Blooming Joyce

Sat, Jun 16, 2012, 01:00

THE LATE Chairman Mao was certainly not thinking of Ulysses when he once declared: “Let a hundred flowers bloom”. In fact, the hope conveyed in those words was to be cruelly cut short in China, but they are a very apt description for Bloomsday this year.

The major difference between this year’s Bloomsday and previous ones is that the copyright control exercised hitherto by the James Joyce estate over the writer’s works has been lifted. Copyright, which attaches to a writer’s work for 70 years after death, expired in this case on January 1st this year. We have been here before: copyright was briefly removed in the early 1990s, and some advantage was taken of this development. But the works soon returned to the estate’s control after the term of copyright protection was extended.

However, Joyce enthusiasts are free now to perform, recite and adapt these writings without hindrance. With freedom, of course, comes responsibility: the alternative to the control exercised by the Joyce estate can be seen by some as copyright anarchy where anything goes in terms of Joyce’s works.

At the same time, there has been a deplorable tendency to try to assert a new form of copyright control over some of Joyce’s unpublished writings, exploiting a provision in the law which was intended to cover a very different kind of material. This is to bring us back to the kind of regime whose ending has been so celebrated. And it has been accompanied by an apparent sense that the institutions where these materials are held are fair game for having their holdings appropriated and used, whatever their feelings about the issue. To continue the opening metaphor, not all flowers in the Bloomsday garden smell as sweet as might be wished.

Outweighing this, however, have been highly positive developments. There is, for instance, the placing by the National Library of Ireland of almost all its Joyce manuscript holdings online and freely available in recently much enhanced digital images.

Today, President Higgins will launch the celebrations at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. The fact that this seems perfectly normal is a sign of how far things have come between the Irish State and James Joyce – a highly significant development, comparable to Patrick Hillery’s acknowledgment in 1982 that Ireland had some amends to make to the memory of its most famous novelist. And the President’s official imprimatur will be counter-signed by many thousands of celebrants throughout the city and across the world. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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