Haunting James Joyce: Invisible Bodies
In assessing Joyce’s place in contemporary culture, there appear to be two strands, distinct but interwoven. The strongest, international and most overt strand is that of Joyce the revolutionary enabler, the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, after whose intervention the horizons of the novel form were infi nitely expanded and the duties of the critic a grand adventure. The second strand, recently fueled by deconstructions of institutional modernism, is that of Joyce as disablingly diffi cult. These two attitudes to Joyce can coexist even in the work of a single writer or critic, but the second had something of a resurgence in Ireland in reaction to the Bloomsday Centenary. Joyce was repeatedly praised in the Irish media for the lucid perfection of his early work, while impatience and distrust was apparent for the linguistic exuberance of his late epics. This was perhaps inevitable given that, at least until recently, the mainstream of Irish fi ction seemed to share a genealogy with Joyce’s early work but remained comparatively untouched by the later novels. The popularity of Irish fi ction with readers and a certain generation of critics owes much to its fi liation to the realist mode, while Ulysses and Finnegans Wake remain touchstones of the avant-garde in writing, twin pillars of modernist aesthetics and postmodern interrogation of the novel, form and language itself. While Joyce is enthusiastically claimed as evidence of the quality and stature of twentieth-century Irish writing, an uneasy suspicion hovers on the edge of literary consciousness that he might have thoroughly disliked a great deal of it. Perhaps inevitably then the sense of freedom and adventure in Joyce’s writing is something that Irish commentators seem to miss. Both the institutionalization of Joyce as an icon of Irish cosmopolitanism and the simultaneous commodifi cation of him as an aspect of the heritage industry have potentially made Joyce a cultural monument, not a cultural resource. He still attracts reverence (never liberating) and suspicion. He is simply too clever by half. The Bloomsday Centenary celebrations were a popular success, but they did elicit the hostility of radio phone-ins and tabloid newspapers on the basis
that since Ulysses is diffi cult and we all know diffi culty is no more than pretentiousness, then Ulysses was merely pretentious. Simmering under the surface was a more erudite variation on this theme, a preference for the formal economy and frequent despair of the early fi ction. This was most apparent in the Irish Times commentary on their reader’s poll of the “greatest Irish novels.” Ulysses inevitably topped this poll, but the journalistic commentary that accompanied the results suggested Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was a better novel. In an interview on the subject of the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Competition (held in Joyce’s honor) in the same paper, Tobias Woolf suggested that “The Dead” was an instance of formal perfection no novel could equal.