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Reflections on James Joyce's Politics

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Like the theoretician of revolutionary social myth Sorel, Joyce ascribes an important role not to a specific class but to the creative strata within struggle, those who can shape the social myth.  "Here the power he ascribes to the artist's Word - to incarnate the millennial State and race - breathes through the mythopoetic, ritualistic diction of his own prose" (Sherry, 13).  Joyce's appeal to the artist to ring in the coming revolution takes on the tone and force of a revolutionary manifesto.  In the manner of the revolutionary social myth, Joyce's call to the artist invokes the new world gestating in the shell of the old, a new world born of the united social, economic and sexual revolutions.  This is expressed most notable in Joyce's famous words from the 1904 draft of "Portrait of the Artist":

To those multitudes not yet in the wombs of humanity but surely engenderable there, he would give the word.  Man and woman, out of you comes the nation that is to come, the lightening of your masses in travail; the competitive order is employed against itself, the aristocracies are supplanted; and amid the general paralysis of an insane society, the confederate will issues in action (Portrait, 265-266).

This invocation of the artist as heroic herald of a new world has provided some of the basis for the evidence of those who cite Joyce's turn to authoritarianism.  Scholes argues that this represents a turn towards the authoritarian in Joyce's work. Certainly there is some basis for taking such a position as the curious path of Sorel himself suggests.  In his later years the prophet of working class will exerted through the social myth succumbed to endorsements of both Lenin and Mussolini. Indeed the turn to express social visions in art, especially the privileging of literary authorship found its corollary in the political authoritarianism of Pound and Wyndham Lewis (Sherry, 13).

Another view however suggests that the view of the artist-hero in Joyce has affinities with anti-authoritarian ideas. Manganiello connects expressions of Joyce's political consciousness with individualist anarchism of the type articulated by the nineteenth century American anarchist Benjamin Tucker. For Manganiello, this connection with Tucker's anarchism, with which Joyce was familiar and found appealing, sheds light on Joyce's views of the artist as herald of a new world. Caraher explains this perspective as such: "In place of the encircling and coercive tyrannies of existing social and political institutions, the individualist anarchist as artist employs the resisting power of the clarifying and redeeming word" (175-176). Manganiello develops this position on political resistance through reference to this passage in the twenty-fourth chapter of Stephen Hero: "the artist as literary Messiah reconstructs the spectacle of redemption and legitimizes his role of redeemer in his works by affirming that which presumptive States and presumptive Churches negate" (76).

Joyce's articulation of aesthetic concerns with ideals of individualism and freedom from authoritarianism is also reflected in his attraction to the position offered in that other famous work of idiosyncratic socialism, Oscar Wilde's essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism."  Both literary and libertarian socialist affinities rest behind Joyce's decision to become the official translator of Oscar Wilde's classic of libertarian socialism The Soul of Man under Socialism.  According to Manganiello, "Joyce probably realized for the first time in Wilde's tract that his demand for absolute freedom to accomplish his aesthetic aims could be made consonant with the political views of Tucker, who stressed respect for individual liberties" (220-222).

Significantly the socialist influences on Joyce may have upheld his fundamental resistance to the political perspective of the authoritarian modernists.  Joyce gave voice to very personal political and social concerns which were informed by his libertarian undertsanding of socialism.  "In his projection of a higher political order, Joyce believed that courageous personal acts, such as his elopement with Nora without marriage, and his continuing rejection of the church after the birth of their children, required the ideological support of socialist political principles" (Ehrlich, 1997: 83).  Socialist principles were not abandoned but expressed in novel ways that in his concern for individual liberty stood opposed to authoritarianism.

Pound's glorification of a hieratic priesthood, his esteem for ancient echelons of title and class, locate an authoritarian demeanor alien to Joyce.  To that "aristocracy of the arts" [in Pound] Joyce would oppose "the confederate will."  The difference leads him, first of all to a socialist politics, ultimately to a dialogic language that orchestrates differences, pluralities, tolerances (Sherry, 14). 

Indeed this language, the language of Joyce's works, is a language of anarchy as political philosophy.  Indeed one may see in this a hint of the relation that May and Newman suggest in their work on anarchy as the first post-modernism.

As Ehrlich (1997: 82) suggests, Joyce's radical social ideals were essential elements in his development as a modernist artist.  Throughout his work Joyce explored the possibilities of a new society as well as new visions of the people who might make up that society (Ehrlich, 1997).  Ehrlich (1997: 82) notes that in breaking dramatically from the traditions of church, nation and family Joyce "acted not only out of his desire to become a writer but also from a unified set of radical convictions about society, sexuality and art" (82).

The "in-between" class, including of course many artists, lacking neither the capital nor the social power of a mass proletariat to effect large-scale social change was often left with a pursuit of mythic and heroic forces that might mobilize societal transformation towards their interests.  "Joyce empowers the emerging artist, now free from the restraints of class and gender stereotypes to utter "the word," as the old competitive aristocracies and their "insane society" are replaced by the new general will of the hopeful and active masses.  Joyce's sexual radicalism is expressed in gender-neutral or androgynous phrasings: "the wombs of humanity" and "man and woman, out of you comes the nation" (Ehrlich, 1997: 88).  This is not to subscribe to any class essentialism or structural determinism but rather to try to understand the complexity of subject positions and concerns and their articulation with/in socialist discourse.  Joyce gives voice to the hopes and anxieties of a socialism that is largely unrecognized in commentaries on the subject of his politics as well as within commentaries on socialism of the early 20th century.

Again, Joyce expressed a heterodox socialism drawn not, as for most conventional Marxism, from an understanding of the industrial proletariat but rather from everyday experiences of oppression and struggle.  "When Joyce regarded himself as a socialist or anarchist, he often relied on the political education he received not in the factory or on the farm but rather from his own family as a direct witness of the warfare between his father and mother" (Ehrlich, 1997: 82).  In this sense Joyce expresses a sharp recognition of the idea that the personal is also political, a key insight of feminist movements that emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

For Joyce, this understanding that the personal was political set his socialism against not only capitalist exploitation but against a range of oppressive hierarchies that were more deeply rooted in everyday relations.  According to Stanislaus, the basis for Joyce's radicalism was this fundamental opposition to what he viewed as an ongoing feudalism, associated most directly with the brutal violence directed by their father against their mother and sisters.  "He calls himself a socialist but attaches himself to no school of socialism.  He marks the uprooting of feudal principles" (Joyce, 1971: 54).  Against feudalism, Joyce offered his visions of modernism as influenced by his complex approach to libertarian socialism.

In an unpublished story, "Silhouettes," the narrator stops in front of a "row of mean little houses" and witnesses in a window the shadows of a man and woman "in violent agitation" (Joyce quoted in Ehrlich, 1997: 85).  Ehrlich (1997: 86) suggests that "Silhouettes" offers "the prototype for the recurring warfare that rages in Joyce's early fiction between the drunken, brutal father and the young children protected by their mother."  This battle is depicted in several of the stories in Dubliners, most notably in "Counterparts" and "Eveline," and to a lesser degree in "A Little Cloud" and "Araby."

This draws attention to a crucial complexity in Joyce's approach to socialism.  Indeed it calls to mind the long overlooked concerns of another idiosyncratic socialist, Charles Fourier and his utopian writings on liberating the passions, rather than any of the mainstream versions of socialism in Joyce's time.  "Joyce's socialism gave him a way of cutting the three ties to church, nation, and family: the socialists were commonly seen as Rome's prime enemy; they were international, not national, in scope; and their tradition of utopianism had offered ample alternate models to bourgeois family life" (Ehrlich 86).  All of this occurs in a context in which the spectre of a sexual revolution in Ireland appeared more dangerous even than a political revolution.  Joyce's writings on the ill treatment of women, which Brown (1985) identifies as feminist, are informed by his socialism and sexual liberalism.  Such domestic concerns were central for the outlook of anarchists during Joyce's era.  Indeed anarchist concerns with such everyday oppressions, as distinct from the daily exploitation experienced in the workplace, marked their analysis as unique with respect to much of the socialist movement.

If Cixous is mistaken in viewing Joyce as politically disengaged, she is correct in identifying his conscience as one of exile and heresy.  In his Letters Joyce describes his relation to the established social order as that of a vagabond.  "For Joyce to be a 'vagabond' was to build a base of radical philosophical and social principles for future artistic activity" (Ehrlich, 1997: 83).  His exile and heresy suggest the rootlessness of the declasse, characteristic for many artists.  In more contemporary language he evokes conditions of nomadology or exile as contestatory against the power of states.

Joyce articulated a position of antibourgeois and antiauthoritarian resistance, but he located the source and focus of such political consciousness not in an international collective of workers but in an empowering individualism that he personally regarded as his own "redeemer" - the term he uses in the sixteenth chapter of the discarded and fragmentary text of Stephen Hero" (Caraher, 176).

In a brief sketch written for his brother Stanislaus, Joyce provided a picture of the political and personal ideals that marked his work.

[Scene: drafty little stone-flagged room, chest of drawers to left, on which are the remains of lunch, in the centre, a small table on which are writing materials (He never forgot them) and a saltcellar: in the background, small-sized bed.  A young man with snivelling nose sits at the little table: on the bed sit a madonna and a plaintive infant.  It is a January day.]  Title of above: The Anarchist (Letters 2: 206, quoted in Ehrlich, 84).

Ehrlich (1997: 84) suggests that this sketch "affirms Joyce's views of the nobility of poverty, art, exile, sexual freedom, religious nonconformity, and social and political dissent."

In the end we must agree with James Fairhall's conclusion: "The critic trying to identify Joyce with any particular discourse faces an impossible task, since no one discourse is privileged or indeed has any meaning except in dialogue with other discourses" (60).  This short discussion paper invites some other discourses, one's that have been marginalized or excluded, into that dialogue.  These discourses, illustrating the complex character of Joyce's socialism, show, as Caraher suggests, that "readers of Joyce's work and life can disclose factual divergences and contrasting evidence that complicate an easy overlay of any single typology or semiotic code" (176).  These notes on the idiosyncratic socialism of Joyce may allow for a more complex understanding of Joyce's politics and artistic interests than that suggested by theses of Joyce's move from internationalism to authoritarianism.

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Works Cited

Brown, R. 1985. James Joyce and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Caraher, Brian G. "Cultural Politics and the Reading of 'Joyce': Cultural Semiotics, Socialism, Irish Autonomy, and 'Scritti Italiani." James Joyce Quarterly. 171-214

Cixous, Helene. 1972. The Exile of James Joyce. New York: David Lewis

Fairhall, James. 1993. James Joyce and the Question of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Landuyt, Ingeborg and Geert Lernout. 1995. "Joyce's Sources: Les Grands Fleuves Historiques." Joyce Studies Annual. 6: 99-138

MacCabe, Colin. 1979. James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word. London: Macmillan

Manganiello, Dominic. 1980. Joyce's Politics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

May, Todd. 1994. The Political Philosophy of Poststructural Anarchism. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press

Newman, Saul. 2001. From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lanham: Lexington Books

Nolan, Emer. 1995. James Joyce and Nationalism. London: Routledge