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Opinion

Ulysses helps us realise poverty has been with us a long time

Ulysses reminds us we went down the wrong road trying to eradicate poverty, but we can still change direction

If you read my column regularly you will know I have occasionally struggled with trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. For Christmas I awarded myself a vast book full of annotations and notes called The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses, edited by Catherine Flynn. I am determined to finish this big
bugger by the middle of the year. And now there is another reason for it.  

Declan Kiberd, a professor at Notre Dame University in Dublin and author, wrote a brilliant article about the above book in TheTimes Literary Supplement.  And this quote, taken from the article, explains it all: “With Ulysses literature finally caught up with the New Testament, which attributed to fishermen, whores and impecunious widows a world-historical importance.”  

Wow! What he says in the review is that Ulysses takes the everyday and the ordinary and makes it big and seemingly historically foundational. He breaks through all the glorification of the posh and clever and educated and the comfortable and shows a rough-hewn, underprivileged world. Well, that’s what I got out of it. Mr Kiberd seems to have written the review for me. Why? Because I have concluded after decades of reflection that somewhere deep in history we made a wrong turn: we institutionalised poverty. And even though religions declared their attachment to helping the poor, they helped them to remain poor and just tried to make them as comfortable in poverty as possible.  

Yet if you look at the New Testament, Jesus’s life is about the prominence of the poor in the world, their power with their stories and their experiences. And Kiberd underlines this reality. The poor are not just the deserving or undeserving backdrop. They are essential to how we understand the world. And if we were going to rewrite history we would probably want to sort out this preoccupation with having the poor always with us but never doing an awful lot, apart from engaging in dodgy politics and dodgy revolutions that only broaden the base of the middle classes. Which leaves the poorest among us out in the cold.  

Of course there are always people who reject this social apartheid and get involved in politics and social change, in creating welfare states. But they still seem unable to get beyond replacing poverty with dependency. It is a crying shame, is it not, that if you come from a social housing background your chances of the good jobs and the best education are risible. With only about two per cent of people from social housing ever getting the leg-up that goes with education. 

History shows how poverty has been incorporated into society and used to bolster religions so you can pop out every now and then and help a few of the poor. Or even devote your life to them, but never destroy poverty itself.   

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I was set alight by what Kiberd said about Ulysses because it refers to the bright light of the New Testament showing how the overlooked are enshrined in the world. But it does raise the question why, after 2,000 years, we still can’t dismantle poverty, can only wring concessions from the powers that be. And yet the overlooked and powerless are at the centre of this tradition that grew out of the New Testament.  

The life of the Buddha likewise is about living with, and in, poverty but not being destroyed by it. Giving the poor a prominence and seeing them as the honest brokers in the world, and not just the marginalised.  

I think we went down the wrong road thousands of years ago; and many of the laws of unintended consequences that govern our lives – we walk around today in the mistakes of the past – are because we never faced up to the systemisation of poverty. We made them a part of the show. We made them the cheap providers of our clothing and food and all of the things we live by.  

This New Year will present many problems that seek our attention. But once again it’s poverty that raises its ugly head and threatens to spread out beyond its usual base. People are being impoverished and we must put that at the top of our list. We have to puncture the thinking that keeps returning to poverty and having to do something about it, but never clears it from the face of the Earth.  

I do not hold out much hope from the usual providers of answers in this coming period. The government seems to want to just get by. But they are not realising that now is the time to support people caught in poverty and not to let impoverishment and homelessness spread outward and soak into the lives of those who could avoid it.  

That poverty is central to the whole story of life, and that we have lived with it probably since the days when our ancestors empowered a handful to rule over them, is not reason enough to not see it as it is – an aberration. A regretful piece of social engineering. Something we now have to cleanse ourselves from.  

Let’s start tomorrow! And happy New Year again. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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