Thomas Merton is a fascination for me. He was a well-travelled not particularly religious Protestant with a degree from Colombia who became a Trappist Monk in Kentucky. He told a priest that reading Joyce had “contributed something to [his] conversion.” What about reading Joyce would make someone want to become a monk?
I’ll have to dig into that further. For now, I just want to take down some notes on Merton’s essay, “News of the Joyce Industry” which he wrote in 1969. It is a criticism of much of the scholastic study of Joyce at the time. Twenty dissertations appeared on Joyce between 1960-1963 and 5 books on Joyce had been published annually since 1960. (Just think of all that is out there now. There are endless podcasts, youtube channels and even Spotify channels on Joyce’s works!)
I am going to start at the end of his essay where he refers to an essay by William Blissett who quotes E.M. Forster on Joyce and Nietzsche on Wagner:
Forster remarked that “even the police are said not to comprehend [Ulysses] fully” (which comment still applies to those who take upon themselves the office of morally or politically “policing” Joyce’s work). But he added that when one had gone to the trouble to read one of Joyce’s big books, one will naturally tend to be pleased with his own achievement and call it “a great book, the book of the age. He really means that he himself is a great reader.” And Nietzsche said the same of Wagnerians. Lured into the mystery of Wagner, the hide-and-seek symbols, “in the midst of Wagner’s multiplicity, fullness and arbitrariness, they are justified, as it were, in their own eyes – they are ‘saved'”.
Merton says these two quotes explain the Joyce Industry. What matters is not what you say, but the ritual of saying it. Just as long as you make an effort to prove what you are saying, it doesn’t matter what it is. Nobody cares all that much because as long as you “pay enough homage to the Joyce establishment”, you can get away with anything.
Some Joyce scholars, according to Merton, “want to transubstantiate the bread of Ulysses and Portrait into the unearthly and arbitrary substance of their own fantasies.” What these scholars fail to realize is that Joyce accepted ambivalence and lived with it. He knew he had not escaped the rigidity of his Catholic upbringing, but he also knew he never would escape it. He broke with the Church and his parents subculture, but he did not renounce the ambiguities and conflicts built into Western civilization. The conscience of James Joyce:
…was the conscience of a European of the post-Victorian era, of a man in a sophisticated, complex, self-contradictory culture about to fall apart in World War I.
Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents helps “to understand what lay behind the comic judgment of society and its repressions in The Portrait of an Artist and Ulysses. “There is a big difference between a rigid puritanical repression of sex and “a civilized experience of ambivalence toward it.”
There are several scholars Merton does recommend:
- William York Tindall, Hugh Kenner, and S.L. Goldberg are absolutely necessary for a full appreciation of Joyce.
- English novelist Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) called Here Comes Everybody: an Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader, the emphasis being on the healthy catholicity of Joyce (little c).
- A collection of essays: James Joyce Today: Essays on the Major Works.
- Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce. This was an abandoned project which was published in 1968. Merton said the unique interest lies in its imperfection and total lack of any “finish”.
The Giacomo notebook represents a pivotal development in Joyce’s ideas about love, from the erotic idealism of A Portrait of the Artist to the more ironic and mature realism of Ulysses. It deals specifically with the theme of spiritual seduction – and with the curious ambiguities involved in it… Joyce in Giacomo is clearly both Stephen and Bloom and, as Ellmann remarks in his introduction, the sardonic influence of Svevo is not unlikely. What comes clear in Giacomo is that Joyce, now middle-aged, has acquired the necessary ironic distance simultaneously to be in love and to see himself faking – or “forging” – his love. Giacomo Joyce is a lucid, ironic description of the involvement of art, eros, and social custom, of life, literature, and manners, of race, culture, history, in an essentially comic experience of love. It marks the crucial point at which the comic genius of Joyce emerges to full maturity and awareness.