no previous
no next

  ― 103 ―

The Banning of Ulysses (1941)note

In Anatole France's The Revolt of the angels, the uncle of Maurice d'Esparvieu, on being introduced to Maurice's guardian angel, expresses doubt as to his genuineness. “My faith in Jehovah,” he remarks, “is not sufficiently strong to enable me to believe in his angels.”

“Monsieur,” answers the angel, “he whom you call Jehovah is really a coarse and ignorant demiurge, and his mane is Ialdabaoth.”

“In that case, Monsieur, I am perfectly ready to believe in him. He is a narrow-minded ignoramus, is he? Then belief in his existence offers me no further difficulty. How is he getting on?”

It is, in fact, not at all difficult to believe that narrow-mindedness creates a God in its own image and for its own protection. It creates a whole system of protection, of which censorship is an integral part. And it is not surprising that Joyce, that “relentless foe of social and business success,” should he subjected to censorship, for his work in general, and Ulysses in particular, is a direct attack on the system by which men protect their illusions.note

The fatuities of Federal Ministers are neither here nor there. The fact remains that, if anything should be censored, Ulysses should be, that, if obscene, blasphemous and seditious mean anything, Joyce is all three— literature is all three.

“The eternal affirmation of the spirit of man in literature” is the dragging into the light of day of the things that men conceal from themselves and one another. “When the soul of a man is born in this

  ― 104 ―
country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from Might. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

How far Joyce succeeded in flying by those nets is a question on which critics will differ. It seems to me that Finnegan's Wake is a failure—that it tries to “beat time” in a merely temporal sense, and loses grip of what is permanent in culture. But the Icarian flight in Ulysses is a magnificent success. The artist fights his way through the “hell” of estrangement to the acceptance of all things as artistic themes and the rejection of taboos.

And it is not a merely personal success. In the struggle between literature and censorship, between free-thinking and phantasy, the protective system has its share of defeats; and Joyce's work has given a distinct turn to contemporary writing—it has emboldened the critically-minded and given a set-back to the purveyors of consolation. It is to be expected, of course, that objectors will direct their fire on the crude forms of “obscenity” and “blasphemy” which Joyce exhibits as incidental to his own larger denials; but it is these that really rankle— or, perhaps better, it is the majestic indifference with which Joyce sweeps over the ordinary avoidances.

Much has been made of the “all life in a day” formula for Ulysses. The “day” does not matter; but Joyce is certainly concerned with all life—all activities, all characters, all styles. Ulysses has the encyclopaedic character which is a mark of great works. And this is possible because Joyce has brains, because he is not merely an artist but a thinker—just as the piffling little “audacities” of a Galsworthy derive from intellectual feebleness (and the denunciation of “subversive activities” from incapacity for dealing with them intellectually).

In fine, as against those who would save themselves or their juniors from hell, Joyce demonstrates that the protected, bourgeois life itself is hell (“My hell and Ireland's is in this life”), and that salvation in any non-phantastic sense, the emancipation of the human spirit from bourgeois values, lies in uncensored art.

no previous
no next