Autochthony

Edgar Jepson’s essay “The Western School” deals with the concept of autochthony in literature. If something is autochthonous, that means it is found in the same place where it originated; in other words, autochthonous literature is indigenous to the land from which it originates. I think this parallels strongly with Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that is dripping with the country of Ireland and Irish nationalism. Jepson’s essay comes directly before T.S. Eliot’s poem in this issue, and he makes reference to Eliot in this way: “Mr. T.S. Eliot is United States of the United States; and his poetry is securely rooted in its native soil; it has a new poetic diction; it is as autochthonous as Theocritus…Could anything be more United States, more of the soul of that modern land than ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Pruffock?” (9). I think the same argument could be made for Ulysses, and I don’t think it’s an accident that episode VI follows directly after Eliot’s poems.

The word “autochthony” derives from two Greek words that mean “born of the earth itself”; I think this word could be applied to the treatment Joyce is giving to the Irish throughout the novel so far. He treats them as if they were born of the soil itself, (and back into the soil they go after death, like Dignam and Parnell, back into the ground that gave birth to them) and as if their country is being invaded by outside forces, such as the English, or Protestantism. But autochthony carries with it a certain pride–one can claim that the land is theirs by right, and consequently the homeland becomes a symbol created by its people but that also exists outside of and beyond its people. And speaking of beyond the people, it is curious to note that the word “autochthonous” does not strictly apply to Joyce in this case, since his novel was not made in the place where he found his origin. Though it is one of the quintessential Irish literary creations, it is interesting that Joyce only created it after he had rid himself of Dublin and the whole country altogether. In a time of intense nationalism, also, following the first World War, it is somehow telling that Joyce found a neutral country in which to reside to compose his writings. It raises the question of just how “Irish” the novel can claim to be, seeing at it is not an entirely autochthonous creation, as I understand the word.

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One thought on “Autochthony

  1. jww92

    I like the connection you draw between the idea of “autochthony” and the ultimate return to the earth in death. I think this is something that Joyce is feeling and wrestling with in “Ulysses.” Counter-intuitively, he (or Stephen) felt that he could only “forge the uncreated conscience of his race” by leaving Ireland behind. But clearly his imagination never left Ireland. Perhaps he felt a sense of inevitability about being entombed, so to speak, within the Irish literary tradition. That he was destined to return there in death, in legacy, and so could not fully emancipate himself from his country.

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