Thursday, June 22, 2006

That's Stephen James Joyce to you...

What do we think of Stephen Joyce around these parts? Sorry, Stephen James Joyce, to give him the full name upon which he insists. Well, we think that it would be fascinating to see SJJ’s response if all the scholars and critics stopped showing an interest in Joyce’s writings, and in his life, all of a sudden; if the Joycean industry drew to an unceremonious halt. And people stopped reading, and stopped analysing, and stopped thinking about SJJ’s grandfather. Because that’s what you want, isn’t it, SJJ? That’s what you mean when you tell D.T. Max, in this week’s New Yorker, (ETA: now last week's...this has been on the backburner for a while, sorry) that academics are like “rats and lice” and “should be exterminated”, isn’t it? That academics are “people who want to brand this great work [Ulysses] with their mark”, and that you “don’t accept that”?

But you like your own mark on Ulysses, and on the rest of the Joyce estate, to be clearly visible. In fact, along with the Great Wall of China, it can probably be seen from space. That’s unusual for a big, grubby set of fingerprints, but you’ve proven that nothing’s impossible. You say that if you had “the energy”, you’d write a book about your grandfather, and about how he was treated by Ireland. You don’t mention whether or not you think yourself to have the talent to do that, though. To write a book. Funny that you never have. Don’t you feel capable? Do you wish you were as famous as your grandfather? Could that be what all of this fuss is about?

Below, some highlights from Max’s excellent New Yorker piece, which I think give an insight into the mind of the man.

In 1988, he took offence at the epilogue to Brenda Maddox’s Nora, a biography of Nora’s wife, which described the decades that Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, spent in a mental asylum. Although the book had already been printed in galleys, Maddox, fearing a legal battle, offered to delete the section: the agreement she signed with Stephen also enjoined her descendants from publishing the material. Shortly afterward, at a Bloomsday symposium in Venice, Stephen announced that he had destroyed all the letters that his aunt Lucia had written to him and his wife. He added that he had done the same with postcards and a telegram sent to Lucia by Samuel Beckett, with whom she had pursued a relationship in the late nineteen-twenties.

SJJ wrote at the time that he had not destroyed any papers or letters in his grandfather’s own hand – “yet”. But in the 1990s, he persuaded the National Library of Ireland to give him some Joyce family correspondence that was scheduled to be unsealed. Scholars worry that these documents, too, have been destroyed.

In 2004, the centenary of Bloomsday, Stephen threatened the Irish government with a lawsuit if it staged any Bloomsday readings; the readings were cancelled. He warned the National Library of Ireland that a planned display of his grandfather’s manuscripts violated his copyright. (The Irish Senate passed an emergency amendment to thwart him.) His antagonism led the Abbey Theatre to cancel a production of Joyce’s play “Exiles”, and he told Adam Harvey, a performance artist who had simply memorised a portion of “Finnegans Wake” in expectation of reciting it onstage, that he had likely “already infringed” on the estate’s copyright. Harvey later discovered that, under British law, Joyce did not have the right to stop his performance.

Ok, let’s pause here to think about that last one. By memorising a part of of Joyce’s work, an artist had violated copyright? D.T. Max’s article maintained a tone of appropriate distance from its subject, and somehow did not at any point erupt into exclamations of disbelief and disgust, but I don’t know for the life of me how he managed to resist the temptation. Probably David Remnick himself had to stand him a couple of strong brandies. You have to admire Max for writing this article without once using the words “insane”, “control-freak” or “roaring maniac”. Not about anybody in particular, that is. Just saying.
Let’s go on.
Stephen has also attempted to impede the publication of dozens of scholarly works on James Joyce. He rejects nearly every request to quote from unpublished letters. Last year, he told a prominent Joyce scholar that he was no longer granting permissions to quote from any of Joyce’s writings. (The scholar, fearing retribution, declined to be named in this article). Stephen’s primary motive has been to put a halt to work that, in his view, either violates his family’s privacy or exceeds the bounds of reputable scholarship.

Quoting from unpublished letters is one thing; though I’m firmly of the belief that the contents of unpublished letters can further the understanding of what drove and shaped an author’s work, and matter deeply for the development of serious scholarship around that work, it’s fair enough that an author’s estate gets to lay down conditions about the use of that content. They are personal documents, after all. Most estates are a lot more reasonable than SJJ, but I accept that, where the letters are concerned, his is the final word. However, the matter of quoting from Joyce’s published work is an entirely different one. The idea that he would prevent scholars, critics and artists from quoting from Dubliners or Ulysses on the grounds that such use somehow “violates his family’s privacy” begs further explanation. As does the notion that SJJ would somehow know, even before reading requests from scholars for the use of such quotes, that any use whatsoever would “exceed the bounds of reputable scholarship”. More from the whirring Eureka-vortex of SJJ’s brain, please! Here’s a suggestion for the next step: stop bookstores stocking the books, or, at the very least, stop them from displaying the books on their shelves in a way that the titles are clearly visible. Because that’s sort of a violation of copyright, too. And, come to think of it, so is the act of reading Joyce. Especially if you’re one of those people whose lips move as they read. Or, if you sometimes, for some reason, read aloud. For example, if you were reading to your precocious offspring from the pages of Joyce’s children’s book, The Cat and the Devil, based on a letter-story that your grandfather sent to you when you were a boy. Yes, don’t worry, SJJ, everybody knows that The Cat and the Devil, like all of Joyce’s writings, is really, secretly, essentially, at base, all about you! Don’t worry. You’re at the centre of everything to do with Joyce. As Max, in perhaps the article’s most pointed paragraph, points out:
The two-decade-long effort has also been an exercise in power – an attempt to establish his own centrality in regard to anything involving his grandfather…as he put it to me during two phone calls that he recently made to me from La Flotte, “What other literary estate stands up the way I do? It’s a whole way of looking at things and looking at life.”

And just a couple more samples of SJJ’s inimitable style:
When turning down a request for permission from an academic whose work was going to be published by Purdue, he said that he objected to the name for the university’s sports teams: the Boilermakers. (He considered it vulgar.) Michael Groden, a scholar at the University of Western Ontario, spent seven years creating a multimedia version of Ulysses, only to have Stephen block the project, in 2003, with a demand for a permissions fee of one and a half million dollars. (Before Stephen controlled the Joyce estate, such fees were nominal.) Groden’s sin was to have praised Danis Rose’s edition of Ulysses as “confident and controversial,” in a reader’s report for Rose’s publisher; he had also helped the National Library of Ireland to evaluate some Joyce drafts prior to acquiring them.“You should consider a new career as a garbage collector in New York City, because you’ll never quote a Joyce text again,” Stephen told Groden.

This week, Laurence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, will file a suit against SJJ in United States District Court. He’s acting on behalf of the author Carol Loeb Shloss, whose book on Joyce’s daughter Lucia was published in 2003. The book was about Lucia’s mental illness, and before it was published, SJJ made clear to her publisher that he would sue if she quoted from copyrighted material. The book was published with cuts. While Shloss was fighting with SJJ, she met Lessig, a copyright specialist, who agreed to take on her case pro bono. He wants to show, to quote Max, that “distended copyright laws [are] not in the public interest.” His case this week will be the first to accuse a literary estate of “copyright misuse”.
Shloss’s book, it should be said, is by no means an example of why scholars should be allowed greater leeway when it comes to quoting from copyrighted Joyce material. There’s something decidedly sensationalist about her project; to probe into the mental illness of Joyce’s daughter is hardly an exercise in Joycean scholarship. So in a way her case is not ideal as a challenge to SJJ’s grip on the estate. But then, Lessig’s not challenging the grip itself so much as he is challenging the way SJJ wields that grip. During Shloss’s attempt to publish her book, she and her publisher received letters and phone calls of a threatening manner from SJJ. She alleges he was practically spying on her at one stage, and that he made concerted attempts to block her research - by removing documents from libraries, for example. It’s against that kind of behaviour on the part of an estate that Lessig is taking a lawsuit. Intellectual property specialists think he’s unlikely to succeed; the precedent such a success would set for estates would be too drastic. But it’ll certainly be an interesting one to watch.


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