#17Joyce

I taught Joyce’s Dubliners until I knew that book the way a fishing guide in Montana knows the eddies, the pools and rapids of the stretches of the river where he has made his living for a decade.

Dubliners starts with paralysis, both the fetishized word and a paralytic priest— Father Flynn. Joyce’s Dubliners are nearly all paralytics, telling themselves stories about who they are and what they can accomplish, but mostly wandering in circles. What I remembered about the book was its harshness. I thought it reeked of dismissive judgment.

I can tell you what paralysis feels like. It is a comfortable, feverish warmth, a lolling summer hammock. There is something frightening behind it— a memory of something you know you should be doing, something you had decided to do. But the fever of paralysis obscures exactly what that thing is, or was. Waves of heat sway and calm you.

Paralysis feels like a hammock, but it isn’t— it is a net, and you are underwater. It isn’t propping you up, it is pulling and holding you down. You can gulp and thrash around, but you’ll soon tire out. The net has you; you’re not going anywhere.

I went back to Dubliners recently, thinking about its portrayal of paralytics. On the first page the narrator, a boy, says of the word paralysis, “It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.” There is schadenfreude here, the enjoyment in seeing others struggle, even go under. There is an acknowledgment of common humanity in the fear that accompanies the narrator’s desire to gawk— he might succumb too. And, as promised, there is also spectacle— the emergence of the net, and of the paralytics caught in it, flopping and gasping for air.

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