James baldwin

Reflections on Bloomsday 2020

James Joyce in Zurich, c. 1918.

By Stephen Butler

There will be no joy on Bloomsday this year. No “yes I said yes I will yes.” This year we won’t listen and linger in the bed chamber of Poldy and Molly, but rather brood and mourn with Stephen Dedalus. “History,” Stephen drolly informs his boss, Mr. Deasy, “is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”

Stephen’s nightmare, Joyce’s nightmare, was Ireland’s history of invasion, conquest, colonial subjugation, and cultural erasure at the hands of the British, as well as the reactive and restrictive forces of Roman Catholicism and Irish nationalism. In the first chapter of “Ulysses,” Stephen describes himself to Haines, his English room-mate, as “a servant of two masters . . . an English and an Italian . . . and a third . . . who wants me for odd jobs.” Haines replies with banal politeness: “I can quite understand that . . . We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.”

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Joyce, acutely aware of all the ways his nation’s nightmarish history was threatening his individual autonomy and artistic integrity, left Ireland for good in 1904, but not before meeting the love of his life, a Galway girl named Nora Barnacle who was working as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel. On June 16, 1904, Joyce and Nora had their first romantic rendezvous and alas, this date has been memorialized for all time in the pages of “Ulysses,” a 600-plus page novel whose action takes place entirely on that fateful day. Joyce and Nora lived together as husband and wife in Pola, Trieste, Rome, Zurich and of course, Paris, where “Ulysses” was published in 1922.

Thirty odd years after the publication of “Ulysses,” another young artist named James, an artist from not Dublin but Harlem, flew through the nets and snares of his own country, flew into exile in Paris, where he forged in the smithy of his intellect the racial conscience of America. The final essay in James Baldwin’s 1955 collection “Notes of a Native Son,” is a remarkable think-piece about his experience as the first black man to reside in a remote locale in the Swiss alps. The essay is titled “Stranger in the Village,” and in it, Baldwin casts his cold eye on the poisonous legacy of European colonization, and sounding a bit like the character Haines, admits with resignation: “I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done.” And reflecting on America’s tortured history of white supremacy and black oppression, Baldwin invokes Stephen’s ominous line: “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare—but it may be a nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” One of the prime catalysts of this nightmarish history, Baldwin explains, is rage: “the rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable; this rage . . . is one of the things that makes history. Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever.”

James Baldwin in 1955, the year “Notes of a Native Son” was published.


And yet, Baldwin’s essay is neither nihilistic nor despairing. Writing a decade before the legislative successes of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin stated plainly: “despite the terrorization which the Negro in America endured and endures . . . despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of his status in his country, the battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American.” This insight allows Baldwin to conclude the essay by holding two seemingly contrary ideas in his mind at the same time: “it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement.”

Readers of the Echo who recall the insulated small towns and rural village of 1950s Ireland perhaps can relate to Baldwin’s sketch of the Swiss villagers’ unfamiliarity with human beings of African ancestry and attendant ignorance of black humanity. Baldwin contrasts this unfamiliarity and ignorance to the central if subjugated role black men and black women had always played in American history and society. It is through this contrast that Baldwin arrived at his conception of America’s shameful achievement. During these days of rage and destruction the American achievement Baldwin articulates, however shameful its foundation, is much less apparent than the recurring nightmare of American history.

Joyce’s final book, “Finnegans Wake,” was written in Paris between 1922-1939, a period in which Ireland struggled through violent revolution and civil war, and Europe hurtled toward holocaust and world war. On page after seemingly indecipherable page, the dream-language of the text evokes this cyclical violence Joyce witnessed firsthand and found so present in human history.

Following World War II, Europe experienced about five decades of Cold War peace. But the fall of the iron curtain and the shattering of Yugoslavia into independent republics unleashed the kind of sectarian and ethnic hostility which Joyce knew so well. When the wars in the Balkans had ended and the war-crime trials began, an American journalist named Lawrence Weschler wrote about them in a perceptive 1995 article for the New Yorker titled “Inventing Peace.” Weschler describes war-torn Yugoslavia as a place where “one’s own neighbor is suddenly being experienced no longer as a subject like oneself buts as an instance, a type, a vile expletive,” a place “where people not only seem incapable of forgetting the past but barely seem capable of thinking about anything else.” Weschler equates such a social situation, one that breeds vengeance, violence and the dehumanization of fellow human beings, with the “moral universe” of epic poetry, a poetic tradition in which he includes “Finnegans Wake.” Whereas Baldwin admitted that individuals cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of the past, toward the end of his piece, Weschler suggests with hope and perhaps naiveté that the prosecution of individuals guilty of present-day war crimes might achieve “nothing less than a breaking of the historic cycle of vengeance-inspired ethnic mayhem.”

Of course present day America is not 1990s Yugoslavia, or 1920s Ireland. The power relations and historical tensions between ethnic and religious and racial groups here are unique to the United States, as James Baldwin so powerfully exposes and explains in his work. Currents events demand that if Americans want to achieve a more perfect union, we should at least try to consider ideas like systemic racism and structural socio-economic reform. In the meantime, there is something remarkably seductive in Weschler’s suggestion that holding to account not entire groups, but individual bad actors, whether they be a murderous police officer or a homicidal looter, will lead to the invention of peace and social harmony.

But perhaps Joyce knew the nightmare world a bit better than all that. Unlike the positive affirmations of life uttered by Molly Bloom at the conclusion of “Ulysses,” the final paragraph of “Finnegans Wake” gives us the voice of Anna Livia Plurabelle, the river of life lamenting her “bitter ending” running its course back into the raging roaring ocean: “And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father.” And then “by a commodious vicus of recirculation” the whole ordeal ends and begins again.

Dr. Stephen Butler is senior lecturer, Expository Writing Program, New York University, and the author of “Irish Writers in the Irish American Press, 1882-1964.”