The Waking Nightmare: Ulysses and Joyce’s Portrayal of the Forms of Written History

<em>A History of Rome and the Roman People</em>

The Waking Nightmare: Ulysses and Joyce’s Portrayal of the Forms of Written History


Stephen Dedalus’s declaration in the “Nestor” episode of Ulysses that “history is a nightmare from which [he is] trying to awake” (2.377) comes in response to the manner in which Mr. Deasy manipulates certain historical facts in order to bolster the legitimacy of his anti-Semitic tirade. While one could argue that Stephen’s comment is meant merely to undercut this particular instance of historical dishonesty, its true significance becomes much more clear when one observes the way Joyce portrays the myriad representations of history at the time and place of the novel. The author, throughout “Nestor,” parodies the texts responsible for the dissemination of historical “facts” in turn-of-the-century Europe not only by mimicking their respective styles but also by providing a representation of the political and societal impacts rendered by their slants on the past.


The reader’s first exposure to a historical text in “Nestor” is to the traditional kind, a textbook employed by Stephen in his attempt to educate his class on Pyrrhus and the battle of Asculum. The scene (and the following conversation with Mr. Deasy) was almost certainly inspired by Joyce’s own time as a teacher, as the author spent a few weeks lecturing at a boy’s school in Dalkey under the employment of a very pro-British headmaster (Ellman 153). Though no record appears to exist of the specific materials of which Joyce made use in his teachings, a study of the sorts of textbooks published around that time and location give the reader a general sense not only of their content but of how that content was structured. Victor Duruy’s A History of Rome and the Roman People (which was published in London in 1884) provides an indicative example of the format, not only because it makes specific mention of the events to which Stephen refers in his lesson but because the particulars of its style reveal that the author is interested in more than a mere dissemination of facts.


Consider the provided excerpt, which describes Pyrrhus’ dealings with Roman commissioners and the aforementioned battle at Asculum. At first glance there does not appear to be anything controversial about the text or the way it is presented; the book consists mainly of unbiased descriptions of uncontested facts. That does not, however, mean that the author entirely resists the urge to editorialize. Of particular note are the passages regarding Fabricius (referring to Fabricius Lucinus, Roman consul and censor [Maximus & Walker 36, 74]), whom Duruy describes as “the hero of the legends, which we are compelled to follow…when Dionysus and Livy fail us” (378). This small instance of glorification becomes significant when the reader considers how irrelevant it seems in terms of its importance to the story. How does Fabricius’s status as a “hero” (a status apparently bestowed upon him solely at the author’s discretion) or the “failure” of Dionysus and Livy in any way impact the events Duruy is describing?


 The aside, though minor, illustrates that the author fails to be impartial in his writings and arguably gives credence to the notion that no person can entirely free himself of partiality even when asked to provide information in what is meant to be an unbiased format. Stephen proves himself just as vulnerable to this failing as the rest of us when he deviates from his history lesson to single out a troublemaking student and (by calling it “a disappointed bridge” [2.39]) to subtly share his opinion that Kingstown pier – which stood under British control at the time – was “a false bridge to a wider world” (Pearson 632). The comment resonates with Duruy’s aside not only in that they both represent deviations from uncontested fact but that both share a sort of subversive quality. In remarking that there is “no-one here to hear” (2.42) his observation, Stephen is recognizing that his audience does not understand his meaning and, as such, that he is able to get away with a subtle slight against British imperial rule within the walls of a distinctly pro-English institution. Duruy, similarly, may engage in a brief glorification of a personal hero due to the position of authority he enjoys as the author of the textbook – as the controller of the message.

"Home Rule"

The parallel serves Joyce not only in the sense that it illustrates some of the innocuous consequences of man-made history but also in that it allows the author to lead into more concerning examples of what can happen when individuals interested in more than subtle glorifications or denigrations are allowed control over interpretations of the past. In the case of “Nestor,” this role is fulfilled by Mr. Deasy, who, during his conversation with Stephen, is granted by his position of authority the ability to twist the historical narrative to fit his own pre-conceived notions. This occurs first when the headmaster, while lecturing Stephen on Irish history and Fenian forgetfulness, echoes not only the arguments of the prominent individuals who had spoken out against Home Rule but also the style by which those arguments were commonly presented.

Joyce, in fact, seems to provide a hint to the particular man that Deasy might have been channeling when the headmaster’s discourse reminds Stephen of the phrase “For Ulster will fight, And Ulster will be right” (2.397-98).  The motto, which refers to the widespread pro-union sentiment prominent in the Ulster region of Ireland at the time, had been coined in 1886 by Lord Randolph Spencer Churchill, a British statesman who spoke frequently and passionately against the notion of Irish Home Rule (Gifford & Seidman 40). An analysis of his speeches on the topic – such as the one he gave on February 22nd, 1888 – shows that much of the manner in which Deasy himself speaks on Home Rule appears to have been greatly inspired by the rhetoric of one the concept’s most virulent opponents.

Consider, for example, the condescension evident both in Churchill’s speech and in Deasy’s lecture to Stephen. When the headmaster speaks of how generous the English are and of how that generosity must be balanced with justness (2.263), he does so with the patronizing tone of Churchill declaring that the “great feature” of the strongest Coercion Act (a name lent to the various laws that allowed individuals to be imprisoned without trial) passed to that date being the ability to put “disturbed districts” under martial law (284). Furthermore, both make specific mention of Daniel O’Connell – an Irish politician who advocated for the repeal of the Union (Gifford & Seidman 35) – and both treat him with similar dismissiveness. Churchill describes O’Connell’s Repeal movement as something “with which Parliament had to deal” while Deasy goes so far as, essentially, to lie in saying that O’Connell was eventually denounced by the Irish Catholic bishops that once supported him (2.271-72). Remarkably, both even use the term Fenian (referring to The Fenian Society, a group that fought for Irish Independence through “terrorist tactics and violent revolution”) as something of a slur in an attempt to discredit their opposition. Churchill affixes the label to what he calls a “political conspiracy” (284) while Deasy bestows the title upon Stephen to paint him as a “radical Republican.” Through use of this technique, both men are able to stifle whatever points their opponents might advance by pre-emptively attaching them to extremism and, as such, making it difficult for the parties to attract attention or respect from more moderate audiences (2.272, Gifford & Seidman 36).

In a sense, Deasy’s lecture acts a microcosm of Churchill’s speech – the main differences between them are in the degrees of authority they possessed and the size of the audiences to which they spoke, Deasy twisting history to his means in an attempt to belittle one individual while Churchill employs the same technique to discredit entire movements. It is, indeed, that position of authority that tinges the style employed by both speakers. Both speak in terms of absolute certainty, using language and tone that not only calls for unquestioning compliance but serves also to mock and dismiss differing opinions. Each word is chosen to forward the notion that they are purveyors of absolute truth, that their version of history will back up their arguments even if the actual events of the past fail to line up with their beliefs.

<em>The Victory of Judaism Over Germanism</em>

Churchill, however, is not the only author Deasy appears to imitate during his conversation with Stephen, nor is that imitation the only instance of the headmaster distorting the past to advance his own views. A second example of the phenomenon can be seen in the language Deasy uses when engaged in his anti-Semitic dialogue, language that was almost certainly inspired by the growing amount of rhetoric at the time concerned with the denigration of the Jewish people and with “exposing” the race as parasitic and corruptive. Wilhelm Marr’s pamphlet The Victory of Judaism over Germanism serves not only as an exemplary piece of such rhetoric but also as an illustration of the sorts of literature Deasy echoes not only in terms of content but also in terms of style and technique (Gifford & Seidman 4).    

The similarities are so striking that one would think it were Marr himself speaking were it not for the fact that Deasy specifically discusses the dangers Judaism poses to England. Many of the sentiments expressed are essentially identical. Compare some of the passages from the provided excerpts to some of the statements made by Deasy on the matter; “England is in the hands of the Jews,” (2.346-47) the headmaster declares. “Old England is dying” (2.350-51). Meanwhile, Marr bemoans the fact that Germany has been “vanquished in open battle,” that the nation is “of the past and will die” (27). Deasy contends that Jews hold England’s power “in all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay” (2.347-48); Marr claims that “Judaism has become the leading political-social great power of the 19th century,” that weakened Germany is “no longer a match for this foreign tribe” (24, 27). Even when the passages themselves are not overtly similar (as with the respective discussions of Jewish merchant culture), the sentiments behind the passages are the same, both speakers delivering their arguments with unshakable conviction based in what they believe to be historical fact.

Both men, in reality, play fast and loose with the truth. Marr’s declaration of Germany having already lost its war against Judaism was “pure tactics,” a gamble made on the atmosphere being “sufficiently saturated with anti-Jewishness to make an attack on Jews a promising political enterprise” (Katz 261). Deasy, meanwhile, makes his declaration of Ireland having never let Jews on its shores without said declaration bearing any basis in historic fact (Gifford & Seidman 40). But the truth is hardly even of consequence in either matter. As with his channeling of Churchill, Deasy speaks in the same declarative, authoritative manner with which he discussed the issue of Home Rule; the significant difference between that and his imitation of Marr is the inclusion of scare-mongering phrasing and defeatist tone. As with Marr, these techniques are employed by Deasy not to give the listener a sense of the battle having already been lost but to instill in the listener the sense of what they feel to be the utmost importance and urgency of the issue. The past becomes whichever version will most efficiently inspire their audience to action.

Joyce, in the schema he provided for his friend Carlo Linati, marked the meaning of the “Nestor” episode as “the wisdom of the ancients.” There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the distinction might have been made ironically. Each example the author provides of a dissemination of history illustrates the manner in which the truth of the past can be distorted, sometimes unconsciously and harmlessly and sometimes with malicious intent. Textbooks cannot be entirely even-handed; politicians will play with the past to advance their causes; bigots will tell bald-faced lies and call them historical fact. By parodying influential texts and speakers of the time, Joyce is displaying the most vivid illustration of Stephen’s declaration of history being a nightmare from which he is trying to awake, of the fact that the ongoing manipulation of what has passed has a disempowering and oppressive effect on the dispossessed of the present.

The Waking Nightmare: Ulysses and Joyce’s Portrayal of the Forms of Written History