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Joyce's Misbelief (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 138-141 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0116

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Roy Gottfried's latest contribution to Joyce scholarship reminds me of a quotation attributed to André Gide, the essence of which might well be considered the guiding principle of his study: "Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it." A five-chapter study of Joyce's search for truth in matters of religion and nation, aesthetics and ideology, in Joyce's Misbelief, Gottfried casts Stephen's (and Joyce's) non serviam in a new light. By examining Joyce's art alongside the Authorized King James Version, Douay, and Vulgate Bibles and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Gottfried discloses to readers the artistic freedom Joyce found within historical and personal schism.

Perhaps his first break with the Church came when Joyce engaged directly with scripture, something Catholics abstained from, relying instead upon the clergy to interpret the Word of God. At a young age, according to Gottfried, Joyce transcribed the Apocalypse of Saint John from the King James Version of the New Testament (61, 66). While the reasons for and circumstances of this transcription remain a mystery, Joyce obviously interacted with scripture absent any clerical intercessory in a willful act of disobedience. What is more, he selected a Protestant version of Revelation, suggestive again of his dispute with the Church's dogma, rigidity, and presumed universality. Given the state of Christendom when Joyce came of age, the Church's hierarchy stubbornly disavowed realities of historical fact based on its supposed status as the one true faith, much as its dogma veiled realities of sexuality, politics, and economics.

The high point of Joyce's Misbelief is Gottfried's consideration of Dubliners' "new realism" as Joyce's aesthetic reaction to the Church's sleight-of-hand approach in addressing the authentic, everyday experience of Irish citizens. In keeping with his commitment to a scrupulous rendition of such experience in art, Joyce, a misbeliever, lays bare basic structures of self and culture. He assumes authority from the liberating nature of schism to render reality artistically. In essence, Joyce follows the impulse of Martin Luther, who placed authority in scripture rather than in clerics, an act of rebellion that speaks to "Joyce's motives as an artist: release from intellectual and social conventions and thus freedom from their power" (26).

Seen in this light, schism originates in rebels who do not disbelieve the fundamental pull of dominant ideological constructs, any more than Martin Luther disbelieved Christian tenets. What, then, motivates so-called heretics like Arius, Photius, or Sabellius, figures Gottfried considers misbelievers rather than disbelievers (56)? Joyce's Misbelief begins with this premise:

There is no one with a faith like Joyce's … because he is not a believer in Catholic pieties, not an unbeliever in the rich complexity of religious thought and symbol, nor a disbeliever in Catholicism in order to hold to another and alternate religious system, but a misbeliever, someone who does not think as others do about Catholicism, but who clearly thinks about it nonetheless.

(2)

Wholesale disregard of Catholicism would have placed Joyce in the awkward position of commenting upon Irish culture without considering church and state from the inside, a proposition impossible in his case. More reasonably, Joyce seems to have come to a conclusion similar to George Bernard Shaw's some years earlier: "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it." Gottfried leaves us wondering about the ways in which these hundred versions exert so much influence in the realm of subjectivity—Joyce's own as well as other believers, unbelievers, and misbelievers alike. Louis Althusser's concept of interpellation would add a sophisticated psychological dimension to Gottfried's articulation of the misbeliever.

The psychological pull of seductive religious ideologies aside, Gottfried does indeed carefully frame Joycean aesthetics within the totality of civil society, thus illuminating Joyce's deep intellectual engagement with early-modern and modern universalizing theories, specifically the alignment of free will with a search for truth. Heretics, misbelievers in at least certain parts of societal truths that ossify into dogma, initiated schisms that, according to Gottfried's formulation, "did not start out as rebellions but as thoughtful developments, exercises in intellectual worship. The initial process...



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