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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

December, 1946


Harry Levin


A long and hazardous period of probation seems to face a writer when, ceasing to be a contemporary, he becomes a classic. But in the case of James Joyce, perhaps because he was so rigorously tested during his lifetime, this further trial has been cut short. Already his work has weathered rejection by publishers, objection by printers, suppression by censors, confiscation by custom officials, bowdlerization by pirates, oversight by proofreaders, attack by critics, and defense by coteries--not to mention misunderstanding by readers. Meanwhile he has won the most significant kind of recognition: imitation by writers. His influence has been so pervasive that, to a large extent, it remains unacknowledged. How many of those who read John Hersey's Hiroshima recognize its literary obligation to Ulysses? There have been other demonstrations, but none so pertinent, of how an original mode of expression can help us to grasp a new phase of experience. Is it any wonder, when we live in such an explosive epoch, that even the arts have made themselves felt through a series of shocks?

Hence Joyce's books, which a few years ago we had to smuggle into this country, are today required reading in college courses. As we study them closely, we are less intimidated by their idiosyncrasies, and more impressed not only by the qualities they share with the great books of other ages, but by their vital concern for the problems of our own age. In the light of the political exile that has activated so many writers in recent years, Joyce's artistic expatriation no longer seems a willful gesture. His escape from his native island to the continent of Europe, as it turned out, was to merge his private career with what he called the nightmare of history. It was easier for Flaubert, a sedentary bachelor with a comfortable estate and a regular income, to assume the stigmata of aesthetic martyrdom. It was excruciating for Joyce, a nomadic foreigner struggling to support a family by other means than his writing, to be bound--as he put it--"to the cross of his own cruel fiction."

The temptations and distractions that sidetrack the artist have multiplied, and examples of intransigence are rarer now than they were in Flaubert's day. What he represented to his younger contemporaries, nonetheless, Joyce has become for us: the Writers' Writer. The characteristics that enabled him to sustain his purpose are apparent in his very death-mask. Delicately but firmly molded, the head is long and narrow, the forehead high, the chin strong, and the eyes closed. It is the face of his Stephen Dedalus, of the perennial student, of a man who carries to the verge of his sixtieth year the agility, the curiosity, the sensibility of his youth. And, just as many of Joyce's fellow citizens are forever transfixed in the poses he caught--the priests saying Mass, the barmaids pouring ale, the sandwich-men filing by, the midwives and undertakers plying their respective trades--so he has crystallized himself in our minds as the hero of Stephen Hero, the model for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Setting down his memories of his brother in a current Italian journal, Professor Stanislaus Joyce would caution us against a too complete identification. James Joyce was a rather more filial son than Stephen Dedalus, it appears, and his actual adolescence was less dispiriting than his later depiction of it. This we might have gathered by comparing the account of his university days in Stephen Hero with the final chapter of the Portrait. The earlier version is more immediate, fully rounded and factually detailed; the definitive treatment is carefully shaded and dramatically sharpened. It is not enough for the novelist to possess, like a number of Joyce's characters, "an odd autobiographical habit." He must be able to trace a meaningful pattern through the welter of circumstances. Joyce has managed, by invoking an ancient myth, to conjure up a modern one. Deliberately he has struck the attitude of Icarus--the classical posture of flight, the artist's revulsion from his middle-class environment, the youthful effort to try one's father's wings.

The works of Joyce's maturity are less personal and more human: in his own terms, they are farther removed from his lyric self and closer to his godlike ideal of sympathetic detachment. Their emphasis shifts from flight to creation, accordingly, and from the son's role to the father-image: Dedalus, the fabulous artificer; Ulysses, the paternal wanderer; Finnegan, the builder of cities. The technical and psychological paradox is that Joyce, as his comprehension of ordinary humanity increased, became less comprehensible to the common reader. He is commonly remembered not as the mature creator--forging, in mingled arrogance and piety, "the uncreated conscience of his race"--but as a winged figure poised for a break with the dominating forces in his background. Language, religion, and nationality were envisaged by Stephen as a series of nets to restrain that initial impetus. When his trial flight succeeded, and the creative process began, the metaphor was calculated to change. For the irreducible substances out of which Joyce created his monumental achievement were nationality, religion, and language.


The first consideration, with an Irishman, is nationality. Joyce, like Stephen, was "all too Irish"--all the more Irish because he was a "wildgoose," because he resided mainly in foreign countries after his twentieth year, seldom as long as a year in the same domicile. From first to last, his underlying impulses were those of his racial endowment: humor, imagination, eloquence, belligerence. If other endemic traits are less in evidence, notably gregariousness and bibulousness, it is because they were so brilliantly exemplified in Joyce's father. A genial ne'er-do-well, a political job-holder, a man about Dublin--but there can be no substitute for the characterization of Simon Dedalus by his eldest son. The Portrait begins with the child's earliest reminiscence, a story told by his parent; it ends with the fledgling's departure from his parental roof. Its most dramatic episode occurs at the family's Christmas dinner. Here, in a vividly remembered argument, lies Joyce's basic premise: the long-delayed hope of independence that was frustrated again with the downfall of Ireland's leading politician, Charles Stewart Parnell.

The latent blood-feud with England had come to the surface, a few months after Joyce's birth, when two high British officials were assassinated in the Phoenix Park. Though the attempt to incriminate Parnell had been legally exposed as a forgery, a private scandal was brewing which finally discredited him. The desertion of his clerical supporters, so vociferously defended by Stephen's Mrs. Riordan, was a particularly sore point. Parnell's death soon afterward was the occasion of Joyce's first literary effort--a poem echoed in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," his own favorite among his stories. The impact of the news upon Stephen, semi-delirious in the school infirmary, is registered in the Portrait. The state of the nation during the period that ensued, the period in which Joyce gathered his lasting impressions of it, he has diagnosed as a spiritual and temporal paralysis. The cure was further violence, which led to the founding of the Irish Free State; which had started with the uprising of Easter Week, 1916, four years after Joyce left Ireland for the last time.

He left too early for the Revolution; he arrived too late for the Renaissance. His undergraduate idol, the subject of his first published article, was not Yeats but Ibsen. He greeted the Irish Literary Theater with a polemic against folksy aestheticism. He outraged his college debating society by expounding the iconoclasms of European drama. On several visits home from the Continent, between the ages of twenty and thirty, he considered whether some journalistic or pedagogical niche existed for him in the cultural life of his native city. In his single play, Exiles, as in actuality, he pushed this problem toward a negative conclusion. In his short stories, Dubliners, the recurrent situation is entrapment. The timid protagonists are trapped into marriage ("The Boarding House"), kept from eloping ("Eveline"), wistfully envious of colleagues who get away ("A Little Cloud"). In "Counterparts" a father makes his son the victim of his own frustrations. The plight suggested in "The Dead" is that of a mill horse harnessed to a carriage, pulling it round and round a public statue.

Escaping from the treadmill of Dublin, Joyce spent the rest of his life brooding upon it and writing about it. His insistence on calling its denizens by their names, and pointing out its local landmarks, held up the publication of Dubliners for several years. Ulysses, more comprehensively than Dubliners and more objectively than the Portrait, is saturated with "consciousness of place." The city is commemorated, street by street and hour by hour, as it stood on Thursday, June 16, 1904. The crones on Nelson's Pillar, spitting down plum-stones upon the pedestrians, sum up Stephen's departing attitude. His earlier description of Ireland, "the old sow that eats her farrow," is acted out in the Circe's disorderly house, where men are figuratively turned into swine. No Dubliner will raise a hand to help the drunken Stephen, excepting Leopold Bloom, with whom he has nothing in common but humanity. Bloom, the ineffectual advertising man, the modern Ulysses, is "Everyman or Noman," every inch the Man in the Street. He is suspected, among many other devices, of inspiring the Home Rule journalist, Arthur Griffith, with his Sinn Fein program.

Stephen departs for Europe promising "to write something in ten years." Joyce, living through the next decade in polyglot Trieste, finished the Portrait and began Ulysses in 1914. He lived through the First World War in neutral Zurich, a denaturalized British subject among exiles from many lands. In cosmopolitan Paris, during the period between wars, the appearance of Ulysses and the parturition of Finnegans Wake were international events. The latter coincided with the Second World War; and Joyce, returning to Zurich, died upon the operating table in 1941. In Ulysses he had looked upon battle as a teacher viewing a playing field. In Finnegans Wake all the world's great battles are reduced to a grand Irish free-for-all: "history as she is harped." But Ireland is Joyce's microcosm; his gigantic hero is compounded of many heroes; H. C. Earwicker stands for "Here Comes Everybody." "Easterheld," he enacts the regeneration of "Easter Island." Thus Joyce's feeling for his country, long dormant, is never dead. To cite his inimitable phraseology once more, it is merely "hiberniating."


But racial inheritance is guided and shaped by cultural tradition, even as Ireland has been by Catholicism. Where the father is the embodiment of nationality in Stephen's recollections, his mother embodies religion. Her unquestioning acceptance is contrasted with her son's developing skepticism; their naturally affectionate relationship has all but reached an impasse when he leaves for Paris in 1902. Six months later he is summoned home to her deathbed. His refusal to take part in the family's prayers for her seems to have stimulated that remorse of conscience, that "agenbite of inwit" which reechoes through Ulysses. Here Stanislaus Joyce interposes a revealing detail. Mrs. Joyce, he informs us, was already past praying for; it was not her request, but an officious uncle's, that James Joyce refused. Retrospectively, then, he has gone out of his way to sharpen the issue and dramatize the incident. His loss of faith becomes a credo. His enfranchisement brings its own discipline.

" Why? " asks Stephen's friend, Buck Mulligan (Dr. Oliver Gogarty). "Because you have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it's injected the wrong way." The Portrait derives its pattern from the successive stages of a Jesuit education. Joyce was a prize student, albeit an embarrassing protege, of zealous and thoroughgoing teachers. It was almost inevitable that they should suggest, and that he should very seriously consider, the possibility of entering the priesthood. That he felt the intellectual attraction of theology, as well as the emotional appeal of ritual, is evident in everything he wrote. Both are submerged in the cold terror of Stephen's central dilemma between carnal sin and priestly absolution. Nature, which incites his heresies inspires his true vocation. Pride of intellect ultimately ranges him with the forces of Satanic rebellion. The cry Non serviam! is his protest against Ireland's condition of servitude, against its many masters: Britain not less than Rome, Mammon not less than Caesar.

With the self-dedication of the priest Joyce took the vows of the artist. His imaginative constructions are therefore grounded on the rock of his buried religious experience. His view of human nature is based upon the psychology of the confessional. His aesthetic theory is a stimulating mixture of Flaubertian naturalism and neo-Thomism. His literary technique is richly colored by ecclesiastical symbolism; a series of notes on the liturgy of Holy Week, for example, accompanies the manuscript of Stephen Hero. There too he explains his conception of art as an "epiphany," a sudden illumination if not a divine revelation, a slight but definite insight into other lives, a fragmentary clue to the meaning of life as a whole. Even the stroke of the Ballast Office clock can have this effect, says Stephen, and we may regard Ulysses as an extended commentary on his remark. God is manifest, Stephen now believes, as "a noise in the street." The writer's vantage point is that of "Araby": an acolyte bearing his chalice through the streets of Dublin.

Typical of Joyce's Dubliners is Mr. Duffy in "A Painful Case," whose suburban existence lacks " any communion with others." Shivering with loneliness, as he walks among the lovers on Magazine Hill, he resigns himself to being "an outcast from life's feast." But Joyce does not, like Thomas Mann, sentimentalize his artists by assuming their exclusion from a comfortable bourgeois world. Joyce knows his petty bourgeoisie too well for that; he knows that they too are outsiders, estranged from each other. An inveterate stranger, his wandering Jew, Mr. Bloom, is obscurely involved in the destiny of Throwaway, the "outsider " that wins the Ascot cup. The other event of Bloomsday, the sinking of a New York excursion steamer with five hundred passengers aboard, implies that the members of any community are all in the same boat. Pausing for a moment in a church, Bloom envies the communicants because they are "not so lonely." Later, in a tavern, an anti-Semitic nationalist, anonymously known as "the Citizen," attacks him as an apostle of international peace and universal love.

The problem of Ulysses is the age-old attempt to put Christian precept into practice. The consequence is all too palpably illustrated by the anecdote of two drunks in Glasnevin Cemetery, who confound a statue of Jesus with their lamented friend Mulcahy. Beginning as it does with the Introit, the book proceeds to a blasphemous climax with the celebration of the Black Mass. Yet, as Bloom foresees: "Longest way round is the shortest way home." The autobiographical hero of Joyce's earlier volumes is depicted awaiting the Eucharist; the universalized hero of Finnegans Wake, who literally presides over a public house, is himself a host in more ways than one. Through the thickening intonations of his customers can be heard unexpected overtones of the Last Supper: "Pass the fish for Christ's sake!" The various rites of death and burial, which celebrate his wake, all culminate in some version of the Easter ceremony. Even the Phoenix, symbol of political desperation, fulfills its prophecy of resurrection. And the writer, expatriate and excommunicate, reasserts his sense of community and communion.


Communication, however, brought further difficulties, which it was his special triumph to overcome. If "his destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders," it was because he reserved his energies for order of another kind. "The first principle of artistic economy," he had found, was isolation; he had detached himself from his nationality and his religion; but he found his medium, language, pointing back to them. In the somber background, liturgical and scholastic, hovered the Latinity of the Church. In the embattled foreground loomed the Gaelic revival, though it never elicited more than a half-hearted interest from Joyce. In his enthusiasm for Ibsen he had learned Norwegian, and had even used it to salute the dying playwright with a brave and touching letter. At University College he had specialized in Romance Languages, and had shown such proficiency that there had been talk of a professorship. During his hardest years on the Continent, before a benefactor endowed his literary work, he worked as a commercial translator and as a teacher in a Berlitz school.

It is a striking fact about English literature in the twentieth century that its most notable practitioners have seldom been Englishmen. The fact that they have so often been Irishmen supports, Synge's belief in the reinvigorating suggestiveness of Irish popular speech. That English was not Joyce's native language, in the strictest sense, he was keenly aware; and it helps to explain his unparalleled virtuosity. But a more concrete explanation is to be discerned among his physical traits, one of which we normally classify as a serious handicap. Joyce lived much of his life in varying states of semi-blindness. To preserve what eyesight he had, he underwent repeated operations and countermeasures. A schoolboy humiliation, when he broke his glasses and failed to do his lessons, is painfully recollected in the Portrait and again in Ulysses. His writing tends more and more toward low visibility; his imagination is auditory rather than visual. If the artist is a man for whom the visible world exists, remarked George Moore, then Joyce is essentially a metaphysician; for he is less concerned with the seeing eye than with the thinking mind.

We may add that he is most directly concerned with the hearing ear. Doubtless the sonorities of Homer and Milton are intimately connected with their blindness. It is scarcely coincidental that Joyce, almost unique among modern prose writers in this respect, must be read aloud to be fully appreciated. In addition to his linguistic aptitude, and in compensation for his defective vision, he was gifted with an especially fine tenor voice. Professional singing was one of the possible careers he had contemplated. His singer's taste inclined toward Opera and bel canto, romantic ballads and Elizabethan airs: not music but song, he liked to say. His poems except for a few excursions into Swiftian satire, are songs; lyrics which, without their musical settings look strangely fragile. Yeats, upon first reading them, praised Joyce's delicate talent, and shrewdly wondered whether his ultimate form would be verse or prose. Operating within the broader area of fiction, he was to retain the cadenced precision of the poet. Above all he remained an accomplished listener, whose pages are continually animated by the accurate recording of overheard conversation.

Joyce's style is distinguished not only by the rise and fall of its rhythms, but by its feeling for the texture of the particular word. Words assert a magical power over things. Treasured phrases enable Stephen to transform "the dull phenomenon of Dublin," to transcend "the decayed city" by communing with a rapturous seascape. Jotted impressions are conceived as epiphanies, mystical visions which link the beholder to the object beheld. Between the planes of inward speculation and external observation, Joyce maintains a serio-comic interplay. The narrative of Ulysses is identified with the internal monologue of three major characters; it also responds to such discursive influences as newspaper headlines and fugal variations; one chapter comprises parodies of the principal English stylists; and the whole may be studied as a comprehensive handbook of verbal techniques. In Finnegans Wake a universe of discourse, seemingly unlimited in space and time, is spanned by associations of thought and play upon words. Names of hundreds of rivers figure in the torrential dialogue, "Anna Livia Plurabelle," which took Joyce 1600 hours to concoct.

His pangs of composition have recently been described by Philippe Soupault as "a sort of daily damnation: the creation of the Joycean world. The perverse ingenuity of these later experiments has been deplored more frequently than deciphered. A long series of misunderstandings with the public inevitably reinforced those early vows of silence, exile, and cunning. Inhibited from writing naturally of natural instincts, Joyce ended by inventing an artificial language of innuendo and mockery. In Finnegans Wake he drew upon his linguistic skills and learned hobbies to contrive an Optophone--an instrument which, for the benefit of the blind, converts images into sounds. Out of it come, not merely echoes of the past, but warnings of the future. Mr. Earwicker's worldly misfortunes are climaxed by a lethal explosion: "the abnihilisation of the etym." Pessimists may interpret this enigma as the annihilation of all meaning, a chain reaction set off by the destruction of the atom. Optimists will stress the creation of matter ex nihilo--and trust in the Word to create another world.


The alternatives that Joyce suspends, the nihilistic and creative potentialities that now confront us, keep us in an ambivalent state of mind. He himself kept the balance by moving from a negative position to a positive accomplishment. But, because his self-portrait was so explicit, and his masterworks were so elaborate, this development has not clearly been understood. Readers are bound to remember Stephen, "the eternal son," stiff-kneed and self-doomed. They are less likely to think of the roistering alderman, the "folksforefather," who bears a closer resemblance to Simon Dedalus. Nor, until they penetrate Finnegans Wake, will they recognize that Joyce's attitude mellowed as his stature increased; that he is finally to be identified less with the prodigal than with the paterfamilias; he plays the demiurge, smiling down on his creations. Meanwhile, of course, the children continue to quarrel among themselves; the old issue between the civic and the aesthetic is belabored through many rounds by the priest-politician, Shaun, and Shem--who is a veritable caricature of the artist as a young man.

Though the Portrait ends with a striking gesture of denial, we must not forget that the first word of Ulysses is an emphatic "yes," or that Mrs. Bloom's affirmation is echoed by the conclusion to Finnegans Wake, in which nothing is concluded. The waters of the River Liffey, by wending again to the sea, re-establish the natural pattern of fertility. Here was the horizon that first opened up before Stephen when, seeking the light, he walked along the shore. Flying, he then realized, involved the risk of falling; but he was pledged, like Faust, to strive and stray. The falling cadence at the end of "The Dead" is characteristic of Joyce's early prose. His obsession with death gradually yields in Ulysses to a new concern with life--the fall of man, colliding with the law of falling bodies, is transposed into scientific terms: "thirty-two feet per sec." No fall but a rising, the reawakening of Finn MacCool and all the other sleeping heroes of Irish legend, is the theme of Joyce's literary testament.

Unlike the leprechaun-fanciers of the Celtic Revival, Joyce did not seek forgotten beauty; he evoked the past to illuminate the present. The results of this continual juxtaposition were an ironic attitude and an iconoclastic technique which temporarily aligned him with Ibsen and the naturalists. The shock aroused by his incidental frankness is travestied in H. C. Earwicker, who reproaches himself for indecent exposure. Not exposure but synthesis is Joyce's final intention. His deeper affinities are with Dante, with the medieval iconographers, with the symbolic structures that art once built upon faith. But these, according to Aquinas, require wholeness, harmony, and radiance. How can they be constructed out of the fragments, the discords, and the obscure details of modern life? By proceeding through what William James termed "the stream of consciousness" to what Jung terms "the racial unconscious," beyond individual dream to collective myth. From two Italian philosophers, from Giambattista Vico's cyclical theory of history and Giordano Bruno's dialectical concept of nature, Joyce learned how to reconcile the principles of unity and diversity: "the same anew."

A phrase from his notebooks, "centripetal writing," seems to indicate his direction. The municipal motto of Dublin, Obedientia civium urbis felicitas, gets rather freely translated in Finnegans Wake: "Thine obesity, O civilian, hits the felicitude of our orb!" However, urbi et orbi, all roads lead homeward for Joyce. The world was his parish; his universe is parochial. The central human relationships, for him as for Proust, were warmly and tenderly domestic. Joyce's women tend to be either mothers or daughters, Goethean or Dantesque types like the rival heroines of Exiles, the maternal Bertha and the virginal Beatrice. His own outlook grew increasingly paternal, as he himself became intensively a family man. From 1904 his exile was lightened by the lifelong companionship of Nora Barnacle, who became his wife. He shared his musical interests with his son, and was especially devoted to his daughter, whose mental illness saddened his last years. His ripest and perhaps his finest poem, "Ecce Puer," marks the double occasion of his father's death and the birth of his only grandchild, Stephen.

Those who confuse a writer with his material find it all too easy to make a scapegoat out of Joyce. They make Proust responsible for the collapse of France because he prophesied it so acutely; and, because Joyce felt the contemporary need to create a conscience, they accuse him of lacking any sense of values. Of course it is he who should be accusing them. His work, though far from didactic, is full of moral implications; his example of aesthetic idealism, set by abnegation and artistry is a standing rebuke to facility and venality, callousness and obtuseness. Less peculiarly Joycean, and therefore even more usable in the long run, is his masterly control of social realism, which ingeniously springs the varied traps of Dublin and patiently suffers rebuffs with Mr. Bloom. The heroine of Stephen Hero, who has almost disappeared from the Portrait, says farewell after "an instant of all but union." By dwelling upon that interrupted nuance, that unconsummated moment, that unrealized possibility, Joyce renews our apprehension of reality, strengthens our sympathy with our fellow creatures, and leaves us in awe before the mystery of created things.

Copyright © 1946 by Harry Levin. All rights reserved.
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