Teaching aid: I prepare to teach “Ulysses” for the last time

A Note about Joyce and the Jews

Toward the end of the Ithaca episode in Ulysses, the conversation between Stephen and Mr. Bloom turns to the subject of their two ethnicities, Irish and Jewish, and Stephen sings Bloom a ballad about a Jewish woman who cuts off the head of a little boy named Harry Hughes. The ballad is a folk version of the legend of Hugh of Lincoln, which English majors will recognize (oh well: ought to recognize) from another version: the ending of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.

Chaucer died in 1400. The roots of the murderous canon of Christian tales about Jews go deep into English culture. As George Orwell’s excellent 1945 essay “Antisemitism in Britain” will demonstrate, Jew-hatred became impolite in England after the rise of Hitler, but it has always been present and – impolite or polite – it has never gone away.

Among Joyce’s important literary contemporaries, for instance, the expressed attitudes toward Jews generally ranged from snide (George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and, yes, at the beginning of his career, George Orwell) through defamatory (the professional Catholic G. K. Chesterton and his collaborator Hilaire Belloc), with suggestions of genocide audible offshore from Eliot’s Jew-hating mentors Charles Maurras (French) and Ezra Pound (American). Virginia Woolf sincerely loved her Jewish husband, but she despised his family and every other Jew who crossed her path. Over the years a few non-Jewish authors have raised their voices against the general detestation, but only a few. From the Victorian era I can single out George Eliot and Charles Dickens; from the desperate years just before World War II, J. R. R. Tolkien and Basil Bunting; from today, J. K. Rowling. But today, also, literary England has a flourishing population of open Jew-haters with solidly established reputations, from A. N. Wilson on the political right to Tom Paulin on the left. About the hate, down the centuries, little to nothing has changed.

To all this the great exception is James Joyce.

One biographical explanation is straightforward. From 1905 to 1915 Joyce taught English in a commercial language school in Trieste, a city that’s now in Italy but was then part of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one of his students there was a Jewish businessman named Ettore Schmitz. Schmitz was also a novelist, he and Joyce became friends, he introduced Joyce to some members of Trieste’s Jewish community, and the rest is literary history.

Or, say, a small part of the rest. The big part, the interestingly mysterious part, we might think about in the form of a question: what immunized Joyce against his culture’s normative attitude toward Jews?

No, I don’t expect you to answer. I certainly can’t, myself. But what I can ask you to do is be aware of how different Joyce was and is from his European Christian culture, how profound was his rejection of it, and how radical was his experiment in synthesizing a replacement culture out of words alone.

— English 440 (James Joyce), University of Hawaii at Manoa, spring 2019