When James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of both A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (A Portrait) and Ulysses, say “Non serviam” or “I will not serve”, he is merely restating Joyce’s own political, spiritual, and artistic creed. While almost everything that can be written about Joyce has been, it’s still not well known that the author of, perhaps the greatest novel in the English language, was a real flesh and blood anarchist and moreover, one approximating what today would be called a Market Anarchist.
Joyce was particularly influenced by the individualist tradition of anarchism which included William Godwin, Josiah Warren, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Max Stirner, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker. While Karl Marx saw only classes such as proletarians and capitalists, the individualist anarchists were concerned, not unsurprisingly, with individuals, and sought to liberate them from the forces that smothered human potential. Joyce became interested in anarchism when he was living in Trieste and began calling himself an anarchist as early as 1907, although, hungry as he frequently was, he insisted that his stomach was always very much a capitalist.
The individualist anarchist tradition and specifically Benjamin Tucker, Joyce’s principal political authority, did not advocate violent action. The revolution that Joyce has Stephen Dedalus talk about is not to be brought about by violence, but gradually through the medium of art. In Ulysses Stephen tells Private Carr, a representative of the British State, as the latter is about to punch him, “Personally, I detest action”.
Joyce’s interest in anarchism stemmed from his view that all authority whether governmental or religious is control without individual consent. To govern is to violate an individual’s sovereignty and because all governments have a monopoly on the use of coercive force, they are all oppressive. Even exchanging a monarchy for a democracy is simply trading the tyranny of the king for the tyranny of the majority. It was natural that Joyce would gravitate towards Tucker, who had described both Church and State as a “double-headed monster” which sustained itself by keeping people “drugged with the superstitious reverence for the fiction of authority.” Both men hoped that by depriving religious and political authority of legitimacy Church and State would be exposed as nothing more than a crude exercise of power.
In Ulysses the Church, in the form of his mother’s ghost, haunts Stephen who heroically asserts “No, mother. Let me be and let me live”. In a dramatic sequence at Bella Cohen’s brothel, Stephen’s mother preys on the mind of her son and exhorts him to repent, but Stephen defiantly exclaims, “Non serviam…Break my spirit all of you if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!”
In A Portrait Stephen’s “non serviam” is both political as well as spiritual. He tells his friend Cranly “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland or my church.”
As a creative artist, Joyce considered free expression sacrosanct and censorship just another example of the tyranny of state power, for the state not only banned obscenity, it also decided what obscenity was. By publishing a gratuitously obscene text like Ulysses Joyce was both exposing and rejecting the arbitrary basis of all state power. It was a form of literary anarchy. A portion of Ulysses was burned in Paris while it was still only a manuscript draft and it was convicted of obscenity in New York before it was even a book. Ulysses was banned on British and American shores almost immediately and when it appeared in 1922 government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic confiscated and burned more than a thousand copies. When the Ulysses case came before a judge in the fall of 1933, Nazi book burnings had taken place only four months earlier, so the case was no small matter. According to Kevin Birmingham’s recent opus The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce’s Ulysses, “The legal battles surrounding Ulysses … effectively turned the standard bearer of an avant-garde movement into a representative of art as a whole, a symbol of creativity fighting against the authority that would constrain it.” Ulysses not only ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time, but it also laid the foundation stone for literary free expression.
R.I.P. James Joyce, anarchist extraordinaire.
“Satan, really, is the romantic youth of Jesus re-appearing for a moment.” James Joyce