A portrait of James Joyce

Writing a blog post about James Joyce is quite a lot about writing a blog post about Marmite. Some people are going to love it, whereas others are going to hate it.

Incidentally, this also refers to the reception of Joyce’s writing itself.

There is a huge crowd of readers and scholars who queue up at every possible opportunity to say how much they love Joyce’s writing and how he was a hero who redefined the very meaning of literature. At the same time, there is an equally huge crowd who can’t wait to tell you that Joyce’s work is complete drivel that, in his efforts partly to deconstruct the idea of literature as having meaning, robbed the English-speaking language of a great aspect of literature. Indeed, some scholars think that he alternated between pure genius and pure madness (and anyone who appreciates the works of people like Picasso recognises that frequently a piece of art contains elements of both).

This excitement and passion is easy to dismiss as the distracted waffling of a group of closeted academics. However, it is worth stopping and thinking, because this gets to the heart of why Joyce is such an Irish icon. He refused to play by the rules and to accept what the society around him claimed as the status quo. In this, he mirrored the struggles and search for identity that marked Ireland as a nation in the 20th century.

He was also remarkably incompetent at keeping himself in cash. As a dreamer, he came up with many get-rich schemes that he believed would revolutionise the world – and he failed in nearly every single one of them. It is only due to the kindness of his friends that he managed to stay in the black.

He also created many of the myths that have entered into the national consciousness. For instance, it was Joyce who first coined the idea that you couldn’t walk from one side of Dublin to the other without passing a pub.

A pub in Dublin

It was Joyce who first suggested you couldn't walk from one side of Dublin to another without passing a pub

It was also Joyce who claimed that, should a freak accident occur and Dublin should cease to exist in a catastrophe, it could be recreated brick by brick by following the descriptions found in his most famous novel ‘Ulysses‘. Mind you, this assertion does assume that anyone has ever managed to get to the end of Ulysses, an assumption that is by no means a certainty.

Perhaps that is the delight of Joyce, however. In his quiet, unassuming way, he threw out the rule book and wrote a new one. He refused to accept received styles of writing because he could see a new style. He refused to accept what those in the academy thought was the nature of meaning in literature because he had caught a glimpse of something bigger and better and wanted to share it with the world.

He summed up the hopes and dreams of a nation – and it is not for nothing that Ireland celebrates their most infamous child every year in Dublin’s Bloomsday Festival. James Joyce died years ago physically. In his legacy, however, in his dreams and in his refusal to accept other people’s definitions of the way the world works, he lives on and is still very much alive.