This is the eleventh in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them. I will publish mine here, once or twice a month, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group.
“Ulysses,” by James Joyce
I have been happy to discover that James Joyce’s Ulysses is, despite its daunting reputation, a fairly hilarious comic novel, although rather adolescent in parts. The focus of the action is not so much protagonist Leopold Bloom’s peregrinations through Dublin in search (superficially) of clients for his copywriting services and (profoundly) of women to inveigle into a affair; the real story is embodied in Bloom’s reactions to the people he encounters, and theirs to him. Everyone’s mind seems to center on drinking, sex, and bowel movements, not least Bloom’s (though he won’t drink to drunkenness, unlike his compatriots). There are forays into other characters’ minds–especially that of Gerty, a young woman unknown to Bloom who displays herself to him with a show of innocent carelessness at the beach, an act that sets off chains of stream-of-consciousness musings on both their parts, musings that interact rather poignantly; and in the long and cadenced final chapter, which takes place entirely in Bloom’s wife Molly’s mind. In this closing chapter she tallies her infidelities against his in a sort of cloudy ledger-book format that is stunning in its open exposition of women’s concerns in a masculinized world, and that plays well in the present era. All of this is couched in a matrix of obscure allusions, puns, bad jokes told by characters, and a general air of sarcasm through much of the story. As I said, there’s an adolescent air to it despite its sincerity and intellectual forthrightness. I myself was worse with the puns and putdowns as an adolescent, and a tyrannical forthrightness is a hallmark of that stage of growth.
Certainly, some of the allusions are obscure, either by intent or because time and cultural evolution have frayed the ropes that bind them to our consciousness. Also, many seem to be intensely, locally Irish, but overall the book is readable if you are patient and especially if you are willing to laugh. Joyce must have been a fun dude to hang with. I have read pretty widely in English and French and in translation, and I have had a number of Irish acquaintances over the years, which may have made it easier for me to enjoy. But I suspect anyone bothering with this post is fairly well-read. If you haven’t faced it yet, don’t be intimidated. It’s occasionally tedious (especially the middle of that endless chapter 14), but it’s worth the time one must put in. If you have tried to read it and put it down, try again, and be open to the comedy. (I never realized how absolutely funny Moby Dick was till I read it aloud to my wife; that was my fifth reading of that fishy story.)
I do not yet see the parallels to the Odyssey, though apparently that’s accepted in criticial circles; it’s far more Rabelaisian than Homeric, and Molly Bloom is certainly no Penelope, nor is limping Gerty MacDowell a Circe or Bloom’s daughter Milly a Telemachus. The point is hammered home several times that the Blooms’s only son died aged eleven days. And the only monsters Bloom encounters are his drunken compatriots, most of them university students slumming in bars and brothels. There is no heroism in Ulysses, unless it be the various characters’ refusal to let go of hope no matter how foolish their dreams.
That said, it’s a tour-de-force of sorts.
Chapter fifteen is absolutely hallucinogenic, full of gender-bending phantasmagoric convolutions worthy of the more extreme Fellini flicks, and with dollops of coarse scatological shtick you’d expect from a basement cabaret in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin. Sexual practices of every physical possibility here, as throughout the story, are baldly described and celebrated, and cover a range that has not been exceeded in our more open era. Meanwhile, Bloom as a character is both admirable and annoying–a judgment that Molly seems to share, and which provides the tension in the last chapter, a chapter which closes with an enigmatic yet somehow positive resolution after violent mental key changes.
As for the stream-of-consciousness technique: let me be honest with you. It reminds me most of the “word salad” I hear from a friend of mine who is a full-blown schizophrenic. It is verbal expression unfiltered, and in the real-life version barely organized. Joyce definitely organizes the streams in Ulysses; though it’s white-water much of the way, they stay in their channels. Whether it is truly an emotive writing style is open to debate, as it does tend towards self-indulgence, something Joyce’s imitators are far more guilty of than Joyce himself. And he has had a vast and deep influence, for good and for ill: I realize that some of the adjectival excesses I now cringe at in my own early writing originated with Joyce, with this very work, and came to me through other writers. Back in my early days I had read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but not Ulysses.
In Buddhist terms, the stream-of-consciousness sections of Ulysses are a depiction of “monkey mind,” that dominating mental faculty that pompously comments on happenstances half-perceived through hazes of distraction. This is of course a typical state of mind for human beings, and Joyce explores it brilliantly.
Joyce does not shy away from exposing, as a secondary theme, the prejudices of the Irish towards Bloom as a Jew, and towards Blacks and Chinese in general on the side, there being no actual Black or Chinese characters at hand. Bloom tellingly muses over the times he’s been asked where he’s from, and having to explain that he was born in Dublin and that Ireland is his country. This sort of exchange fills social media streams today, nearly one hundred years after Ulysses was first published (and immediately banned).
It is definitely worth reading: don’t let its reputation as a “difficult” book scare you off. Joyce is a master of language, and overall the most playful writer I have encountered in ages–erudite, sometimes silly, and always sly.
Still think he could have used a good editor here and there, but apparently even Pound didn’t dare suggest it. So, just hop into the stream-of-consciousness rowboat and enjoy the ride. Joyce, for all his excesses, is still a master storyteller. You’ll laugh out loud throughout, if you let yourself.
And I suspect that that’s the point.
Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.