Banking on Joyce

The Joyce industry is not quoted for shares. It should be, argues Conrad Jameson, in his analysis of how the writer's stock is kept artificially high

If it is literary investments you have in mind, then you might do well to look at the Joyce industry, because, unusually in my broking experience, it offers not only the stability that you might expect - James Joyce's position as required reading on modern literature courses sees to that - but also, less obviously, something of the excitement of a dotcom.

Take the way it handles jobfests and publications. On 24-30 June, the 17th International James Joyce Symposium took place at Goldsmiths College in London. The symposium is held every other year around Bloomsday, and gathers together important scholars and readers from all over the world. In five days, 350 members got through 215 papers - and still had time to see Nora, the new film about Joyce's early love life.

The industry is committed to jobs and the proliferation of papers - running into the tens of thousands. Certainly, such productivity is aided by some of Joyce's more madcap writings - it is possible to extract about 20 different meanings from the unpunctuated title of Finnegans Wake; and just think of the papers that concentrate on Joyce's references to 65 languages, from Icelandic to Swahili. But the industry plays its part as well, profiting not only from the increase in productivity that came with deconstruction - a true devotee of Roland Barthes believes that a new scenario can be found on every reading of the same text - but also in opening itself up to new categories of criticism: Post-Foucault, Reader-response, Cultural Studies, Bakhtinian, Cultural Studies Other, Feminist-Histori-cist, Feminist-Psychoanalytic, Postcolonial Close Reading, to name only some of the headings of the recent symposium. Here is the kind of flow of papers that a department has to think about when deciding how best to impress the assessors for new funds at quinquennial reviews.

Or think of the way the Joyce industry interacts and encourages the lay cult of Joyce supporters and fans, who now boast 33,000 Joyce-dedicated websites, and active societies with readings, shrines and benefactions (a Dublin lawyer is currently investing £1m to restore the house that was the setting for "The Dead"). And, of course, the ritual that binds them all: an annual Bloomsday on 16 June celebrating the day in the life of Leopold Bloom that is the story of Ulysses. The more devoted go to Dublin to wander the streets in Edwardian dress. But every worthy Joycean will join in eating Bloom's favourite, a pig's kidney, with its unkosher, convention-breaking meaning still intact.

The cult also has its own reward: a virtual invitation to identify vicariously with Joyce as artist-hero. With the launch of the film Nora, that invitation is now gold-bossed in showing a young lion-hearted artist breaking the ties of country, religion, family and fear, and all in the artistic cause of telling it as it is. The antecedents are obvious enough, from Jean Christophe to The Fountainhead to Cinema Paradiso. But so is the depth of the artist-hero's appeal that Joyce still represents as he goes out - to quote the famous words from his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race".

As for the downside, this is simply the reverse side of a personality cult that has made Joyce what he never was, in the name of a cause that is dubious in the first place: the sustaining of the Joyce industry itself in its own attempt to refashion the modern novel along the lines of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The problem is that, to turn Joyce into a totem, the industry has had to tell a lot of lies.

The lies began after the war, when the so-called New Critics needed a modern novelist to represent their art-for-art's- sake views that made the pleasure-pain of complexity and contradiction the height of aesthetic experience. The problem was that, while these critics could find more than enough modern poems to exhibit their views, likely modern novels were still popular morality plays - and, for the New Critics, morality was the enemy of art. Eventually, the traditional novel would have to be overthrown so that young novelists could be enlisted in the modern movement of Schoenberg and Le Corbusier. In the meantime, the only option was to canonise Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. No plots. No moral views. Plenty of complexity and contradiction. The only minor problem was getting rid of the public doubts about Joyce's personal morality that lingered from the period when Ulysses was banned. This hurdle was easily overcome: in an early preface to a selection of Joyce's writings, Professor Harry Levin pointed out the faithfulness of the Joyces to each other; the musical interest the writer shared with his son; his devotion to his mentally ill daughter. Levin noted that Joyce's best poem, "Ecce Puer", was inspired by the death of his father and the birth of his grandson.

When the deconstructionists came to power in the Eighties, the picture became more complex. Joyce was still beloved for his textual difficulty. But the harping on about scenarios from his novels became so heated - Marxists and feminists were especially vocal - that it wasn't long before the more morally committed began to dominate. Thus the Joyce you find in the Penguin introductions of the early Nineties, in which he emerges as a man of great causes, an anti-colonialist, a pacifist and a feminist who, in Bloom, heralds the new womanly man.

As it turned out, none of the things that either set of critics had said about Joyce was true, as they could have discovered for themselves by comparing his letters with his work. It wasn't just that the details of Joyce's personal life and beliefs were wildly distorted. More important was the false assumption that his rejection of the traditional form of the novel was a constructive and conscious act. The more likely truth is that, by the time he was halfway through Ulysses, Joyce's mind was too far gone to be anywhere near capable of moral judgement - or, indeed, much else.

Joyce's letters have long been known about, and the full correspondence was published in the Seventies. But it was not until 1988 that the letters were turned into a story by the literary biographer Brenda Maddox. Almost incidentally, they show Joyce to be about as much like the lusty lover of the film Nora as a shaved Pekinese. The film crops the sequel: about ten years later, Joyce was alcoholic, impotent, indifferent, bored. But the cropping didn't work. Even the flame of passion shown in the film is misleading. It isn't that Joyce had suddenly found the woman he could both lust after and love, but that he had slipped into masochism by forcing Nora into a dominatrix.

Almost equally incidental is that Levin's portrait of the Joyces was a farce. The Joyces were indeed glued together - by codependency. Joyce himself was so needy that, even when their daughter burned down her bedroom and was found wandering the streets of Dublin, he wouldn't let Nora leave his side. He was as aggressively indifferent to his son's would-be career as a baritone as he was to his alcoholism or his marriage to an American psychotic. With his daughter, he was too much the other way: so involved that he could see nothing wrong with her sleeping in her parents' bedroom at the age of 15. He rarely saw his grandson, and he didn't see his father for 19 years. The lines that were said to express grief - "A child is sleeping:/An old man gone./O, father forsaken,/Forgive your son!" - are so perfunctory as to suggest that Joyce was having trouble feeling anything at all.

As for Joyce's alleged moral causes, Maddox's book makes clear that there is something absurd about examining, say, Joyce's anti-colonial views, when he was uninterested in politics, miserably uninformed and so incapable of moral sensitivity that he delivered a lecture on Hitler's force of character and leadership qualities to his long-standing, unpaid Jewish amanuensis, Paul Leon.

The same difficulties arise in turning Joyce into a feminist. Odd that Joyce the feminist despised intellectual women, and took pride in Nora's near illiteracy. Odder still that Bloom should be picked as a role model for the new womanly man, who is happy for his wife to have a lover after their love life collapsed, but doesn't have one himself; and does feminism require that the new womanly man longs, like Bloom, to be a mother? Bloom starts out daily bringing his wife breakfast in bed. He perks up on meeting Stephen Dedalus and, at the end of the book, asks for breakfast in bed himself. Curtain. The reader never finds out whether Bloom's married love life resumes. Is the sequence about feminism? Or is it about Joyce's sadness at his own sexual difficulties?

The real relevance of Maddox's revelations is that they show how Joyce's growing psychosis shaped the same two novels that critics later sanctified. The literary techniques of Joyce's late novels came out of the modernist conventions of the day - most importantly, French symbolist poetry of the late 19th century. By this logic, the neologisms and puns of Finnegans Wake only carry forward the symbolism in, say, Mallarme's "The Swan", which is neither the swan you see on a lake nor the mythical kind that ravished Leda, but the poet's own idea of a swan that he invented. But now let's elaborate this technique into a whole new private language. Whatever the literary antecedents, we are still talking about one of the common symptoms of disordered thinking in schizophrenia: so-called word salads. Similarly, the disjunctive and logic-defying ideas and images that collide objective and subjective worlds is another familiar symbolist technique. But if we elaborate this technique into Joyce's constant leaping about and non sequiturs, we find that we are talking about another familiar symptom of disordered thinking in schizophrenia: so-called talking past the point, when speech moves in non sequiturs and is often mixed with grossly distorted statements - for example, when Joyce remarks that red wine tasted of blood and white wine of urine.

But let's leave off clinical labels and concentrate on the practical level of impairment. Was Joyce capable of the moral judgements ascribed? The answer must be no. He could no more cope with moral judgements than he could cope with those about his daughter's mental illness - he attributed her wild tantrums and stupors to infected teeth. Was Joyce controlling his use of jabberwocky or was jabberwocky controlling him? The answer is the latter. There is too much evidence of his use of jabberwocky to deal with his own unconscious conflicts - for example, in the way he coded his incestuous desires in his send-up in Finnegans Wake of "A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go", where lovers are "to commence insects with him, there mouthparts to his orifice . . ." [sic]

Was Joyce trying to overthrow the morality play that is the traditional novel, or was he driven away from the traditional novel by his own psychosis? Consciously, he was a revolutionary. Unconsciously, the dominant motive still looks to be an uncontrolled and uncontrollable destructive urge, to blow up not only the traditional novel, but, indeed, the English language itself. The evidence is that he was so deeply in denial as to be unaware that destructiveness had become the leitmotif of his life, searing every relationship with exploitation, rancour and paranoid suspicion, and, in the end, finally turning upon himself. He lost the sight of an eye by neglecting a glaucoma for two years. He lost his life at 58 by dismissing as psychosomatic the stomach pains that preluded peritonitis.

Surely, once the truth gets out, we'll start thinking differently, not only about Finnegans Wake and the more eccentric parts of Ulysses, but also, more importantly, about the Joyce industry as a destructive force of its own. Isn't that what we are really talking about - the destructiveness of an enclosed and enclosing academic elite still trying to punish novelists because they didn't join the modern movement, but stuck to their old, finger-wagging ways? In time, the Joyce industry will surely be discovered as appropriating as its own a once popular and accessible art form, turning it into highbrow inaccessibility and then throwing it back, weakened of what little moral passion remains in the modern novel - and that is woefully weak already.

This is exactly my point. The novel is now so weak that it can't resist. There was a time, during the Thirties, when writers put up resistance - writers as different as G B Shaw and Ezra Pound, Arnold Bennett and T S Eliot, H G Wells and Virginia Woolf, who, although experimentalists themselves, came to see Joyce's exploits as threatening to the life of the novel itself. But those times have gone.

Conrad Jameson is currently writing a book called The Seven Deadly Arts

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit