Joyce, Parnell, and literature as a social subsystem

When society functionally differentiates, art cannot be controlled by religion or politics or any other function system. Morally based arguments become less persuasive under functional differentiation.

Literature, which we may call a subsystem of a subsystem (the art system), established its operational autonomy in the work of modernists, particularly that of James Joyce. In the context of Irish nationalism, Joyce tried to free art from politics and religion. Joyce chose literature over the temptations of the Catholic religion and Irish nationalism.

This relates to the place of morality, as well as patriotism, in art. Art, if it’s really art, cannot be moral or immoral; the im/moral distinction doesn’t mean anything for art. Art is about the creation of beauty (as perceived by the senses and/or the intellect), and the governing distinction is beautiful/not beautiful. Here is section from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) where Stephen Dedalus is expounding on this esthetic theory:


Beauty expressed by the artist cannot awaken in us an emotion which is kinetic or a sensation which is purely physical. It awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an esthetic stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth, prolonged, and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty.
—What is that exactly? asked Lynch.
—Rhythm, said Stephen, is the first formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which it is a part.
—If that is rhythm, said Lynch, let me hear what you call beauty; and, please remember, though I did eat a cake of cowdung once, that I admire only beauty.
Stephen raised his cap as if in greeting. Then, blushing slightly, he laid his hand on Lynch’s thick tweed sleeve.
—We are right, he said, and the others are wrong. To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand—that is art.

. . .


—Aquinas, said Stephen, says that is beautiful the apprehension of which pleases.
Lynch nodded.
—I remember that, he said, Pulcra sunt quæ visa placent.
—He uses the word visa, said Stephen, to cover esthetic apprehensions of all kinds, whether through sight or hearing or through any other avenue of apprehension. This word, though it is vague, is clear enough to keep away good and evil which excite desire and loathing. It means certainly a stasis and not a kinesis. How about the true? It produces also a stasis of the mind.

Much has been written on Joyce’s attitude toward Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1991), the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and advocate for Irish Home Rule whose career was destroyed (and death hastened) over charges of adultery. The Catholic clergy in Ireland and the English Nonconformist Protestants were blamed for Parnell’s downfall. For Joyce, the moral arguments against Parnell, as well as moral arguments against literature, were anachronistic.

In the following passage from A Portrait , the young Stephen recalls a dinner table argument in which Mr. Casey and Mr. Dedalus defend Parnell.


—Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.
—O, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly—the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.
Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.
—Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!
—They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!
—Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!

Later in the book, Stephen has a conversation with his friend Davin, who is trying to get Stephen to support Irish nationalism.


—No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell, but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.
—They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.
Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.
—The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.
Davin knocked the ashes from his pipe.
—Too deep for me, Stevie, he said. But a man’s country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie. You can be a poet or a mystic after.
—Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.

For Joyce, nationalism was a reactionary politics. As Len Platt wrote in an introductory essay to Finnegans Wake, Joyce came to decry all form of nationalism, linking it to racism and eugenic movements. The language he invented for Finnegans Wake, “Wakese,” actively resisted nationalism, monoculturalism, and monolingualism. Writing in the 1930s, Joyce’s created a radically anti-fascist literary work. It’s a language is which no utterance can be tied down to a single meaning.

Regarding Parnell, here is an excerpt from an article from Joyce Studies Annual.


The fall of Parnell is not the biographical episode in the life of the young James Joyce or of his father to which it is commonly reduced. It is  not merely that Joyce’s allegiance to Parnell is at the heart of his conception of the political and his relationship to Ireland. The Parnell motif is not extraneous, but a major and insistently recurring theme that threads through Joyce’s development as an artist. Across the course of his life he maintained a form of dialogue with Parnell, and his sense of complicit identification with the dead Irish leader, enlarged by the web of Parnell-related complementarities in his own parcours as a writer, gathered strength rather than fell away.


In Joyce’s life and oeuvre there is no ‘‘Beyond Parnell.’’ There is a leave-taking, at the end of Finnegans Wake, published almost half a century after Parnell’s death. As the river flows back to the sea, Parnell’s shade finds a first person voice. An arc flashes from the travails of 1890–91 to the modern Irish state, in which Parnell’s most ferocious enemy in the split, T. M. Healy, had been installed as Governor-General: ‘‘but hunt me the journeyon, iteritinerant, the kal his course, amid the semitary of Somnionia. Even unto Heliotrpolis, the castellated, the enchanting’’ (FW 594.7–9).


Callanan, Frank. “The Parnellism of James Joyce: ‘‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’’.” Joyce Studies Annual, vol. 2015, 2015, pp. 73-97. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/605558.

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