Richard Ellmann — Joyce's religion and politics
Joyce's acclaimed biographer, Richard Ellmann wrote this article for an Irish Times supplement published in 1982 to mark the hundredth anniversary of Joyce's birth.
What were Joyce's attitudes to church and state? To what extent was he shaped by the Catholicism he forswore? How committed was he to the liberation of Ireland? These questions haunt his hundredth birthday.
In later life, asked when he had left the Church, Joyce remarked, "That's for the Church to say." By this time he recognised the complexities. In his youth he was not so guarded or ambiguous. He wrote to Nora Barnacle on August 20th, 1904: "Six years ago (at sixteen) I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently. I found it impossible for me to remain in it on account of the impulses of my nature. The Church's attitude to sexuality was particularly repugnant to him. His letter went on: "I made 'secret war upon it when I was a student and declined to accept the positions it offered me." These positions, according to his brother Stanislaus, included that of priest. "By doing this I made myself a beggar but retained my pride"
Joyce wrote to Nora. "Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do." His actions accorded with this policy. He neither confessed nor took communion. When his children were born he forbade their being baptised. His grandson was baptised against his wishes and without his knowledge. He preferred to live with Nora Barnacle for twenty seven years without marrying her. When at last a wedding became necessary for purposes of inheritance, he had it performed in a registry office.
At his death. when the possibility of a religious service was mentioned, his, wife said. "I couldn't do that to him. So far all is straightforward. Joyce's rejection of the Church was compatible, however, with considerable interest in it and in its procedures. He was often derogatory. Priests. he said, were "barbarians armed with crucifixes." Or he would remark. as on March 13th 1905: "None of the gratifications of the senses are half so odious as their mortifications which the saints practiced; also the church, whilst providing rewards for the senses of the glorified body. has promised none for the sense of taste or of touch." Some of his devout friends took comfort in the way that Joyce regularly attended the services of Holy Week, and had particular pleasure in Tenebrae. He did so, however, like a tourist of another persuasion. standing at the back of the church. Another remnant of his early piety survived as a superstitious fear of thunderstorms. which he would do anything to avoid. Once. when thunder crashed and Joyce quailed, Thomas McGreevy admonished him, "look at your children. They aren't frightened at all. ""They have no religion." said Joyce with contempt. The marrow in his bones was at "variance with his brain.
Critics have sometimes contended that his books should not be taken as opposed to the Church. Of course no frontal attack is made in them. Joyce spoke in an early autobiographical essay of having adopted "urbanity in warfare" as his strategy. He was anxious that his books should not commit propaganda, even against institutions of which he disapproved. In his brother's diary for April 1908 it is recorded that Joyce said of the novel "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" on which he was then working: "It would not be aimed at Catholicism in Ireland; be didn't care a rap if Ireland continued in Catholicism for the next two thousand years. Some Hottentot religion would be too good for the people. At any rate, with the Catholic doctrine of grace — which... he considers the main doctrine of the Church — the priests, could well defend these Lenten banalities if they kept the faithful with the Church. the accumulator of grace. Their hell, too, they could defend in a similar, manner, and it was a logical belief if one admitted, their theory of sin and punishment.
Stephen's apostasy is accordingly presented as a choice for himself, and not necessarily one for others. On the other hand he is an exemplum, not only in his capacity as artist, but in his character of emancipated man. His initial submission, in fear and remorse, to the terrifying sermons about death, judgment, and punishment, changes to revulsion at their cruelty. Yet Joyce is careful not to overstate his case' If Father Dolan, who in Chapter I pandies Stephen unjustly, is sadistic. the priest who hears the boy's confession after the retreat in Chapter III is kind and gentle.
Apart from such sporadic concessions, the Church is regularly presented in terms of darkness and constriction. Stephen finds that its emphasis on the soul is as lopsided as the prostitute's emphasis on the body. His most adroit manoeuvre is taking over its vocabulary for his own secular purposes. He receives a call, hears "a voice from beyond the world", but what it summons him to is not- the priesthood but life, including 'sexual love, and an art that would content body and soul alike.
The word sin is modified to error to fall is only to experience: Stephen ecstatically contemplates: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life." He himself achieves resurrection: "His soul had risen 'from the grave of boyhood, spurning her grave-clothes." He is ordained into a new priestcraft of his own devising: he imagines himself: "a priest of eternal imagination,, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of ever-living life." At the book's end he even takes over from the Church the care of conscience; it is he and not the Church who 'will forge a conscience for his race.
Just what this new conscience was to be, Joyce would clarify in "Ulysses". Neither Bloom nor Stephen could be described as pagan, though neither acknowledges any institutional belief. Bloom, in offering his conception of love as against the Citizen's hatred and violence, is voicing a humanist ethic. He also fulfils the role of the Good Samaritan when Stephen is knocked down. So far as Catholicism is concerned, he ruminates humorously about confession, communion. Resurrection, marvelling at the hold these strange conceptions have. Stephen, reared among them, but unwilling in to accept Catholic limitations of his independence, is in active rebellion. His climactic moment comes as his mother's ghost, like that of the Commendatore in "Don Giovanni", thrice summons him to repent. His anguished retort is Shite!", when the true pagan would neither see the ghost nor recognise any inclination to repent. Stephen is never insouciant. When he points to his head and quotes William Blake, who in his turn was alluding to Dante: "But in here it is l must kill the priest and the king". Joyce at once sanctions his "mental fight" and acknowledges the responsibility of this rebellion.
In "Finnegans Wake" Joyce seems more relaxed about the Church and about rebellion. Shaun, as a hypocritical do-gooder with a claim to piety is steadily mocked, but so is his errant and agnostic brother. Catholicism has its place in the book a pervasive one that involves Saint Patrick, countless popes, church history and theological squabbles. In terms of universal history, which the "Wake" presents, the Church's punctilio about forgotten issues adds to the joyful polyphony. In the night worldshot through with dreams, religion appears no better and no worse than other human obsessions.
To be opposed to the Church as an institution is one thing; to be opposed to all religious feeling is another. At moments Joyce surprised his atheistical brother Stanislaus by unexpected concessions. Stanislaus noted in his diary on 7 August 1905 that James said "he believed that in his heart that every man was religious. He spoke from his knowledge of himself. I asked him did he mean that everyone had in his heart some faith in a Diety, by which he could be influenced. He said, 'Yes'." That this was not just a passing fancy appears to be borne out in "Ulysses", less in Stephen and Bloom, who disclaim faith, than in Molly. She, while contemptuous of piety, is also contemptuous of impiety, and approves a vague theism: "As for them saying theres no God l wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don't they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves. . ." Although Joyce in May 1905 pronounced himself to be incapable of belief of any kind, he evidently had more than a few grains left. But any approach to orthodoxy repelled him. When a priest in Zurich pointed out on a starry night the order of the stars and used it to prove the existence of God, Joyce replied acidly: "Whet a pity that it is all based on mutual inter-destruction!"
He had the same feelings of intransigence towards the British state, as the occupying power in Ireland, that he had towards the Catholic Church. "Political awareness" was a quality he valued in writers. Joyce was politically aware without being political. That is, day to day politics did not interest him, but he thought of his writing as subsuming politics within
His earliest recorded work was his lost poem about the man who had tried to lead Ireland to independence. Parnell. Flag-waving nationalism was not to his taste, but he regarded political independence as an aspect of the larger, independence he was seeking. His brother records a conversation they had in April 1907. Stanislaus urged that an independent Ireland would be intolerable. "What the devil are your politics?" asked James. "Do you not think Ireland has a right to govern itself and is capable of doing so?" During his ten years in Trieste Joyce wrote nine articles setting forth the Irish "problem" for a local newspaper and in 1914 He offered them as a hook to an Italian publisher. They were not accepted: a pity, because they would have demonstrated that Joyce was altogether aware of and concerned about the political situation of his country.
Joyce is sometimes said to have been a lifelong Parnellite. but he was opposed to turning great dead men into stone effigies. In "Ulysses" he mocks the idea that Parnell is still alive and will return. The one post' Parnellite politician whom Joyce felt he could endorse was Arthur Griffith. who pleased him by being "unassuming" and "not indulging in flights." He liked, Griffith's policy for two reasons especially its non violence and its economic boycott of Britain. About the boycott he remarked on May fish 1907: "The Sinn Fin policy, comes to fighting England with knife and fork" and said it was "the highest form of political warfare I had heard of." In 1912 he asked Griffith's advice in connection with his troubles over publishing "Dubliners." and was pleased to be treated as a man having a common cause though working in a less obviously political medium. For he had remained faithful to his goal of creating new Irishmen and Irishwomen through the honesty and scorching candour of his writing. In Ulysses he acknowledged Griffith's political importance by making many references to him, alone among politicians of the day. And he called attention to the ultimately political direction of his own work by having Irish Stephen. at the end of the brothel scene, beaten up by a British soldier, whom he define as "the uninvited." Joyce was gratified, when, just before "Ulysses" was published in 1922, Arthur Gnffith was elected the first president of Ireland. The cultural emancipation of the country. with which Joyce had charged himself, seemed to be succeeding at the same time as the more limited but almost equally necessary political emancipation which he associated with Griffith.
But Griffith died within a few months, and then the civil war broke out. When Nora Joyce with her first two children was fined on while visiting Galway during that war, Joyce, grew more sceptical. He had called himself a socialist in his early twenties, then said he was an anarchist, though not a "practical anarchist in the modern sense". During the first world war when he was committed to neutrality, he began to describe himself as apolitical, though he considered his litigation against a British consular official named Henry Carr to be a nationalistic action. The creation of the Free State had satisfied his political ambitions, always secondary to his cultural ones, but subsequent events made him feel that his immediate reaction could not be sustained.
In 1932 he was invited to a St Patrick's Day party in Paris; he declined to attend it because the Irish Ambassador to France, Count O'Kellv. was also to be present. and Joyce did not wish to imply that he in any way endorsed the present Irish state.
"I do not mind 'larking' with (High Commissioner) Dulanty in London but I care nothing about politics," he wrote' "Ireland, with Ulster in, will probably be a separate republic in ten or fifty years and I do net suppose anyone in England, will really care two hoots whether it is or not. They are doing many things more efficiently, I am told, than was possible under the old regime. but any semblance of liberty they had when under England seems to have gone — and goodness knows that was not much.
Yet indifference was not a characteristic of a man who made a point of reading Irish newspapers everyday and who took a passionate interest in every detail of his native land. However sceptica1 he became of political progress, he endeavored in all his books to achieve something super political, by disclosing sharply what life in Ireland was, and dimly what it might be. This was his higher politics.