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The Jew’s Text: “Shem The Penman” and “Shaun The Post”

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 263-280 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0056

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Jews can be persecuted in all the civilized languages.

Bernard Malamud, The Fixer

Wyndham Lewis was one of the few early critics of Ulysses to see that, like Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom is a Joycean self-portrait.1 Driven by his anti-Semitism, Lewis was irritated by the sympathy Joyce garnered by portraying himself as a Jew. In Time and Western Man, he complains that Bloom has too much dramatic power:

As it is, of course, the author, thinly disguised as a middle-aged Jew tout (Mr. Leopold Bloom), wins the reader’s sympathy every time he appears; and he never is confronted with the less and less satisfactory Dedalus (in the beau rôle) without the latter losing trick after trick to his disreputable rival. . . . It is a sad affair, altogether, on that side.


A similar dynamic operates in the sections of Finnegans Wake in which Shem is attacked by his twin brother Shaun. In Book I, Chapter 7, and Book III, Chapter 1, readers sympathize with the victimized and pathetic Shem, who, though he is not a Jew in any strict sense (neither, of course, is Bloom), can claim Jewishness as one among his myriad identities. While Joyce critics have traced in detail how Joyce’s contact with and attitudes about Jews shaped the portrayal of Leopold Bloom,2 we have yet fully to explore Joyce’s subsequent imagination of himself as a “semisemitic” Shem (FW 191.02–03).3 This essay, though certainly not a full account of such an imagining, traces one strand of the Wake in which, as in Ulysses, Joyce uses the figure of the Jew to conjure his enduring sense of persecution as a writer.

The ways Joyce enlists Jewishness in the Wake to muster sympathy for his writerly predicaments are far from static. Over the seventeen years he worked on Finnegans Wake, the status of Jews in western European cultures changed dramatically. In the early 1920s, they were largely assimilated into their national communities, and their contribution to western culture was mostly downplayed or denied. By the middle 1930s, the Nuremberg laws had shorn German Jews of their citizenship, and Jews were newly threatened across Europe. Finnegans Wake records this historical tension between an inconspicuous Jew, assimilated into European society and often indistinguishable from his gentile counterparts, and a visible and oppressed Jew who found with dismay that his Jewish “race” robbed him of his cultural birthright.

In the bulk of the text, drafted during the 1920s, Shem’s Jewishness moves in and out of view within the tangled wordplay so he is seen as Jewish only at certain moments. Although this instability is inherent in what Vicki Mahaffey calls the “reality of adulteration” central to the Wake,4 it also has a certain mimetic plausibility. Like Joyce’s Jewish friends in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, that is, Shem is a hybrid of various cultural influences and identities; his Jewishness is but one lens through which others see him or he sees himself.5 Joyce portrays this assimilated Jew as the uncredited “writer” of much of European culture and as the devalued pole of a civilization built on Jewish and Greek sources. He then uses this condition of invisibility to illustrate his own status as a writer, seeking sympathy for his mistreatment at the hands of literary pirates and indifferent audiences. Then, as Joyce revises the text in the middle and late 1930s, he adds references not to a hybrid European but to a more conspicuous victim of race science and its legal manifestations. This representation of the racially marked Jew of the 1930s serves similarly to protest Joyce’s own oppression by timid printers, unreliable publishers, and censorious governments. He now uses the condition of dangerous visibility to seek sympathy for his victimization as an Irish writer; but this portrait has additional power, representing Joyce’s genius as biologically given and those who would criticize him as fascist thugs. While the implicit politics of such a move are debatable (and I will return to this later), tracing the representation of Shem’s Jewishness allows us to see some of the designs modern history embroidered in the textual cloth.

In “Shem...

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