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October 22, 2017

Joyce's Death and Wake

On 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:
    Having written Ulysses about the day, I wanted to write this book about the night.... Since 1922 my book has been a greater reality for me than reality. Everything gives way to it. Everything outside the book has been an insuperable difficulty: the least realities, such as shaving myself in the morning, for example.
Joyce's interest in ordinary living was always, as Ellmann puts it, "erratic and provisional." As the war came ever closer, even greater devotion -- errands, money, moving him from hotel to hotel and finally helping him escape to Zurich -- was required from his circle of friends and followers. Often the only effective help was companionship, for as his daytime despairs increased so did his nighttime effort to sing and drink them away. One anecdote from the end has his customary refusal to go home from the party culminating in an intricate two-step upon the stairs -- these dark and narrow, his eyes as bad: "Come on, let's dance a little.... Come on then, you know very well it's the last Christmas." Another old friend, a psychiatrist, offered what advice he could on the daughter and then took the father for his therapy, in this case a large restaurant-dance hall crowded with French and British troops. When they started to sing the "Marseillaise" Joyce joined in, and his impressive tenor voice so impressed that the soldiers hoisted him onto a table to sing the song again: "You never saw such an exhibition of one man dominating and thrilling a whole audience. He stood there and sang the "Marseillaise" and they sang it again afterwards with him and if a whole German regiment had attacked at that moment they would never have got through."

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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