“Voice, Knowledge, and Truth” or “Saying Nothing”

The 27th Annual Bloomsday Omniscientific Joyce event alternately titled “Voice, Knowledge, and Truth” or “Saying Nothing” was conducted on BloomsWeek Tuesday during Session 5. The session explored the unsaid in Joyce, open secrets, and anonymity all attributing to “the unspeakable and the unspoken.” Presenters included participating Chairperson Vincent Cheng delivering  “Saying Nothing in Joyce,” Margot Norris presenting “Obscure Dubliners in Dubliners,” and M. Teresa Caneda-Cabrera’s “Joyce and Silence.” The connecting theme of the presentations was the significance of “the unsaid in the stories of Dubliners. 

Examples of the significance of the unsaid included meaningful silences, open secrets, actions that communicate in place of words, and punctuations that invite the reader to conjure dialog. 

Margot Norris asked the audience to consider the similarity of the silences as the boy communicants receive and drink the blood of Parnell and Father Flynn without making any ritualistic response. She further showed that the open secret of Father Keon’s defrocking in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” was his weakness for drink. Caneda-Cabrera highlighted the unspoken shame of the laundry women of Dublin by Gaslight as they roll down sleeves over their seared and rough red arms before entering the polite company of their matrons. This presentation also contended that in “The Dead” those who have gone before speak through ellipses. Vincent Chung’s concluding piece focused on its title “Whatever you say, say nothing.” This title might be interpreted to mean that meaningless, incomplete, equivocal, or dishonest words can be acceptable substitutions for silence.

The most engaging element of the discussion came via a question posed by Catherine Flynn to the panel. She asked for opinions about a comment made by Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien) in an interview. O’Nolan’s question pondered whether silence had the same meaning in the Irish language as it does in English. No stimulating response was forthcoming, but the question seems important. 

Silence would have the same pronunciation in Irish or English with an Aussie or Northeastern American accent, but the meaning might be dissimilar based on cultural biases. Not being a native speaker of Irish or a native of Dublin or Liverpool, any of my speculation on the meaning of silence would leave the pool of understanding unchanged or worse-muddied. Having age as my only talent, I can claim to compare American cultural influences on silence over time. Here I think I might contribute.

While I am not Irish, I claim to be distinctly and distinctively Irish-American. That culture no longer exists as an American demographic due to distance (from Ireland but also through an exodus from Irish-American communities), dissolution (assimilation), and distillation (every Irish-American of my generation married an Italian-American). Between the nostalgia of the 1950s and brutal contemporary clarity, the institutions of Parochial School education, The Urban Democratic Party loyalty, and Labor Union membership eroded. With it, solidarity and unquestioned obedience to religious, political, and fraternal or sororal order faded away. In halcyon days, silence was the only response to authority and golden. 

By contrast, America’s current blend of highest common denominator pop culture values chatter above all things. Here and now silence is nearly extinguished. But in the event that silence is encountered in response to any order, opinion, or icon, the meaning of silence is opposition or defiance. Silence is the perfection of the passive-aggressive response, and acceptance is not indicated by silence as once promised.  

Neither the writings of Joyce nor O’Nolan are important, except to the few who earn their bread writing about or teaching them. What is vital to those who read them is that they prod simple readers like me to contemplate gemstones and lumps of coal.

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