James Joyce bust, Kielce, Poland James Joyce bust, Kielce, Poland. Photo: Staszek Szybki Jest / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked below article

On the centenary of the publication of Ulysses, John McInally looks at the politics of James Joyce and the society around him that set the background for the iconic novel

James Joyce’s Ulysses, started in 1914 and published 100 years ago in February 1922, chronicles a day in Dublin, 16th June 1904, and follows the activities and thoughts of its three main characters, Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising man, Stephen Dedalus, based on the young Joyce himself and in the final chapter Bloom’s wife, Molly. The title comes from Homer’s mythic classic The Odyssey, a foundation stone of western literature, that describes the wanderings of Odysseus (Ulysses), reluctant warrior of the Trojan conflict who, like the characters of the petit-bourgeois milieu described in the novel, lived on his wits.

Both right-wing reactionaries and Stalinists condemned and ridiculed Ulysses. The former saw in it a threat to not just conservative literary and artistic authority but to their political and social interests, too. In a 1934 speech on Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Culture former Trotskyist Karl Radek said there was “nothing to be learned” from its “triviality” of form and content and that Joyce’s “ …basic feature is the conviction that there is nothing big in life, no big events, no big people, no big ideas;..”; and it was “A heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope…” 

So, what was Joyce’s background, his politics and artistic themes and aims? He was born into a well-off family of the new Catholic, nationalist middle-class that fell into abject poverty during his youth, a personal trauma that left a deep impact. The betrayal of Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell by the Church and fellow nationalists also left a deep impression on him. Joyce sprang from the petit-bourgeois and this milieu was the subject of his short stories and novels, an interconnected body of work through which the political viewpoint of this self-declared “socialistic writer” ran in a consistent thread.

Joyce did not have a consistent, worked out theory of socialism; his political outlook was defined more by what he opposed than what he was for. He never shed the individualism of his class background and artistic temperament and was more influenced by the anarchist ideas of Bakunin, whom he had read, than Marx. He uncompromisingly opposed colonialism, imperialism, militarism – he was a lifelong pacifist and an instinctive internationalist who was inspired by the struggles of the European working-class, like the general strike of 1903 in Trieste, a city in which in self-imposed exile he spent much time discussing politics with workers.  

Joyce understood that Britain’s strategic refusal to allow the development of industrialisation, except in the “loyal” North, was a key factor in Ireland’s colonial subjugation, locking the country in agrarian backwardness. Around the same time that Trotsky was developing the theory of permanent revolution, Joyce believed it was Ireland’s young proletariat, not the middle-class he came from, that had most to gain from the breaking of the colonial link.

Joyce admired the artistic talent of W.B. Yeats but poured scorn on his role in the Irish Literary Revival in popularising its ersatz mythology. He demanded artists deal with the world of real, ordinary people rather than polluting minds with destructive fantasies and this, the central theme in Ulysses itself, stood in opposition to the entire concept of the “hero” that underpinned generation after generation of slaughter.

He opposed the narrow nationalism and racist exceptionalism of Padraig Pearse’s ideology, which he regarded as the mirror-image of British imperialism and was revolted by its “blood-sacrifice” mythologising. In a scene equally comedic and deadly serious Bloom, in the face of antisemitic and personal abuse, challenges the bigoted, nationalist Citizen’s espousal of physical force saying

“That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everyone knows it’s the very opposite of that that is real life.”

While metaphorically blinding the Citizen (corresponding to the one-eyed Cyclops in Homer) with reason and “love” he is obliged to flee, albeit shouting defiance, in the face of his increasingly belligerent foe.   

For Joyce, British colonialism and the Catholic Church were equally tyrannical, the latter the colonialism of the minds and souls of the people.  Joyce’s suspicion of Irish nationalism was largely based on his fear that unless breaking the link with Britain was on a class basis then the middle-class nationalists who betrayed Parnell would create a “priest-ridden” Ireland. The contempt the Irish establishment demonstrated toward Joyce was not just because he wrote “unmoral” books but because he had warned against and was in total opposition to the type of reactionary political and religious state they built after independence. They knew what side Joyce was on, and it wasn’t theirs.

Ulysses, first edition. Photo: Geoffrey Barker / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0, license linked below article

Joyce wrote about the middle-classes, it was what he knew, but he saw no independent political role for that class. Ulysses was published just shortly before the founding of the Irish Free State, and nationalist leaders like Michael Collins had demanded that “Labour Must Wait” and set aside its demands until the British were ejected. The working-class “leaders” who acquiesced to this betrayal set the conditions for the defeat of the Irish Revolution with dreadful consequences: partition, sectarian division, continued economic and political subjugation by Britain and, as feared by Joyce, a society dominated by a repressive, socially conservative Church.

Like most serious artists of the period, Joyce was looking to develop new artistic forms in order to express and come to terms with the fast and profound changes in modern capitalist society: technological, scientific, economic, political, including emergent theories in psychology, which were of particular interests to writers and other artists.

Written during the First World War and the struggle for Irish independence, Ulysses, while set prior to these events, was shaped by, and was a reaction to them. That one day in 1904 Dublin is not a static world, preserved in aspic, but one shaped by the social, political and economic events that provided the context for future cataclysmic transformations. Political and philosophical concerns, dilemmas and contradictions run like a thread through the novel despite its allusive and symbolist form and techniques – it was a revolutionary attempt to develop forms of literary expression capable of explaining and interpreting the modern world, not by rejecting all that went before but through preserving what was progressive and liberating, while exposing and rejecting what was oppressive and repressive.  

Joyce said he never wrote a line with a straight face, most likely including that one, but Ulysses is neither politically nor philosophically neutral. Joyce was a materialist. In one of the most “difficult” chapters, the pretentious young Stephen is reflecting on sense perception but his idealist reflections are consistently brought back to the real material world through awareness of bodily functions. The critics condemned the so-called crudity of Ulysses and its obsession with the body, but in some respects, this was the most revolutionary aspect of the entire work – if Joyce was making any point, it was that the bodies of real human beings should be liberated from repression, poverty, degradation and, more than anything, their systematic slaughter on the battlefields from serving the interests of corrupt ruling elites.  

But what of the book itself, is it worth the effort? It would be disingenuous to claim it does not present difficulties; Joyce was an uncompromising artist who aimed in describing the particular Dublin on one day, to address and reveal the universal. Ulysses follows the literal ramblings of its characters through Dublin’s streets. Their other “ramblings”, conversational or in “interior monologue”, contain many oblique references to Irish politics and require some knowledge of the period and also some understanding of the history of literature he brilliantly parodies. But there is no need to delve into the seemingly endless products of the academic “Joyce industry” – a quick read of a Coles or Sparkes summary will give any reader a general picture of the action and the themes.

Anything worthwhile in life requires effort; so does Ulysses, but it shouldn’t be a trial; the novel’s joyous musicality and its comedy, in many places still laugh-out-loud, as with the mock-heroic description of the Citizen, is worth the journey alone. But if anything defines Ulysses it is its empathy with and compassion for humanity. Bloom’s interior monologue is not the meaningless chaos as Radek and the bishops would have it, but the full characterisation of a recognisably real flesh and blood human being, and one who while standing in the face of bigotry, ignorance and all the other destructive features of a broken society in need of transformation, never succumbs to cynicism or despair but believes in humanity and its potential for progress and enlightenment.    

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