Guest Blog by Gordon Strong: James Joyce – Myth as Narrative



…a brave man would invent something that never happened!



In both Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist and the prototype of the latter – Stephen Hero – Joyce is concerned with the presenting of ‘truth’.  Not only is he concerned with depicting accurately the mores of Victorian and Edwardian Ireland, he is also determined that his protagonist shall not succumb to the false doctrines that Joyce detected all around him.  Much has been made of the autobiographical nature of Joyce’s work, but he is much too skilled an artist to be content with a roman a clef.

Richard Kearney describes the essence of Joyce’s writing,‘…where simple contingencies of everyday existence can be transmuted into narrative ‘epiphanies’[1], and it seems that Stephen Dedalus is constantly in the throes of some miraculous revelation.  In Ulysses this theme is intensified to the extent that every character seems to be searching their soul in an attempt at self-realisation.

Ulysses James JoyceJoyce’s decision to quit his homeland did not mean that he removed himself in his mind from Dublin.  By setting Ulysses in that city – both temporally and spiritually – he would be able to combine history and myth.  This would not be exclusively Homeric, Joyce simply chooses to convey the intensity of situations in a fantastic way.  He intends that his readers themselves experience a personal catharsis when presented with tragedy – or conversely, an epiphany.  Kearney is referring here to Tolkien’s view of myth when he states,

The fundamental motivation of all narrative art…is to open up a ‘secondary world’ or ‘sub creation’ which discloses truths and realities normally occluded by the primary world of ordinary perception and opinion.[2]

So effortlessly does Joyce move his characters from one state of reality to another that the reader unquestioningly accepts these shifts in perspective and accommodates the change of focus from subjective to objective.  Joyce amplifies our understanding of each episode no matter how diverse the content may seem to be.  Intimacy is created by distance and, as Mikhail Bakhtin insists, ‘…it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding – in time, space or culture.’[3]  T.S. Eliot employed a similar dictum when he composed The Waste Land , published in 1922 the same year as Ulysses appeared.  The poet was greatly influenced by the philosopher F.H. Bradley, who proposed that the presence of disparate elements in any account enhanced the reader’s vision.

The ‘truth’ about anything need not be a single statement; it may be a paradox, or a collection of inconsistent statements. Joyce was continually searching for an approach to writing that fulfilled the same role as mimesis in Greek Drama.  Aristotle regarded drama as ‘an imitation of an action’, and here we may discover a clue to Joyce’s intentions – always to create a scene that cannot be ultimately attributed to a particular time or place. As Michael Davis comments, ‘Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end.’[4]

JoyceJoyce desires to show ‘the essential being’ of any world that he creates and  even objects have a ‘life’ and a character.  This notion of actuality, ‘assembling reality’ in a collection of impressions and separate planes, was at the heart of Werner Heisenberg’s philosophy in the 1950s.

The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.[5]

Joyce was aware that consciousness is a moveable feast – no individual ever possessing a monopoly on ‘truth’.  He would have agreed with Charles Tart, a researcher in parapsychology, who noted that, ‘all perception is constructed and necessarily inaccurate.’[6]

Joyce also used story-telling in an idiosyncratic manner in order to express the experience of time.   Bahktin refers to the novel as a ‘chronotope’, which he defines as ‘the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature’[7].  As Fred Alan Wolf observes, time is ‘motion, experience and memory’[8]. Joyce not only offers us new ways of regarding the world he reveals its infinite wonder.  As Eliade pronounced, ‘les mythes sont vrai, parcequ’ils sont sacres’.


[1] Richard Kearney, On Stories (London: Routledge, 2002), p.19
[2] Ibid. P. 158
[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993.
[4] Michael Davis. The Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle’s Poetics. (Indiana: St Augustine’s Press 1999) p.156
[5] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper& Row 1958) p.107
[6] Charles Tart, Waking up: Overcoming the obstacles to human potential (Boston: New Science Library 1986) p.63
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, In The Dialogic Imagination. (Austin: Univ. Texas Press 1981) p. 84.
[8] Fred Alan Wolf, The Dreaming Universe (New York: Simon& Schuster 1994) p.169

© Gordon Strong  2012.
Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.


About Daniel

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1 Response to Guest Blog by Gordon Strong: James Joyce – Myth as Narrative

  1. Pingback: James Joyce – Myth as Narrative | Literatura inglesa

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