In an age of insurrections and culture wars, Joyce and Faulkner are increasingly relevant
It is not clear if a 25-year-old postal employee named William Cuthbert Faulkner was among the readers who accepted the literary challenge thrown down 100 years ago, in the spring of 1922, when James Joyce released his avant-garde epic, Ulysses. What we do know is that Faulkner’s Southern twist on Joycean modernism has made for popular reading in the wake of the U.S. Capitol insurrection and other spasms of red-state rage.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als declared that Faulkner foresaw “the age of Trump and Derek Chauvin’s trial, and the Gordian knot of race that continues to choke large portions of our country.” Michael Gorra, in his recent book The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, added that while “Faulkner’s early readers saw a quarrel in his work between...the Old South and the New,” this now “seems like pocket change, and the story he offers instead is that of the nation itself.”
In a day and age when Confederate monuments are falling and the author of a best-seller called Hillbilly Elegy is running for Senate, Faulkner is unquestionably relevant. But the fog of our culture wars may be so thick and hazy that we also need some Joycean fireworks to guide us through the Faulknerian backwoods.
When Confederate monuments are falling and the author of a best-seller called Hillbilly Elegy is running for Senate, Faulkner is unquestionably relevant.
For all their differences, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawphans and Joyce’s urban Catholics and Jews actually share quite a few traits. They all live in the tall shadows of gunmen—haunted by historical ghosts of rebellion and war, steeped in cultures prone to romanticization. For many characters in both Faulkner and Joyce, history is a nightmare from which they cannot awaken. And their social orders are dominant in some ways but subjugated in others, jumbling our conventional understandings of oppression and dominance, even of resistance.
“A revolution must come on the due instalments plan,” Joyce’s wandering Dublin Jew Leopold Bloom declares late in Ulysses. It is an ironic statement in an ironic scene, in a novel that often treats oppression, nationalism and political violence in deeply ironic ways. There are cultural lessons in such passages as timely and valuable as anything in Faulkner.
Upon its release, Ulysses dazzled and confounded readers with its kaleidoscopic array of political, sexual and intellectual escapades, unfolding on a single fictional day—henceforth to be known as “Bloomsday.” Often forgotten is that on the actual Bloomsday, June 16, 1922, Ireland’s revolutionary movement—a prominent presence in Ulysses—was decisively split in two when voters approved the terms of a contentious Anglo-Irish peace treaty.
By then, Ireland’s nationalist movement had been supporting political candidates under the banner of “Sinn Fein,” while simultaneously waging guerilla warfare against British colonial forces.
For all their differences, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawphans and Joyce’s urban Catholics and Jews actually share quite a few traits.
Oft-mentioned throughout Ulysses is a shadowy nationalist group called the Invincibles, which murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in 1882. Sinn Feiners would later claim the assassination was justified by recurrent British atrocities. “It was as if the English felt themselves absolved from all ethical restraints when dealing with the Irish,” Julie Kavanagh writes in her 2021 book The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England.
Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, even has gruesome visions of the “behung...corpses of papishes” as he reflects upon the close, complicated ties between Irish nationalism and the Catholic Church. “May the God above/ Send down a dove/ With teeth as sharp as razors/ To slit the throats/ Of the English dogs/ That hanged our Irish leaders,” Joyce’s rebel Citizen rhapsodizes at one point.
But Joyce also explores resistance to oppression in ways that might seem out of fashion today. With his “huge emerald muffler and shillelagh,” the Citizen—and nationalism itself—is portrayed with heaping doses of irreverence. Scholars have noted that, in fashioning Ulysses after the Odyssey, Joyce links the Citizen with Homer’s one-eyed Cyclops—as in: a monstrous figure who doesn’t see things very clearly.
Then there are the piteous lamentations over the grave and ghost of the “uncrowned king of Ireland,” Charles Stewart Parnell, whose towering memory is contrasted with the none-too-inspiring presence of his brother, John. Finally, Robert Emmet’s impassioned proclamations are also juxtaposed with Leopold Bloom’s uncontrollable flatulence.
At one point, the Citizen himself “starts gassing,” going on and on “about the Invincibles and the old guard and the men of sixtyseven…. Talking about new Ireland he ought to go and get a new dog so he ought. Mangy ravenous brute….” Perhaps most unsettling, after confronting Bloom in a pub, the Citizen rants: “I’ll brain that bloody jewman,” then shouts: “Sinn Fein!Sinn Fein amhain! The friends we love are by our side and the foes we hate before us.”
For Joyce, nationalism may have been a necessary response to oppression, but it is not without its own shortcomings. Exploring these does run the risk of undermining powerful goals of resistance and of being a loyal “enemy of my enemy.” Looked at another way, though, confronting the fallibilities of the persecuted or their allies might be the ultimate acknowledgement of their humanity—a status never granted by oppressors.
For Joyce, nationalism may have been a necessary response to oppression, but it is not without its own shortcomings.
History as nightmare
The very year in which Ulysses is set, a Catholic priest named John Creagh brewed up an antisemitic furor in Ireland. Joyce—who was in Paris as the Dreyfus Affair unfolded—returned to Dublin just “in time for…[this] boycott of Jewish merchants in Limerick,” Richard Ellman notes. The 1904 campaign was short-lived and laudably condemned by many Irish Catholics—but not by Arthur Griffith, who was not only among Father Creagh’s supporters, but founded Sinn Fein.
To ignore this about Griffith or the likes of John Creagh, simply because they also happen to have been aligned with the anti-Brits, would be absurd. So would labeling Stephen Dedalus some kind of quisling or traitor because of his lament that he is “a servant” not just of a single colonial ruler, but “two masters, an English and an Italian.” Would that more readers and writers—then and now—could wrestle with this “Italian” church’s monumental flaws, but also its virtues; its historic protection of the persecuted, along with its persecutions.
Like the Citizen, too many culture warriors—then and now—see only “friends” or “foes,” useful idiots or scapegoats, in social conflict. Complicating things any further veers close to giving succor to the “enemy.”
Meanwhile, 100 years later, the party now bearing the name Sinn Fein has moved from the radical margins to the very center of political life in Ireland. The nationalists are well positioned to be the top vote-getters in the upcoming May 2022 assembly elections in Northern Ireland. In fact, Sinn Fein is also on the verge of becoming the ruling party down south in the Republic of Ireland.
In short, after a century’s worth of bloodshed and growing pains, the Irish nationalist revolution has made its way into the nation’s respectable ruling class.
After a century’s worth of bloodshed and growing pains, the Irish nationalist revolution has made its way into the nation’s respectable ruling class.
As evidenced by the January 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, Yoknapatawpha County’s 21st-century offspring—nationalist in their own way—are looking to take a different route to power. And William Faulkner’s relevance in 2022 seems indisputable.
To Carl Rollyson, the recent biographer of Faulkner, novels like The Sound and the Fury offer “a stunning rebuke to a society built on segregation and on the ideology of white supremacy.” The literary scholar Myka Tucker-Abramson notes that when “a new cycle of wealth extraction...on the battlefields of real estate and oil” beckoned in the United States, “Donald Trump answered [the call], one whose blueprint and history Faulkner’s postwar fiction provides.” The critic Philip Weinstein could just as easily be talking about the former president when he observes that Faulkner’s drifter-turned-magnate (and later, dynastic powerbroker) Flem Snopes “is there to fan [chaos] into action and exploit its consequences.”
Flem gets his comeuppance at the end of The Mansion (1957), the third and final book in Faulkner’s newly relevant Snopes trilogy. But Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! is also an illuminating MAGA surrogate. As a young boy, Sutpen famously tried to enter the opulent Pettibone mansion, only to be rebuffed by a Black servant—a perfect storm of class and racial grievance that drives Sutpen for the remainder of his restless, maniacal life.
Sutpen himself meets a gruesome end with its own toxic blend of rage and poetic justice. Eventually even his beloved estate, Sutpen Hundred, is destroyed, torched by his traumatized biracial daughter.
Yoknapatawpha County’s 21st-century offspring—nationalist in their own way—are looking to take a different route to power.
More and more reactionaries, though, are also turning to language and actions—any means necessary, you might even say—that seem more Weathermen than Rotarian. How are we to combat this unlikely turn of events?
Too often, amid the shock and horror of the past five years, the progressive resistance has relied upon fighting strident, inflexible fire with its own strident and inflexible fire. There is a reluctance to scrutinize familiar ideas or allies or look inward—even with Joycean irreverence—amid fears that such reflections might amount to “punching down” or being told that “this is not a space for intellectualizing the topic,” as Cambridge academics were warned during a recent workshop.
And so, rather than take an opportunity to distinguish between more and less urgent ideas, hone arguments or perhaps even develop new coalitions, there is faith that poetic justice is nigh, because we are on the right side of history and they are not. Thomas Sutpen, after all, was dispatched, even if the slam of that Pettibone mansion door continues to ring in many ears.
Flem Snopes, too, was consigned to the dustbin of Confederate history—by a relative, no less. Yet there are many other members of the extended Snopes clan. One might even call them a dynasty.
Too often, the progressive resistance has relied upon fighting strident, inflexible fire with its own strident and inflexible fire.
Something wicked this way comes
In another ironic twist, some thoughtful observers are now worried Yoknapatawphan rage might lead to Irish-style nationalist violence in the United States. While the United States “obviously has not descended to the level of present-day Iraq or Lebanon or Troubles-era Northern Ireland,” Jonathan Stevenson and Steven Simon wrote in The New York Review of Books last year, “these are ominously suggestive examples.” Efforts to confront armed, far-right militants with laws “more clearly defining domestic terrorism and strengthening the means to combat it” might only “burnish their status as ‘freedom fighters.’”
This, Stevenson and Simon argue, is what happened when “the Provisional Irish Republican Army rose to prominence in Northern Ireland.” They also worry about American militias attempting high-profile assassinations, while also “whipping up populist fervor through strategically calculated hunger strikes...as the IRA did.” All of which “only made it easier for them to gain political traction as principled revolutionaries through Sinn Fein, their political counterpart.”
At least in Ireland, it took decades for the nationalist rebels to make their way to the mainstream. There was, if you will, a “due instalments plan.” Here in the United States, it turns out the Q-Anoners were already in elected office and since 2016 have set about tracking the muck of the swampy margins all the way into the White House and onto the steps of the Capitol.
“And can we not love our country then?” one nationalist character wonders in Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is a question that hovers over much of Joyce’s and Faulkner’s work, and our own moment.
Such “love” can take many forms—including, of course, hate. Which brings to mind a hunting trip in Faulkner’s second Snopes novel, The Town. A noise in some shrubbery compels one character to speculate that it might only be “a rabbit,” or it might be “a bigger varmint, one with more poison or anyhow more teeth.” And “you can watch the bushes shaking but you can’t see what it is or which a way it’s going”—at least, not “until it breaks out.”
But by then it may be too late.