A disillusioned younger teacher in a turn-of-the century Dublin school is struggling through a history lesson with adolescent pupils who are just as bored as he is. He asks them the name of the ancient battle where Pyrrhus won his Pyrrhic victory, and as they mumble the wrong answers, his mind begins to wander. Why is history so suffocating? Is it nothing more than a lesson in futility and folly? Is this what his pupils unconsciously know as they yawn at their desks? Is this why they hang on in silence, waiting for the bell to deliver them back to the noise of the playground and the still un-foreclosed possibilities of youth?
After his pupils flood out into the school yard, the young teacher goes to his headmaster’s study to collect his weekly wages. Turn-of-the-century Ireland is still very much in the British Empire, and Mr. Deasy’s study is decorated with the iconography of empire and British union: a tintype of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and sporting prints of famous English horses. Mr. Deasy identifies with this iconography of Protestant imperial power: he baits the young teacher and calls him a Fenian, while the young teacher bites his tongue and conjures up in his mind all the savagery incarnated in the Protestant conquest: the Catholic corpses left behind by Cromwell’s bloody passage through Ireland. This is history at its most suffocating: the blood-soaked myth that foreclosed all benign possibilities. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”: Mr. Deasy intones all the adamantine slogans of resistance to home rule and Irish national independence. But there are darker myths imprisoning Mr. Deasy and his kind. He waves his finger at the young teacher., “Mark my words . . . England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press . . . Old England is dying.” Having dropped the coins of the young teacher’s pay into his hands, Mr. Deasy makes a little joke. Why is it asks, that Ireland ‘has the honor of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews?” “Why, sir?” “Because she never let them in.”
The Jews have sinned against the light, Mr. Deasy instructs him, and history – which is moving toward the manifestation of the glory of God – has proved it so.
To which Stephan Dedalus – Joyce’s protagonist in Ulysses – famously replies: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
History was not just the anti-Semitic philistinism and crabbed imperial arrogance of the Irish Protestant ascendancy –as deposited in the foul sediment of one turn-of-the-century schoolmaster’s brain. There was a “Fenian” version to escape as well. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the nationalist Davin tells Dedalus, “Try to be one of us. In heart you are an Irishman,” when Dedalus announces, “This race and this country and this life produced me. I shall express, myself as I am.” To Davin’s protest, “A man’s country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie. You can be a poet and a mystic after,” Dedalus replies with cold anger: “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”
Joyce’s writing is a long rebuke to versions of history as heritage, as roots and belonging, as comfort, refuge, and home. His was the opposite claim: You could be yourself only if you escaped home, if you struggled to awake from the dreams of your ancestors. For Joyce the artist, coming awake meant finding a language of his own against the compulsion of linguistic tradition and inheritance. As he says in Portrait of the Artist, “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” And fly by them Joyce did: to Trieste, Paris and Zurich, from Portrait to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake, from home to exile, from the language of his birth to a language uniquely his own. To come awake as an artist was to create something that transcended both personal and national past. To awake was to come to yourself, to force a separation between what the tribe told you to be and what you truly are.
What is nightmarish about nightmare is that it permits no saving distance between dreamer and ream. If history is nightmare, it is because past is not past. As an artist and as an Irishman, Joyce was only too aware that time in Ireland was simultaneous, not linear. In the terrible a quarrel at the beginning of Portrait over the meaning of the Irish nationalist politician Parnell’s disgrace and death, when Dante screams triumphantly, “We crushed him to death!” and Mr. Casey sobs with pain for his dead king and Stephen’s father’s eyes fill with tears, it is clear that Parnell’s death is not in the past at all. In the quarrel, past, present, and future are ablaze together, set alight by timer’s livid flame.
To awake from history, then, is to recover the saving distance between past and present and to distinguish between myth and truth. Myth is a version of the past that refuses to be just the past. Myth is a narrative shaped by desire, not by truth, formed not by the facts as best we can establish them but by our longing to be reassured and consoled. Coming awake means to renounce such longings, to recover all the sharpness of the distinction between what is true and what we wish were true.
It has become common to believe that we create our identities as much as we inherit them, that belonging is elective rather than tribal, conscious rather than unconscious, chosen rather than determined. Even though we cannot chose the circumstances of our birth, we can chose which of these elements of our fate we make our defining inheritance. Artists like Joyce have helped us think of our identities as artistic creations and have urged us to believe that we too can fly free of the nets of nationality, religion, and language.
The truth is that the nets do bind most of us. Few of us can be artists of our own lives. That does not make us prisoners: we can come awake; we do not need to spend our lives in the twilight of the myth and collective illusion; we can become self-conscious. But though Joyce’s hard-won freedom may be beyond most of us, his metaphor of awaking points to the possibility open to us all. In awaking, we return to ourselves. We recover the saving distance between what we are told to be and what we are. This saving distance is the space of irony. We wake: we tell our nightmare to someone; its hold on us begins to break; it begins to seem funny or at least untragic. We may still shudder in the telling, but at least we can share it. We can lighten up. The day can begin.
The Warrior’s Honor; Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff; Owls Books, 1997