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Connecting some loose ends

Wednesday, November 18, 2009; 05:02 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Davison, Neil L. James Joyce, Ulysses, and the construction of Jewish identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The problem with a lot of scholarship on Ulysses and Judaism is how focused it is on how Joyce came to understand Judaism himself rather than actually analyzing how they operate within the text. Davison (who wrote an article on Bloom and Zionism I looked at earlier) here spends most of the book looking at Joyce’s relationships to Jews in Trieste, his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair, and so on, and how this informs his depiction of Bloom. I’ve found a few useful parts though, and will continue to use this source for my final paper later this semester.

So anyway. Davison more than anyone else I’ve found so far gets to the bottom of the Hellenism/Hebraism debate, which I’m grateful for. Davison explains that Joyce encountered this dichotomy through both Matthew Arnold and Nietzsche. Arnold (like Buck Mulligan) saw his country as excessively ‘Hebraic’ and thus sought a balance between ‘strictness’ of Hebraism and ‘spontaneity’ of Hellenism as a means of reinvigorating the British Empire (109-10). It should be noted that Arnold didn’t see this notion of Hebraism as having anything to do with modern-day Jews (compare to how the men in Aeolus/Cyclops talk about the Israelites while remaining anti-Semitic to Bloom).

This dichotomy wasn’t enough for Bloom, especially after his encounters with modern-day Jews on the continent. Davison writes that the more he learned about modern Jews, “the more their secular history necessitated an understanding through a direct focus on their political plight; Hellenizing or Hebraizing his own culture thus became for Joyce another attempt—like the Celtic Twilight—at the reshaping of national consciousness through a politically naïve, inviable notion” (111). Thus you have Arnold lampooned in Circe through “Philip Drunk and Philip Sober” (Hellenism and Hebraism), Siamese twins, “Oxford dons with lawnmowers [. . .] masked with Matthew Arnold’s face” (15.2512-14).

Nietzsche did more for Joyce, in that he directly addresses the Jews of modern Europe in a political context even while using the same Hellenic/Hebraic dichotomy (and its master/slave moralities, which I talked about earlier in regard to Bloom’s masochism). Nietzsche understood Jews to be essential players in the making of Europe as he knew it, and conceived of them as such: “On one hand they are the ancients who established the ‘destructive’ moral code of the West; on the other they are a contemporary people who have been made by history into a group categorically different form all other peoples occupying Europe. Because their estrangement had transformed the Jews into such a willful people, Nietzsche believed they must assimilate with other Europeans so as to create a superior ‘new ruling caste for Europe’” (116). This assimilation (and with it ‘racial mixing’ that’s touched on a bit in Ulysses and a lot in Nietzsche) maybe accounts for the “Jewgreek is greekjew” thing I’m so hung up on (15.2097-8)—Jewish assimilation will in some sense benefit all of Europe, Jews and gentiles included. Along with that, Bloom’s opposition to Zionism.

A final note, on Judaism in Ulysses scholarship as a whole: Marilyn Reizbaum, who I wrote about earlier, writes in her introduction to James Joyce’s Judaic Other that looking at Joyce’s depictions of Jews is a relatively new thing. Prior to 1955, pretty much every study (including Stuart Gilbert’s seminal one) focuses on Stephen and sees Bloom as simply his foil. It didn’t get much better after that—Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer, said in 1982 on the subject of Jews in Joyce that “there was not much in it” (Reizbaum 1), and after that a lot of the scholarship was on figuring out whether or not Bloom’s actually Jewish (which is sort of a stupid debate if you ask me). The big names now, who often seem largely in agreement in refuting much of this previous scholarship, are Neil Davison and Marilyn Reizbaum. Probably others too, but hey, these guys wrote books.

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