Joyce and the Jews

November 22, 1996

I have read with alarm in Suman Gupta's piece (THES, November 15) that a writer's racism does affect his or her literary status. While not wishing to engage in a specific debate along this line, I would like to comment on Mr Gupta's treatment of James Joyce.

Mr Gupta is perhaps unaware that Joyce actually employed a Jew, Paul Leon, as his personal assistant and formed a close friendship with him during his years in Paris, and despite a falling out over a family matter they remained friends until Leon's death at the hands of the Nazis. If Joyce displayed any anti-semitic tendencies then surely Leon would have noticed these and left his employment. He would not, for example, have risked his life by returning to Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940 to, among other things, retrieve some of Joyce's papers.

The article correctly states that Joyce identified himself with the Jews and implies this can be in part derived from the character of Leopold Bloom. There is also the suggestion that the prototype for Bloom was "probably modelled along the lines inspired by the work of psychologists Otto Weininger and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who argued in favour of the degenerate Jewish type". This is unlikely, as Joyce does more than identify with Bloom: he is Bloom. Much of the model for the character comes from within the mature Joyce (Stephen Dedalus could be said to represent the younger self) while the remaining proportion is based on another Jewish friend, Ettore Schmitz, from Joyce's time in Trieste.

Moreover, if we take further the literary example of Bloom then it becomes abundantly clear that this is a character who is anything but a degenerate. Bloom is portrayed as an everyman figure and not exclusively Jewish - although there is no doubt that this is an important component of the character - who is the embodiment of civil values, open-mindedness and goodness. If there have been interpretations of Bloom as a negative stereotype Jew then this says more about the interpreter than about Joyce. The reader is compelled to feel nothing but sympathy and understanding for Bloom as he travels across Dublin in the face of what amounts to the latent (and at times manifest) anti-semitism of the inhabitants. Thus part of Ulysses offers a critique of racial intolerance and bigotry. Given the immense detail of the book there are numerous examples, but a reading of the chapter 'Cyclops' will bear these points out where all types of prejudice are ridiculed and held up to be the farce that they are. As Richard Ellmann wrote: "Ulysses was, in fact, if anyone cared to examine it, so anti-totalitarian a book that there was no more to be said."

Finally, away from the printed word, Joyce's real-life actions support these points. He was partially responsible in helping Jews leave Germany and find refuge in Ireland and the United States. There is reassuringly scholarly evidence for this from Ellmann's biography which highlights that "Joyce had friends in the French foreign office and elsewhere whose help he enlisted, with his usual energy, on behalf of 16 refugees in various stages of flight or resettlement".

I do not deny the possibility that Joyce had misconceptions about the Jews - or for that matter any other race, including his own - but these should be recognised for what they are, as misunderstandings that were representative of their time. All of Joyce's contemporaries are effectively culpable in an anti-semitic conspiracy in appeasing Hitler and his evil policies during the 1930s. Nevertheless, Joyce did more than many to ensure a positive image of the Jew, to point out the sham of nationalism and the inconsistency of racial intolerance. He also had a hand in saving people's lives.

Anthony Pinner MA student University of Southampton

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