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Essay

What Use is It?

Reading James Joyce in the 21st Century

Dustin Pickering argues that Joyce is what we need during this pandemic

James Joyce’s oeuvre is an extravagant literary experiment in stretching the bounds of language. Ulysses, for instance, is colourful and surreal in its use of stream-of-consciousness as we walk with the central characters through an actual Ireland Joyce recreated from memory. Finnegans Wake is linguistically complex yet satisfying to read only for enjoyment. These works are often criticised as being too obscure for readers, but I will argue that such obscurity is an essential force of the novels which resonate in today’s reality as much as in the times they were written. Ambiguity grants flexible interpretations, so in the spirit of Joyce, I will define how his work could relate to contemporary conflicts. This essay will present critical ideas that balance opposing approaches. Joyce’s literature is in dialogue with works of the past which present similar conundrums.

Structuring his novel Ulysses against The Odyssey creates a full loop culturally from the ancient western literature to modernist fixtures such as T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett. The novel was put on trial in the United States in a famous case that helped liberate literature from rigid legal definitions. Ulysses also challenges old fashioned perceptions that define a human being and suggests pivotal questions that flood the reader with exciting emotion. In and of itself, the use of image, myth, and form make the novel a tricky read but challenging as well. Any reader who decides the novel is worth exploring may find that he or she is Odysseus himself in the Protean sea of literary accomplishment. 

Chapter three, the Proteus chapter, can be construed as Dedaleus’ philosophical confrontation with identity. However, identity is interrogated philosophically, not politically, and the young Stephen presents the adolescent’s crisis of personal growth. He is sharp and inquisitive but not afraid of the tough questions. His perceptions suggest androgyny and continuous flux to identity as the narrative courses between thought and material reality. His interrogations are not just philosophical refutations. The use of stream-of-consciousness stylistically may serve an alternate purpose. 

Nicolas Berdyaev writes in The Destiny of Man, “It is with the greatest difficulty man learns to discriminate between personal and collective responsibility.” The question of the measuring rod of reality is brought to trial—was George Berkeley correct in asserting the primacy of the ideal world thus negating the material world? Does external prodding of self-image from peers and strangers construct identity socially? In a time that has turned this question upside down, the 21st century can benefit from this healthy skepticism. 

Sartre writes in the essay Existentialism, “We definitely wish to establish the human realm as an ensemble distinct from the material realm.” As moral creatures, humans establish value systems on principles of free will. Kant writes in Critique of Practical Reason, “For the moral law in fact transfers us ideally into a system in which pure reason, if it were accompanied with adequate physical power, would produce the summum bonum, and it determines our will to give the sensible world the form of a system of rational beings.” Perhaps Stephen’s own deliberations lead us to accept the premise that moral law is ultimately social. Human ability to reason and develop complicated societies is mimetic, but the final question is where do we derive our freedom—in the absence, or in the presence, of divine omnipotence? Meaning itself seems derived from moral foundation. 

Kant further suggests that material principles cannot lead to the moral law, and thus places moral foundations with a transcendental order that also creates freedom. Through these constructions we are granted the “categorical imperative.” Kant recognises the division of our nature into personal and social responsibility, but also that individual choice is founded through free choice. 

Stephen Dedaleus is plagued with guilt and restless yearning for truth, but that yearning is his own. The social world shapes it to a degree. However, Marx would offer that the individual is free only through the foundation of social relations, centrally the means of production. These questions are disputed fervently throughout western history. The previous century is rife with argumentation on this subject. In the world today we come in confrontation with this abstract freedom of will and are closer to renouncing it in favour of collective moral purpose. Ulysses provides a imaginative perspective for thought. Joyce’s life work is centred on language and its social reality.

In Finnegans Wake he explores the construction of language, but in Ulysses literary device does not offer conclusive formulations. The progress of the novel is embedded with this conflict. Even in Bloom’s moral crisis with his cheating wife, he appears to be alone with his emotions, yet we recognise that humanity’s struggle for freedom and happiness are universal especially when we don’t recognise the collective existence.

My own reading of Ulysses was without assistance from annotated guides. I enjoyed the language and the depth of imagination. Its impact is emotional and leads to intriguing self-discourse. In and of itself the book is worth examining for its carefully wrought structural dynamics. The Protean chapter plays interesting logical games with the reader. Perhaps the purpose of confounding so many questions into one literary space is to demonstrate their futility. The sea is described by Buck as Stephen’s “mother” although Proteus is male. Perhaps this skilful tactic of ambiguous symbolism anticipates many of the same questions asked today concerning sexuality.  Gender is conceived as “fluid” rather than fixed by a growing swath of intellectuals. 

Stephen Dedaleus lost his mother in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and is probably burdened by guilt for his defiance on his mother’s deathbed. “I will not serve” is Dedaleus’s rejection of orthodoxy; however, clearly his emotions are hither and thither. In the opening chapter, Stephen is in Martello Tower with two boarding mates. In the characterisations of these young men we observe differing understandings of time. Mulligan is insensitive and only recognises the near future while Stephen is more reflective and seemingly harmless in his introversion. We learn that Stephen is a deeply conflicted man, apparently searching for a kind of surrogate masculinity. In today’s world we are also questioning what masculinity means and how it affects men’s interpersonal behaviour. 

We see that Ulysses is almost a herald of today’s confused and hostile world in transformation. Today’s sociopolitical reality is lost within violent flux. Ulysses portrays a mock-heroic venture to define one’s reality in spite of turbulence. The novel also characterises Irish history and culture. By uniting the particulars of Ireland within the general presentation of complex reality, this literature challenges the reader in philosophical, not just literary, terms.

Joyce also employs stream-of-consciousness in his most difficult work Finnegans Wake. World languages are synthesised into brilliant puns as Joyce explores Irish history with mythical grandeur.  The title comes from an Irish ballad about a drunk named Finnegan who falls from a ladder and is assumed to be dead. He comes back to life when whiskey is accidentally spilled on his “corpse” at his own funeral. The cyclical structure of the book indicates a surreal resurrection. The central dreamer, HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker), is buried by sleep only to wake into the world of the damned again. A strange variety of theological, philosophical, and scientific explorations are developed within 12 years of writing. In essence the novel demonstrates the baptism of languages in their own fire. Finnegans Wake is Menippean satire and parodies much of the frailty of human incompetence or hubris. Several extenuating allusions to war and political fratricide coexist within the pages. The complexities of language are apparent as the reader experiences HCE’s dreamworld. 

In Teaching and Researching Listening, Michael Rost writes, “Whenever multiple sources, or streams, of information are present, selective attention must be used. Selective attention involves a decision, a commitment of our limited capacity process to one stream of information or one bundled set of features.” Perhaps the name of the protagonist (Earwicker) signifies the nature of the unconscious as an ambiguous language, a system of thought unavailable to the conscious mind. In itself, the inner ear practices selective attention as the reader by nature also selects particulars of the created dreamworld. 

William James wrote, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” Consciousness in itself is perhaps selective hearing of the mind. The modern world is assailed with continuous information and data, most of which is useless. In reading this masterpiece of Western literature, we see our unconscious realm as thick and convoluted. This potentially admonishes the reader into carefully considering valid input from the external world. Again, we see how much of ourselves is left in the dark, yet we recognise the importance of the individual mind, and reflect on our massive blindness to how much we don’t know of what we don’t know. The conundrum is bare before our eyes through the Finnegans Wake text.

Joyce’s wife once pointed out that his writing is too obscure even for her reading. However, the obscurity is its carnal delight in facing reality and truth. Obscurity should not deter us from our own experience in reading these two masterpieces. Today’s world is more in need of obscurity in literature. Mystery encapsulates the world and literature is a powerful force to help define and interrogate it. 

Joyce’s literature is certainly not the exception but rather the proof of this rule. His literature abounds in ambiguous logic and allusion, thus making it fruitful for our ripening contemporary minds. Using complex but intriguing language concealed in moral and philosophical contemplation serves as powerful incarnation of truth. For the truth itself is dialogic. As he defines the distinct characteristics of the novel, Bakhtin writes, “A crucial tension develops between the external and the internal man, and as a result the subjectivity of the individual becomes an object of experimentation and representation.” Bakhtin also elaborates on humour’s ability to bring its object closer to us so we are able to laugh and mock. In this act, we liberate ourselves from the things that we least understand and wish to confront. 

These imaginative and complex novels of James Joyce present the noblest truths of human existence in a light that is not cruel or pretentious. For these reasons, they are fascinating books to read and enjoy even in the confused and hostile contemporary atmosphere. In fact, such perilous times are the greatest of times to appreciate literature.

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

2 replies on “What Use is It?”

Dustin has indeed brought out the obscure James Joyce in a crystal clear manner in this essay. An interesting critical read especially for them those literature teachers and students in schools and colleges. It speaks of the semantic as well as the linguistic aspects that colour Joyce’s fiction with a difference. Relating his works to reading in the times of Corona, Dustin has given birth to a new critical perspective. Bravo dear Dustin!

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When literature became a spontaneous order, meaning it was no longer subservient to religion and politics, it evolved towards art for art’s sake and thus to works that could be obscure or even be something which one simply could not be influenced by. It became literature about literature, and this metaliterature is the ultimate expression of the kind of art produced by spontaneous orders. The current obsession with “politically incorrect” literature is an attempt to reverse what spontaneous orders have done.

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