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James Joyce's Ulysses: Order and Chaos, a talk delivered at the York Festival of Ideas

James Joyce's Ulysses: Order and Chaos, a talk delivered at the York Festival of Ideas, 16 June 2014

When I heard about the theme you had chosen for this year's festival, order and chaos, I was attracted by its possibilities. It occurred to me that my own profession of diplomacy, which I have pursued in various capacities and in different parts of the world for more than three decades, could be seen as part of a quest for order in a perennially unruly world.

In diplomacy, order is sought by diverse means: through the precepts of international law; through the actions of the United Nations; through regional bodies such as the European Union; through negotiation between States and international actors; and through the policies of individual States who desire to create a fair and stable international environment.

Smaller counties like mine tend to place a high value on having a rules-based international order in which the disadvantages of relatively small size and population can be offset by having accepted norms within which States agree to operate. Ireland's foreign policy is characterised by a deep commitment to the United Nations and to membership of the European Union (and the Euro Zone). Part of the attraction of the European Union for Ireland is that it provides a treaty-based environment in which we can pursue our national goals, comforted by the knowledge that the rules applying to us (which we can play a part in defining) also apply equally to the other EU member States, large and small.

We are active contributors to order in the world by means of our unstinting participation in UN peacekeeping, our strong support for human rights, which is being pursued at present through our membership of the UN’s Human Rights Commission, our commitment to international development goals including through the programmes of Irish Aid, and our active pursuit internationally of disarmament and arms control.

Over the decades, the Irish Government has worked closely with the UK Government to eliminate violence and promote an orderly political climate in Northern Ireland. Much progress has been made in Northern Ireland, but there is work that remains to be done in strengthening the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and promoting reconciliation between the two main communities there.

When I was asked to speak at this festival, I noticed that I would be here on Bloomsday. This is the day when James Joyce's Ulysses is celebrated by enthusiasts the world over.

Ulysses is set on 16 June 1904 when its two main characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, traverse the streets of Dublin before meeting up in the evening and ending the day in each other's company. This month also marks the centenary of the publication of James Joyce's first major work, his collection of short stories, Dubliners. Between them, Dubliners and Ulysses provide a compelling portrait of Dublin in the decades before Irish independence, which became a reality just one month after the publication of Ulysses in 1922.

When I started to think about it, the theme of 'order and chaos' seemed to me to relate to Joyce's novel very nicely indeed. Asked to respond to Ulysses, most people would probably see it as a novel saturated with chaos. Indeed, the stream of consciousness technique Joyce employs and exuberance of its language do give rise to chaotic impressions, which have deterred many readers from persisting with the novel.

In fact, there is also plenty of order in Ulysses. It takes place on a single day, beginning with breakfast and ending with Molly Bloom's extended midnight soliloquy. The setting of the novel goes from Sandycove at the southern end of Dublin Bay to Howth on its northern tip. Famously, it is patterned on Homer's Odyssey, each episode mirroring elements of the ancient Greek classic.

This evening, I want to focus on a single chapter of Ulysses, the Cyclops episode, which takes place at around 5 pm in Barney Kiernan's pub in Little Britain Street. For me, this is the most entertaining and, I will argue, the most enlightening chapter of the novel. It is also a superb piece of comic writing.

It begins with a chance meeting in Dublin's Stoneybatter of an unnamed narrator and Joe Hynes, who has appeared earlier in the novel. They decide to visit the pub in order to meet with 'the Citizen', a character loosely based on the founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Michael Cusack. What follows is a series of lively conversations between the assembled drinkers coupled with some brilliant, imaginative diversions triggered by the subjects being discussed. The chapter ends with a fiery exchange between the Citizen and Leopold Bloom, culminating in a biscuit tin being hurled at a retreating Bloom.

Joyce clearly had a fondness for lists, which can be seen as a device for imposing order on the chaos of experience. Think of 'to do' lists or shopping lists or a list of books we plan to read in the coming month or year! The Cyclops episode suffers from a kind of list mania where the order involved in making a list quickly goes askew. For example, a list of 'Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity' starts off reasonably enough with reference to ‘Cuchulin, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Niall of the Nine Hostages, the ardri Malachi' before dropping in some unlikely names: Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, the Last of the Mohicans and the Man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo to name but a few unusual ‘Irish’ heroes.

The Cyclops episode is a contender for the title of the novel's most chaotic episode. There is a lot happening in its pages. There are a number of reasons why it stands apart from other sections of Joyce’s great novel.

First, unlike most of the rest of the novel, in Cyclops the narrator is one of the characters drinking and conversing in the pub. He is a participant in the vigorous arguments about national identity that run through its pages. In this episode, we see Bloom as viewed by others, in this case by a narrator with a jaundiced view of him. By contrast, elsewhere in the novel it is Bloom who is the prudent observer.

Second, the Cyclops episode abounds in flights of fancy wrapped in exuberant prose. Here is an example.

And by that way wend the herds innumerable of bellwethers and flushed ewes and shearling rams and lambs and stubble geese and medium steers and roaring mares and polled calves and longwools and storesheep and Cuffe's prime springers and culls and sowpigs and baconhogs and the various different varieties of highly distinguished swine and Angus heifers and polly bullocks of immaculate pedigree together with prime premiated milchcows and beeves: and there is ever heard a trampling, cackling, roaring, lowing, bleating, bellowing, rumbling, grunting, champing, chewing, of sheep and pigs and heavyhooved kine from pasturelands of Lush and Rush and Carrickmines and from the streamy vales of Thomond, from M'Gillicuddy's reeks the inaccessible and lordly Shannon the unfathomable, and from the gentle declivities of the place of the race of Kiar, their udders distended with superabundance of milk and butts of butter and rennets of cheese and farmer's firkins and targets of lamb and crannocks of corn and oblong eggs, in great hundreds, various in size, the agate with the dun.

Joyce clearly had fun when writing this part of Ulysses!

Third, whereas most of the rest of Ulysses features the calm, cool and occasionally quirky reflections of an intelligent if unsuccessful advertisement salesman, Leopold Bloom, and the artistic ruminations of the over-confident young writer, Stephen Dedalus, there is a frenetic feel to the Cyclops episode. The arguments among its characters are heated and there is a violent exchange at the end.

A good way to illustrate the manner in which Cyclops differs from other parts of Ulysses is to look at its last paragraph and compare this with the opening sentences of the following chapter. Here is how the Cyclops episode ends:

And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe's in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.

Turn the page and we are on the seashore at Sandymount, a scene calmly described in beautiful conventional prose.

The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.

If this were music, it would be a Presto movement followed by an Adagio.

For me, part of the charm of the Cyclops episode comes from its exploration of Ireland during the belle époque prior to the outbreak of the First World War. It may come as a surprise to have Ireland before 1914 described as a belle époque, but in fact it was a special time for Ireland as well as for its European neighbors. It was an era when new nationalist movements were beginning to mount a challenge to the established political order represented by the Irish Parliamentary Party and its protracted quest for Irish Home Rule.

Compared with the rest of the novel, in which the focus is on the life of the mind, the Cyclops episode is remarkable in the extent of its public face. It abounds with references to the public life of Ireland in the first decade of the 20th century.

There are references in the Cyclops episode to members of the Irish Party (MPs Field and Nanetti) and their efforts to represent their constituents at Westminster. The narrator has just come from a meeting of cattle traders at the City Arms Hotel where they were lobbying MPs on foot and mouth disease.

Sinn Fein (which was established in 1904 espousing passive resistance to British rule in Ireland, but was an insignificant force until after the 1916 Rising) is mentioned, as is its founder, Arthur Griffith, described as a ‘coming man’, who went on to be the first President of the Irish Free State.

Indeed, Joyce indulges himself in a bit of fun by having one of his characters claim that Bloom, with his Hungarian origins, had given Griffith the idea for his influential study of The Resurrection of Hungary which sought inspiration for Ireland in the Hungarian achievement in securing partial independence within the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.

The Gaelic Athletic Association makes its appearance as the subject of a mock Parliamentary Question and there is a discussion of the revival of Gaelic Games in which Bloom, with his independent cast of mind, extols the virtues of tennis. The Cyclops episode also touches on the question of reviving the Irish language, which was a defining issue in early 20th century Ireland. There is mention of William Martin Murphy, leader of the Dublin employers during the 1913 Lockout. The Irish National Foresters, a nationalist group devoted to restoring the forests of Ireland is the subject of spoof account of a wedding ceremony at which all of the guests bear the names of trees – Maud Mahogany, Fir Conifer etc.

Joyce's characters also keep an eye on the wider world. There is discussion of the Russo-Japanese War, of Belgian atrocities in the Congo and the Entente Cordial. What unites the characters in Cyclops, and sets them apart from the ultra-temperate Bloom, is their strong sense of grievance about Ireland's historical predicament as a result of being ruled from outside. There are putdowns for the French, the Prussians and the Hanoverians and, inevitably, the English. It is all done in a high comic style and the attitudes Joyce attributes to his characters ought not to be taken too seriously.

It is as if Joyce, writing the novel in Trieste, Zurich and Paris, and with knowledge of the Easter Rising and its aftermath, decided to drop a chapter into Ulysses in which he could dwell on the issues that drove Ireland's independence struggle, albeit in his own inimitable way. The target of Joyce's hyperbolic satire in this episode is what he sees as the hyper-nationalism of early 20th century Ireland for which he uses 'the Citizen' as a symbol.

The purpose of the Cyclops episode, I would say, is to make us aware of the political context in which Joyce's Everyman operated. It consists of an extended debate between Bloom and the other characters about national identity. While all around him, vigorous opinion reigns, Bloom is presented as the soul of reason, even if he comes across as a little ponderous perhaps.

With his Hungarian origins and his Jewish background, Bloom is seen by the other characters as an outsider. He does not fit in with the noisy attitudes that prevail in Barney Kiernan's pub. He refuses a drink and takes a cigar instead. He is in and out of the pub, thus giving the others an opportunity to do him down in his absence. Crucially, he is suspected of having secretly backed the winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, Throwaway, and not having shared his insights or his winnings.

The suspicion in the minds of others is that he is not really Irish. This leads to one of the most powerful exchanges in the whole of Ulysses.

-- Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
-- But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
-- Yes, says Bloom.
-- What is it? says John Wyse.
-- A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
-- By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that's so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
-- Or also living in different places.
-- That covers my case, says Joe.
-- What is your nation if I may ask, says the citizen.
-- Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.

This is a powerful affirmation on Joyce’s part of his commitment to tolerance and pluralism. The plain language in which this point of view is couched contrasts with the verbal pyrotechnics that dominate the remainder of the episode.

I read a newspaper piece recently which asked if Irish novelists can only be successful if they reject the country of their birth. James Joyce is clearly a leading witness for the prosecution in this regard. It is probably not conducive to creativity for a writer to have a too cosy relationship with the society around him.

Joyce's relationship with Ireland was clearly complex. He felt a need to fly its nest when he left in 1904. His conscious desire was to be a European and he duly spent most of the rest of his life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, France and Switzerland. Yet, in all the years of his exile, he hardly wrote a word that did not relate to the city of his birth.

I like to think of Ulysses as a European novel set in Dublin and Bloom as a European Irishman. His exchanges with ‘the Citizen’ are a universally-relevant appeal for toleration as an antidote to the troubles of the world. Bloom's corrective to the hatred he saw around him is love.

-- But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.
-- What? says Alf.
-- Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. I must go now, says he to John Wyse. …
-- A new apostle to the gentiles, says the citizen. Universal love.
-- Well, says John Wyse, isn't that what we're told? Love your neighbours.
-- That chap? says the citizen. Beggar my neighbour is his motto. Love, Moya! He's a nice pattern of a Romeo and Juliet.

Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentleman. ... His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.

We ought to remember that Ulysses was a book written in wartime and in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, events that had a much more direct impact on Joyce's life than anything that happened in Ireland during his lifetime. Joyce spent eleven years living in multi-ethnic Trieste until he was obliged to leave there when Italy entered the war in 1915.

Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, was interned by the Austrian authorities on account of his Italian sympathies. Moreover, the Joyce family continued at home to speak the Triestine dialect of Italian. Joyce had a lot of time for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, enjoying its multi-national character. Ulysses was clearly influenced by the time he spent in Trieste and the character of Bloom is said to be based in part on a Hungarian he encountered there.

I like to see the Cyclops episode, therefore, as not just a commentary of the Ireland of its time, but on Europe as a whole, whose civilisation Joyce so much revered and witnessed being torn apart. It is an appeal for reason and tolerance in public life, qualities that were needed at least as much in early 20th century Europe as in the Ireland Joyce left in 1904.

Daniel Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland.