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James Joyce and the Gaelic Revival

Posted February 24th, 2012 at 08:17 PM by Gile na Gile

The Joyce industry is very much an institution over here as you might expect; Portrait of the Artist is a regular feature on the Leaving Cert curriculum but Ulysses is probably the most widely unread national epic in history which is such a shame because despite its difficulty it contains the most authentic rendering of the Dublin brogue ever put into print. Its gratifying to learn that much of the slang and street expressions in circulation today; "crawthumper" "spondoolicks" "a drop of the craythur" were doing the rounds back when my grandfather was growing up in Dublin. Really, Ulysses its just an extended homage to ordinary Dublin folks; their wit, their cruelty, their poverty, their brutality, their illusions - all shone upon by a plethora of unidentified narrative voices who are by turns malevolent, empathic, knowing (and unknowing) or cold, detached and scientific.

Whereas the tales in Dubliners and the Portrait hinge upon the epiphany - "where the whatness of a thing leaps out from the vestment of its appearance" (witness Duffy's horrible epiphany of his own isolation and Stephen's 'baptism' on Dollymount Strand) it is difficult to see the same device been deployed in Ulysses; the artist is instead indiscernible above and beyond his handiwork - "indifferent, like the God of the universe paring his nails". Which is one of the difficulties in ascribing to Joyce sentiments he may have towards the Irish language because the lengthiest treatment of 'nationalism' in Ulyssses comes in the Cyclopes episode where the Citizen is extensively parodied by a sneering disembodied narrative voice who simply cannot be identified with the author - the sympathetic, all-knowing and omnipresent narrator of 19th century realist fiction. The capable guide that sits at your shoulders while you are reading Dickens, Elliot or Tolstoy and affects to have access to an all encompassing internally consistent moral universe is simply absent in the "modernist" Ulysses.

In realist fiction you are obliged as an "impassified" reader to follow the channels laid down by the author; there is an "authoritative" voice which guides you through the thoughts and feelings of the characters and which may pass extensive comment on each episode. Generally it is held that realist fiction - which is the vast majority of novels - best works when this voice is omniscient, or nearly so. Which is why Mark Twain I suppose had such a difficulty with Fennimore Cooper's narrative voice - the acknowledged compact
between reader and author of being in assured hands was rattled by what he saw as Coopers basic incompetence and lack of knowledge of genuine Indian hunting and tracking techniques. Thus the illusion of the omniscient narrator was shattered.

There are different genres of course; realist fiction isn't all about the singular, authoritative voice - Laclos in Les Liasons Dangereuses and Bram Stoker in Dracula used the clever device of letters exchanged by the protagonists to inform us of the action thus dispensing with the need for a judgemental overseer. I see in Dubliners though, a paucity of narrative oversight; simple threadbare introductions are made which set the scene but as the action progresses in each short story we are often left wondering how we should react. How did the author intend this story to be received? The clues are very minimal and there is no overt denunciation or moralising by Joyce outside of the plain statement of the facts and conditions of a person's millieu. We are meant to piece it together ourselves; what was the significance of the nervous altar boy and the broken chalice in the 'Two Sisters'? Why isn't there any overt moral censure of the 'Two Gallants'? Why was Chandler like a 'Little Cloud'? Should 'Eveline' have emigrated with Frank? What was it precisely about the article 'A Painful Case' that triggered such a despairing response in Duffy?

We cannot know, we can only surmise, because the author has stripped us of those reassuring certainties which are the hallmark of the conventional realist narrative. Having allowed the artifice of the third person narrative slide into the background; having invisibilised the 'voice of authority' in Dubliners, Joyce proceeds to have us marshalled in Ulysses by a panoply of 'authorial' claimants as though the unruly Greek pantheon had descended and usurped the functions of a defunct one-dimensional monotheism. The notion of 'a God' implies a singular ideal perspective from which fragments of 'the truth' may be refracted and alighted upon by discerning mortals and the singular ''good shepherd" narrator of realist fiction is the 'shadow' which traditionally performed the function of this deity.

In Dubliners, Joyce doesn't want his readers to behave as a dutiful flock obeying instructions from the omniscient eye; he teases them away from this reliance and in Ulysses he shows why by revealing the unmerciful reality of a world without steady rapports but one nonetheless where there is an unparalleled freedom. A necessary preparation I would have thought for combating the characteristic afflictions of the age; be it imperialist nationalism or the rise of fascism. Like much of the literature and the arts of the pre-war period Joyce's stylistic experiments implied a violent shifting away from inherited assumptions, a definitive break from established world-views typically encapsulated in unquestioning loyalty to crown, church and country. The early Modernist period (1890 -1914) in fact has fascinating examples of stylistic innovations across the spectrum of arts - in poetry, music, painting and drama all challenging a conventional unipolar viewpoint and urging instead an appreciation of the 'real' multi-perspectived world.

It's an interesting question then about Joyce's relationship to the Gaelic Revival; it may be supposed as a linguist and evident reveller in and appreciator of the varied powers of language that Joyce would be naturally sympathetic to the calls for a revitalisation of the Gaelic language, understanding perhaps more than most how crucial language is in helping to form identities and mould a people's peculiar outlook through its idioms and so on. In fact, you'd have to wonder whether there's ever been a writer more self-conscious, in his art, of the effects on his readers of each particular nuance that a chosen word may convey.

It was one of the preoccupations of Daedalus in the 'Portrait' where at one point he found himself walking 'among heaps of dead language'. So many words and phrases had become stale and meaningless, grown rotten through age and usage; the image of the effaced tessara is deployed where commerce has worn down the bust of Caesar. There's even a lengthy segment in Stephen Hero where Daedalus ponders, whilst reading Skeat's 'Etymology', how many today are aware of the original meanings of the words they habitually use. This etymological ignorance represented yet another aspect of the generalised decay which he saw all around him and I suppose it's among the first things to note about the Wake where there is an attempt to highlight the provenance of language; by taking it asunder, reconnecting it and forcing readers to reflect on its fragmented origins.

The question then is that given his awareness of the importance of the semiotic roots of language why does the notion abound that Joyce was hostile to organisations such as the Gaelic League who were attempting to promote it? First of all, we have the surviving sections of Stephen Hero were Daedelus argues with McCann, his nationalist university 'friend', (insofar as the irritatingly super aloof Stephen can be said to have any friends) against the notion that the revitalisation of Gaelic should be an imperative of the nationalist cause. He goes to the Gaelic League Irish classes but this is only a pretence to get into the knickers of Emma Cleary, refuses to pay their sub and manages to get in a few jabs at its founder, Michael Cusack, who returns in Ulysses as 'the Citizen' - depicted as an almost troglodytic hard-core nationalist who attempts to bounce a cash register off Bloom's head for his impudence in declaring himself (a Jew) a member of the Irish nation.

Of course there were so many changes in the later revised version of Stephen Hero (which became 'A Portrait') - and one of them was the curious omission of the earlier scathing remarks on the folly of the nationalists in pressing for Irish language reform. Instead, we are given Stephen's famous reflection on the curious state of linguistic dispossession that marks the Irish experience;

"The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He thought: The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language."

This is a really shocking about turn, clearly at odds with the negative sentiments Joyce allowed the earlier (younger) Stephen to express. What was the reason for this? I think it's simply to do with maturity on Joyce's part and the realisation that the direction of his art, which is increasingly becoming concerned with narrative and the conventions of language - (the outline of Ulysses is already being formed in his mind by 1907) - cannot allow any longer this discrepancy between his hero, Stephen, blithely castigating the Gaelic Leaguers for their 'weakness' in feting the importance of the retention of a native language whilst he himself is about to deploy in Ulysses a complex narrative strategy which requires a readership sophisticated enough to recognise these multiple shifts in language registers.

If language and narrative are themselves going to become the focus of his art then he can't very well be seen quashing a movement which is attempting to increase the range and depth of available linguistic/conceptual territory. It's the fusion of tongues, of 'language games' and 'speech registers', the collapse, mergence and ultimately the destruction of formerly dominant metanarratives (religion, family, colonialism, narrowly conceived nationalism) which characterises the exuberance of the Wake and amount to Joyce's own brand of 'nationalist' reclamation - it's no accident that 'After the Race' is the only upbeat tale in Dubliners where French, American, English, Italian and Irishman all merge to drink and carouse without inhibition.

This is Joyce's conception of freedom and the perennial death's claw that hangs over the 'Dubliners' is the ubiquitous stultifying morality of the Church. It touches every character in one way or another, even Duffy, who only attends its rituals out of a sense of duty but his 'intimacy difficulties' ultimately spring from the dogmas stitched into him as a child. 'Narrative' also implies worldview and 'structures of feeling' which Joyce readily deconstructs if only to offer a disjointed assemblage from which a new world can be glimpsed. His difficulty (as a mature thinker) with nationalism and the revival movement is that neither displays any conception of the depths of change required; in that sense, considering the lengths he went to excavate the subterranean bowels of the Irish psyche he may rightly claim to be more nationalist than the nationalists themselves; if only they knew it. Only in literature, he once said, can the consciousness of a people be glimpsed.
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Total Comments 1


  1. Old Comment
    spellbanisher's Avatar
    IIRC, Joyce changed his style while writing Dubliners from nineteenth century Victorian purple prose to "scrupulous meanness." Dubliners and Portrait are two of my favorite works. Someday I'll work up the courage to read Ulysses.
    Posted June 13th, 2012 at 01:17 PM by spellbanisher spellbanisher is offline

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