Cold War liberals presented James Joyce as a universal writer and ignored the clear political undercurrents running through his work. A new generation of critics have restored the vital link between his novels and Ireland’s uncompleted revolution.

James Joyce, Nora Barnacle, and their solicitor in London on July 4, 1931, the day of their marriage. (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Review of Luke Gibbons, James Joyce and the Irish Revolution: The Easter Rising as Modern Event (University of Chicago Press, 2023)

James Joyce was a member of Ireland’s revolutionary generation. The author of Ulysses (1922) was born in 1882, the same year as Éamon de Valera, and three years after Patrick Pearse in 1879. The latter two figures proved to be instrumental in realizing a political revolution in Ireland between the years 1916 and 1923 that would see it gain effective national autonomy.

Joyce, on the other hand, would bring about a cultural revolution that was equally significant for Ireland, but was never registered as such by his domestic contemporaries. This was true not least of those who led and participated in the political revolution, many of whom were strongly averse to a famously “indecent” book authored by a divisive Irish émigré living in Paris.

One of Ireland’s most profound if idiosyncratic cultural critics, Luke Gibbons, seeks to bring these two revolutions into the same framework in his important new work, James Joyce and the Irish Revolution: The Easter Rising as Modern Event. Through a series of engrossing vignettes drawn from a wide array of contemporary sources, he positions Joyce’s “revolution of the word” under the light emitted by the 1916 Easter Rising and sets out to “reclaim what was radical in the Irish revolution for a modernist project akin to that of Joyce’s.”

A Literary Everyman

There was a time when Joyce was widely regarded as the cardinal representative of liberal cosmopolitanism in twentieth-century Western literature. According to his earliest, primarily North American critical advocates in the years following World War II, Joyce wrote for humanity rather than in service to any specific nation, race, or party.

There was a time when James Joyce was widely regarded as the cardinal representative of liberal cosmopolitanism in twentieth-century Western literature.

W. Y. Tindall was a professor at Columbia University whose James Joyce: His Way of Interpreting the Modern World (1950) helped set the agenda of Joyce studies for much of the twentieth century. Tindall offered the following interpretation of Joyce’s worldview: “The humanity contemplated by Joyce was at once his own and everyman’s.”

This meant that no one people could claim ownership of his oeuvre, including the Irish. Joyce may have chosen Dublin as the setting for his works — Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), Finnegans Wake (1939) — and he may have suffused each of them with the minutiae of Dublin life, dialect, and slang, as befitting his origins. However, the achievement of his art and the sincerity of his liberal-humanist convictions enabled Joyce to transcend the constraints imposed by his Irish cultural inheritance.

“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” So pronounces Joyce’s youthful alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus, toward the end of Portrait of the Artist, as he discusses his Irish origins. “This race and this country and this life produced me,” but he owed nothing to them or the servile nation he dismissed as “the old sow that eats her farrow.” “I shall express myself as I am,” he implored.

There was no better slogan for the age of individualism that dawned in the West after 1945, and for which Joyce would become a talismanic figure. Not without reason, liberal critics of the 1950s read Joyce as the paradigmatic case of an expressive individualist overcoming a recalcitrant and conformist culture in the name of art and romantic self-formation, as in the manner propounded by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (1859).

In this perspective, Joyce was a man of the world — an artistic genius beholden to no partisan interest, only that of humanity. In the early years of the Cold War, Joyce’s irreverence toward literary convention and rejection of majoritarian Irish nationalism offered a model for those who were preoccupied with valorizing the Western cultural tradition over its “anti-liberal” Eastern counterpart.

This paralleled the rise in the United States of a mindset that Samuel Moyn characterized as “Cold War liberalism,” when seemingly perennial and universal liberal values of free expression, toleration, and individual autonomy were considered to be under threat from the imperial ambitions of “totalitarian” Soviet communism. Joyce thus became a pawn in the original culture war.

A Postcolonial Joyce

The core intuitions of twentieth-century Joyce scholarship, then, rested upon a tendentious, depoliticized reading of his work that was designed to accord with a tacit agenda. As the edifice of liberal-humanist criticism began to crumble from the mid-1960s, so would this standard reading of Joyce’s project.

It is now common to read Joyce as retaining and building off his Irish inheritance rather than renouncing it.

By the year 2000, there had been a revolution in domestic Irish cultural criticism pioneered by Seamus Deane, which saw the advent of historicist and postcolonial frames of literary analysis. Emer Nolan utilized both to powerful effect in her seminal James Joyce and Nationalism (1995). Joyce could now be called an Irish writer without hesitation or resulting controversy.

Critics once read the final lines of Joyce’s Portrait — “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” — as Stephen’s impassioned renunciation of Irishness and its burdensome history so that he could fashion his art and character on terms of his own choosing. It is now common to read Joyce as retaining and building off his Irish inheritance rather than renouncing it, in a style prescribed by the nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel.

Joyce was a modern writer, but he nevertheless recognized that the ideas that structure and inform thinking in the present derived from the past. Both the character and content of his aesthetic personae were products of his Irish cultural and political formation.

The problem in the case of Ireland, however, was that the lines of cultural transmission were radically discontinuous. Its history was punctuated by a series of traumatic ruptures and overshadowed by a legacy of violent discord resulting from the island’s colonization and subsequent incorporation within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland following the Acts of Union (1801).

The union came in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, a nationalist uprising animated partly by the democratic republicanism of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. Tone and his allies hoped that their movement would resolve the iniquitous constitutional arrangements that had prevailed in Ireland until then by reconciling the two major political nations, the Catholics and Anglo-Irish Protestants, within the one civic polity.

However, the effort ended in failure, and was followed a generation later by the Great Famine of 1845–52. This event wrought a calamitous toll on Ireland, causing in the space of a few years social changes that otherwise would have taken many decades. It bequeathed a pervasive sense of political division, cultural malaise, and national obsolescence to Joyce’s generation.

Imperial Fault Line

For Luke Gibbons, Ulysses and the national revolutionary movement were both responding to “Ireland’s position on a fault line in the imperial world system of the early twentieth century.” Instead of being divorced from events in Ireland, “there were multiple points of intersection between the literary avant-garde and the Irish revolution,” hitherto largely uncanvassed. Joyce was situated at their confluence, “exiled” from home on the model of Dante Alighieri from Florence but nevertheless present in spirit and memory, mediating between both spheres.

For Luke Gibbons, Ulysses and the national revolutionary movement were both responding to ‘Ireland’s position on a fault line in the imperial world system of the early twentieth century.’

This is not to say that the Irish revolution depended on the European avant-garde. Rather, they both arose from the same root and infiltrated the same modernist imaginaries in the immediate postwar years. For the Easter Rising was not simply a sideshow, or the misguided work of hapless romantic poets. In striking a significant blow against Britain’s empire at the crux of globalized war and ensuing cultural dislocation, it was a modern event that pointed towards the future — and was recognized as such by contemporaries.

In Ulysses, Joyce appropriated the classical literary form of the European epic and reapplied it to modern circumstances in order to render lucid the multivarious conditions of urban modernity on a scale previously considered unfeasible. In this, Joyce provided international modernism — as recognized, Gibbons tells us, by Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Bloch, Alfred Döblin, Hermann Broch, and others — with a model for overcoming the crisis of aesthetic representation that confounded their generation after World War I.

At a national level, meanwhile, Joyce offered in Ulysses the national epic that Ireland had been awaiting. But this was a modern epic, structured ironically after Homer’s Odyssey and featuring the greatest antihero in modern literature, Leopold Bloom, to belie Odysseus. 

Ulysses was not concerned with providing a mirror image of the Irish nation, nor with offering an idealized representation of a chronically divided land now brought to harmony. Modernity had travestied such efforts as absurd, whereas the complexities of Ireland’s history and colonial inheritance militated against them all the more.

Ulysses may have been published in the same year that the British parliament ceded conditional sovereignty to the Irish Free State. However, the novel was not intended to serve as a triumphalist demarcation. The establishment of the Free State marked neither a departure nor an effective reconciliation. The antinomies of Irish history had not been resolved, and the radical impulses of the revolution continued to permeate the country in ways that stood at variance to the reactionary, clerical caste of the new ruling elite.

Gibbons presents several former Irish revolutionaries as having developed a shared appreciation for Joyce’s work and recognition of its vital importance for Ireland.

Gibbons presents several former Irish revolutionaries, including Desmond Ryan, Ernie O’Malley, P. S. O’Hegarty, and a collection of lesser-known republican-affiliated writers such as Kathleen Coyle and Eileen MacCarvill, as having developed a shared appreciation for Joyce’s work and recognition of its vital importance for Ireland. As Ryan put it: “When Joyce wrote Ulysses he shook the world, and to many of us left the most eloquent prologue to the Irish revolution ever written.”

The novel was a prologue not simply because it was set in Dublin in 1904 — already a time of intense political ferment where all participants recognized the prescience of W. B. Yeats’s judgment that the “defeat of the second Home Rule Bill in 1893 had left Ireland like soft wax,” awaiting cultural redefinition. It was because the revolution had not yet reached its desired terminus, having been captured by the insular Catholic nationalism of faith and fatherland evoked in the early work of W. B. Yeats and propagated by the broader Celtic Revival.

Peering Into the Future

“I am the servant of two masters,” Stephen Dedalus notes in the opening episode of Ulysses, “an English and an Italian.” Those masters were “the imperial British state” and “the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” Ireland’s revolutionary elite had failed to realize this ambition of breaking the Irish psychological dependence on British and Roman imperia. Rather than moving towards the modern future, Ireland stood at risk of regressing back into the archaic past, relegating “the Ireland of Tone and Parnell” to distant memory.

Marginalized Irish republicans, disillusioned by the new Ireland, found solace and inspiration in Joyce’s work.

But this fate was not preordained. It could have been otherwise, as Joyce knew and sought to foreground in Ulysses. The narrative techniques of that novel, its challenges to linear trajectories and temporal processes along with its incandescent joy in the alchemies of language, all spoke of a work unconcerned with capturing let alone vindicating the status quo. Rather, its author sought to point us towards something new and unrealized, but nevertheless within view once we orient ourselves towards the future while simultaneously taking account of the past.

“When he was with us,” Joyce’s school friend William Fallon once remarked, “he sometimes appeared to be peering into the future.” One thinks of the famous portrait of the young Joyce taken by his friend C. P. Curran in 1904, the year he set Ulysses, where he stands adjacent to a Dublin greenhouse, hands in his pockets, his legs wide apart, staring fixedly into the camera as though peering through it, beyond it. Quoting Walter Benjamin’s dictum that “it has always been one of the primary tasks of art to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come,” Gibbons adds that it is “through form that art addresses unresolved pasts, and gestures towards the future, beyond the horizons of things as they are.”

Marginalized Irish republicans, disillusioned by the new Ireland, found solace and inspiration in Joyce’s work. “He was their writer,” according to James T. Farrell, writing after a visit to Dublin in 1938. “They saw in Joyce a man of lower-middle class origins like themselves, whose feelings and responses to all sorts of things were like theirs.” He was a man of vision, but their political revolution had been no less an act of daring creativity. Over the course of the so-called “decade of centenaries” in Ireland (2012–23), where historians, politicians, and the broader public have been forced to reckon with the difficult legacies of Ireland’s revolutionary period, the implications of this fact were hardly touched.

Ireland’s course could have been different after 1922; it could still be different. Nothing was predetermined, and nothing is predetermined; the future remains open. We simply have to recognize this. Joyce’s modernist project, in excavating the past to posit any number of possible futures, may prove instructive here. It falls to us to realize those futures.

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