Episode 11: Sirens, ~pp 252-286

What They Are Saying, Episode 11

Joyce has a tenor’s affection for the Irish rebel song “The Croppy Boy.” Richard Ellmann shares a published review by Joseph Holloway of a musical evening when Joyce was to perform that song to piano accompaniment. Instead, he accompanied himself singing “In Her Simplicity” after his pianist was unable to play the scheduled ballad.

How could Sunny Jim help but love a song of ill-fated rebellion? Portrait is barely opened when Casey, the bomb tosser who reappears in Ulysses as Egan, jousts with Dante Riordan over the relative responsibilities of the Irish to The Church and a free Ireland. That plot shapes “The Croppy Boy” where the false priest betrays Irish independence. Joyce was a rebel too but not for God or Country. He fought to free his art from censorship by God and Country.

It may risk offense to the reader to say religions, perhaps most religions, are authoritarian and, as such, oppose independent thinking. Nationalism can be oppositional to independent thinking too. Long before he emigrated from Ireland, Joyce rejected the nationalism flogged on by Yeats, Gregory, and AE. Remaining fervently Irish and Catholic too in the cultural and “racial” sense, Joyce espoused not internationalism in exile but a strange nationalism. He lived an odyssey without Ithaca- first in Paris, then windblown from Zurich to Trieste, beached in Pola, through dire straits in Rome, back to lotus-eating Paris, war-driven finally again to Zurich.

Surprisingly both nationalists and internationalists find comfort in Joyce’s work. One such writer is Franklin Wallace Strong of The University of Texas at Austin. In “El acoso, Sirens and Carpentier’s Joyce” and again in “Impossible Harmonies: Race and Nation in the Neobaroque Novel,” Strong develops a broad comparison of Joyce’s “Sirens” episode to works set in 1950s Cuba. He uses Joyce’s devotion to Dublin as a nationalistic argument. Strong’s work is based on Georges Borach’s conversations with James Joyce and draws a direct comparison with Alejo Carpentier’s attempt to reprise Joyce’s treatment of Dublin’s music but set in Cuba. Like Joyce, Carpentier also lived for decades in exile. Unlike Joyce, he returned happily to Cuba. There and elsewhere he played an active political role serving as ambassador and proselytizing for Castro’s Latin brand of Communism in Venezuela. Joyce, of course, maintained a distance from all politics.

A gulf separates Carpentier and Joyce making the homage pleasing but inappropriate. The Cuba of “El asaso” may have struggled to establish an independent populist identity, but Ireland was different. Cuba already had a national identity, a single language, and a single culture. Joyce’s Ireland even after “independence” could claim no national identity. Irish politics, therefore, is personal rather than national. The eponymous croppy boy attempts to join the fight not to gain some social goal but to avenge the deaths of brothers and father. Even the names of rebel organizations may reflect a cult of kin (“Sinn Fein” translates “Ourselves Alone”).

Traditional Irish music is a soundtrack of hopelessness, keening for the penniless rebellions. The hopelessness is reflected in “Sirens” by the hopelessness of the characters. Budgen observes,” Fatalism is often the fighter’s, the soldier’s philosophy, but the soldier fights none the worse for knowing that on the appointed day the tide of battle will turn against him.”

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