Luke Gibbons, ‘The ghosts in James Joyce’s modern machine’ in The Irish Times (3 Dec 2015)

[ Extract from Gibbons, Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory (Chicago UP); available at The Irish Times - online. ]

WB Yeats is often viewed as being away with the fairies in the Celtic twilight, whereas James Joyce is considered a man of this world, grounded in the prose of everyday life. Joyce, however, was no stranger to ghosts, or to the grief that takes leave of the senses.

On the night of his mother’s funeral in 1903, Joyce kept a vigil with his sister Margaret ( “Poppie”) for their mother’s ghostly return, and although only his sister purported to see the ghost, it closely resembles the revenant of Stephen Dedalus’s mother in Ulysses: “In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood.”

Notwithstanding his well-known scepticism, Joyce was susceptible to superstition and had an almost primeval fear of thunder: the seismic roar of the heavens 100 letters long precipitates the Fall at the beginning of Finnegans Wake and rumbles throughout the work. As Bloom ruminates in Ulysses: “Something in all those superstitions because when you go out never know what dangers.”

Joyce’s sense of loss extended to the nightmare of Irish history, and the “old haunts” of the city he carried with him on his exile in mainland Europe. Asked once by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington why he did not return to Dublin, Joyce replied: “Have I ever left it?” It was perhaps Dublin that never left Joyce: as late as the 1930s he recounted to Constantine Curran that “every day in every way I am walking along the streets of Dublin and along the strand. And ‘hearing voices’.”

The phantom in Joyce does not belong to the gothic, for that genre only makes sense historically in cultures that have given up the ghost and no longer succumb to haunting. Hamlet and Macbeth are not gothic tales, strictly speaking, for the spectre had not yet passed from life into literature and was an everyday affair, despite the best efforts of the Reformation to dispel superstition. The cultural milieu of Joyce’s Ireland had similarly to undergo the full rigours of disenchantment but was no less integrated into modernity for all that. It is not so much that the ghost was general all over Ireland but that belief itself was kept at bay.

Moments of crisis
In Joyce’s work, haunting takes place in moments of crisis where the past eludes the private nets of memory but has not yet become public history. It is common to see the ghost as a sign of mental breakdown, but the fault may be less in the psyche than in the social conditions that convert history itself into haunting. According to Sigmund Freud, the ghost is a “projection” of the mind, but that presupposes that a fully formed inner life is already securely in place, which was far from the case in early 20th-century Ireland.

This has important implications for rational attempts to explain away the ghost by relegating it to psychology, for Joyce’s scepticism about the “Viennese school” is as concerned to raise questions about spectres of the self as about spectres from the otherworld. In Joyce, subjectivity itself is a phantom and is no less spectral for being situated inside the head as against shadowy external forms.

Banshee and Holy Ghost
The ghost, in this sense, emanates from an incomplete formation of the self, in the metropolitan, western sense. In his Encyclopaedia, Hegel welcomed the conjunction of “memory” and “interiority” in the German language, but memory, historically, has never been sealed off from the external world, let alone public life, in Ireland. It is not that the ghost is of one’s own making but that it does not always make it to the mind in the first place.

Rather than being a given, inner life was an essentially “half-formed thing” (as Eimear McBride might have it) under colonial rule. This is well-captured in the description of Mrs Kernan’s belief in “Grace”, in Dubliners, socialised to a suburban red-brick existence on the Glasnevin road but yet not quite at one with her beliefs: “Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen, but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.”

Manifestations of the uncanny along these lines feature repeatedly in Ulysses. Stephen is haunted by the “ghoul” of his dead mother, whom he had forsaken on her deathbed due to his refusal to kneel down and pray. Bloom is haunted by his infant son Rudy, who died 11 days after his birth and who appears at the end of the Circe chapter in what could be a projection of a different kind: a magic lantern image.

Technology is often taken to be at odds with the otherworld, and thus, as Patricia Lysaght wrote in her book The Banshee, electric light did more to dispel the ghost in Ireland than any exercises of reason. It is no coincidence, then, that a power cut in the Gresham Hotel coincides with the manifestation of the ghost of Michael Furey in the hotel room shared by Gabriel and Gretta Conroy at the end of Joyce’s story The Dead.

The Gresham showcased its modern electrical conveniences much as hotels advertise wifi access nowadays, but with the outage on January 6th, 1904 (and there were power cuts in Dublin over Christmas that year), the couple had to make do with the “ghostly light” coming in from the gaslight on the streets. We then find out that Michael Furey worked in the gasworks in Galway (and, indeed, Joyce was surely aware that “gas” derived from the Dutch word for “ghost”, as claimed in Skeat’s dictionary, which he possessed).

Parnell and De Wet
Thus for all the physicality of the city and the hard-edged clarity of Joyce’s prose, there is always a recurring suggestion of something offstage, a relationship to presences and absences vaguely apprehended by those walking the streets. At times, it is as if the city itself is a face wherein people may read strange matters, not least the traces of Parnell - “poached eyes on ghost” - that Bloom discerns in the eyes of his nondescript brother, John Howard Parnell, walking up Grafton Street.

There may be a reason for the sudden “appearance” of Parnell, for Bloom had just recalled being caught up in an anti-Boer war demonstration some years before, outside Trinity College. Later, the rumour surfaces in the Eumaeus chapter at the end of Ulysses that Parnell was not dead at all, but may have absconded to South Africa and reinvented himself as Christiaan De Wet: “He changed his name to De Wet, the Boer general.” The resemblance between two was striking, and then we remember that De Wet was also on Bloom’s mind earlier as he passed Trinity College, just before he saw Parnell’s brother: “Up the Boers! - Three cheers for De Wet!”

In Carlos Fuentes’s novel Terra Nostra (1975), a character explains his creation of a Theatre of Memory in which unrequited pasts are staged as trial runs for the future: “The images of my theatre bring together all the possibilities of the past, but they also represent all the opportunities of the future, for knowing what was not, we shall know what demands to be: what has not been, you have seen, is a latent event awaiting its moment to be.”

The ghost may represent a refusal to let go, as in classical accounts of melancholia, but this may also lead to new attachments and solidarities, as in the transfer of loyalties from Parnell to De Wet, from the cause of Ireland to the cause of the Boers fighting empire thousands of miles away.

Instead of shutting down the past, the ghost in Joyce occupies a transitional zone in which traumatic memory has the potential to act as a resource of hope, providing glimpses of a way forward, even in the darkest of times.

There is always something left over from the past, wrote Joseph Brodsky, and that is the future.

Barry McCrea, ‘Unlocking dead’s voices in James Joyce’, review of Joyce’s Ghosts by Luke Gibbons (Irish Times, 5 March 2016)
[Subheading: ‘This original and erudite analysis work gets to the heart of Joyce’s work, says Barry McCrea’

Unlike Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf, James Joyce does not have a signature prose style. Instead, a dizzying variety of idioms speak through his work: the language of childhood at the beginning of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the inflated rhetoric of chauvinistic nationalism in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, the anxious, straining-for-respectability speech of the Edwardian lower middle classes in Dubliners. Joyce is a medium through whom other voices speak; this makes his writing at once democratic and difficult, at once realist and oddly close to the supernatural.

In defending his theory that Hamlet is a “ghoststory”, Stephen Dedalus says: “What is a ghost? One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.”

A first ghost is Dublin, a place which ought, through the writer’s long absence from it, to have “faded into impalpability”. Here Gibbons addresses the fundamental question of to whom Joyce’s writing is addressed: which is the authentic experience of the text, the local insider who knows her way from Mulligan’s to Davy Byrne’s, or the outsider who finds herself lost in a Modernist sea of mysterious references?

Both, says Gibbons, because one way or another the experience of Joyce’s fictional world is troubled and “haunted” by its real-life counterpart off the page, whether for natives who are always comparing it with the city they know or for foreigners anxious that they are not getting things. The apparitions of the dead throughout Ulysses, such as Bloom’s son Rudy or Stephen’s mother, Gibbons writes, “impinge upon the lives of the characters in Ulysses much as the presence of Dublin ‘off stage’ unsettles the text of the novel”.

Much of the genius of Dubliners comes from Joyce’s use of “free indirect discourse”, whereby an apparently objective narrative voice is shaped and coloured by the world view and diction of the character being talked about. The example often given is the first line of The Dead: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”, where “literally” is something Lily herself would say, even though she is not actually speaking here. Gibbons sees free indirect discourse as a form of haunting, where one idiom uncannily manifests itself within another, the third-person narrator thus becoming something like a psychic medium possessed by ghostly voices.

Irish innovation
Thus, where it might seem that the incorporation of the uneducated or pretentious speech styles of characters in Dubliners sets up a knowing, even mocking bond between author and reader at the expense of the characters, Gibbons makes the opposite claim. These humble voices are refusing to be merely represented as local colour and instead stake their claim on universality, staging an occupation, as it were, of the supposedly neutral voice of authority: “As vernacular energies gathered political momentum through the protracted Land Wars of the nineteenth century, the idiomatic voice slipped through the nets of dialogue and other modes of containment (italics, quotation marks) to usurp passages in the descriptive narration itself, bearing witness to the increased capacity of a culture to control its enunciation.”

Gibbons is similarly fascinated by the way he sees traditional, peasant beliefs in the supernatural world - which lingered longer in Ireland than in industrialised European countries - overlapping and even merging with the modern miracles of gas lighting, electricity and the cinema. One of the most moving parts of Joyce’s Ghosts is the analysis of how this anachronistic “haunting” of modernity by outmoded systems of feeling and reasoning is essential to Joyce’s singular brand of modernism.

Gibbons’s own book is haunted in turn by insights from psychoanalysis, popular films, Frankfurt School theories of modernity, local history, visual theory and political thought. Multitudes of critical voices are given room to say their piece. There are few works of literary scholarship as heterogeneous in their reach or as generously attuned to the ideas of others. Yet the book is finally built on literary criticism at its most basic and brilliant: close reading. Gibbons has an extraordinary eye for clusters of association, the kind of details which cumulatively imprint themselves on to readers’ unconscious minds.

Emblematic ghost
In Gibbons’s reading, however, it turns out that ghosts are everywhere in The Dead, right from Gabriel’s arrival at the party: “A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his galoshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds.”

Gibbons links this escaping air to the gasworks where we learn Michael Furey worked, to the gaslamp which shines into the hotel room where Gretta tells the story of her lost lover, to the musical air, The Lass of Aughrim, which first brings his spectre to her mind. The cold air emanating from Gabriel’s body also suggests that he, too, is in some ways on the way to becoming a ghost, as he will reflect in the closing passage of the story: “One by one, they were all becoming shades.”

The idea that a ghost is a sign of an unprocessed loss applies to the Irish language too. Its second life as a revived national tongue fills Gabriel with a sense of inadequacy and dread in an argument with a Gaelic Leaguer, but Gibbons shows how it haunts the story from the start, in the “three syllables” which Lily gives the name “Conroy”, for example.

These ghosts in The Dead - Michael Furey, the Irish language, Gretta as a young woman - haunt Gabriel by calling forth feelings and fears which were hidden inside him. For Gibbons, this psychoanalytic idea of ghosts - externalised forms of private thoughts - is fundamental to fiction itself.

Proust writes: “In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.” That is also what Gibbons’s dazzlingly erudite book does for readers of Joyce, bringing into the light of interpretation the many murky voices - of history, culture, technology, repressed thoughts - that speak to and within us whenever we read Joyce.

All of the great movements in literary theory have taken Joyce’s writing as a major battlefield on which to stake out their ground. This can at times make scholarship on Joyce read a bit like what Americans call “insider baseball”. Joyce’s Ghosts is thoroughly different, a deeply original work which does not have a quotable, one-line “argument” or “claim”. It is part of a refreshing new wave of literary criticism that is written in clear, hospitable prose, driven by genuine passion, more concerned with illuminating readers than with winning them over.

Barry McCrea’s most recent book is Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe.

—Available online; accessed 18.04.2021.

Margot Norris, review of Luke Gibbons, Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory, in Irish University Review, 47 : 2 (Nov. 2017) pp.387-89)

Luke Gibbons begins his book with an introduction titled ‘A Ghost by Absence’ - a provocative phrase that immediately draws our attention to its central focus on something that is there precisely by not being there. In the case of Joyce and his writing this will evoke a multitude of topics beginning with the status and function of Ireland and Dublin in the case of a self-exiled author living on the Continent while spending a life and career writing about his homeland - being there in his imagination while not being there in person. Gibbons gives this an interesting possible interpretation: ‘Joyce may have created the phantom text of Dublin for the same reason that an amputee imagines a phantom limb: to compensate for the pain of loss’ (11). Ghosts do make appearances in Joyce’s work, sometimes explicitly as in the ‘Circe’ episode in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom’s dead father, and son, and other bygone family members confront him. Gibbons will address these ghosts, but it is their far subtler manifestations in the language and form and style of Joyce’s writing that gives his analysis its [387] magnetic power. He explains that often ‘what is on the page is not as important as what is left out: there is a constant awareness that some “extratextual” matter is required to fill in the silences, ellipses, and “multi-storied symbolic forms” that perforate the text’ (28).

The ‘city’ plays a particularly prominent role in the book with a fascinating manifestation of Joyce’s work at play in it in the opening of the second chapter. Here Gibbons introduces a 1997 ‘outdoor art installation by Frances Hegarty and Andrew Stones’ that consisted of pink neon phrases or sentences from Molly Bloom’s monologue projected onto prominent buildings in the centre of Dublin. The project was titled For Dublin, and Gibbons offers a number of photographs that vividly make his point, that it ‘constituted a kind of ghost writing, or afterimage, in which the inner histories of the streets were brought into the open’, with fragments of Molly’s soliloquy taking on ‘a life of their own in their new municipal settings’ (55). He turns to the visual again in his fourth chapter, ‘Ghostly Light’, when he frames his discussion of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ by placing it in the context of its cinematic adaptation in the 1987 film by director John Huston, also titled The Dead. ‘In Huston’s film, it is as if the image comes into its own when it is haunted by occult speech. Throughout the film, off-screen, inaudible voices bear witness to one of the underlying themes of the story: the capacity of unrequited sorrow to assume a palpable, almost otherworldly force in the minds of the living’ (112).

Gibbons makes it clear from the start that his ghosts are not only thematic but also formal, a characteristic of literary language. He points out that a trend in recent Joyce criticism has been ‘a shift in focus from stream of consciousness as the central technique of Joyce’s modernism to the more elusive narrative device of free indirect discourse’ (83). In Joyce’s work, he points out, ‘[t]houghts seem to drift free of their mental worlds, as if the objective, third-party aspect of free indirect discourse were sufficient to endow inner life with some kind of indeterminate outer form’ (9). Gibbons argues that Joyce’s ‘mastery of free indirect discourse’ has implications for the ‘politics of language in colonial Ireland’, because it manages ‘not to denigrate demotic speech but to enable previously silenced voices to break into, or to upstage, dominant or consensual narrative forms’ (101). Ireland is at the centre of Gibbons’ book, as its subtitle, Ireland, Modernism and Memory, makes clear. And it is Ireland as both space and time that is evoked by Joyce who in places like the ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode shows ‘the simultaneous activity of Dublin as a whole, not a history of the city but a slice of it out of time, spatially extended and embodying its entire past in an extended presence’ (168). Gibbons exfoliates that past embodied in presence to evocative effect by following Father Conmee’s peregrinations in the chapter. Elsewhere Bloom’s lunchtime [388] hunger reminds us of the Great Famine. ‘The point of ghosts is to remind us that the past may materialize in the present, and that far from being distant memories, chronic hunger, disease, and sectarian wars still stalked Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century’ (190). This makes the chapter titled ‘Famished Ghosts’ particularly poignant.

Joyce’s Ghosts in this way becomes a rich textual, critical, and historical study, offering layers upon layers of information and analyses. The discussion moves into and out of the texts of Joyce’s works, especially Ulysses, with a multitude of critics cited, and a variety of critical approaches deployed, all the while keeping Dublin, Ireland, and its geography and history in focus. The concepts of Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Max Scheler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and other theorists are evoked in relation to the texts. The book is strewn with visual material - illustrations, photographs, journal and newspaper entries - that vividly illuminate the commentary. And the wealth of material is further displayed in forty pages of densely printed notes, and a fifteen page index at the end of the work. All this array of material, embedded in extensive and deep analysis and enlightening discussion, makes Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory a gift to Joyce scholars and readers.

—Available online; accessed 18.04.2021.