If you read my column regularly you will know I have occasionally struggled with trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. For Christmas I awarded myself a vast book full of annotations and notes called The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses, edited by Catherine Flynn. I am determined to finish this big
bugger by the middle of the year. And now there is another reason for it.
Declan Kiberd, a professor at Notre Dame University in Dublin and author, wrote a brilliant article about the above book in The Times Literary Supplement. And this quote, taken from the article, explains it all: “With Ulysses literature finally caught up with the New Testament, which attributed to fishermen, whores and impecunious widows a world-historical importance.”
Wow! What he says in the review is that Ulysses takes the everyday and the ordinary and makes it big and seemingly historically foundational. He breaks through all the glorification of the posh and clever and educated and the comfortable and shows a rough-hewn, underprivileged world. Well, that’s what I got out of it. Mr Kiberd seems to have written the review for me. Why? Because I have concluded after decades of reflection that somewhere deep in history we made a wrong turn: we institutionalised poverty. And even though religions declared their attachment to helping the poor, they helped them to remain poor and just tried to make them as comfortable in poverty as possible.
Yet if you look at the New Testament, Jesus’s life is about the prominence of the poor in the world, their power with their stories and their experiences. And Kiberd underlines this reality. The poor are not just the deserving or undeserving backdrop. They are essential to how we understand the world. And if we were going to rewrite history we would probably want to sort out this preoccupation with having the poor always with us but never doing an awful lot, apart from engaging in dodgy politics and dodgy revolutions that only broaden the base of the middle classes. Which leaves the poorest among us out in the cold.
Of course there are always people who reject this social apartheid and get involved in politics and social change, in creating welfare states. But they still seem unable to get beyond replacing poverty with dependency. It is a crying shame, is it not, that if you come from a social housing background your chances of the good jobs and the best education are risible. With only about two per cent of people from social housing ever getting the leg-up that goes with education.
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History shows how poverty has been incorporated into society and used to bolster religions so you can pop out every now and then and help a few of the poor. Or even devote your life to them, but never destroy poverty itself.