(GC) Cantos XX, XXI (p. 8, ll. 1-2, 10-17).

Great bows on her slim bronze shoes: spurs of a pampered fowl. 

The lady goes apace, apace, apace ….. Pure and silence on the upland road: and hoofs. A girl on horseback. Hedda! Hedda Gabler!

Between these lines lurks Joyce’s dilemma. The first of these cantos leers at one of the maestro’s sexual peculiarities. The second is an existential threat to the professor.

You recall Joyce’s retelling of the episode in early Paris days when he was delighted to squeeze his foot into a girl’s shoe. He shared his foot fetish with his artistic creation, Leopold Bloom. In Trieste, post-Paris, pre- Bloom, he encountered another booted maiden. Amalia Popper is astride her mount beside her father. The scene recalls Ibsen’s father-daughter tandem, General and Hedda Gabler, and the influence that destroyed another creative spirit. 

No two equestrian ladies could be more different than Hedda and Amalia. Amalia Popper rides a gentle trot; Hedda Gabler demands a breakneck pace. If Principessa Popper was flattered or even aware of Joyce’s pursuit, that remains her secret. At most, SHE was passive to his attention rather than a provocateur. Hedda Gabler-Tesman, on the other hand, seized the initiative in every relationship, whether to cure boredom, to tear down the preeminence of men, or to destroy the artistic impulse. General Gabler encouraged his daughter’s actions, his only bequest to her was a set of dueling pistols (Webb, “The Radical Irony of Hedda Gabler“). She uses them to destructive and self-destructive purposes.

Before the curtain rises, Hedda threatened Lovborg with her father’s pistol. He fell into drunkenness and neglected his art until he was resurrected and reassembled by Thea Elvsted. Now rededicated to his craft, Lovberg has written the masterwork that will establish his reputation as an intellectual. Fearing him as a rival to her husband, Hedda lures him back into debauchery, tempts him to suicide, and, even after learning he will not foil Tesman’s career, she burns the only copy of Lovborg’s manuscript. Lovborg fouls Hedda’s plan for his dramatic suicide, killing himself through the weapon’s accidental discharge instead. Her complicity unravels before lecherous Judge Brack, and Hedda takes her own life rather than suffer Brack’s control.

Critics are anxious to assign symbolism to Hedda Gabler despite what Ibsen himself had to say on the subject: “What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.” Ruth S. Berry insists: “The heroine (Hedda) is an individual and not a type.” In this, Ibsen predicts the coming of the Modernists. Other critics are equally insistent that Hedda Gabler is a symbol of radical feminism or Dionysian destruction. James Dionysius

Giacomo Joyce may have thought himself a charismatic Dionysius, enjoying his followers’ frenzied enthusiasm. In “Ibsen’s New Drama,” he wrote, “Had (Rubek, a character of another play) been a genius like Eljert (Lovborg) he would have understood in a truer way the value of his life.” Joyce believed in his own genius and understood that the “value of his life” was also artistic. In Hedda Gabler, he saw the potential for his self-destruction in Lovborg’s obsession, benign though Amalia Popper might have been. As a mature writer, Joyce was the most disciplined and controlled of artists. Had he been tempted to succumb fully to drink, he might neglect his art in pursuit of Amalia Popper and lose his way.

don ward August 18, 2020

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