wet and dry, flung quicklime into Parnell's eye." Half-blind Joyce loathed to think that something like this would happen to him. He was told that a man called into a book shop in Nassau Street and asked whether they had a copy of Ulysses, which they fortunately did not. "Well", the man said, "the author of that book had better not set his foot in the country again." Obviously a remark of some religious or nationalistic fanatic; but Joyce was quite right when he feared that: "It is just such an eccentric who does these things."
Joyce was afraid of the ignorant obedience of self-righteous crawthumpers and of the studied hypocrisy of the establishment. My friend, Dr. Dick Walsh, still remembers Eoin McNeill citing a scornful remark about Joyce's university, a remark attributed to Mahaffy, who opposed the foundation of the new Catholic University: "Is it a university for the kind of fellas that would be standing on Butt Bridge spittin' into the Liffey?"
Joyce is often presented as an anti-religious writer. As an artist he was his won God. "I am trying in my poems", he said, "to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of every day life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own." Joyce used religion, particularly the Catholic ritual, as a rich source from which to build his own myth. In his early works he was embittered and rebellious, but he mellowed with age. There is no hatred in Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Bloom, the wandering Jew of Ulysses, preaches a doctrine close to the Christian teaching of love: "Force, hatred, history, all that, that's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life. - What? - Love, said Bloom, I mean the opposite of hatred." And the citizen, who represents xenophobic nationalism, gets the message, and mocks Bloom: "A new apostle to the Gentiles."
Joyce was grateful to the Jesuits for disciplining him in gathering and presenting a given corpus of material. He never missed the services. He loved singing Church songs. He memorised long passages from the gospels. However, he admitted that he professed no religion at all. "Of the two religions, Protestantism and Catholicism", he said, "I prefer the latter. Both are false. The former is cold and colourless. Catholicism is constantly associated with art; it is a beautiful lie - something at least."
He lived with Nora "in sin" (as they call it) for 25 years before marrying her. He saw matrimony as a completely personal affair: as he said: "without a clerk with a pen behind his ear or a priest in his night shirt". When he was reproached for not having his children brought up in the practice of religion, he replied: "but what do they expect me to do? There are a hundred and twenty religions in the world. Let them pick for themselves." When Joyce died in but what do they expect me to do? There are a hundred and twenty religions in the world. Let them pick for themselves." When Joyce died in but what do they expect me to do? There are a hundred and twenty religions in the world. Let them pick for themselves." When Joyce died in Zürich in 1941, a Catholic priest approached Nora to offer a religious service but Nora refused: "I could not do that to him." That was love beyond grave.
In Europe, Joyce felt free. Paris had an atmosphere of spiritual effort, a race-course tension. Dadaists had just arrived from Zürich; Aragon, Breton and Soupault had founded the Surrealist movement, rising from Lautréamont's ashes like the Phoenix, and the avant-garde review, transition, edited by a Franco-German American, Eugene Jolas, started publishing the first extracts from Finnegans Wake, "this most solitary, the least affined work, meteor-like in its introduction to the worlds", in the words of Stephen Zweig.
"There is no work more intellectual, more disengaged from worry about contemporary matters, more estranged from Time and Space, more foreign to politics, war, the torments of a wretched Europe; none more preoccupied with the great interests of life, love, desire, death, childhood, fatherhood, the mystery of Eternal Return", wrote a member of the French Academy, Louis Gillet. Finnegans Wake - the boldest literary experiment ever attempted. "It is not difficult to be bold when one is young," complimented André Gide, "the finest audacity is that of the end of life." This, Joyce's testament, the work of love of seventeen years, contains nearly fifty thousand different words, three times as much as the whole of Shakespeare.
Talking to the Polish writer, Jan Parandowski, Joyce explained: "The few fragments which I have published, have been enough to convince many critics that I have finally lost my mind, which, by the way, they have been predicting faithfully for many years. And perhaps, it is madness to grind up words in order to extract their substance, to open unsuspected possibilities for these words, to marry sounds which were not usually joined before although they were meant for one another, to allow water speak like water, birds to chirp like birds, to liberate all sounds from their servile contemptible role and to attach them to the feelers of expressions which grope for definitions of the undefined. With this hash of sounds I am building the great myth of everyday life."
Samuel Beckett was one of the first to grasp fully the mastery of the achievement. I quote: "Here form is content, content is the form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read - or rather, it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something: it is that something itself."
Even the Vatican Osservatore Romano sensed its importance and praised Finnegans Wake as a linguistic experiment seeking to open up new paths for the expression of human sentiments. The Irish Times, to their credit, recognised the power, and the moments of beauty, in Finnegans Wake. But the arch mocker, Buck Mulligan, could not forget and forgive. After Joyce's death, Dr. Gogarty wrote that Finnegans Wake was a gigantic hoax written by an idiot on the backside of beauty. He went even so far as to insinuate that Joyce suffered from schizophrenia, while knowing perfectly well that there was no truth in it. Joyce, on the other hand, did forgive and forget. He died reading Gogarty's last book, I follow St. Patrick.
Joyce was deeply moved by a Radio Éireann broadcast to commemorate his birthday in 1938. The Irish homage was more precious to him than any he might receive from anywhere in the world. Joyce would be amused to listen to this series of Thomas Davis Lectures. He tried to lift up Irish prose to the level of the international masterpiece and to give a full representation of the Irish genius. He went into exile to create the unborn conscience of his race. Now Ireland claims his bones. He is the Uncrowned King of the Words, who conquered Ireland by setting most uncompromising artistic criteria, by which she now must judge and be judged.
Let his restless spirit keep awake.
*NB. 'Joyce in Exile' was first presented as the Thomas Davis Lecture, Radio Éireann, April 18, 1982. It appears in Night Joyce of a Thousand Tiers. Petr Skrabanek: Studies in Finnegans Wake, eds. Louis Armand & Ondrej Pilny (Prague: Litteraria, 2002).
© estate of Petr Skrabanek
|volume 3, issue 1, 2002|