Daniel Mul­hall

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A Por­trait of the Artist and his Young Coun­try: A Joycean Cen­te­nary

A cou­ple of sum­mers ago I was vis­it­ing the Cotswolds and in one of those at­trac­tive vil­lages, Stow-on-the-Wold I think it was, I came across a small book­shop. Now there’s a temp­ta­tion I can never re­sist, for I love the prospect of a serendip­i­tous dis­cov­ery. Brows­ing through the eclec­tic mix of books quar­tered there, I stum­bled upon a copy of James Joyce’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which he charts the child­hood and com­ing-of-age of Stephen Dedalus, a char­ac­ter who also fea­tures promi­nently in Ulysses.

The vol­ume I pur­chased that day was not a first edi­tion but a reprint pub­lished in 1946. It had been bought orig­i­nally from a book­seller in Syd­ney and was owned by some­one who, in 1948, had been a stu­dent at Auck­land Univer­sity Col­lege. I sup­pose that this young woman had moved to Eng­land at some stage and Joyce’s book had meant enough to her to jus­tify car­ry­ing it half­way across the world. Per­haps it was Joyce’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ex­ile (‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels’) that had made her take it with her on her own jour­ney.

I bought this copy of Joyce’s novel be­cause I knew that we were ap­proach­ing the cen­te­nary of its pub­li­ca­tion in De­cem­ber 1916 when I would want to reread a work I first en­coun­tered as a stu­dent dur­ing the 1970s and had dipped into on and off over the years. 1916 was also the year of the Easter Ris­ing, which set Joyce’s home­land on the road to in­de­pen­dence.

Is it a co­in­ci­dence that Joyce’s three best-known books, Dublin­ers (1914), A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), were all pub­lished dur­ing the most tur­bu­lent era in mod­ern Ir­ish his­tory, stretch­ing

from the Home Rule cri­sis of 1912-1914 to the cre­ation of the Ir­ish Free State in 1922, just weeks be­fore the pub­li­ca­tion of Ulysses? Un­like W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey, Joyce did not write about the events of that era di­rectly. He took lit­tle no­tice of the Ris­ing which erupted at a time when he was al­ready ab­sorbed with the com­plex task of writ­ing Ulysses. In­deed, Joyce spent all of those years of po­lit­i­cal change out­side of Ireland, hav­ing left in 1904 and pay­ing his fi­nal visit in 1912. Yet, he re­mained in thrall to the coun­try of his birth and his three great books deal exclusively with the Ireland he knew be­fore his de­par­ture for a life that would be lived in Aus­tria-Hun­gary, Italy, France and Switzer­land, where he died in Jan­uary 1941.

While Joyce of­ten af­fected a lofty dis­dain for pub­lic af­fairs, in fact in his younger years he took a healthy in­ter­est in Ir­ish his­tory and pol­i­tics, which were part of the dense fab­ric of life he sought to dis­sect through his writ­ings. When he was liv­ing in Tri­este, he con­trib­uted a se­ries of ar­ti­cles to a lo­cal Ital­ian lan­guage news­pa­per which in­cor­po­rated a broadly na­tion­al­ist in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ir­ish his­tory.

Joyce’s work pro­vides an el­lip­ti­cal com­men­tary on pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ireland. His works are set in a coun­try that was sim­mer­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of a new brand of na­tion­al­ism in­fused with cul­tural pre­oc­cu­pa­tions such as the urge to re­vive the Ir­ish lan­guage. In his story ‘The Dead’, Miss Ivers, a ded­i­cated mem­ber of the Gaelic League, chides Gabriel Con­roy for tak­ing his hol­i­days in con­ti­nen­tal Europe rather than in the west of Ireland, favoured by early twen­ti­eth cen­tury lan­guage en­thu­si­asts. In A Por­trait, Stephen Dedalus is taken to task by a fel­low stu­dent for his un­will­ing­ness to learn his na­tive lan­guage (Joyce did take some Ir­ish lessons, but quickly aban­doned this effort, con­tent­ing him­self with his supreme mas­tery of the English lan­guage). A de­voted mod­ernist, he set him­self against the Ir­ish lit­er­ary re­vival pi­o­neered by Yeats which he viewed as com­pro­mised and backward-look­ing. In A Por­trait, Joyce wrote that Yeats and his school re­mem­ber ‘for­got­ten beauty’ and ‘the love­li­ness which has long faded from the world’ while he de­sired ‘to press in my arms the love­li­ness which has not yet come into the world.’

Joyce ad­mired the work of Arthur Grif­fith, founder of the orig­i­nal Sinn Féin party, who favoured a Bri­tish-Ir­ish dual monar­chy along the lines of that which had ex­isted in Aus­tria-Hun­gary since 1867, and who is re­ferred to sev­eral times in Ulysses. Joyce amuses him­self by cred­it­ing his fic­tional Leopold Bloom, who has a Hun­gar­ian back­ground, with in­spir­ing Grif­fith’s ‘Hun­gar­ian’ pol­icy.

The Cy­clops episode of Ulysses is a hi­lar­i­ous send-up of what Joyce saw as the ex­ces­sively nar­row na­tion­al­ism of the pe­riod. The main tar­get of this avalanche of hy­per­bolic prose is ‘the Cit­i­zen’, a char­ac­ter based on Michael Cu­sack, founder of the Gaelic Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion (founded in 1884), which re­mains Ireland’s premier sport­ing body. Writ­ten dur­ing the cri­sis of the Great War and its im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, Ulysses strikes me as a plea for tol­er­ance in its li­on­is­ing of Bloom, whose ac­com­mo­dat­ing out­look jars with the more un­com­pro­mis­ing at­ti­tudes of many of those he en­coun­ters dur­ing his wan­der­ings around Dublin on the 16th of June 1904. In a key pas­sage, Bloom, an un­typ­i­cal Dubliner, is asked ‘what is your na­tion?’ to which he replies ‘Ireland, I was born here, Ireland.’ With those words, Joyce seeks to dis­tance him­self from the more atavis­tic po­lit­i­cal creeds of the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

The pub­lic fig­ure who looms largest in Joyce’s imag­i­na­tion is Charles Ste­wart Par­nell. In Dublin­ers, the story ‘Ivy Day at the Com­mit­tee Room’ of­fers a bril­liant in­sight into the pol­i­tics of early twen­ti­eth cen­tury Ireland as elec­tion can­vassers dis­cuss the im­pend­ing visit to Ireland of King Ed­ward VII and re­flect on the mem­ory of Ireland’s lost leader. An An­gloIr­ish land­lord, Par­nell be­came the champion of na­tion­al­ist Ireland and in 1885 per­suaded Glad­stone to sup­port Home Rule. Then, at the height of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, Par­nell fell from grace when he was named in a di­vorce case. The en­su­ing scan­dal brought bit­ter di­vi­sions be­tween sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of Par­nell which con­tin­ued af­ter his death in 1891. The Ir­ish Par­lia­men­tary Party he had headed with such suc­cess never fully re­cov­ered the verve it had dis­played un­der Par­nell’s tal­ented lead­er­ship.

Par­nell had an ac­tive af­ter­life in Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture. Yeats wrote about him in the 1930s when Par­nell had al­ready been dead for more than four decades.

And he is an im­por­tant pres­ence in Joyce’s work. John Stanis­laus Joyce was a de­voted Par­nel­lite and this pro­vided his son with ma­te­rial for a won­der­fully dra­matic piece of writ­ing in A Por­trait when the fam­ily’s Christ­mas din­ner is dis­rupted by a fierce ver­bal bat­tle about Par­nell.

In this grip­ping pas­sage, Mrs Dante Rior­dan staunchly de­fends the Catholic bish­ops in their op­po­si­tion to Par­nell. In her view, the bish­ops and priests of Ireland had spo­ken and ‘they must be obeyed’. This brings forth fusil­lades of anti-cler­i­cal sen­ti­ment from Si­mon Dedalus (aka Joyce’s colour­ful fa­ther, ‘a praiser of his own past’ as his son de­scribed him) and his fel­low Par­nell devo­tee, Mr Casey, whose sor­rowed anger at the demise of his ‘dead king’, and the blame he ap­por­tioned to the Catholic Church for this, led him to say that ‘we have had too much God in Ireland’.

A hun­dred years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, Joyce’s most ac­ces­si­ble work is well worth a read. Its prose is con­stantly lu­mi­nous as in this evo­ca­tion of school­boy en­nui - ‘His child­hood was dead or lost and with it his soul ca­pa­ble of sim­ple joys and he was drift­ing amid life like the bar­ren shell of the moon.’ The novel deals with uni­ver­sal themes. There are early child­hood im­pres­sions of a con­fus­ing world:- ‘What was af­ter the uni­verse? Noth­ing. But was there any­thing round the uni­verse to show where it stopped be­fore the noth­ing place be­gan?’ A Por­trait de­picts the sim­ple pi­ety of Stephen’s child­hood where:

though there were dif­fer­ent names for God in all the dif­fer­ent lan­guages in the world and God un­der­stood what all the peo­ple said in their dif­fer­ent lan­guages, still God re­mained al­ways the same God and God’s real name was God.

But the lion’s share of the book is de­voted to Stephen’s (and Joyce’s) strug­gles with re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ity and his own artis­tic iden­tity. In the Ireland in which he grew up, Joyce be­lieved that ‘nets’ of ‘lan­guage, na­tion­al­ity, re­li­gion’ were flung at the soul to ‘hold it back from flight,’ but he was de­ter­mined to fly past those nets even if it meant hav­ing to re­sort to ‘si­lence, cun­ning and ex­ile’.

The novel dwells at length on Joyce’s dis­cov­ery of the temp­ta­tions of the flesh and the ag­o­nies of conscience and fear of hell and damna­tion with which he grap­ples. When he is be­ing tempted to join the Je­suits, he de­cides that ‘his des­tiny was to be elu­sive of so­cial or re­li­gious or­ders’ and re­solved ‘to learn his own wis­dom apart from oth­ers ... wan­der­ing among the snares of the world.’

The book’s clos­ing chap­ter con­sists of an ex­tended ex­plo­ration of his credo as a writer as he pre­pares to leave Ireland. En­ter­ing Univer­sity, he de­scribes how ‘his soul had arisen from the grave of boy­hood … He would cre­ate proudly out of the free­dom and power of his soul ... a liv­ing thing, new and soar­ing and beau­ti­ful, im­pal­pa­ble, im­per­ish­able.’

Stephen re­calls dis­cus­sions with fel­low stu­dents about art, na­tion­al­ism (‘the sor­row­ful le­gend of Ireland’) and in­ter­na­tional is­sues, where he tan­gles with the ar­dent paci­fist and suf­frag­ist McCann, who rep­re­sents Fran­cis Sheehy-Sk­eff­in­g­ton, who was sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted by a de­ranged Bri­tish of­fi­cer dur­ing the Easter Ris­ing in which Sheehy-Sk­eff­in­g­ton had taken no part.

A Por­trait reaches a crescendo when Stephen stands on a Dublin beach, ‘un­heeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life’ and sees a girl ‘alone and still, gaz­ing out to sea.’ The sight of her elic­its a rap­tur­ous re­sponse. ‘She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the like­ness of a strange and beau­ti­ful seabird. Her long slen­der bare legs were del­i­cate as a crane’s and pure save where an emer­ald trail of sea­weed had fash­ioned it­self as a sign upon the flesh.’ The girl looked at him ‘in quiet suf­fer­ance of his gaze, with­out shame or wan­ton­ness.’ Stephen re­sponds with what he de­scribes as ‘an out­burst of pro­fane joy’.

A Por­trait ends with the au­thor’s re­solve to leave Ireland and ‘to en­counter for the mil­lionth time the re­al­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence and to forge in the smithy of my soul the un­cre­ated conscience of my race.’ The word ‘race’ in Joyce’s us­age has a mean­ing akin to na­tion. And one way of look­ing at Ulysses is to con­clude that Joyce ful­filled his lofty am­bi­tion. He ex­plored the re­al­ity of early twen­ti­eth cen­tury Dublin, and of the mod­ern world, through a

char­ac­ter. Bloom, who was far more rooted in worka­day re­al­i­ties than the pre­co­cious, aes­thetic youth of Joyce’s cen­tury-old novel.

As James Joyce im­mersed him­self in his cre­ative work on A Por­trait and Ulysses, Ireland was be­ing re­shaped by many of his con­tem­po­raries who had re­mained at home and be­came in­volved in the strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence. Those times left a pow­er­ful legacy, of po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence and out­stand­ing lit­er­ary achieve­ment, which would prob­a­bly not have flow­ered to quite the same ex­tent against a tamer Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal back­drop. The Easter Ris­ing has this year been com­mem­o­rated with hon­esty and sen­si­tiv­ity. A Por­trait de­serves its place in our mem­ory as an­other mile­stone from that most pro­lific era in twen­ti­eth cen­tury Ir­ish his­tory, and in the an­nals of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture. As we say in Ir­ish ní bheidh a lei­théid ann arís - ‘the likes of it will never be seen again’.

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