joyce, ulysses, and false ethnic purity -- 12/16/22

Today's selection -- from Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch. In his work, James Joyce's Dubliners cling to an artificial image of their island's ethnic purity, even with rampant, everyday evidence to the contrary:
"Having fled Ireland together with Nora Barnacle in 1904, [James] Joyce washed up in Trieste, teaching English as a second language. In 1907 he gave a public lecture on 'Irlanda, Isola dei Santi e dei Savi' (Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages). There he asserted that the Irish language derived from Phoenician; brought northward by 'the originators of trade and navigation.' Emphasiz­ing the antiquity of Irish culture, Joyce declared that 'the Irish nation's insis­tence on developing its own culture by itself is not so much the demand of a young nation that wants to make good in the European concert as the demand of a very old nation to renew under new forms the glories of a past civiliza­tion'. Yet what distinguishes Irish civilization for Joyce is its ethnic hy­bridity: 'Do we not see that in Ireland the Danes, the Firbolgs, the Milesians from Spain, the Norman invaders, and the Anglo-Saxon settlers have united to form a new entity, one might say under the influence of a local deity?' Looking forward to Ireland's eventual independence from England (and, he hopes, from Roman Catholicism), Joyce returns in closing to the Greek world, asking, 'Is this country destined to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north some day?'.

Trieste circa 1907

"In the opening pages of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus's obnoxious roommate Buck Mulligan remarks on his 'absurd name, an ancient Greek!'. Looking out over Dublin Bay, he parodically translates the Victorian lyricism of Alger­non Swinburne into Homeric epithets: 'God! he said quietly. Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalattal Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.' Mulligan doesn't realize, though, that 'the original' isn't a single language at all, but a congeries of dialects: the 'wine-dark sea' would be thalassa in Homer's Ionic dialect, not thalatta as in Xenophon's Attic Greek. Joyce's Greece, like his Ireland or Walcott's Antilles, is a hybrid culture.

"Insular communities are often deeply suspicious of outsiders, as we've seen in Rosario Castellanos's Chiapas. Both Leopold and Molly Bloom are in some sense 'from away,' as people say on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where I was born -- a term that can apply there equally to people from Bangor or from Berlin. Though he's a born Dubliner, Bloom is the son of a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, while Molly grew up on Gibraltar, daughter of an Irish father and a mother of Spanish (and perhaps Jewish or Moorish) descent. Ignoring or resisting such hybridity, most of Joyce's Dubliners cling to an artificial image of their island's ethnic purity. In the second chapter, the schoolmaster Mr. Deasy declares that Ireland 'has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews' -- for the simple reason that 'she never let them in'. Leopold Bloom is the embodiment of the ethnic variety that Mr. Deasy can't see, but even Bloom is a hybrid individual. Though everyone thinks of him as a Jew, as he himself does, we first see him frying pork kidneys for breakfast, and we later learn that only his father was Jewish, not his mother, and so he wouldn't be Jewish under Jewish law. On top of that, he's actually been baptized. His Judaism isn't even skin-deep, as he's never been circumcised.

"In his Trieste lecture, Joyce emphasized Ireland's ancient Celtic civilization, but he noted that it had been overwhelmed by centuries of invasions, from the Norse to the English. The Irish language is almost as dead in Joyce's Dublin as Arawak is on Walcott's Saint Lucia. A visiting English ethnographer, staying with Stephen and Mulligan in their Martello tower, confidently addresses an old milkwoman in Irish, only to find that she thinks he's speaking French. 'I'm ashamed I don't speak the language myself,' she confesses when he sets her straight; 'I'm told it's a grand language by them that knows'. With Gaelic lost outside Ireland's rural west, Joyce's Dubliners are caught between the stiff foreignness of British English and the liveliness of their demotic brogue. It is a mark of their outsider status that neither Bloom nor Stephen speaks in Irish English, though Stephen (and Joyce in turn) will precisely record the dialogue of their Irish characters, much as Walcott uses a creolized English to represent his characters' Antillean Creole, even as he writes his own brand of highly literary English."



David Damrosch


Around the World in 80 Books


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by David Damrosch


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