Seeing James Joyce Through the Parallax of Cycling
Words: John Madruga, Ph.D. | Images: Horton Collection | From Issue 14
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
After a prolonged and contentious disagreement with publisher Grant Richards over printing “Dubliners,” a collection of 15 short stories, James Joyce wrote in a letter: “I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished lookingglass.” Eight years later, Richards finally relented to Joyce’s entreaties and published the book. That was Joyce’s debut, and yet the Irish writer would eventually make such an impact on 20th century English literature that any serious conversation on the subject should begin in Dublin and go deep (as deep as one is able) into the genius of Joyce.
Although he lived much of his adult life outside of Ireland—in Trieste, Zürich and Paris—Joyce’s work was always about his homeland: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world,” he said. And yet, as the renowned literary critic Seamus Deane writes: “It is well known that Joyce repudiated the Irish Literary Revival…repudiating British and Roman imperialism and rejecting Irish nationalism and Irish literature which seemed to be in the service of that cause, he turned away from his early commitment to socialism and devoted himself instead to a highly apolitical and wonderfully arcane practice of writing.”
What accounted for this duality, Joyce’s singular focus on Dublin in his writing while at the same time rejecting what Ireland had become at the time? Ireland at the turn of the 19th century was a shadow of itself, a country that had suffered centuries of famine, poverty and rule by English landlords. As Deane writes: “Ireland is the only Western European country that has had both an early and a late colonial experience…a process of radical dispossession. A colonized people is without a specific history and even, as in Ireland and other cases, without a specific language.”
Under such base, subversive pressure upon a people, Joyce’s reaction was to use his art to refute the pinnacles of British culture, namely its history, literature/language and religious authority. Stephen Dedalus, a central reoccurring character in Joyce’s work—from “Stephen Hero” to “Ulysses”—speaks directly for Joyce when he says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
The awakening for Joyce was not simply through the achievement of a particular literary style—a Modernist aesthetic for which he is well known—but that this style was used as a means toward an ideological end. As the author Vincent Cheng claims, “Perhaps only in this way could an Irishman whose works bristle with bitter resentment against the imperiums of State, Church, and Academy be somehow appropriated and rendered acceptable, even revered, as a High Modernist icon of the Great English Literary Canon.”
And so, while Joyce himself embodied a number of interesting contradictions that may have made it difficult to ever know his true intentions (writing only of Dublin but choosing not to live there, appearing apolitical but outwardly rejecting British and Roman domination), it was in his style and manner of writing where he most revealed himself to readers. Often considered difficult, disjointed, even indecent (at a trial in 1921 Joyce’s “Ulysses” was declared obscene, and as a result was banned in the U.S.; the decision was reversed by U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey in 1933), reading Joyce is to enter a world of interiority, puns, word play, parodies and sometimes obscure allusions.
However far-fetched it may seem on the surface, I think the experience of reading Joyce is very much like the experience of riding one’s bike.
Consider the judge’s statement in the court’s decision to lift the ban on “Ulysses”: “Joyce has attempted—it seems to me, with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions…affects the life and behavior of the character, which he is describing.” It is that single phrase—”ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions”—that brings Joyce’s notion of epiphany and parallax to life—both of which, in their essence, have some relationship to the act/experience of cycling.
The stories in “Dubliners,” published in 1914, depict the domestic, social and political life of middle-class life in Dublin. Joyce said in a letter: “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.”
The naturalistic conditions of the stories (he wrote, “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs around my stories”) are offset with Joyce’s notion of epiphany, a sudden moment of inner, felt awareness for something; and out of that moment of merging both the see-er and the thing seen (or felt or thought) is changed. Joyce, again through the character of Stephen Dedalus, describes epiphany this way: “The radiance…is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous, silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.”
After winning the 41.5-kilometer time trial at the 2012 Tour de France, Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins expressed a very clear sense of his position in the stage long before the clock had stopped timing his ride. “I had a great day today,” Wiggins said. “I knew from the first pedal rev that I was on it. Everything felt fantastic.” Of course, Wiggins had to turn the cranks, pump the blood and use the oxygen necessary to win the TT, but his comment afterward suggests that the efficiency of those physiological processes, at least during stage 9 of the Tour, may have been informed by that same “supreme quality felt by the artist” that Joyce speaks of.
Is it too much to suggest that Wiggins may have been guided in his ride by his own sense of beauty, wholeness and “aesthetic pleasure” of the act of riding, and that this state of awareness/feeling is what elevated him to win the stage? I don’t believe so. “I love this race,” Wiggins continued. “I love this sport and it’s moments like today that make all the hard work worthwhile.” Cycling offers such moments of clarity when we suddenly realize the meaning, the “whatness” of what we are doing (and it’s not simply turning over the cranks) and those moments can change our lives.
In “Ulysses” Joyce used, quite unassumingly, the word “parallax”—a scientific term for the way an object viewed from different vantage points appears different—and the novel wildly takes advantage of this phenomenon. As Canadian literary critic Hugh Kenner writes: “Two different versions at least, that is Joyce’s normal way; and the uncanny sense of reality that grows in readers of ‘Ulysses’ page after page is fostered by the neatness with which versions of the same event, versions different in wording and often in constituent facts—separated, moreover, by tens or hundreds of pages—reliably render one another substantial.”
Such a comment makes me think of the pure act of cycling. We ride, in essence, what is a kind of elaborate parallax machine, something that propels us through space (as we sit still in one place) and offers us the experience of a continuum of changing angles of perception. Everything we encounter—cars, trees, landscapes, people, even entire cities—come in and out of view as we ride, and our perception of it all naturally changes as we go. The tree I see 40 yards down the road is not the same tree I see as I reach the spot where it grows and ride by—at least in terms of my perception of it. Increase the number of riders/variables into such a space of moving perception—the peloton—and things become exponentially more intricate.
Speaking of the crashes after stage 4 of the 2012 Tour, Fabian Cancellara had this to say: “The bunch sometimes is a wave; it goes from one side of the road to the other side and when it’s going so fast and it’s so hectic, it could happen…. We were going 60 kilometers an hour, we had the wind at our back, there were thousands of spectators, there’s a lot of road dividers, and the whole peloton was going fast…. It was already hectic a long way before the finish.”
Cycling is parallax; it’s the ever-changing, ever-evolving nature of the experience that is the magic in every ride. It forces us out of any rigid ways of living that we may try desperately to control and literally changes the view. That change of perspective gained on the bike is a reminder that we are always shaping, always building, always entering our lives in a different kind of way at every moment.
Whether it is gained from the seat of a bicycle or within the pages of James Joyce’s writing, a change in perception can change everything.