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)