SI­MON CATER­SON on the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of James Joyce

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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