Friday, 21 December 2012

The troublesome anti-semitism in Ulysses

 “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.”

― James Joyce, Ulysses

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses

It's hard to overstate the rewards of reading Ulysses.  It's pure genius, insightful, immensely creative, brilliantly written and laugh-out-loud funny.

Yet, what about the problematic anti-semitic passages in Joyce's epic work?

In earlier posts, we saw that Joyce was NOT an anti-semite.  He had a high regard for the Jewish people, enjoyed their company, studied Hebrew and the Talmud, had a Jewish daughter-in-law, and became romantically involved with a Jewish woman (as recounted in his short story "Giacomo Joyce").    

So the next destination in my journey with James Joyce is to examine why a "philo-semite" like Joyce would include such bitter anti-semitic rhetoric in his book. 

The first taste of anti-semitism in Ulysses comes in the first chapter, when Haines, a bigoted English student on leave from Oxford, says that Jews are England's "national problem."   The comment seems totally out of context, and goes unanswered by the other characters. 

In the second chapter, the anti-semitic fireworks fly.   Garret Deasy, the school headmaster and an outright anti-semite, spews venom about Jews being the "national problem."  He echoes Haines' earlier statement about England being in the hands of the Jews.  When Stephen Dedalus mildly challenges these racist views, Deasy responds:

-- They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.

At this point, Stephen's thoughts swirl into cartoonish images of goldskinned men with gems on their fingers quoting prices on the steps of the Paris stock exchange like a gabble of geese.   What's going on here?  Where do these images come from?

This brings us to one of the most important reasons to read Joyce.  He was devoted to absolute realism -- he wanted to show the world as it truly was. His characters were almost always based on someone he knew in real life; his characters would never say or think anything that their real-life doppleganger wouldn't say or think.

The reason that anti-semitism was included in Ulysses is because anti-semitism was in the words and minds of the people who lived in Dublin in 1904.  Joyce chose to display the true nature of human beings -- their pimples, blemishes and barnacles. He would never candycoat someone's innermost thoughts -- just put them out there, exactly as they are.

To understand how Joyce writes, think of an alien coming to Earth with a machine that reads people's thoughts.  As the words and images flowed into people's minds, they'd be immediately transcribed into print.

Yet what would these thoughts look like in print?  They might appear in complete sentences and neat paragraphs -- but I'll bet that rarely happens.  Mostly thoughts would arrive in bursts of shorthand words, random phrases, unfinished sentences, incomplete ideas, flashes of imagery and reflections on the words and acts of others... just the way Joyce expresses them in Ulysses. 

That's why Stephen, after hearing Deasy's monstrous blathering, gets a head filled with a blast of stereotypically racist images.  Listening to trashy ideas is likely to fill your head with trashy imagery -- conversely, reflecting on noble ideas should have the opposite effect.

That's the magic of Ulysses.  When Bloom -- the Jewish ad canvasser -- enters the scene in Chapter 4, we learn every thought that goes through his head on June 16, 1904.  He's a kind, intelligent, inquisitive man -- yet he's got his share of hangups, which Joyce doesn't flinch at exposing like laundry on a backyard clothesline.  During that day Bloom experiences jealousies, remorse, lust, hunger and almost every other craving a man can have in a typical day.  He has flashbacks, thinks about ads, gets drunk, masturbates, gets into an argument, visits a brothel, breaks up a fight, carries out various bodily functions, and on and on...and we get to read his mind as he experiences them.

So if you've ever wondered what other people are actually thinking when they walk down the street, when they pray at a funeral, when they engage in a conversation with someone on the street or when they take a crap -- Joyce gives you the unvarnished truth.  Quite often, it isn't a pretty picture -- but it springs from life.

Just wait until we get to the stream-of-consciousness that emanates from the sultry Molly Bloom's head in the final chapter of Ulysses. I'll get to that in another post (yes I said yes I will Yes).  


  1. I think it should be stressed that Stephen Dedalus is clearly opposed to Deasy's anti-semitic rantings. It's true that his disagreement with Deasy's views is a bit meekly stated, but i believe this is more Stephen being keenly aware of the futility of disputing deeply ingrained Irish/English bigotry. Despite this I think Stephen still manages to express a few powerful rebuttals to Deasy's ignorance...

  2. Interesting insights, Patrick. The thrust of my article was that James Joyce wasn't anti-semitic. While I agree that Stephen did put up a meek defence to Deasy's blather, Stephen is not a saint. Check out the Ithaca chapter when Stephen recites the ballad of "Little Harry Hughes." Imagine having a cup of hot cocoa with someone who starts singing this song. Yikes!

  3. Here's the anti-Semitic song Stephen sings in Ulysses:

    Little Harry Hughes and his schoolfellows all Went out for to play ball.
    And the very first ball little Harry Hughes played He drove it o'er the jew's garden wall.

    And the very second ball little Harry Hughes played
    He broke the jew's windows all.

    How did the son of Rudolph receive this first part? With unmixed feeling. Smiling, a jew he heard with pleasure and saw the unbroken kitchen window. Recite the second part (minor) of the legend.

    Then out there came the jew's daughter
    And she all dressed in green.
    "Come back, come back, you pretty little boy,
    And play your ball again."

    "I can't come back and I won't come back Without my schoolfellows all.
    For if my master he did hear
    He'd make it a sorry ball."

    She took him by the lilywhite hand
    And led him along the hall
    Until she led him to a room
    Where none could hear him call.

    She took a penknife out of her pocket
    And cut off his little head.
    And now he'll play his ball no more
    For he lies among the dead.