Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bloomsday 2014: The Polyphony of James Joyce's Dubliners

This year's Bloomsday, Monday, June 16,  is seeing a worldwide salute to Jame Joyce's more accessible work, Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago on  June 15, 1914, just months before The Great War would ignite. It is a sobering thought that Joyce finished writing the stories when he was just 25.

I once felt a great connection to this collection of short stories, and was greatly encouraged to do more writing about it by my Irish Lit professor at Rutgers, Julian Moynahan. The centenary made me think of Prof. Moynahan, and I was saddened to learn he died just a few months ago.

Professor, this post is for you.


Here's why Dubliners is a masterpiece. Each story captures a place and time and people with astonishing depths of understanding of human nature, and each story can be deeply savored as such.

But Joyce is a master composer of literary polyphony: while each story, or line, is independent, these stories stack vertically: the a capella voices complement each other, echo each other and create startling chords when you listen to the collection as whole. And the theme that emerges the loudest for me from this exquisite sonority is the age old thing about men and women: just how are the sexes getting along?

Let's start with ARABY, the first story where the main character interacts with the opposite sex. Joyce captures the first throbs of sexual passion as a young man describes seeing Mangan's sister, "My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires."  She occupies his mind "I hardly had any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me an my desire, seemed to me child's play."  He decides to buy her something at the exotic Araby bazaar, because she can't get there herself. Surprise, surprise, it doesn't go well at all, and the story ends with "Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."

In terms of the relation between the sexes, this young man's desire for a girl has become self-loathing and calling himself a creature. See, that's not good.  Whether he does it consciously or not, he will hold that girl, and probably other females along the way, responsible for this self-loathing.

Next we have EVELINE, who decided that "she wouldn't be treated as her mother had been." Her father was a violent man who went after her brothers and her mom. Eveline is engaged to a kind man, and on her way to starting a life together in Buenos Ayres, when we find her on the dock, completely frozen, unable to get on the boat.

"She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition."

My take: her fear of men will not let her choose to trust one--even a kind loving man--after seeing how her father treated her mother. All she can do is to passively remain in her situation. So now it's a young woman negatively affected by the opposite sex.

Next Joyce gives us AFTER THE RACE,  a story free from the problems of the sexes interacting because it's only men.  This is a man's story filled with Hemingway initiates who are striving for the vibrance of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan: "What jovial fellows! What good company!" "flinging themselves boldly into the adventure" of a card game.

The great thing about this story is Joyce's attitude to his four musketeers: it's one of ridicule, draped in terrible writing:

"The journey laid a magical finger on the genuine pulse of life and gallantly the machinery of human nerves strove to answer the bounding courses of the swift blues animal."

"The resonant voice of the Hungarian was about to prevail in ridicule of the spurious lutes of the romantic painters when Segouin shepherded this party into politics."

Joyce's condescending attitude toward this type of male bonding may be because he sees testosterone-fueled exclusion of women as a bad thing for the sexes getting along.

This passages leads us to THE TWO GALLANTS, a title that invokes the gents above.  Lenehan, with "his adroitness and eloquence," "vast stock of stories, limericks, and riddles," and his sack "slung over one shoulder in toreador fashion," should be in the back seat of the racing car. But because of his poverty he is forced to leech off of Corely, and their life is very different from the life of the initiates. Corely has seduced a woman who steals for him, and pays his tram fare. "You're what I call a gay Lothario," said Lenehan."  Yeah, these charmers are getting whatever they can from the woman, who is not heard from directly. Again, not so good for the disposition of the sexes.

 "She's on the turf now. I saw her driving down Earl Street one night with two fellows with her on a car."
"I suppose that's your doing," said Lenehan.
"There was others at her before me," said Corley philosophically.

The Two Gallants is then in counterpoint to THE BOARDING HOUSE. Polly, the daughter of Mrs. Mooney, who runs a boarding house, initiates an affair with lodger Mr. Doran.  Mrs. Mooney lets it go a bit until she's ready to declare to Mr. Doran that "there must be reparation made," leading to an upwardly mobile marriage for her daughter.

Mr. Doran: "He could not make up his mind whether to like her or despise her for what she had done. Of course he had done it too. His instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry. Once you are married you are done for, it said."

Here the women are doing the manipulation. It's as if a choral motif started by The Two Gallants (tenors and basses) has been passed to the altos and sopranos. And the theme continues to build: men and women use each other.

The Boarding House leads to resonance in A LITTLE CLOUD, which fully plays out the theoretical trapped feelings of Mr. Doran, and combines them with the frustrated feelings of wanting to be a wild and crazy guy in a racing car.

Little Chandler's problem is his dream of wanting to be like Gallagher in the literary world, but being trapped by his own incapacitating timidity.  Chandler is married with a child, with the domesticated burdens of buying new furniture that must be paid for, all of which frustrates his dreams further. "Why had he married the eyes in the photograph?"  In the last sentence of the story Joyce sums up the man's life and pain: "He listened while the paroxysm of the child's sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes."

Newflash: Men don't particularly want to be domesticated.

COUNTERPARTS amplifies the stifled anger of A Little Cloud, in another example of male bonding. Farrington is a man wrought of anger and rage who frequently indulges his violent nature. He has no sense of duty, no maturity, and little common sense, yet he has a wife and five children. At work he his humiliated because he does such a bad job, and with his friends he is humiliated because he loses an arm wrestling match. And that leads to the violence against his son: "O, pa!" he cried. "Don't beat me, pa! And I'll... I'll say a Hail Mary for you....

Farrington feels the same anger and anguish that the young man felt in Araby; we see he is the same brute as Eveline's father; he has the same need for male camaraderie as the men in After the Race; he looks at women in the same way as The Two Gallants, infrequently, and only to get something from them; he knows too well the foreboding feelings of suffocation by marriage which are but shadows of a thought to Mr. Doran in The Boarding House; and he acts out all the violence that Little Chandler in A Little Cloud is too afraid to do.

This is the polyphony of Dubliners. 

And in all this human weakness, human fear, there is not much hope nor happiness between men, and women.

However.  The composition ends in a glorious tour de force of language and emotion in The Dead, with a husband's epiphany about his wife's early lover.

“While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.”

Oh Gabriel—all that self doubt, all that horrible self criticism because you think that Gretta is comparing you to another. It’s not about YOU. She’s simply filled with a memory of her own past. Please let her have that part of her life, and don’t punish her for it.

And then, Gabriel does just that.

“Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully. . . So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.

“He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

“Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love

From that realization, Gabriel’s soul is opened, and once that happens, anything is possible.

Joyce leaves us in silver shadows, in the peace of falling snow that unites the living and the dead. Critics disagree as to whether Gabriel is spiritually dead at the end, or if now that he realizes he has never fully lived, something more is possible.

At each year’s reading, I like to think that Garbriel and Gretta go on to happier, more deeply conscious lives with each other.

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight... It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.