Traditions of Critique: Gramsci, Buttigieg and James Joyce

by | 10 Nov 2022

Translator’s Introduction

It is, I believe necessary to rescue Joyce from the industry he created. I don’t know of any other writer who who has given employment to so many scholars with the possible exception of Shakespeare, who has had a longer run at it. Joyce himself was aware of his legacy. Of Finnegans Wake he said: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant….’ The fact that so many academic careers, especially in the USA, are built on the relatively small output of one writer (compare and contrast with Shakespeare’s output, or that of Dante) has had a normalising effect on what was considered politically and morally radical in its time reducing it, as Terrinoni argues in this article ‘to a literary exercise’. Joseph Buttigieg, one of the first translators of Gramsci, was at pains to reinstate the political in his reading of Joyce and this essay examines that contribution in the light of Buttigieg’s Gramscism.

Nowadays Ulysses, in particular, has become something of a Tourist Board icon, a charming portrait of a Dublin of the past (but which numerous guided tours, re-enactments and souvenirs can recreate in a way that allows the tourist to spend money). The domestication of the beast is so complete that there is now a Bloomsday Festival, which in its advertising urges the festival-goer to ‘don that boater hat’ for a ‘longstanding and treasured tradition, an afternoon of songs, readings and performances from Ulysses.’ There is, of course, no ‘longstanding tradition’ of welcoming Ulysses. Had there been one Joyce would have satirised it. For decades it was almost impossible to buy the book in Ireland, not least because it is essentially anti-nationalist (with an an Irish Jew at its centre it could hardly be described as lauding the racist view of a Catholic and Celtic Ireland which prevailed around the time of its publication). Early in his life Joyce described himself was a ‘socialist artist’ though he admitted privately to his brother that his ideology was ‘thin… unsteady and ill-informed’. He is known to have attended anarchist and socialist meetings. Memorably he reduced the concept of a nation to ‘the same people living in the same place’, despoiling it completely of the supposed grandeur with which the nationalists invested it. In Italy he was a reader of Avanti! the Socialist Party organ and declared his detestation for the ‘burgher class’. He was deeply impressed by the anti-fascist and socialist fellow-traveller Guglielmo Ferrero, whose work is known to have influenced the genesis of Ulysses. In addition to its commentary (and mockery) of narrow nationalism, Ulysses also speaks intimately of sexual pleasure in the voice of a woman, a radical inversion of the role of women in the Catholic confessional Irish state of the 1920s. Above all, the book chooses to examine the daily life of ordinary people, extracting from the sordid essence of a city of slums and suburbs, pubs and brothels, trivial argument and political rhetoric, a kind of poetry that changed English literature forever.

The present translation comes from a book called Gramsci in Inglese, an Italian language essay collection of which the author, Enrico Terrinoni was one of the editors. Terrinoni is perhaps the most prominent translator of Irish literature in Italy and just recently published his majestic translation of Ulysses with facing English text. The book has already run to several editions. 

William Wall,

The Gramscian Buttigieg and James Joyce

By Enrico Terrinoni (Translated by William Wall)

I do not think it is possible to untangle Joseph Buttigieg’s contribution to Joyce studies from his critical and translation work on Antonio Gramsci. It is in fact his pragmatic vision, contrary to the pretentious detachment of many other specialists in Joyce, that guides his analysis. This despite the fact that Buttigieg’s approach to Joyce’s early works is subtly linked to two main influences, Christian theology and existentialist philosophy. However, it remains in itself an exercise in “philosophy of praxis”, and therefore a Gramscian interpretative act, in an attempt to draw attention back from form to content (a theme dear to him, and dear to Gramsci) but also in wanting to restore a balance between “aesthetic” readings of Joyce, focused more on the “how” and less on the “what”, and the identification of the profound political message that underlies the whole work of the author of Ulysses. Buttigieg, in fact, in approaching Joyce, wanted to demonstrate that the Irishman’s art should not only be contemplated but must be made productive, updated; this is because, as his colleague and friend Declan Kiberd once explained in a lesson we held together, Joyce wrote with the intention of making us feel more at ease in the world.

His main study on Joyce (A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective, Ohio University Press) dates back to 1987, but Buttigieg had already written about Joyce. To understand the ambitions and basic criteria of the monograph, it is therefore essential to discuss three of his previous contributions. In an essay entitled “Aesthetics and Religion in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man[1], Buttigieg rightly points out that the character who incarnates the young Joyce, Stephen Dedalus, “fits into an established tradition that finds expression in the writings of the first scholastic and neo-scholastic fathers, as well as in those of later theologians”[2]. This premise permits a discourse which dismantles the vulgate of a Dedalus outside of history, a canonical perspective suggested by a superficial reading of Joyce’s Flaubertian heritage. Buttigieg is interested, in a Gramscian sense, in showing the contradictions of his apparent status of distance from reality, and in not accepting uncritically the fact that Joyce may have embraced the departure from historical reality as a solution to the impasse of the artist naturally devoted to self-isolation.

If readings in vogue at the time depicted this young artist as the archetype of the God-creator intent on coldly admiring his own creation, Buttigieg’s priority is instead to make people understand how, according to the theological sources Joyce draws on from his Jesuit formation, and which he then combines with the aesthetic theories of beauty, God, in becoming man, becomes part of Creation in substance, never distancing himself from it, but embracing it in his humanity.

The argument serves to launch Buttigieg into a fierce dispute with the American New Criticism, a then hegemonic movement which, defending the need to see a work of art in its precious isolation from the context, had ended up endorsing the idea that the critic himself had to keep his distance from the object he was analysing. For Buttigieg this is evidenced by the way in which the so-called New Critics had, for example, defined and used the category of irony, seen mainly as a modality required by artistic detachment, while it should be more correctly understood as a complex and contradictory position which cannot be limited to “cynical sarcasm”.

In fact, irony is something absolutely multifaceted in its various artistic materialisations, and Buttigieg is deeply aware of this. He discusses it in another article of some importance entitled “The Struggle against Meta (Phantasma)-Physics: Nietzsche, Joyce and the ‘Excess of History’”[3]. In this study he argues that the drive towards destabilisation and demystification of the real, which is inherent in Stephen’s character development in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, cannot be overshadowed by his presumed – and presumptuous – distance from the world he lives in. Stephen is in fact fighting both against the forces of the past and against those of the present: he intends, as he will later explain in Ulysses, to “kill the priest and the king “[4]. Buttigieg compares this ambition to the Nietzschean idea of ​​creating a new future without the need to idolise the past, which translates into a struggle against the paralysis of history – a history understood as disease, as a human creation and imposition of order on the chaos we inhabit. It is also the awareness at the basis of Joyce’s attempt to escape the nightmare of history that we read in Ulysses[5], but which also has its roots in Stephen’s attitude in A Portrait.

Stephen’s and Joyce’s ideas are in fact animated by a desire to emancipate himself and others. To illustrate how this mechanism inherent in all of his oeuvre operates it is worth mentioning a wonderful word among the many invented in Finnegans Wake: “immensipater”[6]. We read it first of all as ‘emancipator’: The Emancipator, Daniel O’Connell, also known as The Liberator, leader of the struggles for the emancipation of Irish Catholics in the nineteenth century; but looking at the lemma through the lenses of Latin, we see something else: immense pater, the father of the immense, which can stand both for the God of creation and for one of the most important philosophical figures in Joyce’s formation, that of Giordano Bruno of De Immenso, a work in which it is clear that we live in an infinite universe in which the centre and periphery always coincide. A universe, therefore, made up of infinite possibilities, like the universes pointed out by Joyce’s worlds of words. And it is precisely in such an infinite universe that Stephen pronounces his contradictory view of the creed in Ulysses: “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief”[7]. This symbiotic contradiction between the questions of believing and not believing cannot be easily dismissed in Joyce, Buttigieg argues, but rather, it must be read in all its fruitful contradiction. If believing in the past means believing in the present, “in part the confusion derives from the need to renounce faith in the dead to be able to believe in life, but at the same time faith in life is necessary to reject the ghosts of the past”[8]. The essay ends with a couple of unanswered questions: is life an act of radical denial, or is it the radical denial itself, that is to say the effective burial of the dead, that becomes a strong affirmation? In response to these dilemmas, both Joyce’s and Nietzsche’s “yesses” would seem to resonate, for Buttigieg, with the most patent irony[9].

Irony is obviously central to Buttigieg’s interest in literature and Joyce in particular, as evidenced by another 1983 article entitled ‘The Interest of Irony’.[10] The essay also deals with Joyce, but not only with him, and is strongly connected to the book he would publish not long afterwards on the Irish novelist. Here too we find the old polemic against New Criticism, accusing it of having created a paralysed, “ossified”[11] image of modernism. With regard to modernist irony, the New Critics, for Buttigieg, helped to validate the opinion that the artist or critic “is situated outside of history and above contradiction”, that is, beyond and above all the complexities animating our life, which instead is inevitably historical and historicised. To question the status of irony understood as detachment means for Buttigieg to be able to undermine the authority of the alleged “disinterested language” of the New Critics and at the same time “subvert the basis of their claims to objectivity”[12]. The image is once again linked to Joyce and Stephen Dedalus: “The flight of those who bring irony into play is more than just an escape. It is […] the claim of metaphysics ”[13]. In reality, for Buttigieg not even metaphysics can ever show itself disinterested in the human being, and it is precisely this awareness that makes us historical but also historicisable; which does not mean that the forest in which we live is linked to an immutable tradition, a history that is precisely “ossified”, but, on the contrary, that through the struggle for emancipation, we will have the means to change our history and that of those around us.

2. The New Critics and modernism as a “commitment”

The arguments set out in the essays discussed above make it clear that, when Buttigieg’s provocative book on Joyce came out in 1987, the reactions were very mixed. Many critics, in fact, still moved within or were emerging from, the tradition of New Criticism. Furthermore, as one of the reviewers[14] observed, the book was also concerned with critically confronting the Joyce industry, the transnational network of Joycean studies that, especially in the first decades after the author’s death, and mainly in America, tried in a thousand ways to depoliticise Joyce and his revolutionary writing. Buttigieg’s approach immediately aroused suspicion, since his aspiration was to untangle Joyce’s texts from the prison of tradition within which they had been unduly confined; which was perceived as a real threat.

Much of the attention in his book is devoted to the treatment of irony defined in a new way: “the new critical concept of irony depends to a large extent on the confusion between aesthetics and religion, a confusion that derives from undisputed, and therefore uncritical, acceptance of the transcendent ideal of Western metaphysics ”[15]. From similar premises, it is clear that Buttigieg’s text had as its primary objective the process of demystifying irony in literature. What better author than Joyce to help him in this enterprise? His writings are full of disenchantment and detachment, but always starting from deep convictions rooted above all in a theological and religious cultural substratum that becomes political in its desire for emancipation.

Buttigieg’s demystifying approach seemed to counter the views of “previous critics like Beebe, who, like the rest of the establishment in the Joyce industry, ‘obscured’ Joyce’s work by trying to discern those forms of unity that postmodernism contests”[16]. Underlining Stephen Dedalus’ deeply anti-positivist aesthetic values even in the light of a renewed interest in theology could not receive a warm welcome from a community of scholars who already embraced neopositivist research as a practice capable of disambiguating a literary text, discarding the hypothesis that it could or should in part remain ambiguous, obscure, and therefore mysterious.

Another question raised by professional Joyceans was that Buttigieg’s monograph was in reality, not so much a book on a literary work – as announced in the title – but a study that set out to criticise criticism[17]; which is obviously true. Buttigieg consciously targets the approach of the New Critics through a much less aestheticising and more historicising vision of literature, animated mainly by existentialist perspectives, and considered more productive than the New Criticism approaches which tend to isolate the work from its context.

Other Joyce scholars argued that these were not very current criticisms, as the methods of New Criticism and its followers no longer trod the stage of literary criticism with the dominance of ten years earlier. Indeed, ‘A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective’ is, as I have argued, the product of long years of research anchored in the past, and has its roots in the articles I have mentioned; hence the impression of anachronism. However, the spirit that animates the text is Buttigieg’s will to lash out against consolidated positions of power, and this objective goes beyond the immediate context of reference. As if to say, the method of isolating a literary work from the environment in which it is born and moves is wrong, exactly as it is wrong to try to analyse other phenomena without taking into account the interconnectedness of the whole. In the transnational academy, the returns on power are also often linked to the idea of ​​raising fences and sterilising phenomena so that they can be analysed without disturbing elements. Buttigieg, on the other hand, is interested precisely in those disturbing elements, such as the synchrony, in Joyce, between a theological heritage and a Flaubertian and materialist aesthetic. This is an attitude that will then spill over into his studies on Gramsci, always aimed at historicising, but not in the sense of “museumification”: the attempt is to allow a piece of history to become part of our present and even to influence our future.

In literature, Buttigieg’s approach shows how even critical trends and movements that are too attentive to the immediate past risk not making us look forward; and if a classical author like Joyce requires us to read him still, his pages seem to say that it is not because of its historical function related to a past to be dissected, but because it allows us to consider his message as situated at the gates of an eternity and at the same time rooted in models from our past; a past to be read in symbiosis with our present. I believe that this is the most fruitful interpretation of his approach to Joyce and of his definition of ‘A Portrait as a modernist classic’.

Unsurprisingly, a critic who has always stressed the political nature of Joyce’s art, Domenic Manganiello, praised Buttigieg’s book precisely for its clear position and commitment, factors that place the author at the absolute antipodes to more established Joycean critics, who were often complacent, their vision that of uncritical acceptance of the received tradition[18]. The contemporary critic, according to Manganiello (quoting Buttigieg) must “act against those same institutions of knowledge which for so long have exercised such a powerful and self-perpetuating hold on research”[19].

Buttigieg is clearly opposed to what was then the prevalent tendency in Joyce studies of isolating the meaning of his work from its own context. His approach is instead inspired by a type of hermeneutical openness that discourages the acceptance of predetermined ideas, the opposite of the attitude typical of those critics accustomed to the practice of looking at a text in isolation, as if it were even possible to escape from the perimeter of their own convictions. and pretend not to inhabit them.

In this creed lies the profound meaning of Joseph Buttigieg’s magisterium in Joyce’s studies: being able to reconsider the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in Joyce, not by yielding to the similarities between Stephen’s aesthetic theories and those of Thomistic theology, but rather by showing attention to the aporias, the ambiguities, the inconsistencies of this dichotomy. Incongruences that give us back the character of Stephen as an intellectual who still lives in an almost inhuman, almost divine isolation. A young man, so to speak, that needs to meet an older man who will teach him a more mature and complete form of humanity.

All of this would happen in the sequel to A Portrait, namely Ulysses, and Buttigieg knew it well. In fact, as another reviewer of his still important and relevant book[20] pointed out, Buttigieg shows himself to be original and provocative precisely because of his ambition to combine two perspectives on Joyce’s early writings, the theological and the postmodernist. The book, in fact, starts from Buttigieg’s fundamental assumption, partly arising from his personal history, that theology must be brought back to earth in order to present the human being as inexorably linked to the “here and now”; because the forced or intentional departure from the conditions that shape us and in which we affirm ourselves, even artistically, cannot in any way be our goal. And so, Joyce’s bildungsroman corresponds, for Buttigieg, to only one phase in the life of the Irish artist. True, Stephen seems for most of the works in which he appears, to refuse a true face-to-face with life, but it is only a partial refusal, later denied by the infinite possibilities of his maturity, in some ways embodied in the character who will bear witness. That is to say, his defects will only be corrected in Ulysses, when the disillusionment will find solace in the more mature, materialistic, critical, and dialectical vision of Joyce’s most successful character: the non-Jewish Jew Leopold Bloom.

The Gramscian legacy in Buttigieg’s Joycean studies emerges from this consciousness, the consciousness, that is to say, that Joyce wrote with precise political intentions. On the other hand, he had declared himself  in his earliest works: Joyce had at heart the mission of emancipating his people, of extracting them from the network of occult forces that kept them subjugated. This already in Dubliners. In Ulysses he would take a more than clear line in favour of a pacifist and socialist internationalism, partly to oppose the spectre of a nationalism spiced with anti-Semitism that roamed Europe. And finally, with Finnegans Wake Joyce went the heart of the problem, to language, or to the grammar of thought, to its secret geometries. And always and only with a political intent, but this time universal: a linguistic emancipation.

Buttigieg does not deal with the Wake but from his analysis of the early writings the identification of a similar political matrix in Joyce clearly emerges. And this goes against the trend, then as now, with respect to mainstream criticism which prefers to reduce Joycean art to a literary exercise, without grasping its profound transformative and emancipatory value. In this we can rightly consider Buttigieg a precursor and a visionary; and even venture the hypothesis that his approach to Joyce is as much informed from a Gramscian perspective as his approach to Gramsci is profoundly and immanently Joyce.

This article is a translation of Enrico Terrinoni’s article ‘Il gramsciano Buttigieg e James Joyce’ previously published in Gramsci in Inglese, Joseph A. Buttigieg e La Traduzione del Prigioniero a Cura di Salvatore Cingari ed Enrico Terrinoni (Mimesis Edizioni, Milano – Udine, 2022) . By kind permission of the author.

Enrico Terrinoni’s most recent translation is the Bombiani parallel edition of Ulisse, a world first. He is Chair of English Literature at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia; 2022/2025 Professor – Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei – Centro Linceo interdisciplinare “Beniamino Segre”; 2022/2023 Professor of Translation – IULM University; 2022 Visiting Professor – National Normal Taiwan University; Affiliate of the Center for Italian Studies at the University of Notre Dame and and President of the James Joyce Italian Foundation. 

William Wall is the author of seven novels, most recently La Ballata Del Letto Vuoto, to appear in English as Empty Bed Blues in 2023, and five collections of poetry. 


[1] In “Christianity and Literature”, 1979, n. 4, pp. 44-56. 

[2] ibid p.53

[3] J. A. Buttigieg, The Struggle Against Meta (Phantasma) -Physics: Nietzsche, Joyce

and the ‘Excess of History’, in “Boundary 2”, 1981, n. 1, pp. 187-207.

 J. Joyce, Ulisse, a cura di E. Terrinoni, Bompiani, Milano, 2021, p. 1179. 

[5] Ivi, p. 61. 

[6] J. Joyce, Finnegans Wake, Oxford UP, Oxford 2012, p. 342, line 26. 

[7] J. Joyce, Ulisse, cit., p. 227. 

[8] J. Buttigieg, The struggle…, cit., p. 204. 

[9]  Ibid.

[10] “Notre Dame English Journal”, Faith and Narrative, 1983, n. 2, pp. 29-47.

[11] Ibid, p. 32.

[12] Ibid, p. 31. 

[13] Ibid, p. 45. 

[14] J. C. C. Mays, Review of A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective”, in “The Review of English Studies”, New Series, 1989, n. 160, pp. 587-588. 

[15] J. A. Buttigieg, A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective, Ohio University Press, Athens 1987, p. 52. 

[16] C. Butler, Review of “A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective”, in “James Joyce Broadsheet”, 1989, n. 28, p. 52. 

[17] S. Fešbach, Review of “A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective”, in “The James Joyce Quarterly”, 1988, n. 3, pp. 385-391.

[18] D. Manganiello, Review of “A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective”, in “Christianity and Literature”, 1988, n. 4, pp. 58-59. 

[19] Ibid

[20] M. Flundernik, Review of “Reading Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’” by Daniel R. Schwartz; “A 

Portrait of the Artist in Different Prospective” by Joseph A. Buttigieg, in “Modern Fiction Studies”, 1988, n. 4, pp. 687-689. 

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