Dubliners is Dublin as Stephen Dedalus was able to see it. The Dubliners of that time could not have been as uniformly pitiful, mediocre, and unworthy of respect as Dedalus shows them to have been. Dubliners is realism, but it’s tendentious and symbolist realism, with obsessive-compulsive tics which only got worse during Dedalus’s later career. (Not that there are any other kinds of realism).
Realism supposedly mean “showing things as they really are” or something like that, but what a can of worms that turned out to be! First it meant stories about actuality (including the ugly aspects of actuality) as opposed to stories about imaginary ideal worlds. So far, so good. Then some writers (Flaubert) came to think that a perfectly-written novel would show the Real Truth of a situation, rather than just being a story. Then others (Ibsen) came to think that the truth of realism would motivate people to make the world a better place. Still others (Zola) titillated thir audiences with masses of vivid but unpleasant detail leading to some sort of point. Dedalus’s work was the climax, and he trumped Flaubert by claiming that certain privileged instants, properly written up, showed you the very truth of the very truth. This was all just the return of idealism. Actuality is crap, but Writing is truth. The cesspool of human life transfigured by Art.
To what was Dublin being invidiously contrasted? Not to anywhere on the face of this earth. You could have made a tour of the other second-rate capitals of Europe, from Christiana to Helsingfors to Vilnius or whatever they called it then to Cracow or whatever they called it then to Brunn to Laibach to Barcelona or whatever they called it then, and you’d find Dedaluses at every stop grumbling about provincialism, puritanism, and mediocrity. And don’t think that it was any different in the great capitals; grumbling is what realists do.*
Catholicism had taught Dedalus that ours is a fallen, degraded, crappy world, but it also had given him a way of dealing with that world. After he had discarded the Catholic coping mechanisms he still faced the degradation, and that’s what he wrote about. Progressives and radicals had tried to convince him that the crappy world of actuality could be made ideal by politics, but he couldn’t believe that either (especially not in Ireland) so he just documented the crappiness. Dedalus has been praised for his Olympian detachment, but it was the Olympian detachment of a hanging judge. No character in Dubliners is worthy of any respect at all, and only a few are even blameless victims. The Irish have been branded as provincial and chauvinist for their rejection of Dedalus’s writing, but what else could they have done?
Realism is sometimes thought of as a protest against poverty and oppression, but usually it wasn’t, certainly not in this case. This is bourgeois liberal stuff. Dedalus’s subject is the middle class and its hangers-on, and the Irish peasantry and proletariat only get brutish walk-on parts. In the bourgeois liberal world, everyone is equal and has his or her shot at the ideal, but that chance is an infinitesimal one. The less attainable something is, the more ideal, and winners are so few and far between that when they show up they have no idea what to do next. The competitive middleclass world with its infinite opportunity offers no role models for happiness. It’s like the Olympics – globalized competition makes one poor bastard the world champion while consigning all of the billions of others ito defeat. Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
Dedalus actually did become the world champion, but only posthumously, so he had no chance to enjoy it and probably couldn’t have done so if he’d had a chance. On the way up he developed perfectionist tics. In the beginning fiction had been a rough product hacked out for a penny a word, but gradually it became a prestige item. Talented people like Dedalus, who once would have gone into serious fields, starting choosing fiction right off at the beginning, so that while still quite young they had learned all the tricks that Balzac and Dumas and Tolstoi and Flaubert had spent years of their lives discovering. Writing fiction became too easy, and out of boredom and self-doubt Dedalus and his peers started adding complications.
Dedalus’s first tic was symbolism. Fiction, including realist fiction, had always invested undue importance in particular events. A story was not just something that happened, it told you something important. In effect, the seemingly commonplace events in novels were all symbols – and here we are back at idealization again. Dedalus lays the symbolism on thick. In Dubliners, for example (as one very helpful annotator explains), a pious spinster’s route on a shopping trip takes the shape of a cross. This is weirdly reminiscent of the old Dick Tracy comic strip, where the artist attached written labels to whichever things he thought the reader should know about that he had trouble drawing — except that it doesn’t make any sense. Even if it’s Christmas day, what does shopping for cakes have to do with the crucifixion? (Not even the right holiday).
Dedalus’s second tic, fanaticism about the details of real-world Dublin, makes the novelist’s job more complicated and also responds to doubts about the truth of fiction. How can fiction be true? For example, for decades Balzac worked twelve-hour days in order to write four novels a year. He couldn’t possibly have spent enough time out in the world to actually know what was going on there. He had to have been extrapolating wildly — he justified his overreach via a kind of spiritualism, whereby with a single glance into a family’s living room he could learn enough to tell their whole story, as if telepathically. This is already Dedalus’s epiphany, more or less, but the truth of Balzac’s claim is not at all obvious. The suspicion that novelists are just making sit up will always be there, and that’s as it should be.
Presumably it was after Dedalus had panicked about whether his writing really did capture the truth of Dublin that he became absurdly punctilious about the names of places and of streets, about the details of the shrubbery, about the exact dates of this and that, about the weather and phase of the moon on a given day, and so on. He was trying to silence his doubts about the truth of his writing, but his efforts were vain. He had to know that the big questions – for example, whether the Dubliners were really as miserable as he portrayed them to be – had nothing to do with the names of pubs or the distances between them. It was just obsessive-compulsiveness. He could just as well spent his time picking at his ear until it started to bleed, or rocking back and forth while chanting nonsense syllables.
* Gustave Courbet, the first and greatest of the French realist painters, may have been an exception. He came from an atypical provincial background and a family of rich peasants who were also politically radical, and it seems that he never really became Parisian. His attitude toward his subjects seems to have been matter-of-fact rather than indignant or condescending. Some of the realist paintings his critics disliked portrayed poor and humble people, but a big part of their problem was that Courbet’s nudes were fat. Fat people! Yuck.