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"The Urb It Orbs": James Joyce and Internationalism

By Kintzele, Paul | Intertexts, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

"The Urb It Orbs": James Joyce and Internationalism

Kintzele, Paul, Intertexts

Despite the aversion to explicitly political matters that James Joyce cultivated in his later years, his work is nonetheless thoroughly political, covering both the specific questions facing Ireland as well as broader issues that constitute politics as a fundamental order of social being. His fiction, resolutely centered on the city of Dublin, explores the dilemmas and antagonisms unique to that metropolitan colony, but at the same time expands to incorporate issues that confront modernity as a whole. The nation, being one of the most basic categories of modernity, and thus one of the primary sites for ideological and ethical struggle, stood as a perpetual challenge and instigation to Joyce, whose work followed a unique path of adherence to and deviation from Irish nationalism. From the sharply etched details of Dubliners to the linguistic-historical fantasia of Finnegans Wake, Joyce repeatedly engaged the problems of how to form a distinctively modern nation and what sort of international sphere may one day exist, or ought to exist, beyond the nation-state.

In his writing, Joyce gives no sustained attention to any place other than Ireland; however, his politics do not stop at the Irish shoreline. By registering his difference from certain nativist ideas of nationalism, Joyce sought to occupy a position at the presumptive nation's border. He drew attention to those acts that use criteria as various as race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and language itself in order to fashion sociopolitical groups. His focus on these totems of tribal or national identity lent to his writing an ethical edge that he never ceased to sharpen. Since Joyce chafed at the restrictiveness of a certain kind of nationalism, in what way could one describe his works as "cosmopolitan" or "internationalist"? Although these terms are often used interchangeably, the word "cosmopolitan" is much older, with its origins in ancient Greece, while the term "international" was coined by Jeremy Bentham in his 1780 text An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Bentham designates as "international" the "branch of law which goes commonly under the name of the law of nations" (295, emphasis in original). Bentham's term thus often appears in legal and juridical contexts, while the term "cosmopolitan" is to be found in discourses that emphasize the cultural or ethical dimension of politics. While this essay focuses on the international, because the term carries within itself the highly charged concept of the nation, it must also incorporate some consideration of the cosmopolitan as well. (1)

Although it has been quite common for Joyce to be cast biographically as the cosmopolitan-in-exile, I would like to explore the question of internationalism as it emerges, directly and indirectly, at several states in his writing career. I argue that internationalism informs Joyce's work not as a simple, homogeneous idea but rather (1) as a measure of his recognition of difference along racial, sexual, linguistic, and other lines, and (2) as a reaction to the possessive claims of nationalism. Joyce's very approach to nationalism made him an internationalist, although he was careful to maintain his skepticism about one-world utopian solutions. Such a position was readily available in the turbulent first three decades of the twentieth century, when the question of what Ezra Pound referred to as the sphericality of the planet" (56) became more and more urgent due to rapid technological change and military conflict.

But what does it mean to be an "internationalist"? In the political sphere, the answer is fairly straightforward--there is a repertoire of political beliefs that can be categorized under this rubric, albeit with varying degrees of strength, that have in common the notion that the Nation is not (or ought not to be) the ultimate unit of political or social calculus. To be an internationalist is not necessarily to be anti-nation, but it does entail certain limits on what forms national commitments and national identity can take.

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