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November 24, 2004

James Joyce and the centenary of Bloomsday

Posted by Christie Davies

Brian Breathnach, James Joyce: Ineluctable Modality of the Visible
Dublin Writers Museum, 18 Parnell Square, Dublin 1
10th October - 31st December 2004
Monday to Saturday 10am - 5pm,
Sunday 11am - 5pm

James Joyce Museum
Joyce Tower (The Martello Tower), Sandycove, County Dublin
March to October inclusive,
Monday to Saturday 10am - 5pm,
Sunday 2pm - 6pm
Other months by arrangement

The centenary of Ulysses that blooming day of 16 June 1904 has been celebrated in Dublin with a series of exhibitions about James Joyce, some better than others. Brian Breathnach's exhibition of pictures is one of the better ones. He has the gift of creating works of art that please at any distance. As you enter the room you see an array of African masks at the far end, all of which are recognisable as the familiar face of Joyce dominated by the circularities of his eye-glasses and eye-patch. The rest of the face including the distinctive chin are represented by a few broad and heavy strokes. Lined up by the letters of the alphabet the portraits form a set of ghostly masks that watch you wherever you stand. Yet each also provides a detailed reference to Ulysses. One is an outline of Joyce's face in hard red on black with tennis ball eyes. It is indeed Alfred Lawn Tennison, "Lawn Tennyson gentleman poet", a visual statement of one of Joyce's wilder puns. Joyce has been rebussed and Tennyson rebutted. How noisily annoyed Noyes would be if he could see this picture. He loathed the way in which the modernist Joyce had overtaken Tennyson in the regard of those who thought. He would have seen Breathnach's work as an insult to Winterhalter.

To the right of the masks hangs Night-town, a black haired whore with exaggerated breasts threatening to club anyone standing too close (in fairness, Bella Cohen may have been built like that). The red lights and red-coats of Dublin are long gone but Joyce's loving images of the social evil in Edwardian Ireland have been captured in paint.

To the left of the masks hangs a fine painting of the sea at Sandymount Strand where "Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crackling wrack and shells". The shell is glued with sand to the canvas. Beyond the beach a snot-purple, wine dark sea, broken by heavy waves slides towards a sky in which a thin blue circle hangs contrasting with a hard shiny red square in the beachy foreground. It must be the only erection of pillar box red left in republican Ireland. Stand at a distance and all you can see are the waves coming in long thick steady white lines across the bay. The actual handle of the brush that painted them is lodged in the body of the picture like the mast of a dead ship. It is a measure of this painting's success that when I left, I straightway took the Dart Eisenbahn Eireann train to Sandymount Strand, so that I could experience the sea with Breathnach's picture and Joyce's words colliding in my head.

The Dublin Writers' Museum is looking up. Its previous main exhibition consisted of John F. Kennedy's World War II Navy Boxer Shorts:

White cotton snap closures, drawstring waist, the name Jack Kennedy and the number S3980 sewn into the inner waistband in red.

It sounds like a good joke, though I hope they were thoroughly cleaned before being exhibited. However, the shammes told me that Kennedy's bloomers had been heavily insured and had to be locked up carefully at night to prevent theft. They were exhibited alongside a copy of Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. What inspired this nonsense? Kennedy was not a Dubliner. Profiles in Courage was not written by Kennedy. A very large part indeed of the research and writing was done by others. Kennedy did not earn his Pulitzer Prize fair and square. Why demean the memory of Ireland's many exceptionally talented writers by putting an American plagiarist in with them? It is time to run that book through a computer program that decides authorship; all that is needed is to feed it also with a piece of incompetent prose that indisputably was written by Kennedy. Kennedy was rich, had good lawyers and could not write. He had nothing in common with Ireland's real literary heroes.

Further down the darting iron way from Sandymount is Sandycove and the Martello Tower where Ulysses begins and the forty foot (from the regiment stationed here) bathing place where Buck Mulligan the stately plump life-saver with the Royal Humane Society certificate swam. The train was slow because of Autumn leaves stuck to the track but I was assured by Eisenbahn Eireann that they were "tackling the problem of adhesion". Today the sea was a happy unsnotblue with calm waves twinkling but it was Joyce's sea. The forty foot where Buck Mulligan could swim naked with the parsons is much changed. Now a fierce notice orders that "Togs must be worn". Costumes are still called togs in Drumcondra where the best English is spoken. Munster-built women emerged heavily from the sea in the least revealing two-piece bathing togs West of Suez. A hairy-backed shameless old fellow changed naked in front of them, shrugged on a mottled costume that was smaller than his bathing cap and ran defiantly across the coarse granite to the cold "scrotum-tightening" sea. The forty-foot keeper and I spoke of the swans that now live in the sea. When Oliver St. John Gogarty (Buck Mulligan) was kidnapped for political murder like his fellow Milesians, Bingley and Hassan he escaped from his captors and this time swam to save his own life, heading down the Liffey. To celebrate his escape he presented a pair of swans to Dublin's river. They multiplied and took to the sea and are his memorial at the place where he once plunged. By now old hairy-back was so far out that his bathing-capped round brown head could have been that of a seal.

There was just time to catch the last of the James Joyce museum in the Martello tower before the winter, now quiet after its centenary excitements on Bloomsday 16th June. Fortunately the omphalas was not attacked by a British naval destroyer in 1916 and it has been restored and furnished to look as it did when Joyce, St. John Gogarty and the Englishman Dermot Chevenix Trench, the "originals" of Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan and Haines, lived there. It is strange how we are drawn to such places when we have an imagined text; we always want to see the material facts and enjoy the pleasant self-deception of walking into that text. The designers of the museum must have had that in mind. Yet part of the fascination lies in the way the reality as reconstructed by the museum's historians differs from Joyce's story. True we can see the windy parapet where Mulligan shaved and the fire where choked with smoke the medical man fried a coronary-special breakfast. But here are the unmentionable saucepans above Joyce's bed which Gogarty maliciously shot down in the night forcing him to leave the tower. The nightmare panther was just an excuse. The Clongowes punishment book is here. It suggests that Joyce was pandied at that scandalous school not for being without his glasses but for using obscene language. Perhaps he used obscene language in frustration when he broke his glasses. It is better the way Joyce told it.

Nonetheless we sometimes feel we ought to reassess. Haines, the Oxford-accented Englishman in Ulysses who addressed the deferential milkwoman in fluent Irish is one of literature's more repellent characters. Like all his kind in Abertawe he could not understand how much his condescension was resented. Yet the Gaelic-fluent, English-clumsy Haines is here revealed to the visitor as Dermot Chevenix Trench who published the pamphlet on display What is the use of reviving Irish? in 1907 and soon after killed himself. When visitors now go back to read Ulysses again will they be able to pick up the contempt and dislike they once felt for Haines and his inept use of English, his own true native language? Maybe they will feel too sorry for him. The real man will have undermined the fictional character. No doubt we can acquire such confusions from the reading of biographies but somehow objects, even the peripheral objects a museum provides, have more impact. Chevenix Trench's pamphlet has just such an impact; the attempt by the museum to render solid the black panther of his night-time trauma does not.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction publishers, 2004, a work that also embraces Ireland. For more James Joyce related reviews by Christie Davies, see In the footsteps of Leopold Bloom: Portraits from Jewish Dublin and James Joyce and Ulysses at the National Library of Ireland.

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If it's bad now, imagine what it'll be like in a thousand years:

Posted by: Jimmy McQueen at November 28, 2004 01:39 PM
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