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Joyce, Bloomsday, and Diasporic Identity: A Report from Melbourne

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 11, Number 2, Samhradh/Summer 2007
pp. 142-155 | 10.1353/nhr.2007.0028

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James Joyce's Ulysses is arguably the most-discussed novel of the twentieth century. A keystone of modernism, it often appears on "best books" lists, Irish or otherwise. Yet, Ulysses also surely ranks among the least read of canonical works. Some Joycean scholars have admitted as much: Morris Beja declared that the "books [are] so difficult that nobody really reads them. Or if anyone does, they're only English professors." An even more extreme position was proposed nearly thirty years ago by Colin McCabe, a psychoanalytic critic who, in a colorful rhetorical flourish, doubted the existence of readers beyond the author himself:

[Joyce] entertained some notion of the common reader to whom his texts would be available. But this purely imaginary audience did not exist and the real audience to whom the texts are thus necessarily addressed is an isolated individual and the only possible individual: Joyce himself.

In a more recent book on the so-called "Joyce wars," Julie Sloan Brannon acknowledges the appropriation of Joyce by an elite of scholars. She believes the process began as long ago as the 1921 Little Review pornography case, which drove a wedge between erudite, literarily trained personnel who could not be morally "polluted" by the novel and a more general reading public who were not likely to persist with it. She demonstrates how Ulysses, to get past the censors, mobilized respected academic opinions, and in the process disempowered the "common reader." Brannon argues that, subsequently, the disputes over editions of the novel entrenched the gulf between academe and the nonacademic reader. Broadcast and print media—in Australia and Ireland, certainly, and one assumes elsewhere—routinely enlarge this gulf around June 16 each year. The predictable querying of readership and canonical gambits, often presented humorously, fills columns and apparently sells copies.

However, a study of the largely nonliterary readership who attend Bloomsday celebrations in Melbourne, Australia, finds that such scholars as Brannon and McCabe are mistaken about Joyce's constituency. A peripatetic festival, each year Melbourne's Bloomsday Festival has explored a different aspect of Ulysses through formal seminar and panel discussions, as well as in theater and "street theater." Moreover, the responses of these nonspecialists also probe the extent to which interest in the matter of Ireland is a motive for reading Joyce. Are there any differences between the experience of Irish-Australian readers, Irish-born readers, and those with no particular reasons for identifying with Ireland? And what role does reading Joyce and attending Bloomsday play in diasporic examinations of identity formation by Irish immigrants and Irish Australians?

The empirical data presented here comes from three sources. The first of these is a detailed questionnaire distributed, largely by mail, to persons on the "Bloomsday in Melbourne" mailing lists (some 250 of them, of whom 71 responded). The questionnaire sought information about how, when, and why the individuals started reading Joyce, the extent of their reading, the challenges they face in reading him, and the extent to which participation in Bloomsday assisted their reading and understanding. The questionnaire included both structured and unstructured questions. Its detail and length (thirty-four questions, many soliciting qualitative data) meant that the group was a self-selecting one. Less "Joyce-literate" readers reported anecdotally that the questionnaire was too daunting. Table 1 provides data on the national identification and educational level of the respondents to the survey. The second set of data comes from interviews and focus groups conducted with ten respondents to the questionnaire, who volunteered for follow-up interviews. These investigations sought more detailed information about participants' personal investments in the specifically Irish dimensions of Joyce's novels.


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Table 1
Respondents by National Background and Level of Education

Finally, some of the information presented here is found in a set of short papers, available on the internet, delivered at the Bloomsday seminar for Antipodean Joyce ("Live-It or Cricket") in 2000, where nonspecialist supporters of "Bloomsday in Melbourne," called the "First Eleven," described their personal engagement with Ulysses. The seminar participants were a mixed group: they included a theater director/actor, a psychoanalyst, a consultant in organizational change, and the politician Barry Jones. Only one respondent could be considered...



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