What was it about Dublin that enabled the production of a masterpiece like Ulysses, which is of course inextricably linked with the city? The question is a rather unusual one if applied to most writers. There would be no question, for instance, of applying it to Shakespeare in relation to London, since that city hardly features in his work. One can talk about the Elizabethan or early modern context of Shakespeare’s writing, but that conceptual level is entirely different from the intimate, almost visceral imbrication of Joyce and his city in his work. This is why the phrase “Joyce’s Dublin” has an almost unique status; of very few other writers can it be used in a similar way.
“Dickens’s London” comes to mind, but that London seems largely a creation, a genial, atmospheric creation, with a population of eccentrics and engaging oddities, not a reflection of the actual city at a given time, in the way that Ulysses is – while also doing many other things.
Nabokov famously said that when writing Lolita he had to “invent America”, as he had earlier had to “invent Russia”. This, one feels, is precisely what Joyce did not do; his Dublin is in no sense an invention. While it cannot and does not, despite his boast, give us the whole city, what it gives us conveys every impression of being a wholly accurate account of a certain segment of Dublin life. George Bernard Shaw testified to that, and he should know, even if what he found in Ulysses’s pages revolted him.
So, to repeat, what was it about Dublin? Why, when Joyce left the city at such a young age, was he obliged (and the word “obliged” does not seem too strong) to carry it with him wherever he went and make it the staple of his writing? To phrase it another way, what particular qualities did Dublin possess that gave to Joyce’s writing its uniqueness, its amazing individuality?
Many answers have been attempted to this question; it has become a particularly hot topic in recent years, where the increasing literary critical interest in history gives it a particular edge. As a question, it takes us to some extent outside the book, into the actual conditions of Dublin life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and quite a few critics find this appealing.
For Declan Kiberd, for instance, Dublin, far from being a narrow, provincial backwater, was in fact a crucible of modernity: the Irish had already endured the quintessential modern experience of uprootedness, disruption and alienation at the hands of their colonial masters. This put them far ahead of the British, in the vanguard of modernity. The loss of the Irish language, especially, (and this is in fact a very rare experience even among colonial societies) gives the Irish a unique relationship with their adopted language whereby fully fledged modernism is just around the corner. (It is important to distinguish here between modernism and modernity, modernism being the early twentieth century artistic and cultural movement and modernity being the historical experience of displacement, objectification, meaninglessness and uprootedness already described.)
It is above all in the hybrid nature of its experience that the uniqueness of the Irish situation becomes apparent. It remains rooted in colonialist reality but it also harbours elements that will split this colonialist reality wide open. The following sentence perhaps goes some way to summarising Kiberd’s complex argument:
Radical modernism, as practised by a Joyce or a Rushdie, has been a prolonged attempt to … write a narrative of the colonizers and the colonized in which the symbiotic relation between the two becomes manifest. (Inventing Ireland. Note the equating of Joyce and Rushdie, not an equating that everyone would accept.)
The slightly dubious aspect of this is that modernism as a movement was not confined to colonised countries: it is true that Britain was notoriously slow to take up modernist methods and initiatives, but modernism also flourished in other countries that could not be remotely described as colonised, such as the US and France. So the Kiberd argument seems to apply to a limited set of circumstances that are not germane to modernism in all its aspects.
As already mentioned, Kiberd’s point is that their very special situation made the Irish pioneers in the practice of modernism, but I am not sure that this suffices to account for the widespread practice of modernist techniques in western Europe and north America. Nor am I convinced that this stress on colonialism and postcolonialism gets us to the heart of Joyce’s project in general.
Moreover, as the mention of Rushdie suggests, Kiberd is inclined to slight the sheer uniqueness of Ulysses: making it part of a broader movement does come at the cost of diminishing slightly the particular qualities that give Joyce’s novel its very special place. It doesn’t quite account for the “why Dublin?” question with which we began. Kiberd’s later book, Ulysses and Us, is not germane to this inquiry, since its whole aim is to univeralise the book as much as possible, to make it the business of Everyman and Everywoman. Dublin’s specificity is not relevant to such as effort, indeed it is slightly inimical to it.
A more programmatically Marxist attempt at an answer is offered by Fredric Jameson – and this is not to disparage the value of his attempt. Jameson’s response to Ulysses is found mainly in his 2007 collection, The Modernist Papers, in particular in “Ulysses in History” and in “Modernism and Imperialism”. A third essay on Joyce, “Joyce or Proust?” is less relevant to our concerns.
“Ulysses in History” was originally published in 1982, in a collection called James Joyce and Modern Literature. It was there prefaced by a statement expressing strong support for the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA (I’m not joking), a statement which had the unfortunate effect of making this reader, at least, uninterested in reading any further, in the fraught circumstances of the time. No doubt the statement was based on a profound study of all the dimensions of the Northern situation. Happily, on the essay’s reprinting, this provocative declaration is gone, and it is possible now to approach it with a relatively tranquil mind.
Jameson’s Marxist account of Dublin’s class position around 1904 is strikingly accurate and should be factored in by all those interested in understanding Joyce’s relationship to his native city. He points out that in classical Marxist terms that Dublin lacked both an advanced bourgeois class and also a proletariat – that is, a developed working class (the vast numbers of the impoverished do not constitute a proletariat, being largely unemployed).
For those who were not around in the 1960s, when this stuff was our daily bread, Marxist theory requires both an advanced bourgeoisie and an advanced proletariat for it to work: it is their conflict that sets the wheels of history in motion.
Dublin’s peculiar lack of substantial numbers of these two classes means that the city is dominated by the class to which Joyce himself belonged and which he principally represents in his fiction, namely the petit-bourgeoisie. This class, famously, is permanently in a precarious economic position which tends either to an attitude of “what we have we hold” or to a wild abandon leading to a surrender to economic collapse and misery. Again, in Marxist terms, such an economic model precludes any development and leads only to stagnation and the famous Joycean paralysis – the paralysis, then, is as much an economic condition as it is anything else.
Indeed, the following statement by Jameson applies just as much to post-Independence Ireland as it does to the colonial situation: “… the development of bourgeoisie and proletariat alike is stunted to the benefit of a national petit-bourgeoisie” (The Modernist Papers). A book such as Tom Garvin’s Preventing the Future amply bears this thesis out. (The extent to which colonialism was the ultimate cause of this situation is a matter which can be left to another debate.)
Having said that, Jameson does acknowledge that this “retrograde” (from a Marxist point of view) situation does possess certain energies that are not available in more advanced capitalism. For him, the “rigid constraints imposed by imperialism on the development of human energies account for the symbolic displacement and flowering of the latter in eloquence, rhetoric and oratorical language of all kinds: symbolic practices not particularly essential either to businessmen or the working class but highly prized in precapitalist societies and preserved, as in a time capsule, in Ulysses itself.”
So, on this reading, we should be grateful to imperialism, whose oppression led to the preservation, in “Joyce’s Dublin”, of oratorical energies not available in the larger conurbations of the coloniser, where capitalism had achieved full hegemony. (Jameson is mainly talking about the Aeolus episode of Ulysses of course, but not just that.)
A more familiar way of putting this is simply to say that Dublin, Joyce’s Dublin, is in some important ways just a village, with all the benefits and drawbacks of a village. Everyone knows everyone else, it’s one world. The culture was largely oral, with storytelling, musical ability, and rhetoric being at its very core. Joyce was faithful to this reality; he did not invent it.
This reality makes the misperceptions of earlier Joyce critics all the more regrettable. For some of these critics, such as Hugh Kenner, Joyce’s Dublin was an inferno, a world without redeeming qualities, a world of backbiting, cadging, drinking, with Bloom – admittedly not given to any of those deplorable activities – nonetheless a mere mechanical figure entirely consumed by commodity and consumerism. Certainly the Dublin Jameson describes is no utopia but it does have qualities which were largely overlooked in earlier criticism, deeply unfamiliar as the critics were with the Irish world. (I can’t help noting that Jameson’s own surname has a distinct relevance to one of the factors that kept the wheels of the city oiled, as it were.)
It is worth returning to another aspect of Jameson’s essay by way of a conclusion. He lays great stress on “reification” and its even more rebarbative sibling “dereification”. Reification (a term coined, I think, by Georg Lukács) simply denotes the turning of human qualities – emotion, passion, love, anger etc – into things. As part of the capitalist commodification process, even the human qualities I mentioned are commodified, become objects for exchange and acquisition, under a system that eventually becomes global and dominates everyone’s lives.
The city is of course the privileged space for reification: a large city has to incorporate a great degree of mechanisation anyway for it to work, and this mechanisation of factory, transport, communications etc spreads to include the human agents who serve it. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a classic instance of what reification can look like.
In line with his general approach to the Dublin of 1904, Jameson believes that this city, while including the features I have listed above, is also capable of considerable dereification, thanks to its village quality already mentioned, particularly its addiction to gossip, its unique status as a throwback to earlier eras – say, the era of eighteenth century eloquence, among others.
He cites – and I suppose more citation in general would be welcome in the essay – the five sandwichboard men who carry the name HELY’S around the city and whose progress (or lack of it, whose circularity) is the very epitome of reification in action – they are thoroughly dehumanised, mere cyphers in the service of a commercial purpose.
This phenomenon is, in Jameson’s eyes, dereified when, much later, Stephen meets Corley, a vague acquaintance. Corley, who needs a job, says to him: “I’d carry a sandwichboard only the girl in the office told me they’re full up for the next three weeks, man. God, you’ve to book ahead!” It is a sharp observation, and does work to humanise somewhat the earlier appearance of the sandwichboard figures.
The culmination of this motif in the essay is Jameson’s stated preference, at the end, for the “Yes” in the Ithaca episode, which confirms that water does flow when Bloom turns on the tap and then goes on to trace at great length the water’s origin from Roundwood reservoir through all the stages of its journey to Bloom’s tap, including all the work involved to make this happen, to the famous “Yes” of Molly Bloom at the book’s conclusion. The earlier “Yes”, he claims, traces back a reified activity – the turning on of the water tap – to “the transformation of Nature by human and collective praxis deconcealed”. No doubt the preference is a deliberate provocation, but it is a stimulating and at least a different one nonetheless.
One can add another example of dereification which I think provides a better example of what Jameson has in mind. In the cabman’s shelter in the Eumaeus episode, Bloom reads the account in the Evening Telegraph of Paddy Dignam’s funeral, which he had attended earlier in the day. As always, when one is oneself mentioned, one reads with extra care – and indeed the report gets his name wrong, calling him L. Boom, rather than Bloom. But Bloom also reads: “.)eatondph 1/8 ador dorador douradoura.”. This is the ultimate in sheer mechanisation, a machine going wild and escaping human control, the stuff of science fiction.
Bloom, however, knows, or thinks he knows, why this arbitrary jumble is there: we read in parenthesis just after those letters: “(must be where he called Monks the dayfather about Keyes’s ad)”. Bloom was present when “he” (the foreman Nannetti) called over one of the printers and caused his hand to slip, leading to the botched type. This degree of intimacy with the production process overcomes its mechanical operation and is as triumphant an instance of dereification as you could hope to find. As long as Dublin can produce something like that, all is not lost to mechanisation and commodification.
Terence Killeen is research scholar at the Joyce Centre, Dublin. His Ulysses Unbound has just been republished with additional material by Penguin.