“The Confessions of James Joyce”
The Freeman, 19 July 1922
In this article, Colum reviews James Joyce’s Ulysses as published by the Shakespeare Press in 1922. She writes in reference to this piece in her autobiography, “Most of the English reviewers and some of the American ones had no notion of what it was all about. In America the reviews of three bright young critics of the period that Joyce liked were Edmund Wilson’s in the New Republic, then edited by Herbert Croly, Gilbert Seldes’s in the Nation, edited by Oswald Garrison Villard, and mine in the Freeman, edited by Albert Jay Nock, with Van Wyck Brooks as literary editor” (LD 305-306). One of the most intriguing things about Colum’s review is that it presents, at a time when Ulysses was primarily being read in light of what Hugh Kenner’s calls an “International Modernism,” a reading that in many ways anticipates the current turn towards postcolonial readings of Joyce. This review can be seen as laying the foundation for Colum’s major work of literary criticism From These Roots: The Ideas That Have Made Modern Literature (1937). In this monograph, Colum argues that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary critics in Germany, France, England, and the United States created a global network of literatures that strengthened individual cultural identities while working together to produce a modern literature that was transcontinental and transatlantic.
Mr. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” belongs to that class of literature which has always aroused more interest than any other. Although “Ulysses” is new and original in its form, it is old in its class or type: it actually, if not obviously, belongs to the Confession class of literature, and although everything in it takes place in less than twenty-four hours, it really contains the life of a man. It is the Confessions of James Joyce, a most sincere and cunningly-wrought autobiographical book; it is as if he had said, “Here I am; here is what country and race have bred me, what religion and life and literature have done to me.” Not only his previous book, “Portrait of the Artist,” but all of Joyce’s work, gives the impression of being literally derived from experience; and from internal evidence in Ulysses, notably the conversation of Stephen Dedalus on Shakespeare in the National Library, one suspects that Joyce believes only in the autobiographical in art.
Such being the nature of the book, it is clear that the difficulty of comprehending it will not be allowed to stand in the way by anybody who can get possession of it. Joyce has so many strange things to say that people would struggle to understand him, no matter in what form or tongue he wrote. Yet the difficulties in the way are very real; “Ulysses” is one of the most racial books ever written, and one of the most Catholic books ever written; this in spite of the fact that one would not be surprised to hear that some official of the Irish Government or of the Church had ordered it to be publicly burned. It hardly seems possible that it can be really understood by anybody not brought up in the half-secret tradition of the heroism, tragedy, folly and anger of Irish nationalism, or unfamiliar with the philosophy, history and rubrics of the Roman Catholic Church; or by one who does not know Dublin and certain conspicuous Dubliners. The author himself takes no pains at all to make it easy of comprehension. Then, too, the book presupposes a knowledge of many literatures; a knowledge which for some reason, perhaps the cheapness of leisure, is not uncommon in Dublin, and, for whatever reason, perhaps the dearness of leisure, is rather uncommon in New York. In addition, it is almost an encyclopedia of odd bits and forms of knowledge; for the author has a mind of the most restless curiosity, and no sort of knowledge is alien to him.
“Ulysses” is a kind of epic of Dublin. Never was a city so involved in the workings of any writer’s mind as Dublin is in Joyce’s; he can think only in terms of it.In his views of newspaper-offices, public houses, the National Library, the streets, the cemetery, he has got the psychology of that battered, beautiful eighteenth-century city in its last years of servitude, when, as Padraic Pearse said, using Geoffrey Keating’s words, Ireland was “the harlot of England.” “Ulysses” is a record of a certain number of hours—fewer than twenty-four—in the lives of Stephen Dedalus, the hero of “Portrait of the Artist,” and Leopold Bloom, and of a shorter space of time in the lives of certain other Dubliners, nearly all of whom are called by their real names. The day opens in a disused Government tower by the sea a few miles outside Dublin, occupied for the summer by a few young men as their bathing-quarters. In this first brilliant, blasphemous section, we have Stephen, Malachi Mulligan, and an Englishman called Haines. The key to the life and mind of Stephen is in these first pages.
Wherever Stephen comes in, we have the vision of his dying mother; her death was the great episode of his life. True to his race, death is the one thing that rocks him to the foundations of his being; la gloire may be the great emotional interest of the French, love of the English, but death is that of the Celt. Stephen further reveals himself in the conversation with Haines the Englishman. “I am the servant of two masters … an English and an Italian … the Imperial British State and the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
He is the servant of these two; and where has the peculiar spiritual humiliation that the English occupation of Ireland inflicted on sensitive and brilliant Irishmen ever been expressed as in this book? Where has the aesthetic and intellectual fascination of the Roman Catholic Church ever found subtler fascination? “The proud potent titles clanged over Stephen’s memory the triumph of their brazen bells … The slow growth and change of rite and dogma, like his own rare thoughts.” Has the Catholic Church ever been described with such eloquence as in the paragraph that has that beginning?
The slender portrait of Haines, the Englishman friendly to Ireland, given in this section, is done with a subtlety beside which Shaw’s Broadbent is a crude daub. Stephen regards him with a suspicion and contempt that in their sinuosities never once become either hatred or tolerance. The lines with which he is drawn are barely visible—a rambling conversation, some words of description, a few jagged phrases in Stephen’s subconsciousness, some of which must be cryptic to non-Irish readers, like those in which his mind takes farewell of him. “Horn of a bull … hoof of a horse … smile of a Saxon”—a variant of that old Irish proverb muttered by nurses in the ears of their sleeping charges: “Of three things beware; the teeth of a dog, the horns of a bull, the word of an Englishman.”
Stephen leaves the tower to go to his task of giving lessons in a Unionist school. As he leaves after a conversation with the head master on many things, including Jews, the head master runs after him to inform him that the reason Ireland has the reputation of being the only country which never persecuted Jews, is that she never let them in. Then with delicate irony, we are given, in a few sections later, almost the whole history of modern Ireland and of Dublin, as it passes through the subconsciousness of a Jew, Leopold Bloom, a typical and perfect Dubliner in spite of the sex-obsession with which Joyce endows him in common with all his other characters. Bloom and Stephen, like good Dubliners, parade over the whole city in the course of the day; Bloom’s itinerary brings him from the north side, Stephen’s from the south side. They almost meet at various places, are actually in the newspaper-office and in the library at the same time; finally, at night they do meet in a brothel in a low part of the city. There Stephen has a fight with two English soldiers, and is rescued from the hands of the police by the tact of Bloom. He and Bloom then stroll around the north side of the city, and have coffee in a cabman’s shelter which is supposed to be run by “Skin-the-Goat,” that mysterious character in the history of Irish attacks upon English authority. Bloom then takes Stephen to his own home for a cup of cocoa, and the episodes of the book end at about three in the morning, some twenty hours from the time when the story begins.
There is little in the way of incident, but everything in the way of revelation of life and character. Joyce gives us the characters of Stephen and Bloom as they appear externally and in their own subconsciousness. One of the remarkable feats of the book is the manner in which the separate subconsciousnesses of Stephen and Bloom are revealed, with every aimless thought, every half-formed idea and every unformed phrase indicative of their separate character and personality, and of the influences that have gone into their making. This is most marked when they think of the same things. Stephen’s mind, young, sad, visionary, is held in a fast grip by the books he has read; his emotions are all locked up by the one overwhelming emotion—his mother’s death in sordid poverty. Men and things pass through his consciousness in vivid imaginative pictures; his whole temper is coloured by the humiliations he has undergone; his mind is so sensitive that everything is impressed upon it as with a branding-iron. Bloom’s mind is bright, jerky, limited; unformed by literature, but strongly affected by music, and concerned mostly with concrete things. Bloom is drawn with the most careful solicitude for every shade of his character and with a humour that is all-embracing, and yet never approaching the extravagant. He is so real that no Dubliner can fail to recognize in him a father or an uncle—with his plans for improving the city, the extreme political views of his youth when he was more advanced than Michael Davitt, the milder ones of his middle-age (though his wife speaks resentfully of his taking up with Sinn Feiners), his attempts to be fair to the English, as becomes a sensible man, his conviction that he can invent something, or anyhow compose a song for the pantomime, his dash of artistry, his sketchy occupation, his industrious idleness, his anxiety over getting a free pass for something or other—a railway journey, a concert, or a voyage to England. There is also a subtly suggested foreignness about Bloom, particularly in the sections where he goes to drink in public houses with other middle-aged Dubliners; and there is a striking passage where Bloom, remembering the other race to which he belongs, comes out with a quite impressive philosophy of life. He is the one character whom Joyce really loves and whom he endows with kindliness; and we remember his terrible concern for Mrs. Beaufoy who has spent three days in childbirth, and his buying biscuits to feed wild birds, and his care for the blind boy whom he meets in the street.
Almost every section of the book has a different form and manner. The account of events in Barney Kiernan’s public house is given by one of the bar-haunters in the vivid and circumstantial parlance of a public-house idler, interlarded with mock-epical narration. There is a point where the rage against Bloom for not treating mounts up to a quarrel, and a peacemaker gets them all off on a jaunting car, followed by the citizen’s barking mongrel, “and all the ragamuffins and sluts of the nation around the door, and Martin telling the jarvey to drive ahead, and the citizen bawling, and Alf and Joe at him to whisht.”
The scene in the hospital where Bloom goes to see Mrs. Beaufoy is described in parodies of almost every style of narrative in English, from Latin and Anglo-Saxon to the method of the Irish provincial reporter; an accomplishment in itself possible only to a man with a minutely technical knowledge of the development of the language. From this half-way chapter to the end, “Ulysses” ceases to be of paramount literary interest; to what extent a writer can parody different styles in the historic development of English is not of literary interest, it is of scientific interest. The catechism relating to Bloom and Stephen, being merely informing, is not of literary interest. The revelation of the mind of Marion Bloom in the last section would doubtless interest the laboratory, but to normal people it would seem an exhibition of the mind of a female gorilla who has been corrupted by contact with humans. The Walpurgis night scene (not called by that name) is too long and too incomprehensible; one feels that Joyce has here driven his mind too far beyond the boundary-line that separates fantasy and grotesquerie from pure madness. For the enlightenment of readers who may never see the book, it may be said that this scene is written in a manner somewhat like the second part of Goethe’s “Faust.” It takes place in a brothel; real people jostle against folk resurrected from the grave, ideas and thoughts that came to Stephen and Bloom during the course of the day take material form and join in the talk, as ideas and concepts do in “Faust.” There is a salient abutting on the real and the fantastical, where they all meet, jumble in and out of each other’s consciousness and subconsciousness, and disappear. For Stephen there appears inevitably the vision of his mother, as well as Shakespeare and old Gummy Granny (a satirical impersonation of Kathleen-ni-Houlihan). It is in parts wonderful, terribly impressive and revealing, but the prolonged scene gives too much the impression of a feat of intellectual and psychological gymnastics.
One of the chief occupations of critics of this book is making parallels between the sections and characters of “Ulysses,” and the Odyssey. The chief reason for this performance is that the author exhibits a notebook with all these parallels and many other symbolical explanations. When it comes to symbolizing, authors have from all time talked the greatest nonsense; think of the nonsense that Goethe achieved when explaining the second part of “Faust”! Just as plausible correspondences could be made between “Faust” and “Ulysses” as between the Odyssey and “Ulysses.”
What actually has James Joyce accomplished in this monumental work? He has achieved what comes pretty near to being a satire on all literature. He has written down a page of his country’s history. He has given the minds of a couple of men with a kind of actuality not hitherto found in literature. He has given us an impression of his own life and mind such as no other writer has given before; not even Rousseau, whom he resembles.
The Confession-mind in literature is of two classes. We have the Saint Augustine-Tolstoy type and the Rousseau-Strindberg-Joyce type. The difference between Rousseau and Joyce is, of course, extraordinary, but the resemblances are also extraordinary—a psychoanalyst would say they had the same complexes. Like Rousseau, Joyce derives everything from his own ego; he lives in a narrow world in which he himself is not only the poles, but the equator and the parallels of latitude and longitude; like Rousseau, he has a passion, not only for revealing himself, but for betraying himself; like him also, he deforms everything he touches. Joyce’s method of deforming is chiefly with a sexual smear; where Rousseau romanticizes, Joyce de-romanticizes. In Joyce, as in Rousseau, we find at its highest a quality which in lesser men is the peculiar fault of the literature of their time; in Rousseau this was sentimentalism, in Joyce it is intellectualism. In the quality of pure intellect, whilst one remembers that a man can be a great writer with little intellect, Joyce is probably unsurpassed by any living writer. Some attempt is being made by admirers to absolve Joyce from accusations of obscenity in this book. Why attempt to absolve him? It is obscene, bawdy, corrupt. But it is doubtful that obscenity in literature ever really corrupted anybody. The alarming thing about “Ulysses” is very different; it is that it shows the amazing inroads that science is making on literature. Mr. Joyce’s book is of as much interest as science as it is as literature; in some parts it is of purely scientific and non-artistic interest. It seems to me a real and not a fantastic fear that science will oust literature altogether as a part of human expression; and from that point of view “Ulysses” is a dangerous indication. From that point of view, also, I do not consider it as important to literature as “Portrait of the Artist.” After “Ulysses,” I can not see how anyone can go on calling books written in the subconscious method, novels, It is as plain as day that a new literary form has appeared, from which the accepted form of the novel has nothing to fear; the novel is as distinct from this form as in his day Samuel Richardson’s invention was from the drama.