Plurabelle: Joyce and the referendum

A speech given in celebration of Bloomsday,  at Cappelens Forslag, Oslo 2015.

by Sam McManus.

I grew up in a house that James Joyce had lived in as a child. It is in Bray, a coastal town just south of Dublin. The house, to my child´s eye, was a lanky man  with many pockets, tall and thin with lots of windows. It is by the sea, and from its windows, as Joyce wrote, one can see the long dark waves rising and falling. A victorian promenade stretches along the coast from the house and ends at Bray Head, a small mountain whose cliffs tumble into the sea. My parents bought it when I was 7 years old, the same age as Joyce was when he lived there.

My parents were political radicals. Radicalism of course is relative to the status quo. So back then in Ireland to believe that divorce should be legal, contraception freely available without prescription, that  women had a  right to choose regarding abortion, and that homosexuality should be decriminalised were radical standpoints.  The political atmosphere that held sway rejected these notions. As a child I would watch on as around our dinner table lively arguments about these issues would break out.

A hundred years earlier a 7 year old Joyce  had sat in the very same dining room, watching his family members argue over the Parnell question.  Charles Stewart Parnell, a political leader of the time and  the great hope of Irish nationalism, on the brink of success, had been laid low and cast out by the powerful Catholic hierarchy because of an affair with a married woman. He, and Irish constitutional nationalism, never recovered.

Joyce includes the scene in ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’ with the character of  Mr Casey acting as the voice of the pro-Parnellites, arguing with Dante, the governess and the voice of the bishops and Catholic Ireland. The scene ends with Dante emotionally  defending the church saying ´God and religion before everything, God and religion before the world.’ Mr Casey in response, shockingly says ‘in that case no God for Ireland´.

Parnell was a victim of the received ideas that  abounded within Irish society that were riven deep down into its fundaments and that remained so until recently, arguably until one month ago. These moral principles were determined by a state that was deeply entwined with the catholic church.  These principles derived from scripture, not least the idea of original sin: that we are all tainted by the fall in the Garden of Eden and that life is an attempt to achieve grace under the watchful gaze of an omniscient and judgemental God, that we are all born with an innate and uncontrollable lust for sin, and man can do nothing to merit his own salvation. In essence, man is totally depraved, and true free will is far beyond his grasp.

These principles  led to a proscriptive, normative way of being in Irish life. There was one reality and that was the churches. To be different was to be other. What they declared was ‘this is the way to be a human’ and if you are not with us, if you are, for example, gay, bisexual, transvestite, or a middle aged Jew for that matter,  we will make you either keep quiet, hide yourselves, or we will cast you out. For these ‘others’  in Irish society, until very recently, to paraphrase a line from Ulysses, history was a nightmare from which they were trying to awake..

So what has this to do with Ulysses? Well, what is Ulysses? (I´m sure you´ve all read it from cover to cover, so forgive me for going over old ground here, but a short recap). Ulysses begins with an artistically minded young man, Stephen Dedalus waking with two student friends in a Martello Tower in Sandycove on the south coast of Dublin. At the same time, 8:00 a.m, Leopold Bloom wakes in his house in Eccles street in central Dublin. The book is set on this one day, 16th June 1904 as the two characters wander the city. Nothing extraordinary happens. It is what the critic Richard Ellmannn called ´the dailiest of days´

But what Joyce did with this dailiest of days was radical and world changing.

Who is Leopold Bloom?  He is  middle aged, middle class, middling in almost everything. He is married to a singer, Molly, who on this day is lying in bed upstairs planning to commit adultery  with a concert promoter calle Blazes Boylan. Bloom makes breakfast, and then goes out to buy lemon soap, a book, visit the library, go to a funeral of an acquaintance, to a couple of pubs, inevitably, and then  to a brothel with Stephen.

In depicting Bloom´s wandering around Dublin,  Joyce attempts  to capture the white light of human consciousness, the receptive and expressive thoughts and reactions to stimuli of a human mind in a way that had never been attempted before: what Bloom smells, hears, his memories, snatches of music remembered, lusty thoughts, regrets, fears, kindnesses, sinewy connections of thoughts, all piling up on each other in a wave of consciousness.

And what Joyce does is raise this dailiest of days and this normal man, with all his weaknesses and frailities to  the level of classical myth by likening, although slightly tongue in cheek, his perambulations around Dublin to the voyage of Ulysses, each chapter matching a stage in Homer´s depiction of the voyage of Greek Classical myth. By doing this Joyce is making the everyman heroic.

And as we travel with Bloom around Dublin on the 16th of june 1904 as he does his messages and worries about his wife,   what we see in Bloom´s consciousness is an identity that is not fixed, but is ever altering fracturing, changing, renewing. This ‘plurability’ of the self as Joyce called it was a major concern of modernism, and of the new discipline of psychoanalysis led by Freud and Carl Jung, whose development ran parallel and touched off the work of the modernists. Joyce in Ulysses was changing the way we think about the way we think.

One acknowledged persistent aspect of Bloom, however, is his androgyny. He begins the book by making breakfast for his wife in bed, not so unusual in gender equal Oslo of 2015, but in Ireland 1904 an indication of a certain femininity.   While he lusts after various women throughout the text, he also finds himself fascinated with what it means to be a woman, even at one stage imagining himself pregnant.

Bloom´s androgyny gives him a unique insight into the female characters in the book, while the other male characters he meets during the day regard him as eccentric and laughable. These men such as Dedalus the senior, and in particular the ‘I’ and the citizen of the Cyclops chapter, represent a uni-faceted masculinity, expressed in their pugnacious nationalism.  Joyce indicates that these men with their untempered masculinity are less normal than a man, Bloom, who has a deeper apprehension of both genders.  It should be remembered that Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914 while living in central Europe. just as the virus of nationalism was about to infect the continent and cause the first world war, and what is more unadulterated in its masculinity than war? Ulysses can be read as a comment on this, but it also  has to remembered that the novel is essentially comic, and not overly  political.

As Stephen says, ‘glorified man, an androgynous angel, being a wife unto himself’ What Joyce is pointing to is that what lies within us is both male and female, both X and Y, and that these aspects of ourselves are constantly in flux, something anathema to a church based on strict delineation of gender and gender roles.

It is this totality of Bloom I believe that Molly comes eventually around to in her redemptive orgasmic soliloquy that ends the book, remembering, as Bloom does so beautifully earlier in the book, their first sexual encounter on a summers day in the heather on the hill of Howth.

Now, what has this got to do with a referendum on the right to marry of gay and lesbian people in Ireland 4 weeks ago? That referendum was passed by a large majority and has taken on a far greater significance than the question that was posed. It has become a milestone in the life of the Irish nation. What the vote on May 22nd said, and this I believe is why there was such an outpouring of emotion associated with it that was witnessed around the world, was that after centuries of there being an agreed normative way of being in irish life, a standard which could be deviated from, there was a new agreement made on that friday that we recognised in each other our plurability,   that we are all both male and female, that we all have frailities, strengths, that we are all beautiful and sordid, and wanton, and in this humanity, we are transcendent…we are all Bloom.

What Irish society said was not only yes to marriage equality, yes , firstly to the recognition of our fellow brothers and sisters right to marry, but also yes to there being myriad ways of being that can fracture and change over the course of a single day, yes to the future, yes to the human as hero,  and, in a simple positive response to the negativity and fear that had gone before, in the words of Molly Bloom in the very final line of Ulysses.. we said, yes, we will, yes.