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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: December 2009

6 - James Joyce and mythic realism

Summary

Joyce's Ulysses is often treated as a definitive account of the mind of modern Europe in 1922, the year of its publication: but, for that very reason, it is also a recognition that Europe itself was nothing without its colonial holdings. Ulysses is one of the first major literary utterances in the modern period by an artist who spoke for a newly-liberated people. The former provost of Trinity College Dublin, J. P. Mahaffy, clearly sensed Joyce's disruptive power when he lamented that his publications proved beyond doubt that ‘it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of the island, for the corner-boys who spit into the Liffey’. That use of the word aborigines captures a central truth about James Joyce: outcast from Ireland, scornful of Britain, and uneasy about the humanism of a Europe to which he could never fully surrender, he became instead a nomad, a world author.

Virtually alone among the great post-colonial writers, he did not head for the imperial city or the lush landscapes of the parent country: for him, there would be no Naipaulean ‘enigma of arrival’, no pained discovery that the culture to which he had been assimilated lacked, after all, a centre. He took this as understood from the start and cut himself adrift from all cosy moorings: it was his strange destiny to be a central figure in world literature, whilst yet being somehow tangential to the cultural life of both Ireland and England.