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Catholicism’s Joycean Weapon
Mary Lowe-Evans. Catholic Nostalgia in Joyce and Company. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008. xi + 190 pp. $69.95

In 2008, the University Press of Florida’s Florida James Joyce Series published several texts that challenged the uncompromising rejection of Catholicism widely perceived in Joyce’s works. Mary Lowe-Evans’s Catholic Nostalgia in Joyce and Company is a welcome addition to what series editor Sebastian D. G. Knowles dubs this “third wave of Joycean Catholic studies.” In her project, Lowe-Evans challenges the commonplace assumption that Joyce’s ambivalence towards Catholicism constitutes a totalizing refusal of the religion, arguing instead that his criticisms of the Irish Catholic Church also convey a nostalgic yearning for the comfort and stability of the faith that “enable[s] rather than dismantle[s] the institutional church.” Defining Joyce’s Catholic nostalgia as his “obsessive urge to return to a, paradoxically, dead but mysteriously vital and intellectually challenging body of Catholic dogma and ritual,” she locates this nostalgic urge in his frequent references to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Catholic benediction service. Although previous critics have highlighted the satirical nature of these representations, Lowe-Evans persuasively contends that embedded within this cynicism are attempts to “employ, exploit, reinvent, and thus ensure the survival of Catholic doctrine and dogma,” which she attributes to Joyce’s “‘faith in the soul’” and his guilt over his mother’s death. By situating close readings of Joyce’s works within the Catholic modernist crisis, Lowe-Evans provides a fascinating parallel between Joyce’s depictions of Catholicism and the Church’s responses to modernist challenges to its authority in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and demonstrates how his nostalgia provoked similar reactions in other writers.

Lowe-Evans’s study is essentially divided into two sections: the first half establishing a parallel between Joyce’s Catholic representations and the Church’s reaction to the modernist crisis, the second half documenting Joyce’s influence on other Catholic authors. In chapter one, she initiates her historical account of the modernist crisis, documenting the Church’s efforts to deflect challenges to its authority by promoting Thomism, papal infallibility, and the Immaculate Conception. From this context emerges a fascinating reading of “Grace” that highlights Joyce’s subtle “admiration and even affection for selected doctrines and practices imposed during the crisis in modernism” in a story that overtly satirizes Irish Catholicism. The highlight of this interpretation [End Page 372] is an intriguing reading of Father Purdon that portrays Joyce’s simoniac preacher as the story’s Aquinas figure. Noting that he actually conveys a “Thomistically correct interpretation of grace” in his “accountant’s version of salvation,” Lowe-Evans compellingly represents Father Purdon as “the dumb ox in spite of himself” and emphasizes Joyce’s persistent hope for salvation despite his misgivings about the Church, a theme that she subsequently extends to “The Ondt and the Gracehoper” section of Finnegans Wake and the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses.

In chapter two, Lowe-Evans extends her parallel between Joyce and the modernist crisis to his representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary, stressing the prominence of Joyce’s relationship with his mother in his Catholic nostalgia. Highlighting the Mariological nature of the Catholic response to modernism in “Joyce’s formative years,” she reads the conflict between Stephen and the deceased May Dedalus in the “Telemachus” chapter of Ulysses as Joyce’s attempt to achieve salvation by resurrecting a version of his mother. Lowe-Evans reads Mulligan’s conversations with Stephen as a microcosm of the science/religion conflict within the modernist crisis, and she represents Mulligan’s feminized Eucharistic parody as the initiation of Ulysses’s role as “a mass—a commemorative transubstantiation—culminating in the readers’ imaginative ingesting the ‘body and soul and blood and ouns’ of Molly Bloom.” She thus argues that Joyce resurrects his mother through Molly, “produc[ing] a character” who is certainly no saint, but who “believes in God and the soul, attends mass, recites the ‘Hail Mary,’ and concludes her discourse by echoing the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat,” a brilliant reinterpretation of Ulysses’s concluding “Yes” as the “affirmation … enabling...