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A nightmare from which I’m trying to awake

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

Mr. Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

“- I just wanted to say,” he said. “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

“- Why sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

“- Because she never let them in,” Mr. Deasy said solemnly.

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By a curious twist I read these words this morning, on a day of protests and court applications and outrage in the United States.

They are from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, spoken to Stephen Dedalus by the small-minded headmaster Deasy. And spoken with great animation – Deasy has just chased a departing Dedalus to the school-gate to stress his anti-Semitic argument.

The words sum up a petty bigotry that, Joyce suggests, was to be found among sections of Dublin’s middle class a century ago. The sentiments can of course be found against another religion, in another country, 100 years later.

And so Joyce’s novel, published in 1922, is – among many other things – a fitting read for the times we’re in.

The book is a work of immigration. The author wrote it in self-imposed exile; having departed Dublin in 1904, his peripatetic lifestyle led him to Trieste, Zurich and Paris. One of the main reasons for this exile was the burgeoning Irish nationalist movement, nationalism being, as Dedalus famously points out to Deasy, one of “those big words…that make us so unhappy”.

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Immigration, religion (another of Dedalus’ big words), and their effects down the generations are central to the novel, principally by way of Leopold Bloom. The book’s central character,  Bloom is the son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland and converted to Protestantism.

Despite Bloom’s own conversion to Catholicism, he encounters an ingrained, nod-and-wink anti-Semitism as he navigates his way around Dublin on June 16, 1904. At one point The Citizen – a nationalist and xenophobe – talks, in Bloom’s company, of Jews “swindling peasants… and the poor of Ireland. We want no more strangers in our house”.

Bloom retains his composure in the face of such bigotry. His thinking, his behaviour, and his dignity represent Joyce’s riposte to the forces of religion, colonialism (by way of England) and nationalism.

Bloom is a true citizen, a pacifist, a Dubliner with a Jewish background, an individual who is a man first, an Irishman second. He may feel conflicted at times, but this is the price of his virtue of moderation.

Bloom doesn’t make an appearance in the ‘Nestor’ episode, and so does not hear his young friend Dedalus utter one of the most resonant lines in “Ulysses”:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

As many might suggest, this can apply to the present too.
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