Centrism is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader almost four years ago has made a sizable portion of the center-ground commentariat and a horde of online pundits rabid with fury, with certain tropes that veer toward conspiracy theory endlessly returning, more deranged with each coming.
One persistent myth began when Corbyn was asked, in an online forum for middle-class mothers, what his favorite book was, and he replied, “Ulysses, on the grounds that it’s very hard to understand the first time and doesn’t get much easier on the third or fourth reading of it.” It wasn’t the most obvious choice: a more cynical politician might have prepared an answer to make political capital — perhaps choosing The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, in a nod to a pivotal scene in the eerily familiar A Very British Coup, with its Tony Benn–style leader, Harry Perkins, now embodied by Corbyn.
But no matter: plumping for James Joyce’s Ulysses led to surging histrionics from Corbynsceptics and the Right. In time for Bloomsday this year, the Guardian released an interview with Corbyn on Joyce and Ulysses, predictably enticing yet another centrist meltdown. Corbyn was lying; he hadn’t read Ulysses, and was only saying so to appear intelligent. And if he had read it, he hadn’t fully understood it. Literary texts have only one monolithic reading, as any fool knows, and Joyce’s thickest text is simply a puzzle to be solved and read through one lens, rather than as a dense psychological text, a postcolonial meditation, a musing on Irish nationalism, or a deep-cover guerrilla marketing campaign by the Dublin tourist board.
One commentator even mounted a bizarre challenge to the leader of the opposition to engage in some sort of excruciatingly embarrassing interpretive duel, the parameters and scoring system of which remained unspecified. Another argued that Corbyn’s admission that he had returned to the novel multiple times showed he was terrifyingly unfit to govern the country. If not having finished hefty texts in one sitting is a measure of aptitude for power, everyone I met during four years of studying literature should be disqualified.
The Ulysses truthers’ fervor is a cipher for their wider view on politics. The anger aimed at the Labour leader is a form of cultural gatekeeping: literature isn’t an art form open to all, a transformative experience that should be universal, but functions merely as a series of cultural markers that confer value upon an individual. Libraries are venerated in theory but not practice by a facet of middle-class Britain, not because access to knowledge should not depend on wealth, but because of the self-congratulatory associations of describing yourself as a reader.
Corbyn cannot have read Joyce, because he does not conform to the idealized figure of the centrist politician; he is routinely described as “thick” because he did not attend Oxford or Cambridge, nor finish a college degree. Even though Corbyn was raised and remains squarely middle class, his refusal to follow the standard “philosophy, politics and economics” route to power means he is still excluded from the very narrow definition of the acceptable middle-class political sphere. Furiously rejecting the notion that a person may be capable of reading a book without college tutorials, and even the concept of an autodidact, is essential to actually existing centrism, because anything that lies outside the narrow parameters that have defined decades of political leaders is a threat to the status quo.
But if Corbyn is dismissed and attacked for having read a book while middle class, what do his critics think of the rest of society? If intellect is so closely guarded, and cultural markers so rigorously policed, how can those now insisting Corbyn hasn’t read Ulysses view people from working-class backgrounds as anything other than illiterate? My social and economic background is far more modest than Jeremy Corbyn’s, and I was the first person in my family to study past the age of sixteen, but my father gave me a copy of Ulysses on a trip to Dublin as a young teenager. He’d read it without a university degree, working in aircraft construction, not academia. Perhaps he took different pleasures and meanings from the text compared to my own readings at the time, and later in writing undergraduate essays. Why does it matter? I reread books constantly and take more from them as I grow, emotionally and in terms of social and intellectual experience.
Publicly dismissing a politician who praises a book and argues that literature is for everyone is nothing more than a jealous attempt to exclude people from approaching the canon by designating a text as a work of high culture fit only for some. If Corbyn, who came from a comfortable background and attended a good school, is considered incapable of enjoying or reading Joyce, these people must doubt I can even hold a pen.
Like most attacks on Corbyn for such trivialities, this one reveals far more about the assailants than about the leader himself. The Joyce/Corbyn saga is far more about class contempt and fervent regard for the status quo than anything else.
Hopefully for the next round of Ulysses-gate, Corbyn will announce he’s taken to reading Finnegans Wake, and, like the text, the attacks can go on in an infinite loop.