Nationalism and Joyce/Stephen

It is often thought that nationalism is a natural progression from colonialism and decolonisation. Yet, after reading Joyce’s novel, there is the sense that things are never that simple and there is never a linear progression. Nationalism is seen to be an assertion of individuality and it is the culmination of various factors. Although much attention has been given to the importance of race and gender in nationalism, I feel that language plays an imperative role as well.

It has always been stated that nationalism is about the independence of a country, the capability of the natives to undertake roles of governance after having been educated by the colonial masters. Yet, the colonised countries have always adopted the language and culture of the colonial rulers resulting in the loss of their own cultures and languages which ends up in a loss of a unique identity of their own. It is the beginnings of the breakdown of the colonial language and culture with the rise of individualism that perhaps, forces the colonial rulers to recognise that there is a gradual subversion of the power relations between the colonials and the colonised. The fact that decolonisation and nationalism takes place concurrently cannot be dismissed as a coincidence. The contrast of language between Stephen’s childhood obedience and his “rebellious” youth then portrays this measured subversion. In the novel, this is evident through Stephen’s childhood and youth respectively which shows that it is only by breaking down colonial structures and finding one’s “voice” in the process of restructuring that a true individual emerges. Only then can there truly be nationalism/individualism when shadows of colonialism are removed and Stephen does this with his “art.”

As a child, Stephen uses a lot of repetition, quotation and constructed rhythmic effects in his sentences. I feel that this is important because language functions as tool of colonialism. His ability to articulate in fluid English mirrors the gradual loss of the Irish vernacular in Ireland during colonial rule. The young Stephen’s adherence to the rubrics of the English Language shows the entrenchment of the colonial system and it is of no coincidence that at this point in the novel, he conforms to expectations and he takes his English lessons seriously. To repeat is to perform an identity and this performance is essential for maintaining solidarity. The young Stephen then continually performs the identity of the colonised with his reiteration of the colonial language and he has no notions of any individuality, relegated to being another member of the oppressed Irish community. Of course, this also shows that the oppression of the Irish is not only enacted by the English but it has been deeply ingrained into the Irishmen’s way of life. They have become comfortable with it and they are afraid of embracing changes.   

In his youth, Stephen’s articulation becomes to be disjointed and this happens in tandem with his assertion of individuality. It is suggested that he experiences these disjoints because the colonial language has become insufficient. He begins to adapt and re-structure the colonial language to his need and in the process of doing so, he makes it “his own language.” Language then becomes a form of art. This is significant for art has no “real” rubrics. With this “art,” emphasis is placed on the failure of language and the need to adopt other modes of representation. Stephen/Joyce hence shows that Irish nationalism requires the willingness of the Irish to stop perpetrating the old systems of colonialism and to find their own ground.

Nationalism as Result of Weak Colonisers?

I read Alvin Jackson’s essay with delight and reservation: his central idea that “the Empire was both an agent of liberation […] and the shackles of incarceration” (p123, emphasis own) is certainly taken by me; yet, I oppose to his final argument for that notion rather strongly. Specifically, Jackson states that it is the “failure of the British to define Ireland either in fully metropolitan or colonial terms” (150) which had ultimately caused the “break [in] their hold over the island” (150).

This greatly disturbs me because it suggests that the colonized (here being the Irish) ought to accept their status as a colonial subject had the colonizer (the British) fully abrogated the colony’s political vis-à-vis socio-cultural identity. To me, the very act of an Ascendancy rule is itself a cause for “patriotic feeling” (151) – regardless of “the ambiguities of British rule in Ireland” (151), if any. As many post-colonial writers and critiques have argued, the quest for decolonization starts (or ought to have started) from the very moment of colonization itself.

While the “irony” (135) of a colony participating in Empire may in many ways be seen as inevitable, it is certainly not ironic that the Union – which I perceive as euphemized colonization – would thereby invoke the sentiments of “nationalism and the revolt against imperial rule” (136). Such is indeed the central preoccupation that I discern from the growing consciousness of Stephen in Joyce’s Portrait, of course, along with all the endearing aesthetics of modernist literature.