A Reader’s Guide to the James Joyce Symposium

A colleague of mine at University College, Dublin, once pointed out how quickly scholars took on the character of those authors whom they made their sole study. The Yeatsians in his judgement were generally arrogant and autocratic; the Shavians all seemed to have overdosed on the life force; the Beckettians were all permanently depressed; the Gregorians flighty and feminist; the O’Caseyans pedantic and paranoid. But, he added by way of a modest qualification, ‘the Joyceans are usually very nice’.
                                                         Declan Kiberd, “Joyce’s Ellman, Ellman’s Joyce”, 1999.

I read James Joyce. I have read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I have read Ulysses many times. I have read all the pages in Finnegans Wake, some of them more than once. I will continue to read these works in future, together with Stephen Hero, the play Exiles, poetry and non-fiction. As well as reading Joyce on my own, I read and discuss Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in reading groups.

Though I have read a lot of Joyce (to paraphrase Guy Debord), compared to others who read Joyce, I have read very little. There is a vast and growing literature which explores Joyce’s life and work and expounds his encyclopaedic knowledge. His opus is a touchstone for theories of literature and philosophical thought. Many of the authors of these works and those who study and teach them are members of the International James Joyce Foundation. There are professors and lecturers, PhD. candidates and independent scholars in its ranks. A fair cross-section of them can be found gathered together every second year at the James Joyce Symposium.


The 2016 symposium took place in London over six days from the 13th to the 18th of June. These meetings began in 1966 and this being the 25th it also marked the Symposium’s and the Foundation’s 50th year, hence the name, the Anniversary Symposium. Organised by the Institute of English Studies (School of Advanced Study), the venue was the Senate House of the University of London.

The Senate House is a 1936 edifice situated in Bloomsbury, to the north of the British Museum. It would not look out of place in New York and, indeed, stood in for Gotham City in a Batman film. During the Second World War it housed the Ministry of Information under Brendan Bracken. George Orwell was employed there and it became the model for the Ministry of Truth in his dystopia, Nineteen Eighty Four. In the novel Room 101 is where a non-conformist comes face-to-face with his worst fears. I can report that rooms on the first floor of the Senate House are numbered from 102.

The proceedings of the Symposium took place in four or five lecture rooms over two floors. There were four “plenary sessions” in a full day with breaks for coffee in the morning and afternoon and an hour for lunch. (Monday morning was registration, Thursday afternoon was free.) This meant there were 19 plenary sessions (numbered A to S) Each panel session consisted of 3, 4 or 5 seminars or “parallel sessions” in which 3 or 4 papers were given followed by questions from the audience. This meant that in excess of 250 papers were given, or 250 active participants in the Symposium were called upon to present their researches into Joyce and his work.

Lunchtimes were occasions for more meetings as well as readings from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, on which attendees offered their interpretations. The evenings were also taken up with lectures by the writer Iain Sinclair, historian Roy Foster and Joyce scholar Anne Fogarty, On the first evening there was a reception at the Irish embassy (the cause of some sore heads the next morning) and a dinner on Thursday evening. Symposiums, you see, are not for the faint-hearted but are a trial of stamina and attention. They require physical and mental strength.

The Symposium Programme (a booklet of nearly 50 pages) listed sessions from A1 (“Joyce, Authorship and Autobiography”) to S4 (“Affect, Ethics and Subjectivity in A Portrait”). Each session grouped together papers with a common theme. The titles of papers ranged from the prosaic (The Celibate Lives of Dubliners), via titles with a quotation (‘Let me out of this’: The Impeded Agency of Molly Bloom), to the intriguing (The Arse Men: Bottoming out with Joyce, Dedalus and Bloom).

Contributors were identified by name and academic institution (if any). Neither, I found, could be taken as a reliable guide to the nationality or first language of the speaker. All the presentations were in English but their delivery could vary. An interesting content could be lost when read sotto voce, in a strong accent and with little rapport with the audience. Other presentation were lively and direct. A special mention is deserved for Georgina Binnie from Leeds who had practised (before a mirror, she admitted) a clear and well paced reading of her paper on women photographers in Trieste between the wars.


For my own edification I established a number of rough categories into which I could place topics and thereby make some sense of the proceedings.

Eng. Lit. These papers are based on a close reading of Joyce’s texts, aided by the speaker’s own life experience and their readings of other literary works. They make an argument for a particular interpretation of what Joyce attempts or achieves and hope to cast light on the way we live our own lives. This may be the most fruitful approach for the non-academic readers to Joyce for they can often bring something unique in the way of experience or knowledge. It can also give rise to interesting variations on interpretations influenced by background and age.

Scholarly. Here the range of references widens from literature to other disciplines: classics, music, science, technology, politics, etc. This is much in the spirit of Joyce’s own encyclopaedic knowledge and eclectic interests. Sometimes such papers seem to have a tenuous connection to Joyce’s work but can then illuminate some otherwise obscure aspect.

Biographical. Papers which interrogate Joyce’s life through letters and memoirs and explore the history of his times and the places in which he lived and set his fictions.

Genetic Joyce. This is a growth area in Joyce studies. Anyone with familiarity with a work such as Finnegans Wake quickly comes to the conclusion that its composition was not simple and straightforward. In fact Joyce filled numerous notebooks with writings which were then transcribed to other notebooks, to drafts and proofs and finally to the published novel. Joyceans trace this process as an aide to understanding Joyce’s creative methods. They may also map unintended changes which occurred.


Clearly it is not possible to attend every session of the Symposium. Nor are all sessions equal in popularity. Some are sparsely attended while a packed session in the next room might leave participants standing or sitting on the floor. A description of some of the sessions I attended and an account of some of the papers presented there may give the reader something of the flavour of the Symposium.


Ethan King of Boston University in Dead Side of the Street This, showed how Joyce revised the Hades episode of Ulysses to add references to monuments and statues along the route from Sandymount to Glasnevin cemetery. This was Joyce’s response, King argued, to the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. The “dead side of the street” is the side of O’Connell/Sackville Street with the General Post Office, the scene of the fiercest fighting in the uprising. It is also the 1904 site of an empty plinth waiting for the statue of Parnell. But the first statue which is mentioned in Hades is dedicated to Smith O’Brien who, incidentally, died on the 16th of June 1864. Bloom, however, cannot recollect the name, the fate of many such memorials.


Keith Williams of the University of Dundee came up with a detailed and absorbing account of the technology and culture of magic lanterns. “Lanternism” (a real word according to Williams) was highly popular at the close of the nineteenth century, both in domestic and public settings. The techniques, forms and narrative devices developed there influenced the earliest films. Of most relevance, though, was Joyce’s deployment in A Portrait of the Artist of the effects used in lantern shows and some of the technical terms to describe Stephen’s “shifts of consciousness”. For example, lantern slides often had a blank area where another slide could be projected to show events in the past or the future as if they were appearing in the minds of the characters. This raised some interesting questions. Could we, as Joyce does for Stephen, assert that this is a useful model of consciousness? Do new technologies provide metaphors for our perception of ourselves? Does how we think we think become the way we think?


A session on Joyce and the Easter Rising brought together two views of the leaders of the rebellion. Vincent S. Chang’s account was the familiar one of poets and playwrights and of their influences: Irish heroes and martyrs, Cuchulain and Robert Emmet, patriotism and Catholicism. It has always been difficult to see how the socialist James Connolly found common cause given the views of his fellow rebels. A possible answer was provided by Luke Gibbons of NUI Maynooth. His researches into the character of Patrick Pearse revealed a nationalist in the modern, European mode, interested in science and technology and, as if in response to Keith Williams’s paper, an enthusiast of magic lanterns. His favourite lantern story was Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and the hero of that novel, Sydney Carton, a role-model. Pearse may also have been influenced in his social outlook by the Dublin Lockout of 1913 led by Connolly and Larkin, and by the suffering of working class Dubliners in that episode.

Gibbons also pointed to Connolly’s contribution to the rebellion. His knowledge of the techniques of street fighting were learned at first hand from veterans of the Paris Commune. In turn, representatives of the Russian Bolshevik Party visited Dublin in the aftermath of the rising and the execution of its leaders, and in advance of the October revolution in Russia.


A session entitled “People and Places in Finnegans Wake” included in people, John McCormack, the famous and successful tenor (whose fame and success eluded Joyce), and who is a constant presence in Finnegans Wake; and Sir Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard whose indiscretion in Hyde Park in London in 1925 and subsequent court case may or may not have suggested goings on in Phoenix Park in Dublin.

Places for Katherine O’Callaghan of Mount Holyoake College were Croagh Patrick in County Mayo and a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany which gave its name to her topic, the Brocken Spectre. This is an optical illusion where an observer standing on a high prominence, with bright sunlight behind her, casts a magnified shadow on the mist below, the huge figure appearing with a rainbow halo. Readers of the Wake will be familiar with the theme of giants while other literary references includes “An image with a glory round its head ”, a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


David Vichnar and Louis Armand, both of Prague University, read papers on Joyce’s legacy: Iain Sinclair, Intertextual Lay Lines and Joyce Retracing Sinclair Retracing Joyce. I was unfamiliar with the texts of Sinclair and also with the theoretical basis of their analysis and my concentration lapsed in this session. While I was very aware of the seriousness with which they delivered their addresses, it wasn’t clear to me whether the speakers were critical of Sinclair or not, and even whether that was relevant.

My mind wandered to a recent novel by Laurent Binet which recounts the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich during the second world war by a Czech and a Slovak trained by the British special forces. I fancied that perhaps David and Louis, in a mirror image of that operation, had been sent from Prague to London to do away with Iain Sinclair who was scheduled to give the plenary address to the Symposium the following evening. I’m pleased to report that our author survived and that I saw the Prague pair on Thursday afternoon, relaxing in the open-air café in Russell Square. I gave them a wave, and they waved back.


One person who would never be found at a James Joyce symposium is Roland McHugh, whose Annotations to Finnegans Wake are an invaluable resource. McHugh’s opinions on conferences and those who attend them are forcibly expressed in his book The Finnegans Wake Experience. Recently he left his archive to the James Joyce Centre in Dublin and its research scholar Terence Killeen gave us a first look in a paper called The Heroic Age of Wake Studies. Excerpts from McHugh’s correspondence with Adeline Glasheen featured trenchant opinions of their Joyceans contemporaries.


In the “Teaching and Pedagogy” session Elizabeth Switaj brought Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens to bear on the element of play in Finnegans Wake. John Nash of Durham University spoke on his research into T. S. Eliot’s notes for a lecture course Eliot delivered in America in 1935. The content of the lectures demonstrated how central to the literature of the day Eliot judged Joyce’s work.

The session ended with a paper by Serenella Zanotti of Rome Tre University. This was intended as a joint presentation with Rosa Maria Bosinelli who sadly died earlier this year. Their study looked at workbooks of a student of Joyce’s in Trieste when Joyce was teaching English at the Berlitz School. Zanotti showed that word lists, in Joyce’s handwriting and that of his student, had been drawn initially from Berlitz’s own material and from The Little Londoner, one of a series of language primers (Le Petit Parisien, and so on). As the student’s knowledge advanced so the word lists were drawn from more demanding material: English poems, novels and essays. Finally, and here the speaker relaxed a little and allowed herself a smile, there was a word list from Joyce’s novel which he was known to be working on at the time, A Portrait if the Artist as a Young Man. After the formality of closing questions, thunderous applause rose from the assembled audience, hats were thrown, rafters raised and Serenella borne in triumph from room G35 on the shoulders of her admirers.


Hans Walter Gabriel chaired a session on genetic Joyce and computers. Two presentations showed how computer databases could be used to map the composition of Ulysses, tracing content from notebook to notebook, to draft and proof copies. In both papers the sources of Joyce’s text, the chronology of their production and the connections between them was represented in computer graphics. The authors of the papers emphasised that the work done on the databases so far was only the beginning and much co-operative effort was required to produce a useful resource for Joyce scholars.

The discussion which followed suffered from confusion over computer terminology. “Big data” was mentioned when the term “metadata” was more appropriate: the connections between items of data. A current example is the metadata of phone calls. Governments gather the telephone numbers connected and the duration of calls but not their content. In the same way we were shown which of Joyce’s notebooks provided and which received text but not the text itself.

In one of the graphical presentations of the database, the notebooks were arranged in a clock formation to show their chronological sequence, the connections between them were ribbons of different colours. While striking, such presentations may promise more than is actually delivered.


Heyward Erlich of Rutgers University raised an intriguing question regarding Molly Bloom’s reading material in Ulysses. Given her taste in novels, what book could she have been reading which might contain the word “metempsychosis”? In answer Erlich traced the word from the original Greek, and its meaning, the migration of souls from body to body. The word survived into Roman times and poets would bolster their importance by claiming to have received the soul of a dead master. Homer was a favourite here. This led to cynicism amongst the satirists of the day and metempsychosis took on a secondary meaning of a trick or sleight of hand. Later it was applied to the craft of magic and illusions, not only on the stage but in the circus. The conclusion was drawn that Molly might be reading a story set in a circus or maybe an account of circus folk.


My most memorable event of the Symposium was a duologue with the veteran Joycean Fritz Senn “in conversation with” Tim Conley. Senn was rather dismissive of contributors reading papers and preferred to speak off the cuff, aided by a sympathetic interviewer. His topic was the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses which he said was purposely written in clumsy and inelegant English, although it was difficult to pin down exactly what was wrong with it. This was a problem for translators of Ulysses who were accused of producing bad German or French and had to insist that, no, the original is in bad English.

Senn was particularly fond of those moments in the episode where the ambiguity of an expression or a tautological construction provokes amusement. Senn’s evident enjoyment of the examples he gave was infectious and had the audience laughing. Bloom’s comment about a horse being “at the end of its tether” was ambiguous in that – and here like a teller of a joke who can’t deliver the punchline because he’s laughing so much, Fritz was dissolved in tears of laughter as were his listeners – the horse wasn’t on a tether. Question time, too was turned on its head. Rather than answer questions, Fritz asked his audience if anyone could explain the significance of the figure 16 tattooed on the sailor’s chest. Plausible answers proffered by Alistair Stead and Austin Briggs were rejected out of hand.


A poem about the Edinburgh Festival by Robert Garioch begins, In simmer, when aa sorts foregether, and continues,

folk seek out friens to hae a blether,
or faes they’d fain annoy.

I expected that after days of intense concentration and discussion that nerves would fray and debate would become more pointed. But if anyone at the Symposium was out to “annoy foes”, I wasn’t aware of it. Maybe Joyceans really are “very nice”.


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