SIMON CATERSON on the sanctification of James Joyce
MAINTAINING the crucial distinction between serious critical appreciation and blind adoration is never more of a challenge than on this day.
James Joyce is for many people a literary saint nonpareil and June 16th, known across the world as Bloomsday, has grown to become the biggest feast day of the secular literary equivalent to the liturgical calendar.
Given that Joyce was an atheist and his novel Ulysses a supreme example of modern humanism, this may seem ironic, though there’s a lot more to the story than that. Ulysses is in essence a 932- page account of one ordinary day in the life of an unremarkable Dubliner named Leopold Bloom, but as Irish critic Declan Kiberd comments: ‘‘ What one man does in a single day is infinitesimal, but it is nonetheless infinitely important that he do it.’’
Despite this heroic commitment to quotidian reality, there is much about Joyce, Ulysses and Bloomsday that speaks of the transcendent. In fact none of the three can be understood without acknowledging the pervasive influence of the Irish Catholicism that Joyce grew up with and absorbed into his creative process even as he rebelled against it aesthetically and personally.
The religious parallel is most obvious in relation to Bloomsday, since Joyce’s book has the magic of scripture for the countless Joyceans worldwide, academics and the laypeople, who congregate on this day.
During his lifetime, Joyce began to experience something like beatification. A few years after Ulysses was first published in 1922, Joyce reported in a letter to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver that on June 16 he had received hortensias in the same colours he had chosen for the original cover of Ulysses from a group of admirers of the novel.
In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann records the following encounter with one devotee: ‘‘ When a young man came up to him in Zurich and said, ‘ May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses ?’ Joyce replied, somewhat like King Lear, ‘ No, it did lots of other things as well.’ ’’
In the decades that have followed, Ulysses has become an academic industry engaged in labyrinthine disputes over the authenticity of the text and its exegesis.
It seems Joyce would have been delighted: ‘‘ I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.’’
Joyce apparently also wanted to engage the general reader in similarly absolute terms: ‘‘ The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole LIFE to reading my books.’’ Joyce even made a claim for a kind of authorial infallibility: ‘‘ A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are portals of discovery.’’
Bloomsday is celebrated with readings, cos- tumed re- enactments, drinking rituals and even the veneration of relics. In Melbourne, a city Joyce never visited, local Joyceans sponsored the construction of a Joyce seat of learning at the front of the State Library of Victoria. The design of the monument incorporates a brick that was salvaged from a demolished, nondescript house in Dublin, one of many where Joyce briefly lived. This sacred brick is thus presented as something akin to a splinter from the true cross.
Joyce railed against idolatry in his native land, from which he fled into artistic exile while composing Ulysses, a book that was duly banned in Ireland for decades. More than a decade before he published Ulysses, Joyce gave a lecture to an audience in his adopted home of Trieste in which he said ( in Italian) that Ireland could no longer be described as a nation of ‘‘ saints and sages’’. Moves in Ireland to revive that antiquated idea were absurd: ‘‘ Ancient Ireland is as dead as ancient Egypt.’’
Joyce also regarded the influence in Ireland of the Catholic Church as oppressive, even likening it on one occasion to a form of black magic and on another saying it was ‘‘ the enemy of Ireland’’. ‘‘ There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being,’’ he wrote. At the same time Joyce decried the effect of the church on his countrymen, his fiction is saturated with references to Catholic imagery, doctrine and symbolism.
Joyce’s theory of literary epiphany is taken directly from Christian theology, as famously set out in an early abandoned work entitled Stephen Hero : ‘‘ By the epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself. He believed it was for the man of letters to recover those epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.’’
Joyce not only wrote with quasi- religious conviction but even had a disciple in Samuel Beckett when writing Ulysses. During this time, Beckett famously declared that Joyce’s writing was ‘‘ not about something. It is the thing itself.’’ Beckett recorded the master’s every word and even insisted on wearing shoes the same size as Joyce’s, even though his feet were too big for them. Though Beckett’s feet were to suffer for years afterwards due to this bizarre form of obeisance, he did eventually repudiate the master’s method in his own work, which in turn has spawned its own literary cult.
Irish novelist John McGahern observed: ‘‘ The religious instinct is so ingrained in human nature that it is never likely to disappear, even when it is derided or suppressed.’’
The assimilation of scripture and theology is partly what explains the depth and resonance of Ulysses, though Joyce’s artistic achievement is obscured if his masterpiece is taken for some kind of holy writ.