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James Joyce, "the greatest Jew of all".

Frank O'Connor, novelist, short story writer, director of Dublin's Abbey Theater, literary critic and historian of Irish literature has called James Joyce, the greatest Jew of all. (1) This is certainly hyperbole, for Joyce was neither Jewish nor would he top a list of non-Jewish notables admired by Jews. Joyce's opposition to the Irish Literary Movement led by William Buffer Yeats, which was immersed in the Irish countryside with roots in Irish folklore and the Celtic language was well-known. According to O'Connor, Joyce, on the other hand, was the most exclusively urban writer who ever lived, and since Jews had been townsmen for close to two thousand years and their literature was that of the town, it was in that sense that O'Connor offered his sobriquet.

Yet, Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses, (2) and his own life testify to his friendly attitude towards Jews and to his Jewish connections. Indeed, that Joyce should have chosen Leopold Bloom, a lapsed Catholic of Jewish origins who is identified and identifies himself as a Jew, to be the hero of his masterpiece has intrigued me and has led to this essay.

Ulysses has been hailed as a leading novel, perhaps the leading novel of early twentieth century English literature, even though it is also famous for making great demands on the reader by its piecemeal depiction of events and by its variety of literary styles. Some styles are meant to mimic or to parody a variety of genres, historic or current, some are in stream of consciousness mode, one, cast as a play, is a phantasmagoria, and there are still other experiments.

Each of the eighteen chapters relates in some way to episodes in Homer's Odyssey (Ulysses being the Roman name for Odysseus), and yet, except for the chapter rifles which were added by Joyce after the novel was first published, there is no other mention of the relevant Homeric episodes. In addition, each chapter is associated, according to Joyce, with a color, a symbol, an organ of the body, an art and a literary technique; it is left to the reader or, at least, to the literary critics to match wits with Joyce in order to make the connections. (3) Responding to complaints of its complexity and in places of its obscurity, Joyce has said, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for generations arguing about what I meant. That's the only way of ensuring one's immortality." (4) Indeed, the number of books and articles devoted to explicating Ulysses is legion. A single university press has published seven books on Joyce in a single year. (5)

Still, whether or not Joyce's experimental style stands the test of time, what will most certainly endure are the characters wandering the streets of Dublin and the image of Dublin itself, on a single day, which has become known as Bloomsday, June 16, 1904. As for Dublin, its streets, its shops, its pubs, its topographical sights and its sounds, these are sketched so thoroughly and so realistically that it has been said should Dublin somehow disappear, this novel could serve as a blueprint to rebuild it as Dublin existed on that day in 1904.

The protagonists of Ulysses are Leopold Bloom, aged thirty-eight, and Stephen Dedalus, probably twenty-two, who encounter a host of Dublin characters, some of whom had been described earlier in a collection of short stories, Dubliners. (6) We also once again meet Stephen Dedalus, based upon Joyce himself, who is the subject of the bildungsroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (6) in which he develops from childhood to a university student aspiring to great creativity as a writer. By the time he had started work on Ulysses in 1914, these two works had established Joyce as a master of rhetoric, already guaranteeing a lasting reputation. The literary community looked forward to even greater achievements and as Ulysses appeared, first piecemeal and then published in totality in 1922, some were shocked; others were exuberant. Eventually it was the latter reception that prevailed.

In Ulysses, Dedalus, a counterpart to young Joyce is struggling to find himself artistically, refusing to compromise, even temporarily by writing for newspapers in order to earn a livelihood. He is still wallowing in drink and lechery. The story line is simple. Bloom and Dedalus leave their respective domiciles after breakfast, wander through Dublin on various errands and encounters, continue together after meeting in the evening, eventually winding up in Bloom's house in the early morning engaged in conversation after which Dedalus wanders off and Bloom joins his wife, Molly, in bed.

The novel is built mainly around Bloom. Joyce has described him as "a complete man as well as a good man." (7) He utilizes the many scenes and images throughout the day to slowly and meticulously build the character of Bloom. Born in Dublin, he is the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who was baptized as a Protestant and then, in order to marry a Catholic, was again baptized as a Catholic. His father committed suicide, despondent upon the death of his wife, Bloom's mother. Bloom's wife, Molly, born in Gibraltar to a British military officer and a North African Jewess, was raised a Catholic by her father. There were two children, Molly, now a young woman, and Rudy who died at the age of ten days. His father's suicide and Rudy's death have left Bloom guilt-ridden and since Rudy's death, ten years earlier, he has avoided sex with Molly in order not again to suffer the loss of a child.

We know a great deal about Bloom, but this only becomes apparent in a random fashion throughout the novel. He is even-tempered, kindly, humane, prudent, abstemious, shrewd, skeptical, charitable. He is a thinking man, a reader, knowledgeable about many scientific matters and a connoisseur of Shakespeare. He has abandoned religion. In politics he is independent, not identifying with any party. He is a pacifist. He has an ordinary job, working for a newspaper, soliciting ads. He is financially secure. We see him from all angles; from his own thoughts and memories, sometimes in a stream-of-consciousness mode, sometimes as hallucinations, from his own words and actions as well as the actions and words and thoughts of others. He is seen as a son, a father, a husband, a lover, a friend, a worker, a citizen. He is an ordinary man, undistinguished. We know as much about Bloom as any other character in fiction, possibly more.

Despite his birth in Dublin and his baptism, he is inescapably viewed as a Jew, an alien, an outsider, not Irish, and as such is subjected to the antisemitism so prevalent throughout Western Christendom. This is mostly confined to mouthings of stereotypical slurs only rarely hurled directly and openly and never violently. And even when Bloom is praised, that praise is coupled with his Jewishness as if that praise were despite his being a Jew.

One rabid antisemite is Mr. Deasy, the schoolmaster where Dedalus teaches. A rant to Dedalus about England being in thrall to the Jews includes, "The Jew merchants are already at their work of destruction...." Courageously, considering that Mr. Deasy is his boss, Dedalus replies "A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear, Jew or Gentile, is he not?" Later in the novel when Bloom and Dedalus are having a heart-to-heart talk, it is noted that neither alludes to their racial differences, even though Dedalus is quite aware that despite his baptism Bloom's origins were Jewish. Stephen, Joyce's alter ego is not an antisemite.

Bloom is subjected to subtle antisemitic slurs throughout the day to which he is unable to respond. However, in one instance, he is so openly and viciously attacked that he drops his reserve and reacts furiously. The scene is in a pub where he is soberly waiting to meet an acquaintance in order to proceed on a charitable mission. A raucous group of drunken revelers includes the so-called Citizen, a xenophobic, grotesque, windbag, a cadger of drinks who leads the group in antisemitic attacks culminating in Citizen's taunt "What is your nation?" "Ireland," says Bloom. "I was born here ... and I belong to a race too, that is hated and persecuted ... Robbed, Plundered, Insulted, Persecuted." The atmosphere continues to heat up leading to a further outburst by Bloom as he leaves "And the Savior was a Jew. Christ was a Jew like me;" The enraged Citizen hurls a missile after him.

O'Connor's attributions of Joyce's "Jewishness" to his urban existence may be on the right track, but one must explore that urbanity in some detail in order to understand the depth of his sympathy for Jews and its impact on the writing of Ulysses.

James Joyce, (8) born in Dublin, February 2, 1882, was educated in Jesuit schools and University College where he broke with Catholicism as well as the more extreme aspects of Irish nationalism. He set upon a course to achieve greatness in literature by creating a personal iconoclastic style quite opposed to the literary movement then prevalent in Ireland. To that end he felt compelled to leave Ireland in 1904 with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, with whom he had two children, but only married in 1931.

His self-imposed exile, with only brief return visits to Ireland, took him to Pola, to Trieste, to Rome, back to Trieste, to Zurich during World War I, again to Trieste, to Paris and finally in 1940 upon the Nazi invasion, to the south of France from which he finally fled to Zurich.

It was during his exile, especially the early years in Trieste and Zurich with his many close personal encounters with Jews that he expanded his knowledge of Jewish matters, and was led to his choice of a Jewish protagonist for Ulysses. During the early years of his exile, he made a precarious livelihood mainly by teaching English. As his literary reputation grew, he attracted financial patrons until his published writings produced an income. But throughout his life his financial ineptitude as well as his penchant for heavy drinking and his prolifigacy left him constantly in financial distress.

Prior to his European experience, Joyce had limited contact with the small Jewish community in Ireland and may have held the conventional stereotypical notions there that Jews were foreigners, mainly obsessed with pursuing money. The very few references to Jews in Dubliners illustrate this attitude even though those expressing such views tended, themselves, to be tmsympathetic characters. Yet even in Ireland there were other more benign views. There was an inclination among some Irish to identify with Jews, who like the Irish were subject to persecution and like the Irish had lost their ancient but still preserved language. And they each maintained their national identity.

In Trieste Joyce encountered Jews from many countries and many backgrounds. They were mostly, but not entirely secular. His English language student Ettore Schmitz was a successful Jewish businessman as well as a novelist with the pseudonym Italo Svevo with whom Joyce developed a very close friendship. In the course of their intellectual and general discussions, Joyce learned much about Jewish lore even though Schmitz was not religious. It has been suggested that Schmitz may have inspired parts of the character that Joyce assigned to Bloom. Indeed, he kept a huge photograph of Schmitz on the wall behind his desk in Zurich. But others have been said to contribute to the portrait of Bloom as well as Joyce himself.

Another student and close associate of Joyce in Trieste was Moses Dlugacz, a third generation Orthodox rabbi, who shared Joyce's enthusiasm for literature and philosophy. He was a source of Jewish history as well as the Talmud and other Jewish texts. Dlugacz was an ardent Zionist as were several of the many other Jews with whom Joyce consorted and attended concerts and plays. Joyce possessed a copy of Herzl's Der Judenstaat and other Zionist writings, and he attended a Zionist meeting addressed by Chaim Weizmann. However, in spite of his having Bloom sing "Hatikvah" and having once done so himself, just like many Jews at that time, Joyce never took Zionism seriously.

Many of his Jewish friends in Trieste were passionate adherents of the new psychoanalytic theories of Freud, then considered a quasi-Jewish science, but Joyce did not follow that fashion. Indeed, one of his later financial sponsors dropped him abruptly when he declined to be psychoanalyzed by Jung.

Joyce found Jewish women and women he perceived to look Jewish attractive. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that his several flirtations with them led to anything more than that. It is interesting that his daughter Lucia was involved with a number of Jewish men, but her developing mental illness led to her being permanently institutionalized. His son George married a divorced secular Jewess. Their only son and Joyce's only grandson, Stephen James Joyce, upon whom Joyce doted, was born in 1932. He was secretly baptized in the face of Joyce's furious opposition.

As a British subject, Joyce was forced to leave Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the outset of World War I. He found refuge in Zurich where he started to work on Ulysses. Zurich was flooded with refugees from all parts of Europe with whom Joyce mingled and among whom were numerous Jews. Although his contacts were less pronounced than with the Jews of Trieste, they still contributed to his intellectual life. A particularly noteworthy connection was Dr. Isaiah Sonne, a leading scholar of Jewish history and philosophy. Joyce returned to Trieste after the war, completed Ulysses, and then moved once again in 1920 to Paris where he remained until the Nazi invasion.

In Paris, where he had continued contacts with Jews, his closest friend and associate was Paul Leon, a Russian emigre, lawyer, scholar, linguist; Jewish, but completely secular. Leon served as his unpaid secretary and letter writer and as a close intellectual companion. It was in Paris that he wrote Finnegan's Wake. After the fall of France in 1940, Joyce and his family fled from Paris to a village in the south of France. Leon, against the advice of Joyce, returned to Paris to rescue Joyce's papers which he deposited with the Irish embassy. He was then arrested and murdered by the Nazis.

Joyce had remained apolitical throughout his life, but he did not hesitate to express revulsion of the Nazis and the Fascists. Indeed, according to his friend Frank Budgen, he had assisted sixteen Jewish refugees to escape the Nazi terror. From the south of France, his efforts to gain admission to Zurich were enmeshed in a bureaucratic nightmare. An early application was rejected by the Swiss on the grounds that he was a Jew. However, with the aid of a coterie of Zurich's most distinguished citizens and with a financial surety arranged by one of his Jewish friends, he and his family survived a hectic 3:00 a.m. departure from France on December 14 to spend only a short time in Zurich where he died January 13, 1941.

Joyce might have chosen a lapsed and alienated Catholic such as himself to be the protagonist of Ulysses. That he chose a Jew is hardly surprising in view of his associations with Jews in Trieste and in Zurich where Ulysses was gestated and written. The hero of Ulysses was an outsider and Jews were the typical outsiders, not only in Dublin, but throughout Europe; secular Jews and religious Jews, wealthy Jews and poor Jews, intellectual Jews and simple Jews. They were all outsiders.

Joyce told Frank Budgen that his choice of a Jew rather than a Catholic or Protestant stemmed from his affinity for Jews as a wandering and a persecuted people. When asked to associate each of the seven deadly sins with a nationality, he glibly responded, probably with tongue in cheek, as in the follow-up question, What about the Jews? He said they had no sins except for having crucified Christ. He often referred to Jews as better fathers, better husbands, better sons. They were family oriented. He insisted on the similarity of Jews to the Irish; both being impulsive, given to fantasy, addicted to associative thinking and writing in rational discipline. He identified with their marginality, their wanderings in exile, and like the Irish, their sufferings at the hands of oppressors. He saw both the Jews and the Irish, despite the common prejudice that each constituted an insular race, as racially mixed but culturally homogeneous. He may have seen the rabbinic tradition of text and elaboration of Torah, Talmud and Midrash as not unlike his devotion to exploration of the power of language and text. (9)

The hero of Ulysses could have been a Catholic or a Protestant. That Joyce chose a Jew is hardly surprising in view of his experiences with Jews and the views to which these experiences gave rise. But more than that, by linking Bloom, the wandering Jew, in modern Dublin with Odysseus in ancient Greece, Joyce recognizes the centrality of Judaism in the Judeo-Christian tradition of Western civilization. ,,


Frank O'Connor, A Short History of Irish Literature, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York 1967, p. 198.

James Joyce, Ulysses, the Modem Library, New York 1992. This edition follows the first American edition in 1934 and contains the decision rendered by Judge John M. Woolsey, December 6, 1933 lifting the ban on Ulysses. Daniel R. Schwarz, Reading Joyce's Ulysses, MacMillan, London 1987.

James A. W. Hefferman, Joyce's Ulysses. The Teaching Company. Chantilly, Virginia, 2001.

Daniel Thorburn, Masterworks of Early Twentieth Century Literature, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia, 2007.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, Barnes and Noble Classics, New York, 2004.

Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of 'Ulysses,' Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1972, p. 18.

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York, 1983. Ivan B. Nagel, Joyce and the Jews, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1989.

MILTON KERKER, mired professor of physical chemistry at Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY, has published a number of articles in Midstream on Jewish attitudes of various English-language novelists.
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Author:Kerker, Milton
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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