"Remembering thee, O Sion”

Author: Gregory Castle (Arizona State University)

Memory Ireland Vol 4: James Joyce and Cultural Memory

Memory Ireland. Vol. 4. James Joyce and Cultural Memory. Edited by Oona Frawley and Katherine O’Callaghan. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014, xi + 225 pp.

The admonition to remember is implicit in Irish history—from the call to remember the siege of Derry and the battle of the Boyne, to the traumatic memory of the Famine, to the commemoration of nationalist martyrs, capped by the Rising of 1916, an historical spectacle that seemed designed to produce cultural memory as metonymies of the Irish nation. Irish artists from the time of the ancient bards have woven memory and history, in part as a way to preserve knowledge, in part as a way to create new knowledge, through the bard’s transformative imagination. Bardic literature was an intrinsically historical record, and later poetry, particularly the allegorical aisling, encoded history into cultural memory. This “sense of the past” was crucial for the Revival historian Standish James O’Grady, who believed that “the legends represent the imagination of the country; they are that kind of history which a nation desires to possess.”[1]

The first three volumes of the Memory Ireland series, edited by Oona Frawley, dealt with many of these facets of Irish cultural memory and its relation to history. The fourth and final volume under review here is a case study of James Joyce. Co-edited by Katherine O’Callaghan, this volume argues, as Frawley states the case in her introduction, that Joyce’s work forms “a repository of cultural memory” (2). Acknowledging the criticism leveled at the concept of “cultural memory”—that it is “‘history light’”—Frawley argues that Joyce’s work, “so highly valued as commentary and analysis of history and the past,” positions cultural memory alongside history as such and insists on “multiple memories and multiple histories” (3-4, 7).

Contributor Len Platt explains just how committed Joyce studies is to historical criticism and why we should read his texts through the conceptual lens of memory. Following Pierre Nora, dean of memory studies, who links cultural memory to crises in national development, Platt sees Finnegans Wake 3.3 as being “very much involved with setting the facts straight, historical authentication, and, indeed, with attempts, all failing, to exercise memory in the service of some (never articulated) collective good” (115). Platt’s analysis, like in Justin Beplate’s and Robert Garrett’s essays, turns on the power of literature to transform individual memory into cultural memory by way of destabilizing the temporality of conventional historical discourse. Tracey Schwarze, from a similar standpoint, argues that Joyce’s treatment of homosexual scandal and imperialism in Africa served as a form of anachronistic repatriation of Roger Casement, who in 1916 was executed for treason shortly following the release of his private diaries that described homosexual affairs. The “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, Schwarze argues, “deals with the larger themes of sexuality and masculinity inside the nationalist movement” (94) and stages a shadow execution of Casement through a discourse of hanging that shows that this nationalist ethos can become destabilized.

Kiberd’s essay also hinges on Joyce’s ability to distort temporal expectations. His reading of Ulysses puts forward the idea that it is a kind of New Testament that veils the secrets of “earlier classics” (148-9). I agree that Joyce’s text is “autocritical” in a way that encourages us to reread “earlier classics” in light of Joyce’s achievement; but the parallel with Jesus is both faulty and tendentious. Kiberd claims that “after Jesus, the Old Testament would be prehistory open to opportunist recasting by early Christians, just as after Joyce all prior forms of realism would be seen as two dimensional” (152). However, he appears to be comparing very different things. Christ revised all that came before him upon his arrival, but Joyce seems only to have disparaged realism. More intriguing is the idea of “opportunistic recasting.” The “whole thrust of Ulysses” seems to demand it, for as “an advanced thinker, Joyce wasn’t just ahead of his time. Like the prophets of old, he could see so deeply into the present that the shape of the future became discernible” (154).

Memory and history bring the past into the present and lay the groundwork for the future in very different ways. Personal memory in Joyce is often traumatic memory. Beplate examines the ghost of Stephen’s mother and argues that Stephen “quite deliberately disinters the memory of the dead for his own aesthetic purposes” (160-1). The link between memory and aesthetics here established brings with it a moral imperative: certain things are not to be appropriated for art. Beplate sees a movement between personal memory (“proper to one’s self”) and “acculturated memory that can too easily make one the instrument of others” (167). He is right about how memory can be instrumentalized, but I don’t agree that what Stephen does in his memories of his mother amounts to abuse. The imaginative dimension of Stephen’s memorial experiences—“ghosting the presence of past thematic concerns through the pressure of his relentless memory habit” (168)—suggests that he does not “disinter” his mothers’ memory so much as his own: they are his memories after all. Beplate’s point is well taken, though: the young artist mercilessly feeds his “memory habit.”

Like Beplate, Robert Garrett is also concerned with personal memory and personal trauma, which is often occluded by historicist readings of Ulysses. Stephen’s and Bloom’s own memorial trauma (the former’s dead mother, the latter’s dead son) are intercalated with what John Rikard calls “textual memory” (41-2). But rather than absorb personal trauma into historical trauma, Garrett wants to reverse the process. “The past, and therefore by implication history itself,” he argues, “can only be grasped by personal initiative stemming from the individual condition” (43). O’Callaghan offers just the opposite perspective in her analysis of how the image of “treeless hills” infiltrates Joyce’s texts, along with other references to Ireland’s great primeval forests, and she establishes in them a kind of arboreal discourse of the nation that turns from “The Dead” to Finnegans Wake. For example, the Citizen in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses “interrupts a discussion of an actual report on the state of deforestation, devaluing the statistical data that would support his argument, and insists instead on the primacy of cultural memory held in poetry, folklore, and a folk song” (101). In the Wake, the bog bears witness: the “turfbank is also a memory-bank” (109).

The multiple valences and levels of memory are explored in other essays here, and their conclusions tend to reinforce the traumatic and often confusing space that memory creates through obscurity, vagueness and, sometimes, ghostly doublings and repetitions. Anne Fogarty’s reading of “The Dead” effectively unsettles our grasp of the story’s temporal framework. What seems like straightforward memorial reflections (Gabriel Conroy on his own sense of being misunderstood; his wife Gretta on an early love) turn out to be uncertain and ambivalent. The famous scene that depicts Gretta listening to Bartell D’Arcy sing “The Lass of Aughrim”—a scene that braids cultural memory and personal memory in the context of Protestant rule in colonial Ireland—speaks to a complex form of memorialization “that lies deeper than mere personal recollection, an unconscious zone that exceeds individual reminiscence,” an unstable “memory zone” (60).  Gabriel‘s “post-party piece” about the statue of King William of Orange provides a “metaphor for the processes of memory that retrieve events in Irish history and also tap into forces that are subrational, involuntary, and obscure” (54). In this vein, Ellen Carol Jones’s Derridean reading emphasizes just these forces as aspects of a counter-memorial that “interrupt[s] the continuum of imperialist and capitalist modernity, by paying heed to the silences of the past’s incarcerated ghosts, by comprehending that the specter dismantles the dialectic between past and future, presence and its other” (127). The paradoxical figure of the revenant, a “memory of the future,” reminds us that the past is unfinished, that every ghost has a future story to tell. “Subaltern remembrance” makes possible a “third space” for this future story, as Jones insists, an “interstitial space of alternative imagining” (138, 144). Jason King’s contribution shows how this space might look. Rereading Ulysses in light of the Citizenship Referendum and the Bloomsday Centenary, both in 2004, King argues that it “opens up a portal of memory through which contemporary discourses of immigrant exploitation, threats to service provision, and the erosion of national identity can be contested against the backdrop of Joycean commemoration” (173). 

This kind of “alternative imagining” is precisely what Bender finds in Ulysses, particularly where Joyce’s text engages with the Passover narrative—an engagement that both elaborates on and critiques the Israel/Ireland parallel running through the book. “Through a Jewish form of cultural memory,” Bender argues, “Joyce restores the relevance of Exodus for Ireland’s own complicated story of liberation” (65). By restoring to the Haggadah  (“the exemplary book of Jewish national memory”[63]) what had been excluded and forgotten—the “fleshpots of Egypt” (69) that so strongly tempted the Jewish people in exile—Ulysses sharpens our historical understanding of Passover. Bloom, with his lemon soap (a stand-in for the citron used in Passover ritual), remains a powerful symbol of diaspora, of how national identity is not tied to land, but to where you live. “Lemon soap,” Bender writes “is the (portable) mnemonic for a central theme of Ulysses: that human life happens in the wilderness” (78). The kind of forgetting that the Haggadah employs to tell a coherent story of the nation finds its analog in Ernest Renan’s idea that forgetting “is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality” (qtd. by Cheng, 14-15). Vincent Cheng, like Bender, is concerned with what is forgotten—and what cannot be forgotten—in building the nation. There is always the danger that one’s memories are only  “so much as rosy-tinted sentimentalism (which is itself a ‘forgetting’ of sorts)” (23). This parenthetical point could be usefully developed, since it implies that nostalgia is a form of misrecognition that uses false cognition to create the space of something forgotten.

The volume closes with Luke Gibbons’s meditation on Thomas W. Pugh, photographer, veteran of the Rising, and friend of Joyce, and on how photographic memory engraves trauma and loss on the mind. Pugh and Joyce were both given to feats of photographic memory, which Gibbons shows is not about “summoning up the past at will,” but rather about “loss and melancholia” (197). The photograph testifies to the loss of totality; the object, though it be artfully framed, is bereft of a world. By representing Dublin so faithfully in Ulysses, Gibbons shows that Joyce offered a compensatory memory to nationalists, veterans of the Rising like Pugh, who were “deprived in the new Irish Free State of any semblance of the vision that drew them initially into the struggle for freedom” (197).

Gibbons brings memory together with history in an arresting way: the photograph, which appears to “capture” the past, is really more like memory broadly understood: it is about loss, about what is not captured. This function of memory at the cultural level is summed up in Joyce’s laconic reference to “the slab where Wolfe Tone's statue was not”—it is memory as burdened by what history has forgotten, and history ennobled by the redemption of memory.[2] Personal memory shades into cultural memory, and both entwine with historical narratives and historical records to such an extent that we can sometimes not tell them apart. This, I think, is the radical goal of an ethics of memory, which, according to Fogarty, “deconstructs personal division, and moves toward a complex vision of mutually dependent humanity on the island of Ireland, reconceived in terms that are cosmic, geotectonic, extra-worldly, and irrefutably Other” (61). An ethics of memory, as exemplified by Joyce, does not merely tolerate multiple perspectives on the past; it actively reproduces them in collective memories that belong to “coming times.”[3]

It is no surprise that Ulysses, Joyce’s “history book,” should be so closely analyzed by many of the contributors to this volume. Readers of Joyce will miss detailed considerations of Dubliners beyond the “The Dead,” and they will no doubt wonder why A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man is scarcely mentioned at all. This leads to the one flaw in the book’s arrangement; for the questions of memory, personal and cultural, tend to elicit some fairly well-rehearsed responses, though Fogarty’s tough-minded refusal to see “The Dead” in the usual way (as a story sharply focused on memory of the dead) reminds us that there is still more work to be done on Joyce and the interrelation of history and memory. Bender’s essay, which usefully explores and deconstructs the parallel between Ireland and Israel, and King’s activist approach to cultural memory, give us a good sense of what that work will look like. This volume will have different things to offer to Joyceans than to the student of memory studies or Irish studies at large; but for all of these readers, Frawley and O’Callaghan share a wealth of thoughtful and engaging essays that will stimulate reflection on this most timely of Irish writers.

[1] Standish O’Grady, History of Ireland, vol. I: The Heroic Period (London: Sampson Low, Searle, Marston and Rivington; Dublin: E. Ponsonby, 1878), 22.

[2] James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Vintage, 1990), 229.

[3] See W. B. Yeats, “To Ireland in Coming Times”: “I cast my heart into my rhymes, / That you, in the dim coming times, / May know how my heart went with them / After the red-rose-bordered hem” (Poems, ed. Richard Finneran, rev. 2nd ed. [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010], 51.).