Cast Book cover
Joyce’s Revenge

By Andrew Gibson

Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-818495-6; 306 Pages, Hardcover $80.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Andrew Gibson is professor of Modern Literature and Theory at the University of London. He has also recently become one of the editors of the James Joyce Quarterly.
The subject of Joyce’s Revenge is the interpretation of Ulysses as the work of an Irish writer. The dominant scholarly position, initiated by Ezra Pound, has been that Joyce is a cosmopolitan, rather than an Irish, writer. Pound’s theory has obscured the Irish writer theory of H. G. Wells. Although Wells belonged to a different literary tradition from Joyce, he was a shrewd judge of literary qualities and identities.
Gibson’s application of the Wells theory clears up some anomalous characteristics of Ulysses. Haines, for example, is presented as English, although the character is based on an Anglo-Irishman named Trench. The change in nationality emphasizes that the difference between the Anglo-Irish, mostly upholders of the Union, and the English themselves, colonizers of Ireland who refused to accept the irreconcilable differences between the English and the Irish, is spurious.
Similarly, the choice of Bloom becomes the subject of subtle but convincing analysis. Earlier in 1904, the year in which Ulysses takes place, a priest-led pogrom against the Jews ocurred in Limerick. The complicated result of this was that Unionists (i.e., most Anglo-Irish and Englishmen) saw anti-Semitism as proof of the barbarity of the Irish and of the propensity of the Catholics to persecute. Certain of the Irish on a more political level – such as Griffith – readily accepted anti-Semitism. Others – such as Michael Davitt – did not. Many of those that agitated for Home Rule saw an identity between the Jews and the Irish and used the biblical trope of Moses as a parable for the liberation of Ireland.
Bloom was, therefore especially attractive to Joyce as a way of negotiating between the stereotypes of the groups: “[Bloom] has neither the intimacy nor the complicity with them [the Irish and the Unionists] that is bred of a tradition of profound hostility. Constructed in this fashion, Bloom becomes an extremely subtle and flexible instrument. Joyce uses his character to steer a delicate course between a range of political positions that are finally unpalatable as wholes. In doing so, he produces a complex, ironic, composite politics of his own.” The majority view of Bloom as outsider should be replaced by the view of him as an insider of independent mind.
In Gibson’s analysis of ‘Scylla and Charybdis,’ an unexpected subtext emerges – Joyce’s dismissal of the inept but colonialistic treatment of Shakespeare by Edward Dowden. In the Ulysses period, beginning in fact some decades before 1904, Shakespeare had been appropriated as a part on English imperialism’s intellectual and cultural furniture.
Further appropriation appears in the relationship between Ireland and the Anglo-Irish. Revivalism was an Anglo-Irish movement and, despite claims to the contrary, was not truly nationalistic. It was rather the last hurrah of a class facing diminishment. The Anglo-Irish sought alignment with the Union and for cultural as well as political and economic power. Given these terms, Gibson sees the stress in ‘Sirens’ to depend on Joyce’s attack on the English language and the primacy in ‘Cyclops’ to depend on the parodies of the Anglo-Irish inflated mythological style. In this reading of Ulysses the parodies are more significant than the conflict between Bloom and the Citizen. (Since the targets of Joyce’s verbal play are not always specific, Gibson rejects the use on an all-inclusive basis of the word parody.)
Gibson rescues Gerty from the opprobrium that is the first, uncritical response of most readers and some scholars. By carefully identifying and analyzing the publications that Gerty enjoys, he is able to isolate the colonial influences and to define a young woman on the brink of modernism. But the source of her knowledge is certainly tainted, and Joyce does not resist the broadly comic aspects. Gerty is far in advance of her countrywomen, but Gibson establishes this on the basis of contemporary and later – post-Joycean – studies. Some of the contemporary studies may not have been available to or known by Joyce, and certainly those written after his death were not. The extent to which either group of studies may be admitted in evidence is limited and this tends to diminish somewhat the effectiveness of Gibson’s analysis. (One of the valuable contributions of Joyce’s Revenge is the detailed notices of what books were in Joyce’s Trieste library and which books he otherwise knew.)
The unusually long chapter on ‘Oxen of the Sun’ takes up the question of Stephen’s defense of fertility. To the modern reader, the insistence on fertility seems retrograde and sufficiently surprising to warrant further explanation. Gibson provides a carefully detailed analysis of the Malthusian controversy and the imperialistic significance that in a debased version of Malthusianism the colonizers – and some of the Anglo-Irish – applied to Ireland. Gibson elaborates brilliantly on the undetected mastery of Joyce in his disposition of material and general puckish irreverence. He draws this conclusion: “[‘Oxen’] is an extraordinary and outlandish hybrid. As such, it not only exposes colonial history and culture as themselves productive of monstrous incongruities, but also negotiates those incongruities, in a manner that Joyce intended to be exemplary.”
‘Circe’ proves amenable to Gibson’s insistence on Ulysses as an Irish work with much of the comedy as well as the meaning arising from the conflict, of which Gibson gives many examples, of racy Dublin speech with stilted Anglicanisms. “This kind of doubleness [of language] is everywhere in ‘Circe’. It reflects a form of entrapment, bears witness to interior splits that, at one and the same time, are gaping wounds and sources of great mirth. The truly disruptive Other in ‘Circe’ is not the Freudian id. It is the alien idiom.”
The tired explanation for ‘Eumaeus’ is that the episode reflects the language of late-at-night and is thus – tired. But the clutter of scholarly commentary has left this chapter relatively clean, and Gibson can proceed to establish his own position without first dismantling those of others. In terms of anti-colonial practice, ‘Eumaeus’ is an application of the Irish bull, the persistent attack on logic within a reasonable framework. Gibson gives the familiar example: “It was a terrible summer. Thanks be to God.” But it was more than this a rejection of the colonialism expressed prescriptively as “correct” speech, especially as mandated by the pervasive Lindley Murray.
Throughout Joyce’s Revenge Gibson has shown the subversive intention of Ulysses, but in his analysis of ‘Penelope,’ he shows Joyce in all his mischievous glory. In Molly, Joyce creates the final subversive – the voice that dismisses the nationalists, the revivalists, and the Catholics. In short, she scorns the Irish. This may be “Joyce’s revenge” indeed, but Gibson goes beyond this to seek a more finely tuned interpretation, one consonant with the general tone of his book. “Thus at the end of Ulysses, like a conscientious Derridean, Joyce both sustains and relinquishes the terms of a ferocious, polar opposition. He insists on the importance of an anti-imperial practice that is not automatically and in principle based on unwavering Irish Catholic and nationalist culture. Indeed, it is the very intensity of Joyce’s hostility to the stranger that finally provokes him to change its proportions.”
Joyce’s Revenge presents a convincing and fruitful method to interpret Ulysses. Gibson also – unlike many students of Joyce – takes Joyce seriously as both a thinker and an artist. Many students have sundered these two aspects and gone weaving in sundry unprofitable directions. The worth of any theory is not in its cleverness but in its explanatory value. On this basis Gibson’s book is a success and a most refreshing one.

Bob Williams
31 March 2004

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