Decoding Dedalus: A Dedalus Never Pays His Debts

—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way. … I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and  break it down line by line. 

The passage below comes from “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 30-31 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).


A guide to pre-decimal currency can be found here.

Mr. Deasy’s quote above is meant to be the pride of the English – being so sensible (or just wealthy, let’s be real) that you live your whole life without debts. It’s worth recalling that in “Telemachus,”  Haines the Englishman said to Buck Mulligan, “Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?” just moments before Mulligan underpays the milkwoman for her milk, an underpayment on owed money. Stephen, most unEnglishly, also has his fair share of debts, of which he takes mental stock after Mr. Deasy extolls the virtues of lacking debt. Stephen’s debt mirrors the financial realities of James Joyce himself at a similar age.

Much like Stephen, Joyce had returned from medical school in Paris, his family in disarray following his mother’s death. His father, John Joyce, was selling off their household items to patch holes in the family’s dire financial situation while coping with the strain through alcohol. Though James could have hypothetically worked to support his family, he was dead set on making his mark as an Artist. This sometimes took the form of all-day writing sessions and other times sleeping until four in the afternoon following an all-night drinking session. In Joyce’s mind, one justified the other.

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Joyce Ulysses literature Lady Gregory Yeats

James Joyce’s Poetic Rage

To put it nicely, James Joyce was a prickly pear. It’s well known that he left Dublin for continental Europe in 1904, never to return. His exile was self-imposed, but that didn’t stop him from metaphorically backing out of the room with two middle fingers raised. This reaction was simultaneously over-the-top and kind of justified. Joyce struggled to find his place amongst the literary set in Dublin because his own ego was frequently a major stumbling block. In fact, Joyce had a track record of throwing down poetically when things didn’t go his way. Joyce’s angry poetry reveals a lot about his personality and worldview, and since Ulysses is heavily autobiographical, it can help us understand where Joyce’s head was when he was constructing the oft unflattering portrayals of his friends in his novel.

 

The Holy Office

In order to understand this poem, we need to take a look at Joyce’s relationship with the movers and shakers behind the Irish Literary Revival underway in the early twentieth century. Often associated with people like W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John M. Synge, this movement is associated with a flowering of Irish talent and a promotion of Irish traditional culture and nationalism. Though Joyce’s poetry is arguably in line with the style of the time, he felt that he was left behind by the literary bigwigs of his day.

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