In Brief

In Brief

Starting with Mulligan's proclamation in Telemachus that the sea is "Our mighty mother!" (a phrase confoundingly close to the "great sweet mother" which he has just borrowed from Swinburne), the novel glances often at the Irish intellectual George Russell, who was known by his pen (and brush) name "A.E." Russell was a painter, poet, playwright, journalist, esoteric spiritualist, and promoter of cooperative agricultural economics. As editor of the Irish Homestead he published several of Joyce's short stories but then soured on his fiction, and Joyce retaliated by presenting him as a faintly ridiculous figure. But the mystical spirituality signified by "AE" is a strong presence in Ulysses.

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Born to poor Protestant parents in 1867 in Lurgan, County Armagh, and educated at several art schools in Dublin in the 1880s, George William Russell took the name Æ (he liked the dipthong, but publishers obliged him to break it up) from an ancient word charged with spiritual suggestions. The Greek aion and its Latin transliteration aeon could refer to the vital force of life, or alternatively to periods of time, whether a delimited age (as in "medieval," the medium aevum), an immense stretch (as in the English "eon"), or something utterly beyond measurement (Plato used it in talking about the world of Ideas, and the Greek writers of the New Testament in their references to eternal life). The evocation of both vitality and eternity seems well suited to Russell's fusion of agricultural and spiritual ideals, but he had still more precise meanings in mind.

He settled on the pseudonym in his late teens, and attributed the choice to pure intuition. In the chapter on "Imagination" in A Candle of Vision (1918), he wrote that "The word 'Aeon' thrilled me, for it seemed to evoke by association of ideas, moods and memories most ancient, out of some ancestral life where they lay hidden; and I think it was the following day that, still meditative and clinging to the word as a lover clings to the name of the beloved, a myth incarnated in me." In his Memoir of A.E. (1937), Russell's acolyte John Eglinton (William Kirkpatrick Magee) tells a similar story: "He began to paint his visions, and had been attempting an ambitious series of pictures on the history of man, in one of which he 'tried to imagine the apparition in the Divine Mind of the idea of the Heavenly Man', when, as he lay awake considering what legend he should write under the picture, something whispered to him 'call it the Birth of Aeon'. Next day the entire myth 'incarnated in me as I walked along the roads near Armagh'."

Russell reported that, afterward, the mystical whisper found scholarly confirmation. In December 1886 he wrote to fellow esoterist Carrie Rea that "I was thinking of what would be the sound for the most primeval thought I could think and the word “aön” passed into my head. I was afterwards surprised at finding out that the Gnostics of the Christian Era called the first created being 'Æons' and that the Indian word for the commencement of all things is Aom." In A Candle of Vision he wrote that, soon after dreaming up the word, "I went into the Library at Leinster House and asked for an art journal. I stood by a table while the attendant searched for the volume. There was a book lying open there. My eye rested on it. It was a dictionary of religions, I think, for the first word my eye caught was 'Aeon' and it was explained as a word used by the Gnostics to designate the first created beings. I trembled through my body."

These quotations come from a 10 April 2017 article on Russell by Brian Showers in the Irish Times. Intrigued by the mention of "a dictionary of religions," Showers searched in the holdings of the National Library, which in the late 1880s moved from Leinster House into Sir Thomas Deane's grand new building next door. He found only two works that fit the description. One contained no entry for Æon, but the other, Cassell's 1887 Dictionary of Religion edited by the Rev. William Benham, defines it as "An 'eternal being'; the name given to the 'emanations' from the Supreme Being in the Gnostic system." Skeptics may scoff at Russell's contention that he divined the term and its meaning naively and only later found his intuition ratified in a reference work, but the existence of this book does speak to his intellectual honesty.

AE evokes, then, mankind's primeval state of perfection, manifested in an original Neoplatonic emanation from the One, Absolute, Divine reality. In Proteus Stephen thinks of a similar concept, the Adam Kadmon which late 19th century spiritualists found in the Kabbalah. Still later in the novel, an advertisement for Dr. John Alexander Dowie introduces an American revivalist who preaches the gospel that all men and women contain Christ within themselves. These immensely optimistic spiritual messages stand in stark contrast to the puritanical, judgmental, repressive Catholicism that dominated Irish culture in 1904, which no doubt explains their presence in Ulysses. An apostate, Joyce used the novel to open his mind to contrary influences: mystical, Gnostic, Eastern. But as a westerner still fond of Catholicism's intellectual rigor he also subjected ideas like Russell's to mocking skepticism.

Russell saw divine perfection not only in humanity but in all the works of nature. Thornton cites many appearances of the phrase "mighty mother" in his writings, noting that it refers to "the physical world, or, more specifically, the Earth." Gifford defines it as “nature in its spiritual aspect.” Russell recommended the spirituality that could be gained by living close to the land, and in many of his paintings he represented the uplifting spiritual power of the seacoast. He also painted scenes of woodlands, agricultural fields, and midland bogs, most of them with human figures in the landscape. In Scylla and Charybdis, Joyce represents him as saying that "The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant's heart on the hillside. For them the earth is not an exploitable ground but the living mother."

The goddess worship appears not to have rubbed off on Stephen. In Proteus he recalls Mulligan's paean to the "mighty mother" as he contemplates a rumpled old woman on the beach—a midwife, he supposes, whose handbag contains "A misbirth with a trailing navelcord." In Scylla and Charybdis, where Russell is one of several men listening to his Shakespeare theory, Stephen's antagonism becomes still more evident. Among many other mocking criticisms of Russell's spirituality he thinks, of him and his fellow Theosophists, "Streams of tendency and eons they worship." He trivializes the cryptic dipthong by playing with the fact that he has borrowed a pound from Russell and not repaid it: "A.E.I.O.U."

Russell appears in many guises in the novel: as a pompously dogmatic spiritualist; as editor of the newspaper where Stephen seeks to place Mr. Deasy's letter; as a dramatist whose 1902 play Deirdre featured the mythic figure of Mananaan MacLir; and as a prominent figure on the literary scene, esteemed by aspiring young writers. In Lestrygonians Bloom recalls that Lizzie Twigg, one of the women who answered his ad for a "smart lady typist to aid gentleman in literary work," informed him that "My literary efforts have had the good fortune to meet with the approval of the eminent poet A. E. (Mr Geo. Russell)." Before Russell became Æ he signed his name Geo. W. Russell.

This version of his name appears a second time in Lestrygonians when Bloom sees Russell dressed in coarse country cloth, pushing a bicycle, and spouting esoteric obscurities to an acolyte:

     — Of the twoheaded octopus, one of whose heads is the head upon which the ends of the world have forgotten to come while the other speaks with a Scotch accent. The tentacles...
      They passed from behind Mr Bloom along the curbstone. Beard and bicycle. Young woman.
      And there he is too. Now that's really a coincidence: second time. Coming events cast their shadows before. With the approval of the eminent poet, Mr Geo. Russell. That might be Lizzie Twigg with him. A. E.: what does that mean? Initials perhaps. Albert Edward, Arthur Edmund, Alphonsus Eb Ed El Esquire. What was he saying? The ends of the world with a Scotch accent. Tentacles: octopus. Something occult: symbolism. Holding forth. She's taking it all in. Not saying a word. To aid gentleman in literary work.  
     His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side.

Many people in 1904 were asking Bloom's question about the meaning of "A.E." Gifford notes that, according to one Dublin joke, it stood for Agricultural Economist. The point was that Russell, since the late 1890s, had been working for Horace Plunkett's organization of rural cooperatives. He rode his bicycle around rural Ireland promoting the ideas of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, and in the early 1900s he became editor of the society's newspaper, the Irish Homestead. When Stephen asks Russell to print Deasy's letter in the paper, in Scylla and Charybdis, he silently derides it as "the pigs' paper." It was far more than that: the paper represented strong nationalist convictions and sought practical solutions to Ireland's dire economic problems. 

John Hunt 2020

Photographic portrait of a young George Russell or "A.E.", date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

1903 oil portrait of Russell by John Butler Yeats, held in the National Gallery of Ireland. Source: www.historyireland.com.

George Russell's 1903 self-portrait. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bathers, an oil painting signed "Æ." Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Enchanted, another of AE's many paintings. Source: www.invaluable.com.

Luminous, AE's painting of a sidhe standing beside a Irish rural cottage. Source: hedgeconfessions.com.