Thursday, May 29, 2008

A portrait of the artist as a lefty

James Joyce has never been a best-seller, but his books have never gone out of print, either. The old boy might get a modest spike in his sales figures over the next few weeks, thanks to a lengthy and admiring overview of his work on Lenin's Tomb, one of Britain's most popular left-wing blogs. The Tomb highlights Joyce's links to the progressive political causes of his day, and brushes aside the left-wing philistines who have complained that Ulysses and the other great works are 'too complicated' for ordinary dumb working class readers (personally, I've been amazed at how often the people who employ this line of argument against modern(ist) writing and art are themselves intellectuals, rather than the workers they claim to represent).

Whilst I find the details of Joyce's political opinions and writings interesting, they are not the main reason I would claim him as a man of the left. Like most writers, Joyce was always more interested in literature than politics, and it is in the form and themes of his literary writing that we must locate the essence of his worldview. I think that Joyce's great achievement was not to be a supporter of Irish independence and a few other progressive causes, but to be a modernist and a populist at the same time (and if you think that such a combination wasn't so difficult, try taking a look at the work of Joyce's peers TS Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, not to mention dozens of other modernists!). It is a pleasure, then, to see The Tomb dwelling on the implicitly political aspects of Joyce's creative writing.

Joyce's writing was highly innovative, and works like Ulysses remains initially challenging reads today, but this difficulty is leavened by Joyce's belief in the mystery and beauty of the everyday lives of ordinary human beings. Joyce despised the elitism of the bourgeois high culture of his day, with its assumption that nobody who made less than three hundred pounds a year ever had a thought or feeling worth recording. The stream of consciousness technique that Joyce made famous in his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is the embodiment of his repudiation of highbrow snobbery: by entering directly into the heads of his characters, and showing everything that they think and feel, no matter how apparently trivial or tawdry, Joyce breaks through the barriers that held back a Victorian novelist of manners.

Joyce was much happier in a down-to-earth boozer than a literary salon, and most of the important characters in his writings are the type of people you'd be more likely to find in a boozer than a salon. Although he was an Irish nationalist Joyce disliked national chauvinism in all its forms, and his decision to make one of the main characters of Ulysses Jewish reflects his commitment to an outward-looking, inclusive model of Irish identity.

The Tomb's post on Joyce is followed by a long and rather bewildering comments thread, which culminates in a heated discussion of the merits of the music of Frank Zappa. Before that rather dismal endpoint has been reached, though, a couple of commenters mention The Intellectuals and the Masses, the wild and wildly controversial attack on some of the leading figures of the modernist movement which John Carey published a decade ago.

Carey argues convincingly that the likes of Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot were incurable snobs with ultra-reactionary politics, but he flounders badly when he tries to net Joyce with his simplistic generalisations about the modernist movement. Carey is forced to acknowledge Joyce's intense interest in the lives of ordinary people, but tries lamely to argue that this interest was born out of a desire to make it easier for a bureaucratic elite to dominate and manipulate the proles. As if Ulysses was the work of a dry bourgeois sociologist, like Durkheim or Talcott Parsons!

The best way to prove John Carey wrong, of course, is to pick up a copy of Ulysses and read (anywhere). If you're not in a reading mood, or you don't feel like anything too modernist, here's Syd Barrett putting Joyce's early poem 'Golden Hair' to music at Abbey Road one hazy day in the late '60s:

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah right. how many workers read joyce? only intellectuals, especially tryhards.

2:40 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Many workers may read Joyce (but Joyce didn't write for the workers - he wrote (he stated this quiet clearly!) to write a great work of genius that would be analysed by intellectuals for hundreds or years or hopefully for ever!! - and in fact their is a journal devoted to Joyce that comes out monthly and has done for years) but he isn't actually political - except that everything written is - Joyce does present the ordinary person etc and Bloom is very human, Jewish, and flawed - Joyce's idea was to portray the stupidity of the Irish nationalists and many political people as well as that of the Church and so on...Ulysses is a vast work ultimately beyond politics -concerned indeed with truth of human existence but a brilliant work in its own right..

Woolf and Eliot were great writers - great works of art - I take Ross, Maps, Carey, Titus Brett, and others to task on that one [Woolf and Faulkner and Lawrence vie for top of the hit parade in my book - whoever said Woolf was a "colossal bore" is clearly also thus revealed as one himself/herself (some crony of Jacks)- deep down also a mysogynist* in all probability] - cant be measured by how working class or democratic they are - quite the opposite - Joyce surrounded himself with people who would flatter him and so on -

As to women - he was in the same block as Gertrude Stein but didn't want to meet her (she was open to meeting him) as he "disliked bluestockings" - that is he really disliked intellectual women [apart from the fact that he sensed another very great genius who would vie for him for the immortality he yearned for - many see Stein as - with Joyce - the other great innovator of the 20th Century -besides he liked prostitutes - and his wife was a peasant woman who was simple and ill educated...] - and he wasn't really concerned about the Irish cause (sure he loved Ireland and the Parnell incident tormented him as it did virtually all Irish people who were ha any love of their homeland); he was mainly for himself and his family, and his art.

Eliot's background was more "aristocratic" and so on as was Pound's but Virginia Woolf was an extraordinary gifted and sensitive writer. She was a snob? So what? [She and her husband and were "Jewish" and had genuine reason to fear during the war] What was Shakespear? Mainly an actor,a playwright, and a very astute businessman - a capitalist - he invested (as he should) in land and the theatre and other ventures - he wanted to get coat of arms he litigated etc etc... Understandably he sought status in society in what he knew was inherently and always a very hierarchical world - as it is and always will be.

Great artists are mainly beyond overt politics - Joyce evaded (ignored it - he was unmoved by it) the First WW and refused to return to Ireland - he hated the politics over there.

At one stage he evinced an interest in independence; but he was wary of committing to anything and - as I say rejected all the bloodshed and fighting and the hypocrisy in Ireland... turned his back on the place.

But it is true that e.g. in The Dubliners we see ordinary people and so on - we see a lot more also...Joyce sponged constantly and didn't work very much (once in Bank in Rome where he despised his fellow workers also in the Berlitz Language school - where he indulged his own whimsies and was relatively lazy)) - he had 'lists' of people (often good friends who tried to help him)) who he thought - often quite wrongly who had "betrayed him...

Sorry Maps - yes Joyce was a Humanist - but politics was not for him!! His greatness is despite this "ordinariness" -

Not many workers read him? because he is difficult (some of the difficulty admittedly is the use of songs current in his time and Irish slang of the time; politics and events of the time; and the complex terminology and ritual of the Jesuits and the Catholic church - he was considering becoming a Priest at one stage)- but Joyce read just about the entire works of Aristotle (and huge hunk of Aquinas) and knew most of it!! He had a lot in common (deep erudition etc) with Eliot (not the anti semitism of course)) and he is read mostly by pretty well (almost all are highly educated with good degrees - Joyce himself had an MA - he had vast learning in many languages - Joyce is not for the working class - American Idol, Coro Street and so on for them )) educated - I have a BA but I still use annotated books and soon to read Ulysses...

Despite his rejection of the Church there is a deep religious or "mystical" sense throughout Ulysses...it is complex and great book (simultaneously satirical, comic, and "deep" where Faulkner is far more "dark" (yet in my view equally rich)) ... and as with Dickens it exposes cant and so on and centres on the details and the human and the interior /exterior process... (an Italian writer invented the interior monologue or stream of consciousness) as Joyce himself acknowledged) but Maps cant claim Joyce for his movement - not so fast Maps!!

You'll be saying he's a Trotskyist next!!

A great working class writer? - D H Lawrence - son of coal miner - and a great writer...perhaps greater than Joyce himself.

*This charge has been leveled at Lawrence and Joyce also.

1:21 am  
Anonymous Simon said...

I was looking for something to read at a bookstore in Urumqi, Xinjiang (currently Western China) and came across quite a few copies of Finnegan's Wake put out by the Yilin Press. Why they had so many copies and who exactly they were hoping to by them was beyond me - imagine someone learning a foreign language and picking up a copy to study from. Even with a reasonable command of the English language that book is nuts! But perhaps it was there as some vestige of China's communist past.

2:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Ulysses was nearly unbearably beautiful for two main reasons: first, its celebration of the English language as the genius of the Irish people. That in itself is a profound conceit, and it is perfectly realized in the novel. Second, its casting Leopold and Molly Bloom--two heartbroken, weak, flawed and barely-getting-by-in-this-world lost souls, sinners-- as heroes for the ages, the equal if not the better of Odyssyus (sp?)and Hercules, is a beautiful, generous, and at the time completely new contribution to literature. Joyce gets credit for modernism, which people sometimes eroneously equate with fancy literary techniques. In fact, Joyce's most permanent contribution to modern sensibility wasn't his word tricks. It was the notion that an average Joe, on a average day, doing nothing in particular other than surviving, with decency, was a hero for the ages. We fail to recognize the originality and ferocity of the modern idea because we live in the modern world and take it for granted.

9:44 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

You can burn everything written by Marx and all the other mad Utopians and kill all the workers in the world, massacre all the rest (get rid of China if necessary - or just burn their written stuff))

- but as long as you keep Joyce's great works I will be happy.

3:48 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

One syllable in Finnegan's Wake is worth one billion billion Chinese lives...

3:50 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Crikey Richard!

I don't write off reactionary modernists like Eliot, but I don't think their politics is irrelevant to their writing.

I don't claim Joyce for a narrowly defined political movement - on the contrary, I say that his explicit political statements are less interesting than the worldview implicit in his work.

I agree that Joyce's worldview is idiosyncratic, and can't be reduced to a few bullet points, but I think that it needs to be differentiated from the worldview of modernists like, say, Eliot.

I think that anon #2's comment points in the right direction, by noting the way that Ulysses was an attempt to make bring new type of hero into literature.

It's instructive to compare and contrast Eliot's use of classical myth in The Waste Land with Joyce's use of the same in Ulysses. Eliot always contrasts his age unfavourably with the mighty past; Joyce is far kinder to the inhabitants of the modern world.

Eliot was an innovator because he needed a new form to capture and preserve the glorious past in a turbulent new age - 'these fragments I have shored against my ruin' he wrote near the end of The Waste Land. Joyce was an innovator because he wanted to celebrate the modern world, and the working class which was a necessary feature of the new world.

The Waste Land is narrow, almost claustrophobic, like an airless storeroom tidily crammed with beautiful but fragile artefacts; Ulysses is like a huge open-air market, where rotten-ripe vegetables and secondhand editions of the classics, antique clocks and plastic factory surplus deckchairs sit side by side on creaking stalls.

Both Eliot and Joyce wrote their masterpieces before the age of forty. Their later works - Eliot's Four Quartets, and Joyce's Finnegans Wake - look away from the world, seeking a sort of transcendence in art or in metpahysics. And yet the contrast between the two writers remains clear.

Finnegans Wake is a glorious mess, and impresses us like a sweeping wild landscape. The Quartets, by contrast, impresses us with their hard-won, small-scale perfection; they are like a Japanese ornamental garden.

Could Eliot have written a book like Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, with his view of the world? Could Joyce have written The Waste Land, with his? I think that any extended answer to either of these questions would have to refer to their very different visions of the world, and therefore, eventually, to their politics.

4:53 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I agree with much but not your co-opting Joyce as a some kind of working class hero..Joyce did hold some socialist views but hey were not strong - he was petty bourgeois - his father hated the workers ...Joyce - yes - was interested in the "ordinary" people (he had very wide interests) BUT - recall his words in The Dubliners as the Irish watch a motor race - and I think an Englishman wins - he has the line: "The gratefully oppressed" of the Irish

Anonymous is right though - Ulysses comic but it is also deeply sad on one level and beautiful - BUT there is still a lot in common with Joyce and Eliot - there is mystical sense (a phenomenological or existential intensity) in Joyce that transcends such attention to politics or "workers" etc

Joyce if he was human and a humanist loved ALL people - egotist intellectual that he was...

This is indeed the difference with Eliot - but there are many convergences though I cant deal with all of them now - but Eliot loses none of his greatness, nor does Woolf by being a "snob" -

Also Joyce shows the degenaration and vileness of many of the working class...he is no deluded Utopian -he didn't want - anymore than Eliot - a socialist world - it was Saint Joyce (a kind and good hearted Saint of course though) the great genius forever famous...complex, erudite, riddling.

"Joyce was an innovator because he wanted to celebrate the modern world, and the working class which was a necessary feature of the new world."

Maybe but you can leave out the term "working class" - that may apply to Lawrence...or other writers. The modern world yes -hewas fascinated by the new mode of film and even tried to start a commercial venture into film -note this also - he was always trying to find ways of making cash - he was obssessed with money...he bludged and bludged and bludged and bludged - but of course he wrote great literature so that was his work - but he was cadger - constantly "borrowing....
money." His connection to Modernism came via a vast erudition - his reading of Ibsen (champoning of Ibsen)...

I love Eliot's The Waste Land and I also love The Four Quartets - they are like great music...and as such transcends the mere transients of human affairs which is the greatness of Bach...

11:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nga mihi nunui ki a Maps koutou ko Richard maa. He reka eenei koorero!

Celebrate Joyce for all the reasons that Maps, Richard et anon. have submitted here, and for your own myriad reasons:

Bloomsday at the Dog's Bollix:
Monday June 16, 8pm
Linn Lorkin and the Jews Bros;
Molly, Leopold, Blazes, The Citizen, Bella Cohen... and more..

There will be a cover charge but I don't yet know how much.

Naa,

Airihi

11:30 pm  

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