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Imperial Pathologies: Medical Discourse and Drink in Dubliners' "Grace" Abstract

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 14, Number 2, Fall 1995
pp. 191-209 | 10.1353/lm.1995.0019

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Literature and Medicine 14.2 (1995) 191-209

"I am writing a series of epicleti -- ten -- for a paper," James Joyce informed Constantine Curran in July 1904. "I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city." On 5 May 1906, Joyce expressed a similar idea to his prospective publisher, Grant Richards: "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis." These letters have been quoted so often that many scholars of Joyce speak only about his general complaint of Irish incapacity. Yet Joyce actually uses specific medical terms to deliver a stark diagnosis. In both quotations, the author uses physical pathologies to evaluate a spiritual condition: he is the Aquinian doctor who records the case history of a colonial patient lying prostrate on his table. The stories of Dubliners depict this "hemiplegia or paralysis" through a variety of spiritual maladies that includes insanity, pedophilia, and sexual repression, as well as physical illnesses.

The numerous fallen and paralyzed bodies that punctuate the collection underscore these conditions, in images such as the corpse of Father Flynn in "Sisters," the prone body of Farrington's abused, prayerful son in "Counterparts," the fall or leap of Mrs. Sinico before the train in "A Painful Case," and the frozen remains of Michael Furey under the general snow of "The Dead." The sequence of inert bodies suggests their equality, as if each state manifests a common underlying condition, a deep identity.

It is, however, the drunken body that acts as a primary emblem of paralysis in Dubliners. The rhetorical tension over the classification of the chronic drinker in Joyce's stories emerges from contemporary ideas about intemperance. A commonplace today in the West, the conception of habitual drinking as a pathology was not introduced until the late eighteenth century and gained currency slowly and ambiguously in English-speaking countries. During the nineteenth century, middle-class reform movements reflected intense interest in controlling and classifying drinkers and drinking practices. Overwhelmingly, however, drinking retained its popular associations with celebration, ritual, tradition, and health. Excessive drinking was generally viewed, as the language used to name it indicates, as a bad habit (a "habitual drinker") or as an inappropriate degree of consumption (an "intemperate"), conceptions that rest chiefly upon quantitative, rather than qualitative, distinctions between what we would now term the social drinker and the alcoholic. The chronic drinker was rarely regarded as a neutral subject, but rather as a defective one, whose appearance was constantly connected with certain classes and -- as in the case of the Irish -- ethnic groups.

Joyce delivers a compressed image of the colonial situation through intemperate Irish men and women. J. B. Lyons notes that "the most prevalent disease in Dubliners is alcoholism," and James Fairhall observes that the collection "reveals a sharp awareness of the social damage caused by drinking." Hardly a story occurs without reference to drunkenness, usually among the petit-bourgeois Catholic men who represent Joyce's Ireland. The intoxicated man is so prominent in the stories that he becomes a model of physical and emotional incapacity. Joyce understands the effects of chronic drinking as both moral and somatic. He uses vocabularies to describe the paralytic that were being employed to characterize the heavy drinker during the nineteenth century, when the vice of intemperance was being redefined as the organic disease of alcoholism. Joyce thus adopts the medical view of chronic drinking, but also surpasses it. Rather than aligning his metaphor principally with either physical or mental states, the author uses a trope that at once embodies spiritual distress and moralizes physical ills. Interpreting paralysis as intimately allied with chronic drunkenness leads to a revisionary reading of Joyce's literary interventions in the politics of colonialism. Although he is usually seen to be criticizing London or Rome, Joyce actually criticizes the mechanism that produces both colonizer and colonized.

As a metaphor for Ireland, the drunkard provides insight into an aspect of the somatic distress that pervades the lived experience of colonization. Neither merely chosen nor merely...


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