Last week, Melinda Selmys’ On the Square essay touched upon an aspect of James Joyce’s writing that’s been on my mind lately: Joyce as a Catholic novelist. Though he has rejected the Church, he knows it and knows that it permeates the Irish life and culture he wishes to captureso its language and symbols permeate his work. Though the qualities aren’t, perhaps, always in line with their religious definitions, Dubliners is filled with tales of sin, fallenness, and the possibility of redemption. A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man is perhaps the great account of falling away from faith. There is no clear direction leading to Stephen Dedalus’ choice to privilege a life of art over a life in the priesthood: there is only a snap decision, his realization, immediately doubted, that he has no vocation. Even then, the central epiphany of the novel presents Stephen’s calling as an artist as something akin to the vocation the Rector of his school hoped he had for the Church.
But the mock-cross of violence and narcissism Selmys observes also runs through Joyce’s earlier works. In a way, it’s surprising that Stephen lasts so long without losing his faith entirely. In retrospect, it’s inevitable. Among the many remarkable aspects of Joyce’s work are his unflinching depictions of domestic violence and schoolyard bullying. Stephen’s early years at Clongowes are marked by the physical and emotional torment of his classmates and several of the priests; those days away from home are hard for the reader to bear. Even God comes across as a bully: The spiritual retreat which serves, for several years, to pull him back into the fold is a fifty-page depiction of the physical and sensory horrors of Hell, of what God will do to the powerless souls of sinners. Stephen’s mind is so attuned to even the smallest moments of bullying and violence from the powerful against the powerless that there’s little way, in retrospect, his faith could last. What pulls him into it is what has previously repelled him.
Some readers might see in this a vestige of Catholic belief, the symbol of a beaten and tortured Jesus all that remains, but permeating the narrator’s vision. Others might find traces of Irish history: their treatment at the hands of the British, the aftermath of (then recent) uprisings, the hounding of Charles Parnell by politically active priests. Or a commentary, perhaps, on the intellectual movements of his time: Nietzsche, Marx, and Social Darwinism all fail to gain the assent of Joyce’s alter ego.
This solidarity with the bullied, if you will, casts some light on Joyce’s work to follow—-a different reason for him to take up the story of Odysseus, who “suffered much upon the sea” while being hounded by a relentlessly abusive Poseidon. A different reason, too, for the literary philosemitism of Ulysses : Leopold Bloom’s bumbling personality casts him as the butt of jokes and disdain, but he’s also the means for yoking the story of Odysseus with the story of Europe’s Jews; a person and a people hounded by the powerful. Tellingly, Joyce turns the pivotal moment of Odysseus’ journey home on its head. His prideful boasting after putting out Polyphemus’ eye is transformed, in the “Cyclops” section, into a sympathetic stand against a drunkard spewing anti-Semitic vitriol. “Christ,” Bloom triumphantly declares, “was a jew like me.”