A Latino Reading of Finnegans Wake ■ by Carlos Bakota
The Irish were the first Mexicans in the United States – at least, that’s what I tell my good friend John, a bartender at the Irish Lion. Both of our ancestors were thought of as lazy and a threat to the culture and institutions of America. This summer, after reading Gordon Bowker’s new biography of James Joyce, I revisited the novels and stories of this literary giant. In struggling through Joyce’s work, I was struck by the recurrent themes of colonialism and identity.
Dublin’s Joyce Statue, Known As “The Prick With The Stick” (Photo: David Pace)
But can we talk of Joyce’s dense, often impenetrable body of work—the work of an Irish author—and the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in the same breath? The Latino celebration of the Day of the Dead is also important in Celtic myth. In fact, the Vatican incorporated All Saints Day from the Celtic traditions. There are indications that the Celts absorbed Egyptian and Phoenician as well as Germanic forms of early cultural practices. Looked at from Joyce’s historical, transcultural and multicultural perspective, the dead were important to all ancient and modern cultures of the world. To fully understand the significance of both the Irish and Mexican relationship to the dead it is useful to keep in mind, as Joyce reminds us, the long history of our shared humanity.
Joyce’s work stubbornly rejects the 1900’s racist discourse of the occupying British when speaking of the “Irishman.” A line in Finnegans Wake reminded me of the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, who saw himself caught in a colonialist trap. To paraphrase: the European writer is born as if in the highest floor of the Eiffel tower; the Latin American writer is born as if in the core of the earth. After a colossal effort, he is barely able to peek out of the surface of the ground.
James Joyce in Finnegans Wake similarly wrote: “When the soul of a man is born in this country [Ireland] there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight –those that remain are destined to die or suffer spiritual decomposition.”
I don’t think I could have made my way through Finnegans Wake without first understanding the fairy tale of the Mookse and the Gripes, Joyce’s retelling of the Fox and the Grapes. In Joyce’s version the Mookse represents the British and Roman colonizers while the Gripes represents the Irish. What is striking to a Latino reader is that the Mookse uses all of the same colonialist stereotypes that the British and Romans used to describe the Gripes, who is portrayed as an essentially one dimensional, lazy, worthless individual.
One possible moral can be found in the fact that neither the Mookse nor the Gripes can sympathize with the point of view of the other. This is the central problem in colonial societies and was the central problem until very recently in our country when Americans of color engaged xenophobic Americans in conversation. It seems as if our country kept being swept back into the 1850s and the creation of the xenophobic, secretive Know Nothing Party. (When a member of the party was asked about its activities, he would reply, “I know nothing.”)
Most important is the fact that the Gripes refused to let the Mookse define who he was. Today, Latinos are empowering themselves by refusing to allow xenophobic minorities define who they are.
Joyce found that by leaving Ireland and working in exile, he could escape the identity imposed on him by the occupying British. Working within a larger transnational, multicultural, and fluid community freed him from the limiting constructs of both British imperialism and the nationalist Irish revivalist movements. Those two forces formed the two sides of the binary opposition which disfigured clear representations of the Irish and the British.
In the British magazines at the turn of the century, the Irish were often characterized as Paddy, the brutish uncivilized ape. This racist discourse served to cover and justify the occupation of Ireland by Britain. Sadly, many Irish escaped to the United States only to find that the majority of Americans continued to see them through the old Irish-British dichotomy, lazy brutes, violent drunks, story tellers and jokers versus the industrious, religious (the true Protestant religion), civilize and sober British citizens.
James Joyce reacted unsympathetically to the nationalist revivalist movements in Ireland, viewing their conception of Ireland and Irish nationalism as backwards. Basically Joyce said “I am what I am today.” Today Latino are what they are now. We are a mixed group of nationalities with infinite shades of Latino-ness. The vast majority are American citizens. In the late seventies I would have had a difficult time writing that last sentence without some reference to the colonial framework. But today, demographics, social mobility and politics have changed significantly. There are even plans to build a National Latino Museum in the Smithsonian Mall. Because of such rapid change on the national scale, the question of how to represent the Latino becomes more and more critical. In this context, Joyce’s rejection of a limited view of his own identity constructed by a dominant group becomes of greater relevance to the Latino community, as well as all excluded groups on the planet.
So Joyce, for all his genius, difficulties and his personal ordeals which are rather harshly presented in the recent biography by Gordon Bowker (who spends a lot of time on fornication and flatulence in the personal letters of Joyce) can easily be seen more and more as a political writer of sorts, a voice against racism and colonialism. This may be a welcome turn away from the efforts to try to explicate his enormous, erudite, and complex works.
Junot Diaz, in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, takes Joyce as a sort of model to free himself from the constraints of the Eurocentric canon. Joyce’s influence on Diaz is obvious even without such aesthetic similarities. Diaz references Joyce in two of his works: once when a character is advised to become the Dominican Joyce, and another when a character enrolls in a university course on Joyce. Moreover, in interviews he has spoken of Joyce as a source of inspiration. The influence is clear. And there are a growing number of writers who, like Diaz, set their works within transnational frameworks, frameworks that shatter the self-inflicted, deprecating Latino stereotype so prevalent in American culture. Joyce’s reluctance to subscribe to the nationalism of turn-of-the-century Irish literary movements was due, in part, to his belief that they would be unable to escape their own romanticizing of a clichéd Irish past, one that no longer existed outside their own writings.
Now that Latinos are roughly a quarter of the US population and a major pillar of the Democratic party, and now that the GOP is slowly weeding out its half-threatening, half-condescending Latino discourse, some Latinos are rethinking the colonial framework of their history and moving towards a framework that would appeal to Joyce’s sense of justice: economic democracy.
Francisco Vazquez, a Latino philosopher at Sonoma State College, in the concluding essay of his book, Latino/a Culture, points out: “If America cannot move away from the exclusionary racist discourse of fear and xenophobia, it may signal the death of inclusive participatory democracy not only in our country but throughout the world.”
Joyce stated that his work was his personal attempt to escape the nightmare of history, and now the American people have a chance to escape the nightmare of American racism by finally recognizing the fact that Latinos and other citizens of color are as American as Taco Bell. James Joyce, for all the talk of his contribution to modernism, is still a potent voice against the nightmare of colonialism, racism, and fear. Like Joyce, Latino writers have opened themselves up to transnational perspectives in which the individual can express who he or she is within a much broader framework than the colonial oppositions of a racist discourse. Latinos have been here for centuries and our realities and political and economic values and culture are made in America. I am what I am because what I have been; this story of becoming is what Joyce was telling us in his own transcultural, deeply historical, experimental and wonderfully beautiful way.
The Ryder, January 2013