The priest spells poverty

The priest spells poverty

In Brief

In Nestor Mr. Deasy urges Stephen not to carry his money loose in his pocket, warning him that "You'll pull it out somewhere and lose it." Stephen's problem, he says, is that "you don't save." Later in the novel Bloom forms similar impressions. By making a Protestant and a Jew agree about Stephen's terrible money problems, the novel insinuates a cultural critique of Irish Catholicism. In Eumaeus Bloom makes the criticism explicit, arguing that "in the economic, not touching religion, domain, the priest spells poverty." His thinking here recalls that of the great German sociologist Max Weber.

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Joyce modeled Stephen's financial profligacy on his own behavior. In 1904 he wrote to Nora Barnacle, "How could I like the idea of home? My home was simply a middle-class affair ruined by spendthrift habits which I have inherited" (Letters II, 48). To a considerable extent these "spendthrift habits" remained ingrained in him even after he established a home with Nora, fathered two children, and worked to support his family. In Ulysses he seems to assign blame to environmental influences larger than just a ne'er-do-well father.

The would-be paternal advice of Mr. Deasy is charged with no small amount of cultural antagonism. The financial wisdom that he offers—"You don't yet know what money is. Money is power"—may express the ruling-class complacency of landed Ascendancy elites, or the prudential earnestness of Ulster Presbyterians, or both, but it certainly does not speak to the Catholic sensibility of Stephen, for whom wealth and power alike are unimaginable and undesirable abstractions. This confrontation in the headmaster's office feels emblematic of the gulf between Irish Protestants and Catholics, which has only grown since an artificial border between North and South prompted segregation and emigration.

Deasy may despise the "jew merchants," but the book suggests that they share his ethos of saving and prudent investment. Bloom, who has learned thrift from his Jewish father and does not waste money on alcohol like most of his fellow Dubliners, has managed to accumulate a respectable amount of savings and owns shares in a Canadian railway business. He is acutely aware that only these savings stand between him and the penurious old age that awaits men like Ben Dollard, and he believes that something in Catholic culture encourages people to neglect the cultivation of worldly prosperity.

In Eumaeus, after telling Stephen about the anti-Semitic attack he endured in Cyclops, Bloom defends his ethnic heritage: "History—would you be surprised to learn?—proves up to the hilt Spain decayed when the inquisition hounded the jews out and England prospered when Cromwell, an uncommonly able ruffian who in other respects has much to answer for, imported them. Why? Because they are imbued with the proper spirit. They are practical and are proved to be so. I don't want to indulge in any... because you know the standard works on the subject and then orthodox as you are... But in the economic, not touching religion, domain, the priest spells poverty. Spain again, you saw in the war, compared with goahead America. Turks. It's in the dogma. Because if they didn't believe they'd go straight to heaven when they die they'd try to live better—at least so I think."

Chief among "the standard works on the subject" at the time Joyce wrote his novel, although it was not translated into English until 1930, was Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5). Weber sought to explain the economic success of the northern European countries (and of "goahead America," which he visited and was tremendously impressed by) precisely by identifying their "proper spirit" or Geist. This spirit, he argued, was the Protestant ethos of working hard, saving money, and putting money to work—what is now commonly called the Protestant work ethic.

Weber believed, with Bloom, that religion typically has the effect of valuing otherworldly goods and devaluing prosperity in this world. But he argued that Luther and Calvin, by attacking the idea of gaining salvation through priestly intervention, located morality and spirituality in the secular world of work. People could now find callings not in traditional religious vocations but in their chosen occupations, an attitude which led to the accumulation of money. And Reformation churches, especially the Calvinist ones, taught believers not to waste that money on sinful luxuries, or the charitable donations so encouraged by the Catholic church, but to invest it. Weber quotes the adage of his secular saint Benjamin Franklin that "money can beget money": put to work, it grows.

The issue for Weber, and seemingly for Joyce as well, is not whether to choose one religion or another, but rather to assess how well different religions value human industry and thrift. Judaism does not enter into Weber's calculus, but Bloom's words suggest that it should: its "practical," this-worldly orientation makes it a candidate for praise, not for abuse, in the secularized modern world.

JH 2018
Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930), displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Cover of 1934 edition of Weber's great book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.