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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ulysses and Us

Where was I hiding, I wonder, in the thirty years I lived in Ireland, to prevent me ever hearing the phrase ‘Feast of Saint Jam Juice’ applied to that annual festival of Edwardian tomfoolery better known as Bloomsday. Perhaps I was living in some alternative reality from Declan Kiberd, who reassures me in Ulysses And Us that that is how Bloomsday is ‘jocularly’ known in Dublin. Google hasn’t heard of it either.

Someone has been spoiling Kiberd’s fun. Specifically, Ulysses critics. They have wrenched the text away from the common reader and made it a prize specimen of ‘specialist knowledge’ rather than the ‘property of all who shared in a common culture.’ And yet this is strangely at odds with the actual evidence offered by Kiberd. There are ‘dozens of taxi drivers’ who ‘know the main characters but haven’t got too far into it yet’ (this story, I feel, is a whisker away from the hardy old perennial about the man at the unveiling of a plaque who remembers living down the road from Leopold Bloom, and what a decent old skin he was.) Kiberd senior loved Ulysses, but on attempting to sit through a Joyce symposium at Trinity College, Dublin, was scared off by a paper on ‘The Consciousness of Stephen’. Kiberd fails to offer readings, or even the names of these academic baddies – in fact the book appears to quote no Joyce scholarship of the last few decades, one passing reference aside to a book published in 2004; otherwise nothing – and when it does make a gesture in that direction weakly mutters of ‘specialists prepared to devote years to the study of [Ulysses’] secret codes – parallax, indeterminacy, consciousness-time being among the buzz words.’ This is unreadable jargon? Holy contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality! But then again, on the subject of unreadability, Kiberd reminds us that Joyce’s great defender Hemingway couldn’t be bothered finishing Ulysses and that Roddy Doyle too thinks it’s full of boring longueurs. Maybe Kiberd doesn’t actually want us to read it all the way through?

The last time I was in Hodges & Figgis the shelves were packed with guides to Ulysses, reader’s guides, beginner’s guides, and walking guides of Joyce’s Dublin. Acknowledging their existence might come between Kiberd and his mission in this book, which is a deeply Arnoldian one. Joyce, it quickly emerges, is the central exhibit and weapon in a culture war Kiberd is waging singlehanded on the cosmopolitan dross of the modern world with its ‘corporate’ university elitists and their contempt for ‘national culture’. Kiberd appears to believe every bit as much as old mutton chops in ‘national cultures’ and the genetically imprinted national characters that accompany them. He also believes in the mission of art not just to civilise but, in effect, to save us, tut-tutting at Shakespeare critics’ weakness for treating the plays as ‘technical performances’ rather than ‘guides to a fulfilled life’. And also like Arnold, he believes the bourgeoisie (with a little help from the kindly literary critic) are on a mission to save civilisation. I don’t quite grasp his class theory, I confess. He believes Ulysses is the epic of the ‘civic bourgeoisie’, a group now replaced by the ‘consumerist’ ‘middle class’. Joyce ‘hated being called a middle-class writer. For him this was the greatest of all insults, to which he responded jocosely [‘jocularly’ a minute ago, now ‘jocosely’] by saying that “nobody in my books has any money.”’ This aversion to social-climbing chimes with Kiberd’s distaste for what a Christian brother might have called ‘company-keeping’: ‘[Joyce] had little truck with bohemians, preferring to stress the practical value of art for a full life.’ (Instead, Ulysses ‘respects’ the masses by showing how ‘admirable’ they are.) Nor does the moralizing stop there. Joyce may have used swear words in his fiction but, strait-laced type that he was, he would ‘on no account utter them’. And woe unto his readers ‘intent on proving how free they [are]’, who have ‘confused art and life’, and go around effing and blinding. Not in front of the women and children, please.

E.M. Forster had his man on the Clapham Omnibus and Kiberd’s equivalent would have to be a man on the Clontarf Dart, membership papers of the Plain People of Ireland at the ready. Kiberd is the most relentlessly anecdotal of writers, and many of these anecdotes are designed to remind us, as though we could ever be reminded enough, of what a wonderful bunch of people we Irish are. ‘This was the era when democracy meant that anyone could enjoy Shakespeare. When a group of travelling players asked a porter in Limerick railway station whether they had reached their destination, the man raised his cap in mock-salute and said, “Why, sirs, this is Illyria.”’ Even for a dog bites man story, Man in Non-Academic Job Not Total Illiterate doesn’t exactly have teeth. Why is it so pass-remarkable to Kiberd that a railway porter might know Shakespeare? Who is he trying to impress or prove a point to here? On the one hand, the Fall Narrative of a vanished common culture has to be rehashed over and over again (‘The middle decades of the twentieth century were the years in which the idea of a common culture was abandoned’) yet on the other here he is, Declan Kiberd, expounding, nay embodying this common culture, and being hyperbolically feted for doing so (‘the most exciting book I know on the most exciting novel ever written’, gushes Joseph O’Connor). So where is the problem, really?

I am deeply skeptical of the rhetorical assumptions that underpin Ulysses And Us is what I’m saying here, in other words, the comfortable moral high ground of its elitist-bashing populism, and its dewy-eyed love affair with the tedious old business of Ireland and Irishness, which may still interest some of those over-specialised academics Kiberd talks about but, apologies for the mild swearing here, bores the arse off me.

(Declan Kiberd, Ulysses And Us, Faber and Faber, £14.99)


Jon said...

think I'll pass on this one... think Deco was the editor of the Penguin edition that I read in school... and some of his annotates seemed to have a leaning that you're talking about... though I'm not sure that his outlook on the situation is so different that what the text shows in that case... what was is that Joyce is supposed to have said of the book:

I've planted so many enigmas and and puzzles in there that the critics will be a hundred years figuring them out

Totalfeckineejit said...

Could the whole Joyce circus be the literary equivalent of the Giants Causeway? Worth seeing, but not worth going to see?

Desmond Swords said...

David, you really must try not to feel upset by your fellow Trinity alumnus and double first gold medal winner from the Leinster literati.

It's not his fault he has the mind of a titan motoring his marvelous, marvelous lovely jolly super dooper prose investigating exactly what it means to be a PLU in Parnell Square, at the WC, speaking with Colm, Joe, Celia, Maeve, Geraldm Michael, Nuala, Dennis, Roddy, Paddy and Paul - performing in the drawing room, standing by wainscot beneath the architrave and cornice, gazing out beyond the glass at the Garden of Remeberance and gassing on the matter at hand.

Long serving senior bores, people like us, it just looks soo tacky David, and really, very very bitchy.

I will be reporting this to Mister Poetry and the cohorts in the team WB - it is absolutely appalling and the work of a bounder, belittling DK in this frightuflly delicious piece of (swiftly written?) stick-the-boot in hoo ha on JJ.


Nah, loved this Dave, and i am not lying when i say it is (i was going to say by far but..arghh..won't) bit of prose i have feasted my eyes on.

You are in the ollamh zone where, it doesn't matter what the Truth is, because whatever it is, you've written your own here and DK will hear about this. The gossip-mill being so pathetic in Dublin, where two-faced clangering is de riguer, where the quality of insult is all that matters, hundreds of gassers all hammering at it, to be the best, to be the best one can get by sheer hard think - read and go - go go !!

Only this
Only now
never then cuz

how's that gonna work?

Aint no chance of pullin
round the sun
before the settings settled
down and done today

fixed dates
pumpin up the numbers
stretching them to Time

one by one
Bye Bye

go buy another one
five four three two one

left off what's not no
longer on the outside
cuz insides livin life-sized

spendin, bit by bit by byte

Ah mah ladzie, before this, you had the comedy alright but not the killer instinct was concealed, and now - now it's on display and, if yer gonna take 'em down, why not the biggest?