Filed under: Books | Tags: Bhabha, English, english literature, Ireland, Joyce, language, violence
I’ve been told that I’m going about this at a good pace. Five years ago I read The Dubliners by James Joyce and love it. This week I finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man hoping it would never end. Maybe five or ten years from now I will attempt Ulysses.
However, that is not the point of this post. As I said I really loved reading Portrait. It was a good reading experience. Not only is book full of engaging stories and striking style, but I had an experience reading it. I mean in the way some people say, “I had a time doing X.” I didn’t just do it. There was more to the doing of it than just reading. I felt it and was wrapped up in it. These qualities put books on my all-time favorite reads list.* The reading itself is worth putting your eyes on the words.
But because I cannot get off this Bhabha quote for the life of me, I was struck by a certain passage of the novel in which Stephen Dedalus comes in linguistic conflict with his dean of studies in comparing the word “funnel” with “tundish,” apparent synonyms in the context of a lamp. Here again is Bhabha and then Joyce:
whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity…
His courtesy of manner rang a little false, and Stephen looked at the English convert with the same eyes as the elder brother in the parable may have turned on the prodigal. A humble follower in the wake of clamorous conversions, a poor Englishman in Ireland, he seemed to have entered on the stage of jesuit history when that strange play of intrigue and suffering and envy and struggle and indignity had been all all but given through–a late comer, a tardy spirit. …
The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He [Stephen] thought:
– The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. (204-205).
Stephen Dedalus, the Irishman, wrestles with his discomfort in speaking a colonial tongue. Many scholars rightfully describe the Irish situation as a postcolonial one. The infamous violence is political and even here glimpsed in tiny insulated form in Stephen’s experience with words. His dean speaks condescendingly of the word “tundish,” for as an Englishman he “never heard the word in [his] life.” Stephen finds himself insulted to the point that standing in the study he is on guard for a duel. This word is his weapon, his “rapier point” that will defend him against the “countryman of Ben Jonson” (an Elizabethan poet).
This passage is very rich for colonial and postcolonial readings, but I would simply like to use it as another test of Bhabha’s argument and mine. As a question, whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity? Is the dean languageless or is Stephen? Stephen describes himself as languageless and yet he is the aggressor. The dean provokes anger in him.
So while Bhabha writes of the reaction provoked by a languageless stranger, Portrait presents the view of the Stranger, in his own country, and what provokes him. Stephen others the dean for his difference, and puts an insurmountable distance between his English and that of the dean. Even as native speakers of the same language, one man feels languageless as a result of the colonial history of Irish oppression.
Many authors wrestle with writing in a language of oppression. Fanon, among others, writes poignantly on this tension throughout his work. I eagerly await a seminar here at Paris 8 given by a doctoral student writing on authors who despise their maternal language. How exactly Joyce felt towards the English [instead of the Irish] language I cannot say. But this autobiographical novel reveals some. He frets. Stephen seems to squirm beneath it, in its shadow.
“I have not made or accepted its words,” Stephen thinks. And this conclusion could also be applied to his feelings about the Catholic church. At the end of the novel, as these tensions pile on top of each other, Stephen leaves “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In his work, Joyce nearly if not surely found the English words that capture Ireland and the Irish consciousness.