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Parallax as a Model of Modern Irish Nationalism

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Irish History Transformed
Union and Division

Parallax as a Model of Modern Irish Nationalism

Early in James Joyce's Ulysses and then periodically throughout the day, Joyce's protagonist, Leopold Bloom, contemplates parallax, a concept which was first introduced to him in a book by Sir Robert Ball called The Story of the Heavens (U 8.110). Barbara Stevens Heusel suggests that parallax represents one of the many keystone clues to understanding the novel. Defined as "the difference or change in the apparent position or direction of an object as seen from two different points," parallax approximates what Joyce is trying to accomplish—an in-depth look at the reality of human life that is only possible through multiple perspectives. More specifically, as a writer undeniably concerned with the intersection of time and place, Joyce specifically compiles details of urban life in Ireland in the early twentieth century. Yet even this claim—that Joyce concerns himself with describing specifically Irish life—is a contentious one, given the characters' continual dispute over just what, exactly, constitutes Irishness. By intertwining his parallactic imagination with his ambiguous nationalist rhetoric, Joyce presents a new kind of nationalism that is based not on settling or fixing the matter of Irish identity, but rather, on conversation amongst the multiplex of Irish identities.

Joyce's parodic representations of Irish Revivalist politics and critiques of nationalist rhetoric have convinced many of his readers that he is distinctly anti-nationalist.1 On the other hand, his work cannot help but deal with issues of Irish national identity. Toby H. Loeffler suggests that Joyce's work is actually part of the Irish nationalist tradition, "molding a fragmented population into a unified national whole while disavowing that it is doing so" (31). From this perspective, the rigid binary of native and foreign collapses into a "unified whole," where previous nationalist enterprises sought to reinforce that binary. Loeffler's argument shares many overlaps with the scholarship exploring parallactic readings of Ulysses. He suggests that Joyce's nationalism is demonstrated most clearly in "Wandering Rocks" (U 10), as the product of "interlocked, crisscrossing, interpersonal relations bound by time, place, and a single narrative thread" (Loeffler 45). Similarly, Justin Kiczek sees "Wandering Rocks" as "a catalogue of stars" that shift as the narrative perspective changes and which only cohere from "the right parallax position" (298). Bringing together these two bodies of scholarship suggests a productive new perspective on Joyce's model of nationalism. Joyce demonstrates a parallactic model of modern Irish nationalism which enacts the eclipse of the native and the foreign in Irish identity, and thus avoids reinforcing the essentialism of other nationalist narratives.

In Ulysses, Joyce emphasizes the connection between the native and the foreign until it is difficult to tell where one identity stops and the other begins. During Bloom's famous conversation with the Citizen in "Cyclops," Bloom tries to define a nation as "the same people living in the same place," but is forced to amend his argument when his audience bursts into laughter (U 12.1422). He then argues that a nation is also the same people "living in different places," which seems equally ludicrous in light of the previous statement (U 12.1428). Bloom fails to define what makes a group of people "the same," which raises significant doubt as to whether "native-ness" actually exists as an independent concept. After Bloom departs, the other men debate whether his being Jewish necessarily means he is not Irish, bringing the conversation back to where it started, with a discussion of what makes a nation (U 12.1238-1632; 12.1416-17). Vincent Cheng suggests that this kind of circular logic is a hallmark of the Irish nationalist identity project. "By valorizing some things as authentic or essential [or native]," he writes, "one necessarily brands other things—a feminine oral tradition, say, or Protestants, Italians, and Jews—as inessential, illegitimate, un-Irish [and foreign]" (251). And yet, in Ulysses, we see women, Protestants, Jews, etc who are officially (if not socially) recognized Irish citizens, whether by birth or by naturalization. Thus, definitions of native and foreign are not only interconnected, they are trapped in a circular logic that fails to truly define Irish national identity.

The interconnectedness and circularity of the native and the foreign in Ulysses mimic the astronomic relationship between two stars in orbit that begin to eclipse. The book by Sir Robert Ball which introduces Bloom (and Joyce's readers) to the concept of parallax also describes the phenomenon of the "double" or "binary" star, which is created by a combination of gravitational pull and parallax. Put simply, two stars that are attracted to each other can appear to become one star at certain times of the year, when the angle of parallax aligns them (Kiczek 292). As "Cyclops" (U 12) demonstrates, Joyce is interested in the gravitational pull that binds the native and the foreign together in discussions of national identity, but he is also interested in collapsing the distinctions between the two "stars." His two main characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, "do not simply align with a series of national characteristics" (Loeffler 39). Stephen expresses extreme ambivalence about his identity as an Irish man, famously declaring: " a nightmare from which I am trying to wake" (U 2.377). Bloom, who clearly wants to be considered Irish, is not entirely willing to abandon the Jewish identity that marks him as foreign: "God, I mean Christ, was a jew too and all his family like me though in reality I am not" (U 16.1084-85). By consistently reminding readers that both reluctant Stephen and doubted Bloom belong to the Irish national community, Joyce begins to align his two "stars" according to a different vision of Irish identity.

It is in "Wandering Rocks" that Joyce most clearly demonstrates the power of his parallactic national vision to enact this eclipse of the native and foreign. Although the wanderings of characters ranging from Father John Conmee to an unnamed one-legged sailor appear irreconcilably different, they are united through their rather commonplace experiences of Dublin, Ireland. Thus, the city becomes a "common centre of gravity" around which each character orbits (Kiczek 302). Joyce's narrative style in this episode works to align these disparate vantage points, demonstrating that, from a certain angle, all of these individuals appear to constitute "a single national body" (Loeffler 45). For instance, the reader experiences Father Conmee's encounter with Bessie Sheehy, wife of an Irish nationalist politician, as well as Thomas Kernan's disparaging views of the 1798 rebellion (U 10.27-9; 10.782-789), and Joyce references St. Mary's Abbey, the oldest religious establishment in Dublin, in the same section he references "the original jew's temple" (U 10.398; 10.411). The episode ends as a cavalcade passes through Dublin, and all of the characters previously mentioned in the episode watch it go, sharing a particular national experience albeit from different individual perspectives. These distinct perspectives, or "stars," align for a brief moment because, from the reader's vantage point, they all participate in the same narrative thread.

This parallactic model of Irish nationalism allows Joyce to avoid the essentialist tendencies of other nationalist narratives. "Our civilization is a vast fabric," said Joyce, "it is useless to look for a thread that may have remained pure and virgin without having undergone the influence of a neighboring thread" (Joyce).2 Indeed, as both Loeffler and Kiczek illustrate, "pure and virgin" identities cannot be found in Ulysses and certainly not in "Wandering Rocks." Rather, Joyce's writing "exposes the unstable unity of this community" and insists that the reader "acknowledge a lack of fixity; one's perspective—on a novel or a constellation—depends entirely on time, position, and place" (Loeffler 45, Kiczek 303). In "Wandering Rocks," nearly every person represents a place and nearly every place represents a person. Most of the people mentioned in the episode own businesses or have built elaborate houses, places which the various focalizing characters then associate with their owners. At some point, whether the focalizers allude to the place or the person is irrelevant because "Grogan's the Tobacconist" refers to both R. Grogan and his shop. As a result of this conflation between person and place, stable Dublin landmarks like the Aldborough House suddenly become subjective, temporal experiences as a character like Father Conmee remembers its occupant as "that spendthrift nobleman" and then realizes that the house is no longer a home and instead has become a collection of municipal offices (U 10.83). In another case, "the slab where Wolfe Tone's statue was not" alludes to the absence of a fixed landmark—a statue that has actually disappeared at some point in time but whose location still retains its significance (U 10.378). Slowly, the reader begins to accept that he or she is, as Lenehan puts it, "lost, so to speak, in the milky way" of unmoored signifiers (U 10.569-570). It is only through the parallactic angle of Joyce's narrative that these drifting people and places align to illuminate the national identity of a particular time, position, and place.

The chaos of this temporality, however, improves upon a different kind of national insanity. At the very end of "Wandering Rocks," Haines, the English tourist and Irish folklore enthusiast, suggests that Stephen suffers from an "idée fixe"—a French term for an "involuntary 'dominant idea,' usually delusional, 'toward which a whole group of concordant ideas converges'" (Gifford 281). Haines and Buck are quick to ascribe Stephen's delusional personality to "visions of hell," which seem to at least obliquely refer back to Stephen's description of Irish history as a "nightmare" (U 10.1070; 2.377). Thus, the fixity of Irish history sought by a folklorist like Haines is also the "idée fixe" Stephen wishes to escape. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce distances himself and his readers from the "convenient fiction" of a fixed national identity by developing a "mechanism through which a coherent totality of early twentieth-century Irishness can be imagined" (Loeffler 47, Cheng 257). That mechanism is a parallactic imagination that enables individuals to continually find new paths through the chaos of shifting identities across time and space.

In a way, the bodies of scholarship on parallax and nationalism in James Joyce's Ulysses have been orbiting each other for years. From the right vantage point, both critical perspectives align to form a single tool with which to read the native and the foreign, the nationalist and the anti-nationalist elements of the novel. No longer do these binary oppositions present contradictory perspectives on Joyce's relationship to Irish national identity. Instead, the parallactic angle of Joyce's writing enacts the momentary eclipse of these binaries in order to reveal the "true" Irish character beneath. The truth, however, is that Irishness is the product of a particular time, position, and place and must constantly be reevaluated. For Joyce, there is no one true Irish identity, but there is an authentic method of national imagination.

1. For perspectives of Joyce as cosmopolitan instead of nationalist see Richard Begam, "Joyce's Trojan Horse: Ulysses and the Aesthetics of Decolonialization." Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939. eds. Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 185-208 and Seamus Deane, "Joyce and Nationalism." Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980. London: Faber, 1985. 92-107. For an overview of how Irish history and identity informed Joyce's work see Willard Potts' book Joyce and the Two Irelands (University of Texas Press, 2000).

2. Joyce seems to be mixing metaphors a bit here, as threads rarely exert "influence" on other threads, but planets bound together by gravity certainly do.

Citations and Related Sources

Begam, Richard. "Joyce’s Trojan Horse: Ulysses and the Aesthetics of Decolonialization." In Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899–1939, edited by Begam, Richard and Valdez Moses, Michael, 185–208. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007.
Cheng, Vincent. "Authenticity and Identity: Catching the Irish Spirit." In Semicolonial Joyce, edited by Attridge, Derek and Howes, Marjorie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Deane, Seamus. "Joyce and Nationalism." In Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980, 92–107. London: Faber, 1985.
Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. 2 Rev ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.
Joyce, James. "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages." In The Critical Writings of James Joyce, edited by Ellman, Richard and Ellsworth, Mason, 154–174. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
Kiczek, Justin. "Joyce in Transit: The ‘Double Star’ Effect of Ulysses." James Joyce Quarterly 48, no. 2 (2011): 291–304.
Loeffler, Toby H. "‘Erin Go Bragh’: ‘Banal Nationalism’ and the Joycean Performance of Irish Nationhood." Journal of Narrative Theory 39, no. 1 (2009): 29–56.
Potts, Willard. Joyce and the Two Irelands. University of Texas Press, 2010.

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