Get a Job and Get a Life—with James Joyce: Why Reading the "Jocoserious" Joyce Is Useful Fun

The last time I taught James Joyce was in 2010, when the questioning of the “usefulness” of the humanities was already underway. A bit before then, the University of Wisconsin System and the University of Wisconsin–Madison both had developed purposeful statements on what baccalaureate-degree earners ought to know and be able to do. These essential learning outcomes included ethical reasoning, international knowledge and competence, critical and creative thinking, and other valuable traits and abilities the humanities can help foster.

When I asked the thirty-five or so bright Madison undergraduates in the course if they had any acquaintance with these learning goals, my heart sank amid the solid silence. So instead of talking in that class session about why Finnegans Wake does not sport the possessive apostrophe, we discussed what studying James Joyce had to do with developing qualities and capacities college graduates would find useful in the world beyond the campus.

We scrutinized the moral paralysis in Dubliners to get at ethical reasoning, also discussing the determination of the anti-hero Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to “forge . . . the uncreated conscience of my race.” We talked about how ethical living for the budding artist Joyce required him to fly by what he saw as the “nets” of conventional Irish nationality, language, and religion. What more dazzling way to cultivate the international knowledge and competence outcome than to struggle with the many languages in Finnegans Wake—which the border-hopping Joyce said was “basically English” but is filled with multilingual puns? For the critical and creative thinking learning goal, what about analyzing how the structure of Ulysses transposes the challenges and lessons of Homer’s Odyssey to a modern urban setting? Students reading Ulysses for the first time are often amazed at how Joyce’s working the ancient Greek epic poem into his radically new novel exploded future expectations of this modern genre.

You get it. You can acquire knowledge, understanding, and habits of mind by studying Joyce that are invaluable in a variety of ways and that many employers would like to see in their employees. What multinational organization, for instance, does not want professionals who, blending accepted wisdom with forward thinking, can critically assess business problems and find creative solutions—ones that do not compromise the organization’s ethical standing in a complex, diverse global economy? And what are some of the grander, more satisfying and stimulating reasons one might want to take on this difficult author? Are the big rewards commensurate with the degree of difficulty? I say they are.

The big rewards are profoundly vivifying. At the end of Portrait, Stephen Dedalus proclaims: “Welcome, O life!” Molly Bloom, the larger-than-life female lead of Ulysses, closes the novel with her lusty embrace of life and sex and love: “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” When some criticized Joyce for writing dirty books, he retorted: “If Ulysses is not fit to read, life is not fit to live.” With all the focus in higher education these days on job preparation, we can forget that our job as educators is not only to help ensure the livelihood of our students but also to enhance their liveliness in all its human manifestations. We can forget that these two purposes are mutually reinforcing in helping students find their way in the world.

So, in this context, what makes Joyce so worth reading? Why do I like him so much? I’ll mention three reasons, each triggered by a snippet of his own language.

1. Joyce encourages us to not take ourselves or our place in the universe too seriously and to see the individual’s connections to the regeneration of the life around us.

a way a lone a last a loved a long the

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

The first quotation is the ending of Finnegans Wake, the final words on its last page. The longer, second quotation comprises the first words on the book’s opening page. To read Finnegans Wake, we have to start at the end and end at the start. As the First Woman of the Wake, Anna Livia Plurabelle, is passing away alone, while her watery parallel, Dublin’s River Liffey, is passing out into Dublin Bay to begin the recirculation cycle of water. The individual may die, but life and renewal in other individuals and in the natural world go on (indeed, Anna Livia is thinking about her children right to the end).

The form of Finnegans Wake is circular. Things come round again. New Finnegans wake. That’s why the title has no apostrophe. It’s about the big-picture comedy of new beginnings, not the tragedy of the unbending, unconnected, singular straight line.

It’s a roundly un-self-centered book. It suggests we need to look beyond ourselves to make sense of the world. In a time when technology enables our students to create increasingly customized bubbles of their own interests, their own friends, their own beliefs—maybe even their own facts—it insists on the power of constantly renewing wider horizons.

The optimal way to read the dense language of the Wake is out loud as part of a group. Bringing multiple eyes, voices, and ears to make sense of its sounds—ideally with people with knowledge of different languages—opens its wonders and sparks roiling discussions.

2. Joyce has his main character in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, stare down the threat of narrow, ethnic- and religion-based nationalism, while asserting his pride in identifying with the country to which his family immigrated.

“Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred.
And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

What? says Alf.

Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite
of hatred. . . .

By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will.”
(said by the nationalist Irish “Citizen”)

For the slippery Joyce, this passage is a disarmingly straightforward, explicit declaration by Bloom of his attitude toward humankind. Bloom makes it a sharp poke in the eye of the anonymous “Citizen,” a modern version of the one-eyed Cyclops, who in Homer’s Odyssey eats two of Odysseus’s sailors and threatens to consume the rest. Lacking the perspective that two eyes provide, the Cyclops-like Citizen is a brute of a man who sees in his limited, insular way the world divided into us and them. Bloom, a Jewish Irishman whose father was a Hungarian immigrant, is definitely “seen” as one of “them” in Celtic Catholic Ireland. The irony of the strongly Catholic Citizen wanting to crucify his Jewish countryman is not lost on Bloom. Nevertheless, when the Citizen tauntingly asks him what nation is his, Bloom retorts emphatically: “Ireland. . . . I was born here. Ireland.”

Joyce has lots of fun with references to eyes throughout this Cyclops chapter: “He rubs his hand in his eye” and “with his cod’s eye on the dog” and “the sight nearly left my eyes.” Alluding to Odysseus’s final blinding of the Cyclops by driving a pointed stick into his eye, Joyce has Bloom say to the Citizen: “You don’t grasp my point.”

Joyce came from an Irish nationalist family who were avid supporters of the nineteenth-century Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell. One of the most famous pieces of Joyce’s writing, the Christmas dinner scene in Portrait, is a fierce debate over the meaning of Irish patriotism. Though a voluntary exile on the Continent, Joyce looked back to Ireland throughout his life, even as his physical vision failed. As Seamus Heaney’s poem “Gravities” has it:

Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece

Joyce named the shops along O’Connell Street

But he warns, with eye jokes that mock the one-I/one-us-alone mindset, that blind patriotism of the Citizen’s variety is ignorant and self-defeating.

At this very moment our students find themselves in the middle of a virulent shouting match about what it means to be an American. Does a true American patriot welcome or turn away immigrants? Should America play a larger or smaller part on the world stage? What roles, if any, should race, ethnicity, and religion have in determining just how genuinely American one is or can become? The thoroughgoing internationalist and committed Irish patriot Joyce, who started his life in an Ireland that had been in revolt against English colonization off and on for centuries and who lived most of his life as an emigrant in a Europe riven by two world wars, had sophisticated views on these kinds of questions. Reading Joyce now can help young Americans form their own considered positions on how their nation should relate to the variety of its residents and to other peoples around the globe.

3. Joyce relishes the old, reaches for the new, and charms with his language and learning.

Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew!

These words are from a scene in Finnegans Wake in which two Irish washerwomen perch on either side of the River Liffey, gossiping as they wash out their employers’ clothes and dirty sheets. They are airing their dirty linen in public, so to speak. Always the ardent and supple punster, Joyce undoubtedly has variants of this exchange in mind: “Bring on the close. Then start anew.” Specifically, he echoes here: “Ring out the old. Ring in the new.” That catch phrase refers to the New Year’s practice of ringing church bells to send out the old year and welcome in the new one. The calendar makes time new when it marks the beginning of another twelve-month cycle. Just as laundering is a way to make clothes new to be freshly worn again, Joyce’s punning is a way to fill old language with new meaning.

Flowing water is always new. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus proclaimed that when you stepped into the same spot in a river a second time, it was new water and in effect a different river. But in dewy Dublin, when the washerwomen pull the clothes from the river to wring them dry, they can’t avoid wringing back in some moisture from the atmosphere. Students are often impatient with the old. They can press to know just how much of the past—history, dead languages, geology, old grammatical forms, and so on—they need to absorb in the course of their education to clearly see their way forward.

Joyce’s friend Ezra Pound famously said: “Make it new.” Joyce was determined to take the form and substance of literature to places they had never gone before. He was, in today’s parlance, an unparalleled “disrupter,” and a gleeful one at that. Yet he understood that hard-won knowledge of tradition is the ground for serious innovation. To wring in the new, you need to know something about the old you’re wringing out, or what’s a college for—whether it’s Joyce’s University College Dublin or the University of Wisconsin?

Thinkers like Heraclitus, Pound, and Joyce were always thinking through what they knew to grasp at what new thinking they could build upon it. It’s a habit students can learn from the likes of them.

4. Only more games

Joyce’s wife Nora would scold him about drinking too much on nights when the parting glass never seemed to arrive. But Jim could never swig enough alcohol—or life. His fellow Irish modernist and disciple, Samuel Beckett, said that while he himself was “working with impotence, ignorance,” Joyce was “tending towards omniscience and omnipotence.” Indeed, the title of one of Beckett’s more famous plays makes the point about how he saw his own artistic material: Endgame. For Joyce, there is no endgame, only more games.

Reading him always reminds me of two lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses: “The world is so full of a number of things / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” Joyce seemed to want to name more than his fair share of those things, to show us in language things that had not been shown that way before, in all their glory and folly. Struggling to comprehend the what, how, and why of that kind of very human, yet herculean, effort is no small part of getting a good higher education.

Incidentally, it can help students in preparing for a demanding job, too—one that might well require an other-centered emotional intelligence, an international perspective, an eye for the future based on an understanding of the past, and an appreciation for the fluidity of language.

Thank you, Jim. 


Kevin P. Reilly is president emeritus of and regent professor in the University of Wisconsin System. He is also a senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

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