31 October 1959: The Joyce Saga - Before Bloomsday and After

William Empson on Richard Ellmann's classic James Joyce biography, from the NS archive.

It is a grand biography, and must be the last of its kind about Joyce because Mr Ellmann, as well as summarising all previous reports, has interviewed a number of witnesses who are now dead. You want this ample detail because the picture is so interesting in itself, and besides, you no longer suspect that Joyce was mad when you realise how Irish the rest of them were. The picture of father trying to strangle mother, remarking “in a drunken fit”, “Now, by God, is the time to finish it,” and prevented by the author at the age of twelve, is now adequately balanced by the last words gasped out by father : “Tell Jim he was born at six in the morning”. 

The author had written asking about this because he wanted to have his horoscope calculated, so they realised afterwards that father had not been delirious. It helps one to realise why Joyce, at the age of eighteen, spent the money for his Ibsen article on taking father to London, saving him from fights about the Boer War all the way. Not that you have to be Irish to live in this style; the aged M. Dujardin achieved it, when he rushed across the room during a recital of Anna Livia and slapped the face of an American editor, supposing that he was secretly despising the thick ankles of Madame Dujardin. Joyce was a prickly friend, but not very prickly compared to this; and Mr Ellmann is fond of saying that Joyce described everyday life, without needing drama to bring out its dramatic potential, but you need to realise what kind of life he considered everyday. Then again, you need to know what Joyce was feeling because otherwise it is often hard to tell whether a passage in the novels was meant to jeer. 

The Speech at the party in The Dead, where the conventional hero in his dismal style praises the unique hospitality of the Irish with applause, has struck me as an undeserved bit of satire by Joyce on his homeland; but it turns out that, after finding how much he disliked working in Rome, a great change from Trieste, he decided that his picture in Dubliners had left out a real virtue of the place which justice required him to include. He takes for granted that a thing is still real though he describes it as ridiculous, an admirable trait but one that has often baffled his readers; the most striking example is Bloom's vision of his dead son at the end of the brothel chapter. 

May I, however, complain about the system, now becoming universal, by which using the notes and index is made like climbing a ten-foot wall with broken bottles on it. References to source are far too hard to look up, and ought to be put at the bottom of the page; the index should either be drastically reduced or at least use different type for the (say) five out of forty numbers which somebody might really want. The question here is not only one of convenience; as the immense machine is often reporting gossip, and Mr Ellmann wrongly remarks that “Dubliners usually make the remarks which are attributed to them” (page 105), one often needs the source on the page. For instance, when Nora is eloping with Joyce in 1904, and they reach London, we are flatly told (page 185) that he “left Nora in a park for two hours while he went to see Arthur Symons. She thought he would not return”. 

After tracking down the secret number of the chapter and reaching its note 98 we find “Interview with Eva Joyce, 1953”. I have not space to describe what happens if you follow the index under Eva Joyce, a pious sister of Joyce who was induced for his spiritual good to travel with him to Trieste in 1909, but she was then greatly upset by being left with his young son in a park in Paris while he succeeded in recovering a ring given him by Nora, with the help of an attendant, from the bottom of a lavatory drain. Surely it is obvious that, when Eva got to Trieste and burst out at once with this wrong, Nora said “Arra, I never believed he'd come back to the park either”; and Eva, who disliked her two years in Trieste, had brought the accusation to quite a high polish when it was recorded forty-four years later. This is not really a scientific way to write biography. It is a libel on Nora to believe so easily that she ran away with a man whom she was expecting to abandon her; and other sources merely report her as cross at the time about the parking system (page 190).

The inherent eeriness of going on writing Finnegans Wake comes out very strongly when Ezra Pound refuses to read the samples, and Joyce refuses to read the Cantos either, but they remain friends; most of the experimental authors of the time felt like that (Virginia Woolf felt intense despair when the last two books she saw in print came); and Mr Ellmann is right to remark that the fascination of living in this effort for seventeen years was impossible to give up, so that the depression of having nobody to appreciate it was a merely external thing. All the same, I always feel from the examples that he made it worse every time he rewrote it. 

Mr Ellmann is ready to laugh at Joyce's assertions, one is glad to find, usually by calling the motive behind them personal and selfish rather than general and public-spirited; one often feels that the biographer does this out of charity, to make the novelist appear less shocking. Thus the young man gets jeered at heartily for saying he is a Socialist; “he needed a redistribution of wealth if he was to be a spendthrift”; and as for writing to his brother: 

If you look back on my relations with friends and relatives you will see that it was a youth-fully exaggerated feeling of this maldisposition of affairs which urged me to pounce upon the falsehood in their attitude towards me—

the comment is “Socialism has rarely been defended so tortuously”. But it often has; a better retort would be that Joyce (in 1905) was parroting these advanced views. However, even that would not be an impressive retort; he went on saying he was a socialist, and showed understanding of the theory in talking about it (there is a particularly absurd jeer from Mr Ellmann at his remarks on page 248); he remained strikingly at home with working-class people and prone to take their opinions seriously; and towards the end we find him smilingly on top of the scene of intellectual confusion: “I am afraid poor Mr Hitler will soon have few friends in Europe apart from my nephews, Masters W. Lewis and E. Pound” (in 1934). He was “not at all offended” by a rather fierce letter about his work from H. G. Wells in 1928, feeling politically on Wells's side, whereas: “the more I hear of the political, philosophical, ethical zeal and labours of the brilliant members of Pound's big brass band the more I wonder why I was ever let into it” (page 621). By this time, I was wondering why Mr Ellmann found Joyce's political record so ridiculous; then I realised that, to an American, a Socialist is a Commy, and it would hardly be more shocking if Joyce had said he was a cannibal, so the only thing for Mr Ellmann to do is to laugh it tenderly off. 

The same process, I think, goes on about Joyce's treatment of the Eternal Triangle; extremely bad motives, indeed rather lunatic ones, are attributed to him, but this is done out of charity, to hide the truth that he was toying with an unacceptable ideal. The main position of Mr Ellmann, which came out more clearly in his article A Portrait of the Artist As Friend (The Kenyon Review, Winter 1956) than here in the self-effacing biography, is that Joyce enjoyed feeling betrayed by his nearest and dearest and kept on trying to trick them into the position of having done so. 

No doubt a novelist usually makes the most of a situation in real life which he has been meaning to write about, because he wants to learn about it; and the account of Joyce “helping to produce” a flirtation with his wife by his admirer Prezioso in Trieste about 1912, ending with Joyce being seen upbraiding him in the street and “tears running down Prezioso's humiliated face”, does make him seem an alarming friend, though we are given no evidence that he “produced” the situation. He was almost crazily possessive, largely from feeling isolated, so there were bound to be convulsions whenever the triangle was approached, whether we say that he arranged it himself (“unconsciously” perhaps) or not. 

What Mr Ellmann will not recognise, it strikes me, is that he earnestly considered this disposition in himself a bad one, and believed that in a better world it would be overcome; and he was particularly prone to the idea that wives, when the world coarsely calls them adulterous, are often at bottom trying to give the husband a man friend. Mr Ellmann has some useful jokes about how Dubliners consider men friends more important than women, since they meet only men during the long hours in the pubs, and indeed that women are chiefly important to them as a means for men to betray one another; but this frame of mind often goes with a deep belief that women are nobler than men, as in the great cry of Joyce in a letter to Nora: “How on God's earth can you possibly love a thing like me?” 

We are shown Joyce collecting Nora's dreams here, in 1916, as part of his field-work, with his own confident interpretations; she dreams of Prezioso weeping, and he explains the details as “a secret disappointment that for herself so far it is impossible to unite the friendship of two men through the gift of herself differently to both”. Whatever “differently” may amount to, this proves that he assumed the impulses of his revered wife to be pretty near what the notes for Exiles ascribe to the heroine: 

Bertha wishes for the spiritual union of Richard and Robert, and believes that union will only be effected . . . carnally through the person and body of Bertha, as they cannot, without dissatisfaction and degradation, be united carnally man to man. 

Surely it is plain that Joyce considered this as one of his advanced ideals, suited to Ibsen or Blake, and not at all as a sordid technique for putting his wife and his friends in the wrong; all his writing about adultery looks different if you recognise this in the background. Mr Ellmann had every right to say in the biography that he thinks the ideal harmful and ridiculous, but he is somehow committed to a duty of insinuating that Joyce hadn't really got any revolutionary ideals at all. Even in describing the story of Ulysses, where it is made farcically plain that Bloom schemes to get Stephen to bed with his wife, though maybe just to drive out the present incumbent, Mr Ellmann can only bring himself to say that “Bloom is appropriately under the influence of his wife, whom he dissatisfies (to some extent intentionally), and wishes to bring Stephen under her influence too”. No wonder critics find the book sordid and gloomy, if the hopeful and high-minded side of it must at all cost be ignored. 

Before reading this, I had been arguing that probably Ulysses really is a bit of autobiography, as it pretends to be; because Joyce was quite unable to invent a story, and must have got to bed with a motherly woman very unlike a prostitute before he managed to induce Nora to run away with him. I still think that he probably did; consider the “accommodating widow” in whose house the book-title Chamber Music was found so funny — she would look about as out of place in Dubliners as the Dalai Lama. But I confess now, after reading the snatches from his letters to Nora at the time, and his stubborn determination to refuse her the word “love”, that most of the credit for saving him belongs only to her. 

The question turns largely on the date of Bloomsday, as Joyce was superstitiously literal; and I think Mr Ellmann has cleared it up. The 10th was the day he stopped her in the street and took her name and address, but after that letters had to pass, and the 16th was the first day the hotel servant voluntarily walked out with him; so the 16th really does eternalise their first official meeting. Even so, you are ignoring his intense conviction that he is a gentleman, let alone a judge giving a slightly appalling sentence to everybody he puts in the book, if you imagine he described his wife as Molly Bloom. After he was dead somebody asked her whether she was Molly, and she said with immense truth: “She was much fatter”. When he decided at sight in a street that he must win Nora it was a genuinely magical moment, because he seems to have imagined before that he could only marry an in-tolerably aristocratic woman; the stubborn good sense and gaiety of Nora, it seems, were at once visible in the way she walked, and this would make it possible for him to continue life. A splendid moment, but all the same what the novel Ulysses is really about cannot be thought clear from the biography. Why, for example, did Joyce remark in later life that “the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anybody's mental balance”?

Ellmann clears up Joyce's father's last words: "Tell Jim he was born at six in the morning". Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

William Empson (1906-1984) was a literary critic and poet who wrote regularly for the New Statesman during the 1950s and 60s.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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