I admire anyone who brings highly-regarded literature on these public affairs pages, but Chris Hedges, with “Heeding James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,'” jumps to his own favored conclusions not evident in the text or proved by his commentary. His admirable agenda for systemic reform does the legacy and experience of Ulysses no favors. A “cri de coeur for our common humanity” fits nearly all great literature from Homer to Nabokov plus diverse political thinkers, center, left and right. Notable modern art works are far more “political” than Joyce’s, obsessed with aesthetic perceptions and cultural interactions, not politics or reform. Below find a legitimate description of the adult Joyce’s “free-floating pacifist anarchism.”
Of course, who other than autocratic, divisive figures (whether propagandists or politicians like Trump) don’t readily address “common humanity”? Democratic politicians smarter than Trump naturally invoke self-evident, universal common values and shared interests—and how their party’s unique solutions lift all boats, reinforcing positive connectedness. Who but the insular or stupid question common linkages, “all for one and one for all”?
Joyce was a brilliant stylist and innovator (understandably off-putting, purposely oblique at times) but for the estimable, all too earnest activist Hedges to present Joyce as a model for today’s politics is unpersuasive, even misleading. Joyce re-imagined the greatest, most influential narrative in western literature, Homer’s The Odyssey, putting forth representative characters who roughly track the original plot (as Shakespeare borrowed his plots). Joyce is a comic novelist, highly satirical and out to have fun with language, whether jokes, allusion, puns, and slapstick. There is nothing simple nor straightforward in Ulysses, an icon of ambiguity. Hemingway, by comparison, was far less mysterious and more political by design.
Further, like many trained as literary critics, I resist transforming complex, open-ended masterpieces into snippets of simplified “meaning,” even further reduced to lessons or political messages. That distorts our full experience of great art, worse still with forced relevances a century later. Joyce himself (below) warns against twisting his storytelling language into ponderous formulations, even joking not to take seriously his intentions (a standard ploy for serious writers). Yes, Joyce sought to disturb a reader’s comfort levels and facile assumptions about life and culture and significance, but that hardly mandated any sort of manifesto from a “pacifist anarchist” who questioned everything.
Thus I challenge Hedges’ hyperbole that Joyce is especially unique in railing against the “poisons of nationalism and idolatry.” Who defends the “poisons” of anything, and what great art doesn’t impugn empty “idolatry”—namely, “the worship of an idol as though it were God”? A big crowd, writers and otherwise. Joyce once supported Irish nationalism, and Hedges offers no proof for these loaded, sweeping conclusions, that for Joyce “nationalism is always racism, the exaltation of the self, the tribe, the nation, the race above the other, who is debased and dehumanized as unworthy of life. To Joyce this was a sacrilege.” That is pure Hedges, not any Joyce that scholars I read can identify.
If this be “sacrilege,” Joyce is hardly alone in rejecting “poisonous” nationalism, nor does Ulysses explicitly address any such topic. In passing, need I emphasize that all stable nations need some unifying coherence, vs. assertions of phony exceptionalism that undermine humanity and nationhood? Indeed, for modern needs, how can we even approach climate change or energy/resource usage, even pandemics, technology and globalization, without rejecting bad, selfish nationalism while asserting global, “common humanity”?
A storyteller, not polemicist
As a professional writer (failing at everything else to make money), Joyce blazened from by penning Ulysses to shock western culture and revolutionize the history of the novel, and not without great success. Like any celebrated novelist, he was a storyteller, not a polemocist, meaning his mission was to engage, inform, entertain and discomfort. But where is any coherent political stance that qualify as political in idea or action? Ulysses was a one-off, hardly appealing to any but literati (indeed, still inaccessible to most)—hardly one’s nomination as a political tract for today. A prominent and proud intellectual snob, anything but a presumptive “man of the people,” Joyce’s final work after Ulysses is beyond obscure, even for this English PhD.
If you track Joyce’s movement from Portrait of an Artist to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake, few would say “here is a political writer, let alone especially relevant for today.” Yes, there is great humanism and great spiritual qualities (and great fun) to Ulysses, but I’d propose far more relevant political artists, among others: Dickens, with an explicit political agenda, Steinbeck, Conrad with Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, even Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, plus a slew of others: Orwell’s Animal Farm, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, plus Ellison’s The Invisible Man and Wright’s Native Son, even contrarians Norman Mailer or Ayn Rand, and other favorites that readers will no doubt add to this quick list.
P.S. That mainstream figures like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke (see below) endorse the novel is enough to make me question the extent of its far-reaching anti-nationalist, anti-establishment, anti-status quo significance. Below find IMO a more plausible, insightful and trustworthy take on Joyce and Ulysses from 2020. Sorry for the length but Rennix’s entire essay is worth a the time.
The politics and “pretentiousness” of reading James Joyce
. . . Liberal darling and overgrown Student Council President Pete Buttigieg is, of course, the most notorious Ulysses fan on the modern political stage, having repeatedly commented on his fondness for the novel and put it on his official list of Favorite Books. When asked about Ulysses by an Esquire interviewer, Buttigieg described it as an “extremely relevant” book: “it is a difficult text, but its subject matter couldn’t be more democratic. It’s about a guy going about his day for one day. … You’re in this guy’s head, and you’re kind of seeing life through his eyes, and at the end through his wife’s eyes. That’s how politics ought to be, too.” . . . Relatedly, Beto O’Rourke has also occasionally claimed to be a fan of Ulysses.) . . .
that Buttigieg and [British socialist] Corbyn can casually impose the same content-less “people are just people” reading on Ulysses is that it’s not a very political book, really. There’s some ongoing mockery of the idiocies of both empire and nationalism throughout Ulysses, but the book is primarily interested in the relationships between characters on an intimate scale, and doesn’t have much to say about larger social structures. (In fact, one of the few characters who explicitly complains about public health inequities, Stephen Dedalus’s frenemy Buck Mulligan, is portrayed as grandstanding and disingenuous.) The closest thing to a political “moral” that we see is Bloom’s somewhathalting statement while arguing with an anti-Semitic Irish Nationalist in a pub: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men andwomen, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life… Love… I mean the opposite of hatred.”
In real life, Joyce had socialist sympathies, although these were of asomewhat hazy kind. As a young man in Ireland, he attended a few socialist meetings, but was generally scornful of all political creeds, treating the socialists, Irish nationalists, and Unionists among his social set with more or less interchangeable irony. Between 1905 and 1907, while living in Europe, he occasionally described himself as a socialist; as his life progressed, his politics, to the extent he had any, seem to have settled into a kind of free-floating pacifist anarchism. “As an artist I am against every state,” he wrote. “Of courseI must recognize it, since indeed with all my dealings I come into contact with its institutions. The state is concentric, man eccentric… Naturally I can’t approve of the act of the revolutionary who tosses a bomb in a theatre to destroy the King and his children. On the other hand, have these states behaved any better which have drowned the world in a bloodbath?”
We can perhaps see these rather noncommittal politics reflected in Ulysses—but we’re looking for muffled traces of a vague original, so who’s to say. Joyce himself disliked very much the idea that anyone would search for a lesson in Ulysses. “The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book,” he told a friend, “or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.” . . .
I love Ulysses for its little embedded mysteries, its bad puns, its vivid descriptions of food, its compassionate treatment of human frailty, its astonishingly multi-layered lyricism, and, yes, its fart jokes.