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Posts Tagged ‘James Joyce’

02 APRIL, 2015

Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

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“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves.”

One need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes — one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?

Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

His first published work — a laudatory review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken — appeared in the influential Fortnightly Review in the spring of 1900. Joyce was only eighteen. Ibsen, who had just suffered a series of strokes, was deeply touched by the article’s benevolent sentiment. He wrote to his English translator, the prominent Scottish drama critic William Archer, to express appreciation for Joyce’s review. Archer then wrote to the young author, passing along Ibsen’s words of gratitude.

Joyce, already high on the honor of being published in the prestigious journal, was elevated to absolute elation by the knowledge that not one but two of his literary idols had not only paid attention to his work but had appreciated it. On April 28, five days after receiving Archer’s letter, he sent the following reply, found in Joyce: Selected Letters (public library):

Dear Sir I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. Faithfully yours

Jas A. Joyce

But the exchange was no fleeting gratification. Almost a year later, in March of 1901, Joyce sent Ibsen a beautiful letter for the playwright’s seventy-third birthday.

Having just turned nineteen, Joyce writes:

I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

And yet Joyce, perhaps gripped with youth’s dual capacity for profound admiration and stubborn pride, is quick to redact any impression of excessive adulation while assuring Ibsen that his veneration comes from a place more sincere than the vanity of superficial idolatry:

Do not think me a hero-worshipper — I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

But for all his precocious mastery of thought and language, Joyce is still very much a teenager — to him, a 73-year-old is so ancient as to be practically dead. In a rather morbid passage, Joyce assumes the role of a mortality-hypnotist and writes:

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it… But I am sure that higher and holier enlightenment lies — onward.

Ibsen lived another five years, but the play young Joyce had reviewed was his last, which renders Joyce’s closing words triply touching:

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly, because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting. Faithfully yours,

James A. Joyce

Perhaps Ibsen’s assuring words were what gave young Joyce “the faith in the soul” of which he wrote in his magnificent letter to Lady Gregory the following year.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, which is a treasure trove in its hefty totality, with Isaac Asimov’s heartwarming fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s wonderful letter to George Eliot.

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02 MARCH, 2015

The Faith in the Soul: Young James Joyce’s Magnificent Letter to Lady Gregory

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“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light.”

In his infinitely wise letter of advice to his son, Charles Dickens extolled the vitality of persevering “in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it.” In one of the very few interviews legendary painter Agnes Martin gave, she observed that “you’re permanently derailed” and that you arrive at the art you end up making “through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure.” This message of dogged determination fortified by failure has become a chorus line of pop psychology so oversung that we tune it out. And yet the history of creative endeavor is strewn with living testaments to this uncomfortable, overpreached, and yet essential truth. But hardly anyone embodies it more vibrantly, nor speaks to it more eloquently, than James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941) — a man who proved, to himself and the world, that it pays to imagine immensities.

In 1902, shortly after graduating from University College Dublin with concentrations in English, French, and Italian, twenty-year-old Joyce decided to remain at the university and study medicine, which he saw as a stable career path for supporting himself. But he soon began to struggle academically and was unable to earn a scholarship to help cover the steep tuition, which he couldn’t afford on his own. He decided to move to France and study medicine at the University of Paris, supporting himself by teaching English — but he knew nobody in Paris, nor did he have the means to rent an apartment on his own. Exasperated, he reached out to fellow Irish literary legend Lady Gregory, three decades his senior, asking for help.

In a letter from November of 1902, found in the altogether revelatory Joyce: Selected Letters (public library), young Joyce writes:

I have broken off my medical studies here and I am going to trouble you with a history. I have a degree of B.A. from the Royal University, and I had made plans to study medicine here. But the college authorities are determined I shall not do so, wishing I dare say to prevent me from securing any position of ease from which I might speak out my heart.

After admitting that he doesn’t have the means to pay his medical school tuition and that the university refuses to give him financial aid on grounds of inability, even though they offer it to students who failed exams he passed, young Joyce declares:

I want to get a degree in medicine, for then I can build up my work securely. I want to achieve myself — little or great as I may be — for I know that there is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to my church as a human being, and accordingly I am going to Paris.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

With the peculiar blend of pride, despair, and determination familiar to all those who have had to reconcile their boundless ambition with their limiting circumstances, Joyce beseeches Lady Gregory:

I am going alone and friendless … into another country, and I am writing to you to know can you help me in any way. I do not know what will happen to me in Paris but my case can hardly be worse than it is here.

But he is quick to assure her, and perhaps most of all himself, of the solid spiritual center bolstering his ambition:

I am not despondent however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.

Faithfully yours,

James Joyce

Medicine, of course, is not the mount of achievement on which Joyce ultimately staked his pole. But even as he surrendered to literature as a full-time writer, he brought the same faith and determination to the pursuit, plowing through perceived failure — take, for instance, Carl Jung’s eviscerating review of Ulysses — to bequeath us with some of the greatest books of all time.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, the hefty totality of which is full of the author’s emergent ideas on literature and life, with Joyce’s little-known children’s book, his most revealing interview (conducted by Djuna Barnes, no less), and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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02 FEBRUARY, 2015

Carl Jung’s Delightfully Disgruntled Review of Ulysses and His Letter to James Joyce

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“You may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.”

“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!” young Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the pleasures of rereading. One of the literary canon’s least common candidates for rereading is James Joyce’s sprawling 735-page novel Ulysses, serialized in installments between 1918 and 1920, and eventually published in its totality by legendary literary steward Sylvia Beach on Joyce’s fortieth birthday: February 2, 1922. It is a book that few people begin, even fewer finish, and fewer still reread. (Marilyn Monroe did all three — a fact that might surprise the judgmental and those who subscribe to limiting beliefs about the false divide between pop culture and “high” culture.) With its protracted stream-of-consciousness narrative, which stretches a single day across 735 pages, Ulysses can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a mind longing for speed of thought.

This frustration is what led legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — founding father of modern analytical psychology, and a great champion of the human spirit — to write a blistering review of Ulysses a decade after the novel’s release, published in the German journal Europäische Revue in September of 1932. Found in the second volume of Robert Deming’s James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (public library), the review is intriguing and even irresistibly delightful — especially for me, as someone who believes that the “critic” better serves the public as a celebrator rather than eviscerator — because Jung’s disgruntlement seems directed at his own exasperation, almost as though he was more upset with his own response to reading the book than with Joyce for writing it. It is the experience that Jung criticizes — well capable of admitting Joyce’s artistic genius, he remains nonetheless amusingly aggravated by the book’s effect on him. But this strange and all too human duality is best exemplified by a curious letter Jung sent to Joyce shortly after the review was published, reproduced below.

Jung writes in his review:

Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin — a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less… But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.

Of course, this outrage over hopelessness and nothingness is only natural for a man who believed that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Jung, indeed, is self-aware enough to separate his deep disappointment in the book’s substance from the genius of Joyce’s style, adding a reluctant recognition of the latter:

If we regard the book from the side of technical artistry, it is a positively brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

And yet this creative merit does nothing in the way of alleviating Jung’s escalating irritation, which he goes on to articulate ever more floridly:

I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page… You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…

But what lends Jung’s indignation and bitterness great humanity, integrity, and even sweetness is the letter he sent to Joyce on September 27, 1932 — almost immediately after the review was published. A testament to the admirable civility of letter-writing at its best, it was a missive that both irked Joyce and validated him — one of which he was reportedly rather proud.

Jung writes:

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

For his part, Joyce must have appreciated the integrity of Jung’s gesture and his ability to both criticize the novel and celebrate its capacity to produce fruitful friction in the reader, thus achieving the hallmark of great art — transforming us by unsettling us. Two years later, Joyce sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.

Complement James Joyce: The Critical Heritage with Joyce’s most revealing interview, conducted by Djuna Barnes shortly after Ulysses was published, his recently discovered children’s book, and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.

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27 MAY, 2014

Rare and Stunning Etchings for Ulysses by Italian Artist Mimmo Paladino

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Emanating James Joyce in black, white, and gold.

I have a soft spot for visual artists’ reimaginings of literary classics, including Allen Crawford’s gorgeous hand-lettered take on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Lisbeth Zwerger’s take on Alice in Wonderland, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975. So I was enormously delighted to come across a rare 1998 Folio Society limited edition of Ulysses (public library), featuring magnificent black-white-and-gold etchings by the celebrated Italian sculptor, painter, and printmaker Mimmo Paladino.

Stephen Joyce, James’s nephew — for whom the beloved author’s little-known children’s book was written — writes in the preface:

Ulysses is by no means an easy or straightforward book; it is a challenging book… Reading a book such as Ulysses is not only a challenge, it is a unique face à face between writer and reader…

The ultimate arbiter … must remain the reader, the listener, the beholder; not the academic or critic. I do not believe that literature can be taught. En revanche one can when the human appetite, open the human mind. If our cultures and civilizations are to be preserved and carried forward down through the ages, the creator must remain the master of his oeuvre, particularly beyond the grave.

It is that timeless Joycean mastery that Paladino’s illustrations amplify with delicate expressiveness and resonance of sensibility. Though this breathtaking edition is long out of print, I was fortunate enough to track down a copy for our shared enjoyment.

The Paladino-illustrated edition of Ulysses is well worth the hunt. Compare and contrast with Henri Matisse’s take on the Joyce classic.

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