“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
― James Joyce,
James Joyce and mythology
Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, On the Art of James Joyce, edited by Edmund Epstein for the Joseph Campbell foundation tells us how we can use James Joyce as a guide for interpreting mythological material. The book discusses the interpretations given by Joseph Campbell during the course of his life. In different lectures, workshops and presentations he has told about the effect the writings of Joyce had on him since he discovered them in 1927 in Paris.
Maybe, you have, just like me, browsed through Ulysses, frowned your brows and put it back. In my childhood, when I was still living at home it did not strike a chord with me. This book changed my mind. Campbell introduces a writer, an artist who feels lost in this boring world. Just like you and me he does not feel at home. He does not resonate with the outside world so he retreats to his inside world filled with emotional images. I can understand that very well. I am not very extrovert and was not capable of finding my place in the world. I still feel lost, every now and again. The way Joyce used his life, and his energy to make sense of this crazy life is admirable.
Mythic Worlds, Modern Words, On the Art of James Joyce’s is about 17 years of work. James worked on three books that can be seen as an autobiography. In “A Portrait of an Artist as a Young man” you can feel how the power of the artist originates from his damaged self-image. The internal wound is the juice that lights up his creative fire. People have a tendency to perceive the world in dualities. So it is a natural psychological urge to build a bridge between two dualities to find a center. “Inner fantasies arise that put the individual at the heart of belongingness”. Growing up, you have to learn to attribute mythic archetypical concepts to the actual world.
I can relate to that. Even in my early twenties at university, while my friends were all fooling around I was the dreamer. A girl who i thought was a friend mailed me several years ago to enquire if I had been an addict. Because in her opinion I had been so “out of touch with the world”. I was addicted to my inner images. They gave me the warm center of belonging that I was not able to establish in the cold reality.
Dante is Joyce’s great example. His jaunty, stylish way of thinking and working is based on the classic Inferno.
He writes using a Dantean model. Ulysses is the inferno, the absence of the soul. The hell is Dublin, Dante’s hell was Florence. It got me to think while I was reading the book: how am I perceiving my soul? Is my life soul full? What triggers my inner sense of well-being? Maybe I should rephrase that into the question: what triggers my feeling of being alive? So many of us are going through the motions, trying to make ands meet. You work because you have to make a living. You want to make a soul – contribution to society. What is it that I can give to society from my essence?
In a very elegant way Campbell compares this process with creating the tree of life: “there is the midpoint of the soul where one breaks into two pairs of opposites.”
So the soul is to be found inbetween the tension of opposites… But this is not very workable. We need a magic ingredient because we are taking about the soul. We need the holy spirit. For Joyce, as well as for Dante, the holy spirit was a girl. But Campbell, Joyce and Dante were men. I am a woman. Have you ever had the experience of the holy spirit? The closest I came to it was when I visited Musee D’Orsay in Paris years ago. I was in no rush and I spent almost all day there. I walked outside in an absolute bliss. This feeling of unearthly happiness lasted at least a day.
The search for the father is another common motive in contemperary life. There is an urge for father-love in almost all artists (and in ourselves as well). You get a practical kind of love from your father. Wise words, a kick in the ass every now and then when you need it. It is the urge to find your own path.
Sometimes you feel desperate. You feel like you do not have a mission in live at all. Everything around you crumbles apart. In times like that you need a father. Finnegan’s Wake was not finished because Joyce passed away at age 58.
When you read this book you will understand so much more of society and your place in it. It is an excelent overview of human psychology in mythology and contemporary art. The one thing I regret is that it is all build around the male psyche.