(GJ) Canto XVII (p.6, ll. 20-27).

Pimply Meissel brought me here. He is beyond those trees standing with covered head at the grave of his suicide wife,….

Modernism, the label pinned to James Joyce’s writing, abandons traditional society’s buttresses. Modernists name religion and state as outdated and corrupt influences of the traditionalist society. The third prop, the family, nuclear and extended, might be said to crumble today too. Before Modernists could abandon Church and State, Western thought had to first soften from the rock-hard rigor of Augustinian and Kantian ethos into a system made tender by the addition of pathos and a more flexible logos. Intellectuals tussled for a century over the foundations of the Enlightenment and Romanticism before Modernism could manage a foothold. And that struggle may be seen as the culmination of a one-thousand-year debate within Judaism that plays out in Giacomo Joyce and Ulysses

Until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, European philosophy accepted a rigid set of rules founded on objective reality and unbending ethics. Situational accommodations were forbidden. According to Kant, for example, any lie was a damned lie. Kant’s thinking was out of step with Aquinas’s writings but would have made Augustine smile (if Augustine ever smiled). With the writings of Schopenhauer, Hegel (no hero to Schopenhauer), and Nietzsche, factors reflecting human individuality superseded Kant’s take-it-or-leave-it salvation.  

Judaism had debated the need for a light hand in ethical matters for a thousand years or more. One subject of debate since the writing of the Talmud is suicide. The earliest thinking regarding suicide is that the prohibition against murder also condemns suicide (Sariel. “A Matter of Life and Death: The Halakhic Discussion of Suicide as a Philosophical Battleground”). Judaism had always distinguished between the proscriptions against honoring the suicide and showing sympathy for grieving family members who are innocent of any wrongdoing. In Tanna’s view in Tractate Semahot, liberal allowances for the feelings and honor of the surviving family were permitted. During the nineteenth century, one rabbinical debate resulted in a more narrow definition of “the criteria for defining suicide,” showing greater generosity and empathy toward both the suffering suicide and the family. 

Jewish written opinion and oral tradition also distinguished among the reasons for suicide. Rabbis debated the possible justification for avoiding God’s law (for example, to avoid forced sexual relations after capture by an enemy). Frequently cited examples came from cases of rape. Others, like King Saul’s suicide, were thought by some scholars to be justified defenses of the honor of God’s kingdom on Earth ( Zion, Noam Sachs. A Rabbinic Life of Temptation, Shame and Suicide). Cases not condemned as suicides included those performed in atonement for sin. 

As early as 1805, the Chatham Sofer supported a recommendation that made the classification of a death as suicide less likely. The opinion stated it was impossible to know a person’s final intention, even if they declared themselves determined to commit suicide. Sariel points out this development followed trends in broader European thinking. As early as 1774, a young Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther wrote of a justified suicide due to lost love. Hume undertook a series of attacks on Augustine’s condemnation of suicide. Rabbinical documents on the subject were earlier, more liberal, and more comprehensive than Christian thinkers’.

Meissel’s trip to his wife’s grave circa 1908 followed considerably liberalized Talmidic thought. A modern understanding of human psychology was developing too. For Meissel, these might have offered some comfort but did not erase his grief. The transition from Enlightenment rationality to Romanticism’s focus on human feelings may relieve but obviously does not remove grief. The Modernist revolution, however, was looming and was about to change the world. Within a decade, the Hades episode of Ulysses takes shape. Bloom, still suffering from his father’s suicide, the death of his son and the end of his lineage, his wife’s infidelity, and his exclusion from society still finds a purpose for living, without religion, state or family.

don ward August 6, 2020

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