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“Joyce and Religions: A Gradual Reawakening of the Irish Conscience,” Boston College, 21 April 2012

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 222-224 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0039

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On Saturday, 21 April 2012, the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College sponsored a conference entitled “Joyce and Religions: A Gradual Reawakening of the Irish Conscience,” organized by Joseph Nugent of the Boston College Department of English. In addition to the keynote address by the outspoken Irish public intellectual Fintan O’Toole, several other lectures and presentations, and a closing roundtable, the packed event included a performance of “Scenes from Joyce” by the Here Comes Everybody Players, workshops for graduate students, and a guided tour of the art exhibition, “Rural Ireland: The Inside Story,” at Boston College’s McMullen Museum.

In “Mr. Bloom and the Buddha,” Fintan O’Toole drew our attention to the place in Ulysses of a reclining statue of Buddha from Burma that Bloom remembers in “Lotus Eaters,” a statue that Molly’s late-night thoughts reveal he has taken her to see. O’Toole linked these passages in a conjoined reading that brought out deflating ironies about religion and about Bloom in moments that are also richly moving in their affective connotations. He compellingly argued that, far from being annihilating in their implications, the desacralizing elements are inseparable from passion and affection.

In “Anti-Semitism in Ireland in the Age of Joyce,” the distinguished historian, Dermot Keogh, of the University College Cork, extended, with new information and perspectives, matters that he addressed in his seminal book, Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism & the Holocaust.1 His remarks led to discussion, after his talk and during the roundtable, of the 1937 Irish Constitution’s unusually liberal language for its time concerning religious freedom. Under the rubric “TechnoJoyce,” Joe Nugent presented his stunning app, now available, “Joyce Walk: Ulysses for You,” and Andrew Kuhn, of Boston College, presented the exciting plans for an electronic “Dubliners Bookshelf: Readings with Joyce,” which will provide access to extensive printed material, including books, relevant to the composition, reception, and interpretation of Dubliners. In her lively “Holy Fun: Incongruity in Joyce,” Vicki Mahaffey (University of Illinois, Urbana) evoked Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay, “Humour and Faith” to explore different scales of incongruity in Joyce’s work involving laughter and the sacred.2 Moving from “The Sisters” to Finnegans Wake, a book that she aptly described as simultaneously sacred and comic and as “incongruity on steroids,” Mahaffey took us to a consideration of the Book of Kells as similarly incongruous and dual. By drawing suggestively on various ways to understand Jacques Lacan’s notion of the sinthome (from the seminar of 1975–1976), Joseph Valente (University at Buffalo, State University of New York) interpreted revealingly, in “Stephen’s Sinloving Soul,” the dynamics of Stephen’s synthesizing his identity in relation to separation and loss.

Just before the closing roundtable, members of the HCE Players (directed by Jean Sheikh) presented mostly hilarious but at times terrifying excerpts from Joyce’s writings relevant to religion, including early pages of the Wake involving Buddhism and Islam, the blessing of Barney Kiernan’s pub from “Cyclops,” and a compressed version of Father Arnall’s hellfire sermon from part three of A Portrait. The latter reminded us, just before the closing roundtable, of the unfortunate consequences for the young, so evident in Joyce’s writing, that dogmatic extremes sometimes inflict.

At the beginning of the roundtable, the passing of our long-time colleague in Joyce studies, Edmund Epstein, which had been mentioned earlier in the day, was noted again, this time with his photograph projected as a reminder of his continuing presence in our memories. Also present by projection in J. P. Riquelme’s response were side-by-side photos of Fritz Senn and the Buddha, suggesting that Joyce was a “Senn Buddhist,” committed to agnosis and the coincidence of opposites. Beryl Schlossman (Northeastern University) commented on the frequent conjunctions of the sacred and the comic in Joyce’s writings of the sort that Mahaffey had emphasized, and she suggested the relevance of the spectral and of writing to the sin-loving and the sinthome that Valente had stressed. Patrick Mullen (Northeastern University) raised the issue of Joyce’s relevance for broad social issues, including the current standing of the humanities, because of the utopian implications...

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