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Home Uncategorized Ulysses and Africa

Ulysses and Africa

Sean Sheehan
Black Odysseys, by Justine McConnell, Oxford University Press, 336 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-0199605002 If Odysseus had been acquainted with Star Trek and paid some attention to Starfleet’s Prime Directive – stipulating no interference with the development of alien civilisations ‑ perhaps he would have approached the Cyclops differently. Instead, casually building on his knowledge that the island’s culture is primitive, he and his crew have no qualms about helping themselves to Polyphemus’s provisions and lecturing him on the obligation owed to them as his self-declared guests. In Ulysses, Polyphemus is a man known as the Citizen and Odysseus/Bloom encounters him in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where he is the subject of some hostile remarks. By the time he is ready to leave, the Citizen has grown more aggressive, and angered by the ripostes to his anti-semitic taunts hurls a biscuit tin at the departing Bloom. For many readers and critics, the Homeric correspondence in this chapter plays out along didactic lines: the xenophobic citizen represents belligerent nationalism and Bloom’s pacifist but stout resistance embodies an ethical act of humanist, liberal resistance. Life is not so simple in fact or in Joyce’s fiction. As Emer Nolan (James Joyce and Nationalism) and Andrew Gibson (Joyce’s Revenge) have shown, some of the historical judgements expressed by the Citizen were shared by Joyce and the discourses being ridiculed in the “Cyclops” chapter are primarily those of the Anglo-Irish intelligentsia rather than of ethnic nationalism. The limitations of Polyphemus are obvious enough, especially as regards his eating habits, but in Ulysses he is also a liberating presence, a vulgar but wickedly funny antithesis to the evasions and omissions of revivalism as propagated by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde et al. It is a short and historically accurate step to move from seeing Polyphemus as an “actual Irishman, living in history” (Andrew Gibson) to regarding him as a native of a land that is invaded and its material produce stolen. The ramifications of such a step were explored in the essays collected in Semicolonial Joyce, edited by Attridge and Howes, and the author of Black Odysseys places her work in such a tradition: “[aiming] to consider those writers who respond to Homer’s work from an anticolonial or postcolonial perspective that is connected with Africa”. Such a statement could sound condescending, denoting a derogatory view of such writers’ work as derivative of the Western canon, but McConnell is aware of this and stresses that she sees…



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