“I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. Domine! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus? Lord Salisbury? A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek! KYRIE ELEISON!

A smile of light brightened his darkrimmed eyes, lengthened his long lips. The Greek! he said again. Kyrios! Shining word! The vowels the Semite and the Saxon know not. Kyrie! The radiance of the intellect. I ought to profess Greek, the language of the mind. Kyrie eleison! The closetmaker and the clockmaker will never be lords of our spirit. We are liege subjects of the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar and of the empire of the spirit, not an imperium, that went under with the Athenian fleets at Aegospotami. Yes, yes. They went under. Pyrrhus, misled by an oracle, made a last attempt to retrieve the fortunes of Greece. Loyal to a lost cause…”

It is perhaps trite to refer to Irish novelist James Joyce’s love of Greek civilisation. After all, the main character in his masterpiece, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is named Stephen Dedalus and his seminal Ulysses transposes the Homeric Epic to one ordinary day in twentieth century Dublin. That novel is steeped in Joyce’s admiration of ancient Greek civilisation, with his characters extolling its virtues in such exchanges as: “God, Kinch, if you and I could only work together we might do something for the island. Hellenise it,” and: “Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.” What is less known is that James Joyce’s admiration for ancient Greek civilisation forms part of a dialectic with the Christian tradition and its spirituality, one in which James Joyce’s lifelong interest in the Orthodox Church plays an intrinsic part.
The manner in which western spirituality is constantly compared and contrasted to ancient Greece is evident in Stephen Dedalus’ first Holy Communion, as described in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “When the rector had stooped down to give him the holy communion he had smelt a faint winy smell off the rector’s breath after the wine of the mass. The word was beautiful: wine. It made you think of dark purple because the grapes were dark purple that grew in Greece outside houses like white temples.”

The Christian Orthodox church San Nicolo dei Greci (est. 1786), in Trieste, frequented by James Joyce.(Photo: Wolfgang Sauber/ Wikimedia Commons

A PARISHIONER OF THE SAN NICOLO DEI GRECI 
In 1904, James Joyce left Dublin, eventually settling in Trieste, where there was a very large Greek expatriate community. Just before arriving, he wrote a satirical poem entitled ‘The Holy Office’, in which he lampoons the great poet Yeats and other leading figures of the Irish literary revival for what he perceived to be their contrived and unworldly Celtic romanticism. With the Orthodox doctrine of catharsis, or purification of the soul as his inspiration, cleverly juxtaposed against the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, Joyce positions himself as a dissolute peripatetic ascetic of what would be, in contemporary jargon, referred to, as ‘keeping it real’:

Myself unto myself will give
This name, Katharsis-Purgative.
I, who dishevelled ways forsook
To hold the poets’ 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
Peripatetic scholarship.

In Trieste, where the bulk of Ulysses was written, (the cover of which Joyce insisted be printed in the blue and white of the Greek flag), Joyce taught at the Berlitz foreign language school, where some of his students were Greek. According to Padraic Colum, he began to study Modern Greek. He also began attending the local Greek Orthodox Church, San Nicolo dei Greci and became fascinated by the ritual of the Orthodox liturgy, become a frequent visitor. In a letter to his brother, Joyce remarked how his church attendance had caused colleagues to point out a discrepancy between his outwardly critical stance towards Christianity and his church attendance: “He says I will die a Catholic because I am always moping in and out of the Greek churches and am a believer at heart, whereas in my opinion, I am incapable of belief of any kind.”
In many ways, Ulysses mirrors Joyce’s interior tension. Whereas Jesus is held in Christianity to be the perfect, complete man in his humanity, Joyce set out to craft his own perfect man, in the image but also in antithesis to Christ. Sculptor Frank Budgen relates that Joyce found such a man in Odysseus. Conversing with him, Budgen asked: “What do you mean by a complete man? For example, if a sculptor makes a figure of a man, then that man is all-round, three-dimensional, but not necessarily complete in the sense of being ideal. All human bodies are imperfect, limited in some way, human beings too.” Joyce is said to have replied: “[Ulysses] is both. I see him from all sides, and therefore he is all-round in the sense of your sculptor’s figure. But he is a complete man as well—a good man.” Joyce went on to opine that he did not consider Christ a perfect man, as “He was a bachelor, and never lived with a woman. Surely living with a woman is one of the most difficult things a man can do, and he never did it,” whereas Ulysses in contrast, “is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy, and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all.”

“JOYCE IS IN CHURCH”
Nonetheless, Joyce retained an abiding interest in the Orthodox Church. In 1938, while living in Paris, he used Greek church attendance on Good Friday as a means of evading a social obligation: “But today she rang up to ask us to dine on Friday at 7:30! I am going to say I have to go to the Greek church – perfectly true, it is their Good Friday, and can’t get out until 8…”

A friend of Joyce’s in Paris and subsequent biographer, Jacques Mercanton, remembered that during this time, Joyce remarked to him that “Good Friday and Holy Saturday were the two days of the year when he went to church, for the liturgies, which represented by their symbolic rituals, the oldest mysteries of humanity.”

Joyce’s conflicting emotions with regard to Christianity, ranging from the eschatological to the scatological can be evidenced in the notebooks he used while learning Greek. On two facing pages, we see on one side, the Lord’s Prayer, written carefully in flowing Greek script, and on the other side, the following misspelt Greek phrases: «Συγνόμην, πρέπει να πηγαίνω εις το αποχωρητήριον / Οι χίροι τρόγουν σκατά / Εάν δεν το αγαπάτε, να (Σε) χέσω τα μούτρα σας…»

Even so, there was something that moved him deeply about the Orthodox liturgy. Joyce’s friend Alessandro Bruni recorded that he had seen Joyce’s eyes fill with tears upon hearing Jesus’ words on the cross, “Eli Eli, Lama Sabacthani,” at a dramatic moment in the Holy Thursday service. Further, Bruni remembered: “On the morning of Palm Sunday, then during the four days that follow Wednesday of Holy Week, and especially during all the hours of those great symbolic rituals at the early morning service, Joyce is at church, entirely without prejudice, and in complete control of himself, sitting in full view and close to the officiants, so he won’t miss a single syllable of what is said.”

Some scholars postulate that Joyce’s fascination with Orthodoxy formed part of his attempt to appreciate the entire Greek world. A fluent modern Greek speaker, he described his linguistic skills and his relationship with Greeks thus: “I speak or used to speak modern Greek not too badly … and have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onion-sellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck,” and would insist on closing his birthday celebrations with a rendering of the Greek National Anthem, a paean to liberty that bore many parallels to the emergence of modern Ireland. Nonetheless, Joyce’s appreciation of the aesthetics of the Orthodox tradition transcended the Greek and extended to the Slavonic, Mercanton reminiscing that: “Speaking next about Russian Churches, where he loved to hear the deep bass voices of the officiants, he said he could not understand my fervent admiration for the eastern ritual.”

Joyces’ masterpieces are a by-product of his admiration for Greek civilization and the need to shape a perfect man in an image he could control, as a reaction against, in parallel to, and in proximity to Christ. His relationship to all these elements which fuse so seamlessly in his work can be best exemplified by the fact that when he died, he left two books in his desk. One, was a Greek lexicon.