Terry Eagleton is unpersuaded by an analysis that abandons glorious pointlessness for mind-numbing physical detail
History, Stephen Dedalus famously remarks in James Joyce's Ulysses , is a nightmare from which he is trying to awaken. In some nightmares, you think you have woken up only to discover from some ominously surreal occurrence that you are still asleep; and this is more or less what happens to Stephen, who flits off to Paris in the belief that he is throwing off the ethnic, religious and political chains of his homeland, only to find himself back in Dublin. Nowadays, Ulysses is said to be the nightmare from which Dublin is trying to awaken, as the novel casts its gargantuan shadow over succeeding generations of Irish writers.
This lavish coffee-table affair by Ian Gunn and Clive Hart is unlikely to dispel this anxiety of influence. James Joyce's Dublin is an early gust in the tempest that is about to break upon the Irish capital on June 16, as the city and the world celebrate the centenary of Bloomsday, the day on which the action of Ulysses is set. As whole battalions of Joyce scholars rumble into the capital, droves of innocent civilians will be evacuating the place and taking to the Wicklow hills. One cannot avoid the feeling that Joyce, were he still alive, would be hitching a lift on the first truck out of town.
Hart is one of the chief executive officers of the Joyce industry, a global conglomerate roughly the size of Shell that unfurls from Tokyo to San Diego, Sydney to Zurich. Its logo, often to be seen around Dublin, is a silhouette of a man in a hat leaning jauntily on a stick, and its influence on the life of Ireland is equalled only by that other Irish manufacturer of verbal fantasies, Arthur Guinness. It is entirely possible that, like the CEOs of Coca-Cola, the world's leading Joyce scholars never travel together on the same aircraft in case an accident deprives a traumatised world for ever of the meaning of Finnegans Wake .
The scabrous, carnivalesque, remorselessly commonplace Joyce, a man who once described himself as having a mind like a grocer, is now the property of erudite academics who could tell you without pausing for thought how many references there are to Irish whiskey in Joyce's work, but who tend to prefer a milky mug of cocoa themselves. Men and women are at dire risk of going blind or mad poring over the Master's notebooks. Lethal rivalries fester, law suits are launched and ex cathedra judgements solemnly promulgated. Ecstatic comedy has become a very high-minded business indeed.
Joyce's sensibility was unflaggingly urban, a fact that makes him distinctive among the major modernist writers, as well as an odd man out among the Irish. (The Irish never built much of a town themselves, leaving this activity for the most part to the Vikings.) Ulysses put Dublin - a stagnant, inconsiderable colonial capital - on the world map as surely as did the 1916 Easter Rising, an event that was to bring Irish independence in the year of the novel's publication. But though Joyce's anxiety to reflect the topography of his native city is well known, and painstakingly detailed in this study, what is less often recognised is that his Dublin is also anywhere and everywhere.
In a world in which places were becoming increasingly interchangeable, with the growth of migration, world trade and international politics, the peripheral could shift to the centre. A seedy city in a nation that Joyce himself scathingly dubbed "an afterthought of Europe" could now become a microcosm of the whole. Where better than a small tribal capital, in which everyone knows everyone else, to dramatise the growing interconnectedness of the planet as a whole? Modernist Europe was searching for those interconnections in myth; and just as myth depicts a world in which everything is a recycled version of something else, so Joyce's Ireland is a poor pastiche of Britain.
History is now being seen in Vienna and Berlin as a kind of eternal recurrence and the very notion of originality called into question. It is not surprising, then, to find this new sense of time and space illustrated by the capital of a nation where history appeared to do nothing but repeat itself, and that seemed to have initiated nothing of its own. In a venerable Irish tradition from Sterne to Beckett, nothing much happens in the 900 or so pages of Ulysses , as Leopold Bloom gets up, trots around the city and goes to bed again. As for the Wake , a narrative that turns upon doublings and repetitions, it may well be that its last sentence is tucked into its first. The draymen of Dublin had no particular belief in progress, and neither had a Europe plunged into military and political catastrophe.
Such thoughts are no doubt a little too generalised and grandiose for the dogged English empiricism of Gunn and Hart (though one is Scottish and the other Australian). Instead, we are treated to meticulously detailed layouts of Bloom's bedroom, which is only a step or two away from those who write love letters to characters in The Archers . There is much fastidious tracking of street names and tram services, along with some speculations on Bloom's habits of urination.
The question of whether Stephen and his friend Dixon are seated opposite each other on a particular occasion is provocatively raised and a map of the likeliest seating arrangements around the table audaciously appended.
The mind-wrenching problem of why Lady Maxwell in Ulysses is walking in a direction opposite to that one might expect is unflinchingly addressed.
Joyce's books are gloriously pointless because, as a good Thomist, he believed that that was the way the universe was too. The novels are small working models of the divine jest that is the cosmos. There are other works, however, that are not even gloriously pointless. There is a kind of literary positivism that is so relentless in its pursuit of fact that it capsizes into a strange kind of fantasy. Those who wish to observe this dialectical reversal in action could do worse than read this study.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, Manchester University.
James Joyce's Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses
Author - Ian Gunn and Clive Hart, with Harald Beck
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 160
Price - £28.00
ISBN - 0 500 51159 4