Famed Irish writer James Joyce is often venerated as the novelist who transformed 20th-century literature with works like Ulysses, which was published 100 years ago. Despite the author turning his back on the Jansenist Irish Church, there is no doubt, says Peter Stockland, “his 14 years with the Jesuits ontributed significantly to letting his literature... usher us to the threshold of the holy.” Photo from Wikipedia

James Joyce ushers us into the holy

By 
  • June 24, 2022

I once interviewed the Irish Times columnist and author John Waters, a very devout and public Catholic, about changes roiling through Irish society that were creating pressures to amend the Constitution in areas such as abortion and gay marriage. I noted that despite the Church’s long dominance over Irish politics, an equally long-standing antipathy toward it could be found in figures such as James Joyce.

Waters replied: “Peter, the Catholic Church in Ireland never cared for James Joyce either, and neither do most Irish people.”

On the first point, the record shows he was largely correct. When Joyce died in 1941, neither of the Jesuit schools he had attended acknowledged his death in their school magazines. Only four years earlier, according to a report in the Irish Times, a biographer visiting Clongowes school was told not to “breathe the name” of the former star pupil and author of Ulysses despite his international veneration as the novelist who transformed 20th-century literature.

Writing recently in The London Review of Books on the centenary of Ulysses’ publication, however, novelist Anne Enright makes short work of Waters’ second point. Enright, who wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition of Ulysses, contends it’s impossible for writers, or even the literarily aware, to be in Dublin without caring for Joyce.

“Irish writers are often asked (if) they think of Joyce, Wilde and Yeats when they walk the streets of Dublin,” Enright says. “Yes, of course we do. I think of Joyce when I walk the dog past the Martello Tower, now the Joyce Museum, where that first episode of Ulysses is set… (When) I pass Sandymount Strand on the train into town… I might think of Joyce and Nora, but more often about Stephen’s encounter with the tide. I might also briefly consider eternity….”

In a wry aside, she ups the Joyce stakes from homage to experiential. She suggests, perhaps tongue teasingly in cheek, walking across the Sandymount sand with eyes closed as Stephen does prior to his epiphany of the world’s indifference to his perception of it: “See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.”

It’s worth noting that a variation of Stephen’s observation is familiar on the lips of so-called Traditionalist Catholics who flock to the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass in part for the sense it conveys that those attending the Mass, by its nature, is “there all the time without you, and ever shall be.”

Enright closes, lightly, with a reference to the great Ulster poet Seamus Heaney having lived for a time not far from the Strand. Heaney’s relation to the Joycean pole star in the literary firmament was both binary — Joyce the creation of late Victorian middle class Dublin; Heaney an emanation of the rural North ruptured by The Troubles — and unitary: both writers shared the fate of being devout Catholics who put aside the Catholic part but could never entirely escape the devotion.

Joyce’s pithy summary of the dilemma was telling a friend: “You allude to me as a Catholic. For the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.” Even for a mirror-reflecting-mirror ironist like Joyce, it seems an impossibly inscrutable remark. If Jesuits are a host species, isn’t the Kingdom itself Catholic? So where, pray tell, does the Jesuit end and the Catholic resume? Or vice-versa.

Yet in the long ago essay “Joyce, the Church and the Romantic Imagination,” George Watson argued it was the “servile timidity” and “genteel orthodoxy” of the Irish Church, not actual Catholic theology, that drove him away.

“Despite this,” Watson adds, “there is surprisingly little mockery of matters of faith and doctrine, of the actual teachings of the Church, in Joyce’s writing. The great blasphemer of Ulysses is Buck Mulligan, he of the ‘Ballad of Joking Jesus’ (who) is seen in a deeply unsympathetic light.” By contrast, Stephen Dedalus is presented sympathetically in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and “wants to be a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of ever-living life.”

Like many Irish people before and after him, Joyce was virulently anti­clerical — and devoutly anti-Jansenist — but “retained respect for the central theological positions of the Church,” Watson says.

I would walk across the sand of Sandymount Strand with my eyes closed to offer up the prospect that Joyce, educated by Jesuits from age six to 20, can be seen not just as the contour of a Jesuit but as a writer in whom Ignatian spirituality was deeply fused à la Seamus Heaney’s talk of the relationship between imaginative processes and religious formation.

It’s not to argue Joyce was overtly practising, much less actively promulgating, Ignatian spirituality in his work. But there is a relational underlay in the experiential nature of his literature and the approach of the Society of Jesus to encountering text as world. A foundation of Ignatian spirituality is an approach to lectio divina in which the reader is directed not just to read or meditate upon a Biblical/Gospel text for inspiration, comfort or meaning, but to enter imaginatively into the passage so that he or she becomes an active participant in the moment on the page. It’s a religious predecessor to the Metaverse Mark Zuckerberg thinks he’s invented and  might someday learn was the brainchild of a hot-tempered Spanish soldier saint 474 years ago.

In Ulysses we experience what begins as literary “scene” becoming participation in Leopold Bloom’s consciousness so thorough that it transmutes into imaginatively active experience, not just textual rendering, of what we/Bloom are witnessing. Joyce, in his fiction, makes it possible for us to “enter into” life as the Ignatian spiritual exercises open us to vividly being fully present at Biblical/Gospel events.

One of my favourite examples is Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s funeral where Joyce sticks the landing of a kind of spiritual double back flip that leaves us behind the eyes and within the sensibility, and then makes us the eyes and the sensibility, of a Dublin Jew perceiving, with the intuitive understanding of the assimilated, both the substantive mysteries and surface oddity of Catholic liturgy.

Our temptation is to treat Joycean literary art by pinpointing technique and significance, but I would also hold it up additionally for its spiritual entry points opened by the hands of a writerly genius steeped in the Ignatian exercises. The essential Ignatian contour of Joyce’s writing — of Joyce himself — is evident in the words of no less than James Martin, SJ, who in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, writing on the concept of holiness says:

“(H)oliness resides not only in canonized Saints like Ignatius but also in the holy ones who walk among us — that includes the holy father who takes care of his young children, the holy daughter who attends to her aging parents, and the holy mother who works hard for her family. Nor does holiness mean perfection: the saints were always flawed, limited, human. Holiness always makes its home in humanity.”

Joyce did turn his back on at least the Jansenist Irish Catholic Church. But I think as we read his fiction, we can enter into at least the probability that his 14 years with the Jesuits contributed significantly to letting his literature, however irascible, however bawdy for its times, take us home as human beings, that is usher us to the threshold of the holy.

(The text is adapted from a panel presentation at Montreal’s Bloomsday celebration earlier this month.)

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