After travelling to Dublin this year for the annual Bloomsday, the celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses character Leopold Bloom and his wanderings and encounters on one June day in Dublin, my sense of how place is retained and evoked, and how we understand that, has been sharpened.
Joyce’s Dublin writings have always been understood in terms of exile, as opposed to nostalgia, as they were largely written in Europe with Joyce’s hope that if Dublin ever disappeared it could be recreated from the pages of his novels. It is distance that obviously sharpened Joyce’s sense of the qualities that for him comprised Dublin and walking around the city today Joyce’s initial hopes for his evocation of Dublin seem almost reversed, so engrained are in stories in the city’s streets, that it is almost as though Dublin exists because of them.
Joyce’s view of Dublin is famously dialectic, ‘The Dubliners’, for example views the city in terms of stagnation and paralysis identified in the choices open to its characters. However, the detailed recreation of the city’s streets, evoked as protagonists traverse the metropolis, are so vivid as to suggest an almost loving identification of self and place. It is this dialectic quality that results in a rounded and resonant sense of identity, mirrored in Ireland’s own struggle with national identity at the time the stories were written in the early 20th century, but with the ability to, as Joyce described it, get to the heart of any city. It is the particularities that provide for us the universal and these become most acute when removed from us.
This concern to conjure place permeates my own current research that explores reflections on teenage experience and identity in North West England in the 1970s. One of the subjects of this research, George Shaw, for example, exclusively paints his childhood home of Tile Hill, Coventry. Shaw himself no longer lives in Tile Hill and, like Joyce, has made the majority of his work while absent from it. These works however, unlike Joyce, are redolent of nostalgia, seeking it seems to place us back in the moment they reflect on. The acute colour, the result of the use of Humbrol paints, the emphasis on temporal moments of transition such as twilight, underline a sense longing, of wanting to hold on to something about to be lost. This is unlike the epiphanies of ‘The Dubliners’ where moments of self- awareness jolt the characters out of sentiment bringing them up sharp against the realities of their existence, of things perhaps already irretrievably lost. In Shaw the ‘homesickness’ that is frequently defined as nostalgia perhaps elides ‘reality’ but creates its own equally valid sense of place. I guess the question is what motivates our sense of return or evocation and what position and conditions come into play in facilitating this and how does it shapes a construction of place? Nostalgia is often defined in the negative but it is perhaps more the position from which we are viewing the point of return that defines it rather than it simply being negative or positive; the need to retrieve, or the acceptance of that which is, or perhaps should be, already gone?