Saturday, July 24, 2010

James Joyce’s Exiles

Cunning Stunts:

James Joyce’s Exiles

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Of all of James Joyce’s abundant gifts as a writer, narrative drama was his least developed, and perhaps his least innate. His focus on inner dramas—emotional, artistic, sexual, spiritual, etc.—relegated mere storytelling to the sidelines of his work, perhaps as an overt strategy but perhaps also because Joyce’s relentless self-consciousness caused him to write in labyrinthine circles and paralyzed his ability to move a narrative forward (note that the closest he comes in his entire body of work to telling a story that focuses on an actual event is the sketch collected in Dubliners that’s merely entitled “An Encounter”). This bodes poorly for anyone looking for drama in Joyce’s one play, Exiles, but as always with Joyce, there are other reasons to read this work. Unfortunately, the reasons aren’t intrinsic to the play’s artistic value, but instead mostly consist in examining Joyce’s mindset, his artistic and personal direction at the time—he was at a crossroads between A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses—and his literary intentionality, all of which help us understand some of the more complex and thorny shades of his more important works.

Joyce idolized Henrik Ibsen, and Exiles is a very clear attempt at an Ibsenian portrayal of the realistic dramas of family life, an approach that in the Norwegian playwright’s time was revolutionary and that had a inestimable impact on Joyce’s decision to focus on “ordinary” heroes, such as Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom, rather than on “heroic” heroes, such as Bloom’s mirror-opposite inspiration, Odysseus. While Ibsen’s plays scandalized viewers with the reality of their goings-on, however, Exiles instead attempts to scandalize with its ideas, its emotional interiors, its backgrounds, and its attempted revision of family life. None of this actually works in the way that Joyce hoped, because his attempt at furthering Ibsen’s approach simply fails as drama, and what actually scandalizes is the unpleasant view of Joyce’s frame of mind that this play reveals to readers of his novels and stories.

Although dazzling and innovative in terms of prose in form, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is actually a pretty abysmal novel, partially because its story is paper-thin, but perhaps more so because its main character, Stephen Dedalus—Joyce’s literary surrogate self—is a pretentious prick whose artistic aims seem to be caused more by negative reaction than by a positive interest in creativity. Dedalus claims that he will (defensively) employ “silence, exile, and cunning” to “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race.” It’s nearly intolerable. But then, completed and published six years later, a miracle appeared: Ulysses. And one of the great leaps forward for Joyce is that he decided to split his surrogate self into two characters—into Dedalus and Bloom, a surrogate father and son (for Joyce and for each other) who allow for extraordinary reflection and growth and healing. The idea that Joyce may have had this intention all along is a comforting one for readers who are turned off by Dedalus’ initial idiocy. But Exiles’ Joyce-surrogate, Richard Rowan, extends the egotism of the original Dedalus to outrageous lengths and forces us to revise our view of Joyce’s trajectory—and of Joyce himself.

A vision of the life Joyce could have taken but didn’t, Exiles depicts the return of writer Richard Rowan and his family to Ireland, where Richard’s friends Beatrice and Robert re-enter their lives, with Richard’s wife, Bertha, serving as a crux for the psycho-sexual power-play between the reunited characters. Playing upon a similarly conjectured alternate version of another great exiled writer, Dante Alighieri, Joyce loads his play with heavy-handed symbolism and symmetries—and, more pointedly, asymmetries that explore what could have happened if he (or Dante) would have returned to his native city. As with Dante, Richard’s muse during exile is named Beatrice—with the last name of Justice, which in the Paradiso Dante’s Beatrice partially symbolized, the pilgrim-poet putting words in her mouth that “teach” him that justice held primacy over compassion as the universal law—but unlike in Dante’s case, Richard’s Beatrice is still living and upon return is no longer the crucial figure in his personal drama. Richard and his family have been living abroad in Italy—mirroring both Dante’s exiled wanderings and Joyce’s own self-exile—for nine years (the Dantean number that symbolized Beatrice), and the play comprises three acts, like the three books of the Commedia. These may all just be the typical Joycean overload of literary correlation and allusion, and some of it’s just a play on elements that Joyce had on hand, such as the serendipitous last name of his own cousin, Elizabeth Justice, but the idea of returning rather than forging forward, as Dante did and Joyce would continue to do, is an intriguing one. Or it would be if Exiles hadn’t gone so awry.

Dante and Beatrice
Focusing on the human elements of life rather than on a “high fantasy” like the one that Dante constructs as his ideal, Exiles shifts its attention away from the non-idealized Beatrice and toward the very real Bertha (as a contrast, Dante’s wife, Gemma, is never once mentioned in all of his works—nor is her existence even alluded to, unless she’s the “Donna Gentile” of La Vita Nuova, which isn’t likely). In having Richard make this shift, Joyce embraces in artistic form the very real love that he has for his common-law wife, Nora, whom in Italy he’d truly come to adore and accept as his life-partner. In turning his face to reality this way, though—especially toward carnal reality—Joyce composes a grotesque vision of an artist constructing a world around himself that’s as fantastically egotistical as anything Dante ever imagined. Richard’s friend Robert has his sights on Bertha, but rather than making this play dramatize a standard love-triangle competition, Joyce has Richard encourage the pairing because it will further his aim of creating a new order, where traditional rules no longer apply, but where Richard is both lord and sacrificed lamb and Bertha’s sexuality is his crucifix.

This inverted take on sexual possession is as absurdly macho as the outdated caveman battle that Richard deems to be beneath his ostensibly enlightened emancipation from any kind of old order—an emancipation that in fact ties him as much to his fellow sexual slaves as it does them to him. In his real, non-literary life, Joyce entertained similar ideas about the specter of infidelity, especially on Nora’s part, but he seems to have been unsuccessful in making their relationship break with all convention in the way that he strove for in all other aspects of his life and art. Richard is therefore an imagined vision of a complete new order: “the uncreated conscience of [his] race”. What’s profoundly disappointing is that none of this is meant to be satiric or even ironic, as Joyce’s own handwritten notes further illustrate (notes that were discovered in Paris after Joyce fled the advancing Nazis and that are appended to the Penguin edition of the play). Even Vladimir Nabokov’s intensely painful Lolita knows to mock the self-crucifying parts of itself—“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”—but but despite its self-consciousness, Joyce’s ludicrous pseudo-drama isn’t even self-aware enough to be funny, on purpose or even accidentally.

Perhaps Exiles’ only redeeming aspect—other than as a key that unlocks an unpleasant door into Joyce and his work—is that neither Richard nor the reader/audience are privy to what actually happens between Robert and Bertha. Part of this is simply a literary trick, comparable but vastly inferior to the question of whether Stephen Dedalus’ brothel-experiences actually happened in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and part of it is Richard’s even more self-centered insistence on Bertha’s “freedom,” keeping himself purposefully blind while still dictating the terms of his blindness. Richard’s cunning manipulation of her silence keeps them all in the exile that he requires, and this literary stunt may be the one innovation that holds the play together. It’s a thoroughly repulsive togetherness, though, and it’s largely been ignored by the dramatic and critical world. Almost nobody has seen, read, or written about this play, and so even though its tangle of thorns is useful to Joycean masochists, perhaps Joyce simply should have left the world of the stage silent.

—David Wiley

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