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  • Community Standards:A Suggestion for New Scholarship
  • Jonathan Morse (bio)

Until recently, there seemed to be no need to say that a knowledge of Irish Catholic idiom is fundamental to reading the language of Joyce. It was obvious. The educational norms governing the growth of Stephen's mind are those of the church and its Ireland, but so too are the norms of respectability in "The Boarding House," where going to Mass matters in the same indexical way as keeping the lace curtains white.1 From the moment the first notation was scribbled in a margin the night before class some time in the twentieth century, teachers have always taught Catholic meanings when they called attention to words like "High Toast" and "inefficacious" in "The Sisters" or "Epps's massproduct, the creature cocoa" in "Ithaca" (D 12).2 The callings to attention were not just supplements to the pedagogy but incidents in the continuing history of Joyce's native culture.

But the value system underlying that culture commands a different kind of assent now than it did in Joyce's time. When words of moral reproof were spoken about Ireland on 26 May 2018, it probably means something for the teaching of Joyce that they were not uttered in church. They came instead from a different institution, The New York Times, and they began, "Ireland Votes to End Abortion Ban."3 Then they said, "In Rebuke to Catholic Conservatism." It was as if Catholic Ireland could no longer explain itself to itself in its inherited language and was in need of another.

The article in the Times explained:

The vote [which was decided by an unexpectedly huge margin] followed months of soul-searching in a country where the legacy of the Catholic Church remains powerful. It was the latest, and harshest, in a string of rejections of the church's authority in recent years.

The church lost much of its credibility in the wake of scandals involving pedophile priests and thousands of unwed mothers who were placed into servitude in so-called Magdalene laundries or mental asylums as recently as the mid-1990s.

The church was, in fact, largely absent from the referendum campaign. Anti-abortion campaigners actively discouraged its participation, [End Page 369] preferring to emphasize moral values and human rights rather than religion, possibly to avoid being tarnished by the church-related scandals.

That silencing of religion in the pulpit has left a diminution of echoes in the nave. The church words that once filled the air of Joyce's Ireland are heard less distinctly now. Said the article: "The church's influence in referendums has been eclipsed over the past decade. In 1983, when the Eighth Amendment [forbidding abortion] was voted in, 80 percent to 90 percent of Irish citizens attended weekly Masses. . . . Today, that figure is down to 20 percent to 30 percent." Simple mathematical logic teaches us that the Irish culture that gave Joyce to the world is changing, and the pedagogy of Joyce will be changing with it in its cultural matrix.

At the time Joyce was writing his lexicography of "Grace," for instance, the men at Mr. Kernan's bedside could voice their collective Catholic assent in unison because they thought in unison. In their Dublin, a non-Catholic idea was almost a contradiction in terms. But (says the math) there is no unison in the vocabulary now. When Mr. M'Coy says, "[T]hat's the thorax," he means, "That's the pharynx" (D 159), but everybody in the room has a sympathetic understanding of his mistake, whether or not they know it is a mistake, because everybody has been more or less in Mr. M'Coy's situation: living hand to mouth culturally as well as financially, filching words spelled with an X from the coroner just as he filches his friends' suitcases. Listening through the bedroom door, readers of Joyce have always, up to now, been able to find an invisibly ironic position to eavesdrop from because only they possessed such cultural collateral as a definition of "thorax." Now, though, Mr. M'Coy's descendants in a decolonized Ireland have won a knowledge of words like "thorax" for themselves—and...


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