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James Joyce’s Art

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“The intricacy of this scheme should not conceal a fact about all Joyce’s writings which he mentioned to Budgen, that his complexity was only in his means. ‘With me,’ he said, ‘the thought is always simple.”
   -Richard Ellmann

James Joyce is one of the great artists of our age, casting a brilliant light on the mind and its mysteries from a remarkable stance of warmth and affirmation. His work is unified and shaped by a common set of concerns, which he examined to great effect in a single line throughout his career, leaving us nothing less than a joyful and profound image of our spiritual and creative possibilities.

Finnegans Wake famously begins “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore and bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” This river of creation burbles from the earliest wellsprings of childhood, as chronicled with delightful precision in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then flows on through the process of maturation and individuation in Ulysses, and on through the deepest wellsprings of art and religion in the dream world of Finnegans Wake, and finally back into the sea.

In this post I’d like to try to bring across something of the main line of Joyce’s art as I’ve come to see it by focusing on three short passages in his three major works. I believe these moments, viewed in aggregate, signal the basic trajectory of his overall project, and I hope it will be thought-provoking to any reader, however familiar you may be with his work.

A Portrait of the Artist

Our odyssey begins with the early childhood of Joyce’s first literary counterpart, Stephen Dedalus. Portrait presents his experience entirely in its own terms, beginning:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived; she sold lemon plat.

In these charming lines, Joyce conveys the direct sense of what it is to be a young child – this is a technique he will develop much further in Ulysses.

“When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had a queer smell.” How did he remember this?

When we read these words, we first notice his technique, because it is always the most striking feature about his writing. But something deeper is at work here, too, and we have to tease it out of the story with careful attention. Notice that here at the beginning, our first glimmer of childish awareness is shaped by a story reflecting who he is, and told by his father – he is baby tuckoo.

Blink and you might miss it, but many of the key themes of his corpus are right there – the father and the son, human consciousness, narrative, language, and even whimsy and play. Readers familiar with his work may think of the more complex relationship of Leopold Bloom to Ulysses, or of this, from Finnegans Wake: “The fall … of a once wallstrait oldparr [Finnegan] is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.”

The process by which experience becomes story and story becomes experience is Joyce’s central preoccupation, as his work chronicles in every conceivable register.

For our primary consideration of this work I’d like to look at this interesting passage, in which young Dedalus has gone to study at Clongowes Jesuit boy’s school, perhaps six or seven years old:

Father Arnall came in and the Latin lesson began and he remained still, leaning on the desk with his arms folded. Father Arnall gave out the themebooks and he said that they were scandalous and that they were all to be written out again with the corrections at once. But the worst of all was Fleming’s theme because the pages were stuck together by a blot: and Father Arnall held it up by a corner and said it was an insult to any master to send him up such a theme. Then he asked Jack Lawton to decline the noun mare and Jack Lawton stopped at the ablative singular and could not go on with the plural.

–You should be ashamed of yourself, said Father Arnall sternly. You, the leader of the class!

Then he asked the next boy and the next and the next. Nobody knew. Father Arnall became very quiet, more and more quiet as each boy tried to answer and could not. But his face was blacklooking and his eyes were staring though his voice was so quiet. Then he asked Fleming and Fleming said that the word had no plural. Father Arnall suddenly shut the book and shouted at him:

–Kneel out there in the middle of the class. You are one of the idlest boys I have ever met!

Now, underlying this amusing episode is something important, for mare is the Latin word for sea. The sea is a key image for Joyce that suggests the universal wellspring of our being – the undifferentiated base from which all things come and to which all things return.

As the book goes on, we will learn that the problem for young Dedalus, like his mythological namesake, is that he is trapped in a labyrinth – in this case, a labyrinth of political and religious squabbles that endlessly divert his countrymen into merely provincial concerns, cutting them off from the rest of the world and from their own inner resources. And like his namesake, he will forge the wings that carry him out of the labyrinth and over the sea to Europe.

Odysseus is, of course, trapped at sea, unable to return home, and Ulysses examines the movement of the individual ego across the tides of experience. That book begins with Dedalus, now a young man, having breakfast with his intellectual rival, Buck Mulligan, on top of an old stone tower they’ve rented out, overlooking the Irish sea. When their conversation turns to the Greeks, his interlocutor breaks in with “Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.”

Thalatta is Greek for sea, and here Mulligan is quoting Xenophon’s Anabasis, a true account of a Greek mercenary army that was trapped far behind Persian lines and had to fight their way through hundreds of miles to friendly territory. (Incidentally, this story was the inspiration of Sol Yurick’s novel and the film The Warriors). When the weary Greek troops at last reach the sea and realize they’ve made it, the host cries out as one “Thalatta! Thalatta!” This is stirring stuff, linking the sight of the sea with safety and homecoming, release from captivity, and exultation.

This line is parodied again and again in Finnegans Wake. For example, when we’re dealing with an incriminating letter about our hero HCE, we get “The letter! The litter!” and so forth.

In the gorgeous final pages of that work, Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is identified with the River Liffey, flows back through Dublin and into the sea beyond. She cries out “Sea! Sea!,” as the dawn light rises, and the image of homecoming is, for the first time in his work, named in plain English.

And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, monanoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.

Circling back to our early pages in Portrait – Fleming’s offense was to snidely protest that mare has no plural. Taken in the light of the sea’s manifold importance for Joyce, we can see that this isn’t just an act of rebellion, it’s an act of heresy. And it is punished as such, much as Joyce would be punished for this very heresy for much of his life, seeing the publication of Portrait delayed for ten years, and several editions of Ulysses confiscated and destroyed.

This minor incident calls our attention to the relationship of individual beliefs to the universal ground out of which they arise, and Joyce takes the reader on a thrilling intellectual journey that illustrates precisely how that process occurs, and how it directs human life, imbuing it with a secret and mysterious dimension of significance and value. Joyce’s movement is always through the individual forms of literature and culture and out to the universal basis from which they arise.


Portrait deals with Dedalus’s process of awakening to his vocation as an artist, and ends with his conviction to go forth from Ireland and “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my own soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” So no one will accuse Joyce of an excess of humility.

Ulysses finds his journey interrupted, as his short stay in Paris was cut short by the death of his mother from cancer. He has gone back to Ireland and is now somewhat trapped. As a result, he sinks behind the tower walls of his self-identity as a heretic artist, constantly defending his ego against perceived attacks.

His early morning peregrinations take him to the sea, where he walks along the beach and meditates on the hidden sources of experience. A boat trawls the sea for the body of a drowned man, lost nine days earlier. In Stephen’s meandering mind, this poor fellow becomes identified with the drowned king of alchemical lore, and with the drowned father-king of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Walking back into the city, he glances over his shoulder, and in a striking epiphany, sees behind him a silent ship.

Now, this ship, we will learn later in the book, is a merchant vessel carrying a passenger named Odysseus Pseudangelos.

As is well known, this book takes as its governing structure Homer’s Odyssey, and here we have Stephen paired with Odysseus’ son Telemachus, setting out in search of his father. The father-principle that he seeks is Leopold Bloom, who embodies an older, more settled, and more compassionate side of Joyce’s character, who may suggest an antidote to the fierce egoism that keeps Dedalus cut off from people.

So we have that story going on. Rather than attempt to chart the long course of the delightful book, I’d like to look briefly at its method, to shed some light on what this book is doing on a deeper level, and how it extends the line of Joyce’s project.

Joyce tells this story primarily with what he called “interior monolog,” the idea being that he is presenting, as it were, an exact transcript of the thoughts that pass through his characters’ heads as they go about life. Now, this introduces some significant difficulties for the reader, because it is often difficult to know purely on that basis what exactly is happening. Important information about setting and the identities of characters is not always clearly indicated or foregrounded for the reader’s attention, so most of us need to rely on the help of secondary literature to be sure we catch the basic facts of the story.

That’s the heavy lifting we have to do to read Joyce, but the payoff is huge. Once you get the swing of how it works, you’re presented with an immediacy of experience that is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

On a deeper level, by presenting a record of human experience in “real time,” as it were, Joyce is able to illuminate the nature of human experience on a deep level. A simple example from the “Lotus Eaters” chapter will illustrate what I have in mind, I believe.

It’s ten AM, and Leopold Bloom has some time to kill, after breakfast and before the eleven o’clock funeral of an acquaintance. He’s strolling about town on his way to the post office, where he will see if he has any post from a woman with whom he’s been having an flirtatious correspondence. He’s hiding a card he will use to claim her letter in his hat.

In Westland row he halted before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read the legends of leadpapered packets: choice blend, finest quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea. Must get some from Tom Kernan. Couldn’t ask him at a funeral, though. While his eyes still read blandly he took off his hat quietly inhaling his hairoil and sent his right hand with slow grace over his brow and hair. Very warm morning. Under their dropped lids his eyes found the tiny bow of the leather headband inside his high grade ha. Just there. His right hand came down into the bowl of his hat. His fingers found quickly a card behind the headband and transferred it to his waistcoat pocket.

So warm. His right hand one more slowly went over his brow and hair. Then he put on his hat again, relieved: and read again: choice blend, made of the finest Ceylon brands. The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes. Hothouse in Botanic gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves.”

The chapters of Ulysses correspond more or less to episodes in Homer’s Odyssey. This episode corresponds to Odysseus’ run-in with the lotus-eaters, a tribe of islanders who spend their lives in a drug-induced fantasia. In this chapter, the psychedelic haze corresponds to the late morning heat, the racy game of flirting with infidelity, and images of fragrant fruits, perfumes, and flowers.

This chain of association is kicked off by his daydream at the tea shop, and gradually takes shape in his mind as a plan to visit the baths, where he burbles down with his lemon-scented soap, in a fantasy or simulacrum of the verdant paradise he imagines.

As you read the passage above, you can follow his drifting stream of attention, guiding his thoughts in a blend of ideas and associations, moving in counterplay with sensations and images, and ultimately directing him to take action. You know, he thinks, a bath WOULD be nice.

This is how Ulysses functions, in a nutshell. It directly illustrates the mechanics by which our associative, symbol-using minds create experience and meaning out of the flowing river of impressions and thoughts. This directed flow of interpreted energies directs our lives and give them shape and order. At a trivial level, the process leads a man from the window of the tea shop to the baths. But on a deeper level, these dynamics guide Dedalus toward the father-image he desperately needs – one who can bring him out of his self-imposed isolation and help him break through the walls he has built around his own humanity.

The relationship to Homer in this book is not a device – it is a template for analyzing the role of myth and symbol in unconsciously directing the significant episodes of our lives. Myth is born out of, and feeds back into, this process, in one “endless vicus of recirculation.”

Finnegans Wake

We have been flowing with Joyce’s work toward the sea, as it were – first, by charting the process of individuation in Portrait, as Dedalus develops a mature ego, and then through the process of breaking through that ego into a living relationship with the world, as we see in Ulysses.

Finnegans Wake takes us even further, using dream consciousness as a framework for plunging deeper into the symbolic unconscious that we previously explored from the day-side. In this work, the organizing symbols themselves take the center stage as characters, and we view the panoply of human history in terms of recurring motifs which organize our experience of the chaotic and protean stuff of life.

Finnegans Wake is, I believe, Joyce’s masterpiece, at times overpowering in its raw beauty and majesty. I can only compare its magnificent final pages to the conclusion of Paradiso in terms of its effect. But Dante was an author of the High Middle Ages, who articulated the beatific vision in the language of abstraction and other-worldliness, while Joyce presents his profound spiritual insights in terms of the world. The eternal hero-journey is reflected in individual lives as they are lived by real human beings, and the realm of this realization is not the remote and starry Empyrean, but the streets of Dublin. His characters marry and have children; they are men who doubt themselves and suffer through their jobs, and women of the middle class. It is a revelation for our times.

In the background of this book is the proto-story of Finnegan, who, as we learn from the old American-Irish ballad (lyrics), fell off the ladder and died while working a construction job. His friends threw him a lively wake, which broke out into a brawl. When whiskey was spilled on his body in the ensuing fracas, he sprang back to life and joined the party.

We can, on one level, read this as a book-length version of that song, exploded onto a gargantuan stage, in which the whole of human history is played out at the wake, centered around the never-ending process of the rise and fall.

As we noted earlier, Finnegan’s fall “is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.” This is, in a sense, the story that stands behind the unfolding of history, told and retold in a thousand myths and songs, great and small, about death and resurrection. Here the story plays out on a domestic scale as the adventures of a family consisting of an English innkeeper named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife Anna Livia, twin sons Shaun and Shem, and a little daughter Izzy.

The Wake is legendary for its obscurity, running throughout with composite words, multilingual puns, and passages which can be read in six or nine ways. At a glance it seems nigh incomprehensible, and many readers never give it a second glance. But I am certain that Joseph Campbell was correct when he claimed that there is not one meaningless syllable in the entire book. Coming to terms with it is simply a matter of doing what you can, and with the aid of the copious secondary literature available, it is quite manageable.

Let’s take an early passage and try to get a sense of how it works. To set the scene – we have just been taken on a tour of a history museum, with relics of various battles and invasions of Ireland, and are now being directed by the guide out (mind your head please) and back into history unfolding.

(Stoop) if you are abcdedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is given to Meades and Porsons. The meandertale, aloss and again, of our old Heidenburgh in the days when Head-in-Clouds walked the earth. In the ignorance that implies impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality.

To make sense of any passage in Finnegans Wake you have to begin by noting some of the wordplay at work – I’ll give you what I can of the key ideas. Rede is an English/German pun, meaning read (English) and speak (German) – here we are read/speaking the “claybook” of the world. We have a reference to the Medes and the Persians, two civilizations that fought over the territory of Iran in ancient times. An allusion the Neanderthal and then the so-called Heidelberg Man, Homo heidelbergensis, another precursor to Homo sapiens. And then, we have an ingenious presentation of the Buddhist doctrine of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, which traces out the process by which consciousness, through the afflictive emotions of hate and longing, shapes our experience of the world, and we become ensnared in the eternal unraveling of existence in a never-ending cycle.

With those comments as our guide, we can read this passage as a description of the process by which the story-making mind gives shape to historical experience. We come out of the alphabet-bed of experience and read/speak the word (if you’re going to be so subject/object-y about it), and out of this flows life. The images of myth and art are the stuff out of which our authorship of experience stems, leading from consciousness to engagement and through the various links to the on-flowing of time and being.

In a later passage we get “Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure Eryan!”

Pausing only to note that “Eryan” is a composite of Irish and Aryan, here we find a comparison of Joyce’s method to the scholastic interrogation of Trinitarian doctrine, a notoriously intractable intellectual problem. Joyce tauntingly observes that his project of exploring the plurality of all things as reflections of one another and of the common base is far more difficult than explicating the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity.

We have already examined the mechanics of this process in Ulysses, but now we are seeing it from the other side, as it were. We’ve arrived at an analysis of the basic problem in terms of the images themselves, which here take on their own directing force and agency. They have become players in human affairs, acting out their patterns again and again: “They lived und laughed ant loved end left.”

And then we come round again to start the play anew. “Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! Comeday morm and, O, you’re vine! Sendday’s eve and, ah, you’re vinegar! Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again!”

The laughter is not accidental – it’s central. The refrain of our ballad of Tom Finnegan is “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake,” and this connects directly to an aspect of Joyce’s work we haven’t looked at much – the doctrine of affirmation.

Joyce’s constant reply to this whole bungled comedy of unfolding experience with all of its disasters is to hold it with clarity and compassion. His ability to hold history honestly, and with an expansive and warm humanity, is one of the greatest achievements of his work.

But all rivers lead to the sea, and, I note with a deep pang, Joyce had signaled his intention to write a sequel to the Wake, which was to have been a short, lucid statement of its manifold themes. Tragically, his life was cut short at the age of fifty-eight. His final book was intended to be the crowning work that would unify all that he had done before. We know very little about what he had intended, except that it was to have been about the sea.


Written by Mesocosm

June 4, 2014 at 8:40 am

Posted in Literature

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