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James Joyce and Catholicism

The Apostate's Wake


Chrissie Van Mierlo


Historicising Modernism Series

London: Bloomsbury, 2017

Hardcover. viii+161 p. ISBN 978-1472585943. 80


Reviewed by Geert Lernout

Universiteit Antwerpen





As Chrissie Van Mierlo admits in the conclusion to her book, the subject of Joyce's Catholicism "remains something of a battleground" which has everything to do with "larger questions of national and cultural allegiance" [141], but also, as the author convincingly shows in her study, with history itself, something that the Englishman Haines knew already in the first chapter of Ulysses: "It seems history is to blame". For contemporary readers of his work, Joyce's relationship status with the Church of Rome has become more complicated over the years, not less. Joyce's Catholicism and Joyce's Ireland have changed utterly, as has Great Britain. No longer priest-ridden, the Republic of Ireland is shedding the last remnants of what made it such a thoroughly Catholic nation, from the moment when it became independent from the UK, which is also when Joyce had just finished Ulysses and when he began to write Finnegans Wake, the work Van Mierlo's study takes at its focus. And it is interesting to note that the Ireland that we know today, post-Celtic tiger, has outgrown the Ireland of Joyce's lifetime at roughly the same pace as it has begun to embrace Joyce's work.

Catholicism has also changed radically, after Vatican II, despite the attempts in the sixties by the Dublin archbishop John Charles McQuaid at the time (generally thought to have had a hand in the writing of the extremely conservative Irish 1927 constitution) to keep Rome's novelties away from the emerald isle. In the last half-century, Catholic Ireland has gone through a rapid process of secularisation that may well be unprecedented in recent European history: in 1972 more than 90% of Irish Catholics attended church weekly, today that figure is less than thirty, with only 14% in the Dublin region, and even less among younger people. And the remaining Catholics in Ireland have quickly become just as secularised as those in other West European countries, with adherents rejecting key beliefs and ritual practices that were loyally followed just a short time ago.

Needless to say, Great Britain has changed as well. Since Joyce's death, the UK has lost almost all of its overseas empire, it became part of the European Union and, probably in an attempt to go back in time, voted for Brexit last year. When Stephen Dedalus in the first chapter of Ulysses, just before the sentence just quoted, tells the Britisher Haines that he is the server of two masters, one English and the other Italian, both the British Empire and the Church of Rome that he is talking about have ceased to exist.

So when we read Joyce's work and especially the role in it of Britain, Ireland and Catholicism, we really have to explain first what we mean by those terms, especially when we know that quite a few Joyce critics have claimed and continue to claim that there is a special quality to Irish Catholicism that makes it markedly different from other forms of Catholicism, most prominently the English variant. At least this was the thesis of Thomas McGreevy, who wrote on Finnegans Wake in the famous volume of studies about "Work in Progress", edited by Samuel Beckett, Our Exagmination. Chrissie Van Mierlo is quite right to demonstrate how silly this argument was, at least in the manner as it is described by McGreevy.

The Catholic church that Joyce grew up in did have a special quality, much like any other national church in the nineteenth century. More specifically, it was a beleaguered church in an officially Protestant country. At the same time, after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1830, the Church of Rome in Ireland had become a majority church that could not be side-stepped by the government in London and that ended up being in control of most of education, health and social services in Ireland, even before the establishment of the Free State in 1922. From his correspondence and from his comments to family and friends, we know quite a bit about Joyce's attitude to this Church and to this Catholic Ireland, and it is surprising that there are critics who feel justified in ignoring these statements by turning Joyce into an Irish nationalist, in a historical context where, retro-actively at least (especially in the light of the Ulster crisis in the seventies and eighties) nationalism is thought to equal Catholicism.

In her introduction Chrissie Van Mierlo confidently describes these crucial issues and in the process she makes all the necessary historical and cultural distinctions. For the purposes of her book, she limits her study to Joyce's final work and her interest in Irish Catholicism to what she calls the "culture of Catholicism in Ireland c. 1850-1939" [6]. This is also where she explains her choice for what she calls "the historical method" [29] of which a genetic approach to Joyce's manuscripts and notebooks will be an important part. The first chapter of the book opens with a survey of Catholic reactions to Joyce, beginning with the Catholic convert Shane Leslie's review of Ulysses in which he read the book as an insult to the Irish, both Catholics and Protestants. She then moves to the theoretical writings of mostly French post-structuralist authors (Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Beryl Schlossman) who went, for a time at least, through a Catholic phase and then she presents the rather troubled reading of Joyce's Catholicism by the even more recent post-colonial critics. The rest of the introduction attempts to find an appropriate term to describe Joyce's position vis--vis the Roman Catholic faith of his youth, which have ranged from unbelief, misbelief, heresy, Protestantism to the theologically most appropriate term chosen by Van Mierlo for her book "apostasy". Joyce was and is, as the Wake puts it, Ireland's "national apostate" [FW 171.33].

After these necessary preliminaries, the first chapter studies Joyce's self-portrait in the Wake, a portrait of the penman, Shem, painted by his pious twin Shaun. It is clear from the early part of his oeuvre and from the autobiographical heroes in his novels that Joyce saw himself primarily as an artist in opposition to all kinds of orthodoxy, so the alternatives to that orthodoxy played an important role in defining his position, starting with heresy. In fact one of the more famous heretics in Joyce's youth had the distinction of having been singled out at the end of the nineteenth century by the Italian freethought movement as a secular patron saint (with his own statue in Rome for which funds had been raised in the rest of Europe), so that bishops all over the world were asked by the Pope to warn the faithful. The Irish bishops wisely answered Rome that their parishioners had never heard about Giordano Bruno and that they weren't going to tell them about him.

But one of these presumed Catholic believers, young James Joyce, borrowed a quote from the man he cryptically called "the Nolan" in an essay he wanted to publish in one of the only "freethinking" literary magazines Ireland ever had (we should not forget that freethinking was an issue debated all over Europe at the time, especially in 1905 when the French government instituted the separation of Church and State).

Van Mierlo correctly shows that Joyce seems to have been interested more in the fact that Bruno was a heretic than in the precise content of his thinking (or what it was that made him a heretic) and she demonstrates in James Joyce a similar attitude when a quarter century later, he is gathering materials in his notebooks from the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Albigensians: to Joyce the fact of being heretics mattered more than their precise difference from the orthodox faith. Another form of critique of Catholicism that interested Joyce and that made its way into both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake was the ant-Catholic writings by the ex-priest Charles Chiniquy whose works played a role in the Protestant anxieties in the second half of the nineteenth century about increased (and predominantly Catholic) immigration in the United States. Chiniquy exposed the abuse in the Church, most often during the sacrament of confession, and we know that in the early thirties Joyce made ample notes from the book and incorporated them in his picture of Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake.

We hear a lot about Shem, but rarely hear him speak and Van Mierlo offers a sensitive reading of the rare instance when he briefly gives a speech, but soon his voice is replaced by that of his mother. Most of the Catholicism in the Wake can be found in the sections devoted to the character Shaun, whose four "watches" make up Book III.

Shaun is in most things the opposite of his artist-brother and it in Shaun that Joyce could most easily project his negative opinions about Catholic Ireland. Van Mierlo is at her best in the discussion of the sources of Shaun's sermon, with the very colorful Bernard Vaughan s.j. in a prominent role. Her discussion as a whole works as a corrective to the Joyce critic Andrew Gibson's claim that Joyce was so exercised about Vaughan because of his complicity with the British State on the one hand and on the other for "the worrying degree to which puritanical English values had come to influence the character of the Irish Church" [82]. Although strangely, he is called "an Irish priest" in a recent book on Irish nationalism, Bernard Vaughan was a British Jesuit who only occasionally gave sermons and lectures in Ireland (as he did in the United States) and whose supposed "complicity with the British state" only became an issue during the final turbulent years before the establishment of the Free State. But more relevantly, Van Mierlo shows in the next section that the Irish church that Joyce knew did not need British Jesuits to learn about puritanical values. Most local Irish customs had already been thoroughly destroyed before Joyce was born, through the efforts of the thoroughly Irish and thoroughly Ultramontane Cardinal Cullen, to such a degree that a contemporary satirist spoke of the "Cullenisation" of Rome. Van Mierlo breaks new ground in showing parallels of Shaun's sermon with Cardinal Cullen's Lenten Pastorals. She does go slightly astray, however, when she claims that Shaun's warning about "secret satieties" refers to Cullen's obsession with Freemasonry. In the mid-sixties, just before he was made the first Irish cardinal, Cullen had indeed condemned the influence of "secret societies" but these were Fenians whose interest in secret societies, according to the Archbishop, showed their inspiration in the anti-clerical secret societies that had been founded by Garibaldi and Mazzini. Cullen condemned the secret societies as the "biggest threat to the rights and liberties of the Catholic Church in Ireland". The Freemasons were Protestants anyway, while the Fenians, as Catholics, were much more of a threat to the Church. When Van Mierlo ends this chapter with Shaun becoming "rural Haun," her argument might have been strengthened if she had mentioned the presence in the Wake's "the crooner born with sweet wail of evoker, healing music" of the most famous performer of sentimental Irish songs like "The Meeting of the Waters," John McCormack, who is so much part of the Shaun character.

The third chapter of the book looks at the role of women in the Catholic context of the Wake, from the minor character Kate the Slop who is surely connected to the historical Kate Strong and though in this section I lost the link with Catholicism, Van Mierlo makes up for it with her interesting comments on feminist readings of the Wake's mature female character ALP and with her pointed critique of silly interpretations that speak of Joyce's "mariolatry", a term originally used in Protestant attacks on the excessive veneration of the Blessed Virgin by Catholics, but that some critics today have used to describe Joyce's own views.

While this chapter ranges more widely over the Wake and Joyce's oeuvre in general, in the fourth chapter Van Mierlo returns to the final book of Finnegans Wake and its description of a new dawn and felicitously most of the themes in the book are revisited here, especially the important political relevance of religion in Ireland. In the close reading of this section there is a reference to an "Old Bruton" who has wisely "withdrawn his theory" [FW 597.18f] and Van Mierlo speculates that this refers to Burton's theory about the source of the Nile. But we know that Joyce read and annotated the Terminal Essay in Burton's privately published 1001 Nights and the theory might very well refer to the controversial hypothesis in this essay that there existed a "Sodatic zone" in the South in which homosexuality was much more common than in more northern climes.

There is very little to quibble with in this book, based on a doctoral dissertation (the title of the famous sex manual, translated by Richard Burton, is not "Karma Sutra"). In this book, Chrissie Van Mierlo delivers what she set out to do: a historically based, genetic reading of James Joyce's final and most complex work from the perspective of the religion the Irish writer grew up in and that, in an early letter to his new Catholic lover Nora Barnacle, he made secret war against when he was a student: "and declined to accept the positions it offered me. By doing this I made myself a beggar but I retained my pride. Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do" [Letters II : 48]. Van Mierlo demonstrates definitively that this was what Joyce was doing in his final book: the Wake was part of that war and recent developments in Ireland indicate that, at least as concerns the Catholic Church in Ireland, this was a war he seems to have won.



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