An American Joycean in Dublin

Here’s a post I wrote on the Mount Mercy English program’s blog about our Irish Literature and Culture travel course and the excitement of walking in Leopold Bloom’s shoes.

Literary Mustangs

From the deep freeze of the American Midwest, 43 degrees sounds downright balmy.

That’s the temperature in Dublin on New Years Day 2018, and while Dubliners might not find cause to celebrate it, I’m looking at that temperature with envy from my Iowa igloo. Over the last 24 hours, I’ve seen my car thermometer continuously plunge as I drove home from the holidays, and I’ve had to shovel a week’s worth of snow, pump gas, and load groceries in my car amid wind chills well south of zero. So the more general snow has begun to be all over Iowa, the more I’ve longed for the next week to fly by so that I could finally bask in the warmth of 43 degrees.

And I can think of 10 other Iowans who likely feel the same way.

Every two years, Mount Mercy University’s English program runs one of its two…

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Dreaming of a Joycean Summer

It’s only natural for a person stuck in a hazy shade of winter to daydream of the summer that follows it.  This year, it’s not even Christmas yet, and I’m ready for June 2017 to just get here already.  In large part, it’s because we’ve already had three shovel-worthy snowstorms in the first 20 days of December, which can’t be a good sign for what’s ahead.

Add to that a Christmas holiday full of administrative work and class prep and an early 2017 dominated by the largest enrollments I’ve ever had in every course I’m teaching, and you can see why I’m ready for summer six months in advance.

But there’s another reason why I’m excited for June 2017.  On June 21-25, the North American James Joyce Conference returns, this time taking place at Victoria College of the University of Toronto.  Now that my Fall semester is officially over, I can turn my attention towards writing my conference abstract that’s due in a few weeks.  So of course, on the morning of the day allotted to getting that done, I’m sitting at my computer, not yet writing the actual abstract, but writing about writing the abstract (meta-abstraction?).  This may seem like just a distraction technique to put off the hardest part of the conference paper writing process, but this post actually arises more out of excitement than procrastination.  Simply put, I’m really looking forward to this conference, and I just need an opportunity to get that excitement out before I take the first plunge towards preparing for it.

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Ulysses on Film

It is a truth universally acknowledged that James Joyce’s Ulysses is not read nearly as often as it should be.  In previous posts, I’ve talked about some of the reasons why people have shied away from Joyce’s notorious novel: its length, the seeming impenetrability of its language, and its tendency to abruptly change genres at a moment’s notice.  However, there’s another reason why Ulysses historically struggled to find a large audience: its tendency to be banned by governments that deem it obscene.

The tale is legend by this point.  Ulysses was initially published in serialized form in Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s literary journal The Little Review, starting in March 1918.  For roughly two years, Anderson and Heap would feature installments of what would become the first 13 episodes of Ulysses in The Little Review until the “Nausicaa” episode threw everything into disarray.  Beginning in the April 1920 volume and continuing for two additional issues, readers of The Little Review were treated to Leopold Bloom’s encounter with Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount Strand, which features Gerty leaning back and revealing her undergarments to Bloom during a fireworks display while he gratifies himself.  As noted by both Paul Vanderham in James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses and Sean Latham in The Little Review UlyssesThe Little Review‘s serialization of Ulysses had already faced complaints about its allegedly obscene content and four issues featuring Ulysses excerpts had been seized during that 1918-20 run.

But “Episode XIII” effectively derailed the process.  Serialization of Ulysses was abruptly halted after the first installment of “Oxen of the Sun.”  Anderson and Heap were prosecuted  for publishing obscenity and were found guilty by the Court of Special Sessions in 1921. Publication of Ulysses in the U.S., England, and Ireland was banned for the next 12 years, until the seizure of an imported copy of Ulysses prompted “The United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses” to be contested in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Here, Judge John M. Woolsey concluded that the author’s broader artistic aims to represent the human psyche realistically meant that the novel was not written “for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.”  In Woolsey’s words, “In ‘Ulysses’, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.and thus could not be considered pornographic.”  His decision effectively overturned the American ban on Ulysses in 1933.  Ireland would follow suit a year later, and England would reverse its ban on Joyce’s notorious novel in 1936.

A month ago, the United States celebrated Banned Books Week, an effort to raise awareness about the need for open access to literature in the face of censorship efforts.  Ulysses was definitely on my mind as I followed the coverage of Banned Books Week on social media, and I had hoped to write a post about the Ulysses trials during that week. (Sadly, Banned Books Week occurring at the beginning of my busiest grading period of the school year put a quick end to those plans.)  Ever since I became a Joycean, I’ve felt that Ulysses was an essential example of the problems of literary censorship, not just because it’s my favorite novel, but because it’s a perfect illustration of the “forest for the trees” limitations of such efforts to suppress literature.  Woolsey argues as much in his decision by noting that the broader merits of Ulysses cannot be subordinated to the shocking content of a few scenes.  As he puts it:

[A]lthough it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.

However, whereas Woolsey focuses his argumentation on the novel’s artistic accomplishments, I feel the same is true if we evaluate it from an ethical standpoint.  At the end of my last post, I identified Ulysses and Les Miserables as “epics of compassion that use their heroes’ quests for redemption as springboards to highlight the need for empathy and kindness in a world defined by suffering and struggle.”  To me, Ulysses is not just a great novel, but a great ethical novel, and attempts to dismiss it as “the most damnable slush and filth that ever polluted paper and print” (as Vanderham quotes a common complaint to The Little Review) based on the explicit content of a few chapters is short-sighted to the extreme.  Bloom definitely engages in questionable behavior throughout his Dublin odyssey, but he also takes important stands against racism and demonstrates through both word and example the need for love and mercy to counteract the hatred and intolerance he faces throughout the novel.  Why would you ban that message?

And the sad double-whammy of Ulysses‘s struggles with censorship is how the problems the novel faced with government suppression spilled over into adaptations of Joyce’s compassionate epic.  In my last post, I considered the potential of film adaptations of literary texts to serve as vehicles for the ethical perspectives of challenging novels to reach contemporary audiences that might never read the source material.  In that consideration, I argued that Les Miserables has Ulysses severely outmatched due to the massive global popularity of the musical it spawned.  But there’s another reason why Hugo has bested Joyce in finding a larger modern audience for his message: just like the novel, film adaptations of Ulysses have struggled with censorship.  Most notably, the 1967 adaptation of Ulysses by Joseph Strick was denounced by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid as being “psychotic in its blasphemy and dirtiness.”  It was rated X in the United Kingdom and promptly banned in Ireland and Australia. (The Australia ban was shortly lifted, but the film wouldn’t be available in Ireland until 2000.)  Screenings of Ulysses at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival were censored without Strick’s knowledge or approval, and audiences in New Zealand had to be sex segregated in order to view it.  Even now, the most popular observation about Strick’s Ulysses may not be anything pertaining to the novel, but the fact that he created one of the first mainstream films where a character uttered the “F word.”  Thus, the biggest problem the film faced was not how you adapt what seems like an unfilmable novel, but how you get an audience to legally see it.

And Joseph Strick’s censorship struggles got me wondering: to what extent is the unfortunate “forest for the trees” irony of morally suppressing Joyce’s supremely ethical novel also present in the efforts to censor the film versions of it?  Were potential audiences for  Strick’s adaptation of Ulysses denied an important vehicle to consider the empathy and kindness of Leopold Bloom because film boards were too outraged by a few scandalous scenes?  And now that the ban has been lifted (and another Ulysses film has been released in its aftermath: Sean Walsh’s 2003 film Bloom), to what extent do the Ulysses films serve as effective vehicles for Joyce’s epic of compassion to reach a twenty-first-century audience that might run away from his 640-page novel?

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James Joyce: Master of the House

One of the many things that Ulysses teaches us is that the mind can be a crazy place, a non-linear labyrinth of seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions and unexpected epiphanies.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post re-evaluating my longstanding frustrations with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.  Towards the end of that post, I argued that while Stephen doesn’t necessarily treat the people who care about him in the best manner, it is understandable why he would be hesitant to trust them given the grief he’d received from people who supposedly had his best interests at heart in Portrait‘s early chapters.  It was with this understanding in mind that I typed the following pledge at the end of the post:

In honor of the centenary of the book that ignited my love of modernism and taught me the beauty of internal monologue, I pledge to heed Stephen’s thoughts as much as his actions and to take a walk in his shoes before I become quick to judge his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him.

And as I was typing that last sentence, it happened: one of those gleefully random moments when your brain instinctively shoves a seemingly irrelevant thought into the forefront of your consciousness and leaves you to make sense of the results.  My fingers typed “his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him,” and my mind instead projected this line:

For I had come to hate the world / This world that always hated me.

Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Stephen’s non serviam delivered in the weathered, husky tenor of Colm Wilkinson.

Then, because I had just finished writing about Stephen declining Bloom’s offer to stay the night in “Ithaca” (and because my brain can’t ever leave anything alone), I began to tease this comparison out further.  “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” the song in Les Miserables where the quoted line comes from, occurs just after the hit musical’s protagonist has been saved by a tremendous act of mercy.  In both the musical and the Victor Hugo novel that inspired it, Jean Valjean has just ended a 19-year jail sentence for “stealing a mouthful of bread” and then trying to escape prison, and his paroled life is dominated by society’s rejection of a person forever branded as a convict.  Finally, a bishop kindly takes Valjean in and provides him food and a place to stay for the night.  Valjean, suspicious of friendly faces in a world that’s always left him for dead, steals the bishop’s silver and flees, only to be captured by the police and returned to the man he wronged.  However, instead of pressing charges, the bishop claims that he actually gave Valjean the silver, hands him two additional silver candlesticks, and saves him from going back to prison.  The bishop then tells Valjean that he has “bought [his] soul for God” and that Valjean must “use this precious silver to become an honest man.”  “Valjean’s Soliloquy” thus features Jean Valjean wrestling with this act of mercy, feeling shame over his previous crimes and the cynicism at their foundation, and resolving to move his life in a better direction.

And the more I continued to think about Les Mis while writing about Ulysses, the more I realized the extent to which this scene in the musical is the inverse of what happens between Stephen and Bloom in the progression from “Circe” to “Ithaca.”  Not only is the chronology of the scenes in reverse order (Bloom saves Stephen from the police before he takes him in and offers food and shelter), but Stephen refuses the offer that Valjean accepts.  To be sure, Valjean’s acceptance comes with a robbery attached, so Bloom being politely declined is clearly a better outcome than the bishop’s situation.  But it’s intriguing to consider the extent to which Valjean’s story begins by accepting redemption from the bishop, whereas Stephen’s story ends by declining such kindness from Bloom.  And this line of thought only provoked more questions: to what extent is Stephen an anti-Valjean? Is the Jewish Bloom Joyce’s version of Les Miserables‘s bishop?  And what do these issues say about the potential relationships between the ethical perspectives constructed by Joyce and Hugo in these seminal texts?

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Confessions of a Joycean Twitterholic

What makes for a serious academic?

That question suddenly grabbed hold of the Twitterverse last week when an Academics Anonymous piece in The Guardian criticized the prevalence of social media in contemporary academics.  Bemoaning what they called the “infiltrat[ion]” of the “selfie epidemic” into the “world of academia,” the anonymous writer criticized scholars’ increasing reliance on social media platforms to promote their professional identities.  To the author, this tendency subordinates the serious pursuit of scholarly inquiry to a self-promotional “ritual” that serves as “proof of their dedication to the profession.” The reaction to this post was swift and relentless, ranging from satirical responses in The Guardian to defenses of academic social media in Forbes.  The Twitter reaction to the piece was particularly comprehensive and compelling, as a perusal of the #seriousacademic hashtag or a glance at this storify will indicate.

My response to the Guardian piece is a bit mixed.  On the one hand, I can sympathize with the writer’s sentiment in this concluding paragraph:

But surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?

While the writing here is definitely pointed and polemical, I can empathize with this plea to an extent.  The thread that most resonated with me throughout this article was not so much the criticisms of academic social media itself, but the frustration over feeling that academics are now obligated to use such platforms to promote their work.  If that’s true, and a scholar or researcher feels pressured to “parade [themselves] online” (for lack of a better phrase) to achieve professional success, then that is indeed unfair.  There are clearly a lot of advantages to engaging in academic social media communities (as I’ll discuss below), but if a person wishes to research outside of social media, they should be able to do so without fearing that their work’s reception will suffer as a result.  As the writer notes above, that dedication and data ideally “should speak for itself.”

Where I part company with the article is in its pointed attacks on the use of academic social media as a whole.  If the anonymous academic would have conceded benefits to using social media, but criticized the implicit pressure they felt in having to pursue these networks, I doubt much of an uproar would have been stirred.  However, in defending their desire to research away from Twitter, the article goes too far in the other direction, dismissing any scholarly benefit to engaging in social media and writing off those who wish to do so as grandstanders rather than “serious academics.”  Not only does this move risk alienating the author’s audience (as the backlash to the piece demonstrates), but it perpetuates the same belittling pressure towards academics on social media that it accuses academic social media of perpetuating on the writer.  Shruti Mathur Desai puts it best in this persuasive tweet:

As a Joycean, this move particularly resonates with me because it’s so similar to the dismissive reaction towards lovers of James Joyce’s writings.  I see the instinct to defend the right to not do something by criticizing those who do it, and I hear echoes of the instinct to ridicule Joyce’s readers who profess to understand and enjoy the works others don’t.  As I wrote in a previous post, nobody’s obligated to like Joyce’s works or view Ulysses as the greatest novel ever written; they may top “greatest novels” lists, but if Joyce’s writings are not what you enjoy, that’s absolutely fine.  But there’s the tendency of some readers and authors alike to assert that because they got nothing out of Joyce’s novels, that means there’s nothing to get, and anyone who says they “get” Joyce is lying to make themselves look intelligent.  That reverse elitism, the badge of honor for not succumbing to the cult of Joyce, finds its complement here in the creation of a “serious academic” that asserts its right to conduct social-media-free research by dismissing research disseminated through social media as illegitimate.   Just because someone doesn’t like a thing doesn’t mean that those who do like it are fools.

And as I consider this article from the perspective of a Joycean with an admittedly unhealthy Twitter obsession, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on the intersection of James Joyce and social media.  Because one of the most unexpected pleasures I’ve discovered from my experiences with Twitter is that the Joyce community is not limited to academic conferences or contributors lists to scholarly journals.  Indeed, if the volume of Joycean tweets that dominate my timeline on a daily basis is any indication, James Joyce has taken over Twitter.  And my life as both an academic and a fan of his writings has been greatly nourished because of it.

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One Hundred Years of Silence, Exile, and Cunning

I can’t help but notice the subtle smile that appears on people’s faces when I tell them my son’s name.  In many ways it comes with the territory.  When you choose to devote your professional life to one author, people are bound to view you as more than a student or a fan.  Case in point, ever since I decided I was going to focus my career on James Joyce, most people I’ve met have viewed me as the most rabid of Joyce fanboys, a person who loves his works more than anything and whose every decision is guided by that passion.

Never was this more apparent than when my wife and I were expecting our first child, and everyone was speculating on its name.  And everybody assumed that the name we settled on would be Joycean.  If I had a nickel for every person who joked that we should name our child James if it was a boy and Joyce if it was a girl, I’d be able to retire early.  And while we did not take that suggestion, the name we did use did nothing to dispel views of me as a Joyce fanatic.  Hence the smile that appears on people’s faces when I tell them my son’s name is Stephen.  And the quip that inevitably follows:

“Oh, I bet I know who he’s named after…”

To set the record straight, our son is not named after Stephen Dedalus.  He is named after the same Catholic saint for whom Joyce’s young artist also serves as a namesake, but common name origin doesn’t always equate to direct inspiration.  And in this case, there’s a clear reason why I never considered naming my son after young master Dedalus.

I’m not all that sure I really like Stephen Dedalus.

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Reading Finnegans Wake: the Closest I’ll Ever Get to Scaling Mount Everest

I’ll never forget the moment I knew I had to stop running.

It was in Pasadena, CA, in the summer of 2011.  That year’s North American James Joyce conference was winding down, and I was quickly checking my email after printing out my plane tickets home.  One of the emails I received was the good news I had been hoping to hear for months: someone wanted to publish my book!  I had submitted my proposal for my manuscript, a study of the love themes in Joyce’s works, to several publishers that spring, and had received several rejections in the process.  All were polite and complementary, and some offered extremely helpful advice on how to proceed, but the voices up to that point were all in unison: it was a good study, but not for them.  But finally, someone had said yes!

And the reader report was even more encouraging!  Critical yet effusive, its revision suggestions seemed more than reasonable and easily workable, which only added to the high the acceptance email initially put me on.  Until I got to the reviewer’s final question, and the record skipped.

Where was Finnegans Wake?

First we feel, then we fall indeed….

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