A Portrait of the Artist as a Reluctant Modernist

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Reluctant Modernist
  1 The Ghost of ‘Poor Jimmy Joyce’: A Portrait of the Artist as a Reluctant Modernist   ‘Poor Jimmy Joyce’   On 16 June 1954, poet Patrick Kavanagh and novelist Flann O‘Brien led a small troupe of revellers around Dublin, visiting locations such as the Martello Tower, Glasnevin cemetery, Davy Byrnes‘s, and 7 Eccles Street, plus many other pubs besides , reading relevant and favourite passages from Ulysses  as they went. The intention was to replicate the lively travels of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the day on which James Joyce chose to set the modernist masterpiece. The group also included poet and O‘Bri en biographer Anthony Cronin, literary critic and magazine editor John Ryan, registrar of Trinity College Dublin A. J. Leventhal, and dentist Tom Joyce (Joyce‘s cousin, the family representative). Ryan relates the tale in the memoir  Remembering How We Stood  : the day began at Sandycove, with a scuffle between Kavanagh and O‘Brien, and by their arrival at the Bailey pub in the city centre, in the early afternoon, in the midst of the Lestrygonians episode, the pilgrimage had been abandoned, too drunk to continue, and long  before the group could reach their planned destination and return to Eccles Street, via the former brothel district ‗nighttown‘. 1  The respectfully disrespectful episode, the first Bloomsday celebration, unfolds now in a strange discursive space somewhere between tribute and travesty, and the manifest sense of non-conclusion and irresolution inadvertently  performed by O‘Brien and this peculiar ensemble  imitates the hermeneutic disruptions, delays, and dissonances of Joyce‘s ground-breaking high modernist aesthetic. This uneasy 1  John Ryan,  Remembering How We Stood: Bohemian Dublin at the Mid-Century  (Dublin: Gull and MacMillan, 1975).  2 tension between praise and parody also encapsulates O‘Brien‘s persistently ambivalent attitude toward Joyce. O‘Brien‘s unreliable , often contradictory opinions concerning Joyce are perhaps best exemplified by the 1964 novel The Dalkey Archive ; here, Joyce is caricatured as a humbled  barman, denying his authorship of Ulysses  and claiming complete ignorance of  Finnegans Wake . By the provocation of a derisive and subversive laughter, O‘Brien expresses a desire to exorcise the ghost of the man he lovingly, mockingly referred to as ‗poor Jimmy Joyce‘ (who had, O‘Brien claimed, abolished the King‘s English). But The Dalkey Archive is also a careful critique of modernism, dramatis ing O‘Brien‘s conflicted attitude toward this literary movement through its comic representation of Joyce, peripheral yet central throughout the narrative. Doubly meaningful, O‘Brien‘s repeated parodies an d hilarious disavowals of Joyce, in the newspaper column ‗Cruiskeen Lawn‘, the essay ‗A Bash in the Tunnel‘, and elsewhere, are composed for comic effect, to evoke laughter. But they also present an ironic commentary on what is at stake for O‘Brien in writing after Joyce, in the wake of his ‗obscure‘ avant -garde high modernism, as O‘Brien can neither entirely dismiss nor embrace his predecessor‘ s art. Probing the significance of Joyce‘s humorous interjections in to The Dalkey Archive  (as both character and literary influence), this chapter argues that the novel portrays a mocking discrepancy between O‘Brien‘s caricature of Joyce and his production of a novel fundamentally modernist in many of its stylistic and formal characteristics. Presenting a  portrait of the artist as a reluctant modernist, I argue that the deliberate but vital failure to exorcise the irrepressible ghost of ‗poor Jimmy Joyce‘ is typical of O‘Brien‘s ironic modernism.  3 A shadow, a spectre O‘Brien  proffers a deceptively doubled response to J oyce‘s inexorable legacy in The Dalkey  Archive . Commenting on the cultural milieu of bohemian Dublin in the middle years of the twentieth- century, O‘Brien‘s friend Niall Sheridan asserts that Joyce ‗was in the very air [they] breathed‘ . 2  Similarly, but far more portentously, Cronin claims in his biography of O‘Brien,  No Laughing Matter  , that ‗the figure of Joyce hung over … [O‘Brien‘s] life like a sort of cloud from which the apocalyptic vision could come or had come‘ . 3  Dotterer too suggests O‘Brien wrote ‗in Joyce‘s shadow‘ 4    –   although, drawn toward the discursive cultivation of the otherworldly connotations implied by Cronin, I prefer the metaphor of the ghost. Ontologically uncertain, disturbing both sensory perception and intellectual intuition, the ghost is difficult to grasp, as it ‗does not belong to the order of knowledge‘ . 5  It is a ‗borderline creature, an insider as well as an outsider‘ 6  which, undecidable and irresolvable, remains ‗neither present not absent, neither dead nor alive‘ , 7  and so can neither adequately be 2  Niall Sheridan, in Timothy O‘Keeffe, ed.,    Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan  (London: Martin, Brian, and O‘Keeffe, 1973), 39.   3  Anthony Cronin,  No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times o  f Flann O’Brien  (Dublin: New Island, 2003), 176. 4   Ronald L. Dotterer, ‗Flann O'Brien, James Joyce, and The Dalkey Archive ‘,  New Hibernia  Review  8, no. 2 (2004): 54. 5   Colin Davis, ‗  État Présent  : Hauntology, Spectres, Phantoms‘,  French Studies  59, no. 3 (2005): 376. 6   Derek Attridge, ‗Ghost Writing‘, in  Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the  Political  , ed. Anselm Haverkamp (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005): 225. 7   Davis, ‗  État Présent’  , 373.  4 mourned nor exorcised. Joyce‘s placement in The Dalkey Archive  is wholly spectral, hauntological: he is properly neither dead nor alive, neither present nor absent. Writing on his own relationship with Joyce, Jacques Derrida claims that each time he commits words to  paper ‗Joyce‘s ghost is coming on board‘ , 8  and the same sentiment pervades The Dalkey  Archive : untouchable and unknowable, Joyce‘s ghost is still always already on board –   and O‘Brien is entirely unsure how to respond.   The diffidence of the author Adams suggests that various stylistic and formal characteristics of his work ‗mark O‘Brien as a  post  -Joyce, if not wholly  propter  - Joyce, writer‘ . 9   O‘Brien comes in the wake of Joyce, comes after and succeeds Joyce (he is post-Joyce), but also remains near to or close to Joyce, writing because of or on account of Joyce, through or by means of Joyce (these are the three meanings of the Latin  propter  : near, because of, and through)  –   by means of the vast new territories opened by the epochal modernist. Opposition also suggests  proximity: ‗To be against (opposed to) is also to be against (close to, in proximity to) or, in other words, up against‘ . 10   O‘Brie n is against and up against Joyce: the oppositional conflict is visible in his repeated irreverently parodic writings about Joyce, but a specific closeness is evident as his 8  Jacques Derrida, ‗Two Words for Joyce‘ (trans. Geoffrey Bennington), in  Post-Structuralist  Joyce: Essays from the French , ed. Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 149. 9  Robert Martin Adams,  AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction after Ulysses  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 190. 10  Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault   (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 229.  5 literary output remained, for all its supposedly post-modern meta-fictional theatrics, thoroughly modernist, engaged in an enduring critique of modernism. A few brief incidents encapsulate this ambivalent attitude toward Joyce. In March 1939, O‘Brien published his first novel, the comic bildungsroman  At Swim-Two-Birds . He sent a copy to the nearly blind Joyce, then living in Paris, with an inscription on the flyleaf referring to ‗plenty of what‘s on page 305‘, directing Joyce to the phrase ‗diffidence of the author‘. O‘Brien seeks confrontation, but is disappointed. The ailing Joyce gave the novel his generous approval, describing O‘Brien as ‗a real writer, with a true comic spirit‘. 11   O‘Brien‘s response to this  praise was dismissive: ‗When   Samuel Beckett met O‘Brien in Dublin and  passed on Joyce‘s praise, O‘Brien had already had enough of the Joycean debate, and reportedly snarled: ―Joyce, that refurbisher of skivvies‘ stories!‖‘ 12   O‘Brien fearlessly, obsessively struggles to stage a ‗rebellion against an older rebel‘ 13    –   but the rebellion goes unfinished as he proves incapable of decisively breaking from Joyce. A s with many of his writings on Joyce, O‘Brien‘s reaction to Joyce‘s praise of  At Swim-Two- Birds  is highly performative.  Nothing O‘Br  ien said or did or wrote about Joyce remains untainted by a comic flair and a particularly Joycean love of punning wordplays, a general linguistic  jouissance , where often the pure pun is the motivation rather than meaning or intention, so that we can never  be too certain of O‘Brien‘s beliefs, and find ourselves second guessing authorial intention . There are close to one hundred references to Joyce in O‘Brien‘s ‗Cruiskeen Lawn‘ newspaper columns, consisting of attacks of varying degrees of seriousness and mock-callousness, regularly referring to ‗poor Jimmy Joyce‘. Often appearing simply to 11   Quoted in a letter from Niall Sheridan to Timothy O‘Keeffe, dated 4 March 1960.   12  Keith Hopper,  Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post  -Modernist  , (Cork: Cork University Press, 2009), 41. 13   Dotterer, ‗Flann O'Brien, James Joyce, and The Dalkey Archive ‘, 55.  
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