Old People, Young People, and Priests


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There’s one thing certain about the Dubliners: They’re looking to escape. They’re playing hooky from school to watch the ships along the riverside, or sneaking out of work to tip an elbow at the public house, or sitting in class dreaming about the Saturday evening bazaar. Mr. Duffy thinks that, in “certain circumstances” he could rob a bank, but the circumstances never arise. Lenehan thinks that, if only he could find a corner and some good simpleminded girl, he could live happily. No doubt about it, thinks Little Chandler, if you want to succeed you have to go away. Farrington’s boy, seeing no escape from his father, falls upon his knees. There is, for the Dubliners, an incompleteness in everyday life. There is a train always passing them by. If only the poetry book on the shelf, the girl, the drink, the confessional, the faraway place, the foreign sailor — some any odd thing — could deliver them. 

“I call the series Dubliners,” wrote James Joyce, “to betray the soul of that… paralysis which many consider a city.” Dubliners, he argued in a letter to a publisher who eventually declined to take on the manuscript, was written for the benefit of Irish civilization, for in his stories, wrote James, the Irish people would get “one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass.” In the looking glass, Dubliners would see a people frozen in time. They would see themselves existing in the grey zone between paralysis and freedom.

“Paralysis,” muses the boy who narrates Dubliners’ first story “The Sisters,” the word “sounded strangely in my ears…. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

Escape! thinks Eveline in her own story “Eveline.” She must escape! She has a right to happiness. Frank will fold her in his arms and give her life. Frank will love her and save her.

There’s a moment in “A Little Cloud,” when Little Chandler crosses the Grattan Bridge. He looks down the river to the quays and pities the horses below.

They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the riverbanks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset and waiting for the first chill of night bid them arise, shake themselves and begone. He wondered whether he could write a poem to express his idea. Perhaps Gallaher might be able to get it into some London paper for him. Could he write something original? He was not sure what idea he wished to express but the thought that a poetic moment had touched him took life within him like an infant hope.

James Joyce was fascinated by “poetic moments.” He often called them “epiphanies.” Epiphanies are tiny revelations, pinpricks of light in the darkness, shifts in the dung heap of one’s notions. In James Joyce: The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, critic John Blades writes about the double meaning of epiphany for Joyce. One, he writes, is an epiphany that reveals the truth; the other is a “state of mind, a heightened spiritual elation.” That is to say, one epiphany comes to you and the other is inside you. In an early version of Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man called Stephen Hero, Stephen defines epiphany as follows. He overhears a trivial conversation between a young lady and her gentleman while passing through Eccles Street one misty evening:

This triviality made [Stephen] think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

In a memoir posthumously published as My Brother’s Keeper, Stanislaus Joyce remembered how his older brother James started collecting epiphanies in his early teens — in sketches, in poems, in letters. The epiphanies, writes Stanislaus were “little errors and gestures…by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.”

Epiphany is an inspirational word; it evokes light and enlightenment, a mental clarity that could only but lead to change, if not outright salvation. Epiphanies for the Dubliners, however, emerge as rips in the fabric of daily life. The rips can be beautiful, revelatory, even delicate and evanescent. What the rips reveal, though, is sometimes so painful to behold, that the rips are mentally sewn up at once. The result is that the epiphany — and thus its beholder — is paralyzed. In Dubliners, epiphanies are nearly always betrayals. Notice how quickly Little Chandler’s poetic moment turns to ambition, how self-revelation becomes the desire for self-fulfillment before Little Chandler realizes what’s happening. His path of betrayal goes something like this: Seeing becomes compassion which becomes the need for expression which becomes ambition that turns to doubt which then must soothe itself with hope. From his encounter with the sad horses, Little Chandler imagines what the critics will write about his still-to-be-written book of poetry. Of course he would never be popular. Artists of his sort couldn’t be in their lifetimes.

At the end of the story Little Chandler betrays himself once more. He screams at his crying baby in a moment of frustrated rage just as the child’s mother walks in. She takes the baby away from Little Chandler, ignoring her husband’s words of regret. Little Chandler is back in reality. In Dubliners, the sorrow of reality and the exaltation of epiphany are inseparable.

Each story in Dubliners might be thought of as an epiphany, the kind Stephen Hero thought the man of letters ought to be collecting. In “Eveline” we meet the title character sitting by a window, dreaming about a home that could really feel like a home. She has decided to run away with manly Frank, to become a sailor’s wife in Buenos Aires, instead of a slave to her abusive father and her two younger siblings. She doesn’t love Frank but thinks, one day, she could. Eveline makes it all the way to the train station at the North Wall; Frank is holding her hand. He is speaking to her, repeating words but she cannot hear what he’s saying. After all, sometimes Eveline’s father could be rather nice, she thinks, like that time he read her a ghost story and made her toast. No! No! No! thinks Eveline. It is impossible for her to leave Dublin. She clutches at the iron railing and refuses to board the ship. The night before, Eveline had recalled the last night of her mother’s life, when in her delirium she had screamed, “Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!” The phrase is nonsense Gaelic and Joyce meant its meaning to be ambiguous. But some have translated the phrase as, roughly, “The end of pleasure is pain.”

There’s something else important about epiphanies. Epiphanies are everywhere. Epiphany lurks in even the “commonest object.” It is, as Joyce wrote, the object’s “whatness” that “leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance.”

The character Stephen Hero explains:

He told Cranly that the clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany. Cranly questioned the inscrutable dial of the Ballast Office with his no less inscrutable countenance:
— Yes, said Stephen. I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany. … Imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised. …
Having finished his argument Stephen walked on in silence. He felt Cranly’s hostility and he accused himself of having cheapened the eternal images of beauty. For the first time, too, he felt slightly awkward in his friend’s company and to restore a mood of flippant familiarity he glanced up at the clock of the Ballast Office and smiled:
— It has not epiphanised yet, he said.

The clock of the Ballast Office, the horses along the riverbank, the city of Dublin and each one of its citizens all have the seeds of epiphany. But they won’t just epiphanize on their own. To epiphanize they need a person to really see them, the “gropings of a spiritual eye” to put them in focus, if only for a moment.

In Dubliners there are three kinds of people: old people, young people, and priests. The priests are mysterious, inaccessible, with yellow teeth or yellowing faces in photographs that hang on the wall. Priests are never main characters in Dubliners. They are peripheral figures, topics of conversation. They are also, generally, dead. The priests of Dublin have a special role, or once did, and almost no one seems to know what it is.

The first priest we meet, Father Flynn (in “The Sisters”), is the priest with the most clues. His life story is told in fragments, in hearsay, by his neighbors and by his sisters after Father Flynn has gone. Father Flynn used to be rather interesting, we learn, but had grown tiresome. Something queer about him, uncanny, one of those peculiar cases, wide awake and laughing to himself in the confession box. “I am not long for this world,” Father Flynn often told the boy, before Flynn had his series of strokes. Flynn’s epiphany in the confession box led him directly to paralysis and finally, to death.

James Joyce didn’t have much use for priests; he thought that priests like Father Flynn had lost their sight, their ability to focus their spiritual eye. Joyce’s characters often say things like, “We are an unfortunate priest-ridden race and always were and always will be till the end of the chapter. … A priest-ridden Godforsaken race” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Like the rest of the Dubliners, Father Flynn experiences his epiphanies, but is unable to reflect upon them, to know them. This is a task for artists.

In My Brother’s Keeper Stanislaus Joyce wrote of James: “He believed that poets in the measure of their gifts and personality were the repositories of the genuine spiritual life of their race and the priests were usurpers.” If the priests ever knew eternal truths, the artist know them now. The artist not only sees epiphanies, but makes them manifest by turning them into art. The artist, for Joyce, stands in the shadows with eyes and ears wide open, “like the God of the creation,” remaining “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Because artists have the gift of seeing they are especially called to notice epiphanies and, moreover, “to record these epiphanies with extreme care” as Stephen Hero says. A writer, thought Joyce, is a kind of priest, “a priest of eternal imagination.” By collecting epiphanies the writer is “transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.”

Being an artist was, for Joyce, a mode of existing in what might be called an “epiphanic state.” It is living “in” the world and not “of” the world, like a mystic. Epiphanies are the bridge between the eternal and the real. They are the eternal hiding in the real. And whatever meager piece of eternity human beings can access, the escape route out of the everyday drudgery of Dublin is lined with hidden epiphanies.

The writer James Joyce hovered above and beyond the Dubliners, polishing his looking glass. He collected their epiphanies — but the question is, for whom? For them? For us? For himself? And what of the artist’s own epiphanies? If the clock needs an artist’s eye to epiphanize, what will epiphanize the artist?

There is one more kind of person in Dubliners: the dead. When it comes to escaping everyday drudgery, no one can compete with the dead, not priests and not even poets. The dead are truly both in the world and outside of it, because the dead are dead, and yet still persist in the minds of the living. The dead are present in their absence. They stand by the Dubliners, whispering to them, calling them. They are the people the Dubliners loved, or tried to love, and those they never tried to know. The dead are in the newspapers, in the building next door — Dublin is crowded with the dead.

Joyce, the great modernist, was something of a traditionalist. He expressed himself in new forms but his ideas were meditations on old, and even ancient, stories. Joyce’s writing is in dialogue with Homer, with the Romantic poets, with the Apostles. It was as if Joyce felt that, to pull Dublin ahead of itself, he must go back to the past.

In Dubliners’ final story, “The Dead,” a family has gathered for an annual Epiphany dinner thrown by Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia. Gabriel Conroy, son of his aunts’ dead sister, is in charge of the after-dinner speech. He frets about saying the right thing, not wanting to be too intellectual or grand. Gabriel runs through possible topics: Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces. He begins his speech with this:

A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.

Joyce was just in his twenties when he wrote Gabriel’s words, but this speech reminds us of what might be the artist’s greatest task: to be a voice for the dead. Staying close to the past is, in essence, staying close to the dead. And if we stay close to the dead, the spiritual eye gets turned around. “In the midst of death we are in life,” thinks Bloom in Ulysses. And so it is. The artist, bringing the dead to life is, in turn, brought to life by them. The dead, being only soul, are human beings epiphanized. They are pure whatness. And just as epiphany lurks in every object, so we always dine with the dead. “The Botanic Gardens are just over there,” thinks Bloom. It’s the blood sinking in the earth gives new life.”

As for the Dubliners, they live among the dead without seeing them, are dead among the dead, earthbound without escape. Later, when the Epiphany celebration is done, Gabriel’s wife tells him of a young man she used to love, who loved her and died for her. Tears fill Gabriel’s eyes — he feels he could never love his wife like that. In the darkness the dead draw nearer to Gabriel. “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.” Gabriel senses his identity “fading out into a grey, impalpable world…the solid world…was dissolving and dwindling.” • 30 May 2014


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.