WRITING A WAY OUT OF THE GHETTO
They laugh at the tea towels. Oh, how they laugh at the tea towels with the pictures of Joyce and Yeats and Beckett on them; oh, how they laugh at all that Irish literary kitsch, that eejitry. And they are right to laugh, because it is indeed eejitry, the way that we express our pride in our great writers in almost every conceivable way — the tea towels, the mugs, the pubs and even the ships named after them — without bothering much with the actual reading of their books, in the unlikely event that we would even possess one of them in the first place.
But while they may be right, for the most part, there is another level at which they may be wrong. Because in these vulgar representations there is, perhaps, a larger truth that we have stored in the depths of our cultural subconscious, an insight which suggests that we Irish do actually have a special understanding of these matters.
It goes something like this: the writer of a great book is a heroic figure whose achievement transcends mere literature. Indeed, to be concentrating on the minutiae of the work of a Joyce or a Beckett is, perhaps, to miss this over-arching point: that it is possible to love a writer, without loving all of his work. Or even most of it.
I love Dubliners, for example, and A Portrait of the Artist, but I do not love Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. And if you were to beat a confession out of me, I would say that what I really love is not the man’s work, but Joyce himself.
He is so obviously a heroic figure you could actually hate everything he ever wrote, every line of it, and still revere the man. Essentially, he was against everything — long before Marlon Brando in The Wild One was asked, “What are you rebelling against?”, and Brando replied, “What have you got?”, Joyce was that dude.
He was, of course, against the obvious things such as religion, and nationalism, and Ireland, but he took it all much further by being one of the few writers of any era who was against language itself, or at least the language that was bequeathed to him, the one that everybody else used, and who therefore felt compelled to make up a language of his own — nothing else could properly give voice to the uniqueness of his being.
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