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

1— "James Joyce or Socialist Realism?" Marxist Aesthetics and the Problem of Ulysses

"James Joyce or Socialist Realism?" Marxist Aesthetics and the Problem of Ulysses

Until we establish an international bureau for the decoding of our contemporary masterpieces, I think it will be safe to assert that Joyce's most original contribution to English literature has been to lock up one of its most brilliant geniuses inside of his own vest.

It seemed that from all [Joyce's] books three values disengaged themselves, three qualities of the man himself: his pride, his contempt for others, his ambition....
He had achieved genius, I thought, but there was something about the genius that was as cold as the touch at parting of his long, smooth, cold, wet-marble fingers.

A heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope—such is Joyce's work.

Ulysses is a notoriously obscene novel.... It was completed in 1921 and published in 1922; the one person who first appreciated it and promoted it was a most wealthy esthete. Few other people have been interested in this book, where the reader, cutting through a boundless forest of words, would find nothing but worthless trifles and erratic images. Who but persons with an excess of fat would need such a book?
ZHOU LIBO, C. 1938


... but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.

Plato's injunction in book 10 of The Republic against the "honeyed muse" of poetry opened a controversy over the social and political implications of art that has flared repeatedly during the history of literary criticism. Defenders of the arts have been forced periodically—and certainly more frequently than they have wished—to ward off contemporaneous versions of the Platonic attack, usually with more gumption, if not more success, than feeble Glaucon. The controversy over the social and political function of literature grew particularly heated in America during the 1920s and 1930s, when new art forms and techniques were scrutinized by an increasingly politicized intellectual community. Modernist innovations in the arts were greeted with hostility by some, enthusiasm by others, and a good deal of uncertainty by many more, as


critics struggled to reconcile avant-garde art with emerging political commitments. At no other period in American literary history was the question of the social utility of art raised with greater frequency and urgency than during these decades.

The very appearance of political indifference among some artists became a political issue during this period, and the name of James Joyce surfaced again and again in the continuing debate. Ironically, Joyce, with all his modernist trappings, was extremely reticent about politics in both his private life and his public art. He announced no political platform, articulated no political theory, endorsed no particular political party or doctrine. He avoided direct political engagement with all the stubbornness of young Stephen Dedalus, whose Luciferian "Non Serviam" announced his unwillingness both to sign political petitions and to pray at his mother's deathbed. Moreover, Joyce's relative silence on political matters was in marked contrast to the volubility and passionate involvement in political affairs of such modernist contemporaries as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, W. B. Yeats, and to a lesser degree, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. Eliot and Pound were, in the words of William M. Chace, "more than interested in politics; they were entangled in, even obsessed by, politics" (Political Identities xvii). Often, the convenient association made by many critics between Joyce and other modernists earned Joyce undeserved scorn or praise. While he gained recognition and readers because of the association, many critics too easily assumed that these modernists who shared a good number of aesthetic practices also shared certain political beliefs. And while it is difficult to ascertain precisely what Joyce's politics were, it is easier to say with some conviction what they were not: he had little sympathy for the


fascism, the monarchism, or the anti-Semitism that proved so appealing to Pound and Eliot.

Investigations into Joyce's political beliefs (notably Dominic Manganiello's Joyce's Politics ) document his interest in socialist and anarchist thought at various points in his career, but such studies also point out the inconsistency, the evasiveness, and the superficiality that marked much of Joyce's political thinking. Although we may be unable to define in any doctrinal manner Joyce's politics, we can at least set the contours of his political consciousness from the evidence of the books he wrote. Of course, we must content ourselves less with specifics (unless we grant some authority to Bloom's musings on social reforms and utopian possibilities) and more with the general tone and direction of his political thinking. From such an overview, I believe we must concur with Lionel Trilling's judgment that Joyce demonstrates in Ulysses in particular a fundamental "sympathy for progressive social ideas" ("James Joyce" 46). Joyce ought to be seen as a political liberal: tolerant, democratic, pacific; nonideological but supportive of social and political reform; protective of individual liberties yet, in his own life, committed to social and familial responsibilities. Dominic Manganiello, who has assiduously researched Joyce's political interests and values, concludes that the most appropriate label for Joyce's politics would be "libertarian": "a political vision which consisted of socialism without Marx and anarchism without violence" (232). Even this broad judgment, however, clearly distinguishes Joyce from his modernist colleagues.

This breach between Joyce and his contemporaries illustrates a fundamental contradiction among those too loosely grouped under the term "modernist." For Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Lewis, and Lawrence, aesthetic principles


and political and religious beliefs often were at crosspurposes. While their art revolutionized literary form, their political thought tended toward reactionary and authoritarian positions. Formal experimentation was balanced by philosophic conservatism, sexual squeamishness, and ideological rigidity. Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography of Wyndham Lewis, The Enemy , speculates on the reasons Lewis and his contemporaries were drawn toward fascism:

Because Fascism seemed to offer a stable society governed by a romantic leader who stopped decadence, guaranteed peace by opposing Communism, aestheticized politics and promised respect and rewards for the artist, it attracted an entire generation of modern writers who were radical in their literary technique but drawn to the new totalitarian politics: Yeats in his military songs for O'Duffy's Blueshirts, Pound in The Cantos and money pamphlets, Eliot (who also replaced the capitalistic villain of the Left with the Jewish villain of the Right) in "Coriolan," Lawrence in The Plumed Serpent and letters to Roll Gardiner, and Lewis in The Art of Being Ruled and his political polemics. Despite their genius, which may have led them to create an imaginative political ideal to replace crude reality, these writers all failed to understand the most significant political issues of their time. (186)

We might add to Meyers's hypotheses the fact that the social, familial, and educational backgrounds of such writers as Pound, Eliot, and Lewis differed dramatically from Joyce's. As a young man Joyce had enjoyed none of the affluence or privilege of his colleagues. In the admittedly partisan view of Malcolm Cowley, Pound, Eliot, and their admirers "received the training and acquired the standards of the small but powerful class in American society that might be described as the bourgeoisie proper"


(Exile's return 115). In Pound's case, William Chace notes that "anti-Semitism came early to Pound—perhaps as a direct legacy of family background and social class, Protestant professional and upper middle class—and stayed late" (Political Identities 48).

Besides family and social circumstances, the superior education that these writers enjoyed, coupled with their own native genius, nurtured their insularity and elitism. Their artistic achievements may have given them a false sense of their own power and authority. They came to see themselves as cultural spokesmen and believed their political pronouncements ought to carry as much authority as their artistic ones. The boundaries between politics and art began to break down and the consequences were at times embarrassing—in Pound's case, catastrophic. As Chace notes, "Pound, who believed that the arts carry society, also believed that no difference existed between the 'essentially aesthetic' and the 'essentially political.' Poetic principles, he thought, could be pursued with little or no alteration into the political arena" (Political Identities 48). While a disregard for audience or current tastes may have helped Pound to excel as poet and editor, that same habit of mind drew him inexorably into the fascist camp. An allusive, highly sophisticated style that implicitly demanded discipline and erudition from the reader was transformed into an antidemocratic political ethos.

The same possibility existed for Joyce. Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake challenged the reader and critic as perhaps no other novels had before, and Joyce seemed both delighted and occasionally distressed (particularly in the case of Finnegans Wake ) by the problems he created for his reader. But Joyce rarely if ever used his artistic stature to make political pronouncements. "Joyce's saving quality as an artist," Manganiello tells us, "was that he


distinguished, as Pound did not, between the aesthetic and the political. As a young man, he told Padraic Colum, 'I distrust all enthusiasms"' (233). It was not that Joyce was uninterested in politics. Manganiello documents the fact that even after Joyce's interest in Italian socialist politics and Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein movement peaked in 1907 or 1908, he was an attentive, sympathetic follower of developments among anarchist and socialist thinkers. His diffidence on the subject may be attributable to his distrust of political solutions to complicated social problems, a distrust wrought of the years of violence and frustration experienced by political movements in his own country. In addition, even in his efforts to explain his work to critics or biographers, Joyce loved to complicate in the act of simplification, confuse in the act of clarification, and mislead in the act of explanation. He may have avoided political theorizing for the very reason that he could not accept the bluntness and oversimplification that so often accompanied it. His own work demonstrates a fondness for the irresolvable, the oblique, and the ambiguous that, I believe, predisposed him against single-minded explanations or black-andwhite theoretical pronouncements.

Finally, Joyce's resistance to political involvement must be seen as a self-protective gesture by an artist scrupulously aware of the various "nets" thrown in his direction since his birth. He prized his intellectual and artistic freedom above all, and he viewed political commitments as the surest and most self-compromising route to artistic mediocrity. In a letter to George Borach in 1918, Joyce wrote simply, "As an artist, I attach no importance to political conformity" (quoted in Manganiello 231). Manganiello adds: "His objection to being dictated to was an assertion of personal freedom, an unwillingness


to reduce the role of the artist to that of a priest or politician" (2).

Ironically, Joyce's indifference to politics enraged critics at both ends of the political spectrum as much as Pound's activism did. For some, Joyce became the epitome of the Symbolist and Aesthetic movements by immersing himself wholly in his art. Such a preoccupation with aesthetics was itself cause for denunciation by some advocates of artistic "responsibility," the word that became a rallying cry for antimodernists both left and right. Joyce and other modernists were condemned for their self-indulgence and their lack of patriotic zeal. Eliot and Pound, on the other hand, "were attempting to revive a tradition of partisanship" in the arts that had been increasingly strained out of the literary life in Europe (Chace, Political Identities xviii). One might well argue that they brought a peculiarly American brand of modernism to Europe, rooted in a tradition of pragmatism, social criticism, and political partisanship. Oddly enough, and as misguided as his efforts may have been, Pound was acting in a characteristically American manner in denouncing American policies over wartime Italian radio. His activism was in keeping with a long-standing tradition in American letters dating from Emerson and Thoreau. And even though Joyce's consciousness was shaped by and anchored in Ireland, his artistic conscience was forged in the literary workplace of the Continent, especially in the shadow of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Flaubert, and Proust. Joyce learned—if he needed any instruction—that the artist disengaged himself from political activity and created in his art a self-enclosed world, autonomous and self-reflexive. Joyce's modernism differed from that of Pound, Eliot, Lewis, or Yeats. His French mentors encouraged him by their example to de-


vote himself entirely to his art and to refrain from public posturing and political engagement.

In fact, Joyce was regularly identified as an exemplar of European modernism. Certainly, it was his art that became the political issue among critics, not his vague and unarticulated politics. And it was in his art that critics from various political perspectives found much that was objectionable. Oddly enough, we find critics from different points on the political compass criticizing Joyce for ostensibly the same reasons.

The study of Joyce criticism during the twenties and thirties is a study in cultural warfare, with critics from opposed political perspectives agreeing at times that Joyce, among other modernist writers, was the cause or the symptom of contemporary social problems. At the heart of the controversy surrounding Joyce lies the Platonic controversy in modern dress: How does one define the relationship between politics and art? What ends, if any, should art serve? For many during these decades, art became the handmaiden to politics, and criticism consisted largely of political invective, directed at literature only as an expression of unwelcome social and cultural changes.

Inevitably, for the period under consideration, labels such as "left" and "right" to designate political orientations oversimplify and, in many cases, mislead. Political allegiances shifted quickly and dramatically, during the 1930s in particular. Political beliefs were often hodgepodges of borrowed and contradictory positions and hence much more complex affairs than these labels would suggest. In the thirties especially, terms such as "left" and "right," "Stalinist" or "Trotskyist," assumed very different meanings according to time, place, and audience. For example, it may be a misnomer to refer to some Soviet


critics as "Stalinists" when many of them who had professed loyalty to Stalin were later imprisoned and killed by him under the charge of being Trotskyists. Likewise, we will understand little if we refer to Stalinists as "leftists" when, in fact, they were supporting a ruthless dictator, and their antipathy for avant-garde art was at times indistinguishable from the response of conservative intellectuals.

Nevertheless, having pointed out these limitations and qualifications, I will retain the use of such terms as "left" and "right," "liberal" and "conservative" to designate fundamentally different political assumptions and expectations. It is one of the rich ironies of this study that these distinctions sometimes blur in the criticism of Joyce's fiction. Renato Poggioli has argued that both the left and the right misunderstand avant-garde art for different reasons: the right reads it through the lens of a "retrospective nostalgia," the left "through an anticipatory and utopic dream" (168). In either case, ideology has historically served as an aesthetic blinder, with the ironic consequence that in critical practice ideological differences blur.

The intrinsic problems that Joyce's art posed to American Marxists in the twenties and thirties were not nearly so important as extrinsic considerations that made a dispassionate assessment of Joyce's work virtually impossible. What the Communists called for in their exhortations toward a literature of "socialist realism" was the creation not so much of art as of propaganda or political tracts. And the quality of literature produced in conformity with their directives during the thirties bears witness to their


short-sightedness. As Malcolm Cowley confessed in his memoirs, the consequences of trying to combine Party allegiances with literary careers were often disastrous. "I cannot think of one truly distinguished work that any of them [those writers who, in the thirties, joined the American Communist Party] produced while still regarding himself as an all-the-way Party member.... In its general effect—on literary careers and often on personal lives as well—that venture all the way into the darkness proved to be an unmitigated disaster" (Dream 249).[1]

Communism was a strong lure to American intellectuals during the Depression, when old solutions seemed inadequate in the face of grave new economic problems. Walter Rideout cites as reasons for this movement leftward "the economic collapse, the example of the Soviet Union, the clarification and comfort offered by Marxism, the championing of the underdog by the Communists, [and] the opportunity for a new style of attack against the bourgeoisie" (144). Before the consolidation of power by Stalin in the U.S.S.R., the Moscow trials, and the banishment and oppression of artists that was to come later in the decade, many intellectuals who were distressed by conditions in America looked toward the Soviet Union as a model and Communist ideology as a salvational doctrine. The U.S.S.R. in the thirties was "both a reproach to America and a hope to the world," notes Daniel Aaron (Writers 155). More and more, Communism seemed a reasonable alternative to a visibly ailing capitalist system. Especially in the late thirties, in the era of the Popular Front, the Soviet system was hailed as a continuation of traditional progressive values that had been gaining a foothold in America in the teens and twenties under the tutelage of such figures as John Dewey. Communism, wrote Arthur Koestler, came to be viewed "as a


logical extension of the progressive humanistic trend ... the continuation and fulfillment of the great Judeo-Christian tradition" (quoted in Aaron, Writers 257). The great Popular Front slogan of the time was "Communism is twentieth-century Americanism."

Economic, moral, political, personal, even religious considerations prompted this movement toward Communism by left-leaning American artists and writers. Many welcomed the movement as a surrogate family or as an alternative religion, or in some cases as a countervailing force to emerging right-wing groups. The Communist party's early and fervent opposition to Hitler's fascism gained it many supporters. But one of the strongest appeals of Communism lay in its purported ability to explain and remedy complex economic and political problems. More than anything else, Communism appealed as a science that diagnosed and offered solutions to pressing social problems in the United States. Malcolm Cowley, in a retrospective look at the thirties, summarized the various appeals of Communism:

Communism not only furnished a clear answer to the problems raised by the depression—that was the economic side of it—and not only promised to draw writers from their isolation by creating a vital new audience for the fine arts in general—that was its professional side—but it also seemed capable of supplying the moral qualities that writers had missed in bourgeois society: the comradeship in struggle, the self-imposed discipline, the ultimate purpose (any action being justified insofar as it contributed to the proletarian revolution), the opportunity for heroism, and the human dignity. Communism offered at least the possibility of being reborn into a new life. (Dream 43)

What is of importance to this study is the cultural contribution made by the Communists in both the twenties


and the thirties. The keystone of their literary agenda was an exhortation for a new kind of novel, one which would better reflect the needs, interests, and struggles of the working class.

Just as literature during the years of capitalist domination had reflected bourgeois values, had attempted, while reassuring the middle classes, to disarm the worker and alienate him from his class, so the new literature would reflect proletarian values, would bring the worker to class consciousness, steel him for the role he would play in the next stage of history. Art was a form of politics; it was a weapon in the class war. (Rideout 170)

Stalin, unlike Lenin and Trotsky, set very narrow limits on what constituted acceptable literature. The doctrine of socialist realism, formulated by Stalin, Maxim Gorky, and Stalin's "cultural thug," Andrey Zhdanov, was adopted as Party policy at the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers. Zhdanov presented the doctrine in his opening address to the Congress:

Comrade Stalin has called our writers engineers of human souls. What does this mean? What duties does the title confer upon you?

In the first place, it means knowing life so as to be able to depict it truthfully in works of art, not to depict it in a dead, scholastic way, not simply as "objective reality," but to depict reality in its revolutionary development.

In addition to this, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of the artistic portrayal should be combined with the ideological remoulding and education of the toiling people in the spirit of socialism. This method in belles lettres and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.

Our Soviet literature is not afraid of the charge of being "tendencious" [sic ]. Yes, Soviet literature is tendencious, for in


an epoch of class struggle there is not and cannot be a literature which is not class literature, not tendencious, allegedly nonpolitical. ("Soviet Literature" 21)

Zhdanov, in his exhortations to writers to become "engineers of the human soul," called for a literature that was didactic and propagandistic. Even before Zhdanov's directives from 1934, Mike Gold, one of the American Communist Party's most outspoken polemicists, had offered specific objectives for the proletarian novel.

1. Workers... must write with the technical proficiency of a Hemingway, but not for the purpose of engendering cheap and purposeless thrills.

2. "Proletarian realism deals with the real conflicts of men and women." It spurns the sickly, sentimental subtleties of Bohemians, best illustrated by "the spectacle of Proust, master-masturbator of the bourgeois literature."

3. Proletarian realism is functional; it serves a purpose. "Every poem, every novel and drama, must have a social theme, or it is merely confectionary."

4. It eschews verbal acrobatics: "this is only another form for bourgeois idleness."

5. Proletarians should write about what they know best. "Let the bourgeois writers tell us about their spiritual drunkards and super-refined Parisian emigres ... that is their world; we must write about our own mud-puddle."

6. "Swift action, clear form, the direct line, cinema in words; this seems to be one of the principles of proletarian realism."

7. "Away with drabness, the bourgeois notion that the Worker's life is sordid, the slummer's disgust and feeling of futility."...

8. "Away with all lies about human nature. We are scientists; we know what a man thinks and feels...."

9. "No straining or melodrama or other effects; life itself is the supreme melodrama." (4–5)


The novel envisioned by Zhdanov and Gold privileged content over form, simplicity over technical ingenuity; its subjects were working people and the problems they suffered; its objective was to render such subjects "truthfully," while offering a hopeful vision of a world in transformation.

The notion that art could serve as a "weapon" appealed greatly to those American writers and critics who saw the class struggle as the root of social problems. Above and beyond other purposes, art would serve a social and political function: to raise the consciousness of the working classes and rally others to its cause. Those revolutionists who endorsed such a notion were eager to prescribe formulas for revolutionary art and to denounce deviations as "bourgeois" or "counterrevolutionary." Alfred Kazin explains:

The other side always wrote of nightingales; the Marxists alone were high and purposive. Sooner or later almost every leftist critic slipped into making these distinctions; and in proportion to his fealty to the Communist Party, could dismiss—now in the light of Bolshevik arrogance, now on the strength of the seemingly unimpeachable and exclusive validity of Marxist theory—anything that did not conform, that did not point in a "progressive tendency," that could be labeled with indiscriminate contempt as escapist, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, aristocratic, decadent, sentimental, Trotskyite, ultra-leftist, not leftist enough, and so on. (Native Grounds 418)

Of course, "leftists" and "revolutionists" were not really united. There was a great deal of strife, tension, and division among and within those groups of critics aligned with Stalin and those less doctrinaire revolutionists sympathetic to Trotsky. In regard to artistic experimentation, American Marxists generally took more guarded views


than their Soviet counterparts. Even Communist party members found it hard to convince many others that artistic innovations such as those introduced by modernists were inherently dangerous and counterrevolutionary. Indeed, most American critics associated formal experimentation in art with revolutionary or antibourgeois tendencies; Dos Passos, much more than Joyce, served as their model. "A majority of the American writers and critics," writes Walter Rideout, "even though more at home themselves with realistic methods, praised experimental novels as attempts to expand the boundaries of radical art" (213). This may in part explain why the response to Joyce from the American left was neither so monolithic nor so severe as among Soviet critics.

The antimodernist sentiment that gained a foothold among American intellectuals on the left during the thirties had as its impetus the much more virulent reaction to modernism by Soviet propagandists earlier in the decade. Party henchmen such as Andrey Zhdanov and Karl Radek singled out Joyce in particular for harsh attack, identifying him as the epitome of the decadent bourgeois artist. Joyce's political diffidence, his linguistic experimentation, and his preoccupation with the isolated individual and his unconscious life—all earned him the wrath of Soviet critics. They focused their attack on four general areas: the formal or aesthetic elements in Joyce's art; Joyce's illdefined politics; his general moral, historical, and philosophical vision; and the character of Joyce qua citizen and artist.

Not surprisingly, Joyce's attention to language and his stylistic innovations came under attack by the Soviet


critic wary of "formalist" art. Word play, stylistic discontinuities, the search for le mot juste —all these revealed the neurotic preoccupations of the artist, his distance from the phenomenological world he sought to capture, and his estrangement from the reading public. His preoccupation with stylistic matters trivialized his work and disqualified him from the ranks of socialist-realist writers.

The trivializing charges against Joyce's work were common and persistent. They stemmed not only from Joyce's fascination with language and style, but also from his irony and iconoclasm. One of the earliest commentaries on Joyce was delivered in 1934 by Karl Radek (who only three years later would be liquidated by Stalin). Speaking at the first International Writer's Congress in Moscow, Radek lumped Joyce's art with "the literature of dying capitalism [which] has become stunted in ideas.... It is unable to portray the mighty forces which are shaking the world ... [and shows a] triviality of content ... fully matched by [its] triviality of form" (151). Radek's diatribe on Joyce, entitled appropriately "James Joyce or Socialist Realism?" (emphasis added), castigated Joyce for having failed to produce a revolutionary literature, one which consisted of "mighty pictures ... of great consolations" to the soul of the proletariat (162). "Socialist realism," Radek said, "means not only knowing reality as it is, but knowing whither it is moving" (157). It is easy to see why Joyce—and for that matter, so many other modernists—failed to please. What Radek presented as an epistemological dilemma was in truth a political one.

Joyce was in the odd position of being condemned by Radek for his tendencies toward both naturalism and symbolism. As a naturalist, Joyce was accused of concentrating his attention on the wrong features of reality, with


his work becoming morbid and trivial as a result. As a symbolist, Joyce relinquished his sense of reality and created a language of his own, culminating in what D. S. Mirsky called the "formless, meaningless mass" of Finnegans Wake (34). Radek set the tone for others' remarks on the subject: "[In Joyce's work] naturalism is reduced to clinical observations, and romanticism and symbolism to delirious ravings" (153).

Joyce's "realistic grasp" was acknowledged and, to some degree, applauded by the Soviets. His debt to Zola, Balzac, and especially Flaubert was apparent, for like them Joyce showed an "amazing exactness of expression" (Mirsky 34). But Joyce shared the French penchant for decadence, as Mirsky and R. Miller-Budnitskaya pointed out. Joyce, said Miller-Budnitskaya, "has a taste for depicting pathology, perversion, and suffering" that arises from a "pessimism and disgust with life" (17). Joyce's naturalism, Mirsky wrote, "has its roots on the one hand in a morbid, defeatist delight in the ugly and repulsive and, on the other, in an aesthetico-proprietary desire for the possession of things" (34). Here, the moral and political indictments of Joyce converged. Joyce's naturalism was faulted for its focus on the "ugly and repulsive," while at the same time for revealing its author's "aesthetico-proprietary desire for the possession of things." Joyce may have shown an "exactness of expression," but this precision only revealed his depravity and latent capitalistic yearnings. Words, when freed from the mooring of "objectivity," became property that Joyce, the artist-qua-capitalist, eagerly hoarded. Joyce suffered not from a commodity fetish but from a word fetish. Moreover, in his relationship to language he recapitulated the master-slave relationship endemic to capitalist society. Joyce, Mirsky wrote, wanted only to "master words and subdue them to himself" (33).


The most persistent charge made by Radek, Mirsky, and Miller-Budnitskaya during the thirties was that Joyce's work was untruthful, based on denial and substitution. Joyce wished to create his own reality through his careful manipulation of language. The style of Ulysses wrote Mirsky, was that of the "dying bourgeoisie, who wanted to change reality into forms of their own choice and substitute for actuality a world of forms created by themselves" (33). Joyce's "word-building," argued Miller-Budnitskaya, "is antagonistic to the idea of language as a reflector of the objective, material world" (25). The socialist-realist version of "reality" or "actuality" expressed, of course, particular political values and objectives. These critics called for a language that would "reflect" that reality, a language that they insisted should be flat, one-dimensional, purely denotative. In the socialist-realist novel they envisioned, signifier would be fused with signified; no interpretive confusion could arise.

Joyce's use of the interior monologue and his detached, seemingly narrator-less style of narration also came in for criticism. In the first case, Joyce was accused of paying too close attention to the inner life of the isolated individual. Such preoccupation, Mirsky reminded his readers, was a bourgeois affliction: "The use of the inner monologue (stream-of-consciousness method) is too closely connected with the ultra-subjectivism of the parasitic, rentier bourgeoisie, and entirely unadaptable to the art of one who is building socialist society" (34). "Joyce omits," claimed Harry Slochower, a Marxist writing in 1946, "the public character, of social time" (210).

Further, the Soviets complained, Joyce's art suffered from a lack of clear, authoritative narration. The absent narrator who, like the artist Stephen Dedalus describes, "remains within or behind or beyond or above his handi-


work, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails" (Portrait 215), provided the reader with too little interpretive information, and as a result no moral or political lesson could be drawn. The argument here concerned the ends of art: the Zhdanovites argued for a didactic method and a hopeful message, while Joyce, among other modernists, called for an impersonal, antirhetorical art. Georg Lukacs, in an essay written two decades later, lamented that

modernism must deprive literature of a sense of perspective.... In any work of art, perspective is of overriding importance. It determines the course and content; it draws together the threads of the narration; it enables the artist to choose between the important and the superficial, the crucial and the episodic.... The more lucid the perspective ... the more economical and striking the selection. (Contemporary Realism 33)

Lukacs here elaborated a complaint implicit in much of the Soviet commentary on Joyce from the 1930s.

When the Soviet critics considered the content and meaning of Joyce's work and tried to elucidate Joyce's vision, they inevitably found themselves in opposition. Typically, they subjected Joyce to superficial scrutiny and caricatured his positions. The Soviets sought propaganda and Joyce was unwilling to serve any master—political, literary, theoretical, patriarchal, or religious. Perhaps as a result, he was described at various points in his career as a nihilist, a pornographer, an anarchist, and an unredeemable individualist by his Soviet detractors.

The Soviet critique of Joyce was marked by a persis-


tent moralism, directed as much at the arrogance or bravado of the man himself as at the perceived excesses of his literary style. The strongest moral condemnation was reserved for Joyce's alleged nihilism and despair, which differed so sharply from the socialist realists' enforced optimism. At the heart of the Communists' indictment of Joyce was a plain disappointment that Joyce did not share the Marxist vision of the march of history. "History," Stephen Dedalus declared, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." For Joyce, history was not a path toward liberation; historical, political, familial, and religious allegiances were "traps" that threatened to enslave him. Joyce's complex and equivocal vision of the future owed more to Freud, Vico, and Bruno than it did to Marx. He tended, especially in Finnegans Wake , to view history as cyclical, governed less by the linear development of economic forces than by unconscious patterns of individual and collective behavior.

Besides these larger differences, the Soviets found more specific elements in Joyce's art to which they raised moral objections. Joyce's frank treatment of sex, the body, and bodily functions particularly rankled Soviet critics. Joyce was chided by Radek for his interest in the "brothel" and the "pothouse" (154)[2] and by Miller-Budnitskaya for his "notorious eroticism." Joyce, said the latter, "glorifies the principle of sex [and] enthrones the unconscious as opposed to the intellect," conceiving of the universe "as a potent stream of sexual energy pouring forth into emptiness, non-existence" (25). Molly Bloom, the embodiment of free-flowing sensuality, came in for special attack from Mirsky and a later Soviet critic, B. G. Zhantieva. Zhantieva called Molly's "'yes' all accepting, infinitely unfastidious, low, animal" (155). Mirsky concluded that "at the zenith of [Joyce's] victory he voluntarily surrendered his vantage points to the vulgar


female—Marion" (34). Apparently, Mirsky was uncomfortable using the familiar "Molly" and employed the more formal "Marion" to put some distance between himself and the evil she represented. The intolerance toward formal experimentation is matched in these commentaries by sexual squeamishness and repression.

Joyce's explicit treatment of sexuality, combined with his inclusion of sordid details of urban life, led the Soviets to label his work morbid, even pornographic. "A heap of dung," Radek called Joyce's work (153); Mirsky found in it a "delight in the hideous, in pain and death ... and a pleasure in suffering" (33); Miller-Budnitskaya condemned Joyce's "taste for depicting pathology, perversion, and suffering" (17). Joyce's desire to render a full and unexpurgated portrait of his characters was worse than irrelevant; it was offensive, morally repugnant.

A persistent charge leveled at Joyce by the Soviets was that his work was nihilistic, exhibiting only what was base and ugly. The recognition that Joyce did not believe in the Marxist vision of the future translated into an assertion that Joyce did not believe in anything at all. He was condemned by Miller-Budnitskaya, for example, as an artist who encouraged anarchism, one who wished "to turn being into chaos ... [and] destroy the laws governing the material world and the human mind" (25). Ulysses was an expression of an "anarchic desire to destroy, to turn the universe into chaos, to the pathos of suicide of contemporary bourgeois civilization" (26). Joyce's iconoclasm, best expressed in his ironic treatment of characters and institutions, amounted to a revolution that was going nowhere. Because he lacked a revolutionary program, Joyce's challenge to authority and convention would lead only to anarchy.

One of the insinuations made by the Soviets was that,


at bottom, Joyce was a reactionary. Here again, they showed a tendency to lump Joyce with other modernists who were in fact reactionaries. Joyce's reputed nihilism, his "reactionary philosophy of social pessimism" (Miller-Budnitskaya, quoted in Schlauch), tagged him as a modernist in the Eliot mold. Because Joyce lacked sustaining beliefs, augured Miller-Budnitskaya and others, he would ultimately turn to the Catholic church or to some form of mysticism for comfort and clarity. The alternatives for a modernist such as Joyce became clear: the expression of a socially destructive vision of anarchy in his art, or a regression into an irrational religious faith. Joyce, like Huysmans, would exhaust his irony and be confronted with "a choice between the pistol and the cross" (Huysmans xlix).

According to the Soviets, Joyce's nihilism could be inferred in part from his creation of characters like Bloom and Stephen, who, confronted by a host of problems, seemed consistently passive or evasive. Bloom was too static a character; he was "diffident and unheroic" (Slochower). Both he and Stephen were keyless wanderers, unable to act forcefully against their victimizers, Boylan and Mulligan. Ostracized, self-absorbed, and often self-destructive, they were hardly models for revolutionary activists; they inspired neither awe nor courage. Largely for these reasons, Joyce's fiction was described as dispirited, pessimistic, "a hopeless negation of all creative, fruitful forces" (Miller-Budnitskaya 25). Radek complained that Joyce failed to document the revolutionary potential of the petty bourgeoisie: "All that appealed to Joyce was the medieval, the mystical, the reactionary in the petty bourgeoisie—lust, aberration; everything capable of impelling the petty bourgeoisie to join the side of revolution was alien to him" (180).


Bloom came in for special condemnation, A "primitive human," Miller-Budnitskaya called him, "a sort of odious arithmetical average of the genus philistine ... in this naked abomination ... [whom] Joyce proclaimed the real master of life, the sole possessor of the wisdom of our age" (7). Bloom's "odiousness" derived from his narcissism, the most worrisome of a host of counterrevolutionary threats.

One of the keys to the Soviets' disappointment in Joyce lay in their allegation that Joyce created characters who were cut off from vital social relations, who looked inward rather than outward for a confirmation of themselves. In the Joycean world, the social matrix had broken down, spawning misfits and isolates who found solace only in their own private fantasies or musings. In the Marxist world, one's willingness to sacrifice oneself to a social group or a social ideal formed the basis for social advancement, personal identity, and moral worth; the individual existed "in-another," as Sartre insisted. Joyce's characters lived in a social vacuum, the Soviets claimed, wholly absorbed in themselves. V. Gertsfelde, a Soviet critic writing in the 1930s, complained that Joyce, like other modernists, did not reveal "men in relation to the outside world, in relation to the past and the future." Joyce shines "the light of a projector" at his characters, "which does not illuminate but blinds.... He promises his audience that he will lead them to the depths that they long to fathom, but he excludes those things the penetration of which might lead to the revolution" (269). As late as the 1960s, Russian critics like B. G. Zhantieva were still chastising Joyce for "alienat[ing] his characters from reality by internal probing and depth psychology." Zhantieva could go on to complain that


Joyce portrays the human consciousness as more confused and illogical than it is in life and does not clarify, but rather obscures the picture of his protagonist's spiritual life.... In this way, a paradoxical situation arises: the individual, exalted by modernist literature, loses his individuality. The human psyche becomes merely a receptacle of vague sensations. (159)

For many American critics who entertained Marxist sympathies in the twenties and thirties, Joyce posed peculiar problems. In some respects, he was the paradigmatic European modernist: exiled, disengaged, seemingly indifferent to politics. Moreover, Joyce was the consummate stylist, adding elaborate allusive structures to his novels. Experimentation with language and the stream-of-consciousness technique were his artistic trademarks. At the same time, however, Joyce was a modernist with a difference. He had a distinctive naturalist strain in his writing and was quite capable of rendering a scene or a portrait with an exactitude reminiscent of Flaubert or Zola. In addition, Joyce's Irish background was petit bourgeois, and the subjects of his stories and novels belonged to this same class: lower or lower-middle class Dubliners, poorly educated, generally unself-conscious and manipulated by prejudice or illusion. Joyce could exhibit a special sympathy for victims, like Bloom, of prejudice or exclusion. These conflicting qualities in Joyce made him difficult to typecast. While on the one hand he was a stylistic virtuoso and an aesthete, on the other he was interested in the life of ordinary people, their culture, their city, their fears and aspirations. Joyce was, in short, both highbrow and lowbrow.


Such distinctions were often lost on those Soviet and American critics who adhered strictly to the dictates of the Party and tried to establish criteria for the proletarian novel. The general assault on bourgeois literature usually included all modernists and on occasion singled out Joyce. In his introduction to Granville Hicks's anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States , published in 1934, Joseph Freeman demarcated the terrain of the proletarian novel and placed the alleged concerns of modernists, bohemians, and romantics outside acceptable bounds. "It does not require much imagination to see why workers and intellectuals sympathetic to the working class ... should be more interested in unemployment, strikes, the fight against war and fascism, revolution and counter-revolution than in nightingales, the stream of the middle-class unconscious, or love in Greenwich Village" (16). The proletarian novel so conceived would be neither frivolous nor self-indulgent, nor would it be overly concerned with technique. As Mike Gold proclaimed, "There is no 'style'—there is only clarity, force, truth in writing. If a man has something new to say, as all proletarian writers have, he will learn to say it clearly in time: if he writes long enough" (quoted in Cowley, Dream 246). Populist and anti-intellectual sentiments governed the thinking of the more strident, dyed-in-the-wool advocates of proletarian literature, and no doubt discouraged many from even reading, let alone evaluating, the books of a modernist such as Joyce.

But those critics on the left who struggled in earnest with the question of modernist innovations in literature often found they could not dismiss modernist writers so easily. Adversaries in the debate sparred repeatedly during the thirties in the pages of The New Masses and Partisan Review. The New Masses , directly controlled by the


American Communist party, advocated a proletarian literature that adhered to Party dictates. The editors of Partisan Review retained a more independent Marxist orientation and adopted a more sympathetic attitude toward modernist innovations. Although a charged spirit of opposition held throughout the 1930s, editors of and contributors to both journals had difficulty settling unequivocally the quarrel over modernism.

Granville Hicks, who joined the staff of The New Masses in 1934 and became a Party member in 1935, is one example of a critic with Party loyalties who could not condemn modernist experimentation outright. In many of his pronouncements, Hicks did adopt a harsh and censorious view toward literature that did not live up to "proletarian" standards. In "Literature and Revolution" (1935), Hicks wrote,

If what literature does is to help us pass from a chaotic to a more organized state, it may be possible, not only to dismiss certain works as definitely disorganizing, but also to define the relative value of works that are not contributory to chaos.

What we have to ask ... is whether a work of literature contributes to a world-attitude that is compatible with the aims and tasks of the proletariat and whether it tends to build up a system of response that will [persuade] the proletariat to play his individual part in the coming struggle. We cannot approve, for example, a novel or a play that fosters an attitude of subservience.... We cannot tolerate a defeatist literature, not merely because of the attitude it encourages, but also because... it distorts life by ignoring elements in human character and history that, for the proletariat, the ascendant class, make pessimism impossible. Escapism, too, must be resisted. The romantic satisfactions of the day-dream are recognized as perilous ... [and] are peculiarly menacing to the proletariat. (422)


Here, Hicks all but named modernism in his indictment. The litany of sins was familiar: escapism, defeatism, self-indulgence, disorientation. Yet, in the same essay, Hicks warned against hasty literary judgments, counselling that to understand a literary work, "the important thing is to see the artist in relation to his age ... Shelley as part of a developing revolution, Tennyson in terms of Victorian progress, and Joyce as a symptom of capitalist decline" (414). He advised against rejecting any literature en bloc and defended Proust in particular, who "left a richer and more detailed account of the breakdown of the leisure class than can be found elsewhere" (422). In an essay published two years earlier (1933), Hicks had argued that, although Proust may not have provided a "surge of determination and hope," he was "a better writer than the avowed revolutionary who cannot give us an intense perception of either the character of the proletariat or the character of the bourgeois" ("Crisis" 13).

Hicks's attitude toward modernism was further complicated in reviews that appeared in The New Masses in 1936. In "Eliot in Our Time," a review of F. O. Matthiessen's The Achievement of T. S. Eliot , Hicks attacked Eliot for his inaccessibility and his drift toward fascism. "Expression is communication," wrote Hicks, "and Eliot is saying less and less to fewer and fewer persons"; he has embraced "an irrelevant philosophy and a dangerous politics" (105). In another review from the same year, however, Hicks defended James T. Farrell's A Note on Literary Criticism , which was largely a defense of modernists, and of Joyce in particular, against attacks from both proletarians and New Humanists. Hicks conceded to Farrell that good books may be written by bourgeois writers and that a good revolutionary novel may take as its subject the life of an individual. And though Hicks


doubted the enduring value of Farrell's book, he insisted it was not anti-Marxist: "Mr. Farrell has built badly, but it is on a Marxist foundation" ("In Defense" 109). While Hicks's remarks on Joyce consist only of infrequent asides and parenthetical references, it seems fair to say that, on Hicks's terms, Joyce's art and politics were at least as defensible as Proust's and not nearly so culpable as Eliot's. In any case, Hicks neither blessed nor blasphemed.

Curiously, however, others with less orthodox Communist credentials—fellow travellers and independent Marxists—were not so forgiving of Joyce and other modernists. Both Malcolm Cowley, editor of the New Republic during the 1930s, and Max Eastman, anti-Stalinist and biographer of Leon Trotsky, criticized Joyce for his complexity, his elitism, and his obsessive probing of the unconscious life. Eastman, in a polemic against modernism published under the title "The Cult of Unintelligibility" in 1931, attacked Joyce for his inaccessibility and his preoccupation with form. His charges would be echoed by Hicks against Eliot.

A dominant tendency of the advancing schools of poetry for the last twenty years has been to decrease the range, the volume, and the definiteness of communication. To my mind that statement, which has a verifiable meaning, might take the place of about one-half the misty literarious talk of the poets and the poet-critics of the modernist movement.... What they are doing is withdrawing into themselves. They are communicating to fewer people, they are communicating less, and what they are communicating is less definitely determined. And this is true of the whole movement, all the way from free verse to free association. (Literary Mind 58)

Eastman implicitly accused Joyce of "coterie writing." In 1941 this charge would be taken up and amplified by Van


Wyck Brooks in The Opinions of Oliver Allston (225–31). The next year, in "Literature and Ideology," James T. Farrell would accuse Eastman of having incited Brooks, MacLeish, and other critics to virulent attacks against the modernists.

In Joyce's case, Eastman expressed distress at his experimentation with language, especially in Finnegans Wake . Joyce's distortion of diction and syntax in Finnegans Wake represented a step toward the creation of a "private language"; it was a form that "finds its involuntary parallel in the madhouse."

The goal toward which he seems to be travelling with all this equipment of genius is the creation of a language of his own.... It might be immortal—as immortal as the steel shelves of the libraries in which it would rest. But how little it would communicate, and to how few. When it is not a humorous emotion—as praise God it often is—that we enjoy with Joyce in his extreme etymological adventures, what is there that we experience in common with him? A kind of elementary tongue dance, a feeling of the willingness to perform it. To me reading Joyce's Work in Progress is a good deal like chewing gum—it has some flavor at the start but you soon taste only the motion of your jaws. (Literary Mind 65–66)

The result of Joyce's brilliant linguistic play would be greater obscurity and inaccessibility and further isolation of the artist from the public. Joyce would be "lock[ed] up ... inside of his own vest" (66). He would thus be liable to the kind of caricature Eastman practiced on other modernists: "They are unsociable poets, unfriendly, and in extreme cases their language approaches that of the insane or idiotic" (79).

Malcolm Cowley drew a similarly unsavory portrait of Joyce, most vividly in his essay "The Religion of Art"


(1934), which he included in expanded form in Exile's Return . While Cowley conceded that Joyce's roots, unlike Eliot's, were in the lower middle class and that Joyce's work was noteworthy for its "richness" and "complexity," he chastised Joyce for "his pride, his contempt for others, his ambition." Joyce had become too insular, absorbed in his own craft and detached from his audience and the social and political life around him.

Europe was crumbling about his ears, thirteen million men died in the trenches, empires toppled over; he shut his window and worked on, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, writing, polishing, elaborating. And it seemed to us that there was nothing mysterious in what he had accomplished. He had pride, contempt, ambition—and those were the qualities that continued to stand forth clearly from Ulysses . Here once more was the pride of Stephen Dedalus that raised itself above the Dublin public and especially above the Dublin intellectual public as represented by Buck Mulligan; here was the author's contempt for the world and for his readers—like a host being deliberately rude to his guests, he made no concession to their capacity for attention or their power of understanding; and here was an ambition willing to measure itself, not against any novelist of its age, not against any writer belonging to a modern national literature, but with the father of all the western literatures, the archpoet of the European race. (Exile's Return 118)

It was Joyce's "pride of soul" more than his technical virtuosity that particularly upset Cowley. Cowley's interpretation of Ulysses suggests that he did not subject the novel to close reading or that he may not have read it in its entirety. He seems never to have reached Bloom's chapters, many of which are simpler reading than Stephen's. Furthermore, Stephen's pretentiousness is


undercut throughout the novel. In a comment in Exile's Return , Cowley admitted: "Although we had not time in the busy year [1923] that followed to read [Ulysses ] carefully or digest more than a tenth of it, still we were certain of one thing: it was a book that without abusing the word could be called 'great'" (116).

Cowley's moralizing on the subject of Joyce's hubris only appeared to have a religious cast. In fact, his objections to Joyce originated in his political views. Cowley had never joined the Communist Party, but generally supported Comintern policies and the goals of the proletarian movement during the thirties. He wrote in his memoirs: "I thought and said that the revolutionary movement could do a great deal for writers, by carrying them outside their personal affairs, by enlarging their perspectives, and by giving them a sense of comradeship in struggle" (Dream 117). He had argued in "What the Revolutionary Movement Can Do for a Writer" (1935) that writers ought to take their cue from that movement and produce a literature that, in almost all respects, fit the Zhdanovite formula for socialist realism.

The revolutionary movement allies the interests of writers with those of a class that is rising, instead of with the interests of a confused and futile and decaying class.... The interests of my class (the middle class) lie in a close alliance with the proletariat, and I believe that writers especially can profit by that alliance....

The liberating effect of the revolutionary movement has been to carry the interest of novelists outside themselves, into the violent contrasts and struggles of the outer world....

The revolutionary movement gives the artist a perspective on himself—an idea that his own experiences are not something accidental and unique, but are part of a vast pattern. The


movement teaches him that art is not an individual but a social product. (90)

Cowley objected to Joyce's concentration on the growth of the artist figure, Stephen Dedalus, and was disappointed at Joyce's failure to accept the Marxist version of historical process.[3]

Cowley also attacked other elements in Joyce's work that made it more private and inaccessible. He complained, for example, that the interior monologue "led nowhere [but] toward boredom and drabness." Revolutionary literature, he insisted, "leads writers outside themselves" and asks them to explore social relationships rather than the musings of isolated individuals (90). Cowley's deepest misgivings, however, concerned Joyce's detachment and arrogance. On every score, Joyce appeared to be the antithesis of the proletarian artist and therefore an object of Cowley's disappointment and occasional derision. Proud rather than humble, willfully obscure rather than simple, equivocal rather than polemical, oblique rather than direct, in exile from his country rather than in solidarity with Irish nationalists, Joyce fit the stereotype of the decadent bourgeois artist. Cowley's account of his early meeting with Joyce reinforced an image of Joyce as a frail and morbid aesthete, a composite of Roderick Usher and Uriah Heep. "It was as if he had made an inverted Faust's bargain, selling youth, riches, and part of his common humanity to advance his pride of soul."

Having been granted an interview, I went to his hotel. He was waiting for me in a room that looked sour and moldy, as if the red-plush furniture had fermented in the twilight behind closed shutters. I saw a tall, emaciated man with a very high white


forehead and smoked glasses; on his thin mouth and at the puckered corners of his eyes was a look of suffering so plainly marked that I forgot the questions with which I had come prepared. I was simply a younger person meeting an older person who needed help.

"Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Joyce?" I said.

Yes, there was something I could do: he had no stamps, he didn't feel well enough to go out and there was nobody to run errands for him. I went out to buy stamps, with a sense of relief as I stepped into the street. He had achieved genius, I thought, but there was something about the genius as cold as the touch at parting of his long, smooth, cold, wet-marble fingers. (Exile's Return 118–19)

Cowley's portrait of Joyce would be challenged by others on the left more sympathetic to Joyce and other modernist writers. James T. Farrell championed Joyce's work and defended Joyce against attacks from ideologues on both sides. In an essay devoted to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1944), Farrell concluded by praising Joyce as 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, ... his intensely creative activity, his dignity, his daring, his high artistic courage" (League 59). Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald contributed to the effort to salvage Joyce's reputation; Wilson, in his acclaimed study of modernist writers, Axel's Castle (1931), and Macdonald, in his rebuttal to attacks on the modernists by Van Wyck Brooks and others, "Kulturbolschewismus Is Here" (1941). But the argument over the value of Joyce's work and the work of other modernists continued among American intellectuals on the left through the thirties and beyond, and as long as the ideal


of proletarian art and the populist image of the proletarian artist retained their allure, Joyce's reputation continued to suffer.

It is remarkable today, long after Joyce's canonization, to read the scathing caricatures to which he was subjected during the thirties, especially by the Soviets. Among many other omissions, Joyce is not credited by either the Soviets or their American fellow-travellers for one of his most noteworthy political gestures: the creation of Leopold Bloom. At a time when anti-Semitism was not only acceptable but fashionable among the literary elite, Joyce offered as his modern Odysseus a middle-class Dublin Jew. Bloom completed the dialectic between the artist and the citizen, the intellectual and the proletariat, the "hawk-like man" and the bumbling ad-canvasser. "Joyce was the first to endow an urban man of no importance with heroic consequence," wrote Richard Ellmann (Consciousness 3). Yet no Stalinist from the thirties recognized this achievement. Only Alick West remarked in 1935 on Joyce's sympathies with the common man. He saw in the Stephen-Bloom relationship in Ulysses Joyce's "conscious identification of himself with the socialist movement" and found Bloom's "compassion" to be "the socialist message of the book."

Bloom was only one of many oversights made by leftwing ideologues from East and West in their sometimes frenzied efforts to denigrate Joyce and other modernists and promote the literature of socialist realism. As is evident from the Soviets' remarks on Joyce, criticism became an exercise in hyperbole and exclusion. The


Soviets, and to a lesser degree their American counterparts, were eagerly drawing lines between us and them, between those promoting the revolution and those obstructing it, and Joyce, they argued, belonged to the latter group. (Radek, in fact, declared that "Joyce is on the other side of the barricade" [181].) Joyce's artistic vision represented a corrupt phase in modern culture and could not herald the future that many Marxists too eagerly and too self-assuredly saw approaching. In their haste to advance that future, they repudiated the literature that documented the present crisis.

There were, of course, substantial differences between Joyce's social and political perspective and that of the Marxists, yet Communist critics exaggerated these differences and ignored a great deal of mitigating evidence in order to make their indictment stick. Yes, Joyce was preoccupied with craft and technique, but this did not necessarily trivialize the content of his art or deter him from addressing themes of timeless import. Yes, Joyce unearthed much that was "ugly and repulsive" in life, but not at the expense of what was noble, beautiful, or full of dignity. And yes, Joyce only tacitly supported the Irish nationalist movement, but never gave up his effort to understand and document the life of the ordinary man. Regardless of the objection, the Communists consistently failed to provide the necessary caveats for a full assessment of Joyce's work.

But the Communists were correct to perceive fundamental differences between Joyce's vision and sensibility and their own. Joyce's exploration of the unconscious mind, his antididacticism and equivocation, and his pervasive irony ("Joyce does not throw his whole heart into anything," complained Alick West [126]) did not win him many admirers among Soviet or left-leaning


American critics. Political considerations did not govern Joyce's art or sensibility, and the strong parodic, antiromantic impulse that he exhibited in so much of his work only alienated him further from those who, to paraphrase Thomas Mann, came increasingly to view the destiny of man in political terms.

Aside from many other differences, what Joyce did not share with the Marxists was a progressive teleology, a certainty about the causes and ultimate effects of individual and collective behavior. Joyce in his work sought to preserve the notion of a dialectical relationship working in all phenomena: antithesis was wedded to thesis, affirmation was apparent in negation, and comic possibilities were inherent in tragic situations. Richard Ellmann argues that Joyce's politics were in his aesthetics, and the key to understanding how the former derived from the latter was Joyce's use of the pun. "Punning offers ... countersense , through which disparates are joined and concordants differentiated.... The pun, verbal emblem of coincidence, agent of democracy and collectivist ideas, makes all the quirky particles of the world stick to each other by hook or crook" (Consciousness 93, 95). Undoubtedly—and, if we accept Ellmann's theory, ironically—it was this countersense, this destabilizing impulse activated by the pun, that provoked Joyce's Communist detractors, who were so earnestly and single-mindedly trying to convert the currency of language into political action. From this perspective, then, Joyce's aesthetics did carry political import, largely obscured by their political impact.


1— "James Joyce or Socialist Realism?" Marxist Aesthetics and the Problem of Ulysses

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