May 26, 1957
The Daytime World of James Joyce
By STEPHEN SPENDER
LETTERS OF JAMES JOYCE Edited by Stuart Gilbert.
ometimes the most elaborate cases which involve in their complexities the greatest minds are dismissed at the end for the simplest reasons. D.H. Lawrence's rejection of James Joyce as "too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life"- a rejection carried on by F.R. Leavis- is of this order. The publication of Joyce's letters will certainly widen the split between the Lawrentians and the followers of Joyce. Either one will think, as Joyce did, that "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" were the only literary events of importance in the early part of the twentieth century, or one will fear that they are after all monstrous constructions of egocentric genius.
It is certainly difficulty to believe that in the whole history of literature there was a man of genius more centered on his work than Joyce. These letters are almost entirely devoted to operations connected with printing and publishing Joyce's books, describing the conditions in which he worked, the tribulations he endured while doing so, apologetics for the work when it was completed, and pursuit of assistance and material to aid in furthering it. Joyce was, of course, provided with every excuse by censorship, poverty, exile, illness and family misfortune for his egotism. All the same, the reader is bound to ask:"How is it possible that even the greatest genius should not be strangled by such isolation from outside life, such a complete burrowing into the sources of his own experience?" It may be true that each man's life contains the whole of life, but all the same, reading these letters, one feels that there are also such things as fresh air, the intellectual life of one's time, friends and society. Compared with Joyce's various mental lodgings, Proust's cork-lined room seems wide open as the prairies.The letters are the opposite of the novels in being- as far as possible and quite as a matter of principle- unrevealing of the inner life. They consist of the dealings of a genius with people outside. The novels are as obscure as inner subjective life requires. The letters are as clear as outside dealings could be. It is only with his daughter- and, at that, when she is on the edge of madness- that there is any intimacy. Then, the part of James Joyce which created "Finnegans Wake" seems in the process of speaking to another human being.Joyce shows in his letters many virtues: considerateness, patience, decency, tolerance, politeness, willingness to offer explanations and information. What his correspondence lacks can be judged by comparing it with letters in which there is real exchange of views and feelings. In letters like those of the Fathers of the early Christian Church there is interchange within God; in those of Keats and his friends there is interchange within poetry; in those of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, interchange within art; in those of D.H. Lawrence and Middleton Murry, interchange within wrath. In all these others there is agreement on both sides that the writer and the person written to, share some overarching conception of life which is outside and beyond them both.With Joyce there is no sense of sharing at all. He has a monopoly in the only subject of his interest, which is his own work, and, to a lesser extent, himself. His letters are, quite strictly, "hand-outs" to people in whom he has varying degrees of confidence. Putting it in a word, what is lacking is love. In the acrimonious correspondence of Lawrence and Murry there is more love than in Joyce's most expensive bulletins.Yet, taken as a whole, the letters add up to an extremely interesting self-portrayal, of the entirely external "opposite" of Stephen Dedalus. One sees a man driven out of his own country, tormented by crises of his eye-illness, heroically working against poverty, neglect, stupidity and misunderstanding. The few indications one has of his intense inner life, apart from references to his work, are signs of persecution complex, the childlike fantasy of his letters to his daughter Lucia, and occasional exercises in the style of "Finnegans Wake."Opposite in every way to the night world of the novels, Joyce's letters are never obscene or outrageous. Nevertheless, it is perhaps a virtue of Joyce that he is always "shocking." I mean some quality in him which is too challenging for mere acceptance, which the reader may indeed condemn, but which ought really, I think, to make him suspend judgment. In Joyce's letters what is truly shocking is their arrogance- which may be the result (but this only posterity will be able to judge) of a serious emotional failure. The failure, just as present in the completely clear letters as in the dark novels, is not so much of communication as of the will to communicate. It is the result of there being, finally, none except himself, to whom or for whom he can write. He seems, in letters to an aunt, or to his children, to be addressing himself more directly to them than to anyone else, but there is also a feeling about these letters that he is writing to his own myth, reaching back to his childhood in Dublin.The letters align their recipients into circles of Joyce's world where they are as fixed as anyone in any part of Dante's "Inferno." To those in the outer circle, chief among them the bibliophile and lawyer John Quinn, Joyce writes nothing but formidable business: publications, sales, litigation, price and manuscripts.Despite his unsuccess early on, one has the impression of a considerable manipulator of his own fortunes. Next circle, correspondents whom he keeps posted about his family, his eye illness, the nerves of his daughter, his finances; chief among these, Miss Harriet Shaw Weaver, an editor of The Egoist and Joyce's stanch patron. Next circle, a convivium of those to whom Joyce reveals himself in unbuttoned mood, drinking, singing, dancing a pas seul, etc. Chief among these, Frank Budgen, author of "James Joyce and the Making of 'Ulysses,'" and Stuart Gilbert, the editor of this volume. Then there are those (who also include Miss Weaver, Mr. Budgen and the French novelist Valery Larbaud) to whom he explains knotty points in "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake."The only circle which seems near the center of his self-centeredness, is his own family. His arrogantly guarded, pinnacled and buried innermost mind remains self-consuming, creating his own world out of himself with its Lucifer-like claims to be the whole world. What the correspondent gets is, essentially, news of the work in progress.If he falls signally short of love that is not recognizable self-love, Joyce is nevertheless extraordinarily scrupulous and decent in his dealings with others. When there was an outcry because John Quinn sold the manuscript of "Ulysses," Joyce defended him. Gratitude, one of the rarest human virtues, shines through all his letters to Miss Weaver.His judgments, if they can be called that, on his contemporaries are characteristic of Joyce's idea of his own absolute merit, unrelated to anyone or anything else. Of Proust, he writes in 1920: "I observe a furtive attempt to run a certain Mr. Marcel Proust of here against the signatory of this letter. I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic." He was not, of course, a critic at all: to criticize, a writer has to have some capacity to relate other work to his own, and, however sever he be, some charity.Of Jung and Freud, he writes (June, 1921): "A batch of people in Zurich persuaded themselves that I was gradually going mad and actually endeavored to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Tweedledee, Dr. Freud) amuses himself at the expense (in every sense of the word) of ladies and gentlemen who are troubled with bees in their bonnets."Of D.H. Lawrence: "I understand... that there is a big conspiracy on at the Nouvelle Revue Francaise to make a boost of Lawrence's book 'Lady Chatterley's Lover,' which is to be brought out in a form exactly similar to Lazy Molly's ditto-ditto..." He was more generous to the dead, and it is interesting that he describes Tolstoy's story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" as "the greatest literature that the world knows." I sympathize with this judgment.In discussing the Joyce of the letters, for better or worse one is left with nothing but himself. Despite the beauties they contain, one feels oppressed by them, and sad and lonely. They are stifling. On the evidence of these letters, Joyce fills me with awe, admiration and a wish to suspend judgment, a feeling almost of prayer that history will forgive his arrogance and let his writing win through for the sheer force of its beauty.British poet and critic, Mr. Spender is the author of "The Creative Element," "World Within World" and other books.
BIOGRAPHY OF JAMES JOYCE