Nation-Making at Barney Kiernan’s
K. Anis Ahmed
Abstract: James Joyce, the ultimate modernist writer, has been read for too long as a rather apolitical, and certainly non-nationalistic, writer. This kind of reading was particularly attractive to New Critics, and other modernist interpreters, who emphasized the self-referential world of the narrative, or even clusters of texts, and also linguistic pyro-technics, over any mundane engagements with the political world surrounding either the time of authorship or of the diegetic period itself. Despite the long and dominant tradition of such “literary” readings of Joyce, and arguably his most celebrated work Ulysses, a novel so complex could of course never be utterly free from politicized readings. From Marxists to Feminists, generations of authors have found elements both to hail and to denounce this work. One of the most recent in this long line of unanticipated readings is the post-colonial one, represented by the likes of Cheng, Duffy and Nolan. What a post-colonial reading should accomplish is itself of course a still much debated and unresolved matter. Certainly, reducing all texts to the status of a either linguistic handmaiden or resistor to empire is no longer the only or primary options in this school of criticism. Rather, the idea is to find complexity where it was overlooked, and to find signs of either complicity or resistance where it was unseen. In this case, the Cyclops chapter has long been read as a straight-up caricature of the Irish nationalist, and Joyce’s own post-national, if not anti-national stance. While Joyce was thoroughly a cosmopolitan both in life and in literary sensibility is quite beyond argument, but is cosmopolitanism necessarily opposed to nationalism, especially when it coincides with justice or the desire thereof? Is the Cyclops only a bigot? Is a degree of truth inadmissible because the figure of the witness so objectionable? Is the Citizen’s boorishness meant to undermine the merit of any kernel of truth in his prejudiced speech? Or, is it meant to show the universal abjection of subaltern truth? Forever unsupported by all apparatus of State – the courts, history, etc. – always lacking in dignity, where is it supposed to rear its unsuspecting head, if not in the pages of the most subversive of mainstream or canonized texts? This essay tries to locate the subaltern in a most unlikely site – the ultimate modernity novel, Joyce’s Ulysses.
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Published in Fall 2008