The Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s recent essay, “The Two Tenors: James Joyce and His Father” – included in the book Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know,[1] a delightful discussion of the different impacts on their sons of the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce first broadcast in 2018 on BBC Radio 4 – can be said to function, certainly unbeknownst to itself, as a thoroughgoing confirmation of Lacan’s two central theses concerning what we might term Joyce’s paternal problematic.

Lacan’s first thesis is that Joyce, a “wretch”[2] in this sense, could not have had a worse start in life. His boozing father, a virtual Fenian fanatic, taught him nothing, always appealing instead to the “Church diplomatic” of the “good Jesuit fathers”.[3] This father was “unworthy”, “failing”,[4] “radically failing”[5] – as Joyce himself failed as a father for Lucia. And this “paternal abdication” is what accounts for the fact that Joyce suffers from a “de facto Verwerfung”.[6]

Tóibín provides ample evidence for the veracity of these claims. Significantly, however, this comes not from Joyce himself, but instead from the two books of his brother, My Brother’s Keeper and The Complete Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce. For what these texts reveal is that John Stanislaus Joyce, Stanislaus and James’s father, was an irresponsible, work-shy and feckless man who, after his financial ruin, used the little money he received from his pension in order to indulge his own foibles and flaws and deprive his family of sustenance and support. Worse still, he was perpetually drunken and violent, frequently threatening “suicide”, attacking his wife – James often came to her physical defence – and even, on her deathbed, imploring her to die. His basic position was that of the victim or, as Stanislaus brutally puts it in the diary, “Pappie is a balking little rat”.[7]

Lacan’s second thesis is much more interesting, and it is in the confirmation of this thesis that Tóibín’s essay really enters into its own. If Joyce is a “wretch”, then he is, more precisely, a “father-tasked wretch”.[8] His writing “must support this father for him to subsist”.[9] Ulysses, for instance – in Stephen Dedalus’s simultaneous dismissal of Bloom (“After the father I had, I’ve had my fill. No more father”) and converging coincidence with him through the materialism of the signifier (“Blephen and Stoom”) – “is the testimony of how Joyce remains deeply rooted in his father while still disowning him”.[10] Indeed, it is this exact coexistence of refusal and recovery, Lacan contends, that constitutes Joyce’s sinthome. The Name-of-the-Father can be “bypassed”, “on the condition that one make use of it”[11] – as père-version or as the Father-of-the-Name.

Tóibín quite brilliantly takes us through the stages of this use. For if Joyce undoubtedly wanted very little to do with his father from the age of twenty-two, leaving Dublin and only returning very rarely – “an instinct I believed in [and we might relate this to a fundamental Unglauben] held me back from going”, he wrote in a letter to T. S. Eliot[12] – then it is just as certain that in his writing he worked to restore as symptom something of the figure or function of this father. In the story “Grace” from Dubliners, for example, Joyce’s famous “scrupulous meanness” “personates” the father – to use a term from Jacques Aubert that I will come back to at the end – as a stumbling, drunken wreck. Already in “The Dead”, however, Tóibín argues, and this time through the character of Gabriel Conroy, Joyce generously allows his own sensuality to interpenetrate with an imagined version of his father’s. And although a few barbs are still directed at the father, especially in Stephen Hero, this process is continued in the rewriting of this last book as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For here Stephen’s relationship to his father is portrayed as being “poetic”, “oddly mysterious and painful”, “melancholy”, “puzzled”,[13] a puzzlement that does not exclude of course the more properly psychotic sign of perplexity. Moreover, in both this novel and, to a much greater extent, in Ulysses, Tóibín shows, Stephen’s father is “fully socialised”,[14] transferred from the private to the public domain, a domain where he can behave “suavely”, “coolly”, “mildly”, and can even, “in the middle of all the acrimony”, “wink at his son so as to make him his ally”.[15]

In a letter to his benefactor Harriet Weaver, his finances being almost as unfortunate as his father’s, Joyce further particularises this picturing of the paternal ally: “I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books come from him […] I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs) but, apart from these, something else I cannot define”.[16]

Joyce’s talent for self-definition was not as elusive as he avers, for one of the things he unquestionably inherited from his father was his jocularity. As he says in another letter to Louis Gillet, “the humour of Ulysses is his; its people are his friends. The book is his spittin’ image”.[17] In A Portrait, this humour infiltrates the very description of the father, warts and all, who the comedy of Joyce’s metonymy reduces to a purely linguistic, and again purely public, entity: “A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.”[18]

Something, nonetheless, does evade Joyce, evades him to the degree that the jouissance of this thing creatively determines the status of his writing as sinthome. This is what Tóibín’s essay, when read with Lacan, permits us to fundamentally locate. In two of the above references, Joyce mentions his father’s “voice”, the fact that he was a “tenor”. And this voice is what penetrates his writing. Specific passages further confirm this. In Ulysses, for instance, Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, sings, and “[t]hrough the hush of air a voice sang to them, low, not, rain, not leaves in murmur, like no voice of strings or reeds or whatdoyoucallthem dulcimers, touching their still ears with words, still hearts of their each his remembered lives. Good, good to hear: sorrow from them each seemed to from both depart when first they heard […] The voice rose, sighing, changed: loud, full, shining, proud”.[19] The voice here directly touches, as Lacan points out, the ears that “can’t be sealed, shut, or closed off”,[20] its resonances directly evoke the response of the body.

But beyond these specific references the voice becomes increasingly integral to the whole – this hole that spits out dissected signifiers – of Joyce’s writing as it progresses. Lacan tells us that if, typically, the modulations of the signifier through the voice have nothing to do with writing,[21] then in Joyce’s writing, by contrast, something of a schizophrenic logic can be perceived in which the signifier is reduced to the “equivoque”, precisely to “a torsion of the voice”. “Phonatory identity” is decomposed and exposed to the invasion of the “phonemic” and “polyphonic” aspects of speech.[22]

Paradoxically, however – and it is Jacques Aubert who best captures this in his “Presentation at Lacan’s Seminar” – this process of decomposition is, at the same time, a process of the re-composition of something of the father. “Everything can personate”, “père-sonate”,[23] in Joyce’s text, he says, “everything can be the occasion of effects of the voice through a mask”.[24] If Joyce was certainly subject to a “problematic of legitimacy” in relation to the father, he simultaneously “uses certainty and brings it onto the stage in its relationship with the effects of the voice. Even if a word, a paternal word, is challenged at the level of what it says” – at the level of its enunciated content, we might say – “it seems to suggest that something of it” – something of its enunciation or, more radically, vociferation – “passes into the personation, into what lies behind the personation, into what lies on the side of phonation, perhaps,” – here Lacan is more exact when he speaks of the “phonemic” and “polyphonic” – “on the side of something that also ‘deserves to live’ in melody; perhaps precisely because of this something that in spite of everything has effects on the mother through melody […] it was in this that Joyce’s father, John Joyce, exulted. But in this art of the voice, of phonation, perhaps just enough of it was passed on to the son”.[25]

Two fathers, then, one foreclosed, and the other “redeemed”, as Lacan emphasises, through a writing that infinitely opens itself up to the invented intricacies of the voice. “It’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father”.[26]



[1] Tóibín, C. Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know. London, Viking/Penguin, 2018. The essay on Joyce can be found at pp. 133-174.

[2] Lacan, J. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome. Cambridge, Polity, 2006, p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 72.

[4] Ibid., p. 55.

[5] Ibid., p. 77.

[6] Ibid., p. 72.

[7] Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, p. 144.

[8] Seminar XXIII, p. 3.

[9] Ibid., p. 13.

[10] Ibid., p. 55.

[11] Ibid., p. 116.

[12] Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, p. 149.

[13] Ibid., p. 158.

[14] Ibid., p. 163.

[15] Ibid., pp. 160-3.

[16] Ibid., p. 149.

[17] Idem.

[18] Ibid., p. 160.

[19] Ibid., pp. 167-8.

[20] Seminar XXIII, p. 9.

[21] Ibid., p. 124.

[22] Ibid., pp. 78-9.

[23] Ibid., p. 153.

[24] Ibid., p. 150.

[25] Ibid., pp. 163-4.

[26] Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, p. 154. This last quote is from Finnegans Wake.