The dangers of romanticizing poverty and James Joyce’s Ulysses

“Stephen [Dedalus] is entirely without means. He stands in boots and clothes that were given to him by Mulligan. He has a job as a teacher at Mr. Deasy’s school but his salary is barely sufficient for drinks. He owes bits of money all round the town. Let an individualist artist deny religion as vehemently as he will, economics is something he cannot deny. [. . .] Some misguided people have at times affirmed that the stimulus of poverty is useful to the artist and it may be darkly hinted that one day one of these misguided individuals will come to any untimely end. Poverty was never any good to anybody.”

—Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’.

(And, perhaps weirdly, Tucker Max says something very similar of poverty in Assholes Finish First:

When I first moved to Chicago, it was to be a writer, so I refused to use my law degree to get a ‘real’ job. I knew it would pay so much that it’d make me complacent and drain my creative energy. If I was going to become a writer, I was going to do it full-time. Anything else was a distraction from my goal, and a compromise I was unwilling to make.

That’s great in theory, but in practice, not making any money means that at some point you can’t afford to buy food. That’s pretty bad. Then you don’t have enough to buy alcohol. That’s really bad. But when you don’t have enough money to even go to $1 beer night, it’s an emergency.

I think there’s an element of violating a sacred taboo to acknowledge that money and material conditions affect the artist and what the artist can or will do.)

One response

  1. I’m reading a biography of Adam Smith at the moment, and it tries to fill in the background. It is 1750. There is a debate over luxury with some arguing that you could be too rich. However, every-one was on board for improvement which seems to mean improving agricultural yields and industrial efficiency with the aim of eliminating poverty. No-one is romanticizing poverty.

    Fast forward 150 years to 1900 and people are vastly richer. Poor people have spare clothes and boots that they can give to friends who waste their money on drink. Poverty means something quite different than it did 150 years earlier.


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