Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

'Jesuit' James Joyce's Church challenge


Ulysses by James JoyceReligion is sometimes defined as an attempt to establish a more complete explanation of life. Perhaps this is why certain creative artists are seen as at odds with religion, their works an attempt to establish a more complete explanation of life. Shakespeare is a prime example. Emily Dickinson is incomprehensible without a knowledge of the Christianity she prosecuted. James Joyce is infamous for a worldview thought irreligious, if not anti-religious. 

Shakespeare had reasons for keeping his religion private. Dickinson was more religious in her tendencies than her writing suggests. Likewise Joyce.

Claims that Joyce is a religious writer have gained traction over the past few years; some believe it is more like reclamation. When we read Ulysses the matter of Irish religion bedecks its pages.

The aesthete Buck Mulligan on page 1 delivers words of the Mass jocoseriously while shaving; he later sings a risqué self-made satire called 'The Ballad of Joking Jesus'. Stephen Dedalus employs Thomas Aquinas to explain the reality of Sandymount Strand, a beach on Dublin Bay. The main character, Leopold Bloom, an assimilated Jew, wanders into a church where he misinterprets the liturgy to comic effect. The one character in the novel quoted as definitely believing in God is the raunchy and adulterous Molly Bloom.

It is little wonder that the puritanical Catholic hierarchy were offended by this adverse picture of Dublin life. It acted against the strict moralism they wished to instil throughout a nascent Irish Free State.

Suppressing  Ulysses in Ireland was one of the great imaginative losses for that growing nation; it was denied a version of its selfhood that took until the 1980s to discover. But it was also a religious loss. Undeniably, Joyce worked to undermine and question the dominant Catholicism of his upbringing, but this is quite a different thing to saying that he was opposed to religion, or had no religious sensibility.

Literature like Ulysses is not given to typecasting. Mulligan turns out to be a Wildean believer in Hellenism who preaches a delusory form of Irish classicism. Dedalus rejects priesthood, choosing instead the priesthood of artistic creation. He searches for a father figure who can free up the quandary of his own frustrated intellectualism.

That figure turns out to be Bloom, someone wrestling with the conflicting inheritance of scientific utopianism and Judaic yearning. His wife Molly is herself a life force, a lover of the world who relishes every moment of existence, whatever her present circumstances.

The characters deepen with each re-reading, which is why Bloomsday is celebrated like a literary secular feast-day each 16 June. The novel honours the complexity of Dublin, including the possibilities of its religion. Far from shying away from the doubts and hypocrisies of Dubliners, Joyce puts them centre stage, there to play our their certainties and uncertainties.

Such a book was going to be a bugbear for those in church and state trying to introduce a uniformity of belief for all in Ireland. Joyce was not only saying that Irish religion had a history outside of Christianity, but that its Catholicism had lost connection with past Celtic traditions. The novel is a celebration of the senses, of the body as a wonder in itself in all its processes, and of the very Christian awareness that this is all something that grows in meaning by being shared with others.

One pioneer of this elevation of Joyce as a religious writer is the current abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, John Patrick Hederman. In his book The Haunted Inkwell Hederman says that Joyce's work is 'a life of search for the word: not the word of incarnation which would allow his word to be made flesh in the most satisfying and aesthetically pleasing form, but the word of resurrection — his flesh made word and restored to life'.

Joyce's religious vision gets even more intense in that macaronic maze, Finnegans Wake. The poet Seamus Deane has argued that the Wake is one end result of the 19th century search for a key to all mythologies, represented by such figures as Sir James Frazer, and in the 20th century Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade.

Joyce's solution was not going to be academic. We inherit a 'novel' that is unclassifiable, a babbling babel of astounding verbal inventiveness that retells the legends of East and West in a continuous cycle of death and resurrection, i.e. fin agains wake. 

This is heady storytelling in anyone's terms, and my attitude has always been to plunge rather than dip. Did Joyce write the Wake to test the strict interpretation of litterateurs and dogmatic clerics? 

There is no doubt religion as a means of human understanding is central. Lots of fun at Finnegans Wake, which in one portmanteau Joyce calls a 'funferal'.

Neither of these masterpieces would exist in their final form were it not for Joyce's Jesuit education. Joyce is one of the truly great products of that educational method, with its respect for classical education, its propensity for creating extraordinary structures of categorisation, and its cultured skill in making all sorts of unlikely connections.

Joyce was once asked why he gave his Jesuit teachers such a hard time in his novels, to which he replied that they're the ones that can take it. Another time he said to a colleague, 'You allude to me as a Catholic. Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.'

Make of that what you will, but it seems to me that the psychological penetration and heightened sense of relationship in his books owe much to St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. His remarkable testing of language and form itself is not an accident of his schooling.

Jung himself said that 'There are major and minor prophets, and history will decide to which of them Joyce belongs. Like every true prophet, the artist is the unwitting mouth-piece of the psychic secrets of his time, and is often as unconscious as a sleep-walker. He supposes that it is he who speaks, but the spirit of the age is his prompter, and whatever this spirit says is proved true by its effects.'

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, James Joyce, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake



submit a comment

Existing comments

Ulysses and Journey (into the night by Louise Ferdinard Celine) two different sides of the same coin. The first inspired by a profound desire for humanistic inclusion- the second its antithesis with its dislike and mistrust of all people of all classes and race- though Celine did seem to like children.... Two novels every adolescent should read ..

Myra | 13 June 2012  

In The Dalkey Archive, Flann O'Brien has an older Joyce as one of his characters; he is back in Dublin and wants to join the Jesuits. Sadly, it is the least satisfactory of Flann's books.

Frank | 13 June 2012  

Thank you for a beautifully written, educative and entertaining stroll across Irish literary and spiritual shores. I've always found Joyce a tad intimidating; duly emboldened by Philip's perceptive coverage, I may have another 'craic'.

Barry G | 13 June 2012  

Thanks, Philip, for a rich and challenging piece. You make me want to tackle Ulysses again but the last time I found only a few sections- the beach scene and of course Molly's magnificent monologue pre-eminently - of any interest. I couldn't engage with Joyce's irishmen, they remained uninteresting and it all seemed so dated. I'll give it another go sometime. As for the Wake, I haven't got enough time left to have another go at that. I felt at the time that although there were moments of real excitement, I'd have needed Joyce's own life of reading and experience to follow any particular paragraph, let alone enter into the book as a whole. Or else I'd have needed the detailed explication of every section that Anthony Burgess provided of the first couple in Here Comes Everybody. I finished the book, but I can't claim much more than that. Perhaps I'll be able to devote my first ten years in a nursing home to it. But thanks anyway - I'm impressed with where you've got to with it.

Joe Castley | 13 June 2012  

I had an uncle who was a Jesuit. He told me there were two types of Jesuits on the continent (Europe) - the Russians (the activists) and the Romans (the contemplaltives). Ignatius' ideal of course was "a contemplative in action" - an ideal glibly expressed but difficult to achieve. In Ireland however there were two types of Jesuits - the Saints, those who observed the Rule absolutely to the last letter, and the Martyrs, those who had to put up with them. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Joyce describes Jesuits both good and not so good. If we accept Stehen Dedalus as the pseudonym for the young Joyce himself we will see how he struggled with the temptation of becoming a Jesuit for the wrong reasons - pride, comfort, and freedom from emotional entanglements. His later life as an impoverished author was one of humiliation, distress and emotional pain - worse than any life in a cloister might have been. His was the life of a martyr suffering for his artistic beliefs. His Jesuit teachers - at least those from the ranks of the Martyrs - should be proud of their protege.

Uncle Pat | 13 June 2012  

Thank you, Philip Harvey, for this perspective. While I managed only isolated snippets of both works you have convinced me to try again with a new perspective. I expect to do better this time around, the last of a few attempts! On each of my previous attempts I expected more than I found. But now, after your piece, I think the next attempt will be better and hopefully I will find the Joyce that I have always believed to be there somewhere.

john frawley | 13 June 2012  

Very nice, thank you Philip. I've been a fan of this book for a long time, and used to attend Melbourne's Bloomsday events. What a good time! Did you know Kate Bush set some of Molly Bloom's monologue to music? This was years ago. As I understand it, the publisher (or family?) would not give her permission. So, perhaps another form of prejudice, but this time from literati towards popular culture. The song, sadly without Molly's words, went on to be a world-wide hit. The story ends well. With the passing of time, and re-appraisal of Kate, she was able to successfully release the proper version last year. Unfinished business finished at last. Just on some of the other comments about giving Ulysses another try, I say, go for it! It took me ten years to read it. (Nine years of which I'd put it down.) So I'm one of those who picked it up again, and not regretted it. I faired much better when I didn't view it as a novel. I marked favourite passages as I went. For example, I've always loved his setting the sound of a record needle on a record into words.

Steven O'Connor | 13 June 2012  

We just recently did a study of four on "Jung-The Unconscious and Us" DVD, which you'll know features one of my countless favourite theologians, New Zealand's Sir Lloyd Geering, whom we had the pleasure of meeting at the "Common Dreams 2" conference in Melbourne two years ago, now, and it really provodked me to try to keep my "shadow" instincts intact. The aspects I loved about the series would fill a book, but some of the things I found fascinating was that much of the Bible itself included, for lack of a better word, stuff,from the likes of Plato, and even Socrates, would you believe! There is also my physcholgy in the Bible itself! For example, "May you be in the same MIND that was in Christ Jesus". Fascinating series, and sad, he gets,to put it mildly, squat all, reference in scientific journals etc.

Phillip | 13 June 2012  

Lovely article Philip and I couldn't agree more. In fact I was so moved by the beach scene at Sandymount that I quoted it in my book: Edmund Rice - Restoring the Circle to the Celtic Cross. The juxtaposition of the lovely beach scene with benediction over the road struck me as being a good comment on the separation of spirituality from everyday life, in other words Celtic Spirituality. And now I too must have another go at it!

Peter Hardiman | 14 June 2012  

Here is some dialogue. To Frank: ‘The Dalkey Archive’ is an expression of how the giant shadow of Joyce affected the next generation of Irish writers. As I recall, the Joyce in O’Brien’s book writes pamphlets for the Irish Catholic Truth Society and is very annoyed that his name has been commandeered for nefarious purposes by that fellow over there in Paris. To Joe Castley: the characters are living in 1904, so they are dated in that sense, but characterisation in the conventional novelistic sense we find in ‘Dubliners’ has been replaced by a range of new ways of treating character. For example, Buck Mulligan in episode 1 is the same person as in the later maternity hospital scenes, but the modes of description are wildly different. We are not asked to read ‘Ulysses’ by conventional standards, but by the expectations of ‘Ulysses’. To Steven O’Connor: Joyce’s grandson is probably the cause of the Kate Bush fiasco. Stephen Joyce has been no end of trouble for lovers of his grandfather’s work. He stopped production of a Molly piece at Edinburgh Festival and even succeeded through the High Court in having pulped a whole new edition of ‘Ulysses’. This has nothing to do with protecting the work from being used inappropriately and everything to do with the grandson being the one who benefits most from the Estate. It is part of the Joyce story that not just governments and churches wanted his work banned, even members of his own family are stopping it from being aired. When you read ‘Finnegans Wake’ you see that this situation would not have surprised Joyce for one moment.

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 June 2012  

Ulysses is grand ...It doesn't matter if the thoughts ( therein ) are not related to one another. It's 'stream of consciousness writing' allows an appreciation of the flow of life and thought and understanding that might not otherwise be available had it been written in any other way.

Myra | 14 June 2012  

Dear Philip, You've almost persuaded me that I have to read Uysses finally. A most interesting article. Thank you!

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 15 June 2012  

Philip, you say that 'suppressing Ulysses was a great loss to Ireland.' From the best of my knowledge it was never formally banned in Ireland by the Irish Censorship Board

Danny Kinane. | 15 June 2012  

Happy Bloomsday, everyone! Interestingly, Ulysses is also the name of a bikie club (the "good bikies" not the mafia-type). I imagine adventurous men looking for a worthy quest to fulfil would fit in well with Ulysses bikies' code of conduct - honour and comradeship and a spirit of adventure. (Maybe the same type of men who once became Jesuits?)

AURELIUS | 16 June 2012  

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jun/15/joyces-dublin-city-of-dreamers A brilliant article in Friday’s Guardian by Colm Toibin. And in reply to Danny Kinane, ‘suppress’ is the verb I chose, very carefully, not ‘ban’. ‘Ulysses’ was banned in the United States and the United Kingdom, but not in the Irish Free State. It had to be sold under the counter. Church, state and media created such an effective negative campaign against ‘Ulysses’ that it was, in effect, a ban. For decades the common view of the Irish was that it was simply a dirty book, though none of them had read it or would know where to find a copy. Even though banned in London we know that copies from Paris must have been handed around because Bloomsbury certainly knew about ‘Ulysses’. Virginia Woolf’s criticisms of Joyce are a significant moment in modern English literature: she and her friends did not know how to deal with an Irishman writing the greatest novel of the period. Nor, it seems, did the Irish authorities. The literary scene read ‘Ulysses’, as we know from reading ‘The Dalkey Archive’.

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 June 2012  

Barry G: While you're at it, have a 'craic' at Here comes Everybody,Anthony Burgess's masterful introduction to Joyce. Frank: Flann O'Brien also had a penitent James Joyce writing pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society! Joe Castley: I was advised to hear a Dubliner read Joyce aloud - the unintelligible bits (most) became obvious. This is especially so of Finnigan's Wake - written as though Joyce's well developed poetic ear was compensating overtime for his near-blindness. Philip: Thanks for a stimulating read. I do thing the influence of Ibsen on Joyce goes some way to explaining JOyce's 'flight' from conventinal religion (ironic,as you note,but not surprising, that it provided miuch of the stuff of his artistic inspiration.) Does anyone know if there's any truth to the story that Joyce, while a student at Clongowes Wood, was described by a Jesuit scholastic who taught him Religious Knowledge as "insane" after his precocious pupil had written an essay on "The Immaculate Conception"?

John | 18 June 2012  

Ulysses is an incredibly brilliant triumph of cleverness- "insane" or not Joyce was a genius!

Myra | 18 June 2012  

Yes, Myra, which was apparently recognised by the same teacher, whose full comment on returning the essay was:"You are a genius, Master Joyce, but insane." My interest in this imprudent remark is its possible connection with Joyce's deliberate rejection of the priestly vocation he seriously considered, and of the Catholic faith. The source of the story was a Jesuit historian who was on the staff at Clongowes.

John | 19 June 2012  

Much of Irish Literature before Joyce was Anglo-Irish Literature written by those who were associated with the Ascendancy. The Jesuits, at places like Belvedere College and Clongowes Wood College, who later had a major part in founding Jesuit schools in Australia, were a counter cultural trend to this. Ignatius of Loyola, an ex-soldier, would probably have been proud that someone educated by the Order he founded had been part of the Irish Literary Renaissance, which was very much part of the push for and later a defining part of an Independent Ireland. How "Catholic" or "Counter-Catholic" Joyce was is open to debate. The influence of his Jesuit teachers in helping to make him the intellectual and literary equal of any product of TCD (Trinity College Dublin) is not. Many Jesuit educated young men may have rebelled against the overt religious influence of the Order, as I think Joyce did, but you certainly can't accuse their old teachers of not providing them with the proper education with which to do this. I think Joyce was very Irish: not only did he seem to turn everything upside down, there seems to be a Zen-like "Crazy Wisdom" to it. The Jesuits I've known are not without insight or humour: they probably understand exactly what Joyce was at. What a triumph: a major literary figure of the world coming from a small and recently independent nation on the western fringe of Europe!

Edward F | 20 June 2012  

It's interesting how much the grandiosity of virtue attributed to education is proportionate to the size of school fees. The original Jesuit intention of raising the bog Irish to the same professional level as the British establishment has already been achieved - and Jesuit education can proudly boast such fine crusaders of social justice as Tony Abbott.

AURELIUS | 09 July 2012  

Aurelius: One thing a good Jesuit education did and does is to encourage its participants to eschew caricature,cheap shot and cliche in criticism.

John | 11 July 2012  

John, any education that's good should encourage clarity of criticism, but sometimes one becomes jaded by the rhetoric and resorts to cheap shots and cliches that only sting because they hold some degree of truthfulness.

AURELIUS | 11 July 2012  

Or perhaps because they are mean and unfair, Aurelius.

John | 11 July 2012  

John, I reserve your right to express a "cliched criticism" in the same manner I did in my original comment. I am merely cynical of the whole elitist package attached to a conversation which should be about humility and a spiritual evolution in the other direction. I'm sure if you wouldn't think a student at a Catholic school in western Sydney would be mean for failing to revel in Jesuit glory, but has still managed to glean a sense of justice (and an education along the way).

AURELIUS | 13 July 2012  

Similar Articles

Feminists and gay Christians who accept the Church

  • Kristina Keneally
  • 08 June 2012

Recently Catherine Deveny tweeted that my claim to be a Catholic and a feminist showed I was 'suffering serious cognitive dissonance'. Many gay Christians are confronted by a similar lack of understanding from non-believers who can't understand why they would embrace a Church that rejects them.


What gay parents are worth

  • Frank Brennan
  • 07 June 2012

When Joe Hockey said on Q&A that the 'very best circumstances' for a child entailed having 'a mother and a father', Penny Wong, who has a child with her partner Sophie Allouache, replied 'I know what my family is worth.' It was a galvanising moment in the same sex marriage debate, which is not going away.