The Mole on Joyce’s Breast

Sean O’Faolain

  • Joyce’s Politics by Dominic Manganiello
    Routledge, 260 pp, £12.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0537 7

Immediately I saw the title on the jacket of this book I remembered with the unfailing affection of an old man for past events of no apparent relevance to anybody else that I was once made a freeman of the city of Memphis in, I think, Tennessee – not Egypt. It happened because the local political boss that year was of Irish descent. He even presented me in public with a key to the city – that is to say, a three-quarter inch replica in painted gold, which I at once passed on to the next pretty young woman I met to hang on her charm bracelet. The relevant correlative? A little ethnic gesture to catch another little ethnic vote. In a word, politics.

What I now sardonically call my memory flew next to a neighbouring State where another gentleman of Irish origin initiated me as a member of the Ancient Order of Kentucky Colonels, at the same time presenting me with a poem by a local man bearing the dactyllian Joycean name of J. Hilary Mulligan. Of this poem I can quote one verse:

Songbirds are sweetest in Kentucky,
Thoroughbreds are fleetest in Kentucky,
  The mountains tower proudest,
  Thunder peals the loudest,
  The landscape is the grandest
  And politics are the damnedest In Kentucky.

Was I, I asked myself, glancing again at the unopened book before me, so very wrong in thinking that these two trivia suggest the only sort of politics likely to have appealed to the most heroic figure in Irish life and literature since Charles Stewart Parnell: politics, that is, proposing a parade of rascality, hilarity, treachery, hypocrisy, audacity, idealism, always shot through by moments of splendid courage and always ending in bitter tears? If Dear Reader will allow me to vanish for three minutes during which I beg the silence that every half-decent Irishman begs at least six times in his life when he hears again the funeral bell tolling for The Lost Leader, to which I would add another three minutes for consideration of the biographico-literary question I have just posed to both of us, I think I can formulate a more or less final decision about politics and Joyce.

The three minutes are up. It is all a matter of definition. If the sort of politics I have been referring to did interest Joyce, then we at once understand their relevance to the man’s bent, character, genius, spirit – call it what one wills – that is, we can have at least some idea of the magical process whereby this sort of ‘politics’ enriched his Human Comedy in the hilarious Cyclops chapter of Ulysses, with its brawling but never boring comic character called ‘The Citizen’, and how they deepened the Human Tragedy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with that painful scene where the family battles passionately over Parnell. But if that possessive apostrophe in the book’s title means that Joyce was nourished in his work by knowing le dessous des cartes of politics as the science of governing a country or managing a community, then even his most devoted and admiring readers (among whom I ardently reckon myself) are going to find it hard to reconcile this sort of social-minded, institution-oriented writer with the impression most of us have gathered from his life and writings of a passionate, poetic loner, virtually an élitist, withdrawn, a sceptical, ironical exile who never joined anything larger than a dinner party in a first-class Parisian restaurant.

So then, it is not only a question of the definition of the word ‘politics’ but a redefinition of the writer and the man. Perhaps Dominic Manganiello has demonstrated this kind of formative interplay in Joyce’s mind between the art of government and the art of literature? Perhaps he has shown us how irredeemably different A Portrait or Ulysses would have been without their author’s study of, say, Irredentism, Nationalism, Socialism, Anarchism, Bakunin, Ferrero, Marx? The idea is so exciting that I decide to take a refresher look at A Portrait.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in