Thursday, July 6, 2023

Reviews of Five (Mostly) Recent Books on Joyce, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake

Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland (2022) by John McCourt

Last year in June, I was in Dublin for the James Joyce Symposium at Trinity College where I presented a paper. That was my third trip to Dublin in a span of nine months, prior to which I'd never been to Ireland before. The city was bustling for the centennial celebration of Ulysses, which first appeared in 1922. On Bloomsday, June 16th, after attending some panels at Trinity, I wandered around the city and watched locals in the pubs genuinely thrilled for Bloomsday like they were celebrating a local sports team's victory. Dublin was lit and I had a great time hanging with friends throughout the symposium. 
I acquired a few new books during that trip, including this recently published study by John McCourt detailing the reception and impact of Ulysses in Ireland over the last century. Once I started reading Consuming Joyce, I couldn't put it down. I completed it in one long reading session on the flight back to the US. McCourt's approachable yet academically rigorous study goes decade-by-decade showing how Ireland's initially intense hostility against Joyce (and his devoted readers) evolved into hoisting Joyce up on a pedestal as a national hero.
    As an American in Ireland soaking in and savoring the local connections from Joyce's texts, one thing I found especially compelling in Consuming Joyce was the early hostility from the Irish against American readers of Joyce's work and how much that changed over the century. McCourt's book is peppered with quotes from Irish critics and commentators who, in the initial few decades after Ulysses appeared in 1922, relished the opportunity to trash Joyce's American readership. One example (from a review of Stuart Gilbert's guide to Ulysses which appeared in 1930) delivered Joyce some backhanded praise while needling the Americans who love his work: "Joyce is constantly pulling the long Homeric bow in order to astonish the uninitiated; and he has succeeded to some extent, especially with the Americans, where classical learning is not very widely cultivated." (pg. 60) 
    Joyce's old frenemy from Dublin, Oliver Gogarty (immortalized as Buck Mulligan in Ulysses), published an editorial in a Dallas, Texas newspaper in the year 1950 mocking the "Joyce fetish" of Americans, remarking that they all belong in kindergarten, and concluded, "This is a moment in the history of art where cross-word puzzles, detective stories and distortions take the place of literature and beauty. And when we consider that America is the original home of smoke signals, the popularity of Joyce here can be explained." (pg. 110)
    In 1965, an article in the Irish Times mocked "the Joyce posers (or symposers)" and complained that Joyce would be rolling his grave if he'd known what an enthusiastic international readership he'd attained: 
'The bould Jamsie Joyce was writing for Irishmen and for nobody else. I wish the Americans would learn that simple fact. They would be happier if they did.' Joyce would be 'vastly annoyed if he had the gift of clairvoyance to foresee that his books would take on the veneration which is accorded the Talmud. Joyce is now a money-spinner for Dublin hoteliers and if he revolves in his Zurich grave I shall not be very much surprised.' (p. 169)
McCourt's book is filled with quotes like this. The impression I get was that the trajectory of Joyce's reception in Ireland began as disgust and hatred at his portrayal of his fellow countrymen, followed by a sort of nationalist covetousness which disdained foreign admirers hijacking their hero, until the widespread attitude suddenly flipped in the 1980s after the centennial of Joyce's birth. Ireland as a country had changed drastically from its tumultuous revolutionary period in the first couple decades of the 20th century, to its era of repressive Catholicism and strident nationalism, and now strived to become a cultural and economic force on the global stage. McCourt's tracing of these changes alongside the reception of Joyce makes for an insightful recent history of Ireland. The once-reviled Joyce had become central to Ireland's ambitions as a nation: "The post-nationalistic, anti-Catholic, pro-European (but more crucially pro-capital) Ireland of the 1990s—proudly the world's most global economy—found the perfect symbol in Joyce, who had earlier rejected so many of the pieties that the country was now finally beginning to question and demolish." (pg. 210)
While it is an academic study packed with information and footnotes on every page, Consuming Joyce is also an engaging read and I learned much from it. The book mostly shies away from direct engagement with Joyce's texts themselves, mainly focusing on the Irish reception of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake over the years. Also included in here is a fascinating and informative history of the development of the "Joyce industry" including the stories of how places like the Joyce Tower in Sandycove and the Joyce Center on North Great Georges Street became the Joyce museums they are today, as well as background on the origins of the annual international Joyce Symposium. I've attended several of these symposia over the last decade and it was eye-opening to learn how these events began with hostility from the locals until eventually the widespread ostracism of Joyce and his readership evolved into hero-worship, accepting and celebrating Joyce as a leading source of tourism in Ireland, all leading up to the grand celebrations of Ulysses at 100. McCourt skillfully captures the details of how this all came to be. Towards the end, he also surveys the vast landscape of Joyce criticism and scholarship to have appeared over the decades pointing to some of the open frontiers of untapped research. (McCourt is noticeably dismissive of the John Kidd side of the "Joyce wars" and adopts the party line of Joyce academics in accepting the Gabler edition of Ulysses.) Historical nuggets of interest to Joyceans abound in this study, the context provided will be useful to any Joyce reader, and I expect I'll be drawing more anecdotes from Consuming Joyce for blog posts in the near future.

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The Book About Everything: Eighteen Artists, Writers and Thinkers on James Joyce's Ulysses (2022) ed. by Declan Kiberd, Enrico Terrinoni, & Catharine Wilson

Another book I acquired in Dublin on its publication day on Bloomsday 2022 (at The Winding Stair bookshop on Ormond Quay a few steps away from the Ha'penny Bridge), this is a colorful collection of reflections on Joyce's art from eighteen different contributors from diverse backgrounds. There's some intriguing stuff in here like an Irish Times newspaper correspondent discussing the newsroom scenes of the Aeolus chapter of Ulysses, a Michelin-starred chef from Dublin digesting the lunch-time episode of Lestrygonians, and a Palestinian-born Jewish Irish sociologist insightfully examining the political implications springing from the Nestor episode. Despite eighteen different voices with vastly different approaches to discussing a complicated novel, the prose throughout this book is refreshingly easy to consume, the collection feels well-edited and stands among the best recently published Joyce books for the general reader. 
Even though I thought a few of the chapters deviated too far from the topic, where authors hardly touched on the Ulysses episode they were assigned, or abandoned Ulysses to instead surf around the infinite multiverse of Finnegans Wake, there were also some absolute gems to be found in here. Eric A. Lewis, co-host of the tipsyturvy Ulysses podcast, presents a superb examination of the Ithaca episode arguing that it turns the reader into a surveillance agent gathering intelligence on Leopold Bloom. It's gotta be the most insightful and unique piece of Ulysses criticism I've read in a while. Another standout was Dublin-born novelist Joseph O'Connor's essay on Sirens, captivating for its rich prose and local context. Additionally, Jhumpa Lahiri's wide-ranging analysis of the meaning behind the flittering bat in the Nausicaa episode left a lasting impression, prompting me to seek out more of Lahiri's work. While this collection may not always offer groundbreaking new readings for the seasoned Joycean, it offers a wealth of great material celebrating the author and his work from a multitude of angles.

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James Joyce in Context (2014) ed. by John McCourt

This batch of 32 essays from different Joyce scholars on various topics related to reading Joyce is a dense academic tome. Unlike the previous book above, the authors here don't attempt to get too creative in their prose style, so I would not consider this an engaging or especially enjoyable read. But as a reference text for various topics related to Joyce, it proves helpful. Personally, I picked this up because I wanted to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Joyce, especially some missing contexts that became apparent during a few trips I took to Ireland. Thus, for instance, I appreciated the essay in this collection about post-colonial Joyce by Gregory Castle. I was curious to know more about Joyce's complicated and seemingly contrarian views about Irish politics since, for example, he maintained his British citizenship all his life, never opting for an Irish passport after Ireland gained its independence. There are no easy answers to these questions, but I do think the reader is provided some helpful perspective in trying to understand, Castle puts it, "that Joyce's nationalism takes the form of a transnationalism in which an anti-nationalist position enters into a dialectical relation with pro-nationalist sentiments." (p. 108) Similarly, Brian G. Caraher's essay on Irish and European politics looks at Joyce's political writings from his younger days and sees an affinity towards socialism—Joyce even attended a meeting of the Italian Socialist Party in Rome in October 1906—but the author, making reference to the book James Joyce and the Question of History by James Fairhall, concludes:
Joyce's cultural politics may share in the broad outlines of a general disillusionment consequent upon the betrayals of international socialism in the early years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, in Fairhall's persuasive reading, 'however we try to define his ambivalent, elusive politics,' Joyce 'was in any event not a passive esthete, but a literary revolutionist for whom writing represented the supreme political act. (p. 290)
These essays attempt to summarize in a limited space the existing scholarship on certain topics. Another very complex subject that was well-explained here is the postmodernist study of Joyce, the semiotic viewpoint of thinkers like Umberto Eco and Jacques Derrida. I also found the chapter chronologically going into detail about the composition and publishing history of each of Joyce's major works to be a useful and accessible refresher with some new info added too. This volume is a good resource for undergrad or grad students studying Joyce, though hardly a top pick for a general reader interested in the subject.

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Beating the Bounds: Excess and Restraint in Joyce's Later Works (2023) by Roy Benjamin

Roy Benjamin teaches English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and has published many articles on Joyce, mostly focused on specific themes and patterns in Finnegans Wake. Among his published articles is a fascinating exploration of the role of axial precession myths in the Wake, a paper whose insights I was inspired to write about at length on this blog several years ago. The publication of a new book-length work by Prof. Benjamin, one of the more prolific and seasoned scholars of Finnegans Wake alive today, is a valuable addition to the canon of Joyce criticism. The new book Beating the Bounds: Excess and Restraint in Joyce's Later Works is published as part of the Florida James Joyce Series (edited by Sebastian D.G. Knowles) printed by the University Press of Florida (side note: ain't it ironic that the state of Florida, of all places, has an academic book production system churning out fascinating scholarly studies of James Joyce? For real though, the series has produced some great books but they need to do something about the exorbitant list prices). 
    Benjamin's Beating the Bounds book presents a wide-ranging exploration of the role of boundaries and limits in Joyce's writing, showing how Joyce had a Jesuit penchant for structured systems organized by boundaries but also insisted on shattering any notion of limits. Beating the Bounds shows Joyce's tendency toward transgressing boundaries in several different aspects of his work. I describe this as a wide-ranging study because, while the book is laser-focused on the subject of creating boundaries and breaking them, Benjamin identifies this pattern across several disciplines; there are chapters on Joyce's treatment of these themes in philosophy, Irish politics, mathematics, aesthetics, ecology, gender studies, and scientific cosmology—while enlisting ideas and quotes from an eclectic array of thinkers like Camile Paglia, Ken Wilber, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The approach Benjamin takes in his examination is to crack open specific lines and phrases from Finnegans Wake, using Roland McHugh's annotations, Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary, while revealing connections and correspondences to illustrate the repeated dialectic of boundary making-and-breaking. To read of this dialectic playing out thru the realms of ecology in "the mountain and river system" of the Wake or the cosmologies of a bounded or an infinitely boundless universe, all through the freighted language of the Wake is an enlightening experience even if requiring close attention to understand. Benjamin's explications allude not only to the roster of thinkers listed above, but frequently touch on classics like Greek myth, the Bible, and Shakespeare. No doubt, the material is dense, not unlike reading John Bishop's study, Joyce's Book of the Dark—the pages of Beating the Bounds are built of paragraphs weaving in quotes from across the Wake, while annotating the portmanteaus. I'm usually hoping for new perspectives or new notes on specific lines from Joyce's text and Benjamin's book delivers plenty of that. It doesn't always make for easy reading, but also Beating the Bounds successfully avoids bogging down the reader in the analytical jargon of academic theories, managing to thread a needle in presenting a wide-scoped view of a specific subject found evident in abundance all across the Wake.

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James Joyce's Mandala (2023) by Colm O'Shea

Stuart Gilbert's 1930 guide to Ulysses has been criticized for reading too much eastern mysticism into his analysis of Ulysses, even though Joyce himself was supposedly feeding Gilbert information and overseeing his writeup. Joseph Campbell helped to bring the work of Joyce to a wider audience of readers (myself included) with his explication of Joyce finding ample elements from Buddhist and Hindu myths. One of Campbell's vital influences was the German scholar of Indian religions, Heinrich Zimmer. One of Zimmer's books on the study of Maya in Hindu mythology was discovered in the personal library of James Joyce with Joyce's annotations and markings indicating he'd been reading it with interest. This was the trimmed-down library Joyce kept after all the relocations, from his final years in Paris, these were the books he considered important. 
Colm O'Shea's brilliant study of the eastern mystical elements glowing at the heart of Joyce's work begins with the foundation of the notable volumes in Joyce's Paris library. Besides the Zimmer book on Maya there was also a collection of Tolstoy's essays in which Joyce had underlined some striking passages in the essay "Religion and Morality" including these lines: "What is the meaning of my momentary, uncertain and unstable existence amid this eternal, firmly defined and unending universe? … The essence of every religion consists solely in the answer to the question, 'Why do I live, and what is the meaning of my relation to the infinite universe around me?" (O'Shea, p. 2)
Creating frequently compelling comparisons between the meanings involved in the "psychic architecture" of mandalas and Finnegans Wake, O'Shea presents his research in a clear and approachable writing style. James Joyce's Mandala is not only an in-depth study of mandala symbolism in Finnegans Wake, it also provides the reader a fascinating overview of the function of the mandala in eastern religions and meditative practices. The mandala is shown by O'Shea to embody an attempted response to the deep question posed by Tolstoy, "what is the meaning of my relation to the infinite universe around me?" The mandala can be considered a map of psychic states and structures, but it's also seen as a blueprint for the architecture of the universe, centered on a cosmic axis. 
    The chapters of James Joyce's Mandala examine some of the "mandalic motifs" featured in the Wake including the quincunx, the squared circle, and the sphere-cube palace/city structure. The latter structural motif evolves as a more complex version of the world-tree or world-mountain mythic image prominent in eastern myths and prominent in the Wake, as well. Making frequent use of the 1892 study Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth by the English architectural historian William Lethaby, O'Shea identifies intriguing connections with Finnegans Wake, a multi-layered universe which centers around a Chapelizod pub. Parallels are drawn between the three-dimensional versions of a mandala like a stupa or a pagoda and the architectural elements featured in the Wake, where the world-axis is represented as a building which is also a shrine, a tomb or a gate. (There's some correspondence in this part with my comparison of the Wake's portal into the bardo realm with the gopuram entrance to a Hindu temple.)
    O'Shea builds a compelling argument, even providing a whole chapter in the beginning of his book going point-by-point comparing each episode of Dubliners with the structure of the samsaric wheel, conveying the depths of Joyce early interest in eastern mysticism from his earliest writing days (the younger Joyce published a review of a book about Buddhism). One of the more notable links suggested in O'Shea's analysis is the comparison of the two main schools of Buddhism, Hinayana and Mahayana, with the different ways readers might approach Finnegans Wake. The main modes of Buddhism are "river vessels" after all (yana in Sanskrit means "ferry-boat" or "raft"), and the Wake is a book with a river flowing throughout the entire text. O'Shea argues that the Hinayana critic of the Wake imagines they could absorb all the existent critical and scholarly material and eventually reach a meaningful understanding of the text, or enlightenment. While the Mahayana critic of the Wake accepts that the journey from confusion to comprehension never really ends, never reaches a final conclusion. The journey is the point.
    The bulk of the book examines the meanings and uses of the mandala in Buddhism, Hinduism, and psychology while showing the presence and resonance of these in the text and structure of the Wake. Some of these links have been touched on by critics before (a springboard for the book is the explicit assertion that the Wake is a mandala made by Clive Hart in Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, published in 1962) but O'Shea's study adds immensely to this discussion. The chapters detailing mandalic representations in the Wake yield rich insights. Along the way, O'Shea uncovers noteworthy gems from Joyce's earlier writings like Stephen Hero, Portrait, Ulysses, and Dubliners. I would not hesitate to describe this book as an essential work of Wake criticism (which makes it unfortunate the list price is ridiculously high). Alongside the Wake-as-mandala theories shared, what really draws the reader into this book is O'Shea's engagement with the question of whether Joyce was descending into a psychotic break while writing his final book. At the end of the book O'Shea devotes an entire chapter to this issue.
    In the introduction he states that, "Artistic genius in a work shouldn't obscure possible evidence that it comes from a sense of personal suffering; conversely, signs of psychological 'malfunction' behind the origins of an artifact do not negate the aesthetic, psychological, or spiritual insight rendered within." (p. 22, O'Shea)

    Later on in the last chapter, O'Shea returns to this question:

The Wake bears uncanny similarity to schizophrenic speech. I'm not pointing this out to claim… that Joyce was a latent psychotic and so we should dismiss his work. I think the truth is more interesting: the Wake-as-mandala is a creative defense from psychosis; its construction is a response to the dark night that descends on spiritual refugees. … Joyce's Wake can be read as both a locus of that sickness–a focus lens for obsessional self-reflexivity—and its own unique method of dealing with that sickness: Joyce's act of writing it was his creative therapy. (p. 174-175)

    That conclusion resonates with his earlier description of the different schools of Buddhism: "Intellectual vehicles, such as the various Buddhist schools of thought, that float in the samsaric flood are, non-dually, part of that flood but also aim to save the refugee from it." (p. 140)
    Overall, this a stimulating and thorough analysis of an interesting correspondence which other authors have sometimes alluded to but never before delineated with such depth. O'Shea's book brings new light to some passages of the Wake, it also provides convincing arguments about the structure of the text as a whole, and hardly shies away from some of the thornier questions of Joyce's sanity, all while providing the reader an approachable overview of some of the key tenets of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy.