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Clever, Very: James Fairhall

A hand-colored etching of four people rambling over an Irish bog.  From left to right:  a woman with a white cap and pink dress facing away from the viewer who has fallen down, her basket of turf falling down.  Second, a man with a white tunic and a blue coat who is wearing no pants.  He has a pitchfork over his shoulder, from which hang yellow pants and a pair of shoes.  Third, a woman runs to keep up with the man, holding onto his white tunic.  She has a red shawl over a blue dress, with the hem of a white under-dress showing.  This woman also balances a basket of potatoes on her head, some of which are falling out.  Lastly, another woman with a red hood and a blue dress with white undergarments showing seems to be stuck in the bog and is holding onto the previous woman's undergarment.

“The Irish Bogtrotters” by William Elmes. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

As part of our efforts to provide new online content to our readers, the James Joyce Quarterly is proud to introduce our new interview series, “Clever, Very”. This series, which takes its name from a headline in the “Aeolus” episode in Ulysses (U 7.674), will provide short conversations with people who have taken on interesting projects in Joyce scholarship.

To start off our “Clever, Very” series, we spoke with James Fairhall, who teaches modern literature and environmental studies at DePaul University. His most recent article, “The Bog of Allen, the Tiber River, and the Pontine Mashes: An Ecocritical Reading of ‘The Dead'”, can be found in our most recent issue of the JJQ (51.4).

James Joyce Quarterly: For our readers who aren’t familiar with this particular area of Joyce studies, could you tell us a little about ecocriticism?

James Fairhall: Ecocriticism developed avant la lettre—before the publication in 1978 of William Rueckert’s essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism”—in works by authors such as Leo Marx, Raymond Williams, and Annette Kolodny. Like feminism, it is a loose, constantly ramifying movement with many facets and many critical approaches to literature and other documents. Also like feminism, it is concerned with interrogating the false binaries of hierarchical relationships, most notably between human beings and nature. In its most recent wave, ecocriticism moves beyond humanism by redefining the human and the natural to be mutually constituting and indivisible.

JJQ: In “The Bog of Allen, the Tiber River, and the Pontine Marshes”, you mention that ecocriticism has been slow to focus on James Joyce and his writing, though this is quickly changing. What do you think might have caused the early reluctance to apply this type of criticism to Joyce?

JF: The paradigm of Joyce as an urban writer, focused on the city as the iconic setting of modernist fiction, certainly delayed the application of ecocriticism to his fiction. Another factor is that he did indeed pay scant attention (Finnegans Wake being something of an exception) to the phenomena of nature that are traditionally represented in “nature writing” and in long descriptions of these phenomena in other literary writing. In “The Dead,” for instance, the Bog of Allen is hardly as prominent as Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native or E.M. Forster’s Marabar Hills in A Passage to India, but rather connects at a subtextual angle with the story’s main themes. Joyce’s interest in nature, as I’ve argued elsewhere, primarily takes the form of a long meditation on the human body as the locus of our relationship with nature. It has taken some time for critical theory—particularly, material feminism—to develop theoretical tools for understanding the body as not merely linking us to nature, but as being inseparable from nature. My article on “The Dead” applies both material feminism (in the form of Stacy Alaimo’s theory of “trans-corporeality”) and traditional ecocriticism, which I believe supplement each other well. Both approaches have much to offer to critics interested in how nature and letters are entwined in Joyce’s works. In any case, critical work on Joyce, nature, and the body is quickly growing and branching out. It is already well represented by Alison Lacivita, whose pioneering book on Finnegans Wake I look forward to reading, and by the contributors—including both well-known and relatively new Joyceans—to Rob Brazeau and Derek Gladwin’s landmark volume, Eco-Joyce (2014).

JJQ: In your article, you discuss the power that the Bog of Allen, the Tiber River, and the Pontine Marshes held for Joyce in “The Dead”. What do you think drew him to these particular bodies?

JF: My article speculates a lot, inferring attitudes on Joyce’s part that were prominent in his day in the zeitgeists of Ireland, Italy, and Europe. An area of the Bog of Allen abutted Clongowes Wood College, Joyce’s first school. He made his earliest comment on bogs and bog-dwellers at age fourteen or fifteen in deriding the censorious librarian at the Capel Street Public Lending Library: “‘So I have to ask Old Grogan what I am to read. The ignorant old clod-hopper! He’d be much more at home in his native bog than in a library’” (My Brother’s Keeper, p. 74). This was the social aspect of Irish bogs as seen pejoratively from within the pale of Dublin, but the bogs, in their misunderstood natural aspect, were vast, unsettling, and invested with dark powers by folklore.

In Rome, where Joyce lived together with Nora and baby Giorgio before beginning to compose “The Dead,” he undoubtedly had occasion to reflect on that city’s infamous fevers. Reputedly, they were borne on mal aria from the Pontine Marshes, which were often coupled with the Bog of Allen in contemporary discourse on bogs as disease-spreading wastelands. The Tiber (whose wetlands were also sometimes considered as a source of Roman fever) frightened Joyce, as he noted in a postcard to Stanislaus. It did so, perhaps, because it was notorious for flooding and was much wider and faster-flowing than the Liffey. Additionally, the Tiber was a site of famous drownings going back to that of the eponymous King Tiberinus (regnant 922-914 BC). Joyce’s firsthand experience of the river as a natural body, coming years after he had first encountered it as a literary creation in Virgil and Ovid, perhaps gave him a small shock of recognition. Floods and drownings continue today: the Tiber is still a formidable force of nature.

JJQ: What was your favorite part of working on this article? Was there anything that surprised you?

JF: My favorite part of working on this article was both the research and the writing. The research was endlessly interesting, taking me over and over in surprising directions. The writing process was hard but, at best, stirred up in my mind a sort of creative buzz like that of writing fiction.

JJQ: Could you describe your first introduction to Joyce? What brought you to Joyce studies?

JF:I first read Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses when I was a teenager. I understood little of Ulysses, but thought it was rich and strange—a novel I needed to explore further. Years later, after failing to overcome writer’s block in my own fiction, I entered the Ph.D. program at Stony Brook University as a path toward securing my future as a different sort of literary professional. Choosing Joyce’s fiction for my dissertation topic was a given. I was lucky to have Thomas Flanagan (author of The Irish Novelists, 1800-1850 and The Year of the French) as my dissertation adviser, though I was disconcerted by his terse advice after reading my first hundred pages: “Very good. Go on.”

JJQ: What would you tell someone who hasn’t read Joyce to convince them to read his works?

JF: Reading Joyce’s fictions is, first of all, enjoyable, and does not require pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of mastery over his texts. The reader’s pleasure arises from the play of language and form, coupled with vivid characterization and provocative investigations of history, culture, and the natural (as well as the cultural) human body. The best approach to Joyce’s work is in a group or class in which, from the perspective of their own time and place, readers “co-create” his fictional world, which thus journeys into and “reads” the future. By connecting with his fiction, readers reconnect with their own world. If they become disoriented along the way, that’s part of the process and a path to new understanding.

JJQ: Looking forward, how do you think your article and ecocriticism in general will affect our understanding of Joyce and his works?

JF: I’m not sure, but possibly it will enrich critical recognition of Joyce’s and early twentieth-century Ireland’s “bog consciousness.” I hope it will remind or prompt readers to regard bogs as interesting and valuable ecosystems. Maybe it will even inspire a few inquiring souls to visit part of the remaining Bog of Allen at the headquarters of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council in Lullymore.

This interview was conducted by Marie Sartain via email October 17-19, 2016.