Joyce and the Irish Stagnation

A Journey To Persia and Back

Elaboration, 2016

19 Pages, Grade: A



1. The Irish Situation
1.1 The “Paralysis”

2. In looking towards the East
2.1 Irish Orientalism
2.2 The “Lush” East
2.3 A further Answerable Question

3. The East-ing of the West
3.1 Fusing the East into the West
3.2 The Irish Orientalist link

4. “Orientalism”: The project of Edward Said

5. The Fall of the East

6. The Ambivalence


Scope of furthering the Project


Irish scholarship and writing is very sensitive when it comes to the issue of the of English Colonization, colonial forces, independence and the matter of the Post-Colonial. In fact a very Irish consciousness is present in almost all the prose works, poems and dramas of this nation, and all writers in this trend, directly or by implication have sought to portray these matters through their works. The paper will endeavour to delve into that consciousness of acclaimed Irish writer James Joyce which attempts to create an alternative cultural identity different from the English by orientalising the Irish sensibilities and moulding it as an opposition to English Imperialism. Borrowing heavily from the theories of Edward Said, and from Edward Soja, Bill Ashcroft et al the paper will look to illustrate how Joyce “writes back” to the Empire trying to destabilize the colonial culture; yet his identification with the Orient as a Romantic Refuge contrastively crumbles into a place of degeneration, despair and depravity pinpointing James Joyce the—‘The European’s’—ambivalence towards the matter of the Orient: as the boy in Araby is made to realise that escapist fascination is a vain attempt. Focussing on the dissolution of Irish Orientalism into English-French Orientalism, I shall attempt to show how Joyce strove to but failed in transforming Dark Rosaleen into a Gaelic Madonna.

Keywords: Orient, Paralysis, Irish Orientalism, Orientatism, Dark Rosaleen

1. The Irish Situation

On 2nd of February 1882, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born to John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Murray in the Rathgaar suburb of Dublin, a Dublin almost in its 81st year as a part of the greater “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” as per the Acts of Union 1800 which annexed the Kingdom of Ireland to Great Britain. There have been few corners of the British Empire which have undergone such a complex inter-relationship with England(Britain) than Ireland. Claimed as part of kingdom under the English crown it declared itself a confederacy under the Stuart Kings. Granted partial governance in the 20th century with the passing of the Government of Ireland Act on September 18, 1914 the bicameral Irish Parliament was set up in Dublin with powers to deal most “national” affairs. These carefully selected intricacies in the political scenario problematise Ireland’s position when it comes to academia. Ireland’s relation with the Post-Colonial can be said to be at best puzzling and complicated. Allowed self-governance to an extent, Ireland could have had afforded to call itself almost independent and this takes away the question of Colony or completely dependant from it. But then again neither could Ireland call itself a self-sufficient power with Imperial England still maintaining a rather firm hold over it, politically and also culturally. Thus hanging somewhere in the middle stood Ireland, its being a confusion, its identity in a limbo. Young James Joyce breathed these winds of confusion as Ireland quite tamely gave in into what the English Imperialists had in store for it. Ireland culturally and politically got defined by its English “oppressors”. Paralysis stands as a very important theme in Joycean writing and it is this “culture” or rather the lack of culture that Joyce so famously terms as the “Irish Paralysis”. Joyce was no great nationalist but it was his deep desire to overcome this overwhelming sense of numbness that fuelled him throughout his career to attain a remedy for this null in the Irish way of life.

Joyce had famously described Ireland as the ‘afterthought of Europe’(Cheng, 1995, p.67)as a centre of paralysis and xenophobic nationalism whose lusty eyed snares the artist must avoid and overcome at all costs if he is to create the uncreated conscience of his race. Throughout his life Joyce strove to attempt the creation of this “conscience”–––––––– a culture which would be “his own” and not be dominated by the popular discourses of the Imperial power watching over it i.e. England and above all be free from its hegemonic social control. Most of his creative endeavours echoed this immense yearning for a space that would be his very own, a space that would usher in an identity which would neutralize that, that was thrown upon him, the Anglican-Irish identity.

1.1 The “Paralysis”

Dublin or for that fact Ireland to Joyce reeked of paralysis, moral paralysis, a city and a country full of people who have trapped themselves in their own mindsets.

‘Dubliners strictly speaking, are my countrymen, but I don’t care to speak of our “dear dirty Dublin” as they do. Dubliners are the most hopeless, useless and inconsistent race of charlatans I have come across on this island or this continent. This is why the English Parliament is full of the greatest windbags in the world. The Dubliner passes his time gabbing and making rounds in bars or taverns, or cathouses without ever getting “fed up” with the double doses of whiskey and Home rule, and at night when he can hold no more and is swollen up with poison like a toad, he staggers from the side door, and guided by an instinctive desire for stability along the straight line of the houses he goes slithering his backside against all walls and corners. He goes “arising along” as we say in English. There’s the Dubliner for you.’ (Ellmann, 1983, p.217)

As introduced in “The Sisters” and concluded upon in “The Dead” Joyce used the term “paralysis” to denote a condition of physical and religious torpor which had silently and steadily rendered the Irish existence sterile. He elucidates the dominant theme of despair, resignation and loss resulting from the inevitability of spiritual death, caused by life’s experiences in his very first story. It is only after the death of Father Flynn that the boy understands the oppressive religiosity of the Catholic Culture; that the others associate the priest with materialism and decay and in this wake he perceives intuitively in the priest’s paralysis the stagnation of his society. His idolised father-figure embodies nothing else but this corrupt society. In articulating the syllables of the word “paralysis” the nameless narrator says that it bore strange resemblance to a ‘simony’(buying and selling of spiritual grace) and in identifying the word with an infringement in the Christian doctrine, he unknowingly questions the very persona of the Rev. James Flynn formerly of the Catherine’s Church Meath Road. In “An Encounter” the boys cut a dissatisfied figure against the “Father dominated” school-society, but even in their adventure they come across an old man who quite authoritatively gives them advice on books and sex. To their abhorrence and fright he turns out to be a degenerate whose psychological paralysis embodies the sterility of ambition of the Irish society. Similarly stories like “Eveline”, “Two Gallants”, “After the Race” et al all present the young Irish generation so paralyzed in their will and emotion that they succumb to the past traditions or present conventionalities and end up immobilized.

Spiritual death according to Joyce is defined as ‘people who live meaningless lives of inactivity’(Gilbert, 1957, p.55), those he says are the real dead. Joyce had intended his stories to deal with this paralysis when he said ‘I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplagia or paralysis which many consider a city’(Ibid, p.55). Consistent among Joycean writing is the yearning to consistently overcome this paralysis. But how does he intend to do so? The state offered no comfort; the Union Jack fluttering over the disbanded Irish House of Parliament on College Green only helped to intensify the subservience. A capitalist and commercialised religion was no provider of faith for the confused, security for the weak or hope for the destitute. “Faith” had been trivialised to the depths of any standard commodity that money could buy. English Imperialism was taking its toll and what was supposed to define the character of a race of people had got subverted into a profit garnering instituion. The church stood paralyzed; the schools stood with its masters emulating the English Lords forcing down orders and tenets expected to be followed to the letter. The education system too writhed into a coma. The air that hung over Ireland it would seem carried a potent anaesthetic from across the border paralysing the population into rigidity and numbing their senses. The only remedy to this paralysis was the reclamation of the lost native identity, the identity of the Irish people as Irish and not British citizens. And in his attempt at reclamation Joyce sought to create a space for himself that would offer him vitality and life against this petrified state of existence.

The majority of the Irish intelligentsia sought refuge in the revival of the “Irish language” and the Gaelic culture. The Gaelic Revival of the 19th Century intended to re-establish the Hiberno-English[i] through scholars like John O'Donovan, Eugene O'Curry and George Petrie, and the poet and writer George Siegerson. They aspired to revive the latent “Irish Culture” through a resurgence of the language. Another revivalist discipline was the Irish Literary Revival; a brainchild of William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory it sought to reinvigorate Ireland’s Gaelic heritage through a re-packaging and re-presentation of its folk lores and tales. But with its very inception the latter came under severe attack from the former with the likes of O’Donovan, O’Curry, Petrie and the rest, who denounced it for its works were written in English and not the Irish dialects, and thus tended even more towards Anglicisation. Eoin MacNeill was particularly scathing when he wrote, ‘Let them write for the “English-speaking world” or the “English-speaking race” if they will. But let them not vex our ears by calling their writings Irish and national’(Tierney, 1980, p.66). Patrick Pearse said of the Irish Literary Theatre, recently founded by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, that it should be ‘strangled at birth’(Ibid, p.66). Such conflicts stifled the progress of both the organisations and they offered little to almost no realistic respite to the steadily declining Irish situation. Joyce had already given up on the catfight of Irish Nationalism and Nationalist Revival but did favour Yeats and Gregory minutely when in a letter that he sent to his brother Stanislaus he wrote, ‘If the Irish programme did not insist on the Irish language I suppose I could call myself a nationalist. As it is I am content to recognise myself as an exile: and, prophetically a repudiated one’(Brown, 2000, xxvi-xxvii). Though Joyce had a steady association with Yeats and Lady Gregory and wrote ‘both within and against the moment of the Celtic Revival’(Ehrlich, 1998, p.309) he did not feel fully at peace with this attempt at countering the paralysis numbing Ireland. It became his opinion that no larger groups could rekindle the Irish Identity and Culture which by now he believed was almost beyond repair, and the onus he thought laid with the common population themselves in widening their gaze beyond the remit of the “British” Isles in finding the buoyancy and spirit in a bid to reclaim their lives. Joyce, as we would see through the course of this paper, was questing for a refuge that would help him redefine the Irish civilisation singularly and enable him to reconcile with the prevalent cultural scenario.

2. In looking towards the East

2.1 Irish Orientalism

Irish Orientalism was an intellectual effort on the part of the Irish nationalists to find a connection between the Celts and the Orientals predating the English Imperialism in Ireland. Popularised during the Celtic Revival its aim was to look ‘to the East for the highest source of identity and the very origins of the Irish language, alphabet and people’(Ehrlich, 1998, p.309). Irish intellectuals from Samuel Ferguson and Yeats to Lady Gregory, Thomas Moore and James Cousins endeavoured to construct a link between the Celts and the Scythians, variously ‘looking to Central Asia, Phoenicia[ii], Egypt or Persia for the roots of their culture’(Bongiovanni,2007, p.29). They attributed the affluent nomadic tribe, the Scythians to have migrated from the Caspian Sea, and moving through Persia, Africa and Spain to have established a colony in Ireland––––––––– ‘the ancient Milesians[iii]made the epic voyage from Phoenicia via Scythia[iv] and Spain’(Ehrlich, 1998, p.320-321). The Irish populace was their descendent and thus was the bearer of a strong and unique cultural identity different from the English.

Joyce came in touch with the Irish Orientalism through the theosophical programs of the Lady Gregory circle and his fascination for the Orient grew in Trieste, an Austro-Hungarian port on the border between Western and Eastern Europe(Ito, 2009, p.54). Joyce in a lecture in Trieste, citing Charles Vallancey, asserted that the language of the Irish peasants was the same as that of the Phoenicians. Like the Phoenicians it has ‘an alphabet of special characters and a history almost three thousand years old’(Ehrlich, 1998, p.322). Joyce even pinpointed the contribution of Scotus Erigena, an Irish philosopher, in introducing Oriental philosophy in Europe through his translation of the eastern texts(Bongiovanni, 2007, p.30).

As a European country appropriated in British subjectivity Ireland was ‘an incoherent, shattered and bitter land’ having ‘neither a literature nor a coherent cultural identity. Sullen hostilities divided the social classes, the political parties, and the social creeds’(Flanagan, 1975, p.44-45). Joyce felt the need of a coherent cultural identity and political freedom from the grip of the English colonial policies and the promise of that came from the myth of the golden Oriental civilization with its ‘exotic’ and ‘satisfying’ ‘fable of origin’(Shloss, 1998, p.267). Irish Orientalism functioned for him as an ‘anti-imperialist strategy’ and a reminder of the ‘displacement of culture’(Ibid, p.267).



[i] From Latin Hibernia, Hiberno-English or Irish-English refers to the o the set of English dialects natively written and spoken in Ireland.

[ii] Phoenicia was an ancient civilization situated on the western, coastal part of the Fertile Crescent and centered on the coastline of what is now Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Syria. All major Phoenician cities were on the coastline of the Mediterranean.

[iii] In medieval Irish history, the Milesians are the final race to settle in Ireland. They represent the Irish people.

[iv] Scythia was a region of Central Eurasia in classical antiquity, occupied by the Eastern Iranian Scythians.

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Joyce and the Irish Stagnation
A Journey To Persia and Back
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orient, paralysis, irish orientalism, orientalism, dark rosaleen
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Sourav Das (Author), 2016, Joyce and the Irish Stagnation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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