Why Now - Declan Kiberd
In the United States today is Groundhog Day but here in Ireland February 2 is being celebrated as the birthday of James Joyce in the year when his works finally come out of copyright. He often feared that the Irish were in danger of commemorating themselves to death yet he would in all likelihood enjoy the idea of his 130th birthday being memorialised in a newspaper supplement.
His most famous book Ulysses he imagined as a sort of counter-newspaper, a way of covering the events of a single day (June 16 1904) in a form more detailed than was possible in any newspaper. This newspaper would be printed to last forever. As a young man in Dublin he had tried to start an afternoon newspaper on continental European lines, but the project failed for want of cash. Unlike other modernist authors, he had great respect for the way in which a newspaper containing as much reading as a book is produced on time to a daily schedule. Not for him the loft condescension of Friedrich Nietzsche who said "the rabble spit forth their bile once a day and call the results a newspaper". Rather in Ulysses he sought to celebrate the ways in which "a great daily organ is turned out".
His earliest stories of Dubliners resembled the slice-of-life anecdotes then appearing in French feuilletons. Some were published in The Irish Homestead, a journal devoted to promoting Irish industry and agriculture under the slogan of self-help---a subject illuminated by PJ Mathews in his brilliant book Revival. The writers of the Irish revival, far from distrusting the bourgeoisie, were bedazzled by the very notion of a creative, entrepreneurial middle class. At the climax of Ulysses Leopold Bloom, ad-canvasser, insists to Stephen Dedalus, poet, that there is no conflict between the businessman and the artist. For Joyce both were brokers in risk, willing to back an initial creative hunch by years of toil and effort. On mainland Europe, for more than a century, bohemians and intellectuals had learned to detach themselves from the bourgeoisie--but not in Ireland where they knew that the middle class, like the proletariat, had yet to be fully made.
Bloom combines in his singular personality as ad-man those functions which only decades later would be sub-divided among the "mad men" of the agencies---he is creative enough to devise a graphic logo for the Freeman's Journal yet also practical enough to handle the accounts himself. Rather in the way Joyce could write great stories and use money from continental backers to set up the Volta, Dublin's first commercial cinema.
This is one reason why he was so contemptuous of bohemian lifestlyes. He always wore formal suits and maintained a strict social decorum. When one art-struck youth asked "May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?", he responded sardonically "No: that hand has done a lot of other things as well".
In the meeting between Stephen and Bloom at the climax of Ulysses, Joyce brought his younger self into alignment with the formed mature self that he had become (in part by writing that classic). One of the ideas behind Ulysses is the republican notion of the self-invented man. Here, at least, Joyce was in full agreement with Nietzsche, who had written "if you haven't had a good father, go out and invent one" i.e. become the father of yourself. Ireland itself, exploited and undercapitalised for centuries by British colonial power, had had a bad past and was seeking to awaken from that nightmare and invent a new indentity in those very years in which Joyce wrote his texts. So in Ulysses Stephen becomes "himself his own father", modelled not on his genetic father but on the figure of Bloom.
Joyce was painfully aware that biological fathers in Ireland always seemed to fail their sons. John Stanislaus Joyce was such a poor provider that once he chopped own the banisters of the family home in Cabra to provide wood for the winter fire. Recognising the genius of his eldest son James, he put him under intolerable pressure by suggesting that he would redeem the economic fortunes of their very large family. The attempt to escape that stress may be the best of all explanations for James Joyce's exile.
Ulysses suggests that paternity is a kind of fiction. No son can know for sure that the named father really is the father. But for Joyce the myth of paternity is countered by the truth of maternity: a mother's love may be the 'only true thing in life'.
The revolt of sons against fathers in healthy, free societies of the early twentieth century resulted in social progress, as the old were forced to adapt to the ways of the young: but not in colonial Ireland, where that revolt was meaningless, because neither fathers nor sons had hands on the levers of power. To become meaningful, that revolt had to be expanded to become a revolution, in language, form, thinking itself--and that is what Joyce achieved.
He did this by using a familiar Irish trick---he presented his radical, innovative, stream-of-consciousness Ulysses as a conscious return to one of Europe's oldest tales, The Odyssey of Homer. Joyce understood that the only way to be truly original was to go back to origins: and that in a rather conservative society the best way to present the new is to gift-wrap it as a restoration of something familiar and old. In a somewhat similar manoeuvre, Joyce's contemporary, Patrick Pearse, argued that liberal, child-centred methods of education at his school, St Enda's, would really just be a return to old Gaelic systems of fosterage; and James Connolly suggested that a welfare, socialist state would revive old Irish forms of landholding, the only difference being that henceforth the government rather than the chieftain would hold wealth in the name of the people.
Ulysses was perhaps the most brilliant of all examples of an Irish genius for having a thing both ways, for being archaic and avant-garde at one and the same time. Like other modernists who went back to primitive art for inspiration, Joyce was making a telling point---that we are the primitives of the new electronic dispensation. His both/and (rather than either/or) philosophy is still a feature of Irish life. When people fall ill, they use folk remedies passed down from their grandmothers as well as orthodox, analytic university medicine--and never know which to credit when they recover! Joyce's Ulysses is often written in a scientific style of social realism, yet it also includes supernatural marvels, such as are found in folklore, as when Bloom ascends at the end of the Cyclops chapter into heaven. He was in many ways the originator of what is now called Magic Realism.
Declan Kiberd is Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish studies at University of Notre Dame. His Annotated Student Ulysses has just been published in a new edition by Penguin Modern Classics.