Dr. Sean Latham will be coming to deliver a special lecture on James Joyce and Modernity, titled “Becoming Human: James Joyce in Four Objects.” Wednesday, Sept. 19th at 5:30pm in the Raccoon Mountain Room.
Dr. Latham is the Walter Endowed Chair of English at the University of Tulsa, Director Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, Editor of James Joyce Quarterly, and Director, University of Tulsa Institution for Bob Dylan Studies. Dr. Latham, scholar of modernism, and major figures James Joyce and Bob Dylan, was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his lecture.
What do you want to tell us about your lecture?
Well, I was asked to give a talk that would connect Joyce to the perpetual, though now acute, sense that humanities are in real crisis. Enrollments and majors in fields like English and History are declining as universities increasingly focus on assessment regimes that demand measurable outcomes. At the same time, parents and students alike have shifted their focus away from the ideals of the liberal arts education and toward higher education as pre-professional training. So, this talk will ask some hard questions about the humanities while also showing that these concerns are not at all new. I also hope that it will have something useful to say about how Joyce’s work can help us think about some of the complicated questions we now face—questions about information overload, data management, and the internet of things. We’d like to think these problems are new, but they’re not. And Joyce offers us some creative ways to think through and even beyond them.
What originally drew you to the study of James Joyce?
Well, my first encounter with Joyce’s wasn’t entirely a happy one. I remember reading Portrait of an Artist in college and clearly the idea was that we were somehow supposed to identify with the inner agonies of the complicated young man the book describes. His struggles with religion, family, and home were familiar, but his world seemed distant from my own and parts of the book seemed downright remote. As I’ll argue in my talk, however, I think that book has the potential to become newly relevant, especially if we see in it the plight of a young college student struggling on the edge of debt, uncertainty, and the demand that he quickly get a career and start earning money.
My larger engagement with Joyce also came out of a struggle with his writing (and reputation) rather than an initial love of his work. I’m a first-generation college student who grew up in Colorado and went to college and then graduate school at elite schools in the East. I loved it, but also found myself often anxious around students who seemed so much more worldly and sophisticated than me. I tackled Ulysses as a way of proving myself, and in graduate school I wrote a dissertation called Am I A Snob? which was, in part, an attempt to think through why someone like me should read and value a difficult book like Ulysses. I still struggle with that question. In fact, one of the first talks I ever gave was called “Hating Joyce Properly” and one reason Joyce matters, I think, is because his books can continue to offer compelling answers even to these hard and skeptical kinds of questions.
Any hints on your slightly enigmatic title?
Nope. I hope folks will consider coming out to see how a cup of coffee, a computer, a joystick, and a bar of soap all tell us something important not just about Joyce but about the dense complexity of our modern lives.
Modernist figures, and perhaps Joyce especially, have an air of mysticism and intrigue that has only grown over this last century. Why do you think that is?
That’s a big question, so my short answer would be that we have never stopped being modern. Our culture trains us to value the new and to forget the old—to imagine that our lives now have little to do with those of say Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. The disruptions they experienced, however, connect intimately to our own sense of a world in perpetual change, and the closer we look at their writing, their art, and their confusion, the more intimate and revealing their work becomes.
Joyce is loved by some and hated by others for his difficulty. What is your advice to students who might not be familiar with his works, who may or may not have read Portrait of an Artist, who want to read his late masterpieces but feel intimidated?
My short answer to this question would be that Joyce’s work are actually quite accessible, but you have to approach them on their own terms. If you treat them like a series of coded messages that somehow have to be decrypted, then they will always be aliening, difficult and elitist. The annotations to Ulysses, for example, are longer than the book itself—but no one really holds all that knowledge in their head, nor do you need it to read the book. Joyce’s earliest readers certainly didn’t have it and found themselves just as baffled by the details of life in 1904 Dublin as contemporary students do. I think all Joyce’s books have a strongly anti-authoritarian streak. That is, they work in such a way that no one reading or interpretation is correct, authoritative, or commanding. This is particularly the case in Finnegan’s Wake, where the puns are so various and complex that novice readers regularly see or hear things that have long eluded even the most dogged veterans.
In the article “Hating Joyce Properly” you describe an ever-growing threat of recycling criticisms when writing about ubiquitous literary figure such as Joyce, and a sense of “fury” in trying to tackle all the swollen shelves of criticism to that artist. Do you still enjoy the research you do on Joyce?
Yes, I love doing research on Joyce. I read bucketloads of articles each week for JJQ and that work comes from all over the world—from people who are discovering new, exciting, or confusing stuff in works that have now been in studied in detail for over a century. Sometimes, this novelty comes from meticulous historical research. In the forthcoming issue of the journal, for example, we’ve got an article on a curious Irish tradition called Women’s Christmas—an informal holiday with deep Celtic roots that fundamentally changes the way we read Joyce’s most famous story “The Dead.” Just as often, however, new approaches emerge because readers need to put Joyce to work in new ways. This explains, for example, the emergence of the broad array of work on Joyce’s Irish contexts that have dominated the critical conversation for the last two decades—a moment when Ireland itself finally embraced Joyce and made its way more confidently onto the world stage. And I hope my talk will reveal other kinds of uses to which Joyce might be put as we struggle, for example, with the challenge of living in a world in which objects have become increasingly lively, active, and powerful.
Is there anything you would like to say that we haven’t covered?
The only thing I want to stress is that the talk I’ll deliver is not for specialists and you don’t need to know a thing about Joyce in order to attend. I’ll be talking about the internet of things, about living in a world inundated by data, and even how to respond to those who think English majors all become baristas at Starbucks. This is timely stuff, and Joyce remains very much an artist of our time.