Extremely anxious about the reception Ulysses—his epic novel—would receive, James Joyce chose his birthday as its official release date: February 2, 1922. That day two copies arrived by train to Paris: one for him and another one for Silvia Beach. She was the owner of Shakespeare and Company, a Rive Gauche bookseller that promoted and published his work. It turned out to be a lucky choice.
The inhabitants of Ireland have been gathering around the campfires for generations to share tales, music, and dancing, which has established their folklore as one of the richest and at the same time loosely defined set of inherited cultural norms and ideas. In those circumstances, the figure of the banshee emerged as a powerful, feared icon. Translated as the “fair lady” or the “lady from the mound”—refers to the countless mounds that dot the Irish countryside, which are called side—she is a wandering female spirit that heralds the death of a loved one by wailing, shrieking, or keening. The latter is a traditional form of exuberant lamenting for the dead individual that derives from the Irish and Scottish Gaelic term caoineadh, i.e. to cry.
When James Joyce’s mother passed away in 1903, he spent the night in a vigil with his sister Margaret to await her appearance as a ghost; she claimed that she did see her, but he did not. That experience inspired the passage of Ulysses where the revenant of Stephen Dedalus’ s mother came. “In a dream, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood.” In spite of his skepticism, Joyce’s work bear the indelible mark of superstition.
In his book titled Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Modernism and Memory , Luke Gibbons said: “WB Yeats is often viewed as being away with the fairies of the Celtic twilight, whereas James Joyce is considered a man of this world, grounded in the prose of everyday life, Joyce, however, was not stranger to ghosts, or to the grief that takes leave of the senses.” In fact only in the beginning of the 20th century did electricity appear in Ireland, helping to fend off some of the disturbing apparitions that had been troubling its inhabitants.
One of the most diffused misconceptions regarding individuals that are “superstitious” is that they are keen to exteriorize their core beliefs out of their inner self, at all times. On the contrary. Those of us that have inherited that trait in our genetic material and cultural upbringing, are reluctant to talk about it with strangers. However, it infallibly does come across, not in what we say, but in what we do. When we sit down to create some work of art, that “endowment” starts to spill onto the piece of paper, or clay, or marble, or musical instrument we hold. We do not have any control over it. Never.
In Joyce’s writings, the troubling haunting of ghosts happen in critical junctions of the characters and it might be a signal of their mental breakdown. He wrote with precise focus about countless Dublin characters and physical places but his prose is imbued with the present and absent ethereal entities that had circulated in those same streets before. In Ulysses there are many references to ghostly figures. Luke Gibbon said: “Stephen is haunted by the ‘ghoul’ of his dead mother, whom he had forsaken on her deathbed due to his refusal to kneel down and pray. Bloom is haunted by the spirit of his infant son who died 11 days after his birth and who appears at the end of the Circe chapter in what could be a projection of a different kind: a magic lantern image.”
No matter how far we travel form our origins or how many years have elapsed since our departure from the source of that imprimatur, we feel its strong pull almost daily. James Joyce did feel the pull of the magical city of Dublin, even in his extended European stay. Once Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington asked him why he did not go back to his hometown. Joyce replied: “Have I ever left it?” The city of Dublin was deeply burrowed in his spirit.
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.