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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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times