100 Years On: The Politics Of Ulysses Refuses To Die

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

A century from its initial publication, Simon Dobey examines the prophetic nature of the novel produced by UCD’s most illustrious alumnus.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first publication in Paris in 1922. The novel chronicles the events of June 16th 1904, almost entirely from the perspective of a Dubliner and Jewish man, Leopold Bloom. Ulysses was ground-breaking from a stylistic perspective, it shattered widely held rigid conceptions of form with its quintessential stream of consciousness polish. Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914 and despite having left Dublin on the date on which the novel is set and only returning to Ireland on three occasions, the last of which is 1912, Joyce still manages to create a vivid description of the Hibernian metropolis, down to its finest details.

Ulysses is a political book. Released as Ireland stood on the precipice of a nation altering civil war, Ulysses both satirises and discusses, with deeply held concern the political questions of the day, the past and the future. It is perhaps the ultimate testament to Joyce and to his most beloved literary work that so many of the political questions raised remain relevant today. How Leopold Bloom arises out of bed, from his home on 7 Eccles street, marches off on a journey of “epic” proportions, only to return in the evening to the same very spot serves as a metaphor for how we continuously arrive back where we began. One of the Latin phrases littered throughout A Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man reads; “Tempora mutantur et nos murmur in illis” which translates to, circumstances change and we change with them. 

People Before Profit TD for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Richard Boyd Barret, spoke to The University Observer about what he believes to be the salient political questions raised within the novel. Barrett described Ulysses as the “literary equivalent of a Picasso painting” and attested that Joyce utilises literary forms to give a new and radical perspective on what a post-colonial Ireland should look like. The type of characters chosen to reveal the story of Dublin in 1904 is characteristic of ordinary people, be they prostitutes, minorities, women or regular working people. For Deputy Barrett, this sets Ulysses apart from the typical novels of the 19th century which focused predominantly on the lives of the upper-middle class or the aristocracy. In the novel, Stephen Dedalus, who is modelled on Joyce himself, states “Ireland is the fractured looking glass of the servant.” This is the sort of radical interpretation of Ireland that Joyce epitomises, viewing the lives of servants, and ordinary people, through a fractured lens.

I think Joyce would be infuriated, 100 years on from the establishment of the state that the church is still dominating education and health

Despite this, Joyce and Ulysses received significant condemnation from left-wing critics, most notably from Karl Radek. Speaking before the Soviet Writers Congress, Karl Radek, described the novel as a “heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope.” Perhaps Joyce considered that a compliment. Deputy Barrett attributes such criticism to the incorrect belief that Joyce's writing was unnecessarily obscure and petit-bourgeois but also that many who held such beliefs were coming under the influences of Stalinism. “Eisenstein, the filmmaker, who made films about the Russian revolution and was very much a supporter of socialism loved Joyce.” The exiled Leon Trotsky railed against elements of the left that sought to undermine the modernist movement. “Here in Ireland, certainly a minority were those on the left and those in left republican circles who saw Ulysses for what it was- a progressive and radical revolutionary work.”

The Cyclops episode is perhaps the closest we get in the novel to viewing Joyce’s gripes with the Irish revolutionary movement. Leopold Bloom is hounded from Barney Kiernan's pub on Little Britain Street by a character called the Citizen who wears an eye patch. The Citizen is designed as such to represent the narrow mindedness of certain elements of the national and cultural revivalist movements. The choice of year, 1904, and Bloom's Jewish ethnicity are by no means accidental. It is after all the year of the Limerick pogrom. The citizen is quick to characterise Bloom as a freemason and subsequently excludes him entirely from any future “free” Ireland. 

According to Deputy Boyd Barrett “Joyce was proved tragically correct” in his lamentations about the capacity of the coming free state and even the modern republic to respect the rights of all minority groups; “We built a state, which perpetuated oppression, particularly of women and of working-class people who were the real victims of institutions like mother and baby homes and industrial schools.” Furthermore, Deputy Barrett adds that many of the social problems we suffer are a direct result of the power surrendered to the church following the revolutionary period, “I think Joyce would be infuriated, 100 years on from the establishment of the state that the church is still dominating education and health.” 

References to how imperialism steals aspects of autonomy and identity are everywhere, from the servant in the Martello tower who cannot speak Irish to Paddy Dignam, who only in death is no longer a subject of colonialism

Joyce certainly alludes to the devastating consequences of both the Catholic church and British rule in Ireland throughout the novel. Perhaps, most poignantly when Dedalus states that he is a servant of two masters; the imperial British state and the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. References to how imperialism steals aspects of autonomy and identity are everywhere, from the servant in the Martello tower who cannot speak Irish to Paddy Dignam, who only in death is no longer a subject of colonialism.

James Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914 as his family were forced to leave Trieste following the outbreak of the First World war. Joyce witnessed how the stubbornness of the imperial powers condemned millions of ordinary people to slaughter. In our modern context with the war in Ukraine, ongoing many in the Irish and European political classes are urging Ireland toward NATO membership. So too in Ulysses did the imperial and republican camps in Ireland battle for supremacy. Boyd Barrett is a staunch supporter of Irish neutrality and believes Joyce would have been the same. “Like the best elements of the Irish revolution, Connolly and many of those who fought during the revolutionary period, Joyce opposed both imperialist camps.”- “(neutrality) doesn’t mean an indifference to oppression, quite the opposite.”