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Ousted Possibilities – Irish History and Joyce

Tuesday, September 29, 2009; 07:58 pm Leave a comment Go to comments

Ousted Possibilities: Critical Histories in James Joyce’s Ulysses by Gregory Castle. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Autumn 1993)

Despite the fact that this article only glances on my obsession, I still decided to present this, as it does follow the lines of argument that I am beginning to develop when I look at Joyce’s use of Catholicism, and it also seems nicely balanced between analysis and evidence (most of the Quarterly articles that I have looked at have mainly contained lots of evidence for a simple point).

The article takes the reader on a romp through the heads of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, as each constructs a personal historical narrative. Though the introduction deals with Joyce’s own letters, and other texts, Castle returns quickly to Ulysses, and Nietzsche, Mainly contradicting other scholarship, although a few pertinent essays are used to make his case. Castle wants to prove that Joyce is contradicting the power of the master narrative of history through Ulysses, treating the book as “preeminently a critique of historical conventions” (306). Although the point is well argued, seeing as it is Joyce who Castle concerns himself with, using Ulysses as a case study of the author’s attempt to “articulate his own ‘moral nature’” and remove himself from the historical conventions of Ireland (306), not very much of Joyce’s thoughts on the matter are seen outside of the novel. The case could have been stronger if more evidence from personal letters, or other works was incorporated.

First, Castle deals with opposing scholarship and criticism, arguing that analysis of Joyce must go beyond linguistic and stylistic realms. Recent scholarship (that is scholarship of the 1990s) has assumed that historical knowledge of the physical Irish world is a side note to examining Ulysses. This is the convention that Castle argues against. He attacks the idea that “historical events and subjects are purely textual, that the forms of the past are linguistic phenomena with no significant historical value” (307) with the recent studies of Joyce’s politics, Irish culturalism, and the analysis of world historical events (308). Much of the article is structured along the outline of the previous sentence, echoing Joyce’s use of the microcosm representing the macrocosm, although along a linear field.

When delving into the text of Ulysses itself, Castle first examines Stephen, who he feels remains most faithful to the master narrative of history, despite the fact that Stephen characterizes himself most vehemently as trying to escape from the standard history that controls his world. Castle states that this has to do with the character’s fear of the alternative, despite his abhorrence of the current British, and Church dominated Ireland (the “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” line is repeated several times in this section of the article) (309). Stephen’s problem is that he tries to repudiate history as taught by characters, such as Deasy, without having an alternative history to use. He is stuck in the historical binary of the master and servant, imposed upon him by, macro cosmically, the British upon the Irish, and micro cosmically, Deasy (311). Ultimately, Stephens attempts to reject history isolate him from discovering alternatives.

Bloom, Castle contrasts as being much freer, for the same reasons that we have explored in class. He is capable of imagining anything, and creates his own alternative history, where he is on every side of a conflict, and looking at it through every view (314). Stephen’s hated master narrative becomes something that Bloom may examine, and add to a created narrative that situates Bloom happily within his own world view. It “does not presume to speak for everyone,” as Stephen’s overbearing generalized history does, “nevertheless [the created history] speaks for him” (315). This allows Bloom equal co-existence with conflicting interpretations, which allows Joyce to express a lively alternative history.

Molly is capable of the most historical freedom, in Castle’s eyes. She goes beyond the alternatives to history, and reduces time to an insignificant non-linear force (321). In her soliloquy her memory jumps back and forth, sliding off on tangents, and coming back around to the thoughts that have absorbed her interest. With only her memory, Molly takes control of history, an remakes it as she sees fit, leaving her free of history, in a way that Bloom, living companionably side-by-side, with varying histories, cannot imitate. Molly becomes the epitome of Nietzsche’s “thus I willed it” version of history, also associated with Dionysus (322). Her will is to reorder history outside the bounds of the captive Ireland, servant of Britain and the Roman Catholic church, just as Joyce is trying to do.

As I said before, I’m not certain how well Castle manages to convey his point that these characters represent Joyce’s personal views of history. Not enough time was spent on texts outside of Ulysses, so we don’t have the clear picture needed to decide if Joyce’s views really do suggest this. However, the analysis of the characters themselves is very through, bringing in commentary on sexism, racism, imperialism, and ecclesiastical power through out history, and the relationship of the Irish to all of these things.

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