The pedagogical unimmortalization of Joyce in the university, by Victor Fermino da Silva
The pedagogical unimmortalization of Joyce in the university
Victor Fermino da Silva*
Stately, plump literature is often presented in scholarly environments separated from the fields discussed in the corpus itself and is seen as dependent on didactic and the educational field. In Dublin, the celebration of literature has one of its period apexes during the Bloomsday. In 2022, the centennial of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the effervescence of the work is seen as a party, which however refracts the capitalist light that seems to obfuscate the author’s legacy.
Some authors, such as Hannah Arendt, see the phenomenon of modern art as something that arose from a vehement rebellion of the artist against society, which, in Joyce’s case, is apparent in a multitude of ways. And after World War II was, as Declan Kiberd states in Ulysses and Us, appropriated by the academic environments as technicist canon, and not as wisdom literature. In a way, the idea of a sui generis novel being studied in academia reflects the capacity of a good to become a public good, and to be publically immortalized. Reading Joyce allows us to analyse his work critically and make him immortal, putting the art in an environment of conservation and uninterested fruition. At least in theory.
Joyce’s question invites us to think about the crisis in culture in a more concrete way, for it is an author whose legacy is consistently reminded by Bloomsday. But that celebration is often more busy with tourists and allusions to “that difficult book” as merchandise, which is, again going to Arendt, a symptom of a society incapable of cultivating the objects and condemned to consumption. The ruin of everything that it touches.
In the university, pedagogy is as present as in middle school. However, in the earlier periods of our lives, education is made when we insert the young ones in our world, leaving to them a historic legacy. The process of education in university is much more of a maturing of this legacy, since the adult is already somewhat adequate to the world (but with the potential of changing said world). It goes back to the idea that education changes people, and people change the world.
It is important then to note the cultural legacy of a novel like Ulysses, and how it insists on being present in the university. There are symposiums, journals and conferences dedicated to make Joyce’s work persist on our time, be immortal. Not just to capitalize on what he did, but to reexamine joycean literature through different perspectives: in the International James Joyce Symposium of 2022, realized in Trinity College Dublin, multiple scholars looked at Joyce’s biographic life to discuss the contemporary, such as the gentrification in current Dublin. Would Joyce, posthumously responsible for the spikes in sales in bookstores and hat stores in June, be able to enjoy the city like the tourists do? Would the author that decided to almost starve throughout Europe instead of dealing with Irish defeatism be happy in a city overtaken by imperialist franchises? Would the author who lived in poverty because of a cruel publishing market find success in a city that now left street poets to homelessness even in a day dedicated to literature? The most essential point of this conversation is not the answer to these questions, but the complexity that makes a society in which hyperconsumption of a literary piece walks hand in hand with the in academic circles that aim to immortalize it. Does an attempt to conserve a cultural piece without making the effort to stop it from being consumed really work in favor of allowing the art to live forever?
An emergent question in this crisis of preservation in Ulysses goes back to the idea of a pedagogy that turned into a science of general learning to the point of complete emancipation to the effective field being taught. In the case of literature, formalist critique became so essential to the act of reading itself that even a complex repertoire like Joyce’s is often subject to a pedagogization that imposes a literary and didactic canon as the only possible venues to enjoy his works. And it is clear that this creates a strange culture of non-cultivation of the text, since it does not matter if there is anything interdisciplinary or truly subjective in the social reception of Ulysses: what matters, in this school of thought, is how adequate is the reading compared to the pedagogical system that seeks to implement critical techniques that fit in a given novel.
It is possible to see how Bloomsday, and even the notion of literary critique based in the canon, serve more to use Ulysses as a product than to keep it in a cultural history while also preserving its rich web of meanings. And I don’t say that in the sense of diegetic inspiration to celebrate, like savoring the sweet urine-hinted kidney during breakfast, but in the sense of turning that same kidney into a commodity sold en masse in every gentrified pub in Dublin. It’s not that Ulysses dies as a consequence of this commodification, but that the university, environment in which the work is so thoroughly discussed, also becomes a cog of this neverending capitalistic machine that explores the added value from critical discussions and turns them into empty discourse.
To comprehend and describe the pedagogical system related to this situation with Ulysses we might need to understand what a class means: a good definition is that a class is a narration of an important past that needs to persist in the present. And that happens through a series of techniques and systems that conduct this string of historical tradition. This question is explored by Derrida when talking about supercodification and hyperformalization of the written languages, which get in the way of the communication of knowledge to the public world. And there resides a dangerous problem: the university that celebrates Joyce is the corporate university that Kiberd describes as contradictory to the interests of a liberated reader, and this environment, subject to the destruction of legitimate authorities only reproduces the legacies of formalist critique, in this case for Ulysses.
Joyce, who had worked as a teacher at the Berlitz School, occasionally expressed some of his worries about his contemporary educational system in literature, according to Elizabeth Switaj: in Ulysses, as Joyce sought to teach his readers to understand a variety of English distinguished by the multiple possibilities that it contains and points to, this division between sentence-level and word-level complexity would no longer be useful. It is important to note that he had an almost hostile relationship not only with Dublin, but with academia itself. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a young mind is portrayed as constantly pressured by the institutional necessity of being more productive, to contribute, to follow an aesthetically scholastic environment to keep a current of seemingly inoffensive critique of the world. And in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus has become a sour figure, tired of these constant pressures.
“Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice.” (Ulysses, James Joyce, pages 97-98 of the 1984 Gabler Edition). And at the same time, Joyce had some hope that Ulysses could become a pedagogical piece (or interpretative, at least). Kiberd describes, again in Ulysses and Us, an occasion in which, during a conversation with a friend, Joyce saw a kid playing in the street and said that that boy would one day be a reader of Ulysses.
Maybe the boy had grown up, had children and grandchildren of his own, and maybe nowadays the children of those grandchildren read Ulysses in university. But even if they are, we are maybe seeing a case in which their fruition of Joyce’s work is conditioned by a compartmentalized reading, based on specific canons and through a specific form of reading that could be part of a nationalist pride in the novel. And that, however, lacks the uninterested fruition that could allow the book to be immortal through education, for it is now merely obligatory reading for a degree.
Literature, as a narrative form that connects us to the past, is also subject to being lost and badly conserved. James Joyce, teacher, worker and critic of national politics, was immortalised as an icon of the purple prose he was making fun of. This difference is a refraction of a strange paradox, in which the author is seen as too complex just to be commodified as something simple and palatable. The interpretation of art and of Ulysses’ legacy take a backseat to the academic necessity to turn literature into canon and to market necessity of turning canon into merchandise.
The author, now reproduced and rebuilt, serves to feed those who are starving for “high literature” as a category that grants status. Art for the consumption, not for cultivation. However, let us not be apocalyptic here: it is obviously possible to read Ulysses in a contemplative form. It is still possible to talk about the novel in an academic environment without turning it into an object of consumption. Arendt’s theory of crisis in culture is not a pessimist prescription, but a lens in which we can indulge ourselves about the way we let culture be part of our history. And like many scholars who study Joyce’s magnum opus in a critical perspective, we must always be ready to ask ourselves if we there is place for divergence from the hegemonic schools of critique, and I may just believe that the answer is a resounding Yes.
* Victor Fermino da Silva is a PhD student at the Education Department in the Universidade de São Paulo. He is currently researching the representation of teaching in James Joyce’s Ulysses.