BlogEthics

“I am a Joyce and not a Joycean.”

Stephen is a handsome man of seventy-four, with a gray beard, sloping forehead, and deep-blue eyes–he looks the way Joyce might have looked if he had not smoked and drunk himself to death, at fifty-eight, in 1941. Stephen sometimes walks with an ashplant, just as his grandfather did. At academic conferences, he is combative and sardonic. “I am a Joyce, not a Joycean, and there is more than a nuance to that fact,” he often says. And he insists on being addressed as Stephen James Joyce, his full given name.

Joyce is essentially accused in this article of suppressing scholarship on his grandfather. Given the question I considered yesterday–whether or not it was unethical to print uncollected works of an author after her death–this seems like an interesting thing to ponder. There is no question that forbidding public readings of his grandfather’s greatest work, say, or attempting to bar the Irish government from displaying some of said work is overstepping is, although well within Joyce’s rights, unethical. But barring the public from personal papers is a different story.

Uncollected stories, draft copies, and whatnot–they are one thing. Personal letters are another, as are diaries. If Stephen Joyce has a reason to believe that he, his family, or people he (or his family) care about will be hurt by the release of personal letters and papers, I see nothing wrong with blocking their release. In the New Yorker article linked here, this is admitted: “Stephen’s primary motive has been to put a halt to work that, in his view, either violates his family’s privacy or exceeds the bounds of reputable scholarship,” although the article also suggests that Joyce is engaging in a naked power play as well by “attempt[ing] to establish his own centrality in regard to anything involving his grandfather” (ouch).

But perhaps Joyce nepos ex fil has a reason to be wary. In fact, more than perhaps. Consider for a moment his family history: his grandfather’s famous drinking habit, his mentally ill aunt, and the release of Joyce avus‘s erotic letters to Nora (the New Yorker does quote the author’s plea to “be careful to keep my letters secret”). Even if there are no more skeletons in the closet–and probably there are–that alone would be enough to warrant Stephen Joyce declaring “the Joyces’ private life [is] ‘no one’s fucking business.'” I certainly wouldn’t want my family’s dirty laundry hanging out to dry, especially in the service of scholarship. And while, as the New Yorker snidely and parenthetically points out, that “claim, it can be argued, clashes with his notion that [James] Joyce’s work is essentially autobiographical,” is scholarship really the point of any great work?

The New Yorker article is careful to quote James Joyce’s famous claim about Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” This particular quotation is proof enough for D. T. Max to suggest scholars have a legitimate claim on Joyce and his personal life. Perhaps Max, in researching this particular article, forgot Joyce’s sometimes nasty sense of humor–to my ear, that reads as a contemptous dig at scholars, not an invitation “for scholars to decode Joyce’s puzzles,” as Max puts it.

When I read the article, I came away with a bad taste in my mouth, and now I know why: it is a beautifully written, subtle hatchet job on Stephen Joyce, written from the point of view of–if not a frustrated scholar, then certainly someone who sympathizes with the frustrated scholars. Which is exactly the problem with it. Scholarship is incidental to most great works. It may increase the reader’s understanding of the work, if done correctly, but it is peripheral to the work itself.

The first time I read Ulysses, I read each section twice–once by myself and once with an open copy of Ulysses Annotated to find out what the references I was missing were. Ulysses Annotated is essentially a book of footnotes, but the footnotes are considerably longer than the work itself. Funnily enough, I had a better time with the book and a better understanding of the plot when I wasn’t laboring over the minutiae. Eventually I gave up on Ulysses Annotated and simply read each section twice, dissolving myself in the language and enjoying the book. Every once in a while, I would stumble across some reference I didn’t understand for which I would haul out the footnotes, but mostly I was better off without them. Was Ulysses Annotated a useful addition to my reading? Sometimes (most often when I needed a matter of history or geography cleared up for me). Could I have read, understood, and enjoyed the book without it? Of course.

But perhaps James Joyce was not writing for the civilian reader, as Max seems to want us to believe. Perhaps Joyce was writing for academia, a claim that I find rather doubtful, but will consider anyway. Even if this were the case, his family’s say would still take precedence. Why? Because living people are more important than scholarly works. This might seem glaringly obvious, but it would seem that these scholars who resent Stephen Joyce’s control over his grandfather’s works have forgotten that whatever they dredge up about James Joyce’s personal life reflects on his living descendents. After all, it is not the scholars’ grandfather (or aunt) who is being exposed. These scholars will not have to deal with painful facts they would have preferred not to know about their grandfather (or aunt), nor make uncomfortable small talk about the latest biography at the family reunion.

Should the surviving Joyces be humiliated in public in the service of work that is, by its nature, peripheral to the enjoyment of Joyce’s cannon? No, clearly not. Were the papers in question only drafts of unfinished work, it would be one thing. But personal letters are exactly that–personal. And as long as there are living descendents who are uncomfortable with having their ancestors’ personal lives exposed in public, they are without a doubt in the right to censor their dead relatives’ personal lives. The surviving family members have to deal with every exposure, especially if particularly humiliating details come to light (like, say, explicit love letters). If they decide to publish everything, they decide to publish everything, and so be it. But if, just if, they decide some aspects of their famous relative’s personal life are best left alone, that is their right. Besides, it isn’t as though Stephen Joyce is keeping anyone from enjoying the things his grandfather did see fit to publish (well, most of the time).