- Joyce & Betrayal by James Alexander Fraser
A couple of years ago, I was preparing for a class discussion of the "Aeolus" episode in James Joyce's Ulysses and—focusing on the ending when the unintentional betrayal of Robert Emmett parallels Leopold Bloom's preoccupation with marital betrayal and Molly Bloom's impending afternoon dalliance—I thought I could look into the scholarship on betrayal for a little inspiration to guide the group's conversation. After all, I assumed, betrayal is a huge preoccupation among Joyce's commentators, an interpretive staple. Setting aside some time to peruse the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, I entered obvious key words, adjusted them, searched again, switched databases, and still found nothing to aid discussion. I shrugged, reminded myself to improve my research skills, and set about outlining my own thoughts on the theme. So when the JJQ offered me a chance to review James Alexander Fraser's Joyce & Betrayal, I was unusually eager—here I would find not only a synopsis of the existing commentary, but some new insights as well.
That is where things got interesting. Fraser has been down this same path and found that while the assumption about betrayal as a crucial theme for Joyce is everywhere, the scholarship turns out to be nowhere. Betrayal has "become a 'given' in the most problematic of senses" (1). It is "both everywhere and common knowledge" (5) and at the same time "oddly overlooked as an object of crucial inquiry even in those studies that place it at or near the centre of their conception of Joyce's work" (3). I think this recognition is about the coolest cue for a book: rather than the usual perceived gap in the scholarship, Fraser has really located a donnée, something we all assumed we knew so well that none of us gave it careful consideration. With this interesting premise, he pursues his project with an intricate interpretation in engaging and adept prose.
Fraser supplements the dictionary definition—exposing information or delivering someone into harm by treachery—with Joyce's more specific sense of betrayal as a "pernicious, harmful breach of trust" (11). Locating betrayal in the "tense, dangerous, and uncertain moment of commitment or 'dedication,'" Fraser argues, "Betrayal is not betrayal (for Joyce at least) without this preceding act of dedication" (9). The fear of betrayal reveals an underlying "desire for community," a vulnerability in the "interaction between an agonized self and unknowable other," that "takes precedence in Joyce's explorations of human relationships" (9). Further, "the risk of betrayal [End Page 425] indicates that an exchange of power and trust has occurred," Fraser concludes (155): "There is no way to know that the other whom you have given the power to harm you is similarly exposed, nor can you know that they have accepted your exchange in good faith" (157). It is not as a static fact that Joyce fictionalizes exposure and trust, but rather his fictional experiments afford an opportunity in which betrayal could be "theorized and investigated, rather than merely recorded" (157).
Fraser carefully articulates his claim that betrayal is less a preoccupation of Joyce's troubled psyche than a set of generative ideas foundational to his writing. Rather than attributing the centrality of this theme biographically, then, Fraser observes that "[h]e did not write betrayal because he felt betrayed and lacked the intermediary sense to analyse this feeling; he wrote betrayal because the dramatic and linguistic structures of this theme offered an appealing and malleable series of readings through which the raw material of his craft could be developed" (13). Though Joyce read betrayal into his own life and experience, he did so as part of a larger project of investigating breaches of trust in the context of personal relations but also of national politics.
Joyce was not the first to see a series of betrayals as structuring Ireland's national past. Understanding history in those terms and presenting his own exile as an inevitable response to national betrayal was his journalistic project early in his career when, as a kind...