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The Genius of Joyce

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Let me start off by saying happy belated birthday to James Joyce, who was born on February 2nd, 1882. I happened to come across this little historical nugget this morning and it got me thinking. People often credit the major social shake up of the twentieth century to the 1950’s and 1960”s- and as far as social change regarding race is concerned this is absolutely true. However, as far as turning culture, the arts and life in general on its head, its the movers and shakers at the turn of the 19th to 20th century were responsible for many of the cultural norms and artistic freedoms we enjoy today.

During this time all over Europe political flux and overall frustration of the status-quo manifested itself into artistic expression. In the visual arts, painters like Van Gogh, Degas, and later Klimt and Munch were pushing the boundaries of the reality of perception and what can be considered art. Musicians like Ravel and Debussy and later Arnold Schoenburg were reinventing chord structures and restructuring the very nature of music theory.

As far as the literary innovation was concerned, no one contributed more then the Irish. Although Joyce spent much of his life on mainland of Europe, his Irish roots never left his writing. Largely because of the way he used his "Irishness" in unexpected and innovative ways, he spent much of his later life as a literary darling, at the forefront of critical acclaim. The literary discipline had been in practice for thousands of years by Joyce’s time, and yet he basically reinvented the narrative. Ulysses, although by no means an easy read, revolutionizes the reading experience.

Joyce and the writers of the Celtic Revival in Ireland were responsible for an epic body of work unmatched before or (in my humble opinion) since. In a time when Ireland and Irish culture was in danger of being snuffed out, these writers were responsible for saving what made Irish culture uniquely Irish. And if that isn’t badass enough, they did it with such way that revolutionized literature.

Lesser known than his short stories and novels, I leave you today with Joyce’s poetry. Yeats described “I Hear an Army” as “a technical and emotional masterpiece." I first came across this poem in college as an art song set by British composer Samuel Barber.

I HEAR an army charging upon the land,

And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:

Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,

Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.

They cry unto the night their battle-name:

I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.

They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,

Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:

They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.

My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?

My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

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