Ulysses is a book in which everything happens and nothing happens. The story of a day in the life of a city — the Hibernian metropolis, as James Joyce saw Dublin — is a journey in a rambling flow of consciousness, where the very serious political issues of the day (the book is set on June 16, 1904) wrestle for space with the mundanities and excitement of the lives of his characters. Speaking of his appreciation for the book, Jeremy Corbyn noted how “Joyce references and richly describes what’s happening in the street. So somebody is holding forth about a big political issue and then the refuse cart goes by.” Edna O’Brien, one of Joyce’s finest biographers, has rightly maintained that “no other writer so effulgently and so ravenously recreated a city.”
Joyce is now eighty years dead, and yet his reputation as a writer whose work is difficult, even daunting to approach, remains. Anthony Burgess would insist that “If ever there was a writer for the people, Joyce was that writer,” yet others saw only pretension and inaccessibility in Joyce’s work, not least Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
Today, Joyce is not thought of in his native city — or more broadly — as a “political writer,” in the manner that later writers like Brendan Behan or even nearer contemporaries like Seán O’Casey. Joyce’s enduring place in Dublin’s collective memory is that of a champion of the city, with the words “when I die Dublin will be written on my heart” sold in whichever form (fridge magnet, risograph print, or coffee mug) a visitor should choose to bring them home. Yet Joyce was a writer fundamentally shaped by politics — personal, national, and international — one whose work was much influenced by the political climate in which it was written and by the developing political ideas of its writer.
Traversing Dublin today, the sheer number of plaques detailing a family residence of James Joyce can be staggering, but on closer inspection they generally reveal brief periods of occupation. The Joyce family tumbled from the middle class downward, Joyce later speaking of those “haunted inkpots” in describing the more than fifteen addresses they occupied in his youth. The ever-moving household into which James Joyce was born was an unsteady one, defined by financial precarity and the somewhat chaotic temperament of his father.
There is undoubtedly a description of his father contained within the pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus — a character Joyce modeled largely but not entirely on himself — describes his father as “a medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.”
In spite of his father’s faults (some of which he inherited, in particular, a total inability to manage his financial affairs), there were much redeeming qualities in John Stanislaus Joyce which shaped the young writer, later acknowledging that “hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him,” and that “the humour of Ulysses is his; its people are his friends. The book is his spittin’ image.”
In the Ireland of Joyce’s youth, the question of political questions was Home Rule. Ireland’s parliament, swept away by the 1800 Acts of Union, had evaded all constitutional nationalists who had gone to London seeking its return, from Henry Grattan (a Dubliner today buried in Westminster Abbey) to Daniel O’Connell, dismissed as the “king of the beggars” for his ability to mobilize the Irish in their hundreds of thousands.
Charles Stewart Parnell, princely and Protestant, had emerged as the somewhat unlikely figurehead of constitutional nationalism in the 1880s, fusing the question of Irish legislative independence with the land question, in an Ireland still reeling from the Famine. Parnell warned the Irish peasantry that “you must show the landlord that you intend to keep a firm grip on your homesteads and lands. You must not allow yourselves be dispossessed as you were dispossessed in 1847.”
Parnell’s political career survived imprisonment, but crumbled when the scandal of a love affair broke, leading to church condemnation, political betrayal, and even assault, when quicklime was thrown on a canvassing Parnell. The betrayal of Parnell, the decidedly secular Protestant political leader by a Catholic hierarchy, left a bitter taste in the mouth of Joyce, later writing in poetry:
‘Twas Irish humour, wet and dry
Flung quicklime into Parnell’s eye.
Writing on Joyce, James Fairhall notes that from his youth, “Joyce accepted uncritically the Parnellite martyrology which his father passed on to him.” Certainly, the Parnell affair inspired a deep anticlericalism in the young writer, something which remained a constant throughout his work.
Yet it is wrong to understand Joyce’s politics as shaped only — or even chiefly — by Parnellism. His biographer Richard Ellmann insists rightly that “Joyce is sometimes said to have no politics except regret for Parnell, yet he was not a man to worship the dead.” Joyce, even before his departure from Dublin in 1904, was interested in questions around socialism, both from the world of literature and the contemporary city. His brother recounted that Joyce “frequented meetings of socialist groups in back rooms,” and also notes in a diary entry from the summer of 1904 that “he calls himself a socialist but attaches himself to no school of socialism.”
Leaving Dublin for Trieste, Joyce perhaps saw Irish society more clearly from the comfort of distance. Burgess wrote of how “exile was the artist’s stepping back to see more clearly and so draw more accurately; it was the only means of objectifying an obsessive subject-matter.”
In Trieste, he found himself more exposed to radical political ideas, encountering a socialist movement that produced its own daily newspaper, Avanti!, and which was fulfilling an active part in the daily lives of workers. It was a far cry from Dublin, a city where James Connolly had wound up the Dublin Socialist Club in the snug of a Thomas Street pub a few short years earlier, with eight members present for the inglorious occasion. In Italy, a young Joyce saw the possibilities of socialism to excite workers. “My political opinions,” he wrote home, “are those of a socialist artist.”
Joyce’s flirtation with organized socialist politics was brief, but he continued to find influence in socialist texts — in 1909 he contemplated embarking on an Italian translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism. It was a text in which Wilde outlined his own political philosophy, one which was fundamentally libertarian socialist, writing, “People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” There is undoubtedly more of Wilde’s socialism and antiauthoritarianism to Joyce’s worldview than anything from the pen of Marx.
Much of the tensions in Joyce’s own personal development are evident in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his novel published in 1916. Young Stephen Dedalus, beginning to lose faith in all the pillars of life and society around him, would have surprising impacts.
Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party later recalled in his memoir that “I identified very strongly with Stephen Dedalus . . . because he went through a similar experience. He felt great guilt when he first questioned Catholicism, believing that he would be consumed by the fires of hell for his doubt. In a way, that is what happened to me.”
But Joyce’s strained and questioning relationship with Irish nationalism is present in his work, too, not least in the character of the Citizen in the pages of Ulysses. A character that exhibits “all the cod mysticism of early Irish nationalism and a strong touch of xenophobia,” he questions the Irishness of Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s imagined Jewish Dubliner and central protagonist.
There was much Joyce admired in the Irish revolutionary milieu and tradition (he admired Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin in its infancy, writing, “from many points of view, this latest form of Fenianism may be the most formidable”), but much more he questioned.
On a Parisian street, a plaque in French (and French only) notes the previous location of Shakespeare and Company, publishers of Ulysses in 1922. It seems remarkable that a book so detailed in his descriptions of a city — from funeral homes to public houses, and from pharmacies to the printing rooms of newspapers — should have been written so far from home.
The writer James Plunkett, who would capture the horror and heroism of revolutionary Dublin in Strumpet City, recounted of Joyce’s work that it “sticks firmly to the unheroic view of the human condition, the banality of most of its blather, the dismissable nature of a large part of its preoccupations.” But amid the everyday life, Joyce’s work contains moments of great personal rebellion and a striving for individual freedom. Joyce was a product of his time and place, as we all are, but he was never afraid to question either.