- Gibson’s Joyce:Waging Literature Like a Battle
READING ANDREW GIBSON’S fascinating new study of the political and social agenda underlying James Joyce’s early works reminded me of Richard Ellmann’s statement that “Joyce waged literature like a battle” (James Joyce, 1959 ed., 215; 1982 ed., 207). Gibson never cites that statement, but he might have, if only to distinguish between Ellmann’s focus on personal battles and his own concern with Joyce’s writing as a form of political engagement. Whereas Ellmann described Joyce’s “battle” as a form of revenge against Oliver Gogarty and other personal enemies, Gibson argues that Joyce used his works to settle (or at least to address) long-standing wrongs against Ireland as well as to expose weaknesses or contradictions in Irish political debates. Gibson’s book is thus historicist rather than biographical, concerned at all times with Joyce’s response to the political, religious, and cultural climate of late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland.
The Strong Spirit takes its title from a passage in the 1902 paper “James Clarence Mangan,” where Joyce contended that Mangan’s insistent focus on Ireland as victim of historical injustice had rendered him incapable of escaping that history, which “is so much with him [that] he has accepted it with all its griefs and failures, and has not known how to change it, as the strong spirit knows” (Joyce, Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, 59; quoted by Gibson, 3). Gibson argues [End Page 452] that Joyce read history far more critically and complexly than Mangan and that, rather than remain in thrall to a set of political ideas formed in his youth, Joyce responded intelligently to changes in the Irish political climate and the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Keeping an eye on the future without forgetting the past, Joyce addressed rather than merely lamented historical injustice. In this way Mangan becomes an important counterexample for Joyce, but he is not the only one: another, Gibson notes, is Yeats, who in his own Ascendancy class manner was also fixated on historical loss. Joyce found himself drawn both to Mangan and to Yeats, but he had to separate himself from them as well in order to develop his own artistic vision and style and to avoid the dead ends that their readings of history entailed. One way of doing that, as Gibson (following Len Platt’s Joyce and the Anglo-Irish) demonstrates, was to portray Stephen Dedalus as going through a period of fascination with the language of revivalism in chapter two of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before moving to a more realistic style, as in the “methodical, precise dating” of his diary at the novel’s end. Although Gibson does not cite it specifically, the poem Stephen writes on the morning after the children’s party, which deletes all of the previous evening’s “common and insignificant” details such as the tram and the horses and leaves only “the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon,” would seem to be an extreme example of revivalist style.
Gibson’s dense argument requires a detailed knowledge of Irish political and religious debates during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Again and again, he relates changes in Joyce’s political ideas to other developments at the time. Perhaps the best example is his reading of Exiles in the context of the difficulties over the Third Home Rule Bill and the widening gap between unionists and nationalists. As he says, interpretations of the play have focused either on its aesthetics (especially in relation to Ibsen) or its biographical background, but he makes a strong case that it is politically charged as well. This argument is based in part on Gibson’s astute reading of Joyce’s 1912 essay “Politics and Cattle Disease,” with its allusions to unionist obstructionism in hopes of defeating the Home Rule Bill, to set up an analysis of class divisions in the play...