Arland Ussher, Three Great Irishmen: Shaw, Yeats, Joyce (London: Gollancz 1952)

[Chap. III:] James Joyce - Doubting Thomist and Joking Jesuit

[Source: Three Great Irishmen: Shaw, Yeats, Joyce (London: Gollancz 1952); see also rep. edn. as Do., (NY: Biblo & Tannen 1968) - partially available at Google Books online; accessed 22. 03.2015. See also editorial note - infra.]


For Joyce as for Yeats, the artist is the magician, controlling the spawning images - he is the demiurge breaking the flood; even though the Tower has become the students’ Martello Tower, and Kathleen ni Houlihan as shrunk to the Milkwoman.
 It seems to me probably that Joyce was influenced, more perhaps than he knew, by the hermeticism of Yeats; in Stephen Hero he records the impression made on him, in student days, by the hypnotic and powerful Rosa [125] Alchemica [...]

Note: Ussher writes subsequently: ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ is somewhat of a misnomer, since the book commences with James Joyce as a baby and is largely a description of his schooldays. The title was doubtless originally intended for the draft-novel now known as Stephen Hero, to which it applies with perfect exactness. Stephen Hero is of course an immature and ill-written book, and an admirer of Joyce’s talent must regret that it should ever have been given to the public.’ (p.132, n.)

See also footnote on p.125: It is ironical to reflect that Joyce’s was deeply melancholy story “The Dead” is in essence a Christmas ghost-tale, and was probably suggested by Dickens! [125, n.]

[ See also editorial note - infra. ]

[...] almost painful attempt to squeeze the macrocosm into the microcosm [...] the hitching of the stars and worms to Vico’s waggon [sic], like the depiction of the organic and inorganic worlds on a notable cathedral from in Barcelona, was a feat of artificer rather than art, only partially successful in Ulysses, a heroic failure in Finnegans Wake.
 It may be that no nation and no literature can skip any of the “dialectical” phases of its development. The oddity of James Joyce seems to me partly that of a prodigious birth out of time - an oddity favoured certainly, but not engendered, by the artistic climate of the 20th Century. Ireland, owing to her isolation from European development (and also in part no doubt to foreign domination) had produced no important body of literature during the Middle Age - an age which in her case has continued almost to the present day. Joyce is Ireland’s first great native writer - her Dante or her Chaucer; though expressing his age, as every writer should, it was also necessary for him to express, in his manner, those buried ages - to achieve a great collective Yeatsian “dreaming back”. He took with immense seriousness his destiny of “forging the uncreated conscience of his race” - so that he had to be, by turns, a St. Augustine crying aloud about his sins, a Scholastic glossing on Aquinas, the producer himself of a “Summa” or great synthesis, and finally a Duns Scotus spitting hairs and mangling words. And all the time he was essentially a humorous sceptical Dublin observer - an Everyman among artists, with a schoolboy love of puns, puzzles and [127] indelicacies - sometimes distorted out of nature by these processes, at other times assisted to an immortal symbolisation. (pp.127-28.)


It is in this human breadth that Joyce proves himself, most truly, a Catholic - even if he could only exhibit the Catholic temper by rejecting the Catholic faith, as he knew it; for Irish Catholicism, to hold its own in an English-speaking world, has been compelled to take on more than the narrowness of a Protestant sect. The “lapsed” Catholic has in fact peculiar advantages as a comic writer, since he is usually free from the perils of didacticism; and the famous “subtlety” of Jesuitism is near to the comic spirit. It is customary to assert that Ulysses is “reeking with the sense of sin”; but here, I [129] think, it is necessary to make some distinctions. Mr. Bloom, surely, knew little of the “sense of sin”; Mrs. Bloom even less. [Ftn.] The “agenbite of inwit” which vexes Stephen is filial remorse, and not directly concerned with theological “sin” at all. What the critics really have in mind, I think, is Joyce’s deadly clear-sighted, yet almost too-complacent, acceptance of human imperfection; he holds the mirror up to Caliban with a genial grin which is a little too near being a knowing smirk. we think of Mr. Eliot’s “eternal footman” who holds our coat - and snickers; and we are ashamed - for ourselves, and a little also for him. We can enjoy Leopold Bloom without quite liking to see ourselves in him or him in James Joyce. The impression that Joyce is an sordid writer is due less, I think, to the obscene pages - which in actual fact are few - than to his eerily-objective tone, giving to each fact as it comes precisely the same value as to the next - like a shopman showing his samples - never rising to sociological wrath or hinting at embittered idealism. One has only to compare it with the surgical, almost emetic, brutality of Mr. Aldous Huxley. The modern Anglo-Saxon reader is shocked by an author who sees with such clearness, [...130]

Ftn. Joyce is both praised and censured for having “reinstated original sin” - which seems odd when one recalls the happy shamelessness of Molly Bloom. Actually Joyce was less interested than almost any writer in moral questions or in the drama and tension of the will; sin was to him nothing but an evil jest. Evil for Joyce, is (if anything) metaphysical - not (as with Shaw) ethical and social, nor (as with Swift) a sort of palpable vision of reality. Joyce has a Manichean sense of what Yeats called “the crime of being born” - though he half-negates that sense by the catharsis of the comic, so that the terms “crime” and “sin” are a little too solemn in this connection. he transfers to the cosmos his natal sentiment of “dear dirty Dublin”. Dublin is “the centre of paralysis”, but life itself is, almost, a state of paralysis; the Joycean comedy is the comedy of the immobilised act - what Professor E. R. Curtius wittily called Medicynicismus. Joyce’s “love-hate” is nearer to Donne than to Rabelais, Swift or Sterne; but the comparison, it must be admitted, makes Joyce look slightly juvenile. (p.130, n.)

In the Portrait the only protagonist is the youthful Stephen, who view himself and his early escapades without irony - indeed with not a little “ninetyish” romanticism. The interest of the Portait is that the artist drew it when he was still very much of a young man, and it is full of the rather portentous morbidity of adolescence; its emotions are not remembered - and falsified - in a Goethean tranquillity. For in fact our ’teens are always “ninetyish”, and the age of Peter Pan was the age of Dorian Gray. Joyce had, I believe, escaped from the selva obscura by the time Ulysses was written; he had imagined a healthily pagan Vergil in Leopold Blook - an anti-self or “mask” in the Yeatsian sense - and could describe the lower regions with the almost tourist-like detachment of a Dante. Bloom certainly saved James Joyce - if he only gave rather passing ministrations to Stephen Dedalus. But in the Portrait he is indeed in Hell; and owing to the peculiar conditions of Catholic Dublin it was a medieval Hell. James Joyce was one of the few great men of this century who really in youth encountered religious dogma - in the old blood-and-thunder sense. It has some curious results - one of which was that he arrived at “father-fixation” by way of the theology of Nicaea. [133].

The description of the young Stephen’s transgressions, his repentance, and his brief religion devotionalsm, has a reality which moves and shocks us even through the mawkish “aesthetic” prose in which much of it is written. But one fears that these experiences left the man James Joyce - emotionally and intellectually - a little barren and burnt out. The young apostle who set forth in 1902 to smelt his country’s conscience was as incurious and closed against life as any of those “wandering scholars” who in such numbers have left her shores. And so, astonishingly, he was to remain through his long and restless existence - as it were a citizen of some Pompeii of the spirit, inwardly petrified by the lava that had fallen on his heart and brain: different indeed from that other wanderer with a religous - though not a medieval - background, D. H. Lawrence. Only his memories - and his comic sense - were left to him; a handful of remembered characters, like a travelling showman’s puppets, still accompanied him as he passed to and fro across the ancient agitated continent of Europe - [134] indifferent to the its endless human culture and variety. He distended them grotesquely - planned their antics with the precision of a ballet-designer - and gave the word that strange, droll, uncomfortable masterpiece Ulysses. it was, perhaps, a suffient achievement for one life - though it presents only one day, and a dull one. (134-35.)

It is merely trite to say that Joyce never really got free of his religion or his country. We know that, if he had not become a writer, he had two possibilities open to him: he could have become a Jesuit Father or (though we hear less of this in the Portrait) a perhaps celebrate concert-singer - one of those many Dublin tenors who have won fame in the New World. It seems as if these missed vocations haunted him, ghost-like, to the end - with all the mystery of that enigma of the <possible> which harried Stephen Dedalus. [Quotes “Time has branded them and fetteed they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted.” And in the hospital scene he muses theologically on neo-Malthusianism.) Joyce, after all, was never quite like other writers - born not made; his writing was always, in a sense, [... 136]

I regret therefore that Finnegans Wake seems to me to be the “great fall” of Icarus, Humpty Dumpty, or howe ver the genius of Joyce be named. Joyce, it seems to me, - a master-builder in the style of his hero Ibsen - could not ascend a second time to the height of a great epical conception.
 James Joyce, as an artist, found himself in a very peculiar and unique position. Speaking a language which - he confessed in the Portrait - he felt as alien and refractory, he set himself to describe a life he had known only in childhood and early youth. Imprisoned behind [138] [138] the arriers of his shrinking introversion and failing sight, he lived - in the body at least - in one country, while writing about another, in the speech of a third, an unloved and unknown one. With these impediments - like another Demosthenes - he developed an unheard-of instrumental skill, and exhuasted every variation of his single, unpromising-looking theme; but the theme itself once exhausted, there was nothing left to him but to break the instrument. And this programme accorded well with his Irish iconoclasm and pedantry - the stain in the irishman for which the best name is “Byzantinism”.
 Finnegans Wake is, like Ulysses, a comic book, but - unlike the other - its humour is for pedants. [138-39.]

What Finnegans Wake is not is a profound revelation of the Unconscious, a reflex of the mind in trance - expcept in the sense in which every work of art is that. Rather, in some ways, it is less one than most, becuase Joyce is such a very deliberate craftsman. His monologue interieur is very definitely the stream of <consciousness>; and usually, even in Ulysses, it is not even any conceivable “stream”, but an artful build-up disguised by the omission of “stops.” The musings of Mr. Earwicker, in the course of seventeen years’ elaboration, must have lost anything they possessed of “the glory and the freshness of a dream”. Only - like every humorist - Joyce deliberately makes ordinary life, for his comic purpose, a little more unconscious, automatic and monstrous than it is in fact is. Joyce’s characters (from the early Dubliners onward) are in the plight - familiar in nightmare - of not being able to lift their feet or throw off their “paralysis”. But the atmosphere is not one of dread so much as an almost half-witted amusement - the rather gruesome laughter of John Bull’s Other Island. Like the priest who broke the chalice in his first story, they are discovered “laughing like softly” to themselves in the confession box. / Actually there have been many prose-writers whose work has a dream-laden atmosphere; but Joyce is not one of them. [...] it does not appear that Joyce [140] was much interested in their work or in his own dream states, [Ftn] or (except superficially) in dream psychology.

Ftn. In fact Joyce seems to have dreamt less, almost, than any man alive. it is told of him that he only once had a dream. As might be expected, it was a comic one. He dreamt he was the ace of diamonds, in the act of mounting the stairs!) [141]

The ambition to write a “Prophetic Book” has ruined more than one artist. Joyce regretted that Yeats did not use the theories of A Vision for a work of art on the grand scale; but Yeats’s “Instructors” - or his aesthetic instinct - wisely forbade such an attempt. He had the unfortunate example of his first teacher, Blake, for a deterrent. [147] Joyce, unlike Yeats and Blake, was neither poet nor philosopher - though he was a genuinely philosophical novelist and an intensely poetic short-story writer. There was, however, a restless Irish ambitieux in him, forever pressing for new conquests - a daemon such as inhabited no other writer I can think of but Rousseau. The youthful Stephen Dedalus had declared that he felt himself to be the slave of two masters - the imperial British state and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church. From the first he received - with an inner resistance - his language, from the second his philosophy, and though he was to show in Ulysses that he could prose it with Malory or Macauley, and in the Portrait that he could discuss aesthetics with Aquinas, this was all in the nature of a very Irish bravura-performance. It is true that in the process he had created an unforgettable gallery of character-studies - characters which indeed attain the status of symbols or archetypes - and had written one of the great comic books of the world, worthy to rank with Gargantua, Gulliver or Tristram Shandy; but with these achievements he was by no means content. He had still to fulfil that rather bombastic programme of his youth - to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. But how was he, self-outcast and - with all his miscellaneous erudition - oddly ignorant of his time, to do any such thing? True, he carried Ireland everywhere with him like a pilgrim’s pack, but his ireland was the Dublin of the Pigott Forgeries, “Erin go Brath”, and the joke giant Finn McCool. Of the Irish language, and the forces that were shaping the Ireland of today, he knew nothing - had never, in his impatient youth, wished to know anything. Tant pis! He would bring together these miserable [148] shreds of Hiberniana and the little he knew of post-Scholastic European thought - he would do it by a daring exploitation of those new theories of the “Collective Subconscious” which, it so happened, were stirring in Zürich during the time of his residence there. He would imagine a great drama in which the Vico Road in Dalkey merged with Giambattista Vico’s cycles, in which the notable bookshoop of Messrs. Browne [sic] and Nolan was one with Giordano Bruno of Nola, in which the Phoenix Park (a traditional mis-spelling, incidentally, of the Gaelic name) became the locus of Adam’s Fall (that “felix culpa”) and the Phoenix’s fiery rebirth. He would invent a new language to fit this material, as the exiled Dante created, in effect, a new language (not, it is true, a nonsense-language) to write the Divine Comedy. The experiment was arresting, and - up to a point - amusing; but it was not very like a dream. He took seventeen years over it, and the result was the weirdest “folly” in the history of verbal architecture. As one of Joyce’s earnest apologists [L. A. G. Strong] has phrased it, “It remains a brilliant and formidable feat of literary pioneering, to which all future artists in words must be in our debt, if only because it shows some things to be impossible.” (Italics mine.) I think one really cannot say fairer than that!
 Nevertheless Finnegans Wake is in a sense an important book; and one feels with a certain exasperation that - only for Joyce’s stage-Irishry, his pedantry, and his megalomania - it might have been a great book. it is the one true nature-myth of modern writing which springs straight from the urban scene, without the interposition of literature or folklore. (pp.148-49.)

[... &c.]


Editorial Note
Ussher cites Joyce’s view on Yeats’s use of theories in A Vision as a waste since he failed to used them in a creative work - a view expressed by Joyce in the hearing of Eugene Jolas whose remark (or record of the same) is cited in a footnote to Ellmann’s discussion of Joyce’s parody of Wyndham Lewis’s Time and Western Man (Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 1959, p.608.) Ellmann supplies no reference for his source in Jolas. Curiously, he later altered the footnote in which these remarks are made while revising his great biography of Joyce for the 1984 edition. In the emended version, he retracts his earlier suggestion that Joyce had known about the allusion to him in Yeats’s Vision (1925) in 1926 when he drafted “The Triangle”, which was the earliest section of the “Night Lessons” chapter of Finnegans Wake - a chapter identified by John V. Kelleher as the butt of Joyce’s comic brio.
  The retraction was necessary since it had already become known in the interim that Joyce had no s sight of Yeats’s book by 1926, nor any knowledge of it, and could not therefore have responded to it at the date that Ellmann earlier suggested. (What was missing was an understanding of the difference between the early draft and several subsequent printed versions and the final version which appears in Finnegans Wake in which Kelleher rightly spotted several verbal echoes from A Vision. Unfortunately I cannot say what scholarly transactions were involved in pointing out the error to Richard Ellmann
 A Vision came out from Lawrence & Bullen in a limited edition of 600 copies in January 1926 - contrary to the date 1925 on the title-page - while Joyce’s first draft of “The Triangle” was composed in summer of that year. On that basis, a parody would certainly have been possible had Joyce actually seen the older writer’s book but there is no evidence that he had. One of consequences of this deficit is that we must regard the ‘sexual geometry’ (as Margaret C. Solomons has called it) on p.293 of Finnegans Wake as an independent Joycean creation rather than a parody of Yeats’s similar drawings of intersecting cones which represents the Four Faculties in his astrological system.  
 The result is something of an inspired coincidence which must have delighted Joyce when he came to know about it. In fact, the verbal echoes of A Vision in “The Triangle” - where they serve to elucidate the deeper meaning of the mock-Euclidean diagram - were added in 1938 during a late revision which presumably reflected Joyce’s new acquaintance with the extensively-revised edition of A Vision published by Macmillan in 1937. From this edition the passage containing Joyce’s name, previously invoked to illustrate the characteristics of the 23th Phase of the Moon, was omitted.
  Given that Richard Ellmann’s biography did not appear until eight years after the publication of Ussher’s study, it can only be the case that he read of Joyce’s regrets that Yeats had not used his theories for a creative work elsewhere - perhaps at its source in Eugene Jolas, cited with out further reference by Ellmann - or lese in Gorman’s James Joyce (1939), which Ussher elsewhere mentions, albeit with severe strictures on its ‘imperfections’.
At the time of writing, I have been unable to reach either of those sources and nor have I been able to examine the various stages of revision through which Joyce put his text - available in the James Joyce Archive.) On the other hand, I have received information from Jonathan McCreedy, a ‘genetic’ student of Joyce’s texts, to the effect that the diagram was completed in the early drafts - long prior to the date at which Joyce first glimpsed A Vision. It is primarily on this evidence that I say that the diagram on page 293 of Finnegans Wake is an independent Joycean creation.
 It is worth mentioning finally, that where Ussher speaks of Blake as an example of an artist whose work was not improved by theories - and hence an answer to Joyce’s charge of wasted imaginative materials - Yeats speaks in A Vision of Blake’s works remaining inaccessible to readers precisely because he failed to incorporate any diagrams in his books, speaking of those ‘diagrams in Law’s Boehme’.

William Blake thought those diagrams worthy of Michael Angelo, but remains himself almost unintelligible because he never drew the like. [See further under Yeats > Quotations > A Vision -as attached.]

Yeats had supplied a schemata for the Blakean mythology in the edition of that poet’s works which he edited with Edwin Ellis in 1893 - a volume on whose title-page the phrase “Prophetic Books” echoed here by Ussher can be found - and it seems that he was determined to supply a similar schemata for his own.

BS - 21.03.2015