The Woman of the Ballyhoura Hills: James Joyce and the Politics of Creativity
Eide, Marian, Twentieth Century Literature
The Irish Revival was in its ascendancy when James Joyce embarked on his career as a writer. And while there is increasing evidence that he had sympathy with the movement's expression of revolutionary Irish politics and its attempt to recreate an Irish national culture,(1) his differences with specific positions and attitudes represented by proponents of Irish nationalism are dramatized throughout his writings. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce addresses the nationalist personification of Ireland as either an idealized woman (Mother Ireland or the beautiful queen) or a degraded seductress (the woman who invites a stranger into her bed) by creating his own, resistant personification of Ireland in the woman of the Ballyhoura hills. This Irish peasant woman presents a brief though complexly realized figure of the nation. In rendering her portrait, Joyce indicates his strong commitment to an esthetic practice grounded both in an Irish national identity, and in a progressive sexual politics. Joyce's version of national identity demands full consciousness as the basis for a morality comprised of equal parts responsibility and desire, without the bonds of repression or hypocrisy. Joyce, then, counters a stereotypical morality that would equate responsibility and repression. In Portrait, his Irish national artist models full consciousness in the act of creativity.
Readers might recognize Joyce's investment in the connection between an artist's sexual experience and the esthetics that would express a nation's identity emerging in a notebook Joyce kept in Trieste while revising Portrait. In one entry he expresses concern over the prevalence of sexual repression in Irish culture: "One effect of the resurgence of the Irish nation would be the entry into the field of Europe of the Irish artist and thinker, a being without sexual education" (Portrait 295). This entry records Joyce's belief that Irish writing will have a separate and particularly national identity and that it will have to compete in the field of European thought. The idea of a sexually inexperienced Irish artist concerns Joyce, and he counters this type through the variety of sexual encounters Stephen Dedalus experiences. Through Stephen's sexual preoccupations Joyce associates sexual and intellectual expression. Esthetics, national politics, and sexuality are for Joyce mutually informing forces that Irish national literature must address.
Mary Reynolds has pointed out that the inception of Joyce's career was marked by his competition with the more idealist writers of the Irish Revival, and with Yeats and Synge specifically. The substance of that competition was to be his rival representation of the Irish nation. In "The Day of the Rabblement," Joyce writes that the Irish Literary Theatre has succumbed to the popular, unthinking nationalism of the crowd and to "the contagion of its fetishism and deliberate self-deception" (Critical Writings 71). In "The Holy Office," he rehearses his role in Irish art as a counter to the idealism of his predecessors, a role that makes him "the sewer of their clique. / That they may dream their dreamy dreams / I carry off their filthy streams" (Critical Writings 151). In Finnegans Wake, Joyce takes direct aim at the movement by calling it the "cultic twalette" (344.12), a phrase that both parodies Yeats's book The Celtic Twilight and names Joyce's role as the sewer of an idealist movement.(2) In Portrait, his critique is more indirect. Resisting the idealism of the Revival, Portrait responds with a myriad of representations that express an ambivalent view of the emerging nation. Several emblems of creativity preoccupy Stephen and, as I will argue, inform the political dimension of his developing esthetic theory in the fifth part of Portrait. The first emblem is the ambiguous image of a pregnant woman who stands in the doorway of her lighted cottage inviting a stranger into her bed. The second recalls Shelley's idea of a fading coal brought partially to light by an inconstant wind. These images, in turn, ground Joyce's esthetics in both national and sexual politics.
While Joyce's objections to the politics of the Irish Revival led some contemporary readers to label him an estheticist (placing art above the quotidian concerns of politics or morality), Joyce actually dramatizes both the nationalist and the estheticist points of view in his draft version of the novel, Stephen Hero, and in Portrait itself, in such a way as to declare his subtle differences from both and to mark out a national politics that informs his esthetic approach.
In Stephen Hero, Stephen argues than an artist might not be apolitical but neither can the responsible artist adopt reactive or simplistic political views. Deciding to take Irish lessons in order to be more often in Emma Clery's company, Stephen discusses the matter with a Gaelic League member, Madden. Readers familiar with this period in Irish history will anticipate the positions that divide these two characters. As a member of the Gaelic League, Madden pairs the revival of the Irish language (which, as Stephen meditates in Portrait, was eradicated by English imperial culture) with the revival of a national identity that accompanies the struggle for Irish independence. Stephen's desire to take language lessons to pursue the pleasures of a love affair would seem to mark him as an estheticist, but his position is actually slightly more complicated. In the course of their discussion, Madden tries to badger Stephen into adopting a recognizable political position. He argues, in brief, that the Irish in their "natural" state are more moral than other Europeans and especially the English, and that they ought to speak their own language to guard them from exterior influences.
Initially, Stephen plays devil's advocate without taking a clear stand on the issues Madden introduces. When Madden asks Stephen more directly if they don't "as a race" have a right to be free, Stephen demurs, saying he can't use "these phrases of the platform." Madden presses him for political opinions and Stephen responds " - I am going to think them out, I am an artist, don't you see?" (Stephen Hero 56). Stephen's response indicates that an artist's political views must be complexly conceived, not comprised of the slogans that form casual conversation. His amorous motivation in taking the course suggests a possible difference with Madden's idealized Irish morality and initiates a connection between sexual desire and politics. Stephen's investment suggests that the liberation of the Irish nation must bring with it a liberation from the more oppressive and hypocritical strictures imposed by traditional Irish morality and exemplified by the Catholic church's positions on …
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Publication information: Article title: The Woman of the Ballyhoura Hills: James Joyce and the Politics of Creativity. Contributors: Eide, Marian - Author. Journal title: Twentieth Century Literature. Volume: 44. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1998. Page number: 377. © 1999 Hofstra University. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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