Bruce Stewart, review of James Fairhall, James Joyce and History, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1994)

Details: Bruce S.G. Stewart, "Joyce's Blind Spots." Review of Fairhall, James, ;James Joyce and the Question of History, 1993, in Irish Literary Supplement 13, ii (Fall 1994): 11-12.

Joyce’s emergence as a writer of note on the world stage of literary modernism rather than the more local stage of Irish writing, followed by his rapid absorption into the heartlands of Anglo-American academic criticism, meant that the process of uncovering the native contexts of his writings was unduly slow and tortuous. For much too long the Jungian symbol hunters held the field, and after their demise through inanition there straight arose a race of post-structuralists who successfully employed him as a hobby-horse on which to stalk paper tigers of their own. Their successors are still with us – but more of that anon. At a remarkably late juncture in the game, the inventive mind of Hugh Kenner thought to introduce a new perspective with the canny title Dublin’s Joyce (1956) – canny because the superficial resemblance to a Bord Fáilte brochure for the Celtic Master veiled a conviction that the Flaubertian contortions involved in Joyce’s styles (always ‘excerpted’ from their subject) arose from a disorder of the Irish world and mind which he called Pyrrhonism in one context, and in another ‘Irish truth’ – distinguishing it unflatteringly from other kinds. Ellmann’s biography is, of course, the linchpin, though his gullibility when faced with Irish wags has become increasingly apparent, while works such as Malcolm Brown’s Politics in Irish Literature (1972), Dominic Magnaniello’s Joyce and Politics (1980), and Richard Brown’s James Joyce and Sexuality (1985), as well as the feminist reports by Henke and Unkeless (1982, 1990) and politico-cultural dispatches of the Field Day writers, have all focused the sense of Joyce’s position-taking in the force-fields of his formative time in Ireland. The Joyce who emerged from this process of localised inspection was not merely a product of his environment but an author who established his own creative distance by representing selectively, and distortively, the elements of an intensely fraught national situation.

James Fairhall’s book, Joyce and the Question of History sets out to summarise and cap the process of historicising Joyce initiated by these and other critics (often in the pages of the JJQ). In so doing, he takes full advantage of an intensely productive decade of research by Irish historians into the revolutionary period: let Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (1983) serve as an honourable example. Much if not all of this corpus of writing has been decidedly leftish and engagé, conferring an air of excitement with which Fairhall has been infected, as have so many other American critics feasting on the anatomy of Irish culture, popular or otherwise, during recent decades. As a professed exponent of the theoretical outlook piloted by Frederic Jameson, Fairhall brings to bear on Joyce & History a virtually doctrinaire alertness to the element of repression that determines the ‘unfacts’ (in the language of the Wake ) of human narratives about the past and future. Not surprisingly, he also enthusiastically supports liberationist theories regarding language and identity that go by the name of Deconstruction (viz., ‘no discourse can be accorded ontological privilege’) which have been drumming on our ears since Colin MacCabe heralded “The Revolution of the Word” selon Jacques Derrida – and lost his Cambridge post for doing so.

To briefly summarise the author’s viewpoint, it may not be unfair to quote the notice that the publisher places at the front of his book, advising the reader that he is indeed in the right shop if these are the goods he wants: ‘Fairhall argues that Joyce opened up seemingly closed possibilities by destabilising the boundary between history and fiction, and the notion of an undivided subject.’ While that increasingly familiar piece of ideological cant is sinking in, or rather reverberating amid the other chunks of psycho-babble that occupy so much of contemporary literary criticism – in keeping with the author’s conviction that Frederick Jameson has invested the literary critic with an ‘almost unbearable importance’ – it will be convenient to mention several things that are extremely well done in this essay on the strength of which it makes a valid claim for inclusion on the shelf of indispensable Joyceana along with other hardworking studies that have served up delineate the contexts and assay the interpretations without which it is difficult to conduct an adequate discussion of the works of themselves.

The history that Fairhall speaks of in his title is less the Hegelian variety which provides a focus for teleological or anti-teleological positions in the ideological wars of our time than a number of particular episodes which acted formatively on Joyce’s sensibility in cradle-days and influenced his thinking to the point of obsession in adult life – thus account for the temper of his writing in several important ways. These events are: the Phoenix Park murders of 1881, and the Fall of Parnell of 1891-2. The former is a recurrent motif in Ulysses and acts as a sounding-box for the theme of physical force in Irish history and the way in which it contributed to the problematic construction of the modern Irish nation considered as an ‘imagined community’ (in Benedict Anderson’s well-known phrase). The second counts, in this interpretation, as the chief of Joyce’s ‘blind spots’, for – as Fairhall shows – the destruction of Parnell was not the work of a vindictive clergy as Joyce dramically urges in the Christmas Dinner scene of A Portrait and elsewhere (notably in “Gas from a Burner”). In so doing, he enlarged to egomaniacal proportions a tendency of mind that Conor Cruise O’Brien has identified as ‘literary Parnellism’, consisting in a vision of the great man torn down by underlings: the baying stag, the sold Messiah. (‘If you fling me to the wolves, be sure to get my price!’ – is the probably apocryphal sentence ascribed to Parnell in this connection.) In a year that has seen a spate of books about Parnell added to the already swaying bookshelf, this chapter-length addition has nothing to be ashamed of. Equally powerful in its way is the discussion of the shift in Joyce’s attitude between Dubliners and Ulysses under the chapter-title ‘The paralysed city’ (fashionably lower-cased) – though if local-historian Samuel Ossory Fitzpatrick is an ‘Anglo-Irishman’ by virtue of his mixed Biblical, Gaelic and Norman name, what of Garret Fitzgerald, Richard Spring and Albert Reynolds?

Another strand which makes compelling reading is the account of echoes of World War I in Ulysses – signalled by the concern with the ‘velocity of modern life’, the immolation of young men, and the sheer scale of random catastrophes such as the explosion of the General Slocum , but also addressing the mentality of generals, which Fairhall sees figured in the mindset of Mr Deasy vis-a-vis the unfortunate ‘Anglo-Irish’ prep-school boys preparing for Flanders field on the hockey pitch at Castle Park in Dalkey. (That recurrent equation between Protestant and Anglo-Irish undermines a little the authority of the writing.) Fairhall draws deeply on the biography of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and the characterisation of women in Ulysses , with some glances at Stephen’s appallingly male-chauvinist outlook, in order to show that Joyce did not - at least at the level of content - do anything to liberate Irish women in his texts or in his life. On the contrary, he seeminglyu feared and disliked educated women and furnished his books with madonna-putanas on whom to practice his preferred form of psychosexual entertainment. What Joyce failed to grasp truly was the ‘Otherness’ of woman, as Fairhall is quick to tell us. In these sections, good use is made of Joseph O’Brien, City in Distress (1982), Mary Daly, The Deposed Capital (1984), and Jenny Beale, Women in Ireland (1987); not to mention Paul Fussell War and Modern Memory (1975) and numerous more recent books all tending to illuminate the nexus of contemporary formations in which Joyce’s texts were embedded.

If Joyce was so far from playing the role of a real liberator in the gender wars of his period, it can still be said that he played the part of a revolutionary in the formal experimentation of his works and, by this means, unsettled the ‘stereotypes’ upon which gender stereotypes depend. It is this dichotomy that permits Fairhall to berate him as an practically reactionary while lauding him as a theoretically progressive in regard to social issues at the same time. This is a delicate balancing act, and at times it overtopples; and, when it does, the author becomes a little tetchy. Certainly his disparagement of Malcolm Brown, from whom he borrows with scant accredition the term ‘heroticism’ (originally from the Wake of course) is unmannerly, while his flippant use of the term ‘colonialism’ also leaves a lot to be desired. Here Ireland ’s status as a colony of Britain is at issue – an issue on which every Joyce reader since Vincent Cheng’s intervention must have a view, and James Fairhall is as postcolonially gung-ho as the best of them. There is nevertheless a certain stridency about his overview of Irish history which one recognises as the special note emitted by Anglo-English intellectuals engaged in flagellating themselves for their long-repented crimes in Ireland . The danger here, of course, is that of falling into the mindset of a Haines, a syndrome painful to witness and, on the available evidence, ultimately fatal.

To the question, “When was Ulysses written?”, the author proffers a vision of literary and historical synchronicity which suggest that his real subject is Irish national statehood (and hence the practico-political liberation of the Irish people from the Sassenach oppressor):

While Ireland was still languishing in the problematic colonial status brought about by the Act of Union (1800), he began his most famous work of fiction. It was published seven years later on his fortieth birthday in 1922. By that time, the Easter 1916 Rising, World War I, and the Anglo-Irish War had occurred, and the new Irish Free State was about to be shaken by civil war. [pp.19-20]

Was colonialism inaugurated by the Union, or did it only become problematic with the Union, or were the ‘problems’ usshered in by the Union of a particular kind not mentioned here? To my ear the ‘ new Irish Free State ’ is a particularily duff phrase – journalistic at best, egregious at worst. How would the ‘ new United States of America ’ sound in any history book?

We hear much more about ‘colonial status’ wherever Fairhall’s political sympathies are tumescent, and they are rarely otherwise: ‘in a rebellious colonial possession such as Ireland ... the intelligentsia cannot retreat to high ground of neutrality or objectivity [... &c.]’ [41] . And again, apropos Maria in “Clay”:

‘Like thousands of actual women in turn-of-the-century Dublin, she embodies the unhappy consequences of the hagridden history of the Irish countryside – a history whose chief terror, famine, was caused not only the canker of the potato blossom, but also by colonialism, laissez-faire capitalism, and racism.’ [p.79]

(No mention here of the Hag of Beare or her grand-neice Cathleen ni Houlihan.) Finally, in regard to the hapless man unjustly sentenced to death by hanging in the Maamtrasna murder case, this: ‘Myles Joyce was an unambiguous, defenseless victim of colonialism.’ What Fairhall does not mention is that the injustice was only subsequently revealed when the perjured witnesses publicly attested his innocence in chapel; that – as the most recent student of the episode says – ‘the awfulness, the sheer brutality of the crime, where neither age nor sex was spared, frightened the whole of the British Isles, then a political unit. It appalled everyone.’ Here the author is Jarlath Waldron (for what it is worth, an Irish priest), whose book appeared in 1992. ; By contrast Fairhall shares the sort of indignation against all things British which finds the root cause of all unhappiness in Ireland in that connection – à la Wolfe Tone.

On the evidence of notes and bibliography, the anti-colonial animus of the book is partly fuelled by John Garvin’s characteristically excitable account of the episode in Disunited Kingdom (1976) – an author who, with all his patriotic insights and occlusions, may be safely viewed as an prime example of the bureaucratic victory of petty-bourgeois nationalism in Ireland. His book on Joyce is a signal example of a labour of irritation and resentment (as is his essay in the Envoy special Joyce issue of 1950). (As Dublin city manager, he incidentally presided over the destruction of Joyce’s Dublin rendering it necessary to rebuild it brick by brick from the pages of Ulysses – at least in imagination.) In these days it is easy to be taken for a carping liberal in the ideologically-entrenched state of Irish studies but that should does not excuse the precipitation with which Anglo-American scholars have thrown themselves into the defence of partisan positions on Irish politics in their determination to side with the good angels. On the one hand, this reveals a desire for popularity, on the other it does real damage to the prospects of peace in Ireland . Joyce himself did not prate about British colonialism in Ireland and nor should his commentators.

It might be hoped that Cambridge University Press would have advised on the more unctious outbursts of this kind but unfortunately that press is in the vanguard of British publishers who have abdicating responsibility for editorial control to the extent of printing American orthography straight from the word-processed package. Hence, throughout the book we meet with ‘program’, ‘labor’ and ‘specter’, and –for some reason lower case o-fada for Ó Broin and all such names [ó Broin]. This hardly matches the intensity of Fairhall’s fellow-feeling for the Irish nation in its Gaelic essentials and his corresponding disapproval of James Joyce’s standpoint on contemporary Irish nationalism. The Joyce he shows us is hardly different from an outright enemy of the people, so considered:

The absence from Ulysses of any Irish nationalists except those who are grotesquely funny, pernicious, or ineffectual indicates the limitations of Joyce’s point of view. And if his response to Pearse was inadequate, what can we say about his response – or lack of one – to that altogether more complex and tragic nationalist, James Connolly ... [whose] life and death raised crucial questions for anyone concerned with the relationship between nationalism and social justice? ... No doubt the mayhem of 1914-18 confirmed Joyce’s predisposition to see nationalism as Europe ’s greatest plague. In spite of his anger at British misrule in Ireland, even imperialism struck him as a lesser evil [than nationalism].

A more graceful book might have been written on the supposition that Joyce was in some measure right about the ‘pap of racial hatred’. Certainly, the implication that he failed his countrymen in not establishing a Connolly Club in Zurich or in Paris is an odd one. In any event, political right or wrong is not the primary business of the literary critic. Nor is this kind of arbitration:

Joyce could not reconcile Parnell and Connolly. Both leaders – the heroic nationalist and the heroic socialist – suggest alternatives to the miserable political scene depicted in the story [i.e., “Ivy Day”]. But they are mutually cancelling alternatives, and Joyce’s ideological bias caused him to focus on one while relegating the other to a shadow subtext that reflected political reality all too well.

Now, one thing that can be said with some certainty is that Joyce did not find room for James Connolly in his cogitations about Ireland . He is referenced in neither Ulysses nor Finnegans Wake , while Dubliners , in which “Ivy Day” occurs, was obviously too early. It is all the more alarming to find, therefore, that James Connolly’s views are inserted in the argument on virtually no pretext at all: ‘If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.’ There are, indeed, some grounds for associating this view with Joyce’s own (as his letters to Stannie from Pola and Trieste testify); yet it remains unclear how such a credo consorts with the major premiss of Fairhall’s introduction, viz., that the ‘emplotments’ by which we map the past and future of a society are essentially fictive. This remains, in fact, the eternal stumbling block of trying to be semiologically astute and politically correct at the same time, without invoking some kind of voluntarism to ensure that the writer or the critic adopts the right historical side. Or perhaps it is only the bourgeois version of society that is fictive whereas the socialist version, by virtue of its habitual far-fetchedness (except in so far as bourgeois Ireland, like its neighbour, has effectively assimilated it to its own political and economic processes), is apodictically reliable.

Joyce was wrong on so many points of history and politics, according to this author, that it is odd he finds anything right about his outlook. The circle is squared with reference to the aforementioned difference between form and content: Joyce’s attacks on nationalist history (though wrong in practice) stand for an attitude of scepticism to official history of any kind. Hence—

Joyce’s brilliant attack on received history offers a lesson from which most of us, not just literary specialists, could profit. Imagine a United States whose people understood the ideological nature of history and the historicity of ideology. [xii]

I hesitate to copy out his next sentence, which piously asserts: ‘Certainly such a country would not have stepped unreflectively ... into Vietnam or Panama or the Persian Gulf [sic].’ Or Europe, or Korea or Iraq .

Fairhall is at his best in dealing with the building blocks of Dubliners, A Portrait, and Ulysses, if rather too generalistic in his brief discussion of the epistemological strategies of the Wake. This is a pity, since the thrust of his argument is developmental and should lead up conclusively to the Wake where, by the way, he strives to locate the Phoenix Park Murders at the centre of the whole design. The bones of the evolutionary outlook that he espouses are are as follows:

Stephen’s desire in A Portrait to escape the nets of family, country, and religion, whose effects on his growing mind are precisely delineated, is replaced in the second half of Ulysses and in the Wake by a generalised desire to escape the authority of the word and the imprisonment of language. [9-10]

This is a positive thesis, and it needs positive demonstration. In support, Joyce’s own words are recruited: ‘I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service’ (JJ, 397). The problem with this, of course, is that it says precisely the opposite of what Fairhall wants it to say. He believes – as no doubt many an Eng. Lit. graduate does today – that the linguistic macaronics of the Wake are geared towards liberating men and women from the phallocentric concreteness of fixed signs and meanings, hence all authoritarian and patriarchal systems (and so on and so forth). He expressly argues that ‘in the Wake , [Joyce] created an English-based, international portmanteau language, not free of tradition but full of different traditions, in which even individual words cannot be assigned single, authoritative meanings’, and – analogously in relation to the question of the mixed characterologies (or ‘centuple celves’) of the Wake – that ‘one way of reading the slipperiness of identity in Finegans Wake is as an attack on essentialism’. Yet, in precise contradistinction, Joyce appears to have said that he was combining languages in order to capture in their multiplicity the one subtending language in which a global truth might be apprehended, however tenuously, zanily, or tragi-comically: he wanted to get at the Ursprache beneath all ‘broken heaventalk’.

If this is so, Joyce remained with – or returned to – the essentialism of his scholastic masters; only he tried to engage the essential across the full breadth of its phenomenal diversity. This is a view that, in the heat of their ideological enthusiasm for political subversion (as they understand it), together with an almost psychedelic excitement about ‘multiple selves’ – analogous, perhaps, with the more conventional craving for second cars and second homes – a whole generation of critics have overlooked. Indeed, if Joyce is not the kind of psycho-revolutionist that Stephen Heath and Derek Attridge and others would make him; if he does not serve the purposes of the post-structuralist critics, but simply followed through the guide-lines of incandescent Irish Catholic idealism to its cosmological last term in a reconstituted Logos, then what use is he to the intellectual imperialists of Britain and America who are presently making such efforts to reverse their big-nation politics, embracing thrilling ‘subversion’ in place of stuffy ‘hegemony’ and generally buying into diversity as fast as petro-dollars and media expansion can permit? And, indeed, what happens to Subversion when it becomes the intellectual orthodoxy of 40 million Americans college graduates? But that is a question for the Americans themselves. Back home, one feels that turning Joyce into an Irish national traitor and Connolly into an Irish national hero of the first order is not a function that others are entitled to do for us. For this reader, in any case, the former remains ‘our unremuneranded national apostate’.

[ close ] [ top ]