On The Heterogeneity Of My History
From the mouth of the Buck Mulligan, to the aperture of my ear, the song of my history ever echoes in my head: “My mother’s a Jew, my father’s a bird, and I’m the queerest young fellow that ever you heard”. An earnest warning to you, dear reader, lest you suffer the same fate as me: while short, this line is catchy, and it might not so soon take from you its leave. Brevity, after all, is that which is most conducive to memory, and that which is brief, not to mention eloquent, is often most difficult to shake. And so, again and again the line plays in my head, as I shuffle to its chorus with the jig of my feet.
A lovable utterance, made by an even better-loved man, it’s a line from whose frank simplicity and delicious rhythmic pattern I derive no small satisfaction. Upon reading and re-reading it, and savoring with every exposure the delight of its taste, it never fails to make me smile, to make me laugh, to make me think. These, of course, are the actions by which the musical man, the most poetic of a world’s species, is to be distinguished from the thoughtless contentment of the slack-jawed beast. We, unlike it, walk on feet propelled by the melodious urgings of our souls, looking ever upward to that which we hear, but see not. We feel the radiance of the gilded sun, the euphony of the bulging clouds, the two instruments we can’t understand, between whose forces we’re gaily strung.
“My mother’s a Jew, my father’s a bird, and I’m the queerest young fellow that ever you heard”. If I’m honest, the line has inched quite near to becoming the veritable anthem to my life, a ditty with which my bouncing spirit harmonizes and my dancing heart beats.
Borrowing, as often he did, from the unacknowledged genius and parodic clout of the Irish poet Oliver St. John Gogarty, James Joyce made famous this line. In a work otherwise unencumbered by any real considerations of length, Joyce thought it fitting, on this single occasion, to abridge his compatriot’s poem (originally entitled, The Song of the Cheerful (but Slightly Sarcastic) Jesus) when he placed it at the beginning of his marvelous, anfractuous tome, Ulysses.
Uncharacteristically, further abridgement was made, as Joyce—whose verbosity, like his creativity, knew no bound—shortened and changed the title, calling it instead, The Ballad of Joking Jesus. One must admit, the brevity, so unusual for Joyce’s style of writing, is absolutely becoming. One might go so far as to call it a technique of which, in his more mature years, he might’ve made better use. It seems, in dealing with another man’s work, a quiet piece of brilliance by which any writer—even one as accomplished as Joyce—might be impressed, he could be as sparing and economical as he wanted, and still as memorably deft.
All that said, it’s no surprise to learn exactly who this “queerest of young fellows” is; his identity, revealed at the ends of both those titles, gives away the game. That queer and happy product of divine and fleshy love, that eccentric preacher in whose development both Jew and Bird played so formative a hand, is none other than Jesus the Nazarene. Of course, one can only wonder about the identity of the paternal “Bird”, that masculine figure to whom both Gogarty and Joyce make reference. Few will identify Joseph, aged husband of Mary, as the sole recipient of that title, most will give it to God. Certainly, all Irishmen would.
Imbued, as all Irishmen are, with that numinous feeling of the Lord’s omnipresence, and reserving for that lofty figure a commensurable degree of awe and respect, it’s doubtful that Gogarty and Joyce would resort to calling Yahweh something so inconstant and flighty as an avian explorer, a winged and chirping “bird”. Not even an atheist would so deprecate the deity against whom, in his heights of passion, he rails. Even if an Irishmen strips himself of all the outward trappings of his native religion, and declares himself an apostate from that Roman faith in which he was reared, he wouldn’t mount so sacrilegious a climb, wouldn’t dare utter so insolent a profanation, all for the honeyed first line of a poem produced by the tip of his pen.
We must conclude, then, that Gogarty and Joyce enjoyed a peculiar relationship with the man in the sky, the man about whom they so lovingly wrote. He and they must’ve been conversant, must’ve enjoyed direct access to one another, as all real poets must. The acquisition of a muse, after all, isn’t merely the product of an artist’s individual effort, despite the endless hours of study to which he might commit himself, or the untold genius of which he might enviably be possessed. More often, a more powerful benefactor, typically a higher and more divine sort, is required for that end. Thus, availed of their muse, they could both supplicate and adore Him, while bantering about his life with bird-like sobriquets.
The question remains: In what way, exactly, does this little poem (to which, I might add, there are quite a few more jauntily laid stanzas), impress itself upon me?
In saying that this poem resonates with me, I don’t mean to imply that I think myself comparable to the subject on which it’s centered, to that “queer fellow” about whom, in rhyming couplets, it so playfully speaks. I don’t think myself hewn in the same Empyrean image of the only begotten Son of God, that apothegmatic rabbi and unfortunate priest for whose imminent return, we find ourselves still patiently waiting. (Will or won’t he eventually arrive? The course of another millennium might sooner let us know).
Far from it; I admit that I’m low, often crude, and always in a state of moral descent. Notwithstanding the curled long length of my brown hair, and the deeply-etched Semitic lineaments with which my skin is carved, there’s no reason that he and I will ever be confused. And, frankly, that’s alright; my head isn’t so beclouded as to lose its path in the hazy dreams of which deification is so enticing an author. I’m not caught in that web of messianic complexes in which so many twirling mortals become entangled and caught. I haven’t aspirations to prophecies, to holidays, to martyrdoms, nor to cultic adulation. A quiet life and a forgetful death, that’s all I want. Blood-soaked passions and apotheosis have no allure to me. I want to think clearly, to live simply, to love sincerely, and to die not for a purpose, but with placidity and ease.
That said, I do have a Jewish mother, next to whom a lovably “bird”-like father has been, so long as I can remember, devotedly perched. And while I, their adoring son, will never be confused for that “queerest of fellows” (in either that word’s original or its currently sexually suggestive sense; the evolution of the word “queer” is a journey in itself to behold), I am the product of their beautiful, heterogeneous union.
It’s from my mother that I receive my Semitic endowments, those traits for which, on most days, I’m grateful. Beginning, however, with that for which I’m least thankful, I received from my mother my height. It’s the one attribute about which there’s embarrassingly little to speak. My stature, at once diminutive and unimpressive, is that of hers, is that of the Levantine and then Southeastern European Jews from whom I’m a descendant. Of course, she, as a female, wears the smallness of her bone structure much better than I ever could. It is, for her, a contribution to her femininity and the light touch of her grace. It is the small but nimble, brilliant but condensed anatomy of a woman undaunted by the largeness of a difficult world.
Not quite Lilliputian, she, like I, is nevertheless in a constant state of looking up, of gazing with neck extended and eyebrows raised to those to whom her height would never even dare think itself equal. Yet, as a woman fully in possession of herself, as a figure whose aura quite exceeds the confines of a body limited in its physical reach, she cares not. Others are more likely to yield to her approach, to bow in the midst of her matriarchal presence. Short though she is, her power is large, and this is something of which all people, irrespective of size, are in unspoken acknowledgement.
For me, as a man, it’s a rather different scenario; so diminutive a stature is rather more unbecoming, rather more emasculating than its thankless recipient might’ve hoped. As I’ve come to learn through many a hard and unfruitful year (a time during which, despite the persistence of my prayers, the slow march of my growth seems to have been stunted) height, an attribute in which I’m so utterly deficient, is quite highly valued in modern society.
For reasons upon which only our evolutionary history could expound, height is thought to be an expedient look into the worth of a man. It helps in the assessment of one’s natural strength. It aids, with a glance, in the discernment of a man’s intelligence, his virility, and his overall value. It is that by which, from a distance or up close, a man about whom there’s any lingering uncertainty is to be judged. Doubtless, this is an imperfect measure, and often wanting in accuracy, but it’s one on which we still rely. As such, it’s absence is not so useful to the man uninterested in the powers of femininity and the ineffability of that sex’s grace. It avails not the man who hasn’t the opportunity to impress his passing comrade with the strength, intelligence, and virility of his mind, with the smooth facility of his tongue.
Height isn’t the only attribute for which I have my mother and her Semitic origins to thank. Beyond the physical merely, there is something spiritual in me as well. I can’t explain it, outside of being a child of the Hebraic nation. Sons of Jewish mothers, we’re told, enjoy an involuntary transfer of a shared Hebraic past and, as such, I believe it’s very deeply rooted in our bones. As such, it’s not a gift of which a grown son such as me, much less the young boy out of whom I emerged, can readily be dispossessed. This matrilineal connection, so uniquely important to the thinking and genealogy of the Jews, can neither be understated, understood, nor overlooked.
While it’s claimed to have Biblical origins, in recent centuries it’s likely to have served a far more practical purpose. Theology is often secondary when it’s a people’s goal simply to survive. Jewish mothers, increasingly coupled with gentile men, risked losing the Judaic faith of which they were the increasingly sparse inheritors. Their sons, given the option, might easily slide away from that accosted faith, adopting in the process the more convenient belief system of which their fathers were practitioners. This loss of sons was an unexpected means by which the religion’s population might be diluted—along with constant pogroms, drownings, slaughters, and genocides. And, as we’ve unfortunately seen with the images Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Chelmno, the Jewish population is not one equipped to sustain much more loss. It’s astonishing, given the assaults it’s absorbed, that it’s made it as long as it has.
Thus, excluding all those dizzy exegetical interpretations of the voyage of the Jewish mother’s soul into the heart of her child, it likely was as simple as Partus sequitur ventrem. A Latin phrase, used most recently in the antebellum South for the justification of the enslavement of a bondwoman’s child, it means, “that which is brought forth follows the womb”. Put another way, it means the child retains the religion, race, or station of the mother through whose uterus he passed before touching his feet down to this earth. In America, this perverse legalism was used for many years, and it was done so for two reasons: it allowed white slave-owners to impregnate the black women over whom they held ownership, and to do so without the burden of having to claim and to raise the child as their own. It also invariably added to the slave population, a number to which further trans-Atlantic shipments from Africa were no longer able to contribute.
Not unfamiliar with servitude (many years between the death of Joseph and the rise of Moses, after all, were spent in a state of uncompensated toil in the deserts of Egypt) the Jews may have enacted this designation of Partus sequitur ventrem simply to ensure their progeny and retain its faith. This is but a guess, merely. For further evidence, you’ll need to consult your local rabbinical scholar. I haven’t the acumen to say with certainty that which I propose, but I can speak from experience that this matrilineal mode of transmission does seem to be peculiarly strong—regardless of the reason behind it. There is an indescribable religiosity, a divine feeling by which the son of a Semite is inexorably moved. Is this enough to preserve an entire people and a distressingly secularized batch of sons? Thousands of years, and hundreds of thousands of enemies, will attest that it might very well be.
I could speak forever of my mother (and, in her opinion, I might just as well) but my father is the one—the “bird”, to borrow the language of Joyce—to whom, dutifully, I now turn. It’s through the contribution of his blood into my veins, the pouring of his breath into my spirit, that I’m made to feel myself a distant cousin of the great artist, Joyce. My father’s the one, with the delightfully musical last name of Finneran, through whom my Irish ancestry echoes still. Resonating from him to me, and from me to all others, it reaches back to the surreal shouts of Joyce, to the haunting whispers of his deathless voice.
Bearing the name of a Hibernian, I’m probably closer in relation to the author of Dubliners than I could ever hope. His genius, of course, is inconceivably far from my own, and it welcomes neither aping nor approximation, but with a last name like Finneran, I can’t help but feel a sense of kinship with the man who very nearly wrote the indecipherable story of my own personal wake. With the simple replacement of a “g” by an “r”, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake—that sinuous tale by which even the most dauntless of readers have been frustrated—would be an even more intimate story than it is.
One part Irish, another Jewish, we might conclude—humbly taking as an example the proof of my own being—that this union yields an agreeable result. Both have traits by which their people are adorned, and I hope to take from each what’s best. The Irish, it’s said, are a fair people: they never speak well of one another. Unsurprisingly, it was Samuel Johnson, epitome of the English aristocrat, who said that of a people for whom he had little regard.
That said, it’s not an unfair assessment; though scathing, the wise Dr. Johnson was never known to be untrue. While it can be said that the Irish are a fair, it must be held that the Jews are a sober people: they never lose the clarity of mind to which a life of persecution compels them. In this, they are unblinking, unfaltering. That which is said of the latter, isn’t typically said of the former, and the reverse is also true. But the Irish get along well enough, especially when bathed in the genial lubricant of drink.
Thankfully, while I’ve inherited from my Irish forbears their geniality, fairness, and—in the words of Johnson—superficial bonhomie, I’ve not yet acquired their famous propensity to the bottle. My Jewish sobriety seems to have quieted that evil to which, thanks to the genes that course through my veins, I’m at least partially predestined. And so, imbibition is no vice of mine, despite a long résumé of other shameful mischiefs and naughty shortcomings with which I might be charged. No race is immune to its ancient misdeeds, and no man is wholly detachable from his race. We mustn’t hold one another guilty of these crimes.
We take with seriousness the insight of the inimitable Dr. Johnson; his perspective was always keenest, his words always wittiest. But, at root, he was not Irish, and none could know better the character of this people than one of its own. In commenting on his own countrymen, a group with whose handling he was always playfully gentle, Oscar Wilde observed that the Irish—among whom, despite his London trappings and Grecian day dreams, he always counted himself—were too political to be poets.
Made by any other man, one unadorned by the countless laurels by which even the strongest head would be made to feel heavy, one might readily sign on in agreement to the acuity of this thought; coming from an Irishmen, indeed, any other Irishmen, this insight would be all but unobjectionable; it would most conclusively settle the probing curiosity of the foreign mind into the emerald soul. But, having been made by the remarkable Wilde, that most poetically fertile spirit by which—since the era of Shakespeare and then that of Milton—the British Isles have been graced, one has to question its earnestness. It appears, given the accomplishments of the Irish in both the poetical and the political-philosophical realms (Swift, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Yeats contributing their names to the former; Burke, Toland, Erigena, and Berkeley, most impressively to the latter), that they’re equally competent in their dealings with either field.
Of course, as always he did, Wilde held up his sleeve a caveat to his statement: while the Irish might be “too political to be poets”, they were doubtless the “greatest talkers since the Greeks”. None would contest so bold a conceit, especially when made by so bold a man. For Wilde, his flamboyance was his own, but his eloquence—that was irreducibly Irish. For the gift of his “gab”, an endowment of which all the literate world remains so unabashedly envious, he had that voluble country to thank. I like to think that all great talkers, once dead, promptly move to resurrect themselves along the rolling hills of Ireland. And so, Demosthenes arises in Dublin, Plato in County Mayo, Protagoras in Belfast, and, from time to time, a wild flower like Oscar Wilde blooms in the laughing expanse of their shade.
Being incompletely Irish, I can’t say I’m the exception to Wilde’s well-stated rule. He spoke of Irishmen born of that land, reared by that land, not of those distantly animated by a drop of its blood. Thus, I feel myself drawn somewhat more to poems than to politics, to beauty than to bureaucracy. My American Declaration is rather Whitman than Jefferson; my heartfelt Constitution, Emerson than Madison. Poetry, I think, can be just as revolutionary a force when it comes to the births of new and vibrant lands. All who prioritize words over swords, quips over bullets, will agree. I think much of pen and ink in revolutions; one epigram will do more than a hundred daggers. Indeed, I might be too poetical to be sincerely political, but I’m ever cognizant of the balance that one must tread.
For this balance, I have both mother and father to thank—the former a Jew, the latter a bird. The product of their union? The queerest young fellow that ever you heard. I must stop here, as I risk exceeding the loquacity of the Greeks. Wilde gave me his stern warning, a look to which I can’t help but defer.