Renaissance and the birth of the modern man, according to James Joyce

Renaissance and the birth of the modern man, according to James Joyce

“Indeed, one might say of modern man that he has an epidermis rather than a soul.” - James Joyce


James Joyce is known and imortalized due to his works of fiction, specially for Ulysses, a book so debated it's said that people talk about it more than they read it. Beyond fiction Joyce was an critic and essayist. In his wanderings over the world he wrote in many languages.

On april of 1912, two years before officially publishing his first title, Dubliners, Joyce wrote “The universal literary influence of the Renaissance”. This essay, originally written in italian, show his sharp and somewhat conservative view on what was the Renaissance and how it's influence extends to the modern man.

Joyce begins by questioning the idea that humanity only achieved maturiy after the Renaissance:

“I agree that this social system can boast of great mechanical conquests, of great and beneficial discoveries ... But in the midst of this complex and many-sized civilization the human mind, almost terrorized by material greatness, becomes lost, denies itself and grows weaker.”
Movie "Modern Times", 1936.

Movie "Modern Times", 1936.

This change, according to a almost nostalgic Joyce, happened as a rebellion against the scholastic absolutism and against the aristotelic philosophical system which had the christian religion as it's peak. In this rebellion:

“[The human spirit] abandoned it's peace, it's true abode because it had tired of it, just as God, tired (if you will permit a rather irreverent term) of his perfections, called forth the creation out of nothing, just as woman, tired of the peace and quiet that were wasting away her heart, turned her gaze towards the life of temptation.”
Shakespeare. A Joyce's favorite.

Shakespeare. A Joyce's favorite.

However, Joyce never cease to aknowledge the value of the literary production of that time:

“It would be easy to fill these pages with the names of the great writers who the wave of the Renaissance lifted to the clouds (or thereabouts), easy to praise the greatness of their works which, in any case, no one is calling into doubt, and to end with a ritual prayer: and it might be an act of cowardice since reciting a litany is not philosophical inquiry. The crux of the question lies elsewhere.”

Dismissing the easy way out he develops the core of his arguments. The crucial changing of the period was a changing of the mind that “placed the journalist in the monk's chair”:

“[the renaissance] has deposed a sharp, limited and formal mind in order to hand the sceptre over to a mentality that is facile and wide-ranging... a mentality that is restless and somewhat amorphous.”

The same power and impetus that left behind the formalism also had important effects over the modern mentality and the extrems it would reach:

Michelangelo's David.

Michelangelo's David.

“Untiring creative power, heated, strong passion, the intense desire to feel, unfettered and prolix curiosity have, after three centuries, degenerated into frenetic sensationalism. Indeed, one might say of modern man that he has an epidermis rather than a soul.”

With a mixture of pessimism and comprehension Joyce moves foward evaluating the origin of the Renaissance and the final results of it's existence:

“Renaissance came about when art was dying of formal perfection, and thought was losing itself in vain subtleties.


The Renaissance arrived like a hurricane in the midst of all this stagnation, and throughout Europe a tumult of voices arose, and, although the singer no longer exist, their works may be heard just as the shells of the sea in which, if we put them up to our ear, we can hear the voice of sea reverberating.

Listening to it, it sounds like a lament: or at least, so our spirit interprets it. Strange indeed! All modern conquest, of the air, the land, the sea, disease, ignorance, melts, so to speak, in the crucible of the mind and is transformed into a little drop of water, into a tear. If the Renaissance did nothing else, it did much in creating whithin ourselves and our art a sense of pity for every being that lives and hopes and dies and deludes itself. In this at least we excel the ancients: in this the popular journalist is greater than the theologian.

James Joyce”

It's impossible to ignore the body of work that James Joyce left to us assuming his role, being a modern man, as a descendant of the phenomenon he diagnosticated. “The universal literary influence of the Renaissance” is an intelligent essay that has both feet on the ground all the time. It's a must read for any fan or academic interested on his works because it also reflects the mind of the writer.