James Joyce


Dwight Macdonald

It was like trying to open a safe without the combination, and we were no Jimmy Valentines. At one point the subject of language came up—or, rather, we hauled it up—and I observed, desperately, that Mr. Joyce must know all there was to know about words, a gambit to which Morris assented with an enthusiastic giggle. The effect was frightening; a look of pain came over Joyce’s face, and he slowly raised his hands, as if to ward off evil. We dropped the subject. There were, however, three lively—or not wholly unlively—moments. One came when either Morris or I, in a context I’ve forgotten, said something about people not knowing what to do with, their lives. Joyce, his face flushed with animosity, gestured toward the window: “There are people who go walkin’ up and down the street and they don’t know what they want.” We were impressed—his voice had an epic ring—but neither of us could think of anything more to say.

[pp. 125-6, on Joyce’s non-responsiveness in conversation when Macdonald and George L. K. Morris visited him in 1932]

One may wish, as I do, that he had extricated himself; one may find Finnegans Wake a crossword puzzle of genius, often funny or moving but in general a dead end. I once attended a session of a Finnegan Club at Northwestern University in which a dozen savants from various departments, including Mr. Ellmann, spent two hours on three or four pages; I was struck by the ingenuity of their hypotheses and also by the number of words they had to give up on. But whatever one’s estimate of Finnegans Wake, one must regard Joyce’s carrying it through as perhaps mistaken but certainly heroic—a literary Charge of the Light Brigade.

For, oddly, James Joyce gives an impression of heroism. Oddly because in most ways Joyce was decidedly unheroic. He was a coward, scared of dogs, panicked by thunderstorms. [….]

[p. 129, on Joyce’s self-entrapment in writing Finnegans Wake; his heroism as a writer contrasted with a detailed specification of his unheroic behavior]

From such evidence, provided in abundance by the admirably objective Mr. Ellmann, certain literary journalists who confuse biography and criticism might conclude that James Joyce was not a hero and not even, by some curious logic, much of a writer. They would be wrong. For all his failings, Joyce was a great man. The locus classicus on this topic is in Hegel’s Philosophy of History:

They are great men because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age. This mode of considering them . . . excludes the so-called “psychological” view, which—serving mostly the purpose of envy—contrives . . . to bring [all actions] under such a subjective aspect that their authors appear to have done everything under the impulse of some passion, mean or grand, some morbid craving. . .

These psychologists are particularly fond of contemplating those peculiarities of great historical figures which appertain to them as private persons. Man must eat and drink; he has relations with friends and acquaintances; he has passing impulses and ebullitions of temper.

“No man is a hero to his valet” is a well-known proverb. I have added—and Goethe repeated it ten years later: “But not because the former is no hero, rather because the latter is a valet.” He takes off the hero’s boots, assists him to bed, knows that he prefers champagne, etc. Historical personages waited upon . . . by such psychological valets come poorly off. They are brought down by these, their attendants, to a level with—or rather a few degrees below—the morality of such exquisite critics of the human spirit.

It is one of the merits of Mr. Ellmann’s biography that he does not go in for valetlike moralizing. And, while he describes fully the dark side of the moon, he is equally informative on the bright side. This latter is Joyce’s single-mindedness as a writer. He was a hero because he was courageous about the one great thing in his life. “Daring, noble, intrepid, determined” are some of the definitions of “heroic,” and they apply to Joyce the writer as much as they don’t to Joyce the man. He had, of course, enormous talent, but talent is more common than is generally believed. He also had character, which is less common than is generally believed. In his work, he was incapable of compromise or concession. He was objective about his own writing. “I may have oversystematized Ulysses,” he once remarked casually and, I think, accurately. “The actual difficulties of my life are incredible,” he wrote Nora in 1904, “but I despise them.” It was not rhetoric. He had no job, no money, no reputation in Dublin except as a brilliant waster, and he was in violent opposition to the dominant “Irish Literary Renaissance.” That same year, he showed his contempt for actual difficulties by emigrating with Nora to Trieste on less than nothing—he had to borrow train fare in Paris—and making do there for the next ten years on his meager earnings from teaching English (with chronic emergency supplements from Stanislaus) while his writing brought him in no money at all. But he knew he had to leave Ireland in order to survive as a writer. Just before he left, he wrote “The Holy Office,” a broadside against his fellow Irish littérateurs that in metre and savagery reminds one of Swift: not the only resemblance; both were passionate rationalists, immoderately objective, burning cold in their contempt for sentimentality—just the opposite from the usual notion of the Irish temperament. After hitting off Yeats, Æ, Lady Gregory, Synge, Padraic Colum, and lesser leaders of the Irish Renaissance, he concludes: [scornful verse quoted...]

[pp. 131-133, on Joyce’s heroism as a writer, Hegel’s world-historical individual]

Success changed Joyce, but only superficially. (As Gatsby said contemptuously about Tom Buchanan’s love for Daisy: “It was just personal.”) Joyce knew exactly the work he was put on earth to do, and he did it, unaffected by affluence or poverty, fame or obscurity. Ibsen was his first love among writers and almost his last—his lack of interest in modern writers was extensive, including Proust, James, Mann, Eliot, Kafka, and Lawrence. He thought Ibsen a better dramatist than Shakespeare. It was Ibsen’s realism that attracted him; the banal, the everyday, the actual always moved him more than the ideal (which, indeed, moved him not at all). But Joyce’s realism was not in the reductive tradition of Zola. “The initial and determining act of judgment in his work,” Mr. Ellmann writes, “is the justification of the commonplace. [Not the recording, note, but the justification; Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio uses the same aesthetic.] Joyce’s discovery, so humanistic that he would have been embarrassed to disclose it out of context, was that the ordinary is the extraordinary. . . . He denudes man of what we are accustomed to respect, then summons us to sympathize.”

[p. 135, on Joyce’s narrowness and focus on the commonplace]

JAMES JOYCE was a typical hero of our times in that he was a specialist. As Edison specialized in inventing and Rockefeller in making money, so Joyce specialized in writing, and outside his specialty his interests were almost as narrow as theirs. His years in Italy were confined to the artistically barren city of Trieste, and not only because of poverty. A bank job took him to Rome for seven months. [….]

[pp.138-139, on Joyce as hero and specialist, his narrowness, his lack of interest in other writers and artists, his indifference to his environment outside of Dublin]

Politics was also subordinated to his speciality. He thought of himself as a socialist partly because he hated the Catholic Church, partly because “he thought . . . that a political conscience would give his work distinction,” and partly because he believed a state subsidy would provide artists like him with more freedom than they had under capitalism, an illusion still possible in 1905. But, beyond drinking in working-class bars, he never did anything about socialism. In 1938 he refused to contribute to a German refugee magazine because, a year before, Thomas Mann had stated in it his anti-Nazi position, and therefore, concluded Joyce, it was “politically oriented”; he didn’t want Finnegans Wake banned in Germany. He was a Parnellite, but Parnell was safely dead when he was only nine. As a young writer in Dublin, he was unique in caring nothing one way or the other about Irish independence, and in later years he opposed it because he had a big literary investment in Ireland just as she was. “Tell me,” he asked a friend, “why you think I ought to change the conditions that gave Ireland and me a shape and a destiny.” Pacifism was the one creed he really believed in, though he did nothing about that, either. As a schoolboy, when he was assigned the topic “My Favorite Hero,” he chose not the warlike Achilles but Ulysses, the man of many counsels, the intellectual, “the only man in Hellas against the war” (as he said later). It was a stroke of genius to make the modern Ulysses a Jewish bourgeois, reasonable and civilized, surviving by his wits in a savage Irish environment dominated by Achilles types like Blazes Boylan and Polyphemus types like The Citizen.

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce narrowed his specialty still further, from writing to words. “I have discovered I can do anything with language I want,” he wrote late in his life. The pun is the ultimate in the manipulation of words, playing with their meaning the better to concentrate on them themselves—that is, on their sound—and Finnegan, essentially a collection of puns, is to other writing as abstract art is to other art. It was not liked by some of Joyce’s most important supporters. T. S. Eliot, according to Virginia Woolf, had been more “rapt” and “enthusiastic” about Ulysses than she had ever seen him about any work before; he had reviewed it favorably in the Dial: “It has given me all the surprise, delight, and terror that I can require, and I will leave it at that,” wrote young Mr. Eliot, magisterial even then. But Eliot never committed himself about Finnegan. Even Pound was hostile; even Miss Weaver, most tolerant and diffident of patrons, had to confess, “I am made in such a way that I do not care much for the output of your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory. . . . It seems to me you are wasting your genius. But I daresay I am wrong.” Joyce was so upset by this letter that he took to his bed. (But he didn’t give up Finnegan.) He had, of course, some support. Archibald MacLeish was an early convert. And in 1929 twelve writers contributed to his defense a brief entitled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. Generally, however, the auspices were never favorable; of the twelve collaborators on the Exagmination, only William Carlos Williams and Samuel Beckett are much remembered today. But Joyce continued to work on Finnegan and to revise it, right up to his death, in 1941, In the terrible summer of 1940, Joyce, a refugee in the provinces after the Germans had taken Paris, devoted several hours a day to correcting misprints in Finnegan. This is what is meant by “character,” I think. Perhaps Finnegan was a blind alley, but it was his blind alley.

Whatever claim James Joyce has to heroism is summed up in a letter Ezra Pound wrote in 1920 to that most percipient patron of the avant-garde, the American lawyer and collector John Quinn: “Thank God, he has been stubborn enough to know his job and stick to it.” (I now understand the contemptuous ring in Joyce’s voice when he told Morris and me, “There are people who go walkin’ up and down the street and they don’t know what they want.”) It was also Pound who, in 1931, summed up Joyce as a modern hero of specialization: “I respect Mr. Joyce’s integrity as an author in that he has not taken the easy part. I never had any respect for his common sense or for his intelligence, apart from his gifts as a writer.” Joyce's lack of common sense—almost as great as Pound’s—appears in every chapter of this biography, and his intellectual narrowness is apparent, in Mr. Ellmann’s collection, The Critical Writings of James Joyce. But his gifts as a writer were extreme and he carried them without compromise to their extremity. “The most important expression which the present age has found,” the young Eliot called Ulysses, adding, “It is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.” Singularly uninfluenced by either academic tradition or avant-garde fashion, Joyce worked out his solitary destiny as a writer, pushing through to completion each of his four major works in spite of enormous obstacles, not the least of which was his own nature.

They are great men because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age.

[pp. 139-142]

SOURCE: Macdonald, Dwight. “James Joyce” (1959), in Against the American Grain (1962), new introduction by John Simon (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983), pp. 123-142.

Note: This essay is based on Richard Ellman’s biography James Joyce (1959) and on Macdonald’s 1932 meeting (accompanied by George L. K. Morris [1905-1973, American artist, writer, editor]) with Joyce (pp. 124-126). Macdonald appraises Ellman’s biography (pp. 126-129) and addresses Joyce’s life character flaws (pp. 127-131). Joyce’s publishing history and relation to other writers is outlined (pp. 133-135). The relation between Joyce as outsider (the alienated writer scrutinizing life in Ireland) and his fascination with the commonplace is reflected in his relationship to his exceedingly commonplace and philistine wife Nora Barnacle, a relationship that Macdonald recounts in detail (pp. 135-138).

I first read this essay 40 years ago, the only account of Joyce’s personality I had ever read, and what I remembered from it formed the basis of my impression of Joyce as a person. I remembered only these points:

1.      Joyce complaining that people don’t know what they want;
2.      Joyce as the consummate literary specialist;
3.      Nora Barnacle’s hard life as Joyce’s wife and her amusing indifference to writers.

Joyce is portrayed in this essay as single-minded, self-centered, parasitic, and vindictive, domineering or indifferent to Nora, with narrow interests and indifferent to most contemporary creative writers and artists, unresponsive to his environment outside of Ireland and unresponsive in conversation, pacifistically inclined but apolitical except theoretically as a pose. Finnegans Wake is portrayed as punning gone wild, linguistic fetishism in the extreme, and at least partly uninterpretable credibly. Nevertheless, Joyce was heroic in the one area in which he excelled, and a famous passage from Hegel on the world-historical individual is cited in support.

This harsh portrait of Joyce the man is coupled with a rather unflattering portrait of Joyce the artist. Joyce is given credit for doing something great, but Macdonald divulges nothing about what constitutes the greatness of any of Joyce’s major works up through Ulysses. We are treated only to unflattering remarks about Finnegans Wake. Macdonald also spins Joyce’s alleged apolitical bearing as mere indifference and opportunism, but we are not adequately informed as to what convictions Joyce expressed in his writing save for pacifism. Of the evidence cited against Joyce, the most damning would be his statement “why you think I ought to change the conditions that gave Ireland and me a shape and a destiny.” Out of context this seems damning, but we are given only this isolated comment. Regardless, given Joyce’s suspicions of nationalism, why should he have thought that independence would solve Ireland’s problems?

With this unflattering portrait in mind, we could draw only conjectural conclusions about the relation between Joyce’s life and work, which is not to say that the work should be judged by the life, but rather that the underlying assumptions we might glean from Joyce’s writings could be interpreted in conjunction with what we see here. Rebellion against a constricted environment yielded Joyce’s outsiderism, which nonetheless remained linked with a lifelong obsession with the minutiae of the environment in which he grew up, and which, from what Macdonald tells us, beyond Joyce’s departure from his native land, never developed further. Note that Bloom fantasizes a utopia, but it remains just a crude utopian dream. Of course a writer is not obligated to tell us what should be. Ultimately Joyce couples a cannibalization of the inherited mythologies of the West with the quotidian mapped in unprecedented detail with all its cultural taboos exposed, deploying style and irony developed to an extreme. We can see this ultimately yielding both extreme innovation and stasis. Finnegans Wake dissolves individual personality into the untraceable web of the unconscious and cultural constructs. Its historical ontology is cyclical, ending where it begins. We could say about Joyce as Ilan Stavans and Stanislaw Lem asserted about Jorge Luis Borges: in Joyce there is no future. Joyce’s peculiar rebellion against the idealisms with which he was raised perhaps explains why he was inspired by William Blake but trusted no vision beyond concretely embodied epiphanies. Hence Joyce’s later work, while as obscure as Blake’s private mythology, yields no real vision, but just a conundrum to be deciphered. If Joyce was just an obsessive specialist as Macdonald argues, we have a possible explanation of why this is. But at this point it is only a conjecture.

— RD, 25 February 2019

The Cyclical Night: Irony in James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges
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James Joyce & Esperanto:
Selected Bilingual Bibliography / Elektita Dulingva Bibliografio

Audience/Reading Public, Professionalization/Specialization of Writers, Literary Forms, Division of Labor

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