A Second Take: Xenophobia and Readership

Having spent about a week away from the Celtic Fringe blog, I was pleased to see today that an enlivened discussion emerged from my post about xenophobic trends in Ireland, as seen through the eyes of Derek Mahon and James Joyce. Both Cole and Professor McInerney point to key aspects of the works that need to be considered. Thinking about the potential roots of such xenophobia, Cole’s post encourages us to see Mahon’s xenophobic tropes as a reaction against the marginalization of the Irish in their own land; Professor McInerney’s asks us to consider the historical factors, like a homogenous population and little immigration, which lead the Irish to express such sentiments.

Beyond addressing the mere presence of xenophobia, both posts make me wonder, more generally, about how difficult it is for readers to distance their personal thoughts and experiences from the reading process. Looking back to my reading of xenophobia in Ulysses, I think my reaction is colored by an identification with Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist. To give a short gloss, Bloom is a Jewish individual born and raised in Ireland. Plagued by domestic strife (a cheating wife and a dead son), he wanders through Dublin and relates his experiences in the text. What is really striking about him, however, is his evenhandedness. Faced with complicated decisions or infuriating situations, he always tries to see two sides of an issue—a trait I very much admire. With this (albeit biased) reading in mind, one can begin to understand how a reader could be infuriated when faced with the Cyclops episode, wherein a brutal, nationalistic, xenophobic (and unnamed) narrator rages against Bloom’s religion and challenges his claim to Irish identity. One could also see how that reading of Ulysses might color a reading of other Irish poets, like Mahon. On the other hand, I very much understand and relate to Cole’s defense of Mahon, which is based, at least partially, on the personal experience of seeing tourists overrun a beloved home space. It is clear that such an experience could and will make one feel slightly xenophobic at times.

Put together, it is interesting how both Cole and my readings emerge in no small part from personal experience. Far from being the cold, unemotional evaluation of a text, the reading process emerges from the “baggage” we bring to the text. Personal relationships, individual philosophies, traumas, memories, joys, and knowledge simultaneously craft and limit the way we interpret a literary text. Above all, as human beings, as individuals in the truest sense of the word, we experience the world (and the literary texts in it) from our own perspective. No wonder, then, that literary texts or the presence of foreigners in one’s homeland evoke such powerful responses and differentiated responses. All of us see the world through our own eyes.

And yet, such a conclusion might also be a reason why we should avoid xenophobia. If individuals’ readings emerge from their own personal experiences, from each person’s unique history and ideologies, we can conclude that everyone is truly different. Why, then, not strive to see each person for who they are, instead of grouping them into a national, reductionist category? To do so would be to recognize our own biases and to gain a better understanding of exactly what we do when we crack a book open.

All of this is not to say that xenophobia shouldn’t exist; it is understandable that it does. Rather, I am arguing for an open mind or, to use the Economists’ word, greater “perspective”. At the root of many human disagreements is a personal short-sightedness. Looking at the bigger picture, of immigration, for example, can yield refreshing perspectives and something we can all agree on, namely greater prosperity for more people:

“Above all, perspective is needed. The vast population movements of the past four decades have not brought the social strife the scaremongers predicted. On the contrary, they have offered a better life for millions of migrants and enriched the receiving countries both culturally and materially. But to preserve these great benefits in the future, politicians need the courage not only to speak up against the populist tide in favour of the gains immigration can bring, but also to deal honestly with the problems it can sometimes cause.”

See the Economist Article “Global Migration, Keep the Borders Open”

In short, we might all do well to see the world in a more Bloomsian fashion, constantly weighing the arguments and counterarguments implicit in the chain of ambiguous events that form our existence.