Channel: Poetry | The Guardian
Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3765

What might James Joyce have made of 21st-century Scottish independence?


Scotland's current political situation – with its parallels to Ireland's early-1900s Home Rule movement – would have held his attention

Sunday is James Joyce's birthday. It might have pleased him that Ireland are playing rugby against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday 2 February, since he superstitiously considered the date lucky and went to great lengths to have his books Ulysses and Finnegans Wake printed and delivered to him on this date once he had completed them. Perhaps this does not augur well for Scotland's chances.

In any case, the current political situation in Scotland would certainly have held his attention. During his phase as an occasional journalist and lecturer in Trieste, Italy in the 1910s, Joyce discussed the contemporary Irish self-governance crisis in pieces such as Home Rule Comes of Age in 1907 and The Home Rule Comet in 1910. As part of his lecture Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages, presented in Trieste in 1907, Joyce speculates on the fate of Ireland and of the greater "Celtic world":

Is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions? Or is the Celtic world, the five Celtic nations, pressed by a stronger race to the edge of the continent – to the very last islands of Europe – doomed, after centuries of struggle, finally to fall headlong into the ocean?

Joyce's interest in – and feelings of affinity with – this wider Celtic world and its "Celtic spirit" is revealed by his interest in Scottish authors such as James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his attraction to the philosophical idealism and scepticism of David Hume (whether or not we would class these writers as Celtic is irrelevant, since Joyce himself certainly did). Hogg and Stevenson provided blueprints for Joyce's exploration of a fractured psyche and nation in Finnegans Wake while Hume inspired Joyce's presentation of the Wake's dreamer trapped in his own mind, with only his remembered perceptions of the material world available to him.

The Wake is also saturated in the songs of Robert Burns and replete with allusions to Macpherson's Ossian poems and traces the ancient history of the Picts and Scots (a rare example of Irish colonialism) as well as the more recent Ulster Plantation (colonialism in the opposite direction). Furthermore, Scotland was the first foreign country the nomadic writer ever visited, taking a trip to Glasgow with his father in 1894. Joyce's feelings of empathy with the country he labels "poor sister Scotland" in the poem Gas from a Burner extended to him asking to be sent tartan ties in the 1930s and being photographed proudly sporting them.

But while Scotland had a considerable impact on Joyce's work, the reverse is also true. Joyce's innovative modernist prose has provided an important precedent for writers in Scotland such as James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. However, his legacy in Scotland was especially significant to those connected with the Scottish Literary Renaissance. The increased political activity in Scotland in the first part of the 20th century was inextricably linked with this movement, an offshoot of modernism associated with writers such as Somhairle MacGill-Eain, Edwin Muir and Edwin Morgan.

In the 1920s the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, the main figure of the movement, helped to found the National Party of Scotland, forerunner for today's Scottish National Party. As was the case in many stateless European nations, cultural regeneration was seen as an essential precursor of, or replacement for, political autonomy. For example, the void left in Irish affairs by the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell (James Joyce and Alex Salmond's political hero) opened up a space for the renewed cultural activity of the Irish Revival. These days Joyce himself is read less by critics as an apolitical and cosmopolitan aesthete and more as a writer working with similar aims to the Revivalists.

MacDiarmid's literary debts to Joyce are reflected in the title of his massive book-length poem In Memoriam James Joyce, in which the poet addresses the now deceased Irishman and attempts to emulate his multilingual experimentation. The inebriated stream of consciousness of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle owes much to the interior monologues of Joyce's Ulysses. The Scottish Chapbook – a journal MacDiarmid edited – documents the poet's excitement at the publication of Ulysses, which he compares to a recently published Scots dictionary:

We have been enormously struck by the resemblance – the moral resemblance – between Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish language and James Joyce's Ulysses. A vis comica that has not yet been liberated lies bound by desuetude and misappreciation in the recesses of the Doric; and its potential uprising would be no less prodigious, uncontrollable, and utterly at variance with conventional morality than was Joyce's tremendous outpouring.

Here MacDiarmid links Joyce's artistic methods in Ulysses to his plans for a revival of the use of the Scots language in modern literature; something which he hoped would produce a liberating, counter-conventional effect in Scotland (emphasis was also placed on Gaelic in the Scottish Literary Renaissance). MacDiarmid's "potential uprising" of the Scots language – which he links to Joyce's literary modernism – is part of his programme for a transformed, renewed Scotland. The lines "Scots steel tempered wi' Irish fire / Is the weapon that I desire" nicely sums up MacDiarmid's influences and aspirations.

In short, MacDiarmid's Joycean aesthetic was part of an ideological programme aimed at cultural and political transformation in Scotland. As Margery McCulloch has noted, early 20th-century Scottish artistic resurgence was designed to revivify the entire national fabric: "What made this post-First World War literary revival movement unique among Scottish cultural movements was the belief of those involved that any regeneration in the nation's aesthetic culture could not be separated from revival in the nation's wider social, economic, and political life."

Arguably, such a revival is now finally under way with the arrival of devolution in 1999 and the advent of the approaching independence referendum. The historian Tom Nairn, in his seminal 1980s text The Break-Up of Britain, used some arrestingly Joycean imagery to describe a certain nonchalance regarding this delay in Scottish nationalist activity:

'[N]ationalism' in the fuller historical sense remained very weak – so weak that until the 1960s it was almost wholly resistant to even the modest organization of the SNP. In the present situation typically nationalist myths about the continuous and inevitable 'rise' of the latter are bound to be invented. For nationalism time is unimportant: in its nature-mythology the soul is always there anyway, slumbering in the people, and it is of no especial importance that McFinnegan opened his eyes one hundred and fifty years after everyone else. He had to get up some time, and what matters is the grandeur of the Wake.

Here Nairn evokes the figure of Finnegan in Finnegans Wake, who has fallen from a ladder and is presumed dead. However – as in the character from the Irish-American folk song Finnegan's Wake – the hero is destined to be resurrected.

In a strange sequence of events, Joyce, who borrowed and learned much from Scottish literature and philosophy, had an important influence on the Scottish Literary Renaissance, a modernist cultural component of renewed Scottish nationalist activity which has – in the long run – developed into the present political scene in Scotland. Is the political situation in Scotland now roughly comparable to the Irish events which Joyce described in 1907, one hundred years before the election of the first nationalist government at Holyrood? Has Tom Nairn's nationalist McFinnegan begun to rouse himself after a long sleep?

theguardian.com© 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3765

Latest Images

Trending Articles

Latest Images