Rebecca Nichloson is a prolific playwright, poet, fiction writer, singer/songwriter, and performer. She is the author of numerous plays, including Mara, Queen of the World (an acapella musical), The Wild, Bold Enlightenment of Velvet the Mistress, Cooking With Keisha (or Anatomy of Pie), and Jill, Jack & the Martian Lady; a play she created for a children’s educational workshop at the Minnesota Opera. Her fiction and performance pieces include Children of the First Hummingbird, Intelligence, and Zar-Baby, among others. She holds a M.F.A. in Playwriting (Multiplatform Writing) from Columbia University, an M.A. in English Literature, and a B.A. in Liberal Arts/Business Administration. She also studied publishing at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Reporting by Rebecca Nichloson. Written for BlackEnterprise.com.
Actor, Blair Underwood, has long been a staple in black cinema, television and the arts. In addition to maintaining a successful career that spans 30 years, the two-time Golden Globe nominee, who made his film acting debut in Michael Schultz’s Krush Grove (1985), is a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and has won the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award an astounding seven times.
Moreover, he’s the supporter of an array of nonprofit initiatives and co-founded Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), which has raised and granted upwards of $9 million dollars for African nonprofits. He’s also worked with organizations such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
On Saturday, August 8, Blair Underwood will give thecommencement addressat AmericanInterContinental University (AIU) in Chicago, offering words of wisdom to the 2015 graduating class. He was invited to speak at the commencement because of his numerous achievements. Underwood will share his insights on the correlation between career success and education, in addition to encouraging these future leaders as they embark on a new chapter in their lives.
“This past year has marked such exciting changes in my own career, and there is no better feeling than knowing all of your dedication and hard work is paying off,” Underwood said. “As AIU students take to the stage for their commencement ceremony, I hope to inspire them to seize the moment and recognize their accomplishment of this important milestone, while looking forward to even greater success in the future.”
“Graduation at AIU is a celebration of each student’s personal accomplishments, recognizing their completion of academic programs that will prepare them for future success at a pivotal point in their lives,” said President of AIU, Dr. George Miller. “Blair Underwood’s own accomplishments and journey to success will undoubtedly inspire students to pursue their dreams as they move forward to their next chapter.”
BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Blair Underwood to discuss his motivation for being the AIU commencement speaker, what message he hopes to impart to his audience of 2015 grads, and what inspires him to give back to the community.
BlackEnterprise.com: What inspired you to be the AIU commencement speaker this year?
Underwood: Well, they invited me first of all. It was an honor to be accepted. Actually, these last couple of years I’ve been seriously considering getting an online degree. So I’ve been personally researching different schools, different avenues to do that. I was impressed with AIU—what they do, what they stand for, what they represent—and then they invited me to give the commencement address.
What do you hope to communicate to the class of 2015?
I hope to encourage them. I hope to inspire them … Everybody’s path is different and unique, in terms of what they will conspire to do and what path they will take. But, after all that, it’s [about] belief in self, finding your strength and understanding your weaknesses. It’s about networking, it’s about reaching out. It’s about faith. It’s about potential. What I’ve found in my life, the most difficult part sometimes, is just believing yourself.
Having studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University, how did education influence your artistic and career development?
In one sense, people in my particular field don’t necessarily want to know, or need to know, that you have a college degree. But, with that being said, for me it was important to get the training—to get a specific conservatory training—because it gives you a foundation. And more than that, it sets you apart. Another basic tenet of life is: People’s perspectives have a lot to do with your ability to succeed sometimes. … You’re qualified and you’re talented—that can be one truth. But somebody’s perspective of your abilities is another. So when you have that college degree—in my case Carnegie Mellon, a very respected university—it opens doors.
What motivated you to co-found Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA)? Why should more people give back?
‘To whom much is given, much is required.” I’ve been given a great deal. I worked my butt off, but I’ve been given a great deal. So, therefore, I believe in giving back when you can and being of service … The definition of true success is finding your passion, your particular passion … The flip side of that is giving to others; being of service to others. I wholeheartedly believe that.
In Groves of Blarney: Beckett’s Academic Reception in Ireland, author Ronan McDonald writes:
“… the tendency to avoid Beckett in Irish studies is as strong as the urge to incorporate him. He has often been seen as insufficiently Irish (linked to the claim that he is insufficiently political) or as leaving all Irish interests behind on his elevation to a transcendent imaginative space” (McDonald 38).
Any reading of Beckett solidifies the validity of this assessment. Beckett, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century was, among other things, a bit of a Universalist. He seldom confined his dramatic writing to simple commentary on societal issues or politics. Nor did he use the stage to pay homage to Ireland, his homeland. Ireland holds a prominent position in the works of other Irish authors of the era, such as Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge and W.B Yeats. However, in his writing, Beckett creates environments in which his characters lack identities dictated by any one culture or worldview. The futility of cognition and subsequent failure of language as a communicative tool is prevalent throughout many of his plays.
For example, in Waiting for Godot; arguably his most successful drama, he creates an emotionally rich atmosphere endowed with philosophical attributes that enables his audience to delve into the vastness of human ignorance, and the ineffectiveness of our attempts to construct meaning. This approach to creating theatre, which is what makes Beckett so prolific, poses a challenge for scholars seeking to determine the extent to which he contributed to Irish dramatic literature. Does writing about subjects that transcend national and cultural confines make Beckett less Irish? Is examining his work within a national, societal and cultural context significant?
Here, I will explore the standards with which Irishness and non-Irishness are measured as they relate to Beckett’s categorization in the Irish literary canon. I will elaborate upon the conflict between Beckett’s individuality and aspects of Irish nationalism, in an effort to demonstrate that the Irish experience isn’t collective and that Irish playwrights should be free to expound upon, supposedly, non Irish subjects without relinquishing the inclusion of their work in the realm of Irish dramatic literature. Furthermore, I will examine inherent notions of Irishness underlying the Irish Literary Revival and manifesto of 1897, which influenced Beckett’s relationship with Ireland and his writing.
In many Irish anthologies and literary journals, Beckett’s Irishness is reaffirmed, in others it is diminished. In Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture, editor Richard Kearney says that Beckett’s interest in “ . . . the universal concerns of Western humanistic culture outweigh his concern for Irish history and tradition” (McDonald 38). Historians, such as Declan Kiberd, argue against this, saying that the lack of Irish material in Beckett’s work is what makes him most Irish, because Irish references have generally been polluted by “colonial mis-apprehensions” (38). Kiberd feels that Beckett’s Irishness is rooted in his victory over the confines of Irishness itself and says of the characters in his plays; “ . . . [t] heir surroundings seem decontexualized because they represent a geography which has been deprived of history” (10, 42). Journals like Irish University Review (1986) and Hermathena, as well as Elion O’ Brien’s The Beckett Country (1986) and John P. Harrington’s The Irish Beckett (1991) have all attempted to emphasize Beckett’s Irishness (McDonald 36). In Vivien Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition, Beckett is linked with Gaelic poets and prominent Anglo-Irish authors. Other critics such as Seamus Deane and David Lloyd have also found ways to incorporate his plays into the Irish literary canon.
The reasoning behind their quest thrives off the notion that academic analysis of Beckett’s plays fail to identify the Irish elements within them; such as the sense of powerlessness his characters possess, their inability to communicate with language and his use of minimalism (Morin 6). Some historians believe that these aspects are linked to Ireland and its history, though Beckett has never confirmed nor rejected this. Arguments seeking to reaffirm Beckett’s Irishness must acknowledge the grounds for his marginalization, such as considerable differences between his work and that of other Irish authors, his bilingualism and his close association with the European avant-garde. Deane notes that in the work of other writers such as James Joyce, there is evidence of a historical context, but in Beckett’s, a transcendence of both context and history,” suggesting that even the most impassioned attempt to integrate him into the realm of Irish drama, may be forced (McDonald 33-51).
In James Mays essay: Irish Beckett: A Borderline Instance, the author probes elusive demonstrations of Ireland in Beckett’s early writings, such as Malone Dies. He also expresses a belief that scholarly indifference to Irish aspects of Beckett’s work may be due to resentment over his independence over the confines of Irishness (Morin 33). Mays assessment is significant because it is one of the first publications to address the discrepancy between Beckett and traditional Irish drama without categorizing him as either Irish or simply European. In Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness, author Emilie Morin handles him in a similar fashion, writing, “ . . . he is neither fully Irish nor French, but an Irish author in translation whose work has changing boundaries, depending on the context in which it is examined”(2). Morin believes that Beckett should not be classified as an Irish writer because the term is obsolete. Conversely, the author doesn’t believe that labeling Beckett as a European writer is entirely appropriate, stating “ . . . this alternative configuration of Beckett rests upon theoretical and historical notions that require clarification” (2). Still, there’s something unsettling about saying Beckett was neither one or the other. Nor does it seem fair to say that Ireland was entirely absent from his plays. In order to understand his relationship to Ireland and its possible subtle representation in his work, it is necessary to consider Beckett’s background. Beckett was born in Foxrock, Dublin in April of 1906 and was raised in a very wealthy Protestant family.
His artistic development was affected by changes taking place in Ireland, images of political violence, such as the Easter Rising. Attending educational institutions, which were opposed to Irish independence such as Earlsfort House, the Portora Royal School and Trinity Dublin College, aided the development of his talent and exposed him to varying points of view (Wilson, Goldfarb 447-450).
In 1928, Beckett spent two terms teaching at Campbell College in Belfast, after which he worked at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris (Morin 12-13). When he returned to Dublin, he had become quite disillusioned with what he perceived to be the narrow-mindedness of Ireland’s intellectuals, writing “ . . . [the] intellectual life of the country [may] have come to a standstill due to the harsh censorship laws . . .” (12). This position was also expressed in a 1934 article, titled Censorship in the Saorstat, in which Beckett conveyed his concerns about the impact of government policy on Irish dramatic literature (12-20). This may have been one of his first realizations that Ireland would not be his artistic home. After World War II he made France his permanent place of residence and became increasingly critical of works with nationalistic agendas, like those of Austin Clarke and Thomas MacGreevy, whose inclusions of Irish mythology and Irish culture he found to be too overt. In a letter to MacGreevy in 1938 he wrote, “God love thee Tom, and don’t be minding me. I can’t think of Ireland the way you do . . .” (McDonald 35). Beckett was also opposed to the Irish Literary Revival. Evidence of his disdain can readily be seen in his minimalistic novel, Murphy, in which the central character dictates in his will “ . . .that his ashes are to be flushed down the lavatory of the Abbey Theatre, preferably during a performance . . ..” (33). Beckett was quoted as saying he favored France at war over Ireland at peace (33), words that further indicate his displeasure with his homeland. Still, his background predicts a different kind of playwright. One who, perhaps, isn’t compelled to take up social causes but is still politically motivated.
Waiting for Godot, the play Beckett is most frequently associated with, not only demonstrates his unprecedented ability as a dramatist, but also his ideas about what the function of the theatre should be. The so called, tragic comedy in two acts, is about two tramps who meet every day on an empty field to wait for someone called Godot, who never comes. In the process of waiting, the primary characters, Vladimir and Estragon experience immense boredom, which they attempt to alleviate by philosophizing, performing vaudeville routines and discussing seemingly unrelated ideas. The play begins with Estragon sitting on a low mound trying to remove his boot, starting and giving up, he says “Nothing to be done” (Beckett 2). Vladimir soon enters venting: “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion . . . All my life I’ve tried to put it from me . . . ”(2). Later in the scene as Estragon continues to struggle with his boot, Vladimir notes: “There’s man all over you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet . . .” (4). These lines are indicative of the symbolism and philosophical aspects prevalent in the play. Also, the scarcity of the setting says much about Beckett’s intent on creating something universal.
In the script he designates the setting as simply “A country road. A tree” (1); implying that the story takes place everywhere and nowhere.
Author Enoch Brater, in The Globalization of Beckett’s Godot, describes the characters in the play as shifting from their locale to one that is global. He suggests that their actions and use of language serve as proof that they possess at least some awareness of the ideas they symbolize. Brater believes that the play exhibits a perspective with a broad cultural, social and political range. Conveying that, in addition to being infused with universal themes, Godot possesses subtle aspects of both multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. The character Vladimir is Slavic, Estragon is considered to be of French and Spanish descent, Pozzo is Italian and Lucky is an Englishman. The mere fact that in the viewing of the play these characteristics are seemingly nonexistent, demonstrates that Beckett believed human nature should take precedence over culture. He made these distinctions between characters in accordance with that notion. Brater attributes the play’s international success to its applicability within in a variety of different cultures, especially in the European community. In 1953 Elmar Tophoven, a graduate student in Paris, became an advocate of Beckett’s after seeing a production of Godot at the Théâtre de Babylone. Shortly after, the play was performed in Zurich. It was then translated into different languages, mostly English and French, but there was a performance at the Teatro di Via Vittoria in Rome that was performed in Italian. The first English translation was directed by Peter Hall and was performed in London at the Arts Theatre Club. Alan Schneider was one of the plays leading directors once it came to the United States. He saw the production in French and was incredibly moved by it even though he couldn’t understand the language. Schneider took the play to Miami in 1956 where it was unsuccessful. However, his direction of Beckett’s other works brought him notoriety in America. Waiting for Godot has also had success in Asia and South Africa. The play was first brought to Japan by critic and translator Yasunari Takahashi. Its staging was greatly influenced by aspects of Japanese traditional Noh theatre. In 1962 the play was performed in South Africa with black African performers and was directed by Athol Fugard, a South African playwright and admirer of Beckett’s work. Godot has also been well received in Israel where its implications to the holocaust and Judaism have not gone unnoticed. In 1984 it was performed at the Haifa Municipal Theatre and was directed by Ilan Ronen. The Israeli actors in the play delivered their lines in Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic (Brater 145-158).
However, in Someoneis looking at me still: The Audience- Creature Relationship in the Theatre Plays ofSamuel Beckett, author Matthew Davies conveys that Beckett’s work is challenging for audiences because it possesses qualities that disregards them. Davies describes actor Peter Bull’s recollection of a production in which several hostile audience members exited before the play even ended. While Godot was seldom without accolades in theatrical review, there were some audiences who sat dumbfounded during performances, unable to make sense of what was taking place on stage. Perhaps they were expecting the moral lessons that Beckett was always so hesitant to give. Davies goes on to elaborate upon alterations in the relationship between Beckett and his audience, which he says took place in three sequential movements related to Beckett’s utilization of staging techniques.
Intrinsic in Godot, is Beckett’s exploration of relationships between the audience and the characters onstage. He infuses the play with a kind of unprecedented theatricality which makes it’s staging almost interactive. Beckett’s theatrical knowledge is significant because most of his staging directions suggest a desire to distance the audience from the stage in an effort to maintain a sense of theatrical illusion, an illusion I believe to be very symbolic and in accordance with the themes in his work (Davies 76-93). But how does this inform our understanding of Beckett’s Irishness? Does the international success of the play; it’s themes and his ambivalence towards his audience serve as a reliable measurement of his Irishness?
As stated before, Beckett was opposed to the Irish Literary Revival. It should be noted that during this time there was an obvious absence of Protestant Anglo- Irish representations on stage. Davies believes that inequalities between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, may have led to Beckett’s disposition. Though a minority, Protestants in Dublin weren’t without power or political weight. They were a dominant force in the country’s economy. Catholics and Protestants were often separated by class and socio- economic status and often lived in separate neighborhoods. Davies describes the Anglo Irish as a people whose sense of identity derives from displacement and an inability to define themselves as neither Irish or British. He elaborates on some of the many ways scholars have gone about defining them, such as Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley, who focus on socio-political and religious aspects as grounds for definition. He then gives some compelling information on Vivian Mercier’s categorization, which is primarily concerned with Anglo- Irish distance from the mainstream population, distance which may have originated when they first came to Ireland. Davies goes on to say that it has been a long held myth that Protestants are relatively silent in relation to Catholics and have been described as lacking performative qualities.
However, Protestants themselves have admitted to valuing their silence especially during the Irish Independence and The Civil War (Davies 76-93). In Waiting for Godot Beckett utilizes silences repeatedly. In fact, there are very few plays that command so many of them in and outside of spoken dialogue. It’s possible that Beckett may be commenting on Protestant Anglo- Irish aspects. If this is the case then it is indicative of the way Ireland may be represented in his other works. Scholars may overlook Beckett’s inclusion of Ireland if they are searching for anything overt or obvious, but rather Ireland can be found in the subtleties, the silences, the subtext (Brater 145-158).
As previously emphasized, Beckett’s marginalization in Irish studies derives from perceived differences between Irishness and non Irishness, distinctions which inevitably lead to the Irish Literary Theatre’s manifesto of 1897; which first advocated a national theatre in Ireland. The manifesto was written by Lady Augusta Gregory, William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn. The text is reproduced by Editor John P. Harrington in the introduction of Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Below is an excerpt:
“We propose to have performed in Dublin, in the spring of every year, certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence, will be written with a high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic and Irish literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment that is not found in England and without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed. We will show that Ireland is not home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of ancient idealism” (ix).
When the manifesto was written, Ireland, which had originally been a colony governed by England, was now an independent republic with an increasing population and a globalized economy. Yet it’s theatre was still heavily influenced by other parts of Europe. This resulted in the perpetuation of what is known as: the Irish quality, characterizations exemplifying drunken behavior, foolishness and sentimentality. These depictions were believed to help foreign audiences identify Irish characters but only resulted in caricature- like portrayals (xi). The manifesto was intended to end these representations and present plays that would reflect aspects of Irish culture, politics and values in more truthful ways. However, it did not indicate what themes national drama should expound upon or what function drama would have in Irish society. The historical context in which it was written implies a national drama that would confront Irish stereotypes. But who’s to say that in the dismantling of stereotypes, new one’s wouldn’t just take their place? How can a newly independent country that has been profoundly influenced by England and has, in many ways, viewed itself from a largely English perspective, create theatre that isn’t somehow impacted by it?
The notion of developing a school of dramatic literature that is uniquely Irish must rely upon thorough and definitive conclusions about Irishness and Ireland. Drama attempting to confront inaccurate Irish portrayals prolonged under British colonialism would need to present plays in which Irish characters behave in unexpected ways, but not so much as to not be recognized as Irish. This is where the problem lies. How does a playwright go about creating a character that does not behave in stereotypical ways but can still be recognized as Irish, not only by Irish audiences but international ones as well?
If the idea is for Irish characters to behave in unexpected ways, then perhaps there is good reason to give Beckett a central position in Irish studies. For his characters, though they are not Irish, behave in ways that are not confined to notions of Irishness. If the idea is to create drama which lends itself to Irish culture explicitly, it may be necessary to utilize at least some generalities to aid audiences in recognizing Irish characters, which would only perpetuate the stereotypes that a national drama is intended to disassemble. Stereotypes, though they have mostly negative connotations, can also be positive. A reading of Synge suggests that all Irish people speak poetically; Yeats implies that Irish writers are incredibly symbolic in their approach to drama and O’ Casey, that to be Irish is to be political. These implications may be in favor of a country or against it depending upon who accepts or rejects them as truth. The primary concern here is that there is a thin line between reality and belief; not only in regard to what other nations believe about a country, but what that country believes about itself (Harrington 525-530).
The manifesto describes Ireland as the home of ancient idealism, which is informative because it gives some insight into dramatic themes that could be used in the development of an Irish national drama. The word: “ancient” suggests Irish folklore and mythology as possible starting points. If this is the case, then Irish playwrights have something to build upon. But this scenario requires further interrogation. If in fact Irish dramatic literature should expound upon folklore and mythology, then how does a nation go about attracting its playwrights to these topics? How important is ethnicity in relation to their use? Is it necessary for the playwrights expounding upon them to be Irish? Can writers of other nationalities handle them with equal success?
In France, Beckett was largely considered to be a Frenchman because he spoke and wrote in the language. Should this logic be applied to his status in Irish studies as well? If so, then the mere fact that he was born, raised and educated in Dublin isn’t enough for him to be claimed by Ireland, meaning that a definition of: “Irish” is dependent upon the role of Irish culture in the personal and professional life of a given author. This means that a foreigner, say an African playwright such as Wole Soyinka, can go to Ireland, speak and write in the language, expound upon Irish folklore and mythology and be claimed by Ireland in the same way Beckett was claimed by France; albeit the interplay between Irishness and “African-ness” would undoubtedly become an obstacle. Nevertheless, these questions represent the subtext that exists beneath the search for manifestations of Ireland in Beckett’s work. This subtext is important because it yields information about bias in the way his nationality is measured.
In What Should the Subjects of National Drama Be? Author John Eglinton argues that Irish writers have no advantage over non-Irish writers when it comes to use of ancient Irish legends. He notes that because the legends are so environment specific it may be difficult for them to be modernized. He suggests that they be studied and allowed to influence rather than dictate. He goes on to say, “Ireland must exchange the patriotism which looks back for the patriotism which looks forward” (Eglinton 411). For Eglinton, a national drama is dependent upon a theatre which derives from universal concerns, concerns which are not all that different from those prevalent in Beckett’s work. He writes “ . . . literature must spring from a native interest in life and its problems . . .” (412).
However, author Frank J. Fay takes a more restrictive stance. In his essay, An Irish National Drama, Fay advocates a national theatre that will “… see life through Irish eyes . . . (Fay 415).” He had gone weary of seeing plays that told Irish stories but incorporated dialects that he felt were inaccurate. Fay views use of the Irish language in drama as an attack on “ . . . the spread of Saxonism . . .” (415) and felt that it was the most effective medium for Irish expression, writing,
“English as spoken by educated Irishmen differs from that spoken by Englishmen chiefly by reason of the difference in quality of voice between the two countries; in difference in inflexion or intonation and accentuation; in use of expressions which show the subtle Gaelic mind vainly struggling for expression through an unsympathetic medium” (415).
For Fay, language is key to not only insuring the true independence of Ireland but also freeing its inner spirit, which he felt could only fully be expressed in its native tongue (415-417). But is the Gaelic mind that he refers to confined to the Irish dialect? Can it also be expressed through use of other languages? In other words, is the Gaelic mind less Gaelic when it is expressed through alternative linguistic mediums such as English, or in Beckett’s case, French? What is the Gaelic mind? Is it a point of view? Is it a collective state of being? How does the Gaelic mind develop? Beckett didn’t leave Ireland until he was an adult, which means that all of his childhood memories, his relationships and his most meaningful experiences were in Ireland. In the reading of his work are we witnessing the expression of the Gaelic mind in an alternative medium? Or does Beckett’s disposition on the country and his subsequent assimilation into another culture cause this unique way of thinking to expire?
Fay’s use of this term compels an exploration of individual versus collective experience, which has long been the subject of sociological argument. The primary concern has been over which should take precedent in a nation. In the early twentieth century, newly independent Ireland was less concerned with the individual and more concerned with the country as a whole. The national drama that the 1897 manifesto advocates is firmly rooted in nationalism, which can be both political and cultural. “Political nationalism takes place when a native population or spokesperson for a native population organizes resistance to outside government” (Harrington xii). Since, at the time, Ireland was a newly independent republic it’s focus was on drama that would perpetuate national causes, most of which was the development of Ireland’s self image.
The Abbey Theatre was at the heart of the Irish Literary Revival and would serve as the spokesperson for the native population i.e. the citizens of Ireland (xii). The resistance would be geared towards the impact of British colonialism. The manifesto itself suggests that this was an underlying objective and there were in fact many plays produced at the Abbey that in one way or another attempted to achieve this, sometimes to the disdain of the audience. For instance, Irish playwright Sean O’ Casey received mostly negative feedback for his play The Plough and the Stars because it included a character that was a prostitute. Audiences argued there “were no prostitutes in Dublin” (Harrington x). In 1958 O’ Casey’s play The Drums of the Father was also criticized, this time by the Catholic Church, the play was described as immoral, leading him to withdraw it. It wasn’t long after this that Beckett banned his work from being produced in Ireland, saying until “ . . . such conditions [no longer] prevail” (xi).
The second kind of nationalism is cultural. It is defined as the process of organizing “ . . . for a native population, a sustaining image of itself, its uniqueness and its dignity, contrary to the subordinate and submissive identity nurtured by external, foreign administration” (Harrington xiii). The primary aim of cultural nationalism is to rescue and preserve the values and traditions of an indigenous culture that has been repressed by foreign colonialism. In this instance, the Abbey theatre is developing for the people of Ireland, a sustaining self image, one which undermines, or attempts to undermine the impact of that which has been imposed upon it (xiii). As the manifesto states, Lady Augusta Gregory and her contemporaries wanted to train Irish audiences to be uncorrupted and imaginative with a passion for oratory; thus indicating that they were somehow lacking in this qualities. The word “train” suggests authority and requires that an individual or group of individuals possess the power to define a nation as a whole, this process of defining involve elements of reduction and selection, or determining what represents the country and what does not. Those with the power to define would need to evaluate various aspects of Irish society, in an effort to determine which specific segment should serve as the “authorized emblem of the nation”(x).
However, no one has been able to state conclusively what this emblem is. Is Ireland’s true face rooted in the Celtic traditions or in the peasantry? What does it mean to be Irish? Is Irishness indelibly connected to patriotism? Religion? Politics? Each of these characteristics continue to be factors in Irish drama, but none of them have been exclusively identified as the ultimate symbol for Ireland. The manifesto of 1897 was written with marvelous intention and the Abbey Theatre produced some of the most prolific Irish writers in Irish dramatic history, O’ Casey, Synge, and Yeats.
But I believe it failed to achieve its goal, for the goal was one that can never be achieved, not until the Irish experience is endowed with all the complexities of the human experience. Theatergoers don’t want drama that simply shows a reflection of facts, such as country, language, race or politics. They want possibilities, an emphasis on the aspects of human nature that aren’t easily defined.
In addition to this, audiences don’t want to watch drama that implies they need to be changed, trained or given a sense of self, nor do they want to be made to feel as though they have all the answers. At the heart of good drama is good questions like: “How Irish was Beckett?” which may never be answered, but nonetheless offer knowledge. Drama asks questions and enlightens its audiences by asking, by acknowledging the unknowable. With that being said, it’s no surprise that Waiting for Godot has been endowed with all sorts of political and cultural implications, ones which Beckett himself has often rejected.
In South Africa, the play is about apartheid, in Israel, the holocaust and relations between Palestinians and Jews. It is the lack of conclusions and resolve that Godot offers which makes it so accessible to domestic and foreign audiences alike. Today, contemporary Irish drama, though incorporating some of the same dramatic techniques prevalent in the works of Yeats, Synge and O’ Casey, is generally broader and continues to be influenced by England and other parts of the world. There have been productions of Yeats plays in Asia utilizing aspects of the Noh theatre he was intrigued with, and authors, such as Conor McPherson, have had several productions of their plays in America and around the world.
The consensus seems to be that Ireland as a nation is and will continue to be impacted by other nations, especially England. Perhaps this is one of its greatest qualities; that it is able to blend with aspects of English culture, whilst still retaining its distinctiveness. But where does this leave Beckett and his categorization in Irish studies? Culturally, Beckett is prominently placed in Ireland, but academically he remains on the sidelines; it is most likely that he will continue to be, well into the twenty- first century. On some level, it seems as if no country can truly claim him as its own, not even France.
Yes Beckett spoke and wrote in the language. But how much of France is actually in his work? McDonald says that one of the reasons academia is reluctant to place Beckett with other Irish authors is that he is sometimes viewed as insufficiently political. If this serves as reasonable grounds for definition, then the same logic can be applied to his status in French studies. The language aspect is a significant factor, but Beckett didn’t write exclusively about France or it’s politics, thus making him not really French; at least not theoretically (McDonald 1-30).
The inability to arrive at a simple conclusion about Beckett’s contribution to Irish drama demonstrates that the issue is not a simple one. It may be that his willingness to leave Ireland and depart from conventional Irish ideals is perhaps his biggest contribution because it sets a precedent not only for Irish dramatists but the Irish as a whole. It demonstrates that the individual must have an active role in how he or she chooses to define. Notions of Irishness and non Irishness must not be narrow or defined through external examinations, nor can one determine whether a person is Irish simply by scanning their works for Irish cultural references, but rather, a man or woman must determine for his or herself what it means to be Irish. Beckett made his choice. If the goal of the manifesto is indeed national independence, then it contradicts itself, for both national independence and individual independence need each other to exist.
B Yeats understood this and believed that playwrights shouldn’t be forced to incorporate Irish subjects in their work. In his essay: An Irish National Theatre, Yeats states that “. Literature is always personal; always one man’s view of the world, one man’s experience, and it can only be popular when men are ready to welcome the vision of others” (Yeats 413). In reflection of his process for creating the Countess Cathleen he wrote:
“I had a dream one night and I made Cathleen ni Houlihan out of this dream. But if some external necessity had forced me to write nothing but drama with an obvious patriotic intention, instead of letting my work shape itself under the casual impulses of dreams and daily thoughts, I would have lost in a short time, the power to write movingly upon any theme. I could have aroused opinions; but I could not have touched the heart . . .” (413).
Yeats, a prominent figure in Irish studies, though he also experienced success in England, considered him self to be a nationalist. Any reading of Cathleen Ni Houlihan will confirm this. George Bernard Shaw said it might encourage men to go out and do something irrational. Yet here we have Yeats saying that although he loves Ireland and believes she does in fact deserve to have a theatre in which her values are reflected, it shouldn’t be at the expense of individuality or the autonomy of the playwright. Being forced to incorporate specific themes into a play diminishes the quality of the work and sets the precedent for loss of freedom in other areas of a society. A writer should be defined by his or her philosophy, for it is this that shapes the playwright’s aesthetic.
When we think of Beckett, we should allow his language and perspective on human existence to shape our perception of him. In his ability to depart from Irish culture in it’s obvious form and not simply focus on race or nationality in his work, he has paved the way for other playwrights, actors and artists in and outside of Ireland to do the same. What more pride could a country have than to see one that was born and raised in its borders and educated in its schools, go on to become one of the most prominent writers of his generation?
With the universality of themes in his work, his ability to connect with other languages and cultures, Beckett has freed himself from the confines of being a national symbol. It is this that is his biggest contribution to Irish drama, to Ireland, and might I add, to me.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot: A Tragic Comedy in Two Acts. Trans. Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1954. 1-4. Print. Davies, Matthew. “Someone is looking at me still: The Audience –Creature Relationship in the Theatre Plays of Samuel Beckett.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 51.1 (2009): 76-93. Humanities Module, ProQuest. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. Eglinton, John. “What Should the Subjects of National Drama Be?” Modern and ContemporaryIrish Drama. 2nd ed. Ed. Harrington, John P. London: W.W Norton & Company Inc., 2009. 410-412. Print. Enoch, Brater. “The Globalization of Beckett’s Godot.” Comparative Drama 37.2 (2003): 145-158. Arts Module, ProQuest. Web. 18 Nov. 2011. Fay, Frank J. “An Irish National Theatre.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. 2nd ed. Ed. Harrington, John P. London: W.W Norton &Company Inc., 2009. 415-417. Print. Harrington, John P., “The Irish Beckett.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. 2nd ed. Ed. Harrington, John P. London: W.W Norton & Company Inc, 2009. 525-530. Print. McDonald, Ronan. “Groves of Blarney: Beckett’s Academic Reception in Ireland.” PluralBeckett Pluriel: Centenary Essays/ Essais d’un Centenaire. Eds. Paulo Eduardo Carvalho and Rui Carvalho Homen. Porto: Flup e-Dita, 2008. 33-51. Print. Morin, Emilie. Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009. 2-33. Print. Wilson, Edwin, and Goldfarb, Alvin. “Introduction to Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.”Anthology of the Living Theatre. 3rd ed. Ed. Emily Barrosse. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2008. 447-450. Print. Yeats, W.B. “An Irish National Theatre.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. 2nd Ed. Harrington John, P. London: W.W Norton & Company Inc., 2009. 413. Print.
In Ulysses, Joyce’s notoriously esoteric text, there is little attempt to endow the ambiguous with purpose or meaning. The reader is welcomed into the inner world of the characters, into their consciousness; each possessing it’s own unique linguistic rhythm. Though elements of the tragic and melodramatic are prevalent in the text, its central mode of expression is, arguably, folly. Death and life, as literary motifs, unfold within the framework of folly throughout the text.
In addition to extensive examination of linguistic dimensions through execution of an unconventional novelistic structure, he translates the aesthetics of other art forms into words, blurring the lines between the satirical, the dramatic and the morose. There is a pronounced tension between humor and drama; an ambiguous quality attributed to the extensive utilization of comedic elements such as satire, farce and irony, particularly in reference to the depiction of human life and death (Copland, Turner 759-763).
In addition to making categorization of the text as drama, comedy or both, fairly complex, the aforementioned
“tension” exerts an impact on reader engagement with the individual and collective narratives present in the work. The manner in which Joyce has written Ulysses encourages the reader to engage with the text in an unconventional way. The reader is no longer the recipient of the author’s message, nor is it the reader’s objective to merely interpret its meaning. Instead, the reader is a kind of co-creator of meaning. In other words, Joyce’s text is interactive. Its utilization of the ambiguous encourages speculation on the reader’s part. Thus, it becomes necessary for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about the meaning of the text.
Meaning, in this sense, takes on a broader form. It can refer to the mood and tone of a specific moment or character action. It may also refer to the manner in which the reader is oriented to the script. The designation of the text as comedy or tragedy lies with the reader and the autonomy bestowed upon him or her by Joyce. Therefore, co-creation involves both the interpretation of the text as well as its place within the canon of English literature. This means that Ulysses is in a constant state of metamorphosis. Its meaning and genre are ever changing because of its dependence on the sensibilities of the individuals that consume it.
The co-creation of meaning places the responsibility of determining whether the text should be classified as a comedy or drama on the reader. Generally, readers of Ulysses are uncertain of how to regard it. Is it a single, cohesive work or, inherently, fragmented? Is it a portrait of three-dimensional, realistic characters or, simply, a parody of cultural, societal and philosophical elements? In this paper I will examine scholarly texts that explore Joyce’s use of parody, satire, irony, dissonance and consider his approach to themes of death and life in his text, particularly the episodes Oxen of the Sun, Lestrygonians and Hades. I will also consider the writer/reader relationship as it relates to Ulysses (Hayman 260).
The designation of the text as comedy or drama and the scholarly debate around which is an accurate description, serves as further evidence of the interactive quality of Ulysses. Joyce, in his composition of the text, paints with both a melancholy and satirical brush. Still he manages to consolidate these elements in a way that reserves the intrinsic qualities of both. Folly, used here as a euphemism for aspects if parody, satire and irony in the text, is utilized as a means of intensifying the tragic or, in a sense, transcending it. The line between tragedy and comedy become blurred, which forces the reader to redefine his or her own definitions of what constitutes the comic and the tragic. The mere act of having to interrogate notions of these two, supposedly, very different concepts, illuminates the absurdity of life itself, which may be the principle objective of the text. Absurdity is certainly a quality readily evident throughout the work which, itself, places the reader in an environment marked by the obscure, one in which meaning, direction, and conclusion is established at his or her own discretion.
The comic qualities manifested in Ulysses are, perhaps, qualities of dissonance or disharmony. This disharmony is apparent not only in an aesthetic sense, such as the manner in which characters interact with one another or the texts juxtapositions, but in the structure of the novel as a whole. Structurally, the work is inconsistent and, perhaps, purposefully so. Episodes that might be described as tragic are placed alongside those that are comic and lighthearted. Even within individual episodes the disharmony between subject and mood is present.
Dissonance also manifests itself in the literary styles employed by Joyce, such as poetry, dramatic literature, literary criticism and even journalism. Here, the dissonant qualities, particularly those that exist between literary genres, are merged together in a manner that not only encourages the reader to become the composer of the text’s meaning but, also, to re-imagine the means by which the novel, as a form of literary expression is defined. Thus, the reader is constantly being asked to examine whether or not he or she is reading a novel at all. The text’s aesthetic changes with every chapter and, in that respect, so must the reader (Melnick 46-63).
In “Dissonant Ulysses-A Study of How to Read Joyce”, author Daniel C. Melnick emphasizes Joyce’s departure from form, within a conventional context, and his embrace of the cryptic, particularly “comic ambiguity, and parody” (46). In Ulysses Joyce utilizes the obscure, complex and ambiguous in an effort to portray a kind of heightened realism and, often, overwhelms the reader with such. Melnick attributes this to dissonant elements present in the text. The reader is summoned to navigate his or her way through an array of “subversive ambiguities” (46), which foster the co-creation of meaning. This, inevitably, encourages the reader to engage “in the processes of perception and judgment by which human life may endure in a disordered world” (46). Thus, the reader is not merely a witness to the novel’s characters as they perceive and judge aspects of their world, but also acts as the principle perceiver and judge of the novel itself, it’s characters, their narratives and the author’s intent (46-63).
The ambiguous landscape of Ulysses, as well as its ever-evolving literary aesthetic, account for the interactive quality present between reader and author. It also enables the reader to retain a greater sense of autonomy as it relates to the interpretation of the work. Melnick’s notion of the dissonant manifests itself throughout the text, which seems at war with the entire idea of what a novel should be. As previously stated, Ulysses is episodic. Its episodes are intensely individual, in the sense that they could easily be read as stand alone pieces and, in many instances, become more coherent when examined in that manner (46, Hayman 260-283).
When Ulysses is examined, fully, the extent to which the reader becomes responsible for his or her experience of the text becomes apparent. Joyce endows the reader with a tremendous amount of independence, as well as a fairly difficult task. In other words, he places the reader in a foreign environment without a map and tells him or her to find the way, to come to some conclusion that doesn’t feel arbitrary.
The multi-faceted conclusions readers and scholars of Ulysses have come to over decades of consideration, is indicative of the act of finding or investigating the strange landscape where Joyce places all the readers of his text. The vast framework Joyce has created and the nuanced world he invites readers and scholars into, as stated above, encourages speculation, exploration and, ultimately, personal discovery. It’s these aspects, perhaps, that make Ulysses such a rich piece of literature to engage with.
In regard to manifestations of dissonance, the texts representation of death and life are also indicative of disharmony. This is, primarily, due to the fact that death and life are considered through the lens of humor and parody. Melnick believes this to “embody the tension between disillusioning reality and spiritual transcendence in the narrative of Stephen’s growth” (52). This disillusionment and “spiritual transcendence”(52) he references emerges, perhaps, from the relationship between form, text, theme, collective and individual narratives in the novel and the disharmony or dissonance between them. Each character in Ulysses exists with a certain multiplicity: they are themselves, ideas and versions of other characters. Essentially, it can be argued, they are caricatures (52-63).
However, this fact does not negate the realism of the text. Even though the novel and its characters might be described as absurd, they never cease from being real and, perhaps, some of the most truthful representations of human life in literary history. The realism in Ulysses is, therefore, heightened, but still realism. The characters have instances in which they are not simply caricatures and instances in which they are. The, internal identity of the characters changes, perhaps, from episode to episode. There are moments in which it can be argued that the characters aren’t really there. Instead, an idea or commentary or indulgence in some literary sensibility, on Joyce’s part, takes their place. Nevertheless, they always return and, once again, the reader is faced with the, seemingly impossible, task of consolidating the varied elements employed by Joyce into one, cohesive, framework (Hayman 260-283, Copland, Turner 759-763, Melnick 46-52).
The argument for classifying the novel as comedy, satire or parody and its characters as caricatures lies in the prevalence of these aspects throughout the work, particularly in Joyce’s handling of the tragic. Joyce’s objective in the employment of the dissonant is, perhaps, to encourage the co-creation of meaning previously referenced. The reader, then, is an active participant in the “process of imaginative perception, of constructing the fiction’s meaning” (52). He or she is summoned to re-imagine, in addition to how a novel should be structured, what constitutes tragedy and whether or not death or life are, inherently, tragic themes. These tasks are, considerably, confounding for the reader but nevertheless foster the speculative environment, which makes Ulysses so interactive. In that regard, Joyce’s objective may be, in fact, to confound (Melnick 52).
Melnick considers the examination of dissonance in Ulysses to be valuable, as it shed’s light on the challenges readers face when approaching it. Further elements of complexity include the novel’s seemingly, lack of meaning, inherent emptiness, Joyce’s “experimental” aesthetic and his decision to divorce the text from himself, the reader and, at times, its “human context” (53). The departure of the text from a “human context” (53) is significant, as it primarily occurs in instances in which the characters no longer function as depictions of human beings, but as ideas or concepts. The unconventionality of the work is used as a means of alienating the reader, of creating the environment of obscurity necessary for the co-creation of meaning. The endowment of the reader with both power and autonomy as it relates to the composing of meaning, is not the norm in English literature (46-63.)
Typically, the author of a fictional work has a clear message or idea that he or she is attempting to communicate, and the artistic merit of the work is thought, perhaps, to lie in the author’s ability to communicate it. This process or reader orientation towards the reading of fiction has, generally, made the reader a dormant recipient of meaning, pre-created by the author. This position doesn’t necessarily equivocate a dissatisfying experience of the text, but prevents the reader from fully engaging with the author. Joyce however, creates a new kind of intimacy between reader and author that can only occur within the landscape of obscurity.
In regard to the presence of dissonance in Ulysses or the text’s “simultaneous voicing of sarcasm and sympathy, of irony and affirmation”(53) Melnick states:
“The comedy of Joyce’s dissonance is not the stoic comedy of an ideal, mythic spirit imprisoned in a world of human debris; his work “transcends” such a negation because the novel envisions the survival of the human spirit not as opposed to but within the distorted, parodied, imperfect forms of modern consciousness . . . (55).
The reader of Ulysses becomes the principle perceiver and judge of the novel’s depiction of human life that is, inherently, “distorted, parodied . . .”(55) and “imperfect” (55). In this regard, the novel is not merely engaged in the portrayal of human life but is commenting on it as well, conveying the notion that consciousness in the modern age mirrors these aspects. The text, places the reader as the judge and interrogator of consciousness while, also, awakening the consciousness of the reader. Joyce has composed a world that is, intrinsically, fragmented. However, in doing so, he affirms the purpose of creative literary expression, which is to, arguably, illuminate the truth of life as well as its absurdity. Moreover, in his depiction of imperfection as it relates to human life, he creates an original framework for new generations of fiction writers to explore, one in which the unknown is favored over that which is thought to be known, and the obscure and arbitrary is perceived as more valuable than the clear and inevitable (53 -55).
Joyce’s employment of the obscure and arbitrary; his mastery of dissonance manifests itself in his extensive utilization of parody, satire and irony, which rely heavily on codes and codices. As previously mentioned, Joyce’s literary aesthetic, his approach to death and life, as well as the manner in which he has structured Ulysses is, perhaps, used as a means of creating and environment of complexity and ambiguity which summons the co-creation of meaning, or an interactive relationship with the reader. The fostering of such a relationship requires that the author of the work, intended to be interactive, be aware of the mechanisms at play in the writer/reader relationship.
In “Narrative Structures and Literary History” written by Cesare Segre and translated by Rebecca West, Segre describes the phenomenon of reading and writing, when viewed collectively, as a process involving the transmission of information or a message. The writer/reader relationship is characterized by communication between the reader of a literary work, also known as the receiver, and the writer of the work, also known as the transmitter. In reference to speculative interpretation, as it relates to readers, writer/reader dynamics are particularly significant. The above process isn’t purely linguistic but involves “states of mind, ideas, and judgments about the world” (273). Writer/reader competencies involve (in the case of the reader) the ability to accurately interpret the message being transmitted in regard to language, customs and societal conceptions (271- 273).
However, the relationship that Joyce establishes with his readers transcends the traditional mechanisms that underlay interactions between the writer and reader. For one, there is, arguably, no explicit message that Joyce is attempting to communicate in Ulysses. He has, perhaps, no objective other than to present a complex text to the reader and encourage him or her to examine it on terms that aren’t predetermined. In this sense, the reader is not, merely, a recipient of information but, rather, a co-creator of it; which, ironically, doesn’t always inform.
The, seemingly, purposeful lack of functionality at work in Ulysses is what, among other things, distinguishes it from other pieces of fiction. There are numerous occasions in which Joyce’s utilization of words seems completely oblivious to the notion that language is meant to be used as a means of communicating. Instead, the presence of language, cultural and literary references, ect. appear to be intensely ambiguous, arbitrary and the writer/reader relationship becomes uniquely altered.
Joyce’s expression of death and life through parody builds upon the reader’s knowledge of codes and codices as they relate to society, cultural elements, historical events and the perception of language itself. However, the author as transmitter of a specific message is changed. The “states of mind, ideas, and judgments . . .” (273) transmitted aren’t necessarily Joyce’s, nor is the reader a dormant receiver. Instead, Joyce places life in the framework of parody, satire and irony, and communicates or shares this depiction with the reader. The codes and codices at play in this exchange are incredibly malleable. The task of creating meaning stays with the reader. Accuracy, in terms of interpreting a specific message, becomes relative (Segre 273-279).
Still, the impact of codes and codices remain substantial. Instead of being placed in the text to orient the reader towards a particular conceptual configuration, they are used to further the environment of obscurity. The ambiguous, satirical nature of Ulysses places death and life, within a framework in which reader speculation is required. Although both themes are prevalent through the text and are, arguably, an essential aspect of its foundation, I will examine, primarily, the episodes Oxen of the Sun, Lestrygonians and Hades (Segre 271-279).
In Oxen of the Sun Bloom enters a hospital where the character Mina is giving birth. Here, birth and fertility are representative of life. From a metaphorical standpoint, the incorporation of birth in the text may, perhaps, be symbolic of language and its evolution. The episode is characterized by extensive use of wordplay that becomes increasingly esoteric and, almost, incoherent. Below are passages from the episode embodying or incorporating birth.
“The man that was come into the house then spoke to the nursingwoman and he asked her how it fared with the woman that lay there in childbed. The nursingwoman answered him and said that that woman was in throes now full three days and that it would be a hard birth unneth to bear but that now a little it would be. She said thereto that she had seen many births of women but never was none so hard as was that woman’s birth . . .” (316).
The narrative in this episode, as differentiated from the overall narrative of the novel is, itself a deviation from the linear. The dimensions of the text are endowed with a kind of duplicity, in that, in certain instances they are indicative of Joyce’s efforts towards the telling of one, cohesive story (Joyce 316, Turner 83-111, Turner, Mamigonian 337-345).
The above passage, when extracted from the text as a whole, is coherent and linear. However, when its contribution to the collective narrative of the novel is examined, it does not manage to retain those qualities. In reference, however, to duplicity, the above passage has both literal and metaphorical meaning. The literal meaning is readily apparent, however, the metaphorical meaning is one of incredible depth. The utilization of the birth theme continues with the following passage:
“Before born babe bliss had. Within womb he won worship. Whatever in that one case done commodiously done was. A couch by midwives attended with wholesome food reposeful, cleanest swaddles as through forthbringing were now done and by wise foresight set: but to this no less of what drugs there is need and surgical implements which are pertaining to her case not omitting aspect of all very distracting spectacles in various lattitudes by our terrestrial orb offered together with images, divine and human . . .”(315).
Here, as is the case in most episodes in Ulysses, there is a distinct deviation from the linear and cohesive. This deviation is not merely in reference to the absence of a clear message in regard to meaning but, also, from the conventional aesthetics of fiction (Joyce 315, Turner 83-111, Turner, Mamigonian 337-345).
The above passage utilizes modes of expression that are not routinely associated with fiction, such as a marked use of dense language, often seen in poetry. The incorporation of language here is oblivious to the functionality of language, leaving the reader to make sense of what, perhaps, was not endowed with meaning by the author. The examination of the structures in Oxen of the Sun are of value because it demonstrates Joyce’s unique manner of depicting human life, as well as the nuanced mechanisms at work in his text. Joyce’s incorporation of birth and themes related to fertility serve as representations of human life. However, his mode of expression in this episode serves the same purpose, as indicated below:
“He said also how at the end of the second month a human soul was infused and how in all out holy mother foldeth ever souls for God’s greater glory whereas that earthly mother which was but a dam to bear beastly should die by canon for so saith he that holdeth the fisherman’s seal . . .” (319.)
This passage might easily be mistaken for a biblical verse or extraction from a sacred text. The theme of birth, fertility and motherhood is combined with that of spiritual and, perhaps, religious principles (Joyce 319, Turner 83-111, Turner, Mamigonian 337-345).
The difference between the aesthetic of the above excerpt and the one previously referenced is quite stark. It is this discord, or dissonance between theme and literary style that account for elements of obscurity in Ulysses and its transcendence of conventional writer/reader relationship configurations. In “A Commentary on the Closing of “Oxen of the Sun” Turner comments on how individual passages in Ulysses often yield different meanings and asserts that “things that make one kind of sense on their own take on a fuller and sometimes utterly different type of sense from their context . . .” (96). Turner describes certain passages comprising the closing of the episodes as being coherent when “conversations are allowed to drift in and then out like radio frequencies” (96). In this episode, woman, is presented as a kind of deity. The female form is the principle means by which the cycle of life persists (Turner 96-111).
The interrelatedness between life and death or the physical conditions associated with such is suggested: we are born as infants and die, perhaps, in a kind of infancy. The episode itself does not, particularly; exhibit the satirical style employed in others. However, when it is examined in a manner that considers the framework of Ulysses as a whole, one can assert that the mechanisms of folly, satire, parody and irony remain at play and, therefore, must inform reader interpretation.
Life, as a theme, is also present in the episode Lestrygonians through the extensive use of food. Here, it is indicative of the sustainment of life, in both a literal and metaphorical sense and is symbolic of the inherent ephemerality of human existence. Food is also used to symbolize religious ideology and, thus, has the capacity to provide spiritual nourishment as indicated by: “Blood of the Lamb” (149). There is also interplay between the process of consuming food sources and the environment in which this consumption takes place. In this episode Bloom frequently references food in anticipation for lunchtime at a restaurant inside Burton Hotel, in which he comments on the etiquette of the men eating there.
“That fellow ramming a knifeful of cabbage down as if his life depended in it. Good stroke. Give me the fidgets to look. Safer to eat from his three hands. Tear it limb from limb. Second nature to him . . .” (139)
“His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins: sardines, gaudy lobsters claws. All the odd things people pick up for food . . .” 143)
Additionally, Joyce explores the relationship between human beings and their environment, referencing the impact of environment on life, and the complex manner in which it is experienced. Here, the presence of a satirical style or aesthetic is readily apparent, as the episode possesses a jovial quality (Joyce 129, 143, 149).
Joyce’s exploration of human life continues in his depiction of death, which is present throughout Ulysses as a whole. At times his stance on death is, inherently, religious. In the episode Hades, Bloom, Stephan and Stephan’s father are on their way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. This episode engages discourse on death and forms of burial. Generally, the witnessing of death and its aftermath kindles a series of transformations within the physical and social environment of the deceased person, these transformations, obviously, have a tremendous impact on those that knew the deceased and the grieving process begins (Joyce 129-149).
There is a certain methodology to the manner in which human beings interact with death, in regard to customs related to it and the psychological responses they foster. Bloom, having been exposed to this process after the death of his son Rudy and his father by suicide, is engaging in a kind of examination of it:
“Mourners came out through the gates: woman and a girl. Leanjawed, harpy, hard woman at a bargain, her bonnet awry. Girl’s face stained with dirt and tears, holding the woman’s arm, looking up at her for a sign to cry” (83).
Here, the mode of expression serves as a depiction of death, the human experience of death and it’s witnessing, as well as the absurdity of both elements. In reference to the mode of expression, Joyce, again, incorporates language that is incredibly dense, such as that which is utilized in poetic forms. However, it is not this density that accounts for his ability to employ an expressive style that, itself, serves as a portrayal of death (Joyce 83).
The structure of the above passage, its snapshot linguistic style of a character engaged in the experience of death, is a testament to Joyce’s aptitude for creating realistic depictions within the framework of folly. Furthermore, He merges religious and spiritual principles with death and the human experience that surrounds it, as indicated in:
“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing.” (79)
“Lay me down in my native earth. Bit of clay from the holy land. Only a mother and a deadborn child ever buried in the one coffin. I see what it means, I see. To protect him as long as possible even in the earth” (90).
Here, the character speaks about his wish for his own death while providing insight into death (Joyce 79, 83, 90).
In reference to dissonance in Ulysses, Melnick believes it is most evident in the episode Circe and chapters nearing the end of the novel. In regard to Circe, Hayman emphasizes the extensive incorporation of “congenial mock identities” (273) utilized by Stephen and Bloom as a means of protecting their “integrity” (273). Melnick attributes dissonance, incongruity and comedic elements present in this episode to the simultaneous incorporation of “sympathy and irony, of emotional expressivity and intellectual ingenuity or ridicule . . .” (58). He describes this as comic, stating:
“What Stephen calls the tonic and dominant of Joyce’s selves are surrounded by the unfolding dissonance of stylistic history in the Hospital scene, then of Circean metamorphoses of the unconscious life, and later-in “Ithaca”-by the dissonance of its reductive scientific catechism . . .” (58.)
Aspects of the sympathetic and ironic appear, side by side, repeatedly throughout the novel. The expression of these elements might be deemed expressions of the tragic and the comic, a kind of seamless merging of two distinct genres into one original form that is much more than tragic-comedy. It’s this merging and Joyce’s mastery of it, which disorients the reader, preventing the dormant condition that most literary works inadvertently espouse (Melnick 58-63).
Instead, Joyce creates an environment in which the reader is forced to play the role of author by taking on the same level of authorial authority that the author possesses Dissonance in the text unfolds in a variety of ways, from Joyce’s concurrently somber and lighthearted approach to death in Hades to the representation of life with birth, fertility and the consumption of food sources in Oxen of the Sun and Lestrygonians. In his writing, Hayman emphasizes that as the novel progresses, Joyce’s literary aesthetic grows to include “ . . . new reaches of the subjective mind while paradoxically becoming increasingly stylized” (260). Joyce’s expression of the novel’s characters and their actions, become intensely comical as he utilizes characteristics associated with “clowns and farce” (261). In doing so, he becomes
“ . . . a social commentator writing comedy with mythic intensity out of the commonplace of provincial existence, the parodist drawing more or less unwittingly upon Irish tradition . . . “ (261)
Despite the multitude of styles employed in Ulysses, the text manages to retain its ability to depict human life and death in a realistic manner that is, arguably, heightened. Perhaps, this is the paradox of which Hayman speaks. If so, it is one of many present in the overall novel and may be the principle force from which all its dissonant qualities emerge. The inherent discord in the text between style, theme, caricature and character presented as being the same, create a portrayal of humanity and the human experience that is riddled with juxtapositions, absurdity, obscurity and, ultimately, truth (Hayman 260 -283, Melnick 58).
Dissonance is also present in the plethora of objectives Joyce seems to have had in composing the text, such as a desire to engage with readers emotionally whilst, at the same time, satirizing his own work. The parody aspect can readily be seen in his extensive use of archetypes and stereotypes. In “Vestiges of Truth: A Study of James Joyce’s Eumaeus”, author Barbara Stevens Heusel asserts that Joyce’s objective is to, perhaps, engage the reader on an emotional level in “the union of Bloom and Stephen” (403) while also parodying “his own artistic creation . . . ” (403). Joyce surrounds the reader with an array of “stereotypes, fractional truths, and outright lies” (405), as a means of conveying that the narrator of the text is unreliable and, thus, encouraging the reader to participate in the composition of the text’s truth (Heusel 403-409).
The reader is summoned again and again to engage in the process of co-creation. Heusel believes that Joyce sustains meaning or, perhaps, reader engagement in the co-creation of meaning by “ . . . orchestrating archetypes, which convey his [Joyce’s] moral and linguistic values, and stereotypes, which convey the paralysis he encounters in the modern world . . .” (405). Within the framework of satire, parody, farce, irony and the employment of characters that are caricatures and archetypes, Joyce communicates his linguistic sensibilities or as Heusel states “his moral and linguistic values” (405). It his, perhaps, Joyce’s literary sensibility that should take precedence in the process of interpreting his text (Heusel 403-409).
The framework of folly in which the individual and collective narratives in Ulysses unfold, endows the reader with autonomy and power by furthering the obscure, complex and arbitrary. Thus, the reader is given the, albeit challenging, task of determining not only the principle conveyance of the text but, also, its designation as a novel. The plethora of literary styles and aesthetics employed by Joyce, consistently interrogate the position of Ulysses in the canon of English literature, as well as the means by which works of fiction are categorized. The reader is encouraged to re-imagine various facets of conventional literature, particularly fiction, as well as the doctrines and concepts literature has created about itself.
Further interrogated, are the distinctions established between genres, such as poetry, fiction and expository writing, which Joyce manages to merge, seamlessly, throughout his text. This merging results in a literary form that is, among other things, vastly original. The reader, through engagement with Ulysses, is asked to examine the distinctions between themes, such as those of life and death, and to question the notion that these themes are, inherently, tragic, comic or both.
The authority that Joyce endows his readers with, his empowerment of the reader is largely due to his composing of a text that encourages speculation. The intrinsic dissonance in Ulysses, the intense discord between style, theme and character and the incorporation of the ambiguous and arbitrary within the framework of folly, create an atmosphere that is utterly obscure, one in which meaning is not readily apparent, and fosters a new kind of writer/reader relationship. Joyce’s relationship to his readers involves interaction in which meaning is co-created and, consistently, relative.
The reader is no longer a dormant recipient of the meaning constructed by the author and the principle task of the reader is not, simply, to interpret, nor is the primary objective of the author to convey. Instead, Joyce presents his readers with a series of communications; some are endowed with purpose, while others are simply ways of indulging his own literary sensibilities. The reader consumes these communications and transforms them into meaning or bestows upon them meaningful qualities.
In “Forms of Folly in Joyce: A Study of Clowning in Ulysses” author David Hayman states of Joyce,
“His creative life is in some senses a record of his gradual mastery of the comic range, his conquest of joy in the name of serious literature . . .” (260).
The landscape of comic obscurity in which Joyce places the reader is indicative of the human experience and the inherent absurdity, complex, and arbitrary characteristics of human life and death. The episodes examined in this paper, as well as all of the episodes present in Ulysses, provide nuanced depictions of the human experience and human consciousness. This is achieved through Joyce’s effective utilization of conceptual and literary tools that are not readily associated with the depiction of such. These tools, if you will, include elements of folly, such as caricature. However, it may be argued, that the principle function of these elements are, perhaps, to further the environment of obscurity necessary for meaning co-creation. It can, similarly, be argued that Joyce’s incorporation of aspects that confound, his dissonance, may be to express the absurdity of human existence, the intrinsic conflict or discord in the processes and experiences that take place in relation to human life and death (Hayman 260).
Although there may never be any final consensus as to whether or not Ulysses should be defined as comedy or tragedy, Joyce has executed a literary style that encourages intimacy between reader and author. This intimacy exerts a profound impact on the novel and English literature as a whole, by creating an explorative atmosphere in which two minds come together, engage with one another and construct meaning, not only out of the work itself but, also, out of the conceptual and experiential materials that are the core of the human experience.
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In Marriage and the New Woman in Portrait of a Lady author Annette Niemtzow states that James’s text “is a record of the thwarted search a woman makes for a vocation; and of her surrender to marriage . . .” (386). James’s portrayal of womanhood in ThePortrait of a Lady is, intrinsically, complex and contradictory, if not utterly flawed. At the center of the narrative is Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, whose independent nature, audaciousness and free-spiritedness has led to her being designated, by some, a pre-feminist heroine and by others, such as critic William Bysshe Stein, a “fleshless robot, a contemptuous prig who flaunts her impotent femininity in the guise of innocence”(383). Niemtzow deems the novel “a study of how a woman is to behave if she is to be a lady (386).
She describes Isabel as a character in search of alternatives to the marital union, who suppresses her sexuality as a means of subscribing to “society’s notion of what is decent” (386) and who, inevitably, marries and is faced with the challenge of maintaining her identity and reputation in a social environment in which it is threatened. The designation of Isabel as a pre-feminist heroine is negated when, at the novels end, she returns to Osmond. In doing so, she condemns herself to a lifetime of unhappiness, and the reader is left to ponder a choice that contradicts everything prior to it. The notion of portraiture, as it relates to women, womanhood and marriage, is worthy of consideration. By labeling the text a portrait, James is either depicting what he deems to be his own personal embodiment, or society’s embodiment of womanhood. It, then, becomes necessary to examine not only Isabel’s decision but also the portraiture, or mechanisms of portraiture at work in the text (Niemtzow 377-395, Solomon 395-409).
In Freedom,Self-Obligation and Self-hoodin Henry James, author Patrick Fessenbecker asserts that Isabel’s decision to return to Osmond at the end of the novel may be attributed to her being ill prepared for life and vacancies in her logic concerning marriage. It may be the case that Portrait of a Lady is, in some sense, an exploration of the inherent moral or immorality of divorce. Niemtzow states, “Isabel is thinking of disobedience or divorce—we cannot be sure which, though either would be morally culpable . . .” (381). It is necessary to consider the social context in which the novel was written, the status of women in the period and societal perceptions of marriage.
It is also substantial to consider that James, being a product of his social environment, inevitably, views women through a patriarchal lens. I will interrogate James’s notion that Isabel’s choice is, inherently, moral and examine his portrayal of womanhood as synonymous with the denial of one’s self, desires and personal happiness. In the text, womanhood or true womanhood, being a lady, is tantamount with sacrifice; an equivocation I hope to challenge (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-386).
In The Structure of a Portrait of a Lady author Joseph Friend asserts that Isabel’s construction of her life is one of increased juxtapositions. She is, essentially, at war with her own consciousness. James has composed a complex portrayal, as Isabel’s motivations remain a source of scholarly debate. Fessenbecker maintains that, in general, there are three principle stances taken on how Isabel’s decision is interpreted. Here, I will discuss the first. Fessenbecker refers to the essay Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady by Nina Baym and stresses her argument that
“Isabel’s actions are neither explainable from the third-person perspective as the necessary outcome of some convergence of forces, nor are they justifiable from the first-person perspective as the most reasonable and best thing to do” (70).
It can be asserted, based on arguments espousing that the text is commentary on the immorality of divorce, that Isabel returns to Osmond as a means of avoiding or transcending social stigma. However, Baym’s stance endows the decision with an arbitrary quality. Here, Isabel does not choose Osmond because she believes it is moral, nor is her choice the result of societal forces, as they relate to marriage and the role of women. Baym’s argument asserts that, perhaps, Isabel’s choice is not symbolic but is, simply, an occurrence. Nevertheless, given the position women had in society during the time in which the novel was composed–the widely accepted notion that their principle objective should be to marry, as well as religious associations with such, must have exerted some impact on James’s writing and, subsequently, Isabel’s choice (Fessenbecker 69-95, Friend 85-95, Hendricks 35-43, Niemtzow 381-382, Solomon 395-409).
During the aforementioned historical period, women viewed themselves, primarily, in relation to men and marriage. The task of choosing a husband was considered, perhaps, one if the most important decisions of a woman’s life. The role of the marriage institution in James’s time and the function of women within it, might suggest a diminishment of personal autonomy and independence after a woman enters the above configuration. The confines of marriage were many—the married woman is, for the most part, dependent on the male, who is given authority over all financial resources. Moreover, a woman’s decision to exit the marriage institution, for any reason, is condemned by the social environment. In this regard, it is significant to note the prominent position of religion and religious principles of morality and immorality within the above social context (Bazanella 55-63, Niemtzow 381-382).
Niemtzow suggests that James’s portrayal of marriage in the novel and Isabel’s decision, are due to his personal views and those espoused by his father. It may be the case that Portrait of a Lady is, in some sense, an exploration of the inherent moral or immorality of divorce. The text seems to, in a less than overt manner, examine qualities associated with spirituality, morality and immorality within a religious framework. Although utilization of James’s personal background as a means of considering his representation of marriage and women in his text may be inefficient, it should be taken into account.
James didn’t, particularly champion the marriage configuration and his novel might be and indictment of the marriage institution. With that being said, what, specifically, James is commenting on about marriage is uncertain. For instance, is he criticizing the limitations placed upon women who marry, espousing that marriage equivocates morality, or that divorce equals immorality? Regardless, James’s portrait of women, given the social context in which the novel was composed, must be examined as a product of societal ideals concerning women, marriage and divorce (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-382, Venture 36-50).
The denial of self and societal representation of the denial of self as inherently moral is demonstrated in James’s depiction of Isabel. It can be asserted that Isabel returns to Osmond because of her own belief that womanhood means morality, and morality means marriage. This belief system may be a factor that enables her to choose Osmond despite her feelings of discontentment. In reference to such, Niemtzow believes that the decision is indicative of “her final acceptance of her oppressive condition . . . [as] predicated on her sense that a woman accepts public responsibilities to the marriage institution” (382).
Thus, it can be asserted, that by acting in opposition to her own thoughts, feelings and sensibilities, Isabel enters the realm of true womanhood or, as suggested by the novel’s title, becomes a lady (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-382).
Marriage, as a concept, denotes transformation, particularly of the individuals who enter it. The process of transformation, or the assumed process of transformation concerns, both men and women. For one, to enter the marriage institution is to take on new titles and the behavioral responsibilities associated with those titles. When an individual becomes a wife, as opposed to lover or when a male becomes a husband as opposed to suitor, there is a whole range of characteristics that the social environment expects to be evident. In the case of the woman, she is assumed a subordinate of her husband and her life is viewed within the parameters established within the marital framework. Isabel’s choosing of Osmond suggests a willingness to be transformed, to play the designated role and to simultaneously deny and discard her own essence (Niemtzow 381-382).
Criticism of Isabel’s final act is not just in regard to its representation of women and marriage but also, in relation to whether or not the decision contributes to the literary merits of the text. The general consensus has been that there is a dissatisfying lack of resolve at the end of the novel, a sentiment expressed by James himself and referenced by Dominic J. Bazzanella in The Conclusion to The Portrait of a Lady Re-examined. James stated, in anticipated critique of the novel:
“The obvious criticism of course will be that it is not finished-that I have not seen the heroine to the end of her situation-that I have left her en l’air” (55).
Discourse on the ending ranges from doubt as to its authenticity, to praise for its brilliance. Still conclusions about why Isabel returns to Osmond are ambiguous at best and perhaps, inevitably so (Bazzanella 55, Niemtzow 382).
Niemtzow goes on to cite Isabel’s relationship with Henrietta and Ralph, particularly her comment: “If I were afraid of my husband that would be simply my duty. That’s what women are expected to be” (382). She believes this statement to be demonstrative of the tone of discontent with which Isabel is portrayed but nevertheless emphasized that this is at odds with James’s constant act of placing “her into an eternal pit in the name of salvation and blesses her with the title lady, in reward for her moral sacrifice” (382). James’s portraiture complies with society’s perception of women and marriage and the notion that it is immoral for a woman to exit the marital institution even when it is a cause of great displeasure. In regard to Isabel’s return to Osmond, Niemtzow states
“because she finds no options other than marriage. With him, she is not made to feel so passionately those emotions which cripple her, which force her to remember her anatomy more than her mind. Unlike Henrietta, soon to be queen of American journalism, Isabel was drifting aimlessly, with- out a vocation. Osmond and his daughter Pansy give her one” (386).
Perhaps, Isabel’s decision, though not excluded from the aforementioned social forces and their exertion on the lives of women, is an attempt at transcending the limitations placed on her life by gender. The choosing of Osmond may, simply, be the choosing of the lesser of two evils. Moreover, Isabel’s choice, as Niemtzow suggests, may be a coping mechanism, a way of managing her utter discontentment (McMaster 50-66, Niemtzow 381-386, Solomon 395-409, Venture 36-50).
Although no concrete conclusion can be made in reference to what motivates Isabel’s final act, examining it remains of value, as it encourages reconsideration of Isabel’s choices prior. Throughout James’s portraiture, womanhood is presented as synonymous with sacrifice. The act of sacrifice as it relates to self-hood, is depicted as being of great virtue. Isabel’s behavior, or ability to meet behavioral expectations within this framework, are used as the principle means of evaluating her womanhood and determining whether she is worthy of being deemed a lady.
James, overtly or not, is equating morality, concerning womanhood, as the utter denial of self. Whether he is espousing such a notion, providing a portrayal of an instance in which this occurs or offering social commentary on such, is uncertain. However, it is necessary to consider the social context in which the novel was written, the status of women in the period and societal perceptions of marriage. James, being a product of his social environment, inevitably, viewed women through a patriarchal lens and, subsequently, Isabel Archer.
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