The Deflation of the Medieval in Joyce’s Ulysses
William Sayers (Cornell University)
This Year’s Work in Medievalism: Volume 27 (2012)
For James Joyce, Irish nationalism, with its appeal to patriotic emotionality and promotion of interest in the archaic and medieval Irish past, was suspect. His wariness toward institutionalized political movements is best illustrated in the figure of The Citizen in the Polyphemus section of Ulysses. Important strands in the nationalist movement were a reverence for the Irish language (although few patriots bothered to learn it) and for the great body of Irish myth and medieval legendary history. The Irish past, medieval and otherwise, was mediated by the marginalized speakers of Irish in the west of the island and by a body of nineteenth-century scholars, many of them Swiss, German, French, English, or English-speaking Irish Protestants. It found expression in the works of Lady Gregory and Yeats—the Celtic Twilight phenomenon—and Synge, O’Casey, and Stephens. Both the scholars and the enthusiasts promoted a view of the Irish past that has since been qualified as “nativist”: an identification of early medieval Irish culture and story-telling as unique in Europe, deriving in unbroken, unadulterated fashion from a lost pagan Celtic world, unaffected by Roman civilization (since the Romans never conquered Ireland) and only lightly colored by a Christian wash after the missionary efforts of St. Patrick. Today the fact that this vernacular precocity was wholly dependent on literacy in Latin has led to a revision of medieval Irish culture, as evidenced in Kim McCone’s title, Pagan past and Christian present in early Irish literature
Although James Joyce followed the publication of translations of Irish mythological and epic tales as these appeared in serial form in such publications as The United Irishman, and had a better knowledge of the Irish language than he let on and would allow Stephen Daedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his aversion to the excesses of nationalist fervor found expression in his ambivalent treatment of medieval themes and motifs in Ulysses. In this essay four such instances are reviewed, first as they appear in sections 1 and 9 of the novel, the opening scene in the Martello tower and the conversation in the reading room of the National Library, then as characters are recalled in transmogrified form in the phantasmagorical scenes in Bella Cohen’s brothel in Nighttown, in section 15, identified as Circe. Intertwined motifs are Ireland and England—and even India!–, sibling rivalry, candidacy for the Irish kingship, even slicing bread and spreading butter, and, of course, nationalism.