December 13, 2017
Joyce's Death and WakeOn this day in 1941 James Joyce died in Zurich at the age of fifty-eight, from peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer. Even without the dislocation of WWII, Joyce's last years were beset with difficulties -- the schizophrenia of his daughter, his son's floundering career and broken marriage, his own poor health, ongoing battles over Ulysses and new worries about Finnegans Wake. "Though not so blind as Homer, and not so exiled as Dante," writes biographer Richard Ellmann, "he had reached his life's nadir."
Most troubling to Joyce was Lucia. He had shuffled her from doctor to doctor and clinic to clinic looking for some sort of hope, or some support for his refusal to accept the bleak conclusions at which everyone but him eventually arrived. Latest on this list was Carl Jung, and his attempts to treat Lucia in the mid-1930s had ended with the double diagnosis that she and her father were like two people heading to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving. Joyce had a psychological style that was "definitely schizophrenic," however reclaimed or transformed his books were by literary genius: "In any other time of the past Joyce's work would never have reached the printer, but in our blessed XXth century it is a message, though not yet understood."
Joyce was in the home stretch on the seventeen-year Finnegans Wake at this point. In the text he could be jocular about the doctors -- "grisly old Sykos" who pronounce "on 'alices, when they were yung and easily freudened" -- but in private he despaired. Whatever the improvement, he doubted that Lucia would ever be able to turn for long from her "lightening-lit revery" to "that battered cabman's face, the world." He might soon escape the "folie of writing Work in Progress" (his manuscript title for Finnegans Wake), but the pirate publishers would pounce upon it, too -- if they showed interest at all in the "monster" that had nearly killed him:
Ellmann says that Joyce "forced modern literature to accept new styles, new subject matter, new kinds of plot and characterization ... a new area of being and a new language." Ellmann says also that the sometimes difficult and gloomy man must give way to his books, where he is "one of life's celebrants, in bad circumstances cracking good jokes, foisting upon ennuis and miseries his comic vision."
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