Superstitious artists – James Joyce

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.

Why do we need amulets?

When we decided to nail down our butt to our desk chair to write our second book Emotional Frustration – the hushed plaguein a six months-period (we had blogged extensively about those issues for three years and we had a lot of material) we made the firm pledge that we would wear—except for a few circumstances where other kind of garments were needed—the same comfortable grey jersey that we loved. For Hispanics that odd behavior is popularly labelled as “hacer una promesa” (make a promise) and is ingrained in the long Roman Catholic tradition of Latin America.

The use of amulets or talismans has been a millenary tradition of Humankind, almost since the times we dwelt in caves and we saved a saber tooth for happy hunting. The natural amulets are made of many materials like precious stones, metals, teeth and claws of wild animals; the man-made amulets are made of wood, iron, copper, ivory, clay or stone. People that carry amulets believe that they confer special powers due to their connections to natural phenomena, religious identifications or mere luck.

In their lugubrious caves, illuminated only by the flickering light from the burning tip of animal grease of a rustic torch, the Neanderthals used the natural amulets to invoke the auspices of the gods before they went hunting for big mammals and also after they returned with a fatally injured victim of their joint ambush of a mammoth. In Ancient Egypt the scarab beetle was worn by the living and the dead alike as it symbolized life—its hieroglyph was the same as “to become”, enabling resurrection of the mummies. In Middle Ages countless objects that belonged to saintly figures eventually became amulets; their body parts were not spared, as attested by Saint Anthony’s tongue.

Why would supposedly rational individuals believe in these extraordinary powers? We must remember that all our Cerebral Cortex, whose large mass differentiates us from animals that might be able think and imagine at a lower level, is inextricably linked with the Limbic System, seat of the emotional trove that inevitably taints our thoughts. All the sensory and motor stimuli that travel from the periphery to the Central Nervous System must pass through the Thalamus—the sensory waystation of our brains. Just below it, lies the Hypothalamus that regulates mood, sexuality and desires; it responds to external stimuli by sending signals to other limbic structures to elicit responses.

Any rational thought is always “contaminated” by our impressions triggered by various stimuli that we have received in our personal lives or form part of our shared cultures. Most objects will have a rational significance that is thinly coated with such a veneer. When a certain object elicits positive attitudes in our minds, we treasure the stimuli.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.