Reacting to the present

It is all too often, and too easily, forgotten that the Modernist was strongly reactionary, defined as much by its anxiety about the creed of others as it was by the principles of its own.


One of the most intriguing tensions in Modernism is the political reservation about the rise of ‘democracy’, an ideology that was firmly embraced into the heart of British politics in 1918, when all women over the age of thirty were given the right to vote and compounded in 1928 when every citizen above the age of eighteen, regardless of gender, was given suffrage. It was heralded as a new era of hope and equality, as “” , yet, despite popular support for the motion, it caused a great deal of concern among many of the modernist writers. This apprehension went beyond mere aloofness- as one may expect from a group of writers now sadly remembered as much for their exclusivity as for their work- instead it was rooted in the abstract spheres of artistry, in a perceived assault upon the very minds of the nation. D.H. Lawrence expressed his concern in the 1919 essay “Democracy”. There he railed against the growing tendency for one to enshrine “the standard” as “”.

His trepidation is an almost tangible fear that runs throughout many Modernist works, one that dreads the extension of the physical hegemony of the standard being extended to encompass the mental realm and become an ideological position in its own right.


If that were to happen, then the very essence of artistry itself would come under threat in two ways. Firstly, language and vocabulary would be reduced to vehicles capable of expressing only the most conventional thought. Of course, this is already a reality to some degree and artists have long since struggled with a sense of the sublime and the problem of expression. This, however, would agitate the problem to a much larger degree because the capacity for rebellion would be slowly but surely removed. George Orwell was highly conscious of this, and criticised it in the appendix to his celebrated novel .


These ideological fears manifested themselves in the works of more than a few modernist authors. Some of the most iconic figures of the movement all had their reservations about democracy. Eliot was fiercely conservative in his views and his criticisms of liberalism are both vicious and well known. Pound’s turn towards the totalitarian regime of Mussolini and scathing attacks on capitalism positioned him away from the democracic reforms of British society as well. However, it is to none other than James Joyce that we can turn to find a damning indictment of the corrupting influence of standardisation and cliché. The most obvious example of this is of course the ‘Eumaeus’ chapter of Ulysses, riddled as it is with pseudo intellectual phrases and stereotypes. It is in Dubliners though, that Joyce truly focuses his disgust on the apathy, ignorance and paralysis of contemporary Ireland, in the novel he described as . The degrading, cyclical nature of cliché and standardised thought is explored in the chapter ‘Clay’, which tells the story a women named Maria, as she makes he way across the city to meet with a family she knows.


Maria is a women whose entire life is dictated by cliché. Her prefabricated notions about life and everything in it render her almost incapable of original thought. Instead she, like many of the other characters in the novel, is stuck in a cycle of repitition and immobility. Her actions are systematic and almost mechanised: “she took off her working skirt and her house-boots and laid her best skirt out on the bed and her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed.” The simple language and large amount of polysyllabic words indicate her simple state of mind, there is no complication, nothing to ponder or to question. This skirt is for work, this skirt is for mass, everything is “tidy”, organised and efficient. There is no thought given to how she will be perceived by other worshippers at mass, no considerations for variables like the weather, just a simple repitition of the same routine. When she does think, it is not of anything original or knew but the reassuring simple summoning of past memories and perceptions, of how “she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning”. A sly reference to the moment when Maria “changed the hand of the alarm from seven to six” completes the impression, devoid as it is of any thought and reinforcing the mechanisation of her actions and her mind.

Maria will later meet an old man on the train, an incident which will serve to emphasise just how deep the effect of a standardised mindset, full of cliches, runs within her veins.  Her immediate impression of him is that he is “polite” and from her very brief interaction with him, she immediates decides that he is trustworthy. The image she uses is a“colonel-looking gentleman” and its revealing that the first thing she concludes about him is a framework in which she can place him. Much like one of Orwell’s dead metaphors, Maria doesn’t interpret and imagine what she sees in her front of her, instead she searches for her nearest point of reference and ascribes that value to him. The chapter’s subtle contempt for her continues as the old man preys upon the stereotype she ascribes to him in order to gain her trust and rob her blind. It is only after this moment of irregularity that Maria is briefly jarred out of her mechanical state and forced to think. Of course, it is not explicitly clear what happened to the plum cake and one’s reading of the experience does somewhat depend on whether Maria was pick-pocketed or whether she simply left her parcel on the train. However, regardless of how Maria lost the cake, what is important here is that she did so because of the old man. She exclaims that he had “confused” her, and regardless of whether or not he confused her with his charm and manner in order to distract her, or whether he was just a kindly older gentleman who’s refusal to be easily stereotyped confused Maria to such an extent that she forgot her package, the fact still remains that Maria’s reliance of ready made characterisations was responsible for the loss.



The devastating effect that such an enslavement to cliché and repetition has on her life is clear to see. Like many of the other characters in Dubliners, Maria is infected with a seeming paralysis which renders her unable to change or to progress. It’s highly indicative that one of the great focuses of her life seems to be a boy she looked after many years ago, who has know grown into a man old enough to have children of his own. Maria is unable to escape the bonds of the past and finds herself bound to a cyclical repetition, unable to adapt or change. She stills clings to the phrase “”Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother”” and is unable to see herself in any other role than a maternal one. However, change has occurred and its doubtful that the family see her as a mother figure. In fact, if one sees Joe’s tears at the stories conclusion as mocking, then it appears that the family themselves have grown a little weary of her and that her presence is more endured than appreciated. Maria even brings Joe “something special”, a present, much as she would have done when she was in his care, despite the fact that the roles have clearly been reversed and now he is providing a meal and shelter for her. By creating the contrast between her idealised version of the world and its actuality, Joyce is able to highlight the inherent problem of cliché: that it is a fixed image or phrase used to describe the ever shifting fluidity of the world. Those that become reliant on them seek to create a simplified state affairs, reflected in Clay’s prose, but things change and move on without them. Ultimately they fall victim to their ideas as shown with the train incident.


Joyce expands the scale of Maria’s malaise from a personal to a cultural one via a seemingly innocuous moment during the closing moments of the chapter in which she repeats the same verse of a song twice. Of course, this is once again an example of the power that cliché holds over her as she falls into the trap of simply reciting something without even considering its meaning. It’s more than that though: in emphasising Maria’s repetition, Joyce also hints that the medium itself is just a regurgitation. Although she may have directly repeated the same verse twice, the very act of singing someone else’s song is in itself unoriginal and uncreative. This is the great danger of a society riddled by clichéd images, phrases and symbols: all potential for originality is lost as the focus of popular culture is around the mass aping a few select pieces rather than the large scale production of creativity and personality. By having popular culture as a homogeneous centre, many people are reduced from free thinking individuals to an amalgamation of others’ ideas, which are in themselves largely regurgitated. As time goes on, less and less people will be self determined in their tastes and beliefs and eventually the people will become slaves to the standard, rather than the determining centre.


Despite its linguistic simplicity, Clay is actually remarkably unclear. As we see the world through Maria’s polarised view point, anything of any subtlety is obfuscated. An example of this when “Joe’s eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for”. It’s incredibly unclear whether he is crying having been moved by Maria’s song or whether he has found her repetition of the first verse so funny that he’s weeping with laughter. It may seem like a small detail but it’s actually the key to interpreting the relationship between the two and it can transform beloved old friend Maria into the doddery dear who tries her best but is a little forgetful and intrusive nonetheless. The same ambiguity lies in the incident on the train and its virtually impossible to determine  whether we do the “polite” “gentleman” a great disservice by suspecting him of theft.

The reason for this lack of clarity is likely rooted in the manner of its heroine: because her mind is so dominated by the regurgitation of what she’s seen and heard, Maria suffers from the same lack of precision that Orwell bemoans. She is only able to assign things to preconceived groups, if something should happen that falls out of that, she is flustered and uncertain, and the nuance of the matter is lost in the muddle.


One thing that does seem at odd with Orwell’s description of language is the lack of overelaborate Latin words in place of common place English ones. In fact, the entire story seems to be narrated with an attention to simplicity and brevity. If  one looks at the first sentence- “The matron had given her leave to go out as soon as the women’s tea was over and Maria looked forward to her evening out” they will note that of the twenty four words, only seven of them are polysyllabic and of those only one contains more than two syllables.


However, if one remembers the importance of the novel’s location, Dublin, things seem a little clearer. Although Orwell notes that the English tend to dress up their sentences with the intelligent pretense of Latin, the Irish too are not speaking in their own native language. Of course, the Irish did not willingly accept English at first and its spread is largely due to colonial mandate but Clay is not concerned with that moment, it is concerned with 1832. The date is significant because it is shortly after the Irish Revival and so, like the English use of Latin, the Irish people are choosing to speak it instead of their native tongue. Joyce was rather scathing of the movement, believing it to be at best a naïve, idealistic desire rather than something achievable, and at worst “”.



May 31, 2018


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