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Academic Journal The Irish Literary Supplement

We Are All Writers Now
Don’t You Know How To Be Dumb?

When I was a young lad twenty or so years ago, the writers I admired were shady, shifty characters. They were the type of person whom you would be wary of bringing home to meet your parents. They lived in Paris or New York, or Tangiers or Mexico, or in squatters’ shacks in British Columbia. They took drugs, or drank too much, and liked what were then referred to as ‘loose women’, or boys. Their dress-sense was dandified, with wide-brimmed hats, silk scarves, and long black coats, or else disarrayed, with sloppy T-shirts, dark glasses, leather jackets and denim jeans, or some bizarre mixture of the two.










Their hair was usually much shorter, or much longer, than most other people’s. Sometimes they were even women. All the best Irish ones emigrated, or never realised their full potential if they stayed at home, or returned there. They were concerned with the big issues, stuff like life and love, and sex and death, and what the whole damn thing meant. They did not have a very high opinion of society at large, and the feeling was pretty much reciprocated. The books were often euphemistically described as ‘difficult’, or dismissed out of hand as downright incomprehensible rubbish. They did not get huge advances from publishers, and were almost always banned. The only advance was in use of language, or in opening doors in readers’ minds. Like most of the music or films that interested or moved me at the time, these books did not seem to have been written for a specific market, or targeted at an identifiable audience, unless it was a market that thought itself indifferent to marketing, if it thought of marketing at all, and an audience resistant to being targeted, if it ever thought of itself as a target. Rather, these works were so obviously written out of some deep personal need, or vision, or even neurosis, that their reception was probably the least consideration of the author when he or she sat down to write. Outwardly their existences may have been louche, but inwardly they led lives of high dedication.
All changed, changed utterly. This piece was prompted by an essay by Eamon Delaney which appeared in The Irish Times earlier this year, on Saturday, June 12, and provided a particularly extreme example of a general malaise. Under the headline ‘Mollycoddled reputation’, and offset with a colour photograph of himself which took up more page space than the accompanying text, Delaney set out to explain why Joyce’s Ulysses is not a masterpiece or, as the stand-first had it, why its joys ‘leave him seriously unmoved’.
He began his assault by stating that ‘Having read the whole thing again recently, I did not feel I had consumed a work of genius, the way one would, for example, after Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot or Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, a novel comparable in its capture of another city - 19th century Paris - but far more engrossing, with vivid and lasting characters’. Firstly, note well for future reference the verb employed here: tellingly, works of genius (and presumably, by extension, all books), are made to be ‘consumed’. As for the derogatory comment about characterisation, perhaps part of Joyce’s purpose was to demonstrate the fluidity of identity, and show that once you begin to make the journey to the interior that is a character’s innermost psyche, you rarely wind up with a well-rounded 19th century representation, viewed in terms of its externally visible attributes. Or perhaps he was hinting at an even more fundamental point, taken up by his successors, about the futility of hoping to ever represent character in fiction, or the unreality of all fictional characters, by the very fact of their appearing in fiction.
Having said that, surely the fact that the minutiae of the minds of Leopold and Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus, are now commonplaces on the lips of a significant proportion of the population, who are furthermore often unaware of where these thoughts and phrases were first brought into the public domain, would tend to disprove Delaney’s assertion.
He continues: ‘For me, Ulysses falls short of the basic qualities you expect of a masterpiece. To the end, the characters remain unsympathetic; Bloom is a dreamy ad-seller unconvincingly married to a much more vivacious woman and Stephen remains the arrogant Jesuit boy, still drearily familiar from the Dublin pubs, talking coldly about Modernism and student grants. I’m sorry, but I was not moved.’ So now we know: the essential prerequisite of a masterpiece is to make your central characters ‘sympathetic’. As if Macbeth, Humbert Humbert, Michael Moran, Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman were irreproachable. Nor do Delaney’s strictures take into account one of the recurring themes of the novel, that of Bloom’s grief, over his suicide father, his stillborn son, his departed daughter, his unfaithful wife. Nor is Stephen without some nascent inklings of humanity and fellow-feeling, as is shown by an incident in the ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode. Running into his sister Dilly beside a Bedford Row bookcart, he ruminates on the hopelessness of her trying to learn French from a second-hand primer she has just bought, given the poverty and overcrowding of her home circumstances. These thoughts give way to feelings of guilt, albeit expressed rather reconditely as the ‘agenbite of inwit’, for doing nothing to alleviate this situation. One of the most frequently heard saws about Ulysses is that when one reads it in one’s late teens or early twenties, one relates most strongly to Stephen’s defiance and rebelliousness, whereas when one goes back to it in one’s thirties, it is with Bloom’s acceptance and maturity that one most readily identifies. What a feat to make both perspectives so convincing in the same book. Nor do Delaney’s criticisms even begin to explore the very vivacity with which he credits Molly.
Delaney proceeds with the startling insight ‘The book has no narrative drive’, asserting ‘Most of the characters sound the same’. But, as Richard Ellmann tells us:

While in Trieste Joyce remarked of his book Dubliners that he took little satisfaction in it because it rewarded him with no sense of having overcome difficulties in the writing. When in 1914 he started Ulysses, he did not intend to be short on difficulties again.

Presumably his somewhat more conventional previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, left him with the same feeling. So, as well as questioning notions of character representation in fiction, Joyce also set about subjecting the concept of linear narrative and sequential plot line, the idea that all stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end - and in that order - to the most rigorous scrutiny they had up until then received, with the possible exception of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. For, as one of the writers most influenced by Joyce’s revolution of the word, William Burroughs, put it when explaining one of his own methods of composition, ‘Life is a cut-up’. In other words, the order that we seek to impose, and look for, in art is not found in life - indeed, that may be one of the very reasons we make and appreciate art in the first place - yet we continue to expect art to be some kind of representation of life, or rather, what we would like life to be. Joyce paved the way for such a perception as Burroughs’ to gain acceptance in literature. Burroughs has also argued that all great writers tell people what they already know, but don’t know that they know, which is why many great works of art shock on first appearance, before they are gradually assimilated. He cited Ulysses as an example, saying that most people would have little difficulty with it now. Furthermore, as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1967 essay, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’:

The difficulty arises because so many critics continue to identify with prose literature itself the particular literary conventions of “realism”,
(what might be crudely associated with the major tradition of the nineteenth-century novel). For examples of alternative literary modes, one is not confined only to much of the greatest twentieth-century writing - to Ulysses, a book not about characters but about media of transpersonal exchange, about all that lies outside individual psychology and personal need; to French Surrealism and its most recent offspring, the New Novel; to German “expressionist” fiction; to the Russian post-novel represented by Biely’s St. Petersburg and by Nabokov; or to the non-linear, tenseless narratives of Stein and Burroughs. A definition of literature that faults a work for being rooted in “fantasy” rather than in the realistic rendering of how lifelike persons in familiar situations live with each other couldn’t even handle such venerable conventions as the pastoral, which depicts relations between people that are certainly reductive, vapid, and unconvincing.

As for the charge that most of the characters sound the same, and sound like Joyce himself, the three leads - Bloom, Stephen and Molly - are highly individuated from each other, and Molly’s voice could hardly be any further from Joyce’s, not only in terms of gender, but also of register. Moreover, one has only to consider the work of writers as compendious as Rabelais, Cervantes, Dickens or Pynchon, or even Homer himself, to realise that there is no great necessity to endow every bit player and spear carrier with distinctive or striking traits or speech patterns, and that cardboard cut-outs and puppets can more than suffice.
Delaney goes on, ‘Interesting how few novelists have followed Joyce in his Modernist breakthough: Burroughs, perhaps, or Beckett.’ This is arrant nonsense, since much of subsequent twentieth-century literature is unimaginable without Joyce’s voyage of discovery. Apart from those mentioned in the Sontag quotation above, one has only to think of writers as diverse as Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Elias Cannetti, William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Jean Genet, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, George Perec, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gass, Don De Lillo, Joan Didion, Anthony Burgess, Alasdair Gray, B. S. Johnson, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Jenni Diski, Fran O’Brien, John Banville and, of late, David Foster Wallace or Marie Darrieussecq, to name check only a very few, or the so-called magic realists of Eastern Europe and South America, or discursive, meditative works like Claudio Magris’ Danube or W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, to detect the influence of Ulysses. As Ellmann wrote in the introduction to his magisterial biography of Joyce, we are still learning how to be his contemporaries, and indeed it would seem he was so far ahead of his time that Delaney and many others, not least among them the be-blazered and be-boatered hordes who insist on annoying the average Dubliner every Bloomsday, have yet to catch up with him. Most writers who have aspirations towards being anything more than journalistic or making a quick killing spend years perfecting one single style that they then call their own, or that comes to be associated with them. But the numerous different styles deployed throughout the eighteen episodes of Ulysses parody all earlier modes of writing, and show all styles to be rhetorical devices. Thus, Ulysses illustrates Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted dictum to the effect that every great work of literature not only destroys one genre but helps to create another, since radical parody of this kind, in its mocking of the heroic militarism of epic, or the supernatural wonders of folk-tale, or the psychological verisimilitude of the novel, rather than accepting the inherited conventions of a self-serving and complacent status quo, frees itself from these targeted texts in order to develop new literary forms, proving that the urge to destroy may also be a creative one.
More worrying, because there is a certain amount of truth in it, is how Delaney expands his point:

In recent years, with the demise of Marxism and structuralism, the traditional novel has reasserted itself. Readers want plot, character and dialogue. Not whole chunks of interior verbiage, or elegantly
crafted pastiche, be it of newspaper headlines, olde English, or gossipy shop talk.

This trend is partly explained because, whatever about the dominating stranglehold of Hollywood formulae, audiences raised on television are more receptive to experimentalism - if they are receptive to it at all - when they come across it in film, video and multimedia than they are when they find it in books (indeed, literature is now very much the poor relation of the visual and even the aural arts in this regard, probably because it takes less time to take in an exhibition of abstract or conceptual or minimalist art, or a concert of atonal music, than it does to engage with a non-representational text), but also by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it the power base which underwrote much socialist aspiration in the west. Without wishing to condone the worst excesses of those totalitarian regimes, it seems that now all we are left with is a dictatorship of unbridled consumerist capitalism, where a nominally ‘socialist’ politician like Tony Blair can pronounce patent untruths like ‘We are all middle-class now’, and the arts have been subsumed into the entertainment industry, where they must sink or swim according to market forces. This has led to an inevitable dumbing down, an attitude of catering for the lowest common denominator, an effort to please the largest proportion of the public as possible. Nor have so-called ‘quality’ presses and publications been immune to this process. Oxford University Press recently discontinued its Oxford Poetry series, presumably because it could not show a profit, while The Irish Times has now begun carrying a middle-brow ‘lifestyle’ column by Louise East entitled - perhaps more appropriately than they realise - ‘Winging It’, in what began as a calculated attempt to improve circulation by provoking controversy, and has now become boring in its blandness.
In the first instalment of this weekly piece of blatant self-promotion, East ventured into presenting us with her political affiliations, or lack of same, claiming somewhat egotistically that her views were somehow representative of her entire generation, a foray which has happily not been repeated. East assured us that the situation in the Balkans was ‘neither political nor current affairs, but a question of humanity or lack of it’, when it was of course both political and current affairs, and some of us still think that humanity should have something to do with politics and current affairs (indeed, it was the very lack of humanitarianism in that political situation which made it so grotesquely inhuman), and further implying that the vast array of topics in which, as she told us, she and her set have no interest, such as ‘Irish political corruption, rezoning, Bertie Ahern or the European Commission...Northern Ireland, the tribunals and the misjudgements of judges’, are merely political and current affairs, and so have nothing to do with humanity or the lack of it. Indeed, to read East, one would fancy that there is no social injustice remaining in Ireland, certainly no more poor people left here, and that everybody is happy nowadays, since presumably nobody finds it difficult to find affordable accommodation any more, and people are not dying on trolleys in public hospitals or while on waiting lists for operations, or learning how to be better criminals or being driven to suicide while supposedly being rehabilitated in prison. What made her piece all the more farcical was that in her concluding plea to ‘the pension-holding, secure job-totting, policy-forming, fiftysomethings to get off the stage and give us a bit of room’ in ‘the Boom Boom Rooms of Europe’, she seemed to be sneaking politics in again by the backdoor, since her request could have been interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to the then current vacancy for a European commissioner, which is, whatever we may be told to the contrary, a political appointment. Absurdly, a more recent East column had her warning her readership of the perils of dumbing down, and concluded with the offer of Madrigals and Proust. Such lack of self-consciousness is worse than embarrassing; it verges on the pathological. Or perhaps, after all, self-irony is not totally beyond her.
Her article exemplified a dangerous smugness which has crept into Irish journalism, which it is only fair to say is a reflection of the self-satisfied arrogance of much of Irish society at present. We’ve never had it so good, so hump you Jack, I’m all right. What need have we of an investigative and critical press, much less of ‘difficult’ art, which might challenge preconceptions and rock the boat? Of course, in many ways, we’ve never had it so bad. The boom favours everyone who bought property before the surge in prices, and discriminates against those who didn’t, or who only bought after the madness got going with gusto, and are now stretched to the pins of their collars to keep up repayments. Meanwhile, people on thirty grand a year cannot afford to own their own homes, as they are continually being told they should. Culturally, never before have so many people been ‘working in the arts’, and creating so little of worth. But this is hardly surprising in a country where chefs and fashion designers are now ‘geniuses’, and hoteliers and property developers are ‘visionaries’. As Julie Birchill commented in her Guardian column, re: Blair’s Britain, which despite what you might like to think is not so different from here (Virgin, HMV, Dixon’s, Ann Summers): ‘Nobody makes anything any more. Everybody spins something’.
Of course, The Sunday Independent has been doling out the East-style vacuous, wannabe ‘lifestyle’ garbage for years, but the newest broadsheet kid on the block to peddle this brand of pathetic drivel is the Oirish Sunday Times, with its John Ryan-edited ‘Culture’ section. Ryan, the man previously responsible for ‘not-as-good-as-it-used-to-be’ In Dublin, has subsequently gone on to publish Ireland’s answer to Hello and OK, VIP, a distinguishing characteristic of which is that, unlike the publications upon which it is modelled, the subjects of features do not even have to be offered a hefty fee, so eager are they to be given the opportunity to appear in it. It is almost tempting to admire this shrewd exploitation of the army of people out there, who are champing at the bit for fame.
The phenomenon that is the success of John Ryan, which amounts to that of someone without an idea in his head managing to convince a number of pundits to tell him what’s actually happening, in return for which they are granted the entree to a self-congratulatory coterie determined to talk each other up, probably deserves an entire essay in itself. It was certainly amusing to hear him defend his poaching of Terry Keane from the Sindo as a form of protest against the near monopoly exerted on the Irish newspaper industry by Tony O’Reilly (hello John, you’re working for Rupert Murdoch - or were, that week). But it is the glaringly inappropriately titled ‘Dedalus’ column in ‘The Culture’, penned by none other than that well-known member of Ryan’s gang, Eamon Delaney himself, which brings me back, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to the article that provided the initial impetus for this one. Not content with using ‘Dedalus’ to take measured pot-shots at some of the more talented and socially conscious young writers around - Conor McPherson has suffered in this regard - Delaney wrote a letter to The Irish Times (7/11/98) in which he pilloried TV critic Eddie Holt for asserting that the proper targets for satire are ‘the smug suits and snobs of the Celtic Tiger’, while failing to mention that Holt’s remarks referred to an appearance by Delaney’s boss John Ryan on @lastTV, in which the latter did a take off of the relatively easy target provided by Michael Flatley. Delaney went on to express his irritation at having to sit down after ‘working hard all week’ and read political correspondent Dick Walsh’s lectures on social inequality, castigating Walsh for the ‘Sticky’ element of his columns, which did not take into account the fact that political debate in Ireland had moved towards the centre. I almost expected Delaney to come out with Madame Thatcher’s celebrated line about ‘moaning minnies’.
All this by way of contention that it will prove fruitful to reflect on the links between Delaney’s political views and his aesthetic credos. ‘Readers want plot, character and dialogue’, and in Delaney’s book, and his world, ‘the public gets what the public wants’, to quote Paul Weller’s youthful hit, ‘Going Underground’. However, ‘The public wants works that flatter its vanity’, according to one of Delaney’s declared enthusiasms, Flaubert. (Interestingly enough too, the other novelist Delaney mentions with approbation, Dostoevsky, was dismissed by Nabokov, who refused to lecture on his work, as ‘a fifth-rate thriller writer’.) Then we have Wilde’s quip about how ‘To disagree with the English public on nine-tenths of contemporary culture is the first sign of good taste.’
With the ethos Delaney is promoting, all novels are, by definition, popular novels. They have to be, in order to get published in the first place, unless they are by an already very well established name. It is apposite to point out that all dictatorships are anxious to monitor and censor artworks which do not conform to or bolster their broad manifestos. The Nazis organised exhibitions of ‘decadent’ - by which they meant dissident - art, so that the public would be warned off against it, and banned jazz and dancing as racially impure, while Stalinists promoted social realism, which led to much poetry being written in praise of new combined harvesters and increased grain production. (What an irony for those left-wing Cambridge aesthetes that the political system they fell for was responsible for sponsoring such bad art.) This suspicion of the imagination dates back at least as far as Plato, who famously banned the poets from his Republic, and these days the poets are the last surviving paradigm of the disinterested artist, since they are the only art workers who, with very few exceptions, can never hope to make even a modest living from their art alone. For the new dictatorship of consumerist capitalism (perhaps the most frightening ever, because the most global) votes with its wallet, and censors through indifference. If there is no need for prose that cannot be readily understood, what hope is there for poetry? So tried and trusted realistic techniques triumph over any attempts at experimentation or innovation. Thus we still read about the ‘realistic grittiness’ of novelist X, or the ‘sombre portrayal’ of Irish life by writer Y, or the ‘sensuousness’ of Z’s poetry, and we are smugly back in the era of Victoria, or safely ensconced in the land of cuckoo clocks and Toblerone. Joyce and Beckett may have done their thing, and Bord Failte is eternally grateful to them, but there are more important matters to think about, thank you very much, like selling the film rights and making lots of money and being quoted by politicians and appearing on chat shows and being relevant to the Northern situation etcetera etcetera. While this may not be the place to launch into a disquisition on Gramsci and the commodification of the work of art, all we are frequently left with is, in Osip Mandelstam’s memorable phrase, ‘the writers with permission’. But as Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham, argues in his recently published The Agony of Mammon - the Imperial Global Economy Explains Itself to the Membership in Davos, Switzerland, there has to be a guiding principle in society other than The Market, because The Market does not have values (except market value), and The Market does not have a mind (except ‘I don’t mind’). The Market must be resisted not simply because such a strategy would be of benefit to contemporary culture, but also because it would help a significant proportion of the world’s population in their quest to get enough to eat.
Of course, it must be nice to get a fifty or sixty grand advance for a novel, especially a debut one, but it is important to remember that it has very little to do with writing. After all, they don't give you that kind of money unless they think they can sell your stuff, and since the reading public is a shrinking market, and few people are interested in an unknown author, books are bought by publishing houses very much with a eye to their cinematic potential. So literature, in turn, becomes either a genteel pursuit, or one which must attract attention through the use of contrived shock tactics. In many ways a big advance, particularly if it is for an unwritten or unfinished work by a first-time author, in its desperate effort to become a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy for the publishers and public, instead becomes a self-defeating prophesy for the writer, an albatross around his or her neck, in that they cannot hope to live up to such extravagant expectations, since the publicity machine is all geared up to go regardless of the quality of the finished product. Antonia Logue’s debut novel Shadowbox, for instance, attracted more attention because of the size of the advance than because of what was between the covers, be it good, bad or indifferent. Indeed, she made a telling comment in an interview with Books Ireland at the time of publication, when she stated, “I’ll continue to write fiction for as long as I can get it published”, since the prospect of publication, while very important for raising the confidence of any writer, and spurring them on to higher achievement, should hardly be the chief motivation for first putting pen to paper. It was certainly not what drove the people referred to in my introductory paragraph.
All this relentless commercialism contrasts heavily with the attitude of Joyce, expressed in a letter:

I do not know where the British and American papers get their scare
headlines about me. I have never given an interview in my life and do
not receive journalists. Nor do I understand why they should consider
an unread writer good copy.

Or again, with that of Beckett, who seems to have assumed the mantle of latter-day patron saint of marginalised writers everywhere. Aside from his line about how ‘To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail’, he also observed, after Waiting for Godot had made him an ‘overnight success’ at the age of forty-seven:

Success or failure in the public realm has never mattered much to me.
Indeed, I feel much more comfortable with the latter, having breathed
deeply of its revivifying air for most of my writing life.

Even today, as the media machine ceaselessly grinds, some of this country’s finest writers, like Aidan Mathews or Eugene McCabe or Niall Quinn, to name only three, languish with little or no recognition whatsoever, outside of a small but appreciative readership.
Not that any of the foregoing should be taken to mean that there is no such thing as good publicity. Campaigns can be modulated according to their appropriateness to the material they are promoting, and such ventures are not intrinsically devoid of opportunities for creative thinking. However, there is a problem when, as happens more often than not, presentation actively usurps, distorts or debases what is supposedly being presented. The launch party in 1997 of John Banville’s most recent novel, The Untouchable, epitomised how a promotional lig can crassly vulgarise that which it is seeking to promote, when this book - in which a terminally sophisticated, near-neurasthenic aesthete, at the end of his days, recollects and reflects on his life of undercover spying and closeted homosexuality - was given its send-off by transporting a busload of visiting publishers and publicists up to Johnny Fox’s Pub for an evening of diddley-idle and Irish dancing, apres a perfunctory introductory reading. There is also the irritating fact that many publicists expect criticism and reviews to be a mere extension of public relations. Similarly, The Arts Council can dig into its coffers to appoint and pay a salary to a public relations officer, and ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ will doubtless become the watchwords, while it could not find the funds to contribute towards taking the proposed annual Dublin Writers’ Festival into its second year. Thus, a worthy project which was to feature an exciting line-up of visiting international writers had to be cancelled. As Siobhan Bourke of Rough Magic Films commented, regarding the emphasis on innovation and excellence in the new Arts Council plan, ‘The plan talks about evaluating the sector but there is no mention of the evaluation of council members themselves’, and the plan’s effectiveness, or lack of it, will ultimately be determined by the calibre and expertise of the council’s decision makers. Who will judge the judges? Given, for example, that some genius in Merrion Square recently intimated to Books Ireland that the Kevin Kiely-edited ‘New Writing’ forum did not belong in the magazine, since it did not have much to do with books and creative writing should be left to literary magazines, the future looks far from rosy. (Writing does not have much to do with books? Well I never.)
But to get back to that Delaney essay, he continues by complaining of the ‘pointless difficulty’ of Ulysses, in comparison with ‘...true works of genius, like Milton’s Paradise Lost or Yeats’s later poems’, where:

the reader’s effort in unravelling the obscurities and paradoxes is rewarded by profundities, philosophical insights, or moments of artistic beauty. With Joyce, we are rewarded with knowing that a butcher’s name spelt backwards is actually that of a Bulgarian opera singer, as well as the Latin name for the Dog Star. Joyce slagged Yeats for his aspirations, but he has some nerve. By comparison with the heartbreaking serenity of Yeats’s final poems, Ulysses is a series of low-key musings, with large dollops of Dublin sentiment.

It would be self-aggrandising to claim that when I first dipped into Ulysses, as a wide-eyed adolescent, it made perfect sense to me, but I did grasp one thing: here was something you didn’t come across every day of the week. When I went on to read the book from cover to cover for the first time, during the summer before starting college, what struck me most was not its much vaunted ‘difficulty’, the exaggerated reports of which put so many people off, but how damn funny, as well as profoundly moving, it turned out to be. Here at last was the antidote to a concept which, although I was as yet unfamiliar with by name, I had already had strong intimations existed: Arnoldian high seriousness, which stipulated that Literature always come with a capital L, a doctrine whose influence permeated much of what we had just been served up on the Leaving Certificate English course. Delaney informs us that he first read Ulysses in UCD ‘...under the stimulating tuition of Prof Declan Kiberd’, an experience I am also happy to have had, but his attention must have been straying during those lectures, for he remonstrates about the book’s humour:

OK, we get the point. The profound is also in the advertising jingle, the tram ticket, the silly pun. But so what? After a while, this seems patronising and even pretentious. And if you, the reader, look for meaning, the joke’s on you. Ha, ha. Great fun. And so every profundity is quickly punctured, jettisoned by a joke.

He then deplores the poor taste of the jokes, chiding condescendingly: ‘Forget Berlitz, Joyce could have got a job gag-writing for the Carry On team.’
But, as Joyce himself said, ‘If my book is not fit to be read, then life is not fit to be lived’; and Kiberd has written, in Inventing Ireland: ‘A form had to be created which would, in the words of Salman Rushdie “allow the miraculous and the mundane to coexist at the same level - as the same order of event”. That form was Ulysses.’ Kiberd continues:

A part of each earlier form survives in the assemblage that is Ulysses, but it would be foolish to name the book for one or the other of these genres. Insofar as it is susceptible of generic analysis, it might dynamically interrelate not just with Homer or Rabelais but also with Borges or Rushdie, serving as a rally-point for the emergence of a new narrative mode. For Joyce, the shattering of older forms permitted the breakthrough of a new content, a post-imperial writing. The danger, as always, is that conventional critics will seek to recolonize the writing, or any other baffling text by an Irish artist or a Latino or an Indian, translating its polyvocal tones back into the too-familiar, too-reassuring terms of the day-before-yesterday.

What Delaney neglects to engage with is the fact that Joyce’s various practices of writing (it seems foolhardy to saddle him with only one) are a direct consequence of his deep suspicion of the kind of metaphysical and mystical speculations which so intrigued the posturing Yeats (and led to the production of much waffle, which today seems merely risible, concerning fairies and hobgoblins, Renaissance courts in Tuscany and Big Houses in Galway, and the Phases of the Moon and the Great Wheel). Joyce’s aesthetic procedure, on the other hand, has a symbiotic relationship with the pre-eminent philosophical strand of this century, that is the advances in linguistic analyses made by Wittgenstein. Early Wittgenstein (and the Tractatus was published in 1921, with its English translation following a year later, like Ulysses, in 1922) never concerned itself with ethics, since he did not at that point think it fell within his remit as a philosopher, and he viewed all metaphysical questions as problems with language. For, if we had been asking the wrong questions all along, or asking them in the wrong way, we could hardly hope to get the right answers, if there are any. As Barthes wrote of Flaubert, ‘For Flaubert, the sentence is at once a unit of style, a unit of work, and a unit of life; it attracts the essential quality of the confidences of his work as a writer’, and this view is elaborated upon in the introduction to Hugh Kenner’s invaluable short study, Joyce’s Voices:

But the unit of style is the phrase or the sentence, imparting that local spin which is the meaning at any given moment. There is no “plain style” from which the stylistic variations of Ulysses
depart, for Joyce is careful to root styles in minds and in voices. The “narrative voice” of Ulysses turns out to be double - corresponding to the doubling of Homer and his Muse - one voice sensitive to the idiom of a nearby person whether that person is supposed to be speaking or
not, the other adept with neologisms and one-line imitations. When this second voice moves into the foreground, his caperings seem to
conceal what is going on. But in fact they are what is going on, in an Irish culture enamoured of surfaces and contemptuous of the possibility of meanings. For the book’s rhetoric of evasiveness is rooted in its naturalistic intentions, about which we take more for granted than we ought.

For Joyce, as for Wittgenstein, we cannot know anything outside of language. It’s all we’ve got, or all we’ve got left, for as Kenner writes again:

...level Irish eyes will challenge us to produce a subject that exists
apart from the words. Bloom, was there a Bloom? He is a shout in the street; a misprint makes him “L. Boom”. Joyce contrived that misprint. All is appearance, all. Joyce is never more thoroughly consistent than in his rejection of any Platonic truth we can imagine as real though disembodied.

For Delaney:

The endless sexual banter becomes tiresome. As soon as a female character is introduced, the ribald humour begins; quite at odds, incidentally, with Joyce’s reputation as some sort of feminist. (What are Molly and Gertie (sic), after all, but male fantasy figures?)

But authorial sympathy, if it can be detected, does not necessarily lie with the unreconstructed boors. Just as the nationalist views of The Citizen in ‘Cyclops’ are hardly shared by Joyce, so in ‘Sirens’ the laddishness is tempered when Miss Douce laughs, ‘- O wept! Aren’t men frightful idiots?’ And whatever about Gerty (a character as sentimental as the penny-dreadfuls which are her staple reading matter), Molly is rather more than a simple, compliant object of male fantasy. The fact that we are hard-pressed to know for sure which man she is talking about at any given moment surely represents a blow to the male ego. Delaney’s criticism is a classic illustration of a conundrum facing every male writer when writing about women, or women’s sexuality, which has become almost axiomatic: if he ignores her sexuality, he is being fearfully, wilfully blind, but if he acknowledges it and even shows her enjoying it, he is merely making her do what all men want all women to do. Either way, he is accused of wish-fulfilment, or of trying to control. But whatever readers, male or female, make of Gerty or Molly, they are surely a giant leap forward from how women were portrayed in the majority of cases during the dark night of the nineteenth century novel, where most women did not even have minds, much less genitalia. Delaney goes on:

And then there are the puns, so many puns, and all that padding, a half page of women named after plants and trees: Miss Larch Conifer, Miss
Priscilla Elderflower. Why, I was nearly splitting my sycamores.

Perhaps Joyce’s surreal parody of VIP-like social diaries is a little too close to the bone for comfort for Delaney.
He then rebukes ‘...the contrived, mechanical reappearance of earlier images...’ complaining that, ‘Far from seeming natural, it seems a striving for artificial realism.’ From this statement, if from none of the foregoing, it should be obvious that Delaney hasn’t the first clue as to what is going on in the book. The fact is that a considerable amount of poetry and prose depends for its effects on the reappearance of earlier images, and this is always contrived, whether it is made to seem so or not. Joyce’s goal was not to seem natural, or rather it was precisely to seem natural, since all realism is, ultimately, artificial. As Seamus Deane has pointed out:

Joyce’s most amazing feat is that he destroyed the premises of realistic fiction by carrying them to an extreme conclusion. ... He pursued fact so relentlessly that by the time he caught up with it, it had been changed by exhaustion into fiction.

Delaney castigates Joyce, in true trainspotterish fashion, because:

He has a funeral going from Sandymount to Glasnevin, by way of Ringsend! This man could have got a job as a Dublin taxi-driver, showing American tourists their embassy on the way in from the airport.

But, even if we are to indulge the low mimetic for a moment, what alternative route for the cortege does Delaney suggest would be any shorter?
He finishes up by opining that the real subject of the book is masturbation:

...the entire text is laden with unfulfilled obsession about sex, especially about female body parts but, in particular, their lingerie and underwear. Some of the detailed, rapturous descriptions of stockings and knickers are worthy of those “Hose and Heel” magazines in the US. There is effectively no penetrative sex in the book, and even in Nighttown, Bloom is more content to watch.

While he is perspicacious enough to acknowledge that this ‘...could be a metaphor for the lack of action in Ulysses’, for Dublin as the centre of paralysis, for ‘the deep frustration of a capital, and country, yearning for self-government’, he fails to make the larger connection and see the greater significance: voyeurism as a condition in the sexual sphere is the image par excellence for the essential observer status of the artist, just as fetishism bodies forth his or her equally necessary obsessive attention to detail, whether it be in terms of representation or use of language, or both. Someone who, having forged in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, had then set out to map the unconscious of all man (and woman) kind, could ill-afford to ignore these ideal correspondences. Delaney favours realism over fantasy, but what if one is trying to write with some verisimilitude about fantasy-life? If any justification were needed for the objective reality of such musings, he would do well to ask himself why the magazines he refers to are so popular in the first place, or why internet sex-sites do such a roaring trade. (In terms of dollar turnover, pornography in America is bigger than music and movies combined; it is bigger, get this, than the motor industry.) Unfulfilled sexual yearning is one of the most common features of life, since desire is an ever-sliding state, no sooner apparently satisfied than rekindled anew. Even men and women in the happiest and most harmonious of long-term committed relationships can find themselves looking longingly, if furtively, at briefly glimpsed strangers in the street. Furthermore, it is not as though Delaney’s own novel, The Casting of Mister O’Shaughnessy, does not contain its fair share of unconsummated groping, be it real or imagined, in young women’s deshabilles; and it would also appear from Roy Foster’s The Apprentice Magi that even the Yeats whom Delaney extols so highly didn’t always have his mind on ‘Beautiful Lofty Things’, since he wasn’t averse to hitting the hashish and whipping out Wicked Willie for a spot of real life alfresco jerking off in the woods around Coole.
Finally, odd that Delaney should consider being ‘moved’ the most important criterion or final end for evaluating a work of art. Moved to what, exactly? I do so love it when art, or entertainment, gives me a lovely warm feeling all over. Talk about sentimentality being the bank holiday of cynicism. Some people are moved by seeing Aeschylus’ ‘Orestia’ or Sophocles’ Theban plays in a Greek amphitheatre, others by barely being able to see the dots that are Celine Dion or The Corrs in Lansdowne Road stadium. But somehow I doubt that there is a significant overlap between the two audiences. The latter ‘artists’ may well excite pity and terror in the viewer (well, they do in this one), but not in the manner delineated by Aristotle in his Poetics, since the effect is unintentional on the part of the performer.
None of the foregoing should be taken to suggest that Joyce is completely above negative criticism. People are free to have their reservations about Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe. But as Joseph Brodsky wrote in his essay on Osip Mandelstam, ‘Literary criticism is sensible only when the critic operates on the same plane of both psychological and linguistic regard’. T S Eliot wrote:

About anyone as great as Shakespeare, it is unlikely that we can ever
be wholly right. But it is worthwhile that we should, from time to
time, change our way of being wrong.

While new avenues of approach to Joyce are always welcome, we must guard against being gratuitously wrong-headed.
Nor should this piece be interpreted as an argument for lack of commercial success as vouchsafing artistic integrity or worth. “Avant garde? Isn’t that French for bullshit?”, as John Lennon put it, with his characteristic Liverpudlian down-to-earthness, so reminiscent of Joyce’s own unhoodwinkable scepticism. Much experimentalism, especially if it is only for experimentalism’s sake, can wind up in culs-de-sac, as so many commentators are now telling us the post-modern project, whatever that was, has. Again, many of the artists and writers I most admire had to earn their commercial spurs before gaining the latitude to be more subtle or innovative, had to find an audience before taking it in new directions: Joyce himself began as a realist and a symbolist, even if he ended as a post-modernist; The Beatles wrote chart-topping three minute pop songs before producing ground-breaking work like Sgt Pepper’s (although, as is often remarked, they went from ‘Love Me Do’ to The White Album in less than seven years); Woody Allen did much broad slapstick before attempting to write like Chekhov (and still we constantly hear that his films barely break even at the box office); even Burroughs’ first published work, Junky, is little more than perfectly adequate reportage, and gave little hint of what was to follow; and while the Velvet Underground never sold very many records while they were together, they did enjoy the patronage of the influential Andy Warhol. However, if safe, middle-of the-road, unchallenging art becomes the norm, simply because it reinforces people’s prejudices and they are consequently prepared to pay for it, then how will we know the good stuff when it comes along, if it even succeeds in getting made? Not all change is necessarily a change for the better, but without it we will eventually have only stodginess and stagnation, atrophy and entropy.
‘That everyone is taught to read and write will ruin not only writing, but thinking as well.’ So wrote Frederick Nietzsche. While chary of endorsing the obvious extremism of this statement, and conscious that it is just the sort of formulation used by the philosopher’s detractors as evidence of his culpability in contributing to the formation of the mind-set which reached its logical culmination in the full-flowering of Nazism, perhaps there is still a glimmer of truth in the observation. Now that every parish hall in the country runs its own creative writing class, everyone fancies themselves capable of knocking out a novel or two. This confusion arises in some measure because not as many people are taught how to play a musical instrument, or how to paint pictures, as are taught literacy skills, and so many more people imagine that they are writers than imagine they are musicians or painters. However, just as not everyone who takes up guitar will go on to emulate Jimi Hendrix, or everyone who daubs canvases with oil will be lauded as the new Matisse, so not everyone who puts pen to paper will give Joyce (or, if you prefer, Yeats) a run for his money. Of course, Joyce would have been the first to applaud such democracy in the realm of the written word, with its anti-authoritarian DIY punk ethic. Indeed, it has been argued that, given the fine egalitarianism and interactivity of cyberspace, if he were writing today he would have chosen hypertext as the ideal medium for the dissemination of his endlessly allusive and intricately self-referential texts. Also, if such writing workshops only succeed in raising appreciation of fiction, if not its actual production, then they are not without merit. But the paradox is that, while everyone is unique, not everyone has a mind like that of Joyce, or Pynchon, or Perec, capable of making such connections. The idea that we are all writers is patently absurd. To quote Brodsky again, this time from his obituary of Nadezhda Mandelstam: ‘...culture is “elitist” by definition, and the application of democratic principles in the sphere of knowledge leads to equating wisdom with idiocy.’
Perhaps it is fascistic to claim that there are too many people writing. But there are too many people writing for the wrong reasons, such as getting rich, or famous, or because they think it looks like a nice way of life, or because they want to ‘tell the story of their lives’. There are certainly too many people writing who are not much good at it. In an Irish Times interview with Rosita Boland earlier this year, literary agent Jonathan Williams commented that he has had a huge increase in the quantity of manuscripts he is receiving, but this is not being matched by a corresponding increase in the quality of writing. Indeed, it is remarkable how many people there are now who, having produced one mediocre novel, are then called ‘writers’. Brodsky again, one last time, in ‘To Please a Shadow’, his appreciation of W H Auden.’: ‘If poetry ever was for him a matter of ambition, he lived long enough for it to become simply a means of existence.’
When one considers that over thirty years ago, one publisher’s reader’s report on the manuscript of J G Ballard’s novel Crash reckoned the author was ‘beyond psychiatric help’ (a verdict which Ballard himself regarded as ‘total artistic success’), one can only shudder at what the book’s fate would be in these more restrictively streamlined, sales-conscious times. In Ballard’s 1991 Independent on Sunday review of Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (available in the selection of his journalism A User’s Guide to the Millennium), he wrote: ‘At a time when the bourgeois novel has triumphed, and career novelists jet around the world on Arts Council tours and pontificate like game-show celebrities at literary festivals, it is heartening to know that Burroughs at least is still working away quietly in Lawrence, Kansas, creating what I feel is the most original and important body of fiction to appear since the Second World War.’ His 1993 Guardian review of Burroughs Letters complained: ‘Fiction today is dominated by career novelists, with the results one expects whenever careerists dominate an occupation...’. His 1997 Guardian obituary of Burroughs concluded even more sombrely than either, with the terse declaration: ‘Now we are left with the career novelists’.

First published in The Irish Literary Supplement



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