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.

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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution