Matthew Hodgart, James Joyce: A Student’s Guide (London: Routledge Kegan & Paul 1978)

James Joyce [...] belonged to a great world and a little world. The little world was the Ireland in which he was born and educated, the great world was geographically the continent of Europe where he passed most of his life, and intellectually the avant-garde world of the arts, in its last heroic period. This period has only just closed, with the deaths of Joyce’s near-contemporaries Stravinsky and Picasso.

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In Finnegans Wake Joyce drew a parallel between artists like himself and research scientists, both at the frontier of discovery, as he did with the great explorers who in his lifetime reached many of the last untouched parts of the earth. (p.1)

Of the subjects most germane to literature, psychology was perhaps the one he took most seriously. He seems to have remained sceptical about the therapeutic value of Freudian or Jungian psychoanalysis, and probably even about the descriptive value of Freudian or Jungian theories, but he certainly found that Freud’s books offered myths no truer or falser than the myths of Christianity or other religions, myths which could be used as striking frameworks for his novels. It seems probable that A Portrait is not constructed on Freudian lines, but Joyce undoubtedly read a good deal of Freud before beginning Ulysses, where the new Viennese school is mentioned as a clue: Stephen’s relationship with his dead mother is treated in broadly Freudian terms. Finnegans Wake is, of course, Freudian from start to finish [cites Interpretation of Dreams and Totem and Taboo]’. (p.3.)

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Behind Joyce’s back, as he stood looking eastward over the sea, from Howth or from the Martello Tower at Sandycove towards England and Europe, were his enemies: the unknown Irish. [...] Within his Pale, Joyce knew geographical and social reality as well as anyone - beyond, almost everything vanished into a myopic twilight. [...] places [e.g., Bantry bay, Dingle, Blaskets, Aran, Boyne valley], which speak so powerfully to the imagination are reduced to a ludicrous catalogue of icons on the Cyclops handkerchief, symbols of chauvinism. Socially, his ignorance was invincible [...].’ (p.13.)

[Cf., however, Hodgart’s remarks on “The Dead”:] Joyce for the first time is trying to say something important about the whole of Ireland: the east-west axis which is not only geographical but cultural and historical is fundamental to the story. (p.53.)]

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Joyce showed very little interest in the Irish peasantry, and know little about the west. But he was deeply concerned with two developments of the later nineteenth century, the terrorist movement and the Parliamentary movement led by Parnell. (p.22.)

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Joyce’s serious interest in Irish politics began and ended with the Parliamentary movement, and that in fact meant Parnell to him. [...] Joyce admired him partly because he was the antithesis of the backslapping, snetimental, oratorical Irish type of politician. [23; ...] Parnell’s coolness (“indifferent, paring his fingernails”) gave Joyce his own life-style. (pp.23-24.)

Bloomsyear, 1904, was a time of relative stagnation and calm (Idem.)

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[Hodgart discusses the rise of volunteer armies in Ulster and the South:] Joyce was of course out of Ireland throughout this period [viz., 1916], but it would be a mistake to think that he was not deeply interested in contemporary politics. At the time of the troubles he was writing Ulysses about an earlier period, and it was published just about when the Civil War was finished. But he began Finnegans Wake a year later with a sketch that partly describes Rory O’Connor’s death, and most of the leading figures from 1916-23 appear as characters in the book: Erskine Childers, for example, becomes “Haveth Childers Everywhere [...] [Arthur] Griffith, [Michael] Collins, [Kevin] O’Higgins and other Treaty and Civil War figures are often mentioned, and [Eamon] de Valera is given a satirical treatment in the “Shaun” chapters [...]’ (p.28.)

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It is essential to see that in the Ibsen-Joyce view there is no simple conflict between the artist and society. The artist may be an enemy of the people, but he is also his own worst enemy, and therefore deserves to be the target of his own irony. When Arthur Miller adapted Ibsen’s highly political play, he made it into an effective parable about freedom, relevant and stirring, in which Dr. Stockmann is a wholly admirable political martyr. But Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann is faintly ridiculous as well as heroic, and this is true of most of his other characters: there is no play, even Rosmersholm, lacking in cruel irony. This is a pointer to the way we ought to read A Portrait. Stephen is an heroic figure, forging the uncreated conscience of his race, but he cannot cease to be a creature of his time and place, and that means he is also a rather affected and conceited young provincial, trying to be a colder fish than he can ever be. Joyce tried to hit a balance between self-glorification and self-criticism, and I think that he succeeded in doing so. But he perhaps did not make his attitude clear enough for the majority of readers. Some critics see the book as an expression of self-pity, others, like Hugh Kenner [Dublin’s Joyce], as a satirical attack on an absurd young man. (p.58.)

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[On “Ithaca” in Ulysses:] ‘Stephen and Bloom, the two parts of the artist, have finally become one: Stephen, symbolising their joint soul, disappears outward from the earth’s gravitational field into space, while Bloom, who represents their physical joint body, homes on the earth and is buried in her, as a seed or embryo: he assumes the position of the child in the womb [128] before he goes to sleep. The meaning of the book is always to be looked for in terms of the artists’s creativity. What this chapter says is that the artist, or at least the male artist, cannot fulfil himself and become truly creative unless he achieves a successful union with a woman, a relationship which is sexual and more than sexual.’ (pp.129.)

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[On Finnegans Wake:] The pathos of the end is intense, but the humour, as always in Joyce at his best, is equally marked. It may be true that Joyce failed in his attempt to write a universal epic, and that he thought he had failed; and Finnegans Wake may have collapsed under the weight of its symbolism. But it is a glorious failure. (End; p.188.)

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[On the ‘peculiar form of optimism’ that governs Finnegans Wake:] [...] The great cycles of death and decay, rebirth and growth are perfect. Everything in the biosphere is beautifully balanced: that which has evolved over millions of years is almost exactly what is necessary to the continuance of life on this planet. Nothing can be called evil in nature, in the long run: this can only be the best of possible worlds.

It is almost certainly wrong to transfer this optimistic view of the cyclical universe to the world of man. Human societies, unlike ecological systems, are not self-regulating; and, as far as we know, there is no reason to believe that everything is going to work for the best. Yet Joyce takes this step, probably as illegitimately as Pope does in his Essay on Man. He borrowed, as he made clear, from the eighteenth-century philosopher Giambattista Vico, the Neapolitan critic of Homer and philosopher of history. Vico argues that all societies pass through the same distinct stages, a theocratic followed by a feudal followed by a democratic age. Each age has its own language, symbols, forms of goverrunent and so on. After the democratic age society breaks up from its own internal contradictions; and after an attempt to stabilise it by authoritarian rule it collapses in chaos. But out of the primitive chaos society is reborn again and the cycle recommences. There does not seem to be any objective evidence for the correctness of this view. Historians, in fact, think it to be highly unlikely that any cyclic patterns can be traced in the story of mankind, despite claims to the contrary by Spengler and Toynbee. I suspect that Joyce did not very much care if Vico’s theory was true or not, for he found it to be a most useful framework on which to build his fantastic tale. The whole work is divided into sets of four, each representing Vico’s three ages and the “ricorso” or return to the beginning. There are four books, the first with twice four chapters, the second and third with four chapters each; the last book is undivided into chapters, but like the other chapters, and even some paragraphs and sentences, it is subdivided into fours. The reader soon begins to recognise these patterns, like the recurrent multi lettered thunder-word, representing the thunderclap which terrified the savage cavemen into religious belief and started off the cycle of civilisation.’ (pp.133.)

[On Joyce and Yeats:} ‘The true greatness of Irish verse begins with William Butler Yeats. Joyce’s admiration for Yeats as a complete literary man was almost unbounded, with the exception of probably reservations about his skill as a dramatist. We have to be reminded that the Yeats Joyce knew [35] and admired was not exactly the Yeats of modern literary criticism. Today, we think first of all of the late poems [...]’ but I think that to the end of his life Joyce thought of Yeats primarily as the author of the simple and direct lyrics of The Wind Among the Reeds and In the Seven Woods (1899 and 1903 respectively). He praised some of these lyrics to Budgen, but never mentioned the later poetry. [...] He almost certainly admired Yeats’s qualities as a prose writer, as shown in his essays Ideas of Good and Evil (1903).

It is usual among modern critics to deplore Yeats’s occultist ideas, and especially the bizarre philosophical-historical-religious system of A Vision (1926), which was supposed to have been dictated by Mrs Yeats from the spirit world by means of automatic writing; if this is read at all, it is only for the light that it may throw on the later poems. But Joyce, to the contrary, loved A Vision, and quotes it extensively in Book II, Chapter ii of Finnegans Wake: he was not at all put out by the lack of science or the quaintness of Yeats’s system, since he found it fitted in well with the quasi-occultist Renaissance speculations in which he had also spent much time - but whether he took it seriously as truth is another matter.’ (pp.35-36.)

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[On “The Studies [i.e., Nightlessons”, FW II.ii (260-308):] ‘This is a far less attractive section than the “Mime [of Mick, Nick and the Maggies]”, mostly rather difficult, although the plot is simple enough. Joyce wrote to Miss Weaver that “Shem is coaching Shaun how to do Euclid Book I.I.I.” In fact, he makes his innocent brother draw a geometrical diagram of their mother’s private parts: when Shaun finds out he hits his brother and gives him a black eye. The chapter is written in the form of a school text; to begin with there are solenm headings in the right margin and irreverent graffiti in the left; later, after an episode of day-dreaming by Dolph (Shem), 287-92, left and right are reversed. According to Mr J. S. Atherton, this is partly based on Lewis Carroll’s A Tangled Tale; also Carrollian is the mathematical lore, to which is added the mathematical speculation of the Kabbala and other occultist material, including Yeats’s A Vision. The opposition of angels and devils, heaven and hell, is continued from the last chapter; but now it is expressed in terms of Dante’s Divina Commedia: there are a few quotations concerning Paolo and Francesca who live in the Inferno, but most are from the Paradiso. The framework of Dante’s heavenly economy is the Ptolemaic system of nested planetary spheres, each planet corresponding to a particular virtue and inhabited by one or more characters who represent that virtue: for example, “Pickardstown” (262.22) is Piccarda; “Zeus, the O’Meghistest of all” (269.1819) gives the planets Jupiter and Mercury = Hermes Trismegistus, thrice-great, alpha to omega, and the other planets and virtues can [163] soon be found.’ (164.) Note also that Hodgart finds Aleister Crowley in “crowy” (232.38), “crowhore” (129.12) “Crowalley” (105.27) - overlooking Crohoore in the Banims and Crow St. Theatre Royal in Dublin. He also calls the ghost of Paddy Dignam ‘a parody of a Yeatsian spiritualist séance’ (p.105.)

[Conclusion:] Everything that is good and bad about Joyce appears in the final pages [of Finnegans Wake]. On the debit side is the excessive ingenuity, which makes him continue to pun in obscure languages; his self-centred obsession with his autobiography; his fondness for trivialities. On the credit side, there is first of all his sense of form. All the motifs and themes of the book are sounded for the last time in a manner that gives the illusion of a completed musical coda. Joyce is more successful than any other writer, with the exception of T. S. Eliot, at imitating musical structure in words. Second, there is his sense of history. As the characters of the book make their final appearance there is a strong feeling that we are coming to the end of a cycle of history. Finally Joyce has attained the epic sweep at which he had been aiming from his earliest days as a writer. The cycle of history is also a cycle of nature: there is a beautiful sense of movement in the passage, an invocation of the river running out to sea, “dying” as it loses its individuality as a river and coming to life again as rain. As Joyce tells this he is not only using myth but he is creating a myth, with the enduring poetic force of the greatest myths. Anna Liffey, river-goddess, mother-principle, is a truly convincing divine figure. Yet at the same time she is equally convincing as a dying old woman of the Dublin lower-middle class. Joyce has solved the problem of combining myth and reality, and has shown how the humblest human being can possess universal significance. Anna is a more sympathetic and more powerful creature of the imagination than Gabriel Conroy, Stephen Dedalus or even Molly Bloom whose monologues and figurative deaths end Joyce’s previous three books. Her simplicity is suggested by the folktales and pantomimes scattered throughout her monologue; it is easy to accompany her on her journey back into childhood; and yet she epitomises the whole of Finnegans Wake. The pathos of the end is intense, but the humour, as always in Joyce at his best, is equally marked. It may be true that Joyce failed in his attempt to write a universal epic, and that he thought he had failed; and Finnegans Wake may have collapsed under the weight of its symbolism. But it is a glorious failure. (188)

[End]

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