Joyce, ‘Ulysses’ and Chesterton

ANALYSIS: For many, 1922 marked a conscious break with of the old literary order and the beginning of a new literary future. However, not everyone agreed.

L to R: James Joyce poses for a portrait by Conrad Ruf in Zürich  (c. 1918); G. K. Chesterton works at his desk.
L to R: James Joyce poses for a portrait by Conrad Ruf in Zürich (c. 1918); G. K. Chesterton works at his desk. (photo: Public domain)

“The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority.” — G.K. Chesterton


Published on Feb. 2, 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses chronicles the wanderings and encounters of Leopold Bloom over the course of one day, June 16, 1904, in one city, Dublin. 

On the book’s publication, The New York Times described Ulysses as “the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.” 

Today, critics view the publication of Ulysses as marking the beginning of modernism in literature. By experimenting with form and expression, literary modernism was a self-conscious break with the past and its accepted methods of writing poetry and fiction. Having lived through the collective horrors of First World War, modernist writers wished to explore the human condition in new ways as the old order — political, social and religious — appeared to die. 

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882. He was baptized a Catholic and raised in that religion, schooled by Jesuits. By all accounts, he was devout in his early years. Sometime in his adolescence he appeared to reject his faith. However, like many a lapsed Catholic since, he continued to obsess about the faith he had renounced. 

Perhaps in spite of his rejection of his childhood faith, he still suspected its power. Of the Church, Joyce was to declare: “I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.” 

Joyce left Ireland in 1904. He was never to live there again, and his periodic and short visits to his homeland ceased after 1912. Instead, he led a cosmopolitan life with his companion, and later wife, Nora Barnacle, and their two children. The family lived in Trieste in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now Italy. They also lived in Zurich and Paris — the former during world wars and the latter during the years between the wars. 

Through the generosity of wealthy patrons, Joyce was able to live comfortably. This was despite the fact that his literary output was relatively slight. He produced some poetry, a collection of short stories, a play, an autobiographical novel and then spent eight years writing his magnum opus, Ulysses

He spent the final two decades of his life working on another novel, Finnegans Wake. Published in1939, it is regarded as one of the most unintelligible books ever written by a major author. Yet, in his lifetime, his reputation as a giant of literary modernism was established and, since his death in 1941, has only grown. 

It was the U.S. poet Ezra Pound who identified 1922, the year of Ulysses’ publication, as the moment that modernism, particularly literary modernism, was born. He was well-placed to judge: He had acted as editor to Joyce on Ulysses, as well as to T.S. Eliot on The Waste Land, which is considered one of the foremost literary modernist texts. That poem was also published in October 1922. 

In that same year, Virginia Woolf published Jacob’s Room, her first radically experimental novel. It was 1922, also, when Woolf began working on the novel that would become Mrs Dalloway

For many, then, 1922 seemed to mark the end of the old literary order, a conscious break with the past and the beginning of a new literary future. 

Not everyone agreed, however. 

While Joyce was the toast of the intellectual avant-garde in Paris, across the English Channel another writer was also contemplating modernity. G.K. Chesterton was then living with his wife, Frances, at Beaconsfield. Their home in that small English town was a world away from that of the Parisian intellectuals grappling with existential questions prompted by the then-fashionable modernism. 

At Top Meadow, the Chestertons’ home, a different question was being posed, but it was not simply existential — it was more important than that. 

The question for Chesterton was whether he should renounce Anglicanism and become a Catholic. Since his return from youthful dalliances with the occult to Christianity, helped greatly in this by Frances, he had been a member of the established church in England. 

Increasingly, though, the writer had noted a quiet inner discontent with his Anglicanism. His reluctance to move Rome-ward was sharpened, however, by the knowledge of the effect any such change would have upon his wife: Frances was not yet ready to accompany her husband into the fold she knew he was drawn. Yet Chesterton’s persistent dissatisfaction with his own communion — the Church of England — contrasted with a growing attraction towards another, namely, the Catholic Church. He wrote the following: 

“It is not really a question of what a man is made to believe but of what he must believe; what he cannot help believing. ... He cannot treat the Church as a child when he has discovered that she is his mother.” 

With such sentiments, it was only a matter of time.

By 1922, that time had arrived. Ultimately, Chesterton was a man without guile: 

“We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world. ... It is by that test that history will really judge any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.” 

Finally, for any Christian who understood history and desired truth as he did, there could be but one conclusion. 

On July 30, 1922, two priests, Fathers Ignatius Rice and John O’Connor, walked together to Top Meadow. There they found the writer sitting in an armchair reading the Catechism. Stuffing the book in his pocket, Chesterton proceeded to have lunch with the priests. During that meal Chesterton poured wine for everyone but himself. Uncharacteristically, he drank water. As the clock began to strike three o'clock, the party set out for the Railway Hotel by Beaconsfield’s railway station. In the absence of a local Catholic church, the hotel’s Irish landlady had allowed for the dance room to be converted into a makeshift chapel. It was there, beneath a corrugated-iron roof and surrounded by bare wooden walls, and while Frances silently wept, that G.K. Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church. 

Writing of this moment in 1926, Chesterton published an essay entitled “Why I Am a Catholic.” In it he stated: “The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic is that there are 10,000 reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” In essence, this was his answer to the modernism then so à la mode. Perceptively, acutely aware of all the prevailing intellectual currents loosed by modernism, in all its guises, he added: “The Church is not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even of the present, but equally against those of the future that may be the exact opposite of those of the present.” 

Much is made by critics of Ulysses as an original examination of the global human experience played out through the local; the Dubliner Bloom is intended as an everyman for all, at all times, in all places. It took Joyce hundreds of pages to express this. It may seem odd, but in the year of the novel’s publication, Joyce’s contemporary, Chesterton, had expressed a similar observation in a few paragraphs in his essay “What Is America?” 

“I have,” he wrote, “never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. … The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense, any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract … merely as those who labour and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them.” 

In 1926, Chesterton published The Everlasting Man. It is a work that calls not for a break with the past but a recognition of the essential continuity that runs throughout all history. 

In it, he wrote this of those who warred against the Church: 

“It would seem that, sooner or later, even its [the Church’s] enemies will learn from their incessant and interminable disappointments not to look for anything so simple as its death. They may continue to war with it, but it will be as they war with nature; as they war with the landscape, as they war with the skies. They will watch for it to stumble; they will watch for it to err; they will no longer watch for it to end.” 

On Jan. 13, 1941, Joyce died alone in the middle of the night at a Zurich hospital. His wife, Nora, later declined the offer of a priest to give a blessing at her husband’s graveside. 

A few years earlier, once more at Top Meadow, on the morning of June 14, 1936, having received the last rites, Chesterton gently greeted his wife and then for the last time closed his eyes. He was buried in the Catholic graveyard at Beaconsfield, only a short walk from the Railway Inn, with his now-Catholic wife, Frances, quietly praying as her husband was laid to rest.