Joyce's Death & Wake

January 13: On this day in 1941, James Joyce died in Zurich at the age of fifty-eight from peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer. Even without the dislocation of WWII, Joyce's last years were beset with difficulties—the schizophrenia of his daughter, his son's floundering career and broken marriage, his eyesight, ongoing battles over Ulysses and new worries about Finnegans Wake. "Though not so blind as Homer, and not so exiled as Dante," writes biographer Richard Ellmann, "he had reached his life's nadir."

 

Most troubling to Joyce was Lucia's mental illness. He had shuffled her from doctor to doctor and clinic to clinic looking for successful treatment, or some support for his refusal to accept the bleak prognosis. Among those consulted was Carl Jung, whose attempts to treat Lucia in the mid-1930s had ended with the double diagnosis that she and her father were like two people heading to the bottom of a river, she falling and he diving. Joyce had a psychological style that was "definitely schizophrenic," said Jung, though he transformed it by genius: "In any other time of the past Joyce's work would never have reached the printer, but in our blessed XXth century it is a message, though not yet understood."

 

Joyce was in the home stretch on the seventeen-year Wake at this point. In the text he could be jocular about his daughter's doctors—"grisly old Sykos" who pronounce "on 'alices, when they were yung and easily freudened"—but in private he despaired. Whatever the improvement, he doubted that Lucia would ever be able to turn for long from her "lightening-lit revery" to "that battered cabman's face, the world." And if he might soon escape the "folie of writing Work in Progress" (his manuscript title for Finnegans Wake), the "monster" had nearly killed him:

Having written Ulysses about the day, I wanted to write this book about the night.... Since 1922 my book has been a greater reality for me than reality. Everything gives way to it. Everything outside the book has been an insuperable difficulty: the least realities, such as shaving myself in the morning, for example.

Joyce's interest in ordinary living was always, as Ellmann puts it, "erratic and provisional," but his books show him as "one of life's celebrants, in bad circumstances cracking good jokes, foisting upon ennuis and miseries his comic vision."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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