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Joyce's Humanist Marxism: the Reckoning

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Irish History Transformed
Native and Foreign
Obedience and Rebellion
Rich and Poor
Sports and Competition
Union and Division

Early Marxist responses to Ulysses were tepid at best; critics such as Karl Radek argued that Joyce assumes an anti-realist perspective in chronicling the troubled lives of the distinctly bourgeois Blooms and Stephen. While the poverty of the Dedaluses would seem to exempt Stephen from the descriptor "bourgeois," his selfish attitude about escaping those conditions reveals his ambitions to attain a comfortable middle-class life, betraying both his own aesthetic credo as well as his social responsibility to his fellow comrades in the class struggle. On this view, Bloom is transparently preoccupied with the realization of a life made meaningful through consumer capitalism; he frequently muses on the pleasure brought by material objects and formulates schemes, however unlikely, that might allow him greater access to these luxuries. These flights of fancy are so divorced from the realities of capital, investment and labor that their realization is impossible and yet they create in Bloom a pacifying effect, as if merely entertaining the possibility of wealth in the future is a sufficient substitute for actual economic opportunity. This general characterization has been used to argue that Joyce's epic novel did not share the ethos of Dubliners, with its emphasis on stirring portraits of lower-class characters and the institutional inequalities that complicate their lives. Defying Marxist convention, I will argue that Ulysses nevertheless critiques capitalism, albeit on terms of its own—concerned less with the ways in which capitalism fails those that, as a system, it necessarily exploits, and more with the disappointment faced even by the bourgeoisie, who are supposedly poised to benefit from the advent of materialist culture. Bloom's recovery from this disappointment requires him to compromise the ideals he held as a young man, and while he is unable to enact systemic socialist change, his attempt at participating in an ethical capitalism is a viable alternative to the embittered paralysis of Stephen, whose futile attempt to reject the omnipresent force of money is a detriment to himself and others.

From the title page, Ulysses invites readers to draw parallels between his text and that of Homer's Odyssey. Though Joyce breaks down the parallel structure frequently, much can be drawn from Bloom's similarities to and differences from Odysseus. Both characters share a distinctly bourgeois position: Odysseus is a wealthy land owner, while Bloom creates the ads that sell the goods produced through the labor of others. However, both heroes have been unseated from this position of secure comfort, and both plots concern the adventures and mishaps that accompany their pursuits to regain that which belongs to them (primarily, their wives). Though Odysseus's geographical absence is a more obvious obstacle to his relationship with Penelope, reminiscing on his early married life with Molly, the now-conjugally-absent Bloom laments, "I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I?... Can't bring back time...Would you go back to then? Just beginning then. Would you? Are you not happy in your home you poor little boy?"(U 8.608-12). Their infant son Rudy's death—which triggers his ten year sexual "absence" from the marriage—antedates Bloom's firing from Cuffe's by only a few months, and his firing from Hely's occurs a mere year later. As much as Rudy's death is the beginning of his separation from Molly, it is also the beginning of the decay of his financial prospects. Molly recalls that it is after losing his job at Cuffe's that the Blooms faced some of their most dire financial straits, creating tension between the two of them: "Everytime were just getting on right something happens and he puts his big foot in it Thoms and Helys and Mr Cuffes and Drimmies either he's going to be run into prison over his old lottery tickets that was to be all our salvation or he goes and gives impudence well have him coming home with the sack soon out of the Freeman too" (U 18.1222-26). Both the lottery and the firings illuminate a side of Bloom that has faded since Rudy's death. The lottery shows Bloom actually attempting the kind of get-rich-quick scheme that he has since relegated to fantasy. Bloom's discharge-worthy impudence seems similarly fantastical, given his presently meek demeanor and inability to engage in aggressive confrontation. These inconsistencies legitimize Bloom's questioning the continuity of his "I," as his present identity seems to have vastly departed from his past self. Still, as Bloom does not answer his own question of whether or not to go back to that earlier time, we must consider whatever desire he has to revisit his past to be, at most, indecisive. Returning to the comparison of Bloom and Odysseus, the economic adventurism of Bloom's lottery and his courage to speak out against authority are traits that fit neatly with the classical epic hero mold; young Bloom, like Odysseus, becomes, in these moments, the stalwart individual taking big risks for the chance at a glorious prize.

Another aspect of Bloom's comfortable life ten years ago that has since disappeared is his inclusion in a community—like Odysseus, Bloom is now isolated from society. This is due in part to the Dubliners' perception of his Jewish identity, which I will discuss later on, but despite the prejudice of the majority, Bloom was not always without social support; he once had a number of Jewish friends who he remembers fondly: "Wonder is poor Citron still in Saint Kevin's parade. And Matinsky with the old cither. Pleasant evenings we had then...Nice to hold cool waxen fruit...Always the same year after year. They fetched high prices too, Moisel told me" (U 4.206-10). Though no explanation is given for Bloom's current isolation from this group, it stands to reason that the cause may be geographic. Prior to moving to the City Arms Hotel, Bloom spent his entire life in around the largely Jewish section of Dublin, but the job at Cuffe's prompted a move away from some of the only friendly relations Bloom had (Raleigh 132). This chance at economic advancement did not pay off for Bloom, and he paid the price in terms of something which is undoubtedly much more valuable to him than money: the people he cared for, and (considering how broad a category that proves to be, based on his insatiably inquisitive empathy) perhaps more importantly, the people who cared for him.

That Bloom's ambitions for a higher social position backfire, leaving him both alone and in no better position financially, contributes not only to his parallels with Odysseus but also to his role as the everyday middle-man of capitalism. These two characterizations are linked through the philosphical imagination of the ideal capitalist, who must necessarily be driven by a motive of self-interest, intrinsic to the logic of capitalism. Adorno and Horkheimer trace the connection between isolation and self-interest back to the bourgeois character of Odysseus himself: "Both Odysseus and Crusoe, the two shipwrecked mariners, make their weakness (that of the individual who parts from the collectivity) into their social strength. Their very isolation forces them recklessly to pursue an atomistic interest" (61). Bloom attempts to make his success in capitalism into a marker of social strength, one means through which he would be able to prove that, despite his old age and lack of virility, he is at least capable as a breadwinner.

As Bloom goes about his errands for the day, his mind frequently drifts to thoughts of the petticoats which he would like to buy for Molly, and these thoughts are just as frequently followed or prompted by his thoughts of her affair with Boylan. After calculating the money he stands to make if he is successful in his ad-canvassing, Bloom thinks, "Five guineas about. On the pig's back. Could buy one of those silk petticoats for Molly, color of her new garters. Today. Today. Not think" (U 8.1059-63). Here, the ability to succeed in business determines whether or not Bloom can provide what it is he believes would make Molly happy. Bloom's failure to secure the Keyes ad portends poorly for the realization of this fantasy, but the dream of purchasing them consoles him, in that it represents the possibility of satisfying Molly, distracting him from the burning knowledge of her affair. Bloom's recurrent focus on the petticoats is selfish, in as much as he has a fetish for lady's undergarments, but it is also somewhat selfless, in that he intends for Molly to enjoy them. Still, the selfish drive of Bloom's gesture compromises any redeeming potential it may have, though Bloom at least comes close to understanding how to please Molly in realizing that she would like some new clothes. Crucially, however, the petticoats just so happen to be clothes that only Bloom, Molly and perhaps Boylan will ever see, whereas the value of clothes to Molly exists in the public social prestige and attention they can garner for her: "do you like those new shoes yes how much were they Ive not clothes at all the brown costume and the skirt and jacket and the one at the cleaners whats that for any woman...other men won't look at you and women try to walk on you because they know youve no man" (U18.469-74). Joyce demonstrates here that commodity exchange is a fraught way of showing affection. Reducing human interaction to commodity exchange does not bring about the recuperation of intimacy between Bloom and Molly, though both characters seem to entertain the notion that Bloom's worth to Molly can be proven in exactly these terms. Yet neither is fully satisfied with this materialist criteria for evaluating emotional connection, even as both find themselves subscribing to it in some sense. The uncomfortable dissonance between the Bloom who intends to win Molly back with a gifting gesture (of which he may be the primary beneficiary) and the Bloom who Molly recalls falling in love with on Howth Hill—because of his empathy, rather than his economic standing—suggests that Molly also recognizes a clear distinction between Bloom then and Bloom now. Nonetheless, Molly's disinterest in marrying Boylan, or any man other than Bloom, is a testament to the compassion that constitutes the core of his character and of her value-system.

Aside from their shared ingenuity, the similarities between Bloom and Odysseus are more circumstantial than personal. The violent retribution Odysseus visits on the suitors is nowhere to be found in Ulysses, and in fact, the deeply empathic Bloom specifically voices his opposition to violence and promotes peace and good-will between men generally. That Adorno and Horkheimer cite Odysseus and Crusoe in their characterization of the bourgeois voyager as the resourceful man of reason turning the power of nature to his own advantage is interesting, because Joyce claims to have used both characters to shape his depiction of Bloom. However, Baruch Spinoza, the inspiration for Bloom's moral code, contributes an integral part of Bloom's identity that distances him from his more typically heroic predecessors: "Spinoza was the fountainhead for Bloom's politics since Spinoza was one of the first, one of the greatest, proponents for the twin ideas of toleration and liberal principles in a modern republic" (Raleigh, J.H. 591). While the Odysseus and Cruesoe in Bloom make him fit to be an ideal capitalist, the humanist ethos of Spinoza makes him all together too caring to be successfully greedy in the distinctly unethical system of modern capitalism.

The politics of the younger Bloom, however, which were decidedly more active in promoting these humanist ethics of social and economic equality, have been made subservient to Bloom's practical interests during the intervening years. Recalling Joe Chamberlain's reception of an honorary degree at Trinity—met with much resistance from the Irish anti-imperialists—Bloom recalls, "I oughtn't to have got myself swept along with those medicals. And the Trinity jibs in their mortarboards...Silly billies: mob of young cubs yelling their guts out" (U 8.427-37). Here Bloom distances himself from the riotous mob that swarmed Chamberlain, but this distancing is retrospective. It remains somewhat unclear the degree to which Bloom was involved with the student protests, but the circumlocution of the narrator in "Eumaeus" draws attention to the fact that Bloom may have been more radical politically than he admits in his earlier recollections. Though "not contributing a copper or pinning faith absolutely to its dictums... he at the outset in principle at all events was in thorough sympathy with peasant possession as voicing the trend of modern opinion (a partiality, however, which, realising his mistake, he was subsequently partially cured of)" (U 16.1587-92), Bloom believed in socialist land reforms, placing him in a position further left than most backtolanders. That belief waned not because this ideology proved reprehensible, but because it was too idealistic, given the preeminence of imperialist capitalism in modern Irish society. The fact that Bloom places his qualified support for the political movement in terms of money contributed to the cause indicates the inescapable primacy of capital in fomenting success for political movements, and the stunted success of the backtoland movement, in comparison to the globally triumphant and oppressive model of British imperialism, illustrates capitalist ideology triumphing over liberal, democratic ideals.

Joyce's critique of anti-semitism is tied to his critique of capitalism in that Bloom, by virtue of his Jewish identity, is associated with the problem of empire by the Dubliners. In what seems to be an emotional, rather than logical, reaction to Irish financial ruin, the cycle of credit/debt, presumably headed by the moneylender stereotypes that have come to define Jewishness, is linked to the villainous English economic imperialists: "Haines's wealth 'stinks' because it has been acquired by exploitive means.... Mulligan implicitly Hebraizes the Britisher's patrimony by associating Haines's father's trade with a parasitic 'bloody swindle'" (Feinstein 39). The conflation of Judaism with the economic exploitation perpetrated by England collapses promptly in view of the anti-semitism of the British Haines (U 1.666-68) and the unionist Deasy (U 2.349-51), who attempt to use Jews as a scapegoat for England's national problems. Stephen entertains these notions of Jewish blame no more than he accepts Haines' view that history is to blame for the suffering of the Irish: "A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?" (U 2.359-60). By this definition, the English occupation of Ireland is just as mercantilist as whatever shadowy Jewish influence Haines and Deasy fear. Ultimately however, Stephen's ability to cut through the racist rhetoric purported to be truth isolates him from his fellow Irishmen, who are much more willing to subscribe to it. Thus, though one is victim and the other opponent, Bloom and Stephen fare similarly at the hands of this anti-Semitic, political economic bilge.

Bloom faces anti-semitism most explicitly in Barney Kiernan's pub. Bloom rejects treating culture because he believes alcoholism is at the root of much of the poverty and moral decay of Ireland, but the narrator does not accept this explanation, instead presuming that Bloom is merely cheap: "Joe chipping in because he owed someone for a quid and Bloom putting in his old goo with his twopenny stump that he cadged off of Joe talking about the... antitreating league and drink, the curse of Ireland" (U12.681-84). He raises the ire of the other patrons by abstaining from drinking, which is taken as a manifestation of Jewish stinginess, and perhaps of an imperialist superiority complex, due to the norms of Irish treating culture. He is also accused of weakening the Irish resistance against the English by advocating the establishment of political and economic independence without the use of force; this again implies some sort of collaboration with the English on the grounds of his Jewishness. Bloom's rationale for this pacifist position is actually quite touching and apolitical: "But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women...Everybody knows its the opposite of that that is really life...Love, says Bloom" (U 12.1480-85). The choice to reject hatred and embrace love transcends the circumscriptions placed on the agency of individuals by structural forces. These forces, which Bloom believes become irrelevant in the face of life enriched with love, are also those which Stephen struggles against with his angry pessimism. Daniel Shea places this difference in the terms of Benjamin's two categories of experience, Erlebnis and Erfahrung—the former defined as isolated experience of paralyzing shock which enables "denying personal responsibility," and the latter "experience built from historical awareness and consciousness" (82). That Haines' and Deasy's view of history, which Stephen finds distasteful, depends on the denial of personal responsibility shows Stephen's hypocrisy in denying his own agency in regards to his family's poverty. The citizen adopts much the same view, excusing Ireland's vices as an inevitable result of English oppression and even engaging in them himself, further demonstrating Joyce's parody of and resistance to the notion that the Irish have no choice but to be passive victims of irresistible historical and economic predation.

While the ideology of imperialism was clearly despicable in Joyce's eyes, the exclusionary rhetoric of Irish nationalist movements are characterized as equally intolerant and thereby intolerable. The irony of this intolerance undoubtedly did not escape Joyce who places a speech emphasizing the similarities between the modern condition of Ireland and the Biblical story of Exodus in "Aeolus," an episode built around the gaseous rhetoric of nationalists. Their speech is met with approval by most of the Dubliners, though Stephen's thoughts reveal his skepticism about such rhetoric: "That is oratory, the professor said uncontradicted. Gone with the wind...Miles of ears of porches. The tribune's words, howled and scattered to the four winds. A people sheltered within his voice. Dead noise...Love and laud him: me no more" (U 7.879-82). Stephen here conflates God and and Daniel O'Connell; his definition of God as a shout in the street becomes dead noise, he no longer follows the exhortation to love and laud the gods (as posed in Cymbeline) nor can he abide the tendency of Irish nationalists to make idols out of their political leaders. The analogy between the Jews enthralled in Egypt and the economically exploited Irish is apt in a sense, but it fails in the most important aspect: there will be no divine intervention to deliver the Irish out of political and economic captivity. The notion of providence is exposed to further scrutiny when it is invoked by the very reverend Father Conmee, who, after refusing to give charity to a one-legged beggar, "reflected on the providence of a creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people" (U 10.104-06). While most Dubliners profess faith in the Catholic Church that Conmee represents, this hypocritical attitude, when coupled with Joyce's depiction of the intense poverty of the Dedalus family, reveals a solid grounding for Stephen's ardent lack of faith. Stephen's position on this issue, like his rejection of anti-semitism, sets him apart from other Dubliners and brings his outlook closer to the humanist mindset of Bloom.

Stephen repeatedly takes it upon himself to rebel against those social structures that are sources of Ireland's material and spiritual poverty, and which facilitate the passive acceptance of this compromised position. Stephen's contempt for Britain, capitalism, nationalism and "many orthodox religious, national, social and ethical doctrines" (U 17.23-25) is justified through the less-than-favorable depictions of their respective supporters throughout the novel. Nonetheless, he also engages in a form of pacifying escapism through his use (or perhaps abuse) of alcohol. Though he perceives the faulty logic by which other characters surrender their independence to structural forces—in exchange for freedom from responsibility or from the harsh realities of social immobility—he fails to recognize when he executes these same kinds of strategies. For example, it is directly after he expresses his lack of faith in Irish nationalism that Stephen realizes, "I have money" (U 7.885) and proposes to the staff of the Freeman that they go out for drinks. In "Wandering Rocks," he discovers that Dilly, aspiring to escape to the continent as Stephen had, has purchased a cheap French textbook, prompting the following sequence of thoughts: "She is drowning. Agenbite. Save her. Agenbite. All against us. She will drown me with her, eyes and hair...We. Agenbite of inwit. Inwit's agenbite. Misery! Misery!" (U 10.874-80). Yet even such misery and remorse do not prompt Stephen to reevaluate his disregard for money and prodigious spending habits, for when he appears next at the hospital where Mina Purefoy is in labor he is riotously drunk alongside his peers. This scene also sets the stage for his introduction to Bloom, who intends to reform the cynical young artist into a respectable participant in the system of consumerism.

With this aim in mind, Bloom follows Stephen into the red light district of Dublin, hoping to save him (and his money) from the dangers that await him therein. In the chaotic fantasy that ensues, Bloom's deepest fears and dreams are realized. When in this hallucinatory sequence Bloom is afforded absolute wealth and power, he constructs an egalitarian society which is defined by the declaration: "Union of all, jew, moslem and gentile. Three acres and a cow for all children of nature...Compulsory manual labor for all. Tuberculosis, lunacy, war and mendicancy must now cease...esperanto the universal language with universal brotherhood...Free money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state" (U 15.1686-93). This idealistic indulgence disappears, almost as suddenly as it was formed, as the mob that had fervently supported Bloom turns on him, destroying the utopian dream. While Bloom cannot remake the world into his utopian vision, he is successful in rescuing Stephen, again illustrating that the compromise of lofty ideals can render tangible, practical progress.

Stephen's conception of the systemic and historical forces that paralyze his prospects of artistic expression without fear of commodification is neatly summarized in his desire to awaken from the nightmare of history. It is fitting, then, that he takes action against these forces in the dream/nightmare of "Circe," destroying the chandelier in the brothel and vanquishing The Mother, a ghoul which, beyond its familial significance, also symbolizes the traditional authority of the Church. During the confrontation Stephen flees the brothel, while Bloom has to face the reality that sets in afterward, paying for the damage done to the chandelier and preventing the British soldiers whom Stephen antagonized from seriously injuring him. Tellingly, Stephen is successful in rebelling only against the Mother, who represents a less tangible form of authority than the soldier of the British empire, who subdues him with a humorous technical knock out. A vision of Rudy appears as Bloom tends to Stephen, recalling Bloom's lament, "I could have helped him on in life. I could. Make him independent" (U 6.83), which applies as much to Bloom's intentions toward Stephen as it does to his memories of Rudy. Stephen's personal goal is also independence, though in a different sense than the career envisioned by Bloom. But what Bloom's experience demonstrates is that the pressures of modern capitalism make financial independence a valuable stabilizing force, which can in turn enable the greater realization of the humanist values shared by Stephen and Bloom.

In making his protagonist a bourgeois Jew, Joyce melds the liberal values of liberal capitalism with the humanist philosophy of Jewish thinkers such as Spinoza, Mendelssohn and Christ. While his circumstances are distinctly bourgeois, the privileges he enjoys as a result are limited yet distinct, particularly in comparison to the poverty-stricken Stephen. Nonetheless, these comforts are not nearly as meaningful as the human relationships that are mediated through them. Capitalism has promised more than it can deliver to the middle-class hero of the modern age, but this cannot legitimate its complete rejection; Bloom continually proves that the ability to see an issue from multiple sides is far more valuable in conducting compassionate and ethical human relations than seemingly justified dogmatism.

Citations and Related Sources

Adorno, Theodor, and Horkheimer, Max. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.
Feinstein, Amy. "Usurers and Usurpers: Race, Nation, and the Performance of Jewish Mercantilism in Ulysses." James Joyce Quarterly 1, no. 1 (2006): 39–58.
Raleigh, John Henry. "Afoot in Dublin in Search of the Habitations of Some Shades." James Joyce Quarterly 8, no. 2 (1971): 129–41.
———. "Bloom as a Modern Epic Hero." Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (April 1, 1977): 583–98.
Shea, Daniel. "‘A Rank Outsider’: Gambling and Economic Rivalry in Ulysses." James Joyce Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2010): 75–88

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