James Joyce’s Humanism
On its centenary, the classic Irish novel promotes tolerance over violent extremism.
As part of our Persuasion Classics series, we look back on timeless writings from long ago. Our previous installments have included reviews of works by Milton and Hume. Today, Brendan Ruberry guides us through James Joyce’s modernist epic Ulysses.
by Brendan Ruberry
James Joyce wrote his classic novel Ulysses—eventually published in 1922—over the course of seven years. It was composed in three different cities, in innumerable tongues, and entirely outside of his native Ireland, which he left in 1912 and whose stifling intellectual and artistic environment, he maintained, forced him into exile. With his novel, he aimed to give the world a picture of Dublin “so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Today, as celebrants around the world mark the 100th “Bloomsday” (after the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom), Joyce’s opus offers timely lessons in forming a humanist bulwark against cruelty, bigotry, and political extremism.
A work renowned, perhaps unfairly, for its difficulty, Ulysses unfolds over the course of a single day: June 16, 1904. With the novel, Joyce was responding to the Dublin in which he was reared: the so-called “second city” of the British empire, where Joyce chafed at an Irish cultural revival whose most radical political element manifested itself in malice, violence, and hate. Often hectored by the bigots of his day, and having seen friends seduced by militancy (some were killed in the conflicts following the 1916 Easter Rising), Joyce in his work offers us an invaluable tool for identifying and pushing back against the toxic extremism of our own time.
Joyce’s antipathy to extremism is apparent from his central character. Leopold Bloom is an odd hero because he is not at all conventionally heroic: he is a middle-class and soft-spoken advertising agent. In Bloom, Joyce promotes a portrait of mundane benevolence—the life of a secular saint whose benefaction to readers of every creed is an unceasing call to discover the sublime in daily life.
This is Joyce’s riposte against the totalizing worldview of politically radical Dublin, clearest in the novel’s twelfth chapter, where Bloom alights in a pub and spars verbally with a “broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed” Irish nationalist, a Sinn Fein man. It is into this character, known only as “the citizen,” that Joyce pours his full contempt for the chauvinism of Ireland’s bilious nationalist movement and the Gaelic revival more broadly. The citizen’s superficial identification with cultural pride and high ideals like political self-determination quickly devolves, over the course of Bloom’s encounter, into base, backwards thinking. Like other nationalisms, the citizen’s Irish nationalism promotes a vision of the nation which, needless to say, never really existed.
The citizen’s devotion to his particular vision of Irishness colors everything “foreign” as shoddy and dubious, and everything “Irish” as pure, just, and good. In response, Bloom raises “moderation” and “civilisation” as praiseworthy aspects of the British. “Their syphilisation,” the citizen bellows back. “To hell with them!...No music and no art and no literature worthy of the name. Any civilisation they have they stole from us.” The French, meanwhile, are a “set of dancing masters!…They were never worth a roasted fart to Ireland.” The citizen, spewing his self-assured hate in between sips of porter and surrounded by his cronies, sounds remarkably like the kind of person George Orwell, an enthusiastic Joycean, had in mind when he condemned nationalism as “power hunger tempered by self-deception.”
Joyce demonstrates how in this perverse worldview, even things that are worthy on their own terms are shoehorned into a nationalist lens: the Spanish are interesting, in part, because they made common cause with the Irish against their Protestant colonizers. Antiquity is interesting because “[Irish] wool…was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal.” Sir Roger Casement, the Edwardian gentleman whose muckraking uncovered the vast system of Belgian torture in the Congo? Of course he’s interesting! “Casement…” the citizen grumbles approvingly. “He’s an Irishman.”
Toward Bloom, born in Ireland to a Hungarian Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother, the citizen is openly hateful. Bloom is talked over, ignored, and at times plainly derided as a Jewish interloper:
—A wolf in sheep’s clothing, says the citizen. That’s what he is. Virag from Hungary! Ahasuerus I call him. Cursed by God…Saint Patrick would want to land again at Ballykinlar and convert us, says the citizen, after allowing things like that to contaminate our shores…
The citizen, persistently dragging the conversation back to his pet enemies, serves as the archetype for petty narcissism in ideological garb. The world, to such figures, exists only as confirmation of dogma. All knowledge is degraded for its polemical use. We have no shortage of such partisans today, and they seem to populate the entire political spectrum. Every possible topic discussion can neatly be fit into their pet grievances.
Joyce, who later mined the rich deposits of Irish myth and folklore for his final novel Finnegan’s Wake, was not anti-Irish. But he knew the attitudes of the Irish people, and shone light on the ugliest bits. In this, he was a patriot rather than a nationalist, proving that honest chronicling and critique is as much a part of a love of one’s land and people as, say, participating in hagiography of the dead martyrs for the cause of a free Ireland. Against the citizen’s attitude, Joyce argues that the world affords us endless opportunities to apprehend beauty, which exists for its own sake and not in the service of an agenda.
Although Joyce is writing about politics, he also deals in more universal dichotomies: the provincial and cloistered mind versus the mind that is omnivorous and epicurean; the ideological zealot versus the questioning wanderer; the impersonal nation versus the human individual. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women,” says Bloom. “It’s the very opposite of that that is really life…Love.”
Few take Bloom’s side of things, preferring to give their assent to the citizen’s views. The bullies often have the influence, or even, in the citizen’s case, the brawn. But to gaze hopefully upon the dreary everyday, as the scholar Hugh Kenner writes, “is one conceivable form of sanctity.” In Bloom, the mere act of standing up to toxic nationalisms in a pub does cosmic good. Joyce recognized that the proper work of one’s life is locating the exquisite in the commonplace, and that this expansive project is opposed to narrowness of all kinds. Power fantasies, ideological self-indulgence, rote sectarianism—what are these things, Joyce asks, compared with the true stuff of life? Ulysses first posed the question a century ago.
Brendan Ruberry is an editorial assistant and podcast producer at Persuasion.