James Joyce, John Senior and the Quest for Realism

John Senior is known as a cultural warrior for his books on Christian culture and as a pioneering educator for his role in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. As an English professor, his spiritual odyssey took him through the literature of East and West. His doctoral dissertation focused on the role of the occult in Symbolist literature. He was pulled out of his forays into symbolism and even Hinduism by encountering the realism of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition. Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture provides us insight into how he came to understand Western literature from a more mature position.

In this work, Senior did not have complimentary things to say about James Joyce, though he referenced him many times, recognizing his significant place in modern literature. He concedes that “Ulysses is indeed the book of the century,” but only due to “the triumph of ignorance—that loss of humanistic education” and the “assault on common sense by a half-educated intelligentsia.” Senior sees Joyce as an embodiment of modernist literature, which rejects morality and our ability to perceive reality directly. He sees in Joyce a continuation of Flaubert’s assertion that life is a tour du farce of absurdity and boredom and in the end he thinks that Joyce produces fundamentally unreadable works, culminating in Finnegan’s Wake.

Despite Senior’s scathing critique of Joyce, I found myself unexpectedly reflecting on the two figures together as accounts of their life and thought written by priest friends of mine appeared this last year: John Senior and the Restoration of Realism by Fr. Francis Bethel, O.S.B. and The Catholic Categories of James Joyce by Fr. Colum Power, S.H.M.

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The accounts are connected in several respects. Surprisingly, realism is one of them. As we see in Bethel’s title, John Senior was a champion of realism, of pushing us back toward a direct encounter with reality. Joyce, on the other hand, is known as one of the founders of literary modernism, the rejection of realism. Fr. Power pushes back against an overly simplistic reading of Joyce. Although he acknowledges that Joyce apostatized from the faith, nonetheless Power argues that he remained formed by fundamental, Catholic categories of mind and maintained a spiritual vision of sorts. Power maintains that in Joyce there is continuity with the past, but also an embrace of the messiness and disorder of the modern world. In fact, he attempted to synthesize past and present in a new artistic vision.

Joyce was haunted by the categories of mind that Senior came to discover in his odyssey. Whereas they haunted Joyce, Senior championed them. Fr. Power tells us that “in the shift from Christ-centeredness to Christhauntedness Joyce may be seen as prophetic and emblematic of the modern age.” In Senior’s return to realism, we have an antidote to this apostasy, but Fr. Power would like us to see how Joyce himself retained important elements of the tradition, which enabled him to critique the very modernism he is thought to have embraced. For instance, Power claims that Joyce maintained intellectual roots in the Thomistic-Aristotelian tradition: “Contrary to Eco’s interpretation, Joyce has never ceased to rely on Aquinas’ aesthetics to transcribe the music of his world—what we call the modern world” (quoting Antoine Levy). We also see how Joyce opposed Cartesian dualism and maintained “belief in potentiality” in the Aristotelian sense.

Power organizes the work in terms of exploring the themes of epiphany, individuation, and Eucharist in Joyce’s thought. Power quotes Joyce to define a foundational category: “By epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation.” The Irish exile employs symbols in a way not unconnected to the symbolist tradition expounded by Senior: “Joyce sought to recover the relationship between the mundane and the supernatural. Joyce’s aim is to reveal the profound importance of the apparently unimportant.” But unlike other symbolist artists, Power understands the “Joycean project in terms of secularizing metaphorization of Catholic teachings.” His Catholic upbringing and formation, though rejected, nonetheless provided the framework to engage the modern world and artistically engage the reality of life within it: “He is creating as a perennial artist would create; employing, to use Joyce’s own terms, the artistic selective and reproductive faculties to recapture the essence of the human experience. He is as interested in portraying the negative effects of Modernism as he is in portraying the affirmative effects of tradition, and vice versa of course.”

Though Senior rejected claims that Joyce embraced modern disorder to critique it, Power nonetheless tells us that “the presence of disorder in Ulysses, linguistic and existential is undeniable. But the disorder is never complete. Chaos is ever-present and omni-threatening, but it does not engulf meaning, which can neither be engulfed or exhausted.” In fact, “in maturity he strives to see if and how the divine can operate in messy human situations.” Though accused by many—including Senior—of blasphemy, “Joyce’s aesthetic project as ‘priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience in to the radiant body of everliving life,’ expresses this same aspiration. It will take the form of artful re-actualization of the quotidian, the ordinary, the material, the middle and mundane range of human experience” (quoting Joyce). Eucharistic scenes, especially in Ulysses, present a flashpoint for the expression of Joyce’s priesthood and also accusations of blasphemy. In them we see the “visceral realism of Joyce’s Eucharistic art,” which includes “crude naturalistic realism to the point of apparent blasphemy.” Power pushes us to see that even in these moments, we can see an “art that combines a realism that is visceral to the point of scandal with a radiance that … may be called sublime.”

Power shows us why, as Catholics, we should take Joyce seriously. Joyce certainly has great prominence in twentieth century art and literature. These arguments may not have convinced Senior, but nonetheless we can point to some common ground between the projects of Power and Bethel. Both Senior and Joyce sought to recover the significance of our experience of reality through the poetic mode. Joyce’s contribution would not be clear in the midst of postmodern interpretation were it not for Power and the scholars on whom he relies. A major part of Senior’s journey to the faith involved his own struggle with modernist literature. Therefore, sorting out Joyce’s own spiritual struggle and approach to art provides an important path for leading us back to reality and what separates us from it—both the reality of nature and of the faith. What is clear for Senior, though, is that he moved from the reliance on the symbol which creates artificially an experience with subjective reality to the direct encounter with reality itself—both creation and the Creator.

In Senior’s life we have not only the personal testimony of his own discovery of reality—from runaway Cowboy, to Communist, to Hindu, to Catholic—but the testimony of this teaching, his great project of restoration. Senior realized that “modern man, by the very milieu in which he lives, is predisposed toward Anti-Realism,” necessitating a return to “realism for the good use of our reason” and a “healthy imagination.” Senior sought to help his students to arrive at this embrace of the real, and he prioritized the “face-to-face formation of students,” sharing with them the “expression of a reality he was viewing interiorly.” This investment in the life of students led to drastic transformations of lives, inspiring many conversions to Catholicism and vocations to the priesthood and religious life (including the vocation to Benedictine monasticism of the author, Fr. Bethel).

Senior’s greatest impact came with the creation of the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) in 1970 at the University of Kansas, where he could implement his vision of the teacher as “a servant in the dialogue between students and reality.” Bethel summarizes Senior’s philosophy as Made for the Stars but Rooted in the Soil. Senior “realized by his own experience that the human plant, in order to tend to the stars, must be nourished in the soil of this world. His turn-about and then his work with students deeply impressed on him that we must ground all intellectual and affective life on the experiential and imaginative level. This concrete way of nourishing Realism underlay everything he taught and the way he taught it.” Within IHP this vision led to not only teaching the great books, but mediating the culture and realities that underlie them, “a gymnastic return to real things and a poetic discovery of their mysteries.” “The program took as the means for this rediscovery not philosophy, but the great imaginative literature and poetry of the West, and the activities such as song, dance and stargazing.”

Senior truly serves as a prophet of our need to return to the realities of nature, family life, art, and the Catholic faith. Chapters eleven and twelve explore how Senior’s philosophy impacts our lives in the home and family, work, and the way we should approach education. Senior thought that “it is only through renewed families that a general restoration of culture can be possible.” To facilitate this, “literature, poetry, songs and conversation in the home are the normal basis for culture, for a thriving human and Christian life.” The setting also matters as “a return to the land is encouraged by Senior, who considers farming and ranching to be the normal type of work for most men.” Emphasizing music and gymnastic as the foundation, Senior’s approach to education sought to “cultivate and discipline the pupil’s natural path to learning.” In this approach to family life, work, and school, Senior emphasized the primary role of the poetic, the need to directly engage in the reality of life, to sympathize with it and learn from it.

Two priests have written compelling works on significant Catholics of the twentieth century—one a literary apostate among the most famous writers of the century and the second a more obscure college professor who found the beauty of the Catholic faith and led others to it. Fr. Power details the latent power of Catholicism’s lingering presence in the modern world, and in doing so helps us to understand the messiness of life in a post-Christian world. Fr. Bethel guides those interested in a restoration of Christian culture in this messy world by pointing to a model of living in accordance with the truth of reality. Reading both works together will illuminate the modern world and point toward a path of how to thrive within it. Both books represent a quest for the real, one through the symbolic mediation of literature and the other through its poetic embodiment in our daily lives.


  • R. Jared Staudt

    R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author, most recently, of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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