Near the end of David McWilliams’s lecture, Outsiders, at the Peacock Theatre, the media-savvy economist declares that James Joyce was an entrepreneur. It is delivered as something of a coup de grâce in his take on the recession and how best to get out of it. McWilliams jokes that Joyce’s first novel should have been called ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Entrepreneur’, and the audience laughs. However, calling one of the greatest of all writers and artists an entrepreneur is to seriously misunderstand the nature of the artistic mind, and is a misguided misrepresentation of Joyce, his life and his work. McWilliams’s wayward assertion reveals the arrogance at the heart of Outsiders, and the disingenuousness of his claim is shared by the disingenuousness of the Abbey in its attempts to convince us that Outsiders was theatre. Neither comes out of this with any credit.
McWilliams [pictured - photo: Ros Kavanagh] bases his claim on the occasion when James Joyce enlisted four Italian businessmen to back his idea to open a cinema called the Volta in Dublin in 1909. McWilliams’s ill-advised theory founders, though, when you consider even the most basic idea of what an entrepreneur does. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as someone who “sets up a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so”. This obviously implies that you need to have money, and then speculate with it. Joyce had no money and he invested nothing in the Volta project. Indeed, once he received a small fee for helping to find the site for the Volta, he took next-to no interest in the cinema and was far more concerned with getting Dubliners published.
The facts of Joyce’s life at the time are that he and his immediate family were living so impecuniously that they often had to go without food. Joyce’s interest in the Volta was out of sheer desperation to find a way to get some money to survive. Now, this is not at all the kind of romantic idea of entrepreneurs that McWilliams would like us to have. It’s not even a very good prototype for your typical entrepreneur. Or, to put it another way, this is not an entrepreneur at all. Furthermore, the Volta was a complete failure. As an artist, Joyce was preoccupied with more important things.
There’s more, though. McWilliams goes on to say in Outsiders: “Joyce and an entrepreneur have exactly the same mind because they take risks.” (McWilliams’s emphasis.) It might be news to David McWilliams, but criminals take risks also. People who have unprotected sex take risks. People who smoke and drink too much take risks. Anyone who gets into a car every day takes a risk. When you fall in love you take a risk – that you will get hurt. Actually, taking risks is part of being human. In other words, McWilliams’ idea that an artist and an entrepreneur are the same because they take risks is meaningless.
If this weren’t bad enough, McWilliams then tells us that what we need is “Joycean Capitalism”. How to begin to fully explain how crass, silly and just plain wrong this is? McWilliams cites Ulysses as the inspiration for an experimental, daring capitalism. Perhaps he might have read Ulysses before he decided to misrepresent it so thoroughly. Virtually everything about the structure and form of Ulysses makes it the very opposite of a modus operandi or model of capitalism. Moreover, even in the novel’s content, Joyce makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the business mind. Early on in Ulysses, in the scene with Stephen Dedalus and Mr Deasy, Joyce shows Stephen’s utter revulsion for mercantilism and business. Making money, in Stephen's mind was the lowest of the low. Far from being an entrepreneur, Joyce had an aristocratic disdain for all such activities. In the conversation with Mr Deasy, Stephen correctly points out that it’s Iago and not Shakespeare who says, “Put but money in thy purse”. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most despicable villains. That’s what Joyce thought of the entrepreneur.
All of Joyce’s life and art was spent resisting the dictates of economics and capitalism. “Time is money” is the great catch-phrase of capitalism. Joyce took ten years to write Ulysses, and seventeen to write Finnegans Wake. This is not the mind of someone concerned with capitalism’s obsession with time and deadlines, or business’s desire to finish something as quickly as possible in order to make more things and increase profits. The business mind wants results as quickly as possible. It doesn’t like complexity. Complexity just slows things down. Business and the mind of the entrepreneur like to go from A to B as quickly as possible. The artist - and Joyce more than anyone - wants to explore all the secrets and nuances of meaning between A and B and maybe never even reach B but simply return to A again.
Joyce and his art took their time, in a way that is incompatible with the business mind. Art is concerned with meaning. The entrepreneur is concerned with profit. Granted, the art world and the business world intersect, inevitably. However, the mind of the entrepreneur and the mind of the artist are polar opposites. This is especially true of the mind of Joyce, who refused to compromise his aesthetic principles to an extraordinary degree, something which may or may not have been helped later in his life by the patronage of Sylvia Beech. Somehow, though, one gets the feeling that Joyce wouldn’t have sold out his artistic vision either way, even if it had meant him dying even younger than he did.
The entrepreneur doesn’t even have to create. He or she is not an inventor. To be a successful entrepreneur you need a mind that can spot opportunities, gaps in the market, be opportunistic. The entrepreneur wants to sell something that will be popular, enjoyed by as many people as possible. Joyce in all his fiction was not concerned with being popular. He was concerned with creating masterpieces, works that are, rightly or wrongly, considered difficult and rarefied. A Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are the very opposite of the kind of commodity an entrepreneur seeks to sell. The desire to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” is not the kind of thing you can trade down in the IFSC.
Patrick Brennan is former chief theatre critic and arts writer with the Irish Examiner and is currently writing a book about the work of Tom Murphy.