John Mc Court asks: What would James Joyce have done if he had lived through this Covid-19 crisis?
It is a question to which we will never have an answer but we can surmise that he would, in all probability, have done what he did during the First World War ‑ that is, he would have done what he did anyway, stayed home and concentrated on his writing. That is what he did in a Trieste impoverished and destabilised by war and subsequently in the neutral haven of Zurich. The Great War couldn’t have come at a worse time for Joyce, who had just published Dubliners. In 1914, he managed to sell just 499 copies of the collection (buying and selling 120 of them himself to every Triestine of his acquaintance who was willing to cough up) but he fell one copy short of selling the 500 needed for royalties to be paid. He sold a mere twenty-six copies in the first six months of 1915. By then hardship was widespread and experimental works of art were the last thing on anyone’s mind. As Joyce would write: “Whoever has the last sack of flour will win the war.”
And yet Joyce pressed on with the day job – publishing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in book form in 1916 and writing Ulysses. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” and all the cast of his great modern-day domestic epic were being fleshed out in Joyce’s choice words and phrases as his English language students were being enlisted to fight in the war (just as Stephen Dedalus’s young pupils would be in Ulysses) and the Italian-leaning city of Trieste came under attack from the Austrians. Social and cultural life as Joyce had known it in the Adriatic city and indeed in Europe in general disappeared as the city and the continent were torn apart. Austrians attacked Italian restaurants, cultural icons and coffee shops, while the offices of the newspaper that Joyce wrote for, Il Piccolo della Sera, were burnt down. Stanislaus Joyce was one of many irredentisti to be arrested and interned in Austria for the duration of the war. The world was also struggling (and failing to contain) the Spanish flu, which killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920. The “virus came with a high temperature, headache, and a terrible cough ‑ symptoms not unlike those of the typical flu ‑ it could also cause lethal complications, such as the deadly pneumonia that could quickly develop. The virus often travelled deep into the lung tissue, setting off a grotesque set of symptoms.” Sounds familiar. Leopold Bloom reflects on this in “Hades” when he thinks of the unrelenting toll of death: “Scarlatina, influenza epidemics. Canvassing for death. Don’t miss this chance.”). In Ireland 1916 and its aftermath added to Joyce’s sense of turmoil and of a lost world, one only partly to be regretted and never to be retrieved. The status quo of the long nineteenth century had come grinding to a halt.
The conflict and upheaval would bring a new world into view but Joyce lived through the uncertainty by capturing in words the world that was being swept away, the world of Dublin in 1904 and, in its shadows, that of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian port city of Trieste (“TarryEasty” as it is called in Finnegans Wake) that would soon belong to Italy.
The sense we live with today of profound and frightening change is not new. The historical moment that provided the working background to Joyce’s Ulysses was at least as bad as our own (although our environmental threat has a more permanent and more global feel). What can we take from Ulysses that might be consolatory today as we attempt to return to some kind of altered “normality”? It is a sense and a celebration of the everyday, the assertion of the importance of the individual, the necessity to find a way of muddling through as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus muddled through June 1904, surviving another day but resolving nothing. The focus on “normal people” did not begin with Sally Rooney’s novel of that name. It has been at the centre of writing since literature began and especially so from the time of the earliest novels. But the assertion of the value of the normal – even when the normal is flawed, compromised, and unheroic (and isn’t it always?) – is all the more important when the quotidian as we have known it is suspended.
Ulysses would have been a much shorter novel if Joyce had set it in March or April 2020. The Tower scene could have happened (although Haines, the recently arrived Englishman should have been put in quarantine – Mulligan might have kept him up on the roof and not had him bunking with Stephen). Proteus would have been the exemplary chapter, Stephen could have got lost in his thoughts along Sandymount Strand (although he might have had trouble battling his way through the crowds that have thronged Ireland’s beaches in recent months). Mr Deasy’s school in Nestor would, of course, have been closed. Bloom’s early chapters would have been very different as well although to be fair his peregrinations rarely (if ever) take him beyond the 5 kilometre limit. His heading out alone to buy a kidney would have been very acceptable, as would his waiting, rather impatiently, in the queue to be served. His admiration of a young woman’s “vigorous hips” and his hope to walk home behind her to enjoy the fullest view of her “moving hams” would likely have been scratched out as politically incorrect. So too the entire Nausicaa chapter.
There would have been no Mass in Westland Row church, no funeral for Paddy Dignam in Glasnevin, no “Good glass of burgundy” or gorgonzola cheese sandwich in Davy Byrne’s pub, no trip to the offices of the Freeman’s Journal (all the journalists would have been working from home), no music or lunch at the Ormond Hotel. Holles Street would have been off-limits to both the protagonists (even if Bloom turns up intent on “preserving his proper distance” and “only to enquire about a lady, now an inmate of Horne’s house”). Nighttown would have been closed and Bella Cohen would have been sitting it out at home. It is doubtful too that Molly would have been too willing to welcome Boylan to her home and her bed although Bloom and Stephen might have managed to hang out together in 7 Eccles Street, but it is most unlikely that a sober Stephen would have accepted the invitation.
Bits of Bloom’s morning tour could have been included as they are very much in keeping with our time. When Bloom thinks about his conversation with M’Coy, he dislikes M’Coy’s flattery, his “Softsoaping. Give you the needle that would” before thinking about Molly putting herself in danger by travelling to Belfast: “I hope that smallpox up there doesn’t get worse. Suppose she wouldn’t let herself be vaccinated again.” Bloom’s worry is not out of place. As Sam Slote has shown in his annotations to Ulysses, “The Freeman’s Journal for 15 June 1904 reported on the intensification of an outbreak of smallpox in Ballymacarrett, the chief industrial centre of Belfast.” In Hansard we can read parliamentary questions being asked towards the end of June 1904 about the Belfast outbreak. Mr Wyndham told parliament: “the total number of cases admitted to the smallpox hospital is ninety-three. Two have died; fifty-five have been discharged; and thirty-six remain under treatment. The disease is supposed to have been introduced from Scotland.” Again, it sounds familiar.
All the more reason for Bloom, whom Beaufoy calls “the soapy sneak” in Circe, to linger in the soap section of Sweny’s: “Nice smell these soaps have. Pure curd soap” and to later feel sympathy for the pharmacist: “Living all the day among herbs, ointments, disinfectants.” Then as now, personal hygiene and regular washing with soap must have seemed at times to be the only barrier standing between humanity and Armageddon and so the prayer uttered by the “Daughters of Erin” seems entirely apt: “Wandering Soap, pray for us.” Given its lifesaving qualities, it is small wonder that Bloom’s bar of soap takes on a life of its own in “Circe”:
We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.
He brightens the earth. I polish the sky.
(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)
Ulysses provides an unvarnished and deeply honest depiction of ordinary life employing an unparalleled variety of stylistic innovation. Joyce knew it was the role of the writer to bear witness. He did so in a time of war and epidemic but not so much to bear witness to the banality of war and to the tragic inevitability of death (he would have chosen the Iliad as his model if that were his aim) but to celebrate the peace, to place in focus and have the reader consider everything about their lives and their societies that is challenged by war or, in our current situation, by contagion, disease, pandemic.
What Covid-19 reveals to us afresh is that the only certainty we have is uncertainty. Ulysses, where both Bloom and Stephen are constantly haunted by death, loss and a sense of their mortality, had already told us that. Ulysses interrogates and destabilises the foundation stones of Western culture and encourages the reader to think about and to question the certitudes of received wisdom in whatever field he or she can, be it religion, politics, history, education, music, economics, astrology, philosophy. But it also teaches us to accept the uncertainty of our daily existence so as to help us affirm and celebrate the gift that is every single day.
June 16th, Bloomsday, 2020
Image: Stephen Rea as Leopold Bloom