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James Joyce and the Significance of Religion Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2021

The most misunderstood, and thus most misapplied, οf scientific principles is Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle (in the hands οf non-scientists it has about the same relationship with its original counterpart as the sentence “it’s all relative” to either οf Einstein’s theories) and it is not a surprise that the essays in this section have little or nothing to do with physics. The first is a careful study οf adolescence and οf adolescent humor in A Portrait in which Roy Gottfried studies the difference between what Stephen Dedalus and the young James Joyce think literature should be and the reality οf their writings, in which most οf the theories are either disregarded or even inverted. Pericles Lewis argues next for a rereading οf Stephen’s claim at the end οf A Portrait that he will forge the conscience οf his race. Instead οf seeing Stephen as the proud and lonely artist who has rejected family, religion and nation, Lewis claims that the young artist tries to overcome his subjectivity and that the artist’s “role was not to invent a new consciousness for the race but to epitomize the age-old racial conscience that created both the artist and his people” (Schork, pp. 191-193). After Michael H. Begnal has disabused those οf us who still believed that in A Portrait Stephen’s love for Emma was on the whole rather chaste, Tara Williams looks at a brief scene in Ulysses, the apparition οf Rudy, that has insufficiently been commented on. As in the previous essay, she does not so much stress uncertainty as offer another and fresher look at something that we have hitherto failed to understand.

The first οf the “strange attractors” is James Clarence Mangan. Heyward Ehrlich traces Joyce’s “invention” οf Mangan as a literary precursor from his paper at the Literary and Historical Society in February 1902 to references to the poet in Finnegans Wake, and he stresses the unacknowledged role in this story οf W. B. Yeats. Vivian Valvano Lynch then considers the role οf Joyce himself as a strange attractor, in this case his influence on three American writers, William Kennedy, Peter Quinn and Henry Roth, and Sandra Manoogian Pearce then traces echoes οf the end οf “The Dead” in Edna O’Brien, Mary Lavin and Sean O’Faolain. The strangest attractor in this collection is Adolf Hitler, whose presence or absence in Finnegans Wake is explored by John Gordon.

It should be clear that this is a rather ordinary collection οf essays on different aspects οf Joyce’s life which are not too neatly brought together under an umbrella οf scientific terminology that has little if anything to do with the issues discussed here. The exception is the essay by Peter Francis Mackey who in the same month published a whole book on Chaos Theory and James Joyce’s Everyman. Although in that book Mackey mentions using the ideas οf the essay in his book, this acknowledgment is missing in Gillespie’s collection οf essays where the title οf Mackey’s book is erroneously given as Chaos Theory, Ulysses, and the Heroism οf Leopold Bloom, a mistake that would be easier to excuse if the two books had not been published by the same publisher.

Where science only supplies a number οf vague structuring metaphors to the collection οf essays, Mackey’s book carries an imprimatur from a practising physicist and member οf the National Academy οf Sciences. Mackey is aware οf the dangers οf applying concepts from hard science to the reading οf a literary work, and in his introduction he discusses the “Science Wars” and Sokal’s hoax. Although the author knows that this is very slippery terrain, he does not always manage to stay up, as when he claims that developments in quantum mechanics have forced the atheist scientist to realise “that he has as much justification for absolute convictions as God’s faithful waiting in the clouds” (Motycka, pp. 143-160). That surely depends on which philosophers οf science you read. There are enough rationalist scientists who are absolutely convinced that science has no room for religion: from physicists like Steven Weinberg to biologists like Richard Dawkins. Recently, S. Jonathan Singer has eloquently reiterated this view in The Splendid Feast οf Reason.

Mackey is on firmer ground when he juxtaposes recent scientific work and postmodernist relativism (or idealism, or absolute subjectivism) with some help from Peter Kosso’s Appearance and Reality. Instead οf what he calls “the postmodern model,” Mackey chooses the model οf the complex system and he concludes, not without a certain degree οf irony, that he accepts “theoretical physics’ convincing argument for the existence οf a world that possesses aboriginal qualities”, as if, as Weinberger has written, we really need theoretical physics to convince us that there is a world out there that is independent οf us. (Phillips, pp. 191-206)

It is from this perspective that the author intends to investigate the role οf chance, contingency, and freedom in Leopold Bloom’s reality and Mackey’s choice οf chaos theory (or theory οf complex systems), and not the uncertainty principle, is indicative οf the overall subtlety οf his approach. Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont and Steven Weinberg have wondered why these principles are so strangely attractive to scholars in the humanities. The reason is simple: literary scholars in general, and postmodernists in particular, prefer ambiguity, uncertainty, and chaos over the order and reason with which they associate the hard sciences. If on a level that can be interpreted as the most basic the scientific method itself seems to break down, that only appears to confirm the more general uncertainty principle on which postmodernism has been built. In his introduction and in the first chapter, Mackey shows that the applications οf chaos theory not only transcend the realm οf the sub-atomic, but that they have so little to do with “chaos” in the ordinary sense οf the word (as “randomness”) that the term “complex systems” offers a far better description.

The theory οf complex systems gives Mackey the perspective from which to view Ulysses and, more precisely, the role in that book οf Leopold Bloom. Using the terminology οf chaos theory, he describes Bloom’s contingent relationship with a world that is both random and ordered. In a way, Mackey’s view οf Bloom is just as ideologically slanted as those readings οf Joyce that want to show that Bloom is a Jew, a Christian, a Freemason, a socialist, or an Irish nationalist. There are, however, important differences: not only is Bloom, from the very first pages in which he appears, described as a scientist, his humanistic, non-religious and even anti-religious outlook permeates the book. It is true that Bloom is referred to by one οf the minor characters as “a bit οf an artist,” but when we follow him on his journey through Dublin on the sixteenth οf June 1904, we see him observe life in a way that is not only decidedly different from that οf his artist counterpart and “son” Stephen, but carefully contrasted to it. When we first find Bloom, we see him making breakfast and thinking that he likes the inner organs οf beasts and fowl. This sensual materialist observes and communicates with his cat, and we see him offer and test hypotheses. “Wonder what I look like to her. Height οf a tower? No, she can jump me” (Gabler, Ulysses 4, pp. 28-29). Central in this “scientific” reasoning is Bloom’s immense capacity for empathy: both the question and the answer depend on his ability to put himself in the place οf another being. This is the basic difference between Bloom the scientist and Stephen the artist: one is an observer who wants to understand others by putting himself in their place, the other, near-autistic, sees the world and others only in terms οf his own obsessions.

It is difficult not to sympathize with Mackey’s portrait οf a humane and humanistic Bloom, yet it must be said that in his concrete readings he makes the same mistake οf over-interpretation that he himself finds in earlier criticism. One example is the fact that Bloom leafs through the soft pornographic novel Sweets οf Sin, which is then connected (via Gifford’s annotations) to the sortes Biblicae in which “[t]he trivial and the divine again cross paths” (Basic, pp. 330-32), in its turn linked to Joyce’s belief(as expressed to Arthur Power in the thirties) in an Englishman’s admitting his powerlessness before fate and Joyce telling Eugene Jolas around the same time that Ulysses might never have been written if the author had not been admitted in Switzerland in 1915.

This does not take away from a refreshingly human Leopold Bloom whom Mackey presents us with. For Mackey, Bloom is no doubt the central character οf this novel and thus a kind οf modernist Everyman. On the last pages οf his book, Mackey imagines the morning οf June 17. Molly will make Bloom breakfast and he will smile: “He may not know what the future will bring. He can only know that he has things to look forward to. They are small, commonplace things. But in his life, that is all there is and that is everything there is. Life may be chaotic, confusing, challenging, sometimes overwhelming, but for him, life and hope move together. Let the chaos come. His hope will see him through” (Lazaro, pp. 31-38).

As these five books show, at the end οf the twentieth century, the work οf James Joyce still occupies a central place in literary theory. The originality that Attridge sees as the central criterion for a “responsible” criticism and the cumulative nature that Gillespie optimistically observes in Joyce criticism seem to have principally worked together to produce a continuing series οf rewritings οf a limited number οf readings in ever new theoretical jargons. This pessimistic view may give outsiders the impression that everything about Joyce’s works has already been said, and that originality can therefore only lie in the way these findings are formulated.

This would be a mistake: in reality, quite a few things about Joyce’s life and works remain unknown. Theoretical Joyce critics tend to rely on the limited amount οf source materials available to them, and although the new historicism and cultural studies have sent at least some Joyceans back to the archives, strangely enough, they have not yet discovered the Joyce archives. Most Joyceans remain blissfully unaware οf the materials in the mostly American and Irish archives that could provide much needed correctives to Ellmann’s biography and to Stuart Gilbert and Ellmann’s edition οf Joyce’s letters. More importantly, Michael Groden’s Garland edition οf facsimiles οf all οf Joyce’s manuscripts has been ignored by all but a tiny minority οf Joyceans. Even the publication οf Hans Walter Gabler’s Ulysses could not change that: the majority οf critics first applauded the edition and then attacked it, all without seriously engaging with the materials now available in most good libraries and most relying on spurious stories from Ellmann’s biography.

This is all the more remarkable when we see that the French poststructuralist critics who introduced the theoretical approach to Joyce’s work in the early eighties have abandoned Lacanian and Derridian readings to engage in what they call “genetic criticism,” the study οf the manuscript materials, especially for the two last and most completely documented works Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Daniel Ferret who in 1984 co-edited Poststructuralist Joyce with Derek Attridge has since become one οf the editors οf a complete transcription οf the Finnegans Wake notebooks, a turn to the textual materials that has been followed by only a small number οf American Joyceans. The important work in this field is done by a handful οf French, Belgian, Irish and Japanese critics.

This state οf affairs is all the more frustrating when we realize that the notebooks contain materials that cannot fail to interest most theoretical Joyce critics. How can one claim to be seriously interested in Joyce’s Irish politics and then not read the notebooks that contain notes taken from Irish newspapers at the crucial moment when Ireland, in effect, became a post-colonial nation? Why are critics who study the impact on Joyce οf popular culture and οf advertising, not reading the notebooks where we see him making notes on movies, on cartoon characters, on newspaper reports οf murder trials? Critics write books on the relationship between Joyce and the new science, psychoanalysis or gender politics, without realizing that the author was not just reading articles and books on these issues but that his notes have survived, which allows us to establish what interested him in particular cases. Even critics only interested in “theory” cannot afford not to study these notebooks: not only did Joyce himself read and annotate Freud, he was also reading contemporary linguists and philosophers such as Saussure and Jespersen.

In short, if there is a crisis in Joyce studies, it is one that we have created ourselves. So much still remains to be done: first we need to go back to the manuscripts, to Joyce’s and to those οf his friends and associates. A careful and systematic study οf all these documents will reveal, not just new information about Joyce’s works, it will also allow us to revise earlier readings, especially but not exclusively the authoritative readings in Ellmann’s biography and his edition οf the Joyce correspondence. We have plenty οf material there to keep a lot οf professors busy for at least another century, one οf Joyce’s often quoted boasts that is, incidentally, almost certainly apocryphal.

Works Cited

  1. Basic, Sonja., A book οf many uncertainties: Joyce’s Dubliners. Style, 1991, Vol. 25 Issue 3, pp.330-32
  2. Lazaro, Alberto. James Joyce’s Encounters with Spanish Censorship, 1939-1966. Joyce Studies Annual, 2001, Vol. 12, pp. 31-38
  3. Motycka, Ronda; Liegner, Evelyn., James Joyce’s Ulysses Revisited: Matricide and the Search for the Mother. Modern Psychoanalysis, 2003, Vol. 28 Issue 1, pp.143-160
  4. Phillips, Brian., Joyce’s Visions. Hudson Review, 2004, Vol. 57 Issue 2, pp. 191-206
  5. Schork, R. Joseph., Liturgical Irony in Joyce’s ‘The Sisters’. Studies in Short Fiction, 1989, Vol. 26 Issue 2, pp. 191-193
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