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James Joyce’s Jewish-Irish Epic at 100

Norma Barnacle burned most of the letters she received in 1909 from her lover who signed his name, “Jim.” But she didn’t destroy all of them. Indeed, they have survived all these years. In one of them, Jim, aka James Joyce, wrote to his muse and “little fuckbird” :”Fuck me, darling, in as many ways as your lust will suggest.” He went on and on: “Fuck me dressed in your full outdoor costume with your hat and veil on, your face flushed with the cold and wind and rain and your boots muddy.”

Prudes and dowdy literary scholars are still shocked by the language of the poet and novelist who rebellled against Catholicism and IrelandL Like Stephen Dedalus the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, hevowed he would “not servethat in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” A sexist and more than a bit mad, he nevertheless blazed a trail others still follow.

This year, 2022, hoary censorship of the sort Joyce battled all his literary life, is back as big and as nasty as ever before. According to PEN America, more than 1,000 books have recently been removed from shelves in school libraries and from classrooms. The latest wave of censorship has prompted rebukes from Congressman Jamie Raskin and California Governor Gavin Newsom.

In fact, over the last century, censorship has never really taken a vacation in the U.S. or around the world, though it has sometimes seemed as though the last nail was hammered into its coffin. Moral crusaders and foes of modern literature tried long ago to abort James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses, which was written from 1914 to 1921, while the author was in exile in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. Not a word was written in Ireland, where the author was born in 1882, the same year that Virginia Woolf arrived in the world. 

Like most members of my generation I read Ulysses when I was a teenager. As soon as I was able, I went to Paris, roamed the streets, lived on bread, wine and literary dreams, and, before I returned to the States, bought a copy of Henry Miller's censored novel, Tropic of Cancer and smuggled it past customs officials in New York. It was the thing to do.

What prompted the censors to confiscate copies of Ulysses, burn them, and fine those who published excerpts in magazines such as the Little Review edited by Margaret Anderson. Sex, they insisted, was the culprit, and pointed to the chapter titled “Nausicca” in which Mr. Leopold Bloom masturbates in public while a young, seductive woman named Gerty on the cusp of menstruating, reveals to him parts of her anatomy.

Fireworks explode in the sky. On the ground below the pyrotechnics, Bloom has an orgasm. It’s pretty tame stuff by contemporary standards, though perhaps not in backwater towns and villages, even in Governor Newsom’s Golden State. Curiously, Newsom hasn’t tout Ulysses as a censored book. His list includes The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and Nineteen-Eighty Four. 

As the American lawyer, Edward de Grazia, showed in his masterful book, Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius, self-righteous crusaders like Anthony Comstock and his followers, used pornography as a cudgel to crack down on works of literature, like Ulysses, and to prevent information about birth control and abortion from reaching the public. In the eyes of the crusaders, Bloom was simply a middle aged man with smut on his mind.

Evoking God and the Bible, Comstock & Company aimed to legislate and control what happened between couples, married or living in sin, whether behind closed doors and in bedrooms, or out in the open where spectators could witness characters such asd Leopold and Gertie caught in a sexual act, though they didn't rub their bodies against one another.

Bloom was a perfect protagonist to inflame the censors. A descendant of several generations of wandering Jews and a convert to Catholicism, he insists he’s a “respectable citizen.” He wanders about Dublin in ways that echo Homer’s The Odyssey. Still, unlike the heroic Ulysses, Bloom has an adulterous wife named Molly, and a grown daughter living away from home. The death of his son, Rudolph, aka Rudy, has left an emotional vacuum in his life. So, when he encounters Stephen Dedalus, a young Irish artist raised as a Catholic, he brings him to his house at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin, where Molly reclines in bed and indulges her licentious imagination.

In the climactic ending of the book, Molly exclaims, “I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” She seems to have an orgasm, though Joyce, despite his own dalliance and his professed defiance of the church and its moral code, never says so explicitly. He hid his obscenities in plain sight.

Joyce explained that he meant Ulysses to be “an epic of two races (Israelite-Irish).” Always attentive to details, it seems significant that he hyphenated the two words ,”Israelite” and “Irish” and didn’t create space between them. Bloom tells Dedalus that he’s as “good an Irishman”as anyone else and insists that there’s “not a vestige of truth” in the accusation that Jews have been the ruination of Europe.

“History,” he adds, “proves to the hilt Spain decayed when the Inquisition hounded the Jews out and England prospered when Cromwell, an uncommonly able ruffian…imported them.” At times, he seems to be a walking talking advertisement for the Jews—especially when anti-Semites mock him as “old Methusalem’ [sic]. Readers come to appreciate him as a Jewish/ Irish Everyman and not simply an advertising salesman for the newspaper, The Freeman, which employs him.

Joyce borrowed the name for his hero from a Jewish merchant named Leopold Popper. Every name and address in his book derived from something or someone real, factual. A stickler for accuracy, he went blind writing Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Joyce thought that at the core of his being he was a Jew and that his Jewish ancestry provided him with a kind of mystical elan. Anything and anyone but Catholic and especially someone persecuted by Catholics and the Catholic church. Joyce poured himself into Bloom, an exile in his own country, who thinks that “Holy Writ” is a “forgery” and who wants, when he’s utopian, a “union of all, Jews, Moslem and gentile” and for everyone to live by the Ten Commandments.

Joyce thought that the obscure references and allusions in his novel would make it a classic. He explained to Jacques Benoist-Mechin, who translated parts of the book into French, “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring one's immortality.” The enigmas and puzzles did keep the scholars busy, and lodged the book in the public eye, but it has been the humanity of Molly, Stephen and especially Bloom that has provided immortality.

In her short, brilliant Joycean biography of James Joyce, the Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, asks with her subject in mind, “Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?” Her answer: “I believe they do.” She adds “while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict.” That’s the James Joyce that she depicts convincingly, though she also offers a quotation from the Irish writer, Samuel Becket, who noted after Joyce’s death in 1941 in Switzerland that he was “a very lovable human being.” Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, died the same year. O’Brien thinks she never read more than a few pages of Ulysses.

Given that Joyce was mean to friends and family, as O’Brien convincingly shows, it’s not surprising that readers and fans of his books haven’t gone out of their way to honor his birth or his death. Rather, they celebrate what's known as “Bloomsday,” which occurs annually on June 16. Bloomsday was first celebrated in 1924, two years after Ulysses was initially published in Paris by Shakespeare & Company, owned by Sylvia Beach, a literary midwife to a work of genius that changed the course of modern literature.

The novel didn’t appear in print in the US until 1929, though some copies reached readers secretly after it was banned. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice seized and destroyed most of the books that were initially printed in the US. In December 1933, in a landmark decision, US District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the novel was not obscene.

To legal experts, Woolsey’s ruling ended the obscenity laws, but that was not to be. In the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was censored as was William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Perhaps this year, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Ulysses, lawyers, judges, writers, editors, librarians and the “common reader,” as Virginia Wolf called her, will realize that censorship never really dies, as one might wish. James Joyce’s novel—which T. S. Eliot hailed in 1923 “as the most important expression which the present age had found”—reminds us of the persecution of geniuses and the battles that have been fought in and out of courtrooms to save works of art—Ulysses, Howl, Naked Lunch and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover—from self-righteous crusaders and book burners. Freedom of expression is as needed now as ever before.

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