Preferred Citation: Segall, Jeffrey. Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

3— Between Marxism and Modernism— Joyce and the Dissident Left

Between Marxism and Modernism—
Joyce and the Dissident Left

The name of James Joyce is truly a collective name for many [Western writers], and not for the worst bourgeois intellectuals.... Yes, [these writers] are sick. But this does not mean that they are without worth. Many diseases are the prelude to health. Naturally, we must be careful not to infect ourselves. But purely and simply to turn our back on these writers ... under the pretext that in spite of their honest inquiries they haven't found the path that is ours—, this is defeatism: and this undermines our confidence in our own power; that we have no right to do.

Joycc's sympathy for and concentration upon the common man (who is a Jew and a target of anti-semitism [sic]), upon daily life, and upon the speech of the people, is the center of his work, and he is certainly neither indifferent nor hostile to the tradition of democratic liberalism.

By 1907 [Joyce's] socialism had evaporated, leaving as its only trace the sweet disposition of Leopold Bloom's mind to imagine the possibility of rational and benevolent social behavior and the brotherhood of man. This, however, is a residue of some importance in the history of literature: it makes Ulysses unique among modern classics for its sympathy with progressive social ideas.

I resent violence or intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due installments plan.


When he was told by his friend Eugene Jolas of the harsh attacks directed against him by Karl Radek and other Soviet critics in the 1930s, Joyce offered a simple defense. He pointed out that all his characters, from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake , belonged to "the lower middle classes, and even the working class, and they are all quite poor" (Jolas 14). Joyce was correct in noting what Radek and other Marxists had omitted in their hyperbolic indictments of his work. Other critics and intellectuals would rise to more elaborate defenses of Joyce during the 1920s and 1930s, when his work was attacked not only by those who aligned themselves with Stalin, but by cultural conservatives as well. In fact, Radek's own fulminations against Joyce, delivered at the 1934 Writer's Congress in Moscow, were rebutted by another participant, the German writer Wieland Herzfelde. Herzfelde, an early champion of Dada, had joined the Communist Party in 1918 and had left Hitler's Germany for Prague in 1933. In a courageous response to Radek's attack, Herzfelde defended Joyce's experiments in form and praised his truthfulness and psychological insight. While he warned that Joyce ought not to be regarded as a model for revolutionary writers, Herzfelde insisted that "he is an important writer, one to be taken seriously. We must learn from


him, as from all true artists; very simply, we must remain conscious of the limits and dangers that are hidden in his method" (quoted in Houdebine 44).

The exchange between Herzfelde and Radek in Moscow was only a skirmish in a battle that raged primarily on American shores, among American writers and critics, during the thirties. The apparent focus of the debate was the evaluation of the work of Joyce and other modernists, though more generally the controversy concerned the form and content of all literature in a period of political and social upheaval. Writers and critics with opposed political perspectives argued continually and often heatedly over the proper social and political function of art. What was truly at issue was the function of culture itself.

My concern here is with those writers and critics who, unlike those discussed in the preceding chapters, combined liberal or even revolutionary political views with sympathy, even enthusiasm for the aesthetics of modernist art. Critics such as Edmund Wilson, James T. Farrell, Dwight Macdonald, and others sought to reconcile their fervid, if undoctrinaire, belief in revolutionary change with a sophisticated appreciation of new developments in the arts. Their temperament and their training predisposed them against shallow judgments and toward a broader, more complicated understanding of the nature and meaning of art. Their literary tastes were catholic, their sensibilities refined, their intellectual interests wideranging and varied. Though most of them identified themselves as Marxists, they were independent Marxists, nowhere more so than in their literary judgments. Most were sympathizers of the exiled Leon Trotsky, whom they admired as much for his broad cultural sensibility as for his political vision. For many American intellectuals in the thirties, Trotskyism represented, in the words of


William M. Chace, "the brave dissident tradition of the left. Compared with Stalinism, and in light of conditions in the Soviet Union, it seemed to them more sophisticated, less coercive, more intellectual, more sympathetic to the arts" (Lionel Trilling 48). Edmund Wilson, the most prominent intellectual associated with Trotskyism, introduced Joyce to American readers with his enthusiastic review of Ulysses in 1931. Indeed, it was among this group of writers and intellectuals—Wilson, Farrell, Macdonald, William Barrett, Lionel Trilling—that Joyce found his first substantial and sympathetic American audience.

It is difficult to generalize about this group, whose members had no formal political association and no consistent, consensual perspective on either Marxism or the arts. There were important differences in both sense and sensibility among those loosely allied under Trotskyism. Moreover, individual views and values shifted, though usually not so dramatically as among contemporaries who were converts to or away from communism. Generally, however, what did link this group was a belief in a vital, autonomous culture, unconstrained by ideology or official control. Although they remained committed to social and political ideals, they refused to subordinate art to political ends. They understood well what Albert Maltz would realize in the 1940s: "Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art" (22).

In their evaluations of Joyce's fiction, these critics did not always agree, nor did they always approve. Though some attempted to generalize about Joyce's political philosophy, they were primarily concerned with his aesthetics. Rather than subjecting Joyce's art to a political litmus test, they studied its coherence, its unity, its purposefulness, its hidden meanings. They speculated about


its ability to move readers and enrich self-understanding. Perhaps as important as their evaluation of Joyce's art was their enunciation of a cultural perspective that was tolerant, flexible, and broad-minded. Whatever Joyce's particular merits or demerits, he would be read seriously, as would other modernists, indeed, as would any writer who conscientiously applied himself to his discipline. Through their efforts, these critics sustained what Lionel Trilling would later call "the primal imagination of liberalism": the "imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty" (Liberal Imagination xii). They sought to preserve the kind of rich and diverse culture that allowed an experimental writer such as Joyce—or any of the artistic sons and daughters he fathered—to flourish.

Trotsky served as both a martyr and a model to those American writers and critics who came to be referred to as Trotskyists. Trotsky provided them with a rationale for favoring modernist literature over the literature of socialist realism, much of which was written under the auspices of the Communist party. And he did so without making these critics feel they were abandoning the principles or goals of the socialist revolution. Trotsky "very clearly perceived the theoretical and practical weaknesses in the concept of proletarian art, literature, and culture" (Wilson, "Marxism" 273). His key contention was that the emergent proletarian class had not produced and would not produce a literature of its own, since the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be only a transitional phase which would one day create "a culture which is


above classes and which will be the first truly human culture" (quoted in Wilson, "Marxism" 272). In the meantime, Trotsky argued, "such terms as 'proletarian literature' and 'proletarian culture' are dangerous, because they erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day" (Literature and Art 37).

Trotsky argued against the intervention of revolutionary leaders or theoreticians in the artistic arena. "Art must make its own way by its own means," he declared. "The domain of art is not one in which the Party is called upon to command" (Literature and Art 19). Trotsky displayed an understanding of the artistic process and a respect for artistic purposes that, he implored, should not be manipulated for narrow political ends. He protested adamantly against the controls imposed on Soviet literature by Stalin, complaining that the Stalinist bureaucracy produced only sycophancy and mediocrity.

Trotsky's contribution lay in his ability to separate artistic judgments from political ones. His was "an ideologically but not culturally orthodox mind," in the words of Renato Poggioli. Max Eastman, who along with many others retreated from Stalinist communism in the late twenties and early thirties, admired Trotsky's artistic tolerance. Trotsky and Lenin, Eastman argued in Artists in Uniform , made a critical distinction between the revolutionary process and the creative process:

They both were wise enough instinctively to feel that a philosophy which "conceives reality" in the form of practical procedure towards a goal, can not give directives to creative art, which perceives reality and carries a goal within itself.... It was thus by relaxing or "putting in its place" the dialectic metaphysic, that Lenin and Trotsky managed a wise attitude to artists and their problems. (37)


Trotsky was unwilling to dismiss bourgeois literature, or any other literature that was not overtly counterrevolutionary. Wrote Trotsky: "One cannot always go to the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to accept or reject a work of art" (quoted in Wilson, "Marxism" 273). Any literature, even that written by an elite, aristocratic class, could be educative, if indeed it was good literature. And even seemingly trivial or innocuous texts could prove to be profound or subversive on close examination. Trotsky refused to be a cultural policeman.

It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoevsky, will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious.... In the final analysis, the worker will be richer. (Literature and Revolution 225)

It is not difficult to see how Trotsky's position, as it gained greater influence over critical opinion in America, created a cultural milieu in which James Joyce's work could be seriously considered.

James T. Farrell, though not the most eloquent, was perhaps the most boisterous spokesman for that faction among American writers and critics loosely allied with Trotsky. In his biography of Farrell, Alan Wald refers to him as a "paradigmatic" Trotskyist: "He embodied many representative qualities of the Trotskyist intellectuals and became one of their central organizers and spokesmen" (4). Indeed, many of Farrell's warnings and exhortations


delivered in the thirties and forties echo his and Trotsky's contemporaries Wilson, Rahv, and Macdonald. He supported Comintern efforts to create a proletarian literature early in the thirties and was selected for inclusion in Granville Hicks's anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States , published in 1935. But he soon moved away from the Party and the movement for proletarian literature, inveighing against the "ideological policemen" of both the left and right. His career was marked by his sometimes bristling contentiousness, his consistent denunciations of political interference in literary affairs, and his enduring respect for the life and art of James Joyce. His defenses of Joyce illustrate well his positions in the ideological debates of his day.

In A Note on Literary Criticism (1936), Farrell refuted the charges made against Joyce by Karl Radek and D. S. Mirsky, calling them "irrelevant and unreasonable." Farrell defended Joyce's explicit realism, his streamof-consciousness technique, his fascination with the life of the common man. He protested Radek's dismissal of Ulysses as bourgeois art, arguing that "proletarian" and "bourgeois" were not normative but descriptive terms. Moreover, he reminded Radek, Joyce's antagonism to both Church and State certainly made him an atypical bourgeois, one, he implied, with more socialistic sympathies than Radek granted. Finally, Farrell applauded Joyce's use of the "urban landscape" in Ulysses , suggesting that it might serve as a model for other Irish writers, "one of whom," he sarcastically intoned, "may write a book to satisfy Radek's thesis of social realism."

With the publication of A Note on Literary Criticism , Farrell effectively severed his ties with the Communist party and moved closer philosophically to Philip Rahv and William Phillips of the newly founded Partisan Re -


view . In his book, Farrell acknowledged the importance of a literary tradition, expressed his opposition to mechanistic applications of Marxism to literature, and defended the technical innovations introduced by Joyce and other modernists. "Written at a polemical heat" (Calmer 7), A Note on Literary Criticism attacked the oversimplifications of Marxist criticism and the anti-aestheticism of proletarian literature. Literature, Farrell argued, could not be fairly evaluated on the grounds of social utility. Farrell would write in 1942: "Literature ... cannot, in and of itself, solve social and political problems. Any solution of a social or political problem in a work of literature is a purely intellectual solution" (quoted in Wald 115).

Much of Farrell's most impassioned, and at times vitriolic criticism was written in response to polemical broadsides from both Stalinists and cultural conservatives. James Joyce's name came up continually in the arguments that raged during the thirties, and Farrell's contributions to the debates are both explicit and implicit defenses of Joyce and other modernists. Farrell defended Joyce explicitly in A Note on Literary Criticism against the attacks by Radek and others on the Stalinist left. When modernism was attacked by Van Wyck Brooks and Archibald MacLeish, Farrell responded in 1944 with a collection of essays entitled The League of Frightened Philistines . Here again, he placed specific praise of Joyce (in "Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ") alongside militant theoretical counterattacks against Brooks and other cultural conservatives.

Brooks and MacLeish, Farrell pointed out, owed much of their reactionary perspective to the New Humanists who had preceded them, namely Babbitt and More. These "frightened Philistines," as Farrell called Brooks


and MacLeish, attacked both the naturalists and the avant-garde for their realistic, often critical portrayals of contemporary society. "Both realists and avant-garde writers have written in a kind of warning, a warning that much is wrong, morally wrong in this world," wrote Farrell. "Advance guard writers of our era ... have expressed the doubts, the anguishes, the agonies in the psyche of man" (League 9). The new moralists wished only that modern literature could "hide away in a hothouse," avoiding the problems of contemporary life and taking solace in the values and customs of the past. But, Farrell argued, literature must be directly and honestly engaged with human experience, and the experience of modern life is often one of chaos and disorder. Modern art must be wary of the chauvinism, the sentimentality, and the moral absolutism proffered by the New Humanists.

MacLeish and Brooks edge closer to literary prescription in their calls for a "responsible" literature, and they are as guilty as the Stalinists of efforts to politicize art.

In essence, Brooks is adopting the same general attitude toward literature as did his recent forebears, the apostles of proletarian literature, even though he clothes his views in a concealing dress of moralism. Like them, he and MacLeish and others are seeking to legislate for writing, to tell the writer what to do, what to write, what ideology to inculcate through his works, what conclusions to come to in a novel, and what to think. ("Literature" 95–6)

Straining toward a higher note of melodrama, Farrell finally accused these "shepherds of the status quo" of contributing to the mobilization of American society for


war: "they are involved as part of a general metaphysics of the war" (92).

In the essay on Joyce collected in The League of Frightened Philistines , Farrell reiterated much of what he had earlier said about A Portrait and made brief but admiring comments on both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake . He lionized Stephen Dedalus, the alienated artist who, Farrell blithely predicted, will forge the conscience of his race and help his people "become more noble" (58). Even from the vantage point post-Ulysses , Farrell saw none of the irony in Joyce's characterization of Stephen. He romanticized Stephen, the epitome of the alienated modern artist, as ardently as his adversaries on the left and the right lampooned him. In his impassioned defense of Stephen, Farrell was again arguing in defense of Joyce. Similarly, in his laudatory portrait of Joyce the artist, Farrell seemed eager to dispel the image, advanced throughout the 1930s, of Joyce as decadent and neurotic. Besides Stalinists and conservatives, Max Eastman and Malcolm Cowley had contributed portraits of Joyce that reinforced this image (Eastman in "The Cult of Unintelligibility" in 1931, Cowley in "The Religion of Art" in 1934). Eastman had referred to Joyce and his modernist ilk as "uncommunicative" and "unfriendly"; Cowley had called Joyce an "inhuman and cold genius." Characteristically, Farrell offered his rebuttal:[1]

[Joyce] remains in literature a living inspiration not only because of his great constructive genius, but also because of the living force of his example, his tireless labor, despite his failing eyesight, on major projects, his intensely creative activity, his dignity, his daring, his high artistic courage. Great as is his influence upon the technique of his art, that of his very example is likely to be equally important on writers of the future. (59)


Farrell's comments on Joyce were often dissonant echoes of the opinions of Edmund Wilson, the most eloquent and influential among those critics sympathetic to Trotsky. More assiduously and more convincingly than other critics of the time, Wilson attempted to reconcile what he viewed as the most dynamic and progressive forces in politics and art: Marxism and modernism. He embraced neither uncritically or unambivalently, but persisted in the belief that a revolutionary art was neither the inherent cause nor the effect of a counterrevolutionary politics. He remained stubbornly independent in his literary judgments, beholden to the dogmas of neither the left nor the right: Paul Elmer More, he declared, was as wrongheaded in his literary judgments as Upton Sinclair. "Each insists on denouncing as irresponsible and evil or futile all the writers in which it is impossible for him to find his own particular moral stated in his own particular terms" ("Notes" 461).

Wilson occupied a rather anomalous position among the writers and critics of his day. He was occasionally involved in the activities of the American Communist Party at the same time that he was preparing the manuscript of Axel's Castle , in which he promoted the work of Joyce and other modernists whom most Stalinists had branded decadent and bourgeois. Moreover, Wilson's genteel family background and highbrow Princeton education were credentials more likely to place him in the camp of Babbitt's New Humanists than in the American Communist Party of Mike Gold and Waldo Frank. The left regarded him as an important catch who might bring other


middle-class writers into its ranks. Clifton Fadiman referred to Wilson as a "potentially important personality in the revolutionary movement ... splendidly equipped to open the eyes of those members of his own class who are lagging behind" (quoted in Aaron, "Wilson's Decade" 177–78).

Indeed, Wilson, along with many others, became increasingly disillusioned with capitalist society and, as the thirties began, edged closer to affiliation with those "convinced and cool-headed revolutionists" (quoted in Aaron, "Wilson's Decade" 175) who looked to Russia for hope and direction. The American Jitters (1932), his chronicle of the strikes, riots, and trials of depression-era America, convinced many that Wilson himself had crossed the barricade. He railed against the injustices of a class society and the complacency that underlay it. Though he did not advocate a proletarian culture, he showed general sympathy for Party efforts to fashion a literature more responsive to the struggles and aspirations of the common man. Socialism, he believed, could profoundly alter American culture, "in form and style ... as well as in point of view" (quoted in Aaron, Writers 252).

Wilson's increasing interest and involvement in the activities of the left was reflected in his literary judgments at the time, particularly in his misgivings about some of the tendencies of modernist art. Although he was preparing a generally sympathetic introduction of Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Valéry, and others in Axel's Castle , he confessed to Christian Gauss in November, 1929 that his steady "diet of Symbolism" had had the effect of "wearying and almost disgusting me": "I have a feeling that [Symbolism] has about run its course, and hope to see its discoveries in psychology and language taken over by some


different artistic tendency" (Letters 177–78). A year earlier, he had voiced even more profound misgivings about the modernists and included Joyce in his general indictment of their subjectivism:

Now I consider ... Yeats, Proust, and Joyce ... among the greatest in modern literature, and even now, not half enough appreciated.... But they are themselves ... open to serious criticism. In every one of them, the emphasis on contemplation, on the study of the individual soul—or rather, the individual mind, as in Valery's case, the individual temperament, as in Proust's, the individual "stream of consciousness," as in Joyce—has led to a kind of resignation in regard to the world at large, in fact, to that discouragement of the will of which Yeats is always talking.... The heroes of these writers never act on their fellows, their thoughts never pass into action. (Letters 150–51)

Wilson's criticisms here sound strikingly similar to those that would be delivered by Stalinists and New Humanists during the thirties.

Yet, when Wilson was drawn into public debate over the contribution of the modernists, he consistently defended them against the attacks from the literary left and right. Wilson bristled at the intolerance of both sides, fueled on the left by political dogmatism and on the right by moral prudery and a reflexive distrust of the new. When More condemned Joyce's use of the stream-ofconsciousness technique for the passivity it induced in his characters—a charge Wilson himself had made privately only two years earlier—Wilson, without equivocation, replied that he was wrong. "[Joyce's] characters are all going about their business like the characters of any other novelist. Bloom, Dedalus, Mrs. Bloom and others do


have their wills, their purposes, their inhibitions, and they make their moral decisions—indeed, these moral decisions are the crucial events of Ulysses " ("Notes" 463). Wilson's public pronouncements bore scant evidence of his private doubts. Caught up in the increasingly acrimonious debate over modernism, Wilson emerged as a partisan of the avant-garde and more generally as an irrepressible advocate of artistic freedom and cultural diversity.

Although he was sympathetic to the left in the late 1920s, Wilson had always demonstrated his independence from the Party organization and many of its policies and, along with Farrell and others, distanced himself further as the decade of the 1930s progressed. He remained, in the words of Daniel Aaron, "intellectually unsubmissive," critical of the excesses and distortions emanating from both the left and the right. His literary judgments were marked by a scholar's erudition and detachment, an historian's sense of cultural tradition, an artist's appreciation for nuance and technique, and a minister's "moral gravity."[2] The latter gave his literary opinions a particular resonance and power and reinforced his authority as a cultural spokesman.

Wilson's stature and eloquence lent weight to his literary opinions, no more so than in his favorable assessment of Ulysses , which appeared in Axel's Castle in 1931. Wilson's essay is a crucial document in the history of Joyce criticism. For many Americans, it introduced a writer whose principal work had been banned for the nine years since its publication. More importantly, Wilson presented an enthusiastic yet balanced reading of Joyce, in sharp contrast to the harsh and hyperbolic criticism he had received from the Humanists and the Stalinists. Wilson, more effectively than Farrell, redeemed Joyce's reputation


for an American audience that would become Joyce's largest and most devoted. In so doing, Wilson, like Farrell, implicitly used Joyce to prepare a case that he would later present against ideologues from both the left and the right. Wilson would refine his arguments against the strict application of Marxist theory to literature in an essay that appeared in a 1938 collection, The Triple Thinkers . In "Marxism and Literature," Wilson criticized efforts of both the left and right to prescribe suitable subjects and themes for literature. More thorough, more reasoned, and less truculent than Farrell, Wilson argued that literary works were morally and thematically complex, not suited for the task of "pamphleteering" that so many wished literature to perform.

It is usually true in works of the highest order that the purport is not a simple message, but a complex vision of things, which itself is not explicit but implicit; and the reader who does not grasp them artistically, but is merely looking for simple morals, is certain to be hopelessly confused. Especially will he be confused if the author does draw an explicit moral which is the opposite of or has nothing to do with his real purport. (278)

Also problematic, Wilson argued, was the tendency to disregard or devalue literary characters and conflicts that seemed socially unexceptional. A writer's "moral insight" was infinitely more important than the particulars of his literary situations.

Nor does it matter necessarily in a work of art whether the characters are shown engaged in a conflict which illustrates the larger conflicts of society or in one which from that point of view is trivial. In art ... a sort of law of moral interchangeability prevails: we may transpose the actions and the sentiments


that move us into terms of whatever we do or are ourselves. Real genius of moral insight is a motor which will start any engine. (278–79)

Finally, Wilson maintained, the effect of a literary work may not be contingent on the particular outcome of a story as a character. Once again, this was a simpleminded assumption of the inexperienced reader. "Nor does it necessarily matter, for the moral effect of a work of literature, whether the forces of bravery or virtue with which we identify ourselves are victorious or vanquished in the end" (279). In each of these areas, Wilson could have cited instances in which James Joyce's work had been unjustly attacked by cultural watchdogs of both the left and right.

Wilson's wide-ranging essay moved from an elaborate explanation and defense of Trotsky's cultural perspective, to indictments of Stalinist totalitarianism and repression, to a discussion of the intricacies of creating and interpreting "long-range" literature. It was futile, Wilson asserted, to try to create literature according to doctrine, as the advocates of socialist realism had attempted. Such an effort "always indicates sterility on the part of those who engage in it, and ... always actually works, if it has any effect at all, to legislate good literature out of existence and to discourage the production of any more" (281). While great art may be a political weapon, it is not great or enduring art because it is so. Wilson's antipathy was not to Marxism but to Stalinism. Marxism, he argued, may not be useful in judging the quality of art, though it can illuminate its "origins and social significance." But the promise of Marxism, wrote Wilson, lay not in literary criticism but in political action. Paraphrasing Trotsky, Wilson suggested that under communism it was


society itself that became the work of art, the object to be shaped and transformed. "In practicing and prizing literature, we must not be unaware of the first efforts of the human spirit to transcend literature itself" (289).

Wilson's groundbreaking essay on Ulysses in Axel's Castle shows us a sophisticated critic wrestling with a complex and revolutionary text, at once applauding its successes, criticizing its failures, and puzzling over its intricacies and ambiguities. Perhaps most importantly, Wilson tried in earnest to understand Ulysses through its author's eyes. Even when perplexed about some feature of the novel, Wilson was willing to grant that Joyce may have had some other purpose that would justify the scene or technique in question. And while Wilson perceived clearly the revolutionary nature of Ulysses , he placed both text and author inside a moral, intellectual, and artistic tradition that made both seem less odd, less deviant, and less obscure.

Wilson argued that Joyce exhibited both naturalist and Symbolist tendencies in Ulysses , observing "all the Naturalistic restrictions in regard to the story [he] is telling at the same time that [he] allows [himself] to exercise all the Symbolistic privileges in regard to the way [he] tells it" (207). Wilson especially admired Joyce's adaptation and refinement of the naturalistic techniques of Flaubert: not only did Joyce vividly recreate Dublin ("We possess Dublin, seen, heard, smelt and felt, brooded over, imagined, remembered" [211]); he found "the unique vocabulary and rhythm" to render its particular voices. In his penetrating exploration of the internal lives of his characters, Joyce exploited Symbolist methods, but "Joyce's grasp


on his objective world never slips: his work is unshakably established on Naturalistic foundations" (204). Joyce, unlike Proust, avoided "falling over into [the] decadence of psychological fiction" (204). Wilson's diction was drawn from both the soapbox and the pulpit, but his perspective was more tolerant and more circumspect than that of the moralists or political ideologues.

It was the narrative of Ulysses that most engaged Wilson's interest, and although it was the interruption of that narrative with parodies and interpolations that caused him consternation, Wilson was not prepared to accept the contention of other critics that the novel was "too fluid or too chaotic." In fact, he wrote, "Ulysses suffers from an excess of design rather than from a lack of it" (211). With his many allusions and interpolations in the later episodes, Joyce "half burie[s] his story under the virtuosity of his technical devices" (215). "Sheer fantastic pedantry," Wilson called the interpolations in "Oxen of the Sun"; "artistically absolutely indefensible" (216). Wilson's impatience with Joyce's radical stylistic innovations echoed similar criticism from less enthusiastic reviewers of Ulysses . Wilson, however, differed in his ability to question his own assumptions and tastes. He concluded his chastisements by speculating that perhaps Joyce had purposes of his own that justified his choice of techniques: "perhaps ... he did not, after all, quite want us to understand his story ... [and] ended up throwing up between us and it a fortification of solemn burlesque prose" (217). Wilson humbly admitted at the end of the essay that "when we come to think about what we take at first to be the defects in Joyce's work, we find them so closely involved with the depth of his thought and the originality of his conception that we are obliged to grant them a certain necessity" (236).


Wilson, who in his eclectic reach would appropriate Freudian insights for his 1941 study, The Wound and the Bow , was fascinated by Joyce's "psychological portraiture," which he admired for its exhaustiveness and precision. Moreover, he was not offended by the unsentimentalized portrait of humankind that emerged from Ulysses . Joyce, he argued, did expose "the dirty, the trivial, and the base," but also explored more admirable human qualities: "love, nobility, truth, and virtue" (218). Joyce presented a balanced view of man, not, as some have argued, a misanthropic one. In fact, said Wilson, "Joyce is remarkable, rather, for equanimity"; "[he] exhibit[s] ordinary humanity without either satirizing it or sentimentalizing it" (220). Although Wilson's enthusiasms occasionally pushed him toward such overstatements as the latter, his thesis was sound. During an era in which anti-Semitism and elitism were not only unobjectionable but fashionable among the literary avant-garde, one of Joyce's distinctions as a modernist was his sympathetic portrayal of Bloom. Wilson refused to caricature Bloom or to lament that he was not a budding revolutionary or an antiseptic aristocrat. "[Bloom] is all the possibilities of that ordinary humanity which is somehow not so ordinary after all; and it is the proof of Joyce's greatness that, though we recognize Bloom's perfect truth and typical character, we cannot pigeonhole him in any familiar category, racial, social, moral, literary, or even ... historical" (223).

While Wilson used the example of Bloom to refute the charge that Joyce was misanthropic, he implicitly used Molly to rebut allegations that Joyce was amoral or nihilistic. Molly, whom Wilson described as the "gross body, the body of humanity," redeemed herself in her choice of Bloom as husband and Stephen as fantasy lover and


surrogate son. Wilson described her rejection of Boylan and acceptance of Bloom / Stephen as the "greatest moral climax of the story." "This gross body—upon which the whole structure of Ulysses rests—still throbbing with so strong a rhythm amid obscenity, commonness, and squalor—is laboring to throw up some knowledge and beauty by which it may transcend itself" (224). Wilson's moralizing may seem anachronistic, but his belief in the underlying moralism of the novel corresponds with more recent readings (for example, Richard Ellmann's in The Consciousness of Joyce ) and seems an apt response to sanctimonious attacks on Joyce from more tendentious quarters. Wilson's Joyce affirmed reason over passion, knowledge and beauty over ignorance and strife. At the core of Ulysses , Wilson implied, were values which we recognize as progressive and enlightened.

At the same time, however, Wilson heralded Joyce as "the great poet of a new phase of the human consciousness" (221). Joyce captures the dynamism and vitality of urban life and the dissociation and relativism that mark the internal life of modern man. In Ulysses , and even more so in Finnegans Wake , wrote Wilson, Joyce takes us at least part of the way into a Proustian world of subjectivity and an Einsteinian world of relativity. In the universe of Ulysses , "everything is reduced to terms of 'events' like those of modern physics and philosophy—events which make up a 'continuum,' but which may be taken as infinitely small" (222). Moral values, social institutions, and personal identities emerge and recede, coalesce and dissolve. Wilson, who had earlier denounced the Humanists for clinging to an unrealistic, anachronistic conception of man, applauded Joyce's efforts to chronicle the changes in modern life and portray modern consciousness in its fullness and complexity.


Wilson viewed Finnegans Wake , "this immense poem of sleep" (Wound and the Bow 244) as a further step in the exploration of human consciousness and admired Joyce's experiment while expressing some of the same misgivings he had had about Ulysses . In "The Dream of H.C. Earwicker," written in 1939 and collected in The Wound and the Bow , Wilson explained and praised Joyce's ambitious project:

Finnegans Wake carries even further the kind of insight into such human relations which was already carried far in Ulysses ; and it advances with an astounding stride the attempt to find the universally human in ordinary specialized experience which was implied in the earlier work by the Odyssean parallel. Joyce will now try to build up inductively the whole of human history and myth from the impulses, conscious and dormant, the unrealized potentialities, of a single human being, who is to be a man even more obscure and even less well-endowed, even less civilized and aspiring than was Bloom in Ulysses .

Finnegans Wake , in conception as well as in execution, is one of the boldest books ever written. (254)

But it was the execution of the novel that Wilson found flawed, even more seriously than what he had viewed as the weaker sections of Ulysses . Wilson's objections were similar, though more severe. Earwicker's character becomes lost in the myriad of voices and myths attributed to him; "he is not so convincing as Bloom was: there has been too much literature poured into him" (259). Similarly, Earwicker's story becomes obscured and the novel loses dramatic power. Still suspended between a reverence for the old forms and a fascination with the new, Wilson complained about Joyce's "growing self-indulgence in an impulse to pure verbal play" (259).


I believe that the miscarriage of Finnegans Wake , in so far as it does miscarry, is due primarily to two tendencies of Joyce's which were already in evidence in Ulysses : the impulse, in the absence of dramatic power, to work up an epic impressiveness by multiplying and complicating detail, by filling in abstract diagrams and laying on intellectual conceits, till the organic at which he aims has been spoiled by too much that is synthetic; and a curious shrinking solicitude to conceal from the reader his real subjects.... The more daring Joyce's subjects become, the more he tends to swathe them about with the fancywork of his literary virtuosity. It is as if it were not merely Earwicker who was frightened by the state of his emotions but as if Joyce were embarrassed, too. (266–67)

Yet, having elaborated the novel's deficiencies, Wilson would in 1941 enter a long footnote at this juncture in his essay qualifying his criticisms and reaffirming the coherence and the mimetic power of all of Joyce's fiction. Here again, as in Axel's Castle , we witness Wilson intellectually stalking an enormously complicated work, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, arguing with himself continually over its meaning and importance.

I ought to amend what is said in this essay on the basis of a first reading by adding that Finnegans Wake , like Ulysses , gets better the more you go back to it. I do not know of any other books of which it is true as it is of Joyce's.... That this should be true is due probably to some special defect of rapport between Joyce and the audience he is addressing, to some disease of his architectural faculty; but he compensates us partly for this by giving us more in the long run than we had realized at first was there and he eventually produces the illusion that his fiction has a reality like life's, because, behind all the antics, the pedantry, the artificial patterns, something organic and independent of these is always revealing itself; and we end by recomposing a


world in our mind as we do from the phenomena of experience. (266)

Wilson's general enthusiasm for Joyce's work was not always shared by others on the left who migrated toward the Trotskyist cultural perspective. Philip Rahv, one of the central figures in the cultural warfare of the thirties, did not embrace Joyce's work, though philosophically his views were in consonance with Wilson's and Farrell's. Along with many others, Rahv changed his theoretical positions during the decade. Two of his most influential essays, "Problems and Perspectives in Proletarian Literature" and "Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy" (1934 and 1939 respectively), reflect his initial, qualified acceptance of the movement toward proletarian literature and his later disenchantment with that movement and its sponsors. In the editorial pages of Partisan Review , Rahv emerged as one of the principal spokesmen for the dissident left. In a retrospective essay written in 1967, he described this group: "Though by no means 'orthodox' in our approach to Marxism, we did not think of ourselves as abandoning its basic program and ideals; least of all did we think ourselves as errant sons returning to the 'bourgeois' fold" (Essays 341).

Rahv's 1934 essay, coauthored with William Phillips ("Wallace Phelps"), endorsed the idea of a revolutionary literature ("the bone and flesh of revolutionary sensibility taking on literary form" [53]) but cautioned against the literary abuses of what the authors disparagingly referred to as "leftism." The new literature offered the possibility of "a new way of looking at life" and a new "solidarity" with one's reader. The authors criticized the "aesthetes of


the twenties" for their elitism, their skepticism, and their passivity. But they also warned that revolutionary literature may be vulgarized by the intrusion of Communist party doctrine.

"Leftism," by tacking on political perspectives to awkward literary forms, drains literature of its more specific qualities. Unacquainted with the real experiences of workers, "leftism" in criticism and creation alike, hides behind a smoke-screen of verbal revolutionism. It assumes a direct line between economic base and ideology, and in this way distorts and vulgarizes the complexity of human nature, the motives of action and their expression in thought and feeling. ("Problems" 5)

Rahv and Phillips called for a new kind of literature, one more accessible and more sympathetic to the struggles of working people, but they insisted that the new literature be literature, not ideology. At the same time, they announced that they would not tolerate the "right wing tendency," which inclined toward "political fencestraddling"; writers guilty of this offense must be given "concrete direction in order to ... overcome their backward views as quickly as possible" (6). They themselves thus endorsed the kind of ideological conformity that they disparaged among "leftists." Their oscillations in this essay between aesthetic and political allegiances indicated their own uncertainty over just what role politics ought to play in the new literature they proposed.

In an essay published later in the same year, entitled "How the Wasteland Became a Flower Garden," Rahv took issue with the views of Joseph Wood Krutch, who had belittled Marxism and criticized its influence on literature. Krutch turned the artist into a counterrevolutionary, argued Rahv; his "bourgeois literature" encouraged complacency and ultimately invited the spread of fascism.


Rahv called for a revolutionary literature, one that "embodies the struggle of the producing masses against their plunderers" (39). Bourgeois literature, "by no means homogenous," may be a "stimulus to social insurgence" or may insulate readers from such activity. Rahv believed that most bourgeois literature, including Joyce's work, failed as effective social protest because it did not identify and challenge the "predatory social order" that was at the root of social problems. Instead, it ended up idealizing its own negations and becoming obsessed with aesthetic theory. It did not lead its readers to heightened class consciousness. Rahv cited Joyce as an example:

From the initial social resentment in Dubliners Joyce developed toward a demoralized consciousness of social impotence and hence toward a desire for liberation from the social. The result is a sinking into imaginative life, regarded as the self-contained domain of art: thus art becomes a barrier between his disgust with reality and his impulse to change it. The perfect stasis is the idealized negation, which other writers paralleled with similar dogmas of passivity. (42)

Rahv dismissed Joyce's later work, especially Finnegans Wake , as solipsistic and finally counterrevolutionary. His reading of Joyce thus echoed commentary by Cowley, Eastman, and even Mirsky and Radek. At this point in his career, Rahv applied strict political criteria to his evaluation of Joyce, and found him wanting.

Rahv gave us further evidence of his distaste for Joyce in a review of Stephen Spender's The Destructive Element in Partisan Review in 1936. Rahv referred to Spender's analysis of Joyce as "the best on the subject": "His insight into the weaknesses of Joyce, which the gravity and size


of Ulysses have tended to obscure for most critics, is of extreme value for a definition of what Joyce did achieve" ("Aesthetic of Migration" 29). Spender, who, for a brief time in 1936 and 1937 would become a member of the British Communist Party, gave Ulysses an ambivalent but generally unfavorable review. He seemed genuinely confused by the novel and contradicted himself repeatedly in his essay. He described the novel as on the verge of chaos, then later declared that it "is complete, with no loose ends" (86). Ulysses "leaves in the mouth the taste of dust and ashes, although the most persistent note of the book is one of geniality" (84). Bloom is "magnificent," yet he is a "compact little Jew, whose brain crawls with undeveloped romantic and scientific ideas, like larvae of insects" (80). Spender was less equivocal about the elements of the novel that disturbed him: Joyce's style and content were monotonous; his "factual realism" was too strong; he remained too detached, too unemotional; his revelations of the workings of the unconscious mind were tasteless and offensive. Spender closed his commentary with some rather odd moralizing that is reminiscent of remarks made by Paul Elmer More about Ulysses : "It is this physical obsession [with the wickedness of the body] which permeates Ulysses . Sin and death are all that is left of the Church even. There is no belief in salvation ... only a nightmare vision of a world smelling with the dregs of a hated Catholicism, endless sin and no salvation" (86). We are left to wonder what it was that Rahv so admired in Spender's review. Perhaps Rahv saw a political import in Spender's religious analysis: the "other" salvation that Ulysses does not offer is the likelihood of a proletarian revolution. Such an interpretation is not farfetched. Rahv himself would later describe the decade of the 1930s as one of "ideological vulgarity and


opportunism, of double-think and power-worship, maintained throughout by a mean and crude and unthinking kind of secular religiosity" (Essays 336).

Rahv would repudiate proletarian literature and soften his views considerably toward "bourgeois" literature later in the thirties. His changes were most apparent in "Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy," which appeared in the Southern Review in 1939. There he branded proletarian literature "the literature of a party disguised as the literature of a class." What resulted were crude, schematized novels; the creativity of the left was "stuff[ed] ... into the sack of political orthodoxy" (299–300). Rahv angrily asserted that the movement for proletarian literature was "an episode in the history of totalitarian communism" which "will be remembered as a comedy of mistaken identities and the tragedy of a frustrated social impulse in contemporary letters" (296).

Rahv went further in his indictment of this movement, insisting that it was a mistake to assume the working class could produce its own literature. Those who create and perpetuate culture emerge from the ruling classes.

Literature is the outgrowth of a whole culture.... A class which has no culture of its own can have no literature either. Now in all class societies it is the ruling class alone which possesses both the material means and the self-consciousness ... that are the prerequisites of cultural creation. As an oppressed class, the proletariat, insofar as it is a cultural consumer, lives on the leavings of the bourgeoisie. It has neither the means nor the consciousness necessary for cultural self-differentiation. (304)

Rahv had clearly adopted a new perspective toward what he had disdainfully referred to as "bourgeois literature" in


his earlier essays. He appeared much more sympathetic to the dilemmas of the bourgeois artist, at times even defending him against his own earlier criticism. "The modern artist has been rebuked time and again by socialminded critics both of the Right and of the Left for his obsessive introversion, his jealously maintained privacy, his aesthetic mysticism, his bent toward the obscure and the morbid. Yet without such qualities, given the boundaries of the bourgeois world, he could not have survived" (297–98). In contrast to the shallowness of proletarian art, Rahv suggested that the "older tradition" was "more 'progressive' ... more disinterested, [and] infinitely more sensitive to the actual conditions of human existence" (306).

Rahv leaves us to speculate on what his revised opinion of Joyce might have been. But given the shifts in his political and aesthetic perspectives so apparent in his essays from the late thirties, we might fairly assume that Joyce had risen in his estimation. When in 1939 Rahv warned the artist not to deceive himself with "bureaucratized visions of the shining cities of the future" but instead to be "faithful to the metamorphosis of the present" (309), we can see that he had moved closer philosophically to Trotsky, Farrell, and Wilson. And we might reasonably argue that, from this new perspective, he showed at least a tacit acceptance of Joyce's work and sensibility.

Rahv's engagement with Joyce's work was incidental, clearly subordinate to his interest in defining the relationship between Marxist theory and literary practice. The magazine which he edited, Partisan Review , had from its inception sought to bring together revolutionary tem-


peraments in both politics and art. Having suspended its publication in 1936, Rahv and coeditor William Phillips brought out a reorganized Partisan Review in 1937. The new publication would be militantly anti-Stalinist and zealously committed to modernist literature. As Rahv and others had learned from their experiences earlier in the decade, alliances between political and artistic interests were fraught with danger. No one among those associated with Trotskyism viewed such alliances more suspiciously than Lionel Trilling.

In marked contrast to Rahv's, Trilling's work during the 1930s and early 1940s seems curiously detached from the political and cultural imbroglios of the time. Although he was repulsed by the vulgar excesses of proletarian literature, and though his sympathies were clearly with the Trotskyists, Trilling pursued interests and opinions that were more purely literary. His effort was unmistakably to subordinate politics to literature in the hope of obtaining a larger understanding of both. In the words of William M. Chace, Trilling insisted on

recognizing the full implications of politics while being always mindful of its secondary status.... Reading Trilling, one is always aware of that complexity: he is of the American 1930s and of the generation of New York thinkers profoundly shaped by that decade's turmoil, yet he stands oddly aside from those times, and from his colleagues and their intensities. (Lionel Trilling 18)

One of Trilling's earliest published comments on Joyce appeared in his 1940 essay, "Freud and Literature." Like Edmund Wilson before him, Trilling was fascinated by Joyce's psychological explorations and pointed out Joyce's indebtedness to Freud: "James Joyce, with his in-


terest in the numerous states of receding consciousness, with his use of words as things and of words which point to more than one thing, with his pervading sense of the interrelation and interpenetration of all things, and, not least important, his treatment of familial themes, has perhaps most thoroughly and consciously exploited Freud's ideas" (40).

Trilling's most extensive comments on Joyce appeared in a 1968 essay ("James Joyce in His Letters") marking the publication of two new volumes of Joyce's letters. Not surprisingly, Trilling's reading of Joyce touched on few of the controversies from the 1930s. It was instead a penetrating, finely nuanced study of Joyce's vision and sensibility, one which reached unusually gloomy conclusions. Although Trilling demonstrated a much more discerning eye than the conservatives of the thirties, and though he wrote with none of their polemical fervor, his conclusions about the underlying nihilism in Joyce's work sound oddly similar to their own. Trilling, however, seemed willing to celebrate Joyce's vision, or at least to congratulate him for his courage.

Trilling framed his essay around several lines excerpted from one of Joyce's letters to his son: "Here I conclude. My eyes are tired. For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing." Trilling was intrigued by the oxymoronic "lovely nothing." He argued that "the power of Joyce's work derives ... not only from the impulse to resist nullity but also, and equally, from the impulse to make nullity prevail" (144). Trilling took issue with the tendency (originating, no doubt, with Edmund Wilson's commentary on Joyce) to regard Joyce as a "positive" writer who warded off "nullity" through his creative acts. This was only partly true, argued Trilling. Joyce did conclude


Ulysses with Molly's life-affirming "yes," and he "contrived a rich poetry out of the humble and sordid, the sad repeated round of the commonplace, laying a significant emphasis on the little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love" (144). But Joyce was a "partisan" of that nullity, that entropic desire, that "paralysis of the will" that pervaded Dubliners . Perhaps Joyce was saying in his letter that "human existence is nullity right enough, yet if it is looked into with a vision such as his, the nothing that can be perceived really is lovely, though the maintenance of that vision really is fatiguing work" (143).

William M. Chace suggests that this portrait of Joyce as one who painstakingly struggled toward nihilism corresponded with Trilling's own temperament and critical practice.

Trilling is sustained in the late 1960s as Joyce was once sustained, by the capacity he has to measure the world fully and carefully, never to divine its secrets too quickly, never to come upon its truths prematurely. Joyce allows himself the fullest amplitude in entertaining the complexities of the world; then he finds the world vacuous. His genius rests on a kind of exalted patience. Trilling's craft as a critic does likewise. (Lionel Trilling 143)

Trilling had discovered a Joyce who was his semblable . Trilling's Joyce, like Trilling himself, was moving away from engagement with the "merely human" and toward some transcendent apprehension of the futility and the illusory nature of existence. Such a reading of Joyce, Chace adds, is incomplete. Joyce's work and Joyce's thinking did not stop with the recognition of that "lovely nothing" at the center of life. The Joycean dialectic never


forsook the human dimension; "Ithaca" would be succeeded by "Penelope." Trilling, however, "heard only the doleful Joycean music" (Lionel Trilling 145).

With the exception of some involvement early in the decade, Trilling was not actively engaged in the political turmoil of the thirties. Nevertheless, his sensibility could not help but be affected by it. In The Liberal Imagination (1950) both his exhortations to intellectuals to restore "a sense of variousness and possibility" to culture and his definition of literature as "the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty" (xii) indicate his aversion to the straitjacketing of cultural life that characterized the thirties. He valued literature not for its ideology, but for its ideas. The power of truly great literature, he declared, was not to confirm our prejudices, but to "absorb and disturb us in secret ways" (Liberal Imagination 283). In unraveling at least some of the complexity of Ulysses , Trilling did, indeed, document the novel's power to disturb.

Trilling was not the only reader of Joyce to conclude that Joyce found nothing lovely at the center of existence. Such a conclusion, of course, had serious cultural and political implications, particularly in the 1930s, when no conclusion seemed to lack such implications. Critics from both political extremes protested either Joyce's utter lack of affirmation or his tentative and oblique manner of declaring what affirmations he made.

As we have seen, Edmund Wilson and others defended Joyce against the charge that his writing was nihilistic and presented a portrait of an artist who quietly espoused liberal and progressive values. Dwight Macdonald, for


example, referred to Ulysses as "a work overflowing with genial delight in the richness of human life", he conceded that Joyce "rejected ... a specific historical and social order," but only by so doing was he "able to survive as an artist and ... preserve and defend those general human values on which culture depends" (449). Jeremy Hawthorn, in a recent summary and critique of Marxist commentary on Ulysses , asserts that there is a "value-centre" in the novel "that allows Joyce to make [it] such an affirmation of human values." He complains that most Marxists ignore the novel's humor, which, he argues, confirms certain "shared values" and "common perceptions" (123).

It is inaccurate to conclude that because Joyce was cynical about the uses to which culture could be put, he was a cultural cynic or nihilist. Joyce's art did not serve particular political or social ends, nor did it satisfy those critics who insisted that all art should do so. But although Joyce's work abounds in references to politics, and although Joyce himself had held strong political opinions early in his career, his fiction endorsed no political position nor espoused any political doctrine. But neither did it avoid the social and political issues that pressed themselves upon the consciousness of the Irish whom Joyce so faithfully recreated in his fiction. Joyce considered political disengagement to be vital to his creative freedom. As an artist, he viewed ideological conformity as anathema to his creative endeavors. He found a congenial audience among Farrell, Wilson, and others who insisted that his work be judged according to aesthetic rather than political criteria.

There were, of course, many factors which drew critics to Joyce's defense in the 1930s and afterwards. In addition to his technical virtuosity, Joyce's liberal sensibility and


espousal of essentially progressive values won him favor from like-minded critics—critics who defended him the more ardently from the crassness, the extremism, and the intolerance demonstrated by ideologues from the right and the left. Joyce, like Wilson, Trilling, and Farrell, moved against the illiberal spirit of his time. He eschewed tragic and heroic themes and celebrated what Irving Howe has called the "public virtues" of liberalism: "doubt, hesitation, and irony." We close with Howe's appreciation of Ulysses :

If we glance at the greatest work of fiction composed in English during our century, we find at its center a roly-poly pacific Jew, a small figure of tolerance, muddle, and affection, a figure quite the opposite of the hero, a man liberal almost by default, as if he could not be anything else. Yet in these comic limitations there are values to be honored, a precious sediment of civilization. ("Literature and Liberalism" xxiii)


3— Between Marxism and Modernism— Joyce and the Dissident Left

Preferred Citation: Segall, Jeffrey. Joyce in America: Cultural Politics and the Trials of Ulysses. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.