The emergence of a literature which is predominantly concerned with the exploration of both a social reality and individual consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its first clear manifestations date from about the third quarter of the seventeenth century when the collective projection represented by the Christian “worldview” gradually began to break apart. Inevitably, this occasioned a radical shift in consciousness. It compelled individuals to make sense of their own reality and identity. For the first time in history, writers began to see a much fuller social spectrum than had ever been noticed before and to explore the implications for this for the individual: i.e. to explore both a social reality and a sense of individual consciousness that are recognizably related to our own concerns at the turn of the twenty-first century.
—Terence Dawson, “Jung, literature, and literary criticism” (The Cambridge Companion to Jung)
Since I was already discussing Jung earlier this month, I thought my annual Bloomsday post might be on Jung’s own response to Joyce’s masterpiece, the 1932 essay “‘Ulysses’: A Monologue.” (I am using the version translated by R. F. C. Hull and published in volume 15 of Jung’s collected works, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature.) This essay was written, claims Jung, “only as a subjective confession” to “show how ideas that play a considerable role in my work can be applied to literary material.” The psychologist later sent the essay to Joyce with a letter of ambivalent praise; he comments about Molly’s monologue, “I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.” Two years after that, Joyce consulted Jung in the case of his own schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, whose illness Joyce saw as related to his own genius. Jung’s famous, poignant verdict, as recounted by Richard Ellmann: Joyce and his daughter were “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”
Jung’s Ulysses essay is, as Terence Dawson comments in the entry on literary criticism in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, “amongst his least successful work” and “embarrassingly vague.” Like many distinguished early readers (e.g., Virginia Woolf), Jung seems not quite to have understood what he was reading even at the superficial level. He comments, for instance, that “Joyce’s Ulysses, very much unlike his ancient namesake, is a passive, merely perceiving consciousness”—a misreading of Bloom, the novel’s most active protagonist, who stands up for himself in Kiernan’s pub and follows Stephen into Nighttown out of concern for the young man. Relatedly and more significantly, Jung misjudges the novel’s dominant tone. Disgusted by its naturalism and frustrated by its formalism, Jung seems to condemn Joyce’s effort:
This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory. As a piece of technical virtuosity it is a brilliant and hellish monster-birth.
He goes on:
If worms were gifted with literary powers they would write with the sympathetic nervous system for lack of brain. I suspect that something of this kind has happened to Joyce, that we have here a case of visceral thinking with severe restriction of cerebral activity and its confinement to the perceptual process.
And yet, he allows that his subjective annoyance by the novel must be investigated psychologically. “Yes, I admit I feel I have been made a fool of,” he says. “Irritation means: You haven’t yet seen what’s behind it.”
I propose that we follow the psychologist behind his own bad feelings rather than dismissing them as philistine or bourgeois misinterpretation. True, we now read Ulysses in a very different way from Jung’s. Our tendency is to see Ulysses as something like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a literary attempt (quixotic in several senses) to create “a positively beautiful man” in the figure of Bloom. A celebration of the everyday via its transubstantiation into art, a secularizing blow against religious idealism, a cosmopolitan manifesto against imperialism and nationalism, and a linguistic game showing that all language should (since we have to live inside it) be inhabited as playpen rather than prison, Ulysses is the Bible of the contemporary literati’s liberal irreligion, and today is its feast.
The positive reading is so dominant that the essay I examined last Bloomsday, Leo Bersani’s “Against Ulysses,” accuses Joyce’s supposedly experimental and subversive text of being essentially a work of nineteenth-century humanist realism, a continuation not even of Dostoevsky but of Jane Austen. It might be useful, then, to re-encounter the shock of the novel’s early readers, Joyce’s contemporaries, who did not take it so affirmatively. While it is easy to mock their evident dismay at being presented with defecation and masturbation and fried kidneys, their sense that a sprawling and seemingly formless profusion of sometimes obscene text was a malediction against the tradition its very title invokes might not be wholly misplaced.
And let’s not neglect our own facile misprisions: celebrating Bloomsday in bars, for example, as if the novel were not a lament over the destructiveness of Ireland’s drinking culture, as if it did not depict pubs as major sites of colonial paralysis and powerlessness, where Simon Dedalus squanders his gifts in boozy song in “Sirens” or where the violent nationalist bigots congregate in “Cyclops.” Joyce lets us know that Bloom is heroic because, among other things, he imbibes responsibly, as when he surreptitiously pours out the drinks he’s given in “Oxen of the Sun” so that he can better look after the wasted Stephen. An alcoholic’s cri de coeur, Ulysses, if written straightforwardly, might have been the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of temperance. But I digress; back to Jung.
The psychologist proceeds to ask what the novel’s hostility to the reader (signaled by its formalism) and its radical de-idealizing of reality (signaled by its naturalism), portends. One hint Jung picks up from not only the novel but also from its broad influence in the arts, discernible even in 1932, is that “medieval Catholic Ireland covers a geographical area of whose size I have been hitherto ignorant”: the punitive religious idealism and political essentialism that Joyce revolts against are not merely local Irish or Catholic matters at all. Joyce becomes the spokesman for anyone burdened under interlocking (even when supposedly opposed) repressive forces, as Joyce depicts an Ireland distorted by British imperialism, Catholic theocracy, and even the Irish nationalism that was supposed to be the antidote to these. Jung’s insight is borne out when we consider the enormous influence of Ulysses on postcolonial or minoritarian writing throughout the twentieth century, from Ellison and Roth to Walcott and Rushdie. The now-perhaps neglected negativity of the novel—its preponderant scatology, its unremitting political satire and anti-clericalism—is necessary to smash the idols inhibiting humanity.
Jung further surmises that Ulysses, rather than advocating some kind of new humanism, might rather indicate a “new cosmic consciousness,” “a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the gods nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor prejudice.” Here Jung, while acknowledging the novel’s subversion, still diverges from our affirmative reading and sees Joyce instead as aiming at a transcendence of the material, of the filth, he otherwise seems to wallow in:
Ulysses is the creator-god in Joyce, a true demiurge who has freed himself from entanglement in the physical and mental world and contemplates them with detached consciousness. […] He is the higher self who returns to his divine home after blind entanglement in samsara. In the whole book no Ulysses appears; the book itself is Ulysses, a microcosm of James Joyce, the world of the self and the self of the world in one. Ulysses can return home only when he has turned his back on the world of mind and matter. This is surely the message underlying that sixteenth day of June, 1904…
In other words, Ulysses is the apotheosis of art for art’s sake and the revelation of that concept’s spiritual meaning: the drive to pass through every aspect of experience, including the most horrid, precisely to transfigure it, objectivized and thereby successfully externalized, in the art object. It is, in the grotesque physical metaphor of Joyce’s beloved Aristotle (also used in this essay by Jung), the artist’s purgation.
On the one hand, this interpretation accords with our Bloomsday celebration because it upholds Ulysses as the ultimate manifesto of the artist’s freedom (now, and perhaps forever, under threat from all sides) to treat any material whatever, whether trivial or blasphemous or obscene or offensive. How can author and audience be purged if the emetic, to use Judge Woolsey’s word for Ulysses, is not swallowed? On the other hand, Jung’s astute grasp on the distinction between Joyce and Bloom, his assessment of exceptional author rather than quotidian character as the novel’s true home-tending soul, ill assorts with our own humanism. Bloomsday does seem to depend, for its secular justification and its festive mood, on an understanding that Ulysses is, let’s say, Middlemarch by other means. But if it is less a progressive, reformist tract in cipher and more an attempted rite whereby to lift its creator from humanity to divinity? And does not this feast day, whatever its justification, attest that the ritual fulfilled its function?
None of which means that we must dismiss Joyce as irredeemably haughty. “Elitist” is not a word that belongs in literary criticism. Another sharp early reader of Ulysses, the modernist poet Mina Loy, spoke the truth when she pronounced in her “Aphorisms on Futurism,”
LOVE of others is the appreciation of one’s self.
MAY your egotism be so gigantic that you comprise mankind in your self-sympathy.
Joyce’s does, and in so doing, renders us all service.
Let me end where I began, with Terence Dawson’s excellent essay on the implications for literary criticism of Jung’s ideas. Dawson notes that Jung’s cultural historiography is organized around the concept of humanity’s “withdrawal of projections,” the gradual discovery of the individual psyche in all its wholeness after it has progressively ceased to beam what it wishes to reject in itself onto its environment or its fellows. First, we were nothing but projection, wholly merged with our world, dancing in stellar patterns to move the stars; then we discovered identity, differentiating collective or personal self (Greece as against Troy, Odysseus as against lesser men) from other; then we turned identity into difference by making moral distinctions between self and other (primarily in the Christian era); with literary modernity we arrive at the fourth era, wherein we still live, when we explore with great complexity, in the realist novel above all (Dawson’s essay is an extended reading of Richardson’s Pamela), the complexities of the contiguity of self and world. What is the fifth stage? Dawson comments,
The fifth stage begins when one determines to become more conscious of the nature and extent of one’s own projections. It is a path, or goal, or ideal rather than a stage in the same sense as the others; even so, it could be argued that it has a literature of its own.
He does not mention Ulysses except to mock Jung’s shallow reading of it; but Jung’s picture of Joyce as the master of negation allows us to see, as more cheerful readings do not, that Ulysses is an anatomy of illusion compiled precisely so that we may recognize illusion when we see it. Purging what makes him sick, Joyce reveals his projections, enshrines them, and frees himself of them. In that sense, Ulysses may well belong to the literature of the fifth stage, well worth celebrating, much as Molly Bloom celebrates the self-involved figure of Narcissus, expressing her wish to interfere pleasurably with its auto-communion, like readers as we intrude on Joyce’s song of himself or writers as they intrude on ours:
why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looks with his boyish face
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!