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Urban Legends

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 45:1&2, Earrach/Samhradh / Spring/Summer 2010
pp. 242-265 | 10.1353/eir.2010.0008

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There is this wonderful moment in Pat Murphy's Nora, where after going to the cinema in Trieste, Nora is roused to find Joyce and tell him of her romantic past, a past immortalized in "The Dead" as the exchange between Gretta and Michael Furey. As Murphy's film makes clear, the monumentalization of Joyce's encounter with Nora's past, an expansion, one might say, of a local moment, is mirrored in Murphy's own cinematic act, contrived to be at once self-reflexive about the impact of the movies on lives and also to display such moments of artistic appropriation. Her own, even. Murphy visualizes for us the continental setting for Joyce's writing in a way that little else does. The Irish is of course there, but out of focus, as it were. The film replaces our expectation of Irishness with our anticipation of the Joyce an familiar—lines from the city, work, music, dramatic moments, that Scylla and Charybdis style, have come to represent the life. But it also surprises us, I think, by marking the refusal of the work and the life to be contained within the melody of the Irish idiom. Joyce and Nora speak in Italian without fanfare. The children's names are, well, positively cosmopolitan.

Much has been made of Joyce's self-designed exile and its connection with his modernism. Little Chandler's lament, "If you wanted to succeed, you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin"—has been well rehearsed. It's important to see the remark as both rationalization and fancy. Exile was a constitutional state. Being away was in some sense to be at home. The work's changing readership is reflected in the shifts in both Joyce's geographical and critical status: he was situated first as internationalist, modernist, then Irish postcolonial, now cosmopolitan. Joyce needed to expel himself from Ireland to stick, as it were, and then the critics had to put the Irish back to get him unstuck from an untenable apoliticism, to rescue him from his highness—his high modernism, that is. Joyce's cosmopolitanism is tricky, not only because the category itself is shifty, but because it may be associated with a changing Dublin, one that accommodates varying, even contradictory views, one that may become unrecognizable in Joycean terms, making it necessary to read the novel to recover the city, as he predicted. Cosmopolitanism threatens a kind of erasure of the particular city; it privileges the urban as counter, which is the insistent space of the Joycean familiar.

As I have made clear in previous work, for me the locus of Joyce's cosmopolitanism has been in his Jewish figures, the quintessential deracinated urbanites. As Vince Cheng reminds us in his discussion of Joyce on this topic, Jews were thought to be the sine qua non of cosmopolitanism in the Europe of the late nineteenth and roughly first half of the twentieth centuries, a "rootless cosmopolitanism," as it is better known. And as I have also argued, this stereotype fed Joyce's idea of the symbolic expansiveness of the Jewish figure, maybe even, given his encounter with Jews on the continent in particular, provided him a gateway to a cosmopolitanism of the future. The argument has also been variously made that Jews are Joyce's proxy for the Irish, but more accurately, I would argue, for his Dubliners, who are insufficiently Irish by the standards of Irish authenticity, more aptly upheld, let's say, in George Moore's "rural" The Untilled Field (1903), roundly dismissed by Joyce for its sentimentality. The urban is always a kind of enclave in national space, insistent and alien, and in the case of Joyce's Dublin, fully occupied by the English.

Despite what has been revealed as the historical pairing of the Irish and the Jews, so often the argument seems a kind of throwaway, a connection that doesn't say enough, or, in keeping with that trope in Joyce's novel, is a blind. A misapprehension. Maybe even an accusation. "Throwaway," of course, is the name of the winning horse of the Ascot Gold Cup on 16 June 1904. Bloom's association with...



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