THE HOLY OFFICE
~ by James Joyce
Myself unto myself will give
This name, Katharsis Purgative.
I, who dishevelled ways forsook
To hold the poet’s grammar book,
Bringing to tavern and to brothel
The mind of witty Aristotle
Lest bards in the attempt should err
Must here be my interpreter.
Wherefore receive now from my lip
To enter heaven, travel hell,
Be piteous or terrible
One positively needs the ease
Of plenary indulgences.
For every true born mysticist
A Dante is, unprejudiced,
Who safe at inglenook, by proxy,
Hazards extremes of heterodoxy,
Like him who finds joy at a table
Pondering the uncomfortable.
Ruling one’s life by commonsense
How can one fail to be intense?
But I must not accounted be
One of that mumming company
With him who hies him to appease
His giddy dames’ frivolities
While they console him when he whinges
With gold-embroidered Celtic fringes
Or him who sober all the day
Mixes a naggin in his play
Or him whose conduct ‘seems to own’
His preference for a man of ‘tone’
Or him who plays the ragged patch
To millionaires in Hazelpatch
But weeping after holy fast
Confesses all his pagan past
Or him who will his hat unfix
Neither to malt nor crucifix
But show all that poor-dressed be
His high Castillian courtesy
Or him who loves his Master dear
Or him who drinks his pint in fear
Or him who once when snug abed
Saw Jesus Christ without his head
And tried so hard to win for us
The long-lost works of Aeschylus.
But all these men of whom I speak
Make me the sewer of their clique.
That they may dream their dreamy dreams
I carry off their filthy streams
For I can do these things for them
Through which I lost my diadem,
Those things for which Grandmother Church
Left me severely in the lurch.
Thus I relieve their timid arses,
Perform my office of Katharsis.
My scarlet leaves them white as wool.
Through me they purge a bellyful.
To sister mummers one and all
I act as vicar-general
And for each maiden, shy and nervous,
I do a similar kind of service.
For I detect without surprise
The shadowy beauty in her eyes,
The ‘dare not’ of sweet maidenhood
That answers my corruptive ‘would,’
Whenever publicly we meet
She never seems to think of it.
At night when close in bed she lies
And feels my hand between her thighs
My little love in light attire
Knows the soft flame of desire.
But Mammon places under ban
The uses of Leviathan
And that high spirit ever wars
On Mammon’s countless servitors
Nor can they ever be exempt
From his taxation of contempt.
So distantly I turn to view
The shamblings of that motley crew,
Those souls that hate the strength that mine has
Steeled in the school of old Aquinas.
Where they have crouched and crawled and prayed
I stand, the self-doomed, unafraid,
Unfellowed, friendless and alone,
Indifferent as the herring bone,
Firm as the mountain ridges where
I flash my antlers on the air.
Let them continue as is meet
To adequate the balance sheet.
Though they may labour to the grave
My spirit they shall never have
Nor make my soul with theirs as one
Till the Mahamanvatara be done.
And though they spurn me at their door
My soul shall spurn them evermore.
James Joyce launches a sweeping critique of the Celtic Revival’s best-known figures, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, et alia. He viewed them as parochial, hypocritical, introverted, mystical, and cut-off from sources of classical Aristotelian reason and learning, also cut-off from English literature and its enlightenment. He wrote this broadside upon exiling himself from Ireland and resolving to settle in Europe in his early twenties. He spent most of the rest of his life in Trieste in Northeastern Italy, and then in Zurich and Paris, though he always wrote about Dublin.
He knew he would be frequently placed on censorship lists by Catholic Church authorities in Ireland and in Europe for his anti-clerical sentiments. He saw it as his “Holy Office” to create a purgative relief for “their timid arses” by addressing realities that traditionalists and religionists did not allow themselves to write about. He thus gave the Irish a convenient heretic and dissident to despise, someone to reject from their periodicals and ban from their libraries. Of course, his are the Irish writings that are remembered these many years hence, despite censorship bans– e.g., his Ulysses was not available in the United States or in England for many years due to its obscenity– and despite bowlderizing church-directed mistranslations into Spanish and Italian. The actual Holy Office within the church was originally established as part of the Inquisition to stamp out heretical thinking in medieval times, and it survives to this day. (For a similarly cloacal theme from a similarly scatological Irishman, see Jonathan Swift’s “Description Of A City Shower.”)
James Joyce alludes to Mammon and Leviathan. The idol Mammon personifies the extensive accumulation of wealth, also materialistic greedy self-seeking. And Leviathan is wrath. Thomas Aquinas wrote about these in well-known discussions of wrongdoing, or sin, in his Summa Theologica. Leviathan is prominently mentioned in the Book Of Job, Chapter 41, in Old Testament literature. In legend, Leviathan is an outrageously huge sea monster who guards the gates of the sea deeps and makes the sea boil tempestuously with his anger at man’s wrongdoing. Leviathan is the abyss personified. He is frequently pictured in legend as holding the wrongdoers in his teeth at the gates of hell. Joyce seems to equate satire with “the uses of Leviathan.” Mammon, a false god of materialistic treasure, is prominently mentioned in the New Testament’s Sermon On The Mount in the famous “No man can serve two masters.” See Matthew, Chapter 6, Verse 24. “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.”
I believe James Joyce saw the prosperous, established writers of the New Irish Renaissance, Yeats, Synge, and others, as Mammon, and himself as Leviathan. They viewed the young Joyce’s early writings, such as the stories later collected in Dubliners, as grossly distorted caricatures of Irish life. He saw the self-styled “Celtic Twilight” writers — he termed them the “Cultic Twalette” — as too Late-Romantic to deal with the Ibsen-esque social-problem issues he was then exploring in short fiction. He penned a similar broadside attack– even more explicit and naming names– on the condition of Irish letters some years later in his poem, “Gas From A Burner,” in which the publisher George Roberts is depicted as a book burner. (He destroyed the entire printing of Joyce’s collection of short fiction, Dubliners, after deciding not to publish it.)
The third section of this piece, beginning “I must not accounted be one of that mumming company…” is a review a clef of the state of Irish literature. The actress Maud Gonne and the playwright Lady Augusta Gregory are the “giddy dames” who console W. B. Yeats as he “whinges.” J. M. Synge “mixes a naggin in his play,” though knowing nothing of drinking. Oliver St. John Gogarty haughtily owns a “preference for a man of tone.” Cypherish editor John Eglinton “will his hat unfix neither to malt nor crucifix.” Padraic Colum is he who “weeping after holy fast confesses all his pagan past.” Slavish George Roberts idolizes his “his master dear,” his mentor George Russell. Sheepish James Starkey “drinks his pint in fear.” George Russell tries “so hard to win for us the long-lost works of Aeschylus,” presumably via mystic visions. And all these are laid low in one brilliant swashbuckling sentence! This section is a direct mockery of a Yeats poem which begins, “Know that I would accounted be true brother of that company that sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong…” (“Apologia To Ireland In The Coming Times.”)