- “Austin of the Sun”:The North American Joyce Conference, 13-17 June 2007
I do not know if the 2007 International James Joyce Conference held in Austin, Texas, from 13-17 June, was conceived as an entangling event, but it proved to be. For a city that on the surface boasts little connection to Joyce (other than the jaw-dropping Harry Ransom Center's collection of Joyce papers), it made itself serendipitously relevant at each turn, and for this first-time Joyce conference-goer, that was a welcome surprise, as was the conference's theme: "Bring a stranger within thy tower" (U 14.365).
For the uninitiated, the conference appeared to be a massive family reunion. The litany of familiar first names rose up in conversation like a wall. To their credit, conference organizers Alan Friedman and Chuck Rossman did all they could to dismantle that potential stranger-maker one handshake at a time. I simply could not man the periphery on their watch. Add to this Weldon Thornton's dubbing me one of his "grandstudents," and I felt (at least socially) like part of the family.
The list of topics seemed as daunting as the list of names. Joyce and: science, tourism, Chaplin, animals, empathy, politics, suffering, space, others, other arts, Žižek, Latinos, translation, oddities, the body, psychoanalysis, and the all-too-apt names and naming among many, many others. On the first full day of the conference, I ventured into these panels and felt a touch of Farrington in "Counterparts," where a "good night's drinking" weighs heavily on his mind. I felt glutted and in need of digestion over a pint, but the omnipresent humor and curiosity about the panels kept my attention. I particularly appreciated the reminder that the alternating sexual and mundane registers of Joyce's love letters to Nora illustrate the waxing and waning of his masturbation while writing them. This reunion, it seemed, came with its own dirty jokes.
It also came with a boat ride on Town Lake that brought together two of my worst fears: American-performed Irish-themed song and bats, though neither turned out to be particularly scary. The musical entertainment was lively and finely tuned, and the bats . . . well, there is something to be said about facing down the world's largest urban bat population. Disgusting is the word most readily at hand, [End Page 438] but fascinating is closer to the truth. Such a confrontation conveys the kind of grim horror and confusion that rises up at the close of Book I, Chapter VIII in Finnegans Wake: "Can't hear with the bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won't moos."
But we did moos or mosey into the night of Austin. For the more adventurous or entirely naive, as was my case, a trip to the Broken Spoke, a nearby honky-tonk, allowed conference-goers the chance to rub elbows with the cowboy-hatted crowd. In my own western shirt and boots, I smirked to think how not out of place I must have looked—how easily I would slip under the radar of this crowd. Of course, I had not counted on the two-step—a winding, shuffling, odd-speeded mockery of a movement. This was something scarier than bats but less so than, say, the Joyce Estate and the daunting issues of copyright to which we turned time and time again at the conference.
Carol Shloss, Bob Spoo, and David Olson's discussion of copyright provided the conference with one of its most moving and thoroughly heartening moments. They spoke of righting the wrongs done to Shloss's biography of Lucia Joyce at the hands of Stephen Joyce (whose name floated through the conference like a bad punchline). Her coda, riffing on "A Mother," asserted, "That's a nice lady, that's a nice lady. That's no way for a nice lady to act. You bet it's not" and brought the audience to their feet and tears to her eyes. To call the impetus for that ovation anything other than familial pride would rob it of its admiration and affection.