A New Look: Joyce

Industrialism as Progress

A New Look: Joyce

If, at the fin-de-siècle, the idea of Victorian progress was already breaking up, by the time of the Great War it had thoroughly exploded. The artists and writers who lived through that conflict saw an aspect of progress too disturbing to countenance: the progress of machine guns, tanks, and chemical weapons, the advanced technologies of death that made their first grand appearance in that merciless martial theater. For those, like Henry James, who straddled the Victorian and modern eras, the war threw an unflattering light on all their former beliefs, exposing just how cheap and hollow had been their onetime optimism:

The plunge of civilisation into this abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton feat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words. (153)

As James sees it, the war did something more than put an end to progress; it proved that such a thing had never actually happened. Progress was revealed as a treacherous, if seductive, illusion. Indeed, the whole Victorian age—which flattered the world with its assurance of gradual “bettering”—was exposed, in a flash, as a long, secret preparation for the most devastating of conflicts.

There are reasons to be skeptical of James’s account, and more reasons to question this whole neat tale about how war ended an era of optimism. In truth, to be as shocked as James is to be rather late to the party. Doubtless the spectacle of continent-wide destruction made for a grand finale, but the full denouement of progress had been long underway—all the doubts piling up like background radiation until that slight imbalance of hope over anxiety, which had stabilized the Victorian idea, finally tilted. We might, if we wanted, spend some time tracking causes back through the years and decades, but instead I want to focus on one thing that, surprisingly, doesn’t seem to have contributed to the decline of progress: the end of real, material progress.

Progress was killed by a crisis of confidence, and not a crisis of capitalism. That, alone, is remarkable. I argued, in the Introduction, that the idea of Victorian progress was inspired by the new reality of industrial growth. Now, at the close, it would be nice to round off with a neat, matching statement, but unfortunately it is not possible. Even as the idea of progress lost its preeminence around the turn of the 20th century, industrialism continued to drive society forward. The English economy was growing at a rate faster than any pre-twentieth century society, with measures of social welfare following apace. But even this was not enough to sustain the notion of a bright and beckoning future.

There is a way to make sense of this split, but to see it we have to pan out, widening our perspective to incorporate not just England but parts of Western Europe and the United States. For most of the 19th century, England remained the lone nation on the far side of the industrial divide; it was the only economy to have escaped from the Malthusian trap and the only society grappling with what Sterling called the “great though conflicting energies of industrial life.” By the turn of the 20th century, however, this was no longer the case. Industrialism had slipped the borders of Britain, spread around the world, and turned what was a uniquely Victorian condition into an international phenomenon. Even more important, in terms of progress, these new, industrial economies were growing much more quickly than England itself. Indeed, they had a tremendous economic advantage: a predecessor whom they could emulate. England, being first, never had that luxury, and as other nations hurried up what was now a well-plowed path, England felt its old preeminence waning. Even if the English economy was not actually declining, in other words, it was still losing its advantage, and that was enough to sap the old Victorian idea of endless improvement.

The consequence for Victorian culture, and Victorian literature, was similarly profound. For as long as industrialism remained trapped on the island, British writers enjoyed a unique purchase on the pain and promise of that mixed experience (and a unique authority to fashion its figuration to their progressive liking). Their lonely experience of industrial life distinguished their artistic endeavors, giving the Victorian world not only a certain internal consistency but also a certain international primacy. As industrialism spread through Europe and America, however, they lost that privilege. The long moment of British—and only British—industrialism was now over, meaning that British writers were no longer alone in facing industrial change; they were now just one group in an increasingly international community of artists responding to the increasingly international reality of industrial change, one section in the multi-national and multi-media chorus that we call modernism. The internationalization of progress brought a close to what had been the relatively autonomous and relatively coherent formation called Victorian literature.

It is possible, of course, to phrase that last sentiment in a less lugubrious fashion. “Every limit,” George Eliot tells us, “is a beginning as well as an ending.” This, too, was both, and the object of this chapter is precisely to look in both directions: to bid farewell to the long moment of Victorian primacy, but also to describe the new dynamic of industrialism, progress, and literature that ushered in the movement known as modernism. The internationalization of industrialism, that is, may have ended an era in British literature but it established the conditions for a new form of international culture.

Seeing modernism in this light—as a cultural response to the international spread of industrialism—requires a number of critical adjustments. Most important, it means thinking of modernism as something other than the literary form of modernity. This is a not-uncommon definition of modernism, and it is well-represented by Marshall Berman for whom modernism is nothing less than “any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it” (5). Berman himself would hardly admit it, but if this is right than Victorian literature must count as modernism. The Victorians, after all, were at the center of industrialism and urbanization, and they had ample experience of the disjointed freneticism that has come to define the modern. To repeat an argument that I made for Baudelaire, if the word modern refers to urban, industrial capitalism, then the Victorians knew it more intimately than any of their contemporaries. And, in just the same way, if the word modernism refers to the literature of this “modern” landscape, then Victorian writers must be the first, great modernists. Yet, though Berman spends a good deal of time with Baudelaire, he does not mention Tennyson (from whom Baudelaire borrowed so much), much less George Eliot or William Morris.

The only way to keep Tennyson and Eliot from becoming modernists is to make modernism mean something other than the writing of modern life, to recognize that it refers to a specific formal practice—not just a grappling with the modern but a set of techniques for grappling with the modern. Those techniques are nicely summarized by August Kleinzahler: “speed, compression, resistance to closure, obliquity, fragmentation, collage, surprise in transition and juxtaposition, polyvalency, and blocks of description, narrative or emotion reduced to the telling image or detail.”1 If the Victorians are not modernists, it is because they did not, for the most part, embrace these techniques—despite the fact that they were still trying, in their own way, to get a grip on modernity.

The modernists wrote differently, and they thought about industrial progress differently—not least of all because they had the example of Victorian England before them. For them, the link which would join material growth to an ideology of open-ended progress (not just economic but moral, spiritual, political and otherwise) had been irreparably severed. They could see, only too plainly, the many misplaced hopes and long-deferred promises which British industrialism never actually realized—the unending cycles of poverty, the continuing blight of soot and smog, the inadequacy of intervention and remediation. And though they were hardly blind to the promise and the potential of growth, they were still less sanguine.

As a consequence, the old enlightenment debate about the shape of history—the one that the Victorians thought resolved—was thrown back open. There was room, again, for alternate visions of historical change, and new ways to think about the relation between history and literature. Modernists could champion progress with outrageous typeface, as the Futurists did, or they could mock progress with open affronts to aesthetics itself, like the Dadaists. If they preferred, they could diagnose it with penetrating sparseness, as in this passage from Kafka’s notebooks:

travelers in a train that has met with an accident in a tunnel, and this at a place where the light of the beginning can no longer be seen, and the light of the end is so very small a glimmer that the gaze must continually search for it and is always losing it again, and, furthermore, it is not even certain whether it is the beginning or the end of the tunnel. (Agamben 112)

The whole difference between Victorian and modern progress is in that final twist. If the light at the end were just distant and flickering, it could still be a symbol of the painful optimism that gripped Victorian literature. Kafka, however, refuses his travelers even that slight comfort. Those trapped in Kafka’s tunnel of history may occasionally see a light, but they cannot know if it beacons from the future or the past. And for that reason, they can never be sure which way they are moving, or which way they should be moving. This is just one modernist’s view of progress as absurdity.

To do justice to modernism’s full, varied response to the international spread of industrial progress—a response both formal and philosophical—would require a book unto itself, but even a minimal sampling can show just how thoroughly the relation between literature and progress was changed.

The minimal sample I have in mind is actually one of modernism’s most paradigmatic texts, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses is not, in any obvious sense, a book about industrialism or industrial progress. In fact, there seems to be very little of either in the Dublin of 1904, but these things are important to the novel nonetheless—important precisely as unmistakable absences. It is crucial that Joyce’s Dublin be not only free of industrial elements but conspicuously free. His is a city that imagines itself as a kind of anachronism, a place left behind in a world given over to industrialism. This may sound rather bleak, but being an anachronism also has its advantages; in this case, having been passed over by progress means that Dublin can enjoy a kind of sensuousness that progress itself precludes. There is room in Dublin for activities and interactions that are no longer possible under progress. They are not utopian activities, and Joyce is not like William Morris, seeking out new models of human happiness and building a fictional society to fit those models. Nor, facing the other way, is he like George Eliot, remembering values from the past which, though comforting, can have no place in the future. He is neither so earnest as the one nor so resigned as the other. Instead, he inhabits a new, modernist position, where industrial progress is less a force than a farce. Its grandeur and pomposity are met with laughter, rather than distress; irony, rather than agony; and play, rather than politics. It is not a cruel or contemptuous laugh that rises from the pages of Joyce’s novel, only a snickering sense that the promise of progress is rather flatulent, and that a city without progress can both nurture a great human type, like Leopold Bloom, and be the setting for a grand human story, like the Odyssey. What Ulysses slyly suggests, in other words, is that the only way to be roundly and sensuously human in the modern world is to keep one’s distance from industrial progress—or better, to flush it down the toilet.

Modernist Dublin

One way to start thinking about the place of industrialism in Joyce’s novel is by asking a very simply question: why Dublin? Why set the novel in this particular place, rather than in some other place. Did Ulysses have to be set in Dublin or could it have been set somewhere else? Paris or New York, for example? Would any city work? Any town or village? To put it another way: how much do you have to know about Dublin to understand Ulysses? If you read the book with Tokyo in mind, or Shanghai, how much can you appreciate? Nothing? Or how about: none of the details but everything that matters?

Given Joyce’s lifelong intimacy with the city he never quite left behind, it may be hard, at first, to take the “why Dublin” question seriously. But there is really nothing inevitable about the choice of Dublin. Conrad did not spend his life writing about his native Poland. Nor did Pound and Eliot write obsessively about smalltown America. The Dublinness of Ulysses is as much a question of narrative function as of authorial biography, and as it happens there is a long tradition of critics who have wondered about it. From among the early reviews, the Dublin-published Separatist, Freeman, and Dublin Review all claimed the book for themselves, with phrases like, “Ireland, Dublin, is all over it” (4), “never was a city so involved in the workings of any writer’s mind as Dublin is in Joyce’s” (450), and “Nothing could be more ridiculous than the youthful dilettantes in Paris or London who profess knowledge and understanding of a work which is often mercifully obscure even to the Dublin-bred” (273). Even the London-based Quarterly Review called it: “a book which, owing to accidents of circumstance, probably only Dubliners can really understand in detail” (226).2

Also from the beginning, however, there have been those who dismissed Dublin and claimed the book for broader pluralities—sometimes humanity, sometimes Modernity. Ezra Pound, for one, wrote: “I doubt if the local allusions interfere with general comprehension,” adding about Molly, “she exists presumably in Patagonia as she exists in Jersey City or Camden” (626). The most frequent comparison was with Dante and the Florentine intrigue of the Divine Comedy. As Gilbert Seldes phrased it in The Nation, “I have written this analysis of ‘Ulysses’ as one not too familiar with either [Catholicism or Ireland]—as an indication that the book can have absolute validity and interest, in the sense that all which is local and private in the ‘Divine Comedy’ does not detract from its interest and validity” (212).

Seldes’ point is valid enough, but there still seems to be something different about Ulysses. The Divine Comedy may have its private intrigue, but it is not attached to Florence in the same way that Ulysses is attached to Dublin—it is not even set there. Indeed, it is hard to imagine another work of literature being as attached to its locale as Ulysses is, as committed to the minute replication and meticulous recreation of its every crook and corner. Obviously, there is something specious about the connection. After all, Joyce’s Dublin is not Dublin; it is a representation of Dublin. Yet, if the two are not identical, they are also not entirely distinct. Joyce’s representation of Dublin cannot stray too far from the real, historical city without vitiating something of the realist illusion, and Joyce himself was unusually committed to that illusion. Indeed, even if we can say, with some confidence, that Joyce’s Dublin is not Dublin, it is still worth noting that Ulysses goes to heroic lengths to make Joyce’s Dublin seem identical to Dublin; it actively and minutely confuses the fictional with the real.

We know from the accounts of friends like Frank Budgen just how much Joyce enjoyed the game of realism:

To see Joyce at work on the Wandering Rocks was to see an engineer at work with compass and slide-rule, a surveyor with theodolite and measure chain …[Joyce wrote the episode] with a map of Dublin before him on which were traced in red ink the paths of the Earl of Dudlee and Father Conmee. He calculated to a minute the time necessary for his characters to cover a given distance of the city. (Wollaeger 87)

It is a wonderful image that Budgen paints—a portrait of the artist that finally discloses what it means to pare one’s fingernails. This is Joyce at his most meticulous and obsessive: using map, compass, and stopwatch to ensure that his fictional Dublin conforms in every physical way to the city of his birth—when of course, he is free to place Bohemia on the coast or Cortez in the Pacific. But Joyce wanted something else, something for which even the term realism may not be adequate. “I want,” he had said earlier to Budgen, “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book” (Fairhall 194). Why we should want that from a novel—when we could get it from a map or a survey—I am not sure. And in the end, Ulysses does not give it to us; there are errors of commission and errors of omission alike. To take one of a number of examples that may or may not matter, the Dalkey tram that Almidano Artifoni hails and misses in the Cyclops episode did not run in 1904 (16).

In another book this kind of slip might be called an oversight, but in Ulysses it really does feel like an error, because the emphasis on the mimetic is so painstaking. There are more street names, more businesses, more public houses, more government buildings, more statues, more policemen, and more people than in any prior novel—all of them mappable and legibly interrelated. There is also more banality than ever before: more eating, drinking, masturbation, bathing, idle chatter, random encounters, gossip, shopping, and fatigue.3 These kinds of things are hard to quantify, and perhaps it is too much to say that Ulysses is more realist than its predecessors. We know, from Eliot, that there is more to realism than a sliding scale of specificity. There are admixtures like didacticism and nostalgia—and there is a tendency to present not reality alone but some more intense reality. What can be said about Ulysses is that it contains more unplotted detail than its predecessors. It is more vulgar—more detailist—than any prior realism.

It is also, however, more mythological than any prior realism—and probably more mythological than any realism can be. Ulysses is not just a story about denizens of the city of Dublin on June 16, 1904; it is also a far older story about a far different place. The title, alone, is enough to reveal this problem. Ulysses is not the title of a realist novel; it is the title of a modern myth. Yet, it is never clear how this one book can be both. A sampling of the early reviews shows just how easy it is to trip over this problem:

…Mr. Leopold Bloom, ranges like Moby Dick throughout the watery globe, and communes with incommunicable things under the stars. Yet during that interval the body and the chained spirit of Mr. Bloom have merely partaken of, or assisted in, a bath at a public bathing establishment, a funeral, a luncheon …(Slocombe 4)

“Ulysses” is the Odyssey retold, episode by episode, as the story of a day’s life in the streets, pubs, and brothels of Dublin, and is an attempt to give a complete account of the nature of man. It is apparently almost miraculously successful. (Maitland, “Mr Joyce” 70-1)

In the polished teapot the universe is contained, and all the thoughts and pictures that ever were can be poured out of it. …There are exact notations of trivial but tremendous motions, and these are truly the inconsequential but significant things that one says to oneself. (Huddleston 9)

Notice how strained the language is. All the reviewers are trying to say is that the book is at once about Dublin and about everywhere, that it is particular and universal. But somehow they keep stumbling. Phrases like “trivial but tremendous,” “inconsequential but significant,” and “communes with incommunicable things” have no intellectual force; they are just oxymorons, yoking together things that do not seem to fit together.4 They tell us that the book is particular and universal without telling us how that might be. Or, more accurately, they tell us that the relation between these things is simply a paradox, a palpable truth with no sure intellectual ground.

That is certainly the easy way out, but in fairness it is not clear what more there is to say. There just seems to be a sitting contradiction between the detailism of the novel and its mythology. Joyce’s detailism imitates the bare facticity and pervasive contingency of everyday life; it opens itself to chance, arbitrariness, and in the extreme case, insignificance (e.g. Bloom mentioning to Lenehan that he could throw away the newspaper, Stephen and Bloom being both dressed in mourning black, Molly thinking that Bloom wants breakfast in bed). And though there is something artificial about this arbitrariness—it is everywhere staged by authorial design—the patina of contingency remains. In Ulysses, it always seems that what happens could also have failed to happen.

Yet, the underlying odyssean structure tells us that this cannot be true. Full of gritty detail this novel may be but Ulysses is also saturated with mythological allusions. And those mythological elements have their own narrative force. They pressure the novel to unfold according to the pattern established by the myth itself, rather than the whims and choices of individual characters (e.g. Bloom could not have ended up just anywhere. Like Odysseus before him, he was destined to make it home). In mythical method, what happens is what has to happen. More precisely, what happens is what has already happened and whose happening the new text is attempting to reproduce. To the extent, then, that Ulysses borrows its structure from Homeric myth, it undermines its own contingencies. And vice versa.

Impossible though the conjunction of detailism and myth may be, however, there is still this book called Ulysses. Somehow, Joyce manages to make these compatible, to reconcile the particular (mere things) with the universal (enduring myths). Ulysses is a book about two things, Dublin life on June 16 1904 and life. It is the story of a day (arbitrary enough to be everyday) in which a man (perverse enough to be everyman) wanders through a city (indistinct enough to be every place.) You can never escape those parentheses, however close you stay to the Dublin streets. Or, to turn the relation around, you can never escape the smells of Joyce’s city, however lofty your perspective. If Ulysses deals with colonialism, it does so because Bloom has stepped into Barney Kiernan’s pub; if capitalism, because he is trying to sell an ad or buy some soap. At every turn, there is a detailed picture of Dublin life set beside an intimation of the universal.

It is easy enough to multiply examples of this kind from Joyce’s work. There is the familiar: “am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?” (31) and the less familiar “they creepycrawl after Blake’s buttocks into eternity” (153). There is Mulligan’s claim—about a bottle of Bass—that “Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods” (340) and Stephen’s claim that he is “a conscious rational reagent between a micro and a macrocosm ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void” (572). Each is an affirmation of the proximity of the mundane and the eternal, even if each imagines that connection in slightly different terms. Everywhere in Joyce’s Dublin, the universal is brought into communication with the everyday.

Nowhere, however, does the book explain that communication. Ulysses overlays an ancient, mythical world with a detailed and realistic Dublin while refusing to theorize their connection. The closest Joyce came was to say that the reason he wrote about Dublin was “because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal” (Ellman 505). To quote Benjamin’s response to Baudelaire’s theory of beauty, “One cannot say that this is a profound analysis” (Selected IV.50). Why should Dublin, in particular, contain the universal? Or, to keep closer to our own interests, might the explanation have anything to do with industrialism, progress, and the turn from Victorian literature to modernism? The answer, I am going to argue, is an emphatic yes.

I am actually going to take these in reverse order, starting with modernism and working back to industrial progress. There are, in other words, two related—but not identical—ways to understand the relation between Dublin particularity and Odyssean universal. The second (which we will have to return to) has to do with the historical condition of early-20th-century Dublin. But the first has to do with the unusual aesthetic of high modernism. Modernism itself encourages a strange proximity between the very grand and the very trivial, the whole and the fragment. It produces what Joyce playfully called chaosmos, a version of that same Carlylean play of dissolution and renewal, only with a far less religious mission. As examples, you could think of the fragments that Eliot shores in his “Waste Land,” the thin film of images in Pound’s fourth canto, the mere anarchy that signals revelation in Yeats’ “Second Coming,” or Lily Bart’s answer to the meaning of life (“in the midst of chaos there was shape”). In each, you find the quintessential high modernist method: courting fragmentation so as to overcome it. Totality emerges through chaos, and the universal peers through heaps of mere particulars. Modernists break things up in order to find new wholes. And this is true not only for the British literary tradition but throughout international modernism. In Marinetti and Picasso, as in Malevich and in Kafka, you find the same mad method: to fragment and fracture and dis-integrate, not in order to reassemble but to reveal a truth that only fractured objects can reveal. That is the majesty of modernist art: its ability to produce fullness by emptying.5

Sweeping though this description may be, it captures the most distinctive, and most fundamental, aesthetic principle of high modernism. If we think of modernism as a constellation of artistic practices, then the gravitational force holding that constellation together is the belief that material particularity opens into universality under the right aesthetic conditions. When works of art reduce things to their most denuded, least interrelated, and most meaningless form, then—and only then—can they explode into everything. Or, more simply, the closer you get to chaos, the surer your path to totality.

To help make sense of this strange relation, I want to juxtapose two accounts of high modernist method: one from Walter Benjamin and the other from T. J. Clark. Benjamin, first, is the contemporary who theorized modernism most vividly, and also the one who did the most to justify it philosophically. His description of its method begins, however, not with modernism proper but with its precursors, which he traced back to the baroque Trauerspiel:

That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the finest material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle, to take the repletion of stereotypes for a process of intensification. The baroque writers must have regarded the work of art as just such a miracle. (178)

The fragment, for Benjamin, is the material of miracles. So long as the fragments are utterly fragmented (lying in ruins), and so long as their arrangement foregrounds their fragmentariness (being without purpose) then the work of art can approach what Benjamin later calls resurrection.

And if this is true of the Trauerspiel, it is only more true of the high modernist aesthetic that the Trauerspiel prefigured. Modernism, too, builds its monuments with fragments. Benjamin had something like that in mind, but here Clark makes it explicit:

For surely transcendence in modernism can only be achieved—is not this central to our whole sense of the movement’s wager?—by way of absolute immanence and contingency, through a deep and ruthless materialism, by a secularization (a ‘realization’) of transcendence—an absorption in the logic of form …modernism was already that dissolution and disabusal—but exactly a dissolution held in dialectical tension with the idea or urge to totality, which idea or impulsion alone gave the notion of dissolution (or emptying, or ascesis, or fragment, or mere manufacture, or reduction, or deadpan, or non-identity) sense. (95)

All these modernist hallmarks—emptying and ascesis and reduction and non-identity and fragment—do the same kind of aesthetic work, the work that Clark calls dissolution. And that dissolution, in turn, is what makes transcendence possible. The two fit neatly together; indeed, it is their coexistence that defines modernism as an aesthetic and political movement. Dissolution, as Clark has it, empties the world into fragments, but if the fragments are heaped together in as conspicuously arbitrary a way as Benjamin describes then they may explode into everything. That alchemy is what lies at the heart of modernism.

It is the same alchemy that provides at least a first answer to the question of how Ulysses manages to be detailist and mythological: modernism makes it possible. Ulysses can be about Dublin and also about the universe because high modernism means the aesthetic reconciliation of material particularity with the universal by way of emptying. What allows the particular to cross into the universal is the very bareness of that particularity. And the function of Ulysses’ obsessively detailed style is precisely to make those details properly bare, properly denuded and properly contingent. Detailism does the work of fragmentation. Ulysses is in large part a novel of meaningless Dublin bits, but it is also a novel that treasures its meaningless bits—as all proper modernisms do. For they are precisely the source of a deeper meaning, the empty fragments waiting to explode into mythical fullness. Following the alchemy of high modernism, it is the pointless Dublin details that serve as portals between the ancient and the modernist worlds. Perhaps that sounds glibly paradoxical, but any answer that seemed more intellectually satisfying would actually belie the deep and powerful illogic of the modernist aesthetic. Ultimately, Ulysses manages to be both realist and mythological not because it found some secret philosophical formula for achieving that mix, but rather because it participated in an aesthetic movement that magically crossed the barren particular with the richly universal. Joyce’s great contribution was to show that Dublin was the true home of barrenness and thus a kind of portal to everywhere.

Evacuating Dublin

This, however, is only one part of the answer. As I said before, the transformation of Dublin into everywhere has to do not only with the operations of literary modernism but also with industrialism and industrial progress. Or, in the case of Dublin, with the lack of industrial progress. Back in 1800, Dublin was the second largest city in the British Isles, second only, that is, to London. By 1850, it was just the fifth largest. In 1904, when Joyce’s book is set, it was no longer even the largest city in Ireland; that distinction belonged to the more highly industrialized Belfast (Prunty 14). With the fifth highest death rate in the world and infant mortality higher than Moscow and Calcutta, Dublin had lost its place among the advanced European capitals and earned its image as a municipal slum.6

Terry Eagleton is one of the few critics who has tried to connect the matter of Dublin’s historical backwardness with our own opening question about its narrative inevitability. Is being backwards part of what makes Dublin the proper setting for Ulysses? Eagleton says yes: what makes Dublin such a ripe kind of anywhere is that it is decidedly insignificant, “a kind of nonplace and nonidentity.” It is a city whose cultural vacuity presages the broader vacuity that is overtaking the entire globe, providing an image of what the world will look like when the work of industrial capitalism is complete:

If, like Joyce, you have little enough of a rich national lineage to begin with, then you become paradigmatic in your very colonial dispossession of the destiny of even advanced national formations in the era of international capital. (35)

The reason Dublin can approximate, so effectively, the future ravages of capitalism is because it was prematurely drained by the ravages of colonialism. It is therefore insignificant and hollow enough to be emblematic of the sprawling emptiness of modern life.

There is something profoundly right about this reading, but also something slightly awry. The key to Dublin’s universality does, as Eagleton rightly says, have to do with its impoverishment, but the connection is not as direct as he would like. Even if it is true that Dublin is already empty and the world is becoming empty, it must be remembered that not all emptiness is the same. The homogenizing effects of international capitalism generate a kind of cultural poverty that is real, but hardly identical to that of pre-industrial Dublin. To the contrary, what makes Dublin valuable for Ulysses is precisely that it is empty in a different way from the rest of the world. It still enjoys what we might call the pleasure of emptying.

Dublin is still home to a number of experiences that would be wholly foreign in a more advanced, industrial city. To begin with, Joyce’s city still has a village character. The people you bump into are as likely to be intimates as strangers, and the streets tell a story about Irish history. To call it a knowable community would be too strong, but it exhibits some characteristics for which the more common expressions about modern urban life—shock, alienation, Erlebnis—are simply inadequate. So much of Dublin is familiar (to its inhabitants at least): faces, locales, stories. Who, at the end of the day, has not heard about the postcard that reads U.P.: up? Or about the funeral of a single, rather undistinguished, man named Dignam? These things are still communal, as is the love of music, the penchant for gossip, and the burden of a failed revolutionary history. This may, of course, be a cheap narrative effect, having little or nothing to do with the actual character of historical Dublin.7 But whether it is real or fictive, it is still true of Ulysses’ Dublin. Bloom may busy himself hatching entrepreneurial schemes and devising captivating advertisements, but his world is still full of pre-industrial residues.8 To put it bluntly, when he shits he schemes, but he does not flush.

That may sound crass, but I think it is crucial to Ulysses, and crucial to the question of how Dublin can be every place. The key here is the toilet—or in Bloom’s case the absence of a toilet. Not all shit is created equal, or more precisely not all shit is excreted equal. Bloom, in particular, excretes in “the jakes,” which is simply an outhouse with a bench and a hole (56). His jakes is musty, full of the “stench of mouldy limewash and stale cobwebs,” and it is dirty enough that he has to remind himself not to sully his nice trousers before the funeral. There is a “chink” in the wall through which he can see his neighbor’s house—though on this particular morning it happens that no one is there. He brings his newspaper, and takes some pleasure in reading a vignette called “Matcham’s Masterstroke,” though decidedly less pleasure than he takes in the dynamics of release:

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated above his own rising smell. (56)

What is fun about this passage—as so many others have noted—is the confusion of defecation with reading; it is hard to say which is meant by the word “column,” or whether “It did not move or touch him” refers to the story or his leavings. In any case, the thing to notice is just how sensuous the whole experience is for Bloom. He plays at restraining and yielding as if it were a courtship—and then gushes at its success (“So. Ah!”). Bloom’s counting house may be full of mouldy limewash, but that doesn’t stop him from imagining himself in the role of the king.

After finishing the story and his business, Bloom wipes himself with the newspaper, picks up his pants, and buttons them before emerging “from the gloom into the air” (57). The one thing he does not do is flush. After all, a jakes is not a toilet, though that should have been obvious all along. Toilets belong to a different space altogether—less cracked and wooden and more polished and industrial. In particular, they belonged at that technological fantasyscape convened at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, which did in fact house the first public toilets (200). Had he lived in London, Bloom might have ended his story with a flush, since, by 1904, the toilet had overrun the outhouse in much of England. So if famed 19th-century toilet engineer George Jennings is right, and “the civilization of a people can be measured by their domestic and sanitary appliances,” then Ulysses says something damning about Irish civilization—with its jakes and its open sewers (92).

But, then, Joyce did not think it was damning. Quite the opposite. He thought the obsessive industrialization of waste disposal the surest sign of cultural perversity. Hence Professor MacHugh’s joke about the Romans:

The jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset. (108)

“Our old ancient ancestors …were partial to the running stream,” is Lenehan’s response. And the fact that Bloom and Stephen later engage in a simultaneous outdoor urination suggests that the new modern Dubliners still are.9

Joyce was not the only artist treading this ground in the late War years. Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (i.e. urinal) was first rejected in April 1917, about the time that Joyce began writing Ulysses in earnest.10 It, too, uses the toilet (or a near relation) as an index of artistic and technological madness. As Duchamp put it, in a way that MacHugh and Joyce would have understood perfectly, “The only works of art America has produced are her plumbing and her bridges” (Ramirez 54).

To my mind, though, the most incisive account comes from Ernst Bloch’s 1918 Spirit of Utopia. Bloch uses the figure of the machine to describe both the modern obsession with technology and the modern obsession with toilets:

It knew, the machine, how to make everything as lifeless and subhuman on a small scale as our newer urban developments are on a larger scale. Its real objective is the bathroom and the toilet, these most indisputable and original accomplishments of our time, just as Rococo furniture and Gothic cathedrals represent structures that define every other art object of their respective epochs. Now lavatoriality [Abwaschbarkeit] dominates; somehow, water runs from every wall, and even the most expensive products of our age’s industrial diligence now partake of the wizardry of modern sanitation, the a priori of the finished industrial product. (11)11

The toilet is to industrialism what the gothic cathedral was to feudalism. It is the dominant modern structure and the “real objective” of all technology. Today, everything flows towards the bathroom, with an inertia worthy of the name lavatoriality. It is a great word—lavatoriality—not only for this particular capitalist complex, but also for Ulysses.12 It helps explain why the scatology of Ulysses is so different from that of Swift or Rabelais, and why it has been so strangely resistant to critical formulation. In Ulysses, it is not just waste that matters but also evacuation. Bloom sits on the jakes not in order to remind us that everyone does—as in so much scatological literature—but rather to remind us of a pre-technologized way of life that is not just being repressed but actually effaced. If the toilet prevails, people may never shit like Bloom again, and may never know the sensuousness that he finds amidst the jakes of Dublin. Where the toilet is the great symbol of sanitized London, the jakes is the great symbol of Joyce’s Dublin.

When Richard Aldington reviewed the as yet unfinished Ulysses in 1921, he made the following glib prediction: “Logically, I see no end to Ulysses except the suicide of Bloom, though no doubt it will terminate in the pleasant purlieus of a public lavatory” (337). He was, of course, wrong on both counts; Molly may spend a good portion of the final pages seated on her chamber pot, but a chamber pot is hardly a public lavatory. Still, what is interesting about his claim, and about the reviews more generally, is the degree to which they sensed not just the scatology but in fact the anti-lavatoriality of Ulysses—its resistance to the technological imperialism of the toilet. Even if they could not describe it exactly, they knew there was something about the novel that made the bathroom a fitting figure. The Dublin Review called it a “Cuchulain of the sewer,” complaining in a separate article that “We do not even float equably down the dim disgusting sewer” (Leslie 112, Martindale 275). One indignant reader of the Literary Review called Joyce “Van Eyck preoccupied with the privy” (Deutsch 281). While the Sporting Times—not exactly known for its literary criticism—damned the book as “the literature of the latrine” (4).

The best example, however, comes from a series of pungent letters in the New Witness, on the question of where Joyce might have found his muse. The initial review, by Cecil Maitland, was generally positive, full of praise for the book’s humor, insight, and psychological realism. The only problem he espied was “this vision of human beings as walking drain-pipes,” which he blamed on Joyce’s Catholic upbringing (“Mr Joyce” 70).

Then followed the letters, most of them less inclined to excuse. Of Ulysses, a certain D. wrote: “It might almost be compared to a man with some intelligence and sensitiveness scribbling bawderies on a lavatory wall” (127). And one Louis J. McQuilland agreed, “The rough notes for all Mr. Joyce’s work could be found in most of those underground lavatories, whose obscene inscriptions bear continued witness to the indestructible soul of the Yahoo” (95). Apparently piqued by the responses, the Maitland fired back: “If prose of this kind is to be read in the lavatory patronized by Mr. McQuilland, I should be much obliged if he would give me its address” (127). McQuilland did not oblige, but he did choose to respond, asking instead: “is it not a curious thing that in the long pageant of Irishmen of letters from the Four Masters to Patrick Pearse, James Joyce has been the only one to cabin his soul in a latrine?” (159). Lavatory, latrine, drain-pipes, privy, sewers: those are the terms that obsessed Joyce’s early readers; not shit per se but the technology of shit was the incessant refrain. Somehow, the vulgarity of Ulysses seemed less like an affront to human decency and more like an affront to lavatoriality—the sacred and sanitized privacy of the water closet.13 Ulysses was offensive because, like Bloom, it did not flush away its feces.

When toilets do appear in Ulysses—and there are a few—they are strangely freed from the responsibility of waste disposal. Patrick Dignam, restored to life in a satiric séance, tells us that “he had heard from more favoured beings now in the spirit that their abodes were equipped with every modern home comfort such as tãlãfãnã, ãlãvãtãr, hãtãkãldã, wãtãklãsãt” (248)—the joke, of course, being a confusion of the spiritual with the technological. The most these spirits can look forward to is electricity and indoor plumbing—rather, than, say eternal bliss.

The more interesting example, however, comes from Molly, and her memory of a visit to “Dr. Collins for womens diseases.” As part of his diagnosis, Collins asks her about her stool, which prompts the following rumination:

Asking me if what I did had an offensive odour what did he want me to do but the one thing gold maybe what a question if I smathered it all over his wrinkly old face for him with all my compriments I suppose hed know then and could you pass it easily pass what I thought he was talking about the rock of Gibraltar the way he put it thats a very nice invention too by the way only I like letting myself down after in the hole as far as I can squeeze and pull the chain then to flush it nice cool pins and needles still theres something in it I suppose I always used to know by Millys when she was a child whether she had worms or not …(633-4)

Molly is at first reluctant to describe her stool to the doctor—threatens, in fact, to give him a closer look than he really needs by way of a good smathering. Then, “by the way,” she praises the toilet as a “nice invention.” What makes it nice, in her estimation, has absolutely nothing to do with cleanliness. It is instead a matter of pleasure. Molly likes to lower herself into the toilet and flush, so as to feel the prickly spray of the swirling water—and there is really something quite charming about that idea. With a bit of irreverence the toilet becomes a secret pleasure-chamber, a private fountain for our most delicate parts. Clearly, Molly’s fondness for the toilet is wholly unrelated to its sanitizing power. She has found a way to strip the toilet of its technological aura and restore its materiality—and its delights. As with Bloom’s jakes, what matters for Molly is the sensuousness of it; the pins and needles is to her what the game of restraint and release is for him. To borrow from Bloom, it is just so “Ah!,” which, in a word, is why Ulysses is set in Dublin.

Joyce’s Dublin is a place that still values pre-industrial pleasures, and it is a place that still knows how to misuse capitalism for pleasure. That is the point of these moments in the bathroom: to show how, with a little perversity, pleasure can be resurrected from technology. There are kinds of pleasure available in Dublin that are not available elsewhere, particularly not in London. In that gleaming metropolis, the imperative of lavatoriality had penetrated too fully and the work of industrialism had gone too far. If Bloom is l’homme moyen sensuel, then Dublin is la ville moyenne sensuelle. And, like Bloom, it is really equal parts sensuelle and moyenne, a place of deep banality but also a place of truly banal pleasures—as opposed to the more rarified delights of “tãlãfãnã, ãlãvãtãr, hãtãkãldã, wãtãklãsãt.” It is a city that revels in its backwardness and opens itself to the delights of decline. To the question, then, of why Dublin should be the gateway to everywhere, the answer is that its long economic decline revealed possibilities—of immediacy, of sensuousness, of development, and perhaps of being—that advancement had elsewhere foreclosed. Pace Eagleton, Dublin is less an image of the world than an image for the world. It is universal not because it looks like everywhere else—after all, it has no toilets—but because it makes not having toilets seem like a universal imperative. Not flushing away its waste—reveling, instead, in the bare materiality of local life—is what allows Dublin to become a repository for untapped human possibilities. Put differently, Dublin can serve as the gateway to the universal because it knows something that the world once knew and now needs to relearn: how to enjoy emptying.14

This is what it means to laugh at progress: it is to invert the progressive ideal and to render it obsolete at the same time. For Ulysses, as for modernism at large, progress matters less than dissolution, breaking down more than building up. Not every city can be universal. Only a backwards city will suffice, because only a backwards city is bare enough to be shown as a mere heap of fragments. Ulysses presents us one such bare city, and in that way, it introduces us to the new modernist possibility that it is evacuation—rather than progress—which can make us more sensuously and more fully human. The goal, here, is neither to save progress from itself nor to reach, by a new path, the fulfillment that progress had long promised. The goal is to find an entirely new ideal of fulfillment. Joyce’s Dublin is one of these new modernist ideals, a city of sensuous possibilities that only surface when life is barren of toilets, emptied of lavatoriality, and free of the technological perversity of industrial progress.


1 He added to the end of this list: “They didn’t like Tennyson very much.”

2 In recent years, this line has been continued by post-colonial Joyce critics, who tend to emphasize the representation of Irish colonial life. See Duffy, Cheng, Nolan, Attridge and Howes.

3 Even the vaunted stream of consciousness method has a realist flavor—psychological realism being the favored phrase. It heralds a new, more invasive, brand of realism: an X-ray as opposed to a mirror. Edmund Wilson in the New Republic called it the “most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness” (164). The Daily Express said that it followed life “to places and recesses in the human soul and heart inaccessible to the camera.”

4 This habit of the early reviewers has not disappeared. Richard Ellmann makes a similar claim in his magisterial biography of Joyce: “To be narrow, peculiar, and irresponsible, and at the same time all-encompassing, relentless, and grand, is Joyce’s style of greatness …” (7).

5 As to the historical conditions that contributed to this redemptive vision of fragmentation, it is not enough to cite the experience of fragmentation in the early 20th century. There is, no doubt, ample testimony to that fact, as for example Edmund Wilson’s: “towards the breaking up of things, furthermore, all the forces of the time seemed to drive: life itself was anarchic and confused; even the unity of capitalism had collapsed” (“Rag-Bag” 237). There is, however, a problem with this interpretation. The modernists were hardly the first to feel the fragmentation of everyday life. Wordsworth felt it, Carlyle felt it, Marx felt it, Dickens felt it, Baudelaire felt it—indeed it is one of the most characteristic experiences of the social and economic transformation that usually comes under the heading of the industrial revolution. Only with high modernism, however, does the experience of fragmentation become the basis for an aesthetics of fragmentation.

6 When he began writing Dubliners in 1904, Joyce described Dublin as “that hemoplegia or paralysis which many consider a city” (Ellmann 163). For more on the status of Dublin, see Moshenberg and Daly.

7 If you wanted to pursue that point, you could begin by noting all of the things that Joyce leaves out of his Dublin, from the slums on the one hand to the Anglo-Irish on the other.

8 This is how Fredric Jameson describes it: “So in that great village which is Joyce’s Dublin, Parnell is still an anecdote about a hat knocked off, picked up and returned, not yet a television image nor even a name in a newspaper; and by the same token, as in the peasant village itself, the ostensibly private or personal—Molly’s infidelities, or Mr Bloom’s urge to discover how far the Greek sculptors went in portraying the female anatomy—all these things are public too, and the material for endless gossip and anecdotal transmission” (134).

9 The origin of this little joke seems to be H.G. Wells’ generally favorable review of Portrait, which incidentally accused Joyce of harboring a “cloacal obsession” (“James Joyce” 710). Anticipating MacHugh, Joyce responded: “Why, it’s Wells’s countrymen who build water-closets wherever they go” (Ellmann 414). Part of what the incident suggests, of course, is that Portrait piqued its readers in much the same way that Ulysses would five years later. And it is worth mentioning at this point—by way of prefiguration—that another Portrait reviewer felt that Joyce “would be really at his best in a treatise on drains” (Pound, Pound/Joyce 118).

10 For a complete account of the writing process, see Arnold.

11 I thank Matthew Rampley from the Edinburgh College of Arts for the presentation that first drew this to my attention.

12 For one thing, it articulates the difference between Joyce and the other famed scatological authors: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, et al. Joyce’s scatology belongs not only to some broad discourse on the irreducible or trans-historical truths of the body but also to a particular dynamic of early twentieth-century capitalism, the one Bloch calls lavatoriality . For an example of that trans-historical discourse, see Bakhtin.

13 The one exception to this is Pound, who thought the vulgarity was an affront to art. “The excrement,” he wrote, “will prevent people from noticing the quality of things contrasted” ( Pound/Joyce 131).

14 To be fair, none of this rules out the possibility that Ulysses could be set elsewhere. After all, the fact that Dublin revels in its decline hardly precludes Brooklyn from doing the same—especially if what matters is not actual reveling but some susceptibility to reveling in fiction. Still, there are some discriminations to be made. Yes, it could be set elsewhere, but the book would diverge from its present form to the degree that the new setting lacked the generic character of Dublin—i.e., the entanglement of backwardness with sensuousness. This, I take it, explains why people who nominate alternate sites seem to gravitate towards underdeveloped cities near burgeoning metropolises—the Bronx, Bradford, Jersey City—namely because those kinds of cities already share something of Dublin’s economic condition. By contrast, nobody seems to have suggested that Ulysses could be set in London. Bloom would never be able to shit there.