Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)

Minutes of the meeting held Friday, May 2nd 2003


Chair: Professor Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY

Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University.

Submitted: May 5th, 2003


Attending: Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College), Martin J. Burke (Lehman College and CUNY Grad. Center), Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey), C—il’n Parsons (Columbia University), Diane Menagh (Fairfield University), Alice Naughton (New York Irish History Roundtable), Anna Brady (Queens College, CUNY).


Speaker: Maria McGarrity

Title: ÒJoyce, Walcott, and Imagining Marine Geography.Ó


Professor McGarrity opened her talk with a personal anecdote: On being introduced to Derek Walcott at a conference, Prof. McGarrity asked the poet why he was so interested in Joyce. Walcott responded sharply: ÒAnd which Joyce would that be?Ó To which Prof. McGarrity replied, ÒThe only one that matters.Ó Prof. McGarrity believes that these two Island writers really do cast light on one anotherÕs work. Indeed, Ireland and the Caribbean share rich literary heritages and historical correspondences: Ireland occupies an archipelago, not dissimilar to the Caribbean. And like that island constellation, IrelandÕs culture has altered under the influence of many peoples. While Irish culture is not as monolithic as it may seem, the islands of the Caribbean, often touted for their cultural diversity, share a history of colonialism and slavery. More recently, the peoples of the Caribbean have struggled to overcome structural economic dependency: first on Britain and more recently on the United States. Both Ireland and the Caribbean were colonies and now share a post-colonial heritage.

At the same time, while post-colonial studies have stressed the experiential correspondences across colonies, this comparative approach has been less rigorous in respecting the important differences between the colonies. The picture is often complicated by the fact that colonial subjects in one colony often administer Empire in another: Thus, while the Irish in the Caribbean have been servants and slaves, they have also prospered as masters, and traders. The Irish history in the Caribbean is complex: it has changed across time and has been modified by the CaribbeanÕs rulersÑthe British, the Spanish etc. The Irish themselves have not viewed their own position on the islands as monolithic: The Marquis of Sligo, for instance, refers to the lower Irish as a source of divisiveness on the islands.

The literary relation between the Caribbean and Ireland can be understood both as an influence and a correspondence. For instance, Caribbean critics have been fascinated with the ambivalent relation of the Irish to the English language, which they have seen as shared by Caribbean writers. In this paper, Prof. McGarrity focused on the image of the Gulf Stream as one way of tracing the links between the Irish writer James Joyce, the subject of Empire, and Derek Walcott, an inheritor of Empire.

Critics have noted that errancy and exile are common temptations in epic literature: the trope of wandering away from a homeland. Prof. McGarrity suggested that both Joyce, in Ulysses, and Walcott, in Omeros, use this trope to chart movements symbolic of the complex relationships to home or origin under colonialism. Their shared metaphorsÑthe sea, in general, and the Gulf Stream, in particular, are also employed to parody the Imperial fantasy of controlling the sea, or of mapping its complex constellations.

It is appropriate that the Gulf Stream is not a singular, monolithic current, but a complex set of flowsÑa suitable metaphor for the narrative strategies of Joyce and Walcott. In Ulysses, Joyce uses the sea as a metaphor for history. While Stephen associates the sea with Imperial Britain, he also recognizes that the sea transforms matter. It is a repository of the past and the means of re-connecting the flotsam and jetsam of the pastÑeven if only in imagination.

The Gulf Stream also provides a link between the Old World and the New: The British and Caribbean archipelagos. In Chapter 39 of Omeros, Walcott employs the sea as a metaphor for colonial history. Arriving in Ireland, the narrator does not find colonial solidarity, but a nation divided against itself. At the same time, Walcott use Caribbean folkloric elements to extend the metaphor: In the Caribbean, the sea is both a graveyard and the site of the afterlife. Thus, the sea is a repository of the past and the future. In a sense, it links the past, the present, and the future. In his creation of Joyce as a character within Omeros, Walcott makes Joyce a hero of a modern Caribbean epic and stresses JoyceÕs links to water. Prof. McGaritty also noted how Walcott evokes the paternal connection between Bloom and Stephen. Walcott may be suggesting that he considers himself the literary heir to Joyce. Prof. McGarrity answered questions from the floor. A sampling follows.

Q: You started to talk about how Walcott re-stages the father/son relationship from Ulysses. In his novel, Joyce stresses the dysfunctional nature of StephenÕs relationship with her biological father Simon Dedalus and offers an alternative. Might the suggested parallel of Walcott/Stephen to Joyce/Bloom suggest a non-genetic paternal link?

A: I would argue that the Major PlunkettÕs character in Omeros is a Bloom figureÑassociated with Ireland, but not from Ireland and searching for a son. The major finds a link not with someone alive, but dead.

Q: With regards to the Gulf Stream, a quick comment: the Smithsonian used to plot out the movements of the Gulf Stream and publish them every month. IÕm very interested in the shift in these modern epics from searching (which you would have in the Immram cycle of epics) to aimlessness. I guess an African-American example of this shift might be EllingtonÕs composition The RiverÑwhich describes the process of meandering and wandering, picking up and depositing cultural material.

Q: I wonder how you would triangulate Ulysses, Omeros, and The Odyssey. How would you relate Walcott to Homer?

A: In Omeros, Walcott is invoking not only The Odyssey but also The Iliad. Indeed, Walcott is not just alluding to Greek mythic texts but to the mythic texts of the Americas. Actually, he has been criticized in the Caribbean for writing within a European tradition.

Q: In that context, itÕs interesting how recent Joyce criticism has criticized canonical readings of Ulysses for overemphasizing the novelÕs relation to The Odyssey.

A: I agree with some of that criticism. I think itÕs important to remember that Joyce and Walcott are using these myths in very selective ways.

Q: You said Walcott has said his relation with Joyce is self-evident. IÕm curious. Have you got him to elaborate in any way about this relationship?

A: HeÕs been resistant. Of course, IÕve turned his silence to my advantage! I can say what I want. My reading of Omoros is very different from the canonical readings of Walcott that youÕll find among Caribbean critics. They tend to stress WalcottÕs African influences.

Q: Are their any literary remains from the Irish communities in the Caribbean?

A: I certainly havenÕt found any creative writing in the Irish communities in the Caribbean.

Q: IÕm interested in your passing reference to Woolf. I wonder if we might not take the references to the Gulf Stream in Joyce and Woolf as metaphors for the stream of consciousness.

A: Well thereÕs a passing reference to the Gulf Stream in WoolfÕs Between the Acts. ItÕs actually in the play within a play. ItÕs a reference that I really need to go and have a closer look at.