How to Ask for Help: Young James Joyce’s Magnificent Letter to Lady Gregory
“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Published March 2, 2015