Monday, February 15, 2016

Apostates of the World, Rejoice!

James Joyce (1882-1941)
The Sunday before last (February 2) was the birthday of the great Irish novelist James Joyce (born 1882). I’d like to use the occasion to talk about him, to celebrate him as an example of a certain kind of writer caught in a certain kind of situation. Joyce is a perfect example of the writer fully attuned to “the other voice” of his art. The voice that, to echo the words of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, is stubbornly and intractably heterodox, whose loves have always ended in divorce, whose conversions, in apostasy. Joyce is, in fact, the prototype of the modern artist as apostate. His apostasy, both literal and symbolic, cultural, political as well as religious, was inseparable from the integrity of his vision, and the freedom of his art. It led him into self-exile; almost his entire adult life was spent wandering from one European country to another. He died and was buried in Zurich on January 13, 1941.

Like all true writers who felt compelled to revolt, Joyce’s apostasy and self-exile were, ironically, his means of affirming his essential “Irishness”, of being true to the real heritage of his race. But his fidelity was totally unlike that of the blinkered and puritanical nationalists. It was open to life in all its richness and contradictions, embracing with the human breadth of its art the Irish and the non-Irish, the local and the universal, the vulgar and the refined, the profane and the sacred.  Joyce had to say No (and No, in thunder) in order to truly rejoice in the saying of Yes – the great yes of Molly Bloom as she sits on the chamber-pot at the end of Ulysses. And, to quote one of the sharpest early commentators on Joyce, he, by means of his art, “proves himself most truly a Catholic, even if he could only exhibit the Catholic temper by rejecting the Catholic faith, as he knew it.”

While still a young man, Joyce made himself the champion in Ireland of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, then an old man with his last play, When We Dead Awaken, already behind him. Ibsen’s hatred of ultra-nationalism, dead conventions and provincialism made him Joyce’s spiritual relation. It was typical of Joyce’s countrymen that his passionate championing of the foreign playwright was considered unpatriotic as well as anti-religious, the latter really meaning anti the Catholic Church which had the mind of Ireland in its vice-like grip.

Provincialism, puritanism, religious fanaticism, and nationalism lost in the fog and bog of sheer Irish sentimentality – all this had made Joyce’s beloved native city Dublin, that one-time centre of European learning and culture, a “centre of paralysis.” It was in order to look hard and with the detachment of estrangement at this “centre of paralysis” that Joyce exiled himself. Sensitive to the “other voice”, he knew that his love must end in divorce, his faith in apostasy. But that same voice heterodox with the heterodoxy of both life and art, led him to the recovery of true love – or rather a reaffirmation of love enlarged by the human breadth of his art.

In his greatest work, Ulysses set in Dublin with a “dirty-minded” common man (a Jew too, not an Irishman) as its true hero, he traces step by earth-bound step his way though the labyrinth of the city’s provincial streets and alleys towards the great affirmation. Someone, with Joyce’s final work Finnegans Wake in mind, once nicely said of Joyce, “he had the Liffey water in his veins and on his brain; the river whose name puns so naturally with the water of life.” By putting and immortalising Dublin on the literary map of the world, the arrogant “traitor” with nothing but contempt for the noisy patriotic mob became the greatest celebrant of the native city on which he had turned his back for good. As Stephen Daedalus, the hero of Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, puts it on the eve of his own exile: “The shortest way to Tara (is) via Holyhead.” (Tara is the ancient seat of the Kings of Ireland until the 6th Century and here symbolizes the past glory of Irish civilization; Holyhead, the coastal town in northern Wales, is the landing point of the ferry from Dublin.
Sean O’Faolain
The writer Sean O’Faolain, a true patriot (he was for six years a member of the Irish Republican Army) and yet as unblinkered by sentimentalism as Joyce was, once suggested expatriation or self-exile as one of the major reasons for the flowering of Anglo-Irish literature early this century. “The intellectual blood transfusion” resulting from this tradition of literary expatriation was in part due to the fact that most Irish writers simply couldn’t forget their bloody country wherever they might have exiled themselves. O’Faolain gave another reason for that flowering Anglo-Irish literature which I should perhaps quote here – and that was “the imposition on Gaelic Ireland of the English language and the example of its masterpieces, the one offering the Irish writers access to the widest audience and the other access to a thousand shades of style”. Joyce himself never had any feeling of guilt in having to use the language of Ireland’s colonial masters, and he had nothing but scorn for the movement to revive a dead language like Gaelic.
In invoking James Joyce the self-exiled apostate as an example, I don’t mean to recommend emigration to those of our writers who feel they are in situation in this country akin to that of the Irishman in his. It is Joyce’s fierce fidelity to his vision and his uncompromising sense of artistic integrity that I mean to stress.  Joyce felt the need to exile himself, and his exile proved to be a fruitful one, yes. But that doesn’t mean every writer in a situation akin to Joyce’s must necessarily emigrate if he doesn’t want to die as a writer. It must be remembered that exile can take more than one form; it doesn’t have to be physical. There is such a thing as internal or spiritual exile, a form that some noted writers of the world have resorted to.  

Wong Phui Nam
In his column Other Cadences (Literary Page, January), Wong Phui Nam raised a challenging question about emigration.  The question he raised has a special reference to writers who feel that they have “no place in the new order of things”. The words within quotation marks were those of the Malacca-born poet Ee Tiang Hong, as seen by his friend and fellow poet Edwin Thumboo in a poem addressed to him, that occasioned the question raised by Mr Wong. Without mincing his words, Mr Wong says that “emigration is an evasion, a lack of will to come to terms with one’s condition”. Though his interesting reading of Thumboo’s poem is invoked in support of that statement, the wording makes it sound absolute, which I’m quite sure was not intended by Mr Wong.
Is emigration – especially that of a writer – always “an evasion, a lack of will to come to terms with one’s condition”? The striking case of Joyce alone should make Mr Wong want to qualify his statement. Mr Wong also believes that Ee’s emigration was a sad one because it was really a quest for “elusive Edens” that landed him in a desert of the mind. And Mr Wong here invokes his reading of Thumboo’s poem in support of his judgement. I too think that there was a certain sadness in Ee’s emigration, but I’m not sure about the “desert” bit. Ee Tiang Hong’s case is interesting and an unsentimental discussion of it could generate some insights into the question raised by Mr Wong is obviously to those English-language non-Bumi writers who feel that they have “no place in the new order of things”.
Without suggesting that Mr Wong is unaware of it, I would like to remind non-Bumis that even a Bumi writer if he can hear “the other voice” of his art, or if his art is capable of “the other voice” of his art, or if his art is capable of the “other voice” can feel that he has “no place in the new order of things” and because of it can face the temptation of self-exile. In one sense, the temptation can even be stronger because the Bumi writer of the kind I mean has to suffer from worse constraints on his creative freedom than the non-Bumi, despite all the talk of his being a member of a privileged race. For reasons which I don’t have space to go into here, I believe that physical exile for this Bumi writer could be the death of his creativity. If James Joyce the defiant apostate must serve as an example of him, it has to be a symbolic one. His exile must be internal or spiritual – and if he has the resources and the strength to bear with that condition and even turn it into a creative blessing, there is no reason why he can’t rejoice in his “apostasy” – with the Joycean line “silence, exile and cunning” for a motto – the “silence” here meaning the cunningly articulate “silence” of art. Whether his rejoicing as expressed in his art can be shared by his countrymen, whether the “silence” will in fact be a public one, is of course, another matter. 

12 February 1992

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