Revolutionary and life affirming: one hundred years of James Joyce’s Ulysses

In this article, published in issue 39 of In Defence of Marxism magazine last autumn to celebrate the book’s centenary, John McInally looks at James Joyce’s revolutionary novel Ulysses, challenges the view that it is apolitical, and explains why it should be on your reading list.

“To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”

James Joyce’s Ulysses, began in 1914 and published in February 1922, chronicles a day in Dublin, 16 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, not just to conservative literary and artistic authority, but to their political and social interests too. Meanwhile, in a 1934 speech on ‘Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Culture’ Karl Radek, in a much-quoted comment, stated there was “nothing to be learned” from Ulysses’ “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.” Radek demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of everything Ulysses represents and how it signified a revolution in literary form and structure, depth of content, especially in its representation of the complexity of the lives of ordinary human beings, their thought processes, and interrelationships.

Although the false view that Joyce’s work, including Ulysses, is ‘apolitical’ does not stand up to serious scrutiny, it persists still – not least amongst socialists.

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, which caused personal trauma that left a deep impact on him. 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: from Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, through to his final masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, he produced an interconnected body of work through which the political viewpoint of this self-declared “socialistic writer” ran in a consistent thread.

Dubliners, his naturalistic short story collection reflects the struggles of recognisable human beings in a society in a state of moral, social, and political paralysis in which poverty, exploitation, and the class antagonisms of a city in economic decline are realistically described throughout. The specific exploitation and oppression of women in Irish society is sharply and sensitively represented. And, in ‘The Dead’, justifiably regarded as the greatest short story in the English language, expresses, amongst many interconnected themes, the antagonism between individuals representing different petit-bourgeois political trends – those supportive of the new nationalist revival and those who have reached an accommodation with British colonialism.

In ‘A Painful Case’ Joyce, who admired the militancy of New Unionism, paints a very witty, sharp and critical portrait of a middle-class dabbler in socialist politics: “He told her that he had for some time assisted at the meetings of an Irish Socialist Party where he had felt himself a unique figure amidst a score of sober workmen in a garret lit by an inefficient oil-lamp.  When the party had divided into three sections, each under its own leaders and in its own garret, he had discontinued his attendances. The workmen’s discussion, he said, were too timorous, the interest they took in the question of wages was inordinate. He felt they were hard-featured realists and that they resented an exactitude which was the product of a leisure that was not within their reach. No social revolution, he told her, would be likely to strike Dublin for some centuries.”

Flickr trialsanderrors Sackville Street OConnell Bridge Dublin Ireland ca. 1899Photochrom print of O’Connell Street, Dublin, Ireland, c. 1899 / Image: Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress, via trialsanderrors, Flickr

Joyce did not have a consistent, worked out theory of socialism, his political outlook defined more by what he opposed than what he was for. He never shed the individualism of his class background and his 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 Trieste general strike of 1903, where he lived in self-imposed exile and spent much time discussing 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 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, a 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 in Ulysses, 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: “Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the saviour was a jew and his father was a jew.”

                               For Joyce, British colonialism and the Catholic Church were equally tyrannical, the latter represented colonialism of the minds and souls of the people / Image: Nheyob

In the very first chapter of Ulysses, the “Britisher” Haines suggests Stephen is his “own master” but retorts, “I am a servant of two masters, Stephen said, an English and an Italian…the imperial British state…and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” For Joyce, British colonialism and the Catholic Church were equally tyrannical, the latter represented colonialism of the minds and souls of the people. Joyce’s suspicion of Irish nationalism was largely based on his fear that, if breaking the link with Britain was not done on a class basis, then the middle-class nationalists who betrayed Parnell would create a ‘priest-ridden’ Ireland. The contempt that the Irish establishment demonstrated toward Joyce was not just because he wrote “unmoral” books, but his opposition to the reactionary political and religious nature of the Irish state.

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, 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.

Ulysses was banned in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, and while never “officially” banned in Ireland it was seized at customs, unobtainable in bookshops, and the Irish press subjected Joyce, and even his family, to the most vicious and personalised attacks. Despite bans, burnings, and confiscations it had enthusiastic supporters, prepared to risk fines and lengthy prison sentences to smuggle the “most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature” to those eager to read it. In a New York court in 1933, Judge John M. Woolsey, having read the book, delivered an historic judgement in response to a challenge to the ban. He said that nowhere did he find the “the leer of the sensualist” but a “somewhat tragic but very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women” and concluded; “…while in many places the effect on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be aphrodisiac.”

Like most serious artists of the period, Joyce was looking to develop new artistic forms to express and come to terms with the rapid and profound changes in modern capitalist society, technological, scientific, economic, political, including emergent theories in psychology, of particular interest to writers and other artists. Joyce was not, thankfully, writing political manifestos. He was in the vanguard of these revolutionary changes and qualitative advances in literature: he sought to expand the novel’s content to present a more profound and realistic representation of the dialectical contradictions and unity of human relationships within the wider, determining social and political conditions of the time.

If literature is a route to compassion through empathy, then Stephen’s description and self-identification with the hapless schoolboy whose work he is correcting demonstrates Joyce’s unstinting artistic integrity and insight. In other hands, this passage could so easily have appeared cold and detached, or could have descended into “unearned emotion”, as Joyce described sentimentality: “Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him and borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own… Like him was I, those sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me.”

Ulysses is neither politically nor philosophically neutral.  Joyce was a materialist. In one of the most “difficult” chapters beginning: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes,” which is the point many readers throw in the towel, 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 his own bodily functions.

In the novel’s concluding chapter, consisting of eight, long, unbroken sentences totalling around 22,000 words, the last word is given to Molly Bloom, in her much discussed and analysed ‘soliloquy’.  Whatever else might be revealed about Molly in this remarkable evocation, this is a woman who knows her own mind and is more than capable of holding her own in a world dominated by men. And, whatever else might be read into it, her concluding utterance “…I said yes I will Yes.” is, above all, a clear and powerful affirmation of life; as is the entire novel itself.

Those critics who condemned the so-called crudity of Ulysses and its supposed obsession with the body either failed, or refused, to recognise this was, in some respects, 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 serving the interests of corrupt ruling elites.

Osteraufstand Dublin BarrikadeBarricade in Townsend Street, Dublin, during the 1916 Easter Rising / Image: public domain

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, 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 preserving what was progressive and liberating while exposing and rejecting what was oppressive and repressive.

But what of the book itself, is it worth the effort? It would be disingenuous to deny that it does present difficulties for the reader. Joyce was an uncompromising artist who aimed, in describing the particular – one day in Dublin – 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 Joyce 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, which is worth the journey alone.

Joyce’s expressive range is unequalled, moving from the mundane to the unexpectedly poetic; when Stephen and Leopold say their farewells on the doorstep of the latter’s house, they gaze upon “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruits.”

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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