THE DEAD

james-joyce

The photo here, if you did not recognize it, is of the great Irish writer James Joyce. The Dead is the conclusive entry to Joyce’s 15 short story collection The Dubliners published in 1914.

I am particularly fond of this story as it was the vehicle to my greatest accomplishment as a freshman at Washington & Jefferson College in 1965-66. The Dead was part of the anthology of short stories and poetry used in my freshman English class. It is a longer story considered by some to be a novella, and took up forty full pages in our anthology.

Our class was assigned a term paper to be written over our Christmas break. (At that time the semester extended to the end of January). It was to be twenty typewritten pages and was to discuss, not he story as a whole, but rather focusing upon one scene in the story which described the table setting at a post-Christmas holiday celebration.

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.

http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/

At first glance that might seem to be an insurmountable task. But Professor William Stein was heavily into imagery…especially religious imagery… and symbolism and manifestations of mythology. So over the break a classmate and I, fellow Washington High School graduates, spent hours in the city library with books on mythology and symbolism surrounding us. We poured through them with increasing zeal as we would try to discern the hidden meanings of the food described in the paragraph above and relate them to the characters with names such as Michael and Gabriel and Kate and Mary Jane, all of whom could be fictional stand-ins for Biblical characters, for instance.

As we dug more deeply into our references it became apparent that what we were really reading about was a veiled reference to the conflicts among the Irish and the British with three distinct factions. You had the Irish Catholics, the Irish Protestants, and the British oppressors. The subtleties of the colors of the various foods also shed light on the conflict, most notably in the green for Irish Catholics and orange for the Protestant supporters of England.

Now, mind you, whatever clashes between these parties prior to publication of The Dubliners, it was still not until 1916 when the Easter Uprising occurred and Michael Collins gained prominence/notoriety and that event begat several decades of violence until Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams gained credit for bringing The Troubles to a close with an accord with the British Government.

My friend and I gathered and absorbed all this information and hashed it over till we had a basic agreement on a logical scenario that would allow for a narrative that would be right up Professor Stein’s alley. That there were other interpretations or nuances somewhat beyond our relatively unsophisticated young minds we thought of as possible but, with the wealth of material we had, exploring further would mean a paper far longer than what was demanded of us.

Despite our mutual research and similar mindsets, we still had to produce our papers individually. When we returned from break we handed them in and awaited our grades. At the end of our semester the Professor informed us of the grades we earned and selected me for specific praise, revealed my A to the class, and announced he was having my paper published in the college’s literary magazine. But he was a tough grader and my friend received only a B.

Yes, I’m bragging here but let me lay a little more foundation. Gerry Adams now reappears as a possible, even probable villain. He is accused of being much more than a political operative for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, but a military leader within that radical group who can be truthfully named a murderer. That is if you buy everything Patrick Radden Keefe writes in the upcoming issue of The New Yorker in a story titled Where The Bodies Are Buried.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/where-the-bodies-are-buried

Keefe focuses on a widowed mother of ten in West Belfast named Jean McConville who was kidnapped by the IRA in front of her brood of children in December of 1972.and “disappeared”. her body not being discovered until 2003, nearly thirty-one years later.

Along the way Keefe introduces a colorful cast of characters and events entailing bombings, hunger strikes, torture, unredemptive admissions of IRA atrocities, a marriage to a well known actor, and the deterioration of the ten children Jean McConville left behind.

While reading this I found myself drawing parallels to more recent and current events in other parts of the world where religious rivalries, resentment of and rebellion against repressive government, and long standing intractable differences between otherwise homogenous populations have bred violence and terrorism that, unlike the Irish Troubles, is often directed outside the parameters of these smoldering relationships.

Think Iraq, first of all. Faced with domination from outside forces and then having a murderous and treacherous dictator thrust upon them and then suffering the indignity of an invasion based on a trumped up rationale and witnessing the killing of hundreds of thousands of citizens, the upheaval of that dictator with resultant instability, and the chaotic destruction of infrastructure and economy alike, is it any  wonder that this middle Eastern nation erupted in insurgency against its occupiers and festering religious extremism has now devolved into the ISIS phenomenon?

I am often struck by how many in the leadership ranks of American politicians…of both major parties…stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that, just as the British accepted no responsibility for Irish revolutionary acts, so, too, are the actions of our own government a huge factor in the atmosphere of what we have termed Muslim terrorism. Instead it is a product, not so much of proclaimed religious superiority or its manifest destiny or envy of the “American Way” as it is a predictable reaction to our own decades of morally fallible interference in the affairs of a group of nations who we value for their oil and our ability to manipulate them while being openly disdainful of their religion and culture, such disdain being driven by ignorance and our own mistaken avowals that our expressions of faith are the only true way.

But  the scornful and rabidly paternalistic British fomented violent acts by properly resentful Irish that spiraled downward into terror and the killing and maiming of innocents, ultimately unjustifiable. But these tactics were no more…or less…horrific than the beheadings by ISIS or the widespread use of IEDS against American occupiers. Indeed, we haughtily and arrogantly carried out secretive missions and “disappeared” many of those we declared enemies without proof or substance, holding them unlawfully while torturing them. How is that different from what the British did in Ireland with the outcome being the IRA attacks and bombings and murders? Ironically in America we have a lot of Irish sympathizers who not only commiserated with the plight of the Irish but countenanced acts of terror we deplore elsewhere and even providing the financial backing and provisions of arms that are now subject to the Patriot Act if perpetrated by Muslims or in their cause.

Our hypocrisy and moral ambiguity is there if you choose to see it. But we would rather remain blind.

But even worse, The Dead will forever remain that way.

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Comments

  • toadsly  On March 10, 2015 at 1:00 PM

    Fine read: well-researched and better written. Dave is a master wordsmith.

  • Wayne Muller  On March 10, 2015 at 1:39 PM

    I might not quite agree with the premise that the seeds of this latest installment of terrorism ( ISIS) can be traced no farther than the invasion of Iraq. However, if what you seem to be suggesting is understood correctly, that the destabilization of Itaq made the group more viable throughout the Middle East, perhaps you have a far more plausible argument. Still, I believe that the root causes of this terrorism are far too complex to attribute to any one or even any manageable group of causes. One might better look to the history of aggression, which seems to coincide with the history of man, for such reasons.

    • umoc193  On March 10, 2015 at 7:16 PM

      Mugsy, we’re not entirely at odds here. I was drawing parallel lines between Ireland and Iraq, not coincident ones. That is both involve a mixture of long standing religious conflict and a reaction to repressive governments. You are certainly correct that both situations are far more complex than are addressed here.

      Unfortunately the results are far too similar and that is more human death and suffering to no discernible purpose.

      • Wayne Muller  On March 10, 2015 at 8:35 PM

        Hi David ; I think that your comments are well considered. I would suggest that the parallels are between any number of groups of people who have gathered under some umbrella of an exclusive group; perhaps Religius, or nationalistic, racial, in any case some sort of tribal “us and them” arrangement . Ironically most mainstream religions seem at some ( perhaps more esoteric) level to teach against this type of thinking, yet at some other point seem to encourage it. Other types of groups seem far more overt in encouraging and even embracing this segregation. I think that you and I may well agree that there is no evident solution, with these various groups and their heavily intertwined and often opposed experience with one another. History, as Sting sung, will teach us nothing. As a believing person I find that man’s ultimate unity is in God, a Hindu may find it in the void, another tradition finds it in the Tao. I believe that atheists and agnostics may well find it in shared experience and intuition. We must, however, wish to find it and the thoughts that drive seperation are powerful.

        • Devildog  On March 10, 2015 at 10:13 PM

          Mugsy, you are too kind to UMOC. This treatise by UMOC is nothing less than his usual anti-Bush, anti-America diatribe couched in “brilliant writing” seeking to blame the aforementioned for everything that has gone wrong in the area. UMOC, the first and foremost critic of our support of dictators, decries our removal of Saddam-as if ethnic/religious violence is not inevitable in that area.

          • Wayne Muller  On March 11, 2015 at 11:53 AM

            I’m on record that in my mind the terrorism problem that David spoke of precedes the Iraq issue, and if David draws parallels between Iraq and Ireland then while that curiosity is interesting I’m not sure what the significance is, other than to note that people (wrongly) feel compelled at times to resort to the destruction of innocent lives to address their grievances. That doesn’t seem new to human history. If I seem to respond in kindness, it is no doubt due to the situation of having conversed often with David, and having met him once as well. While we disagree on many issues, I think that we have a mutual respect for one another, especially in regard to sincerity of belief.

            • Devildog  On March 11, 2015 at 12:22 PM

              Mugsy, I appreciate and understand what you have written. I cannot write as well as can the two of you so I resort to calling a spade a spade.

          • umoc193  On March 12, 2015 at 3:28 PM

            Do you want me to repeat my diatribes about the Obama drone strikes or even the decision to murder bin laden instead of making any attempt whatsoever to capture him as have we other terror suspects so this doesn’t seem to be merely anti-Bush? Or maybe I could include Eisenhower’s decision to install the Shah of Iran? Or the final rise to power of Saddam Hussein during Carter’s Presidency?

            Our Middle Eastern policy has been morally bankrupt for years no matter the party in charge here at home. I spare no one in my overall criticism though I will, on occasion, spell out specific offenses which automatically attach to whomever was in office at that time.

            So what? Grow up. Would you accuse me of not loving my sons if I allowed them to perform mischief without rebuke?

            You’re not calling a spade a spade. You’re playing the wrong damned suit.

            • Devildog  On March 13, 2015 at 12:04 AM

              The operative word, UMOC, is “usual”. It’s just that you are very repetitive in your “diatribes”.

              • Little_Minx  On March 13, 2015 at 1:05 AM

                UMOC’s repetitive? Devildog, pot meet kettle.

                • Devildog  On March 13, 2015 at 1:08 AM

                  Yes! Yes! Chicken and egg!

              • umoc193  On March 17, 2015 at 2:44 PM

                Do you read Jack Kelly every week because he always tackles a different topic in a different way? No, you like him because he beats the same drum over and over. It’s the same with any pundit/blogger who leans either right or left.

                At least i’m consistent?

                • Devildog  On March 17, 2015 at 4:10 PM

                  UMOC, this is the honest to goodness truth. I never now look at even one word Jack Kelly writes because I know for sure what he would have to say about the subject of the day. For the same reason, i don’t read or listen to many on both the right and left. One example-Hannity.

                  I’m disappointed that you think I read Kelly!

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