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James Joyce and His Daughter Lucia (The Subtle Border Between Madness and Genius)


Biographical details about James Joyce’s youngest daughter, the tragic muse of one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

In 1989, when Irish writer Samuel Beckett died, the photograph of a ballerina dressed as a fish was found among his belongings. The portrait was of Lucia Joyce, the second daughter of the Irish writer, James Joyce, for whom Beckett worked in Paris during the second half of the 1920s. Lucia had a brief relationship with Beckett, which ended when he broke up with her. Several biographers point out that it was precisely this event which triggered Lucia’s first symptoms of insanity. They also assert that she would spend the rest of her life in love with the playwright.

Lucia was born in Triste, Italy, where James Joyce and Nora Barnacle (the mother of his children and lifelong companion) lived after they left Dublin in 1904. The second daughter of the marriage —they had an elder son, Giorgio— Lucia began her career as a professional dancer from a very young age. Some say that she had a great talent as a ballerina and a choreographer, and that she studied in several academies and some of the most innovative and experimental groups in early 20th century Europe, among these the company of Isadora Duncan’s brother.

She began displaying certain neurotic traits from a young age, which years later were diagnosed as schizophrenia. Lucia was cross eyed and she had a rough childhood, constantly moving from one home to the next, since the Joyce family experienced unstable living conditions for most of her infancy. Records show that she always had a difficult personality and she was often ill. Joyce’s close friends and family assert that she always had, even during the writer’s last years, an especially close relationship to her father.

Over a two year period, Lucia was rejected by three men: her father’s apprentice, Samuel Beckett, the artist Alexander Calder, and Albert Hubbel, another artist that took her as his mistress, only to return to his wife later. She was also engaged to a young Russian for short period, soon afterwards however, things were called off.

From this unfortunate streak, Lucia began to show open and violent sexual attitudes, which led to her being accused of promiscuity (on one occasion, she publicly announced that she was lesbian); and she tried to set houses on fire on several occasions, she would throw up at the dinner table and, once, she escaped from her home and lived on the streets of Dublin for a few days as if she were homeless. On her father’s fiftieth birthday, Lucia threw a chair at her mother, after which her brother decided to take her to a psychiatric institute. At the time Joyce was writing what would become his last novel, Finnegan’s Wake –a text that many of Joyce’s biographers believe was inspired by his daughter.

Medicated with barbiturates and unable to continue her work as a dancer, in 1935 Lucia was taken to a mental hospital located on the outskirts of Paris. Later, her family took her to another clinic in Northhampton, where she spent the rest of her life. She died in 1982. The daughter of this literary genius spent her last days sunken in a profound loneliness (her family rarely visited her); while she was in the last clinic, Samuel Beckett paid her a visit.

The case of Lucia Joyce’s is not uncommon. Since the beginning of time, madness and artistic creation have been deeply connected in different ways. It is often that the artists’ mind touches upon that thin line. And at times, it crosses it. This is a trend that, for many, alludes to the sensitivity that these characters share.

When Joyce spoke of his daughter, he would refer to her fits as “scenes from King Lear”. He always defended her talents as a brilliant artist, an amazing being and one of the only people who, according to him, could really understand him. For Joyce, Lucia spoke the same language as he did. In 1934, Carl Jung treated Lucia. After their appointment, Joyce asked the Swiss doctor: “Doctor Jung, have you noticed that my daughter seems to be submerged in the same waters as me?” to which he answered: “Yes, but where you swim, she drowns.”

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