Nora (2001)

“Nora” is well acted but a bit contrived. It’s about James Joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle. Ewan McGregor plays James Joyce and Susan Lynch plays Nora Barnacle.

The film does at least make the sexual relationship between Nora and James seem plausible. And some things in the film make more sense than Paul Strathern’s historical take.

Strathern says Nora was a virgin when she first met Joyce, but the movie depicts Nora as having lovers before Joyce. That makes much more sense. What virgin would get a man off in public after just meeting him? And why would Joyce have been so crazy with jealousy if he truly believed Nora was a virgin?

Strathern distances Nora’s story from “The Dead” in Dubliners, but the film explicitly says that “The Dead” is based on Nora’s previous relationship with a boy who died of typhoid. It seems strange that Joyce would write a story that was so closely related to Nora’s without already knowing about it. Why did Strathern feel the need to separate Joyce’s “The Dead” with Nora’s experience?

I probably need to add Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce to my list.

James Joyce in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

Bust of Joyce on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Strathern’s James Joyce in 90 Minutes is a fun and very informative little book. I already covered Strathern’s thoughts on Joyce & Modernism. Here are the biographical highlights I want to remember…

  • 1882 (Feb. 2): born in Rathgar – middle class suburb in South Dublin
  • 1888 (6 years old): sent to Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare which was regarded as the finest Catholic school in Ireland.
  • 1892 (10 years old): father lost his job and was never able to find regular employment again. Took on various part-time jobs including soliciting advertisements for a Dublin newspaper. James dropped out of Clongowes and schooled himself. His mother helped but she was responsible for 13 children and James’ father was abusive toward his mother and increasingly unavailable. (As a teenager, James had to pin his father down to keep him from seriously injuring his mother while his mother fled to a neighbor.) The family moved from neighborhood to more impoverished neighborhood which made James very familiar with Dublin districts.
  • 1893 (11 years old): Sent with brother Stanislaus to Belvedere College in Dublin. Was an excellent student. (Remained there until University.)
  • Teenage years: began to lose faith and experienced a dark night of the soul. Began writing poetry. He explained to Stanislaus “There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the mass and what I’m trying to do. I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.”
  • 1898 (16 years old): entered University College, Dublin, the city’s Catholic University. Was supposed to rival Protestant Trinity College which had educated Oscar Wilde and philosopher Bishop Berkeley. But when Joyce entered, the Jesuits were imposing a rigid Catholic orthodoxy which created an air of mediocrity. Joyce attended irregularly.
  • 1900 (eighteen years old): wrote a long review of Ibsen’s final play When We Dead Awaken which was extended into an 8000 word review of Ibsen’s entire work. It was accepted by a prestigious London publisher. Ibsen read the review and sent Joyce a letter of thanks. Joyce wrote to Ibsen: “Ireland has produced nothing but a whine to the literature of Europe.” What he meant was that he sought to establish a real Irish tradition, not the current literary tradition of Ireland which was almost completely composed of Anglo-Irish or Protestant writers who were middle or upper class. (Joyce was a Celt with a Catholic background and he did not subscribe to middle-class mores.)
  • Joyce identified with Ibsen’s characterization of the feminine in large part because he was also imbued with a “feminine delicacy of touch”. His Catholic sexual repression had left him deeply ambivalent about his own sexuality. He was highly sexed and highly repressed which led to a perverse obsession with intimate bodily odors, a fetish he retained for the rest of his life.
  • He began having sexual encounters with prostitutes which were necessary for him as an artist and as a man. However, it created in him a deep shame. He also drank way too much.
  • Began writing prose he called “epiphanies”. This was a theological term referring to a heightened sense of consciousness in which a vision of the godhead or religious revelation takes place. For Joyce the revelation was spiritual but without any religious content or sacred meaning. His epiphanies occurred “in a vision of the soul of the commonest object… in the vulgarity of speech or gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.”
  • 1902 (20 years old): Graduated from University College, Dublin. He moved to Paris with the goal of becoming a writer. Four months later, he learned his mother was dying and he returned home. She died a few months after that and Joyce took a job as a teacher in Dublin to help care for the family, but his father spent what little money they had on alcohol. Joyce spent 10 days in Martello Tower with Oliver St. John Gogarty and began writing Stephen Hero based on the spiritual progress of Joyce himself (epiphanic formative experience).
  • 1904 (22 years old): met Nora Barnacle who had run away from her home and was working as a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel. They met for a second time on June 16 which became the most famous date in 20th century literary history. Nora was 19 and still a virgin, but she slipped her hand into Joyce’s pants and brought him to orgasm while standing on the street. That changed Joyce’s life. Joyce continued drinking, however. He got into a fight and was looked after by a Jewish man, Alfred Hunter, which also assumed deep significance for him. Joyce ran away with Nora in October.
  • 1905 (23 years old): Nora and James moved to Trieste and convinced Stanislaus to join them. Stanislaus took a teaching position which allowed Stephen to write but James became “his brother’s keeper” and Nora and James began fighting. James continued to drink way too much and Stanislaus would sometimes have to carry him home. Realism & symbolism were the two main contending literary movements at the time. Joyce combined the two. His writing was utterly realistic but also suffused with symbolic meaning. Symbol and reality became one.
  • 1907 (25 years old): Completed “The Dead”, the final story in Dubliners.
  • 1909 (27 years old): Convinces several businessmen from Trieste to open a string of cinemas in Dublin. His Volta Cinema was the first cinema in Dublin. The scheme failed and Joyce was in financial ruin. This year, he also heard through the grapevine that Nora had been in love with someone else before she met James. He felt this was a betrayal, much like what he had written about in “The Dead”, and it became a major theme in later works.
  • 1914 (32 years old): Completes Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a reworking of Stephen Hero. This novel is not as “realistic” as Dubliners. The novel shows how the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist movement threaten to stifle the spirit of the artist, Stephen Daedalus. The interplay of Good and Beauty that is the central aesthetic theory proposed by Stephen comes from Thomas Aquinas. Joyce rejected Catholicism, but he also recognized its strengths and used them. The close of the novel conveys Stephen’s deepest worries and aspirations, but also the beginning of his literary talent. This book was an article of artistic faith, not autobiographical. He had trouble getting the book published and then finally received help from Ezra Pound. Dubliners was published and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized in an influential London literary magazine.
  • This year, WWI began. Stanislaus was thrown into a camp for enemy aliens and James & Nora decided to move to neutral Switzerland. Nora spoke Irish, English and German, but James said her English and German weren’t comprehensible to an Englishman or a German. Now she had to learn another language. Joyce began writing Ulysses, which was even more autobiographical than Portrait yet more objective. The entire novel takes place on June 16, 1904, the day he met Nora. We experience the day as though we are inside the heads of the main characters. Harriet Weaver, a 41 year old unmarried English Quaker woman admired Joyce’s work and became his benefactor. Joyce had a disease that caused him to go completely blind in one eye and virtually blind in the other. Weaver helped pay his medical bills.
  • 1918 (36 years old): The first episodes of Ulysses began appearing in New York’s The Little Review. They continued to appear until 1920 when the magazine was sued by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Joyce moved back to Paris where he thought his writing would be better appreciated.
  • 1922 (40 years old): Ulysses was considered unpublishable, but is finally published by Sylvia Beach who owned Shakespeare and Company and admired Joyce’s work. It was published on Joyce’s 40th birthday. Stephen and Bloom are very different characters. Stephen is intellectual, meditative, has an extensive vocabulary, is more exotic and skillfully employed. Bloom has a more rapid-fire inner monologue which matches the outward attentiveness of his mind. (Like Joyce’s father, Bloom is an advertising man for a newspaper. Bloom also is taken from Alfred Hunter who took care of Joyce when he 22 and in the bar fight right after he met Nora. However, there was another incident when Joyce got drunk after finding out about Nora’s previous love affair that Bloom is based on as well: John Byrne had to take him home and he lived at 7 Eccles Street.) Joyce wanted to create an exact replica of Dublin so that if it was ever destroyed, it could be recreated from Ulysses.
  • Early 1930s: Lucia, Joyce’s daughter, was mentally ill. Joyce consulted Carl Jung but he could do little to help. Jung told him: “You are like two people going to the bottom of the river, but where as she is drowning, you are diving.” Meanwhile, Joyce continued to have operations on his eyes which were subsidized by Harriet Weaver. She had spent a huge amount of money on him by this point. Joyce continued to drink heavily. Despite his drunkenness and blindness, he began working on Finnegan’s Wake.
  • 1939 (57 years old): Finnegan’s Wake is published. It was called the ultimate literary carnation of Shame’s Voice (Joyce called himself Shame’s Voice) and was considered to be an “aberration of genius”. It was literature as puzzle. We have to abandon our habitual notions of meaning and preconceived notions of reading to “understand” it. Younger generations liked it. Samuel Beckett said that Finnegan’s Wake “is not about something; it is that something itself.” Joyce was a very ill man as Europe entered WWII.
  • 1940 (58 years old): The Nazi’s invaded France and James and Nora moved back to Zurich.
  • 1941, January 13 (59 years old): James Joyce fell ill with an ulcer and died, penniless.
  • 1951. Nora died.
  • Ulysses became known as the novel that most characterized the 20th Century. Bloomsday is celebrated every year on June 16 around the world.
  • “The Dead” is often listed among the top 10 greatest short stories ever written
  • Finnegan’s Wake is considered a cult work for gifted connoisseurs, including Nobel-prize winning American particle physicist Murray-Gell-Mann. The name “quark” came from Gell-Mann based on a passage in Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark. And sure as any he has it’s all beside the mark.”

James Joyce and Moderism

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso (1907)

James Joyce’s is said to be among the most influential writers of modernist fiction. He’s been called, “The Father of High Modernism” and even “The Priest of Literary Modernism“. But what is Modernism?

The only thing I really knew about it was that literalist Christians didn’t like it. Fundamentalism came into being in the early 1900s as a movement specifically against modernism. In 1907, the Catholic church held a Council in Rome where it decided to create a secretive Inquisition-like group that was responsible for taking action if they found evidence of modernism in Catholic Parishes. Do a quick search on YouTube and there are all kinds of current videos still decrying the heresy and “cancer” of modernism.

I did a little research…

Modernism began in the late 19th century and continued through the first several decades of the 20th century. (1890-1920s or thereabouts.) It was a reaction to the increasing industrialization and rapid growth of cities throughout the western world. (What had once been an agrarian society was increasingly becoming an industrial society driven by technology, mass production, division of labor…) Modernism was also a reaction to the horrors of WWI.

There was a feeling that the world was breaking up. Things no longer made sense in the way they once did. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity showed that time and space no longer existed as once thought. Freud was hugely influential on how people now understood the mind. Changes in education produced mass readership which allowed for the development of popular newspapers and popular culture. There were new powerful political structures (Democracy, Marxism).

Things had been changing, and continued to change, significantly which made life seem fragmented. There were no longer any “grand narratives” like Catholicism and there was a lot of skepticism that truth was knowable. Modernists rejected the certainty of the Enlightenment, and many also rejected religion.

Roger Griffin, professor of modern history and political theorist at Oxford Brookes University said that Modernists wanted to restore “a sense of sublime order and purpose to the contemporary world, thereby counteracting the (perceived) erosion of an overarching ‘nomos’, or ‘sacred canopy’, under the fragmenting and secularizing impact of modernity.”

Griffin defines Modernism as a broad cultural, social, or political initiative that was sustained by the spirit of “the temporality of the new”. There was an attempt to access a “supra-personal experience of reality” in which individuals believed they could cease being victims of history and instead become its creators.

According to Paul Strathern in James Joyce in 90 Minutes, Modernism was also a rejection of the materialistic, bourgeois-dominated society that came into being with industrialization. Many found it to be stifling, hypocritical and suffocating because unacceptable elements of behavior – primitive sexuality, instinctive aggression, and perversities of the imagination were swept under the carpet. This resulted in an Artistic and Social upheaval…

  • 1899 – Sigmund Freud published Interpretation of Dreams.
  • 1907 – Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – naked women hideously deformed into geometric shapes
  • Relativist nature of objects in Cubist paintings curiously paralleled the new Theory of Relativity which had recently been proposed by Einstein and would bring about a revolution in the world of science.
  • 1913 – Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. Strident discords and rampant primitivism caused a riot at it’s first performance in Paris.
  • 1914 – First World War – shattered smug and stable societies. Russia succumbed to communism.
  • T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land. Modernist yet sophisticated despair.
  • Wittgenstein’s Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus – introduced an entirely new philosophical vision 
  • James Joyce’s Ulysses. The underside of human impulses rendered into art. Stream of consciousness made readers confront a true mirror of their thoughts, and they hypocritically chose not to like what they saw. Freud’s anarchistic unconscious rendered into all manner of literary forms, whose shocking authenticity and realism provoked outrage. 

As far as Joyce being the “Father of High Modernism”, Andreas Huyssen (professor of Comparative Literature at Colombia University) defines high modernism in literature as being characterized by a complete and unambiguous embrace of the “Great Divide”: there is a clear distinction between capital-A Art and mass culture. High modernism places itself firmly on the side of Art and in opposition to popular or mass culture. (Postmodernism rejects the “Great Divide”.)

The World of James Joyce: His Life and Work (1986)

The World of James Joyce: His Life and Work, was full of videos & audio recordings of people who knew Joyce (siblings, friends, family members, associates, photographers, pupils, etc). The actual sites where Joyce lived, went to school, and worked are also shown. And there is actual footage of Joyce!

I started to take notes but my computer was being glitchy so I only have a few thoughts to relay…

One of the things that really interested me is how connected James was to his father, John. I’m a good way through Ulysses and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s biographical counterpart in the novel, barely mentions his father at all. It fascinated me to learn that James felt so connected to his dad and that a significant amount of characters and ideas in Joyce’s books were inspired by his father.

According to James’ sister, however, it was easy for James to feel a connection because their father gave James more than he gave the rest of the children. John saw James as a genius so put him in the best schools. (I’m assuming, based on the sister’s comment, that he didn’t put any of his other kids in good schools?)

John had inherited a lot of money from his family, but squandered all of it on alcohol. James originally attended Conglowes, which is still considered to be Ireland’s premier boarding school. However, as John’s money dwindled, he had to take James out of Conglowes and put him in the lesser, but still very adequate, Belvedere. James did extremely well at both schools.

The Jesuits at Belvedere wanted James to become a fellow Jesuit, but James felt that there was a net that kept him from realizing his freedom. The net was composed of Roman Catholicism, societal family norms, and the renewed cultural nationalism of Ireland.

James appreciated Henrik Ibsen of Norway who dealt with reality as it was, rather than turning it into a fantasy about what it was he wanted it to be. Joyce thought that what Yeats and others were doing in trying to renew a cultural nationalism in Ireland was an attempt at elevating empty forms of the past rather than the actual living people of the present.

All of James Joyce’s books take place in Dublin, which for Joyce is local, but he also sees it as universal. In Ulysses, the hero is Leopold Bloom, a friendly man who feeds the cat and brings his wife breakfast in bed. He’s an ordinary man: son, father, husband, would-be lover, friend. He also happens to be a Jew.

When Joyce was trying to publish Ulysses, Harriett Weaver sent him money anonymously to help him get it published. She saw in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man all the ideals she stood for. She had money she didn’t need, so why not give it to Joyce? (Maybe artists are always at the mercy of benefactors? I suppose Joyce was no different.)

A few more random thoughts from the film:

  • Paris was more of a home to Joyce than Dublin.
  • Both brother Stanislaus and benefactor Harriet Weaver were appalled by Finnegan’s Wake.
  • A Jewish man, Alexis Leon, worked with Joyce on Finnegan’s Wake. Perhaps this was the inspiration for Bloom?
  • James married Nora so she and the children would inherit his estate.
  • Nora knew Joyce was unique. but she never went so far as to say he was a genius.
  • Even though James turned against the church, he remained a very Christian man.
  • His daughter, Lucia, was put in a sanatorium. James visited her every Sunday afternoon. He never lost contact with her. (Apparently, Nora gave up on her altogether.)

Robert Anton Wilson on James Joyce, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell

Perhaps this is starting backwards since the focus is is Finnegan’s Wake, but I was completely fascinated with the beginning part of this talk with Robert Anton on about James Joyce, Carl Jung & Joseph Campbell.

According to Wilson, Joyce was the greatest anthropologist that ever lived and he inspired Joseph Campbell’s unique approach to anthropology. The Hero of a Thousand Faces would have been impossible without Campbell’s Skeleton Key. The Skeleton Key was the archetype behind all the other archetypes for Campbell’s subsequent books. Joyce was Campbell’s guide as he was for many important thinkers.

Wilson is currently fascinated by the Synchronicity aspect in Finnegan’s Wake because Synchronicity is associated with Jung. What specifically interests him is that Jung didn’t publish on Synchronicity until long after Finnegan’s Wake was published. Jung and Joyce knew each other, although they didn’t like each other. Joyce didn’t want to believe his daughter was Schizophrenic. Joyce told Jung that he was doing the same experiments with language that she was, but Jung told him that the difference was that he was diving and she was sinking.

Wilson thinks Jung was influenced by Joyce’s thoughts on Synchronicity. Jung had high regard for Joyce’s Ulysses and recommended it as a new Bible for the white race on the grounds that the Bible has warped the development of Western humanity in certain egotistic directions. Understanding the “True Self”required a dose of Eastern thinking and feeling which he thought Joyce had brought into Western thought with Ulysses. When Finnegan’s Wake started to appear, Jung said that it was either mental illness or something of mental health inconceivable to most people. Wilson thinks Jung decided it was of inconceivable mental health.

After that, he moves into thoughts of Finnegan’s Wake which sound absolutely fascinating but with which I can’t keep up. I’m excited to see if it makes sense after I get more Joyce under my belt.