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Help My Unbelief: James Joyce and Religion (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 664-667 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0019

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For all its right-minded celebration of Joyce as an early-twentieth-century free-thinker, Help My Unbelief is a conservative book in many ways, characterized by the position that holds good evidence and reliability to be neutral, a deep suspicion of postmodern “theory,” and, if the readings of Joyce’s fictions are anything to go by, a hankering for an hermeneutic order largely unmuddied by contradiction and ambiguity. All of this makes for a curious book, one which is highly sensitive to the historical circumstances that politicized Joyce and yet seemingly cold to the real radicalism of Joyce’s writing: the textual inventiveness that upsets in such astonishing ways both ontological and epistemological apple carts. It is not surprising, then, that, while Geert Lernout has a great deal to say about what made Joyce a free-thinker, his book contains very little on how that position produced the stylistic particularities of books like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

The conservatism is particularly apparent in the opening chapter, although, ironically enough, this is also one of the few places where Lernout feels able to dispense with orderly argumentation supported by a scholarly marshalling of evidence. Here the author claims to have reconstructed a tradition of Joycean criticism characterized by the attempt to restore spirituality to Joyce’s atheistic texts. This ambition itself may be worthy and even half necessary, especially in relation to earlier critical traditions—the American modern as represented by the Catholic Hugh Kenner, for example—but Lernout goes much further than that. The implication is of a more or less continuous critical disposition devoted to a spiritualizing of Joyce and his work against all the evidence of the texts themselves and the biographical material surrounding them. Thus, it is not only in the now largely out-of-favor critical culture of the 1950s and 1960s that the secular Joyce text becomes consubstantial with the priestly one but also in much more contemporary analytical discourses, as Lernout attempted to show in his earlier account, The French Joyce.1 In “the heart of French post-structuralist thinking,” Lernout insists once more, “a new catholic orthodoxy was first spelled out” (16)—deconstruction and its unruly postcolonial offspring thus becoming complicit in a broader cultural undermining of secularism. In this opening chapter, however, the notion is dependent for explicit illustration on relatively marginal and often minor work such as an essay written by Eamonn Hughes published in 1992, Stephen Sicari’s Joyce’s Modernist Allegory, Gian Balsamo’s Joyce’s Messianism, and a 1999 Ph.D. dissertation by Steven Morrison.2 This chapter also employs the equally dubious strategy of dispensing with figures more central to the once-fashionable postcolonial Joyce by the device of pretending not to know that Catholicism in Ireland was a social and cultural identity as well as a religion.

Help My Unbelief gets off to shaky start, then, setting up something of a straw man. Few will really believe that mainstream contemporary Joyce criticism, postcolonial or otherwise, seeks to restore Joyce to Catholicism on the evidence Lernout presents. Thereafter, the argumentation becomes more orderly, although it never escapes from its deeply flawed foundation. Chapter 2 recounts the Catholic Church’s resistance to modernism in the nineteenth century and the simultaneous institutional growth of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The territory has been well covered before by both Joyceans and historians, but Lernout’s version is sharp and engaging. It sets the stage for further contextualization of a modernist rebellion considered in chapter 3 in terms of an overview of free-thinking in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europe and Britain. This is the most interesting and useful chapter in Help My Unbelief, erudite and engaging, although Lernout’s lumping together of French, British, and Irish dissent in an implied common culture is an issue, as is the failure to distinguish more carefully between Joyce as a free-thinker and figures like George Moore, Frederick Ryan, and John Eglinton.3 The suggestion that theosophy somehow belonged to a culture of free-thinking and dissent and for that reason was attractive to Joyce is also suspect. Apart from anything else, the evidence of the later texts, uniformly mocking of...

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