- Beyond Dublin: Joyce and Modernism
James Joyce left Dublin in 1903 at the age of twenty-one. He would return thereafter only three times—once to attend his mother’s funeral, if not necessarily to serve at her deathbed; once in order to serve as manager of the first motion picture theatre in Ireland, as passing an enterprise; and once to immerse himself for a final time in the physical and moral landscape that would become Ulysses. After January 1910, he remained on the Continent, conspicuously removed from his homeland, in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris: the most cosmopolitan of writers. We know, of course, that he was at the same time the most insular of writers, writing of nothing but Ireland, nothing but Dublin in fact, writing home constantly for details of Dublin life, Dublin history, Dublin geography that he could turn into fiction. With Thom’s Post Office Directory at his elbow, he created his own map of the city, one that he boasted would outlive the physical city, that was more real and vital and convincing than the historical Dublin. And, of course, he was right, as anyone will confirm who has seen what passes for urban renewal in Joyce’s native city. 1
Not even Demolition Ireland, however—that most ubiquitous of Dublin symbols—can destroy the city of Joyce. Those Joyceans who religiously take Bloomsday tours through what remains of his city (perhaps using one of the many commercial tour guides now available in print), those less dedicated tourists who turn a corner and discover with a shock a Joycean landmark—on my last visit, it was the City Arms Hotel, in which the Blooms once lived alongside the exiled Dante Riordan (with the narrator of “Cyclops” nearby), and then later, in Ennis, the Queens Hotel, once owned by old Rudolph Bloom—such travelers affirm the conviction that the city of Joyce and the city of history are inextricably linked and that, of the two, the fictional Dublin may in many ways be preferable.
Yet Joyce’s city is not all of Dublin. As we follow lower-middle-class rate salesman Leopold Bloom and fallen, almost classless, would-be writer Stephen Dedalus on their [End Page 385] wanderings through then beautiful Dublin (aesthetes both, they seem not to notice the beauty), we perceive that theirs is only part of Georgian Dublin. The city which Joyce has preserved for us (so much of it now gone that we notice intently that which remains) is essentially a lower-middle-class city, inbred, decaying, unaware that this will be the last generation in this part of Ireland for the Empire which built this capital and kept hostage its people. There is no hint of any of this in Ulysses. It is not as social historian that we read Joyce. (Even Joyce, to be sure, could not anticipate the changes brought to Dublin by the Republic of Ireland’s joining the European Community. What sort of passport, I wonder, would he choose to carry today?)
There are other, related critical clichés fostered by Ulysses that are similarly, when pushed, not quite right. Joyce chose Dublin as his setting, we are told, because it was large enough to serve as model of the modern metropolis yet not too large to prevent the crossings and re-crossings, the personal connections and missed connections which make up so much of his view of urban life at the beginning of this century. This may well be true, at least in intent (as structure and as metaphor), if only because we accept Joyce here at his word. But his Dublin, in which almost no one works at a job demanding more than a few hours a day and many work only at sociability, is hardly representative of modern urban life in the West. We are not likely to find Henry Adams’ Dynamo here (and Molly Bloom makes a most curious Virgin to erect our edifices to). We see the fringes of imperial trade on the Liffey, see the fringes of education and scholarship, communications, medicine, law and religion, see the crumpled edges of Irish political life—all failed expectations, successful...