My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The following, written and posted on Bloomsday in modernism’s centenary year of 2022, should not be taken as definitive. For better and for worse, Joyce intended the project of reading, thinking about, and writing about Ulysses to be the work of a lifetime, and it has been in my case. The first time I read it, I was three years younger than Stephen Dedalus was on June 16, 1904; now I am two years older than Leopold Bloom. I’ve written about Joyce and his most famous novel in academe and out of it, including on this very site over the years (see the tag), and this essay is only the latest snapshot or selfie to be placed in some eventual album documenting how Joyce and I were once young together and then grew old, still together.
Ulysses has long been hailed as the greatest novel—or even the greatest literary work tout court—of the 20th century, and for three reasons. First, it almost exhaustively characterizes three of the most memorable (and two of the most lovable) protagonists in all of fiction. Second, it is an encyclopedia of fictional techniques ancient and avant-garde, literally containing within its pages every English prose style. Third—this is the most contentious point—it espouses social and political values the literati still tends to hold, much more unanimously and securely than in the moment when Joyce was composing his modern epic. The first and third points are related to one another, because the lovable characters espouse the moral vision; the second and third points are related to one another, because the heterogenous prose evokes the cosmopolitanism at the heart of Joyce’s politics; but I have never fully been able to reconcile—and am less able the more I read the book to reconcile—all three points together. That will be the burden of this essay.
For all the novel’s apparent claims to avant-gardism (see point two above), and for all that its first readers judged it a wicked book for its sexual frankness, Ulysses has a moral scheme as clear as any we find in a novel by Austen or Dickens and much clearer than what more immediate Joycean predecessors as Flaubert, Zola, or Dostoevsky tended to offer. In fact, Joyce demarcates his heroes and villains no less clearly than does the ultimate precursor the novel’s title avows: Homer’s Odyssey.
Famously about one day in Dublin, Thursday the 16th of June 1904, Ulysses consists of 18 chapters, each “unofficially” named for an episode of the Odyssey, from “Telemachus” to “Penelope.” (Joyce excluded the titles from the final draft, but “leaked” them to friends and collaborators like Stuart Gilbert, who went on to write popular guidebooks to a novel all but incomprehensible to most of its first readers.)
Ulysses begins with its weary Telemachus, Joyce’s autobiographical surrogate Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The 22-year-old Stephen wastes his days at a miserable teaching job and his nights in bars and bordellos. He lives in a Martello tower on the Irish coast with a medical student friend, the obnoxious and rambunctious Buck Mulligan, who insults him and sponges from him. Stephen is also mourning his recently deceased mother, at whose deathbed he refused, out of the artist’s satanic-atheist pride, to pray. Alienated from both the reigning and the emerging authorities of his country—he equally despises the British Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Irish nationalists—he torments himself with fragments of theology and philosophy and devises an ingenious, obsessive, and resentful theory about the life of Shakespeare. This particular day in early summer is significant because it is on June 16 that Stephen will meet, for the first time as an adult, the novel’s chief protagonist, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom.
The 38-year-old Bloom is in many ways, both personal and political, as isolated as Stephen. The son of an Irish Catholic mother and a Hungarian Jewish father (who eventually died by his own hand)—and himself baptized both as a Catholic and a Protestant—Bloom is ethnically and religiously an outsider to Dublin’s homogenous population. In an almost theocratic society, he holds no faith at all, Jewish or Christian, preferring to occupy his thoughts with amateur scientific speculation in the same way that young Dedalus favors a torturous nihilism premised on the very theology he rejects. Bloom is an advertising canvasser, a freelance relay between the newspapers and local businesses, which is why he both is and isn’t working on a Thursday, when he seems to be wandering the streets at will. With his wife, Molly, he has had two children, but the second, a son named Rudy (after Bloom’s father), died shortly after birth; in the 11 years since Rudy’s death, Leopold and Molly have not completed intercourse, and the sexually appetitive Molly has, with Bloom’s uneasy complicity, enjoyed a number of affairs. On June 16, Bloom plans to stay out all day because he knows that Molly, a singer, will entertain in their marriage bed the flashy concert promoter Blazes Boylan.
Despite their real differences of age and education, then, Stephen and Bloom are both aliens in their own country, each mourning familial losses, each usurped even in their personal lives by cynical and less sensitive men of an almost caricaturally phallic and swaggering masculinity, Buck and Blazes. Symbolically, both roam the streets throughout the novel without having the keys to their residences in their possession. Joyce designed an epic novel around the day of their meeting—though the meeting itself is uneventful and inconclusive—because he meant to enshrine the values of difference and curiosity, of peace and openness, they embody. He wanted to suggest especially that the youthful artist Dedalus, still consumed in his early 20s by the idealist aesthetics of the fin de siècle, needed to encounter the uncommon commoner Bloom before he could flower into the Joyce capable of recreating the life of the people in epic form.
The opening chapters of the novel, the ones that deploy the famous stream-of-consciousness technique immersing us first in Stephen’s and then in Bloom’s inner lives (in chapters one through three and four through six, respectively), brings us to the side of these protagonists as we are made viscerally to feel their intelligence and their loneliness, their sympathies and their sorrow, especially in contrast to their coarser fellows. I deliberately use a sentimental language because, protected within the shell of the avant technique, the novel’s scenario is a sentimental one. Every intellectual with a typewriter was producing hard-to-read novels in the 1920s, and we’re still reading this one and not most of the others, because, no matter how bitter a pill it may be for avantists to swallow, we care about Stephen and the Blooms the same way we care about Lizzy and Pip.
And the values these lovable figures espouse? It helps to think of Ulysses as the first postcolonial novel—the first novel, that is, to argue that resisting an empire need not doom a nation to an exclusivist concept of itself, patriarchal and ethnonationalist. Joyce stresses Ireland’s immemorial diversity, from the time the Vikings landed in the first millennium A.D., which he analogizes by implication to the heterogeneity of the Greek-Phoenician fusion that produced the Homeric epics and to the diaspora of the Jews. Every nation, every people, and even every individual mind and body and day, is teeming, veritably rioting, with difference: “Jewgreek is greekjew.” Hence, this novel’s chief polemical enemy is less the British Empire—represented by Shakespeare, whom Stephen judges an acquisitive capitalist and jealous husband, anti-type to Bloom, and therefore no fit model for the modern Irish bard—or the Catholic Church—portrayed here as almost sadly superannuated, the barbaric priests of A Portrait having shrunken into cozy monsters—than the Irish nationalists, the anti-imperial resistance itself.
A well-known undergraduate professor of mine, author of a pioneering poststructuralist monograph on Joyce in the 1970s, liked to compare Joyce to Salman Rushdie and said or at least implied that if Joyce’s books had been easier to read he might have met Rushdie’s fate. Stephen Dedalus himself thinks as much, comparing Socrates’s executioners to Irish nationalists: “But neither the midwife’s lore nor the caudlelectures saved him from the archons of Sinn Fein and their noggin of hemlock.” Among the grandest events in this plotless novel, meanwhile, happens when Bloom defends himself to a company of bigoted and drunken nationalists in a pub as they preach a gospel of blood and soil and violent resistance:
—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
Later in the novel, he elaborates on his political views to Stephen:
It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan. It’s a patent absurdity on the face of it to hate people because they live round the corner and speak another vernacular, in the next house so to speak.
The often scabrously satirical Joyce is certainly capable of mocking such bien-pensant liberal views—in the hallucinatory sequence that takes place in Bella Cohen’s brothel, Bloom dreams the establishment of his “New Bloomusalem,” with the lethal and exaggerated effects on the populace of all utopian ideologies—but Ulysses nevertheless upholds them, first by providing no credible opposition and second by associating them with the open minds and roving eyes of Stephen and Bloom.
In the same brothel sequence, Stephen has the following epiphany: “(He taps his brow.) But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.” In other words, like Bloom, he rejects the path of violence and favors the gradualist, reformist alteration of hearts and minds. And while they disagree on much when they finally meet—when Bloom picks up the reckless and drunken Stephen after the young man has gotten into a fight with some British soldiers outside the brothel—they agree on a basic humanist credo (as expressed in the scientific-catechistic idiom of the novel’s penultimate chapter):
Did Stephen participate in [Bloom’s] dejection [about political reform]?
He affirmed his significance as a conscious rational animal proceeding syllogistically from the known to the unknown and a conscious rational reagent between a micro and a macrocosm ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void.
Was this affirmation apprehended by Bloom?
Not verbally. Substantially.
What comforted his misapprehension?
That as a competent keyless citizen he had proceeded energetically from the unknown to the known through the incertitude of the void.
This energetic humanism answers, for me, the question of whether or not the novel’s difficulty is “worth it.”[*] We know by now that Joyce was no heartless artificer, that he revered Tolstoy as much as he respected Flaubert, and that he, like Tolstoy, had a message for humanity. The question confronting us, rather, is what we should make of this message now. If we take Joyce as a metonymy for several generations of artists and intellectuals he influenced or with whom he shared a general intellectual project, we might conclude that we live in Joyce’s world, in the New Bloomusalem, and we should therefore ask ourselves how or if we’re enjoying it.
I won’t lie to you: my mood has been darkening on this subject for years. When I first read Ulysses, in the spring of 2001, six months before the Towers fell, I endorsed its values completely. I defended it against its academic detractors (largely Marxist) for a decade after that, one of whom supervised my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2013 and which is a monument to my Joycean loyalties. The very next year, on this very website, you can watch some skepticism finally begin to penetrate my mind. In 2014, I compared the novel to Spike Jonze’s cinematic AI romance Her and argued that Ulysses, in spite of Joyce’s own humanistic intent, looks forward to the posthuman gnostic future heralded equally in the last decade, though in very different ways and terms, by the social justice movement and by the neoreactionaries who consider themselves the enemy of all things just and social. This grim and intrusive thought likewise dominated my 2019 essay on Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Joyce.
For there is a contradiction at the heart of the novel: on the one hand, it celebrates nature, the body, and sexual desire, and on the other, it enshrines as experimental literature a set of inorganic codes that control and overwrite this sensorium. We’re familiar with the first point. Joyce does revise human character, does make a 20th-century advance on Austen and Dickens, the advance that got his book banned; it’s as much a throwback as a step forward, though, a return to Boccaccio and Chaucer and Cervantes and Rabelais, to the robust ribaldry of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to a Christian culture that feared desire enough to know how large it loomed in the soul.
A contemporary of Freud’s, Joyce (re)places sexual desire at the center of the human personality. Even the abstemious Stephen recalls his dalliances with Parisian prostitutes, while some erotic thought or other is never far from Bloom’s mind. In the novel’s beloved conclusion, Molly Bloom’s insomniac monologue after her husband’s return home, a flood of sensuous and hilarious language gathers to a hymn of female desire such as had never been written before:
Ill let him know if thats what he wanted that his wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too up to my neck nearly not by him 5 or 6 times handrunning theres the mark of his spunk on the clean sheet I wouldnt bother to even iron it out that ought to satisfy him if you dont believe me feel my belly unless I made him stand there and put him into me Ive a mind to tell him every scrap and make him do it out in front of me serve him right its all his own fault if I am an adulteress as the thing in the gallery said O much about it if thats all the harm ever we did in this vale of tears God knows its not much doesnt everybody only they hide it I suppose thats what a woman is supposed to be there for or He wouldnt have made us the way He did
Joycean humanism prevails here, too: Molly’s rampant lust eventually gives way to her tender love for the sexually unsatisfying Bloom’s sensitivity and intelligence—so our Odysseus slaughters the suitors in his Penelope’s mind—but the sex is what impressed early readers and what tends to linger in the readerly memory.
Joyce shows that a woman can be long-married and a mother and approaching middle age and still want to be “ploughed” regularly by a number of different men; that a man can be gentle and nurturing and liberal and cosmopolitan and still masturbate publicly at an attractive woman’s peeking undergarments, as Bloom does in the chapter that first earned the novel its proscription. And this desire to honor desire fits perfectly with the literary technique of the novel’s first 100 pages: the stream-of-consciousness narrative that seeks to embody rather than abstracting or damming the random desire-actuated movements of the inner life.
Yet in the novel’s seventh episode, Joyce introduces overt inorganicism into his prose. In that chapter, “Aeolus,” set in a newspaper office, Joyce regularly interpolates mock newspaper headlines into the drama, a contrivance wholly imposed from without onto the narrative. And from that point forward, such external schemata will control many of the chapters: the musical “Sirens,” for instance, is structured as a fugue; the political “Cyclops” alternates conventional narration with parodies of nationalist rhetoric and Celtic Revival mythology; half of the erotic “Nausicaa” is told as a pastiche of lowbrow women’s fiction; “Circe” is a Faust-like hallucinatory drama representing drunken revels in a brothel; and, perhaps most unforgivably, both the style and content of “Eumaeus” are boring and uninspired since the heroes are tired and hung over, while “Ithaca” is an often grindingly dull scientific catechism for no reason that I can discern.
This technological formalism—technological because it privileges technique over the needs of the story or characters—comes to its ironic climax in the tour-de-force 14th chapter, “Oxen of the Sun,” in which Bloom and Stephen’s attendance at a drinking party in a maternity hospital is narrated in successive styles of English prose from ancient incantation to modern street slang, passing through parodies of famous authors from Malory to Carlyle. In Joyce’s conceit, a fetus’s gestation echoes the development of the language.
Yet this is empty cleverness and makes no sense. The two ideas have nothing to do with each other, not least because the parodies do not develop; the growth of an embryo is logical and teleological, whereas the succession of Anglophone authors is random and each writer has his own freestanding merit. In what sense, for example, is Dickens an advance on Swift, or Swift an advance on Milton? An embryo at four months can’t survive outside the womb; but Milton, coming halfway in the development of the English language, still survives and even thrives on my bookshelf.
In this facile equivalent of body and text—made all the more bizarre by the chapter’s insistence that copulation without reproduction is a crime against life and that physicians as a class (typified by the noxious Mulligan) are too cold and brutal to minister to women in childbirth—I find Joyce’s self-betrayal. If technology in the form of Joyce’s inorganic formalism is allowed to overwrite the human, is permitted to encode by the algorithm of Joyce’s arbitrary conceits the most intimate matters of growth and desire, then the New Bloomusalem was doomed from the start to become the loveless technocracy that is more and more our world.
While Joyce had and has my every sympathy for preferring “love” to blood and soil, he forgot that love and art have to be rooted in concrete situations, not technical abstractions. Like his precursor Blake, he strove to see eternity in a grain of sand; but, like Blake, somehow he lost sight of the immediate, and his Jerusalem is consequently blurred in our own vision. Our literature’s most prodigiously gifted observer of the world allowed an incorrigible taste for abstraction to lead him into a machinic labyrinth from which the world he made still has not emerged, and to which the spurious intensities of blood and soil remain the chief (and ever inadequate) alternative.
The lesson of Stephen’s meeting with Bloom—that the idealist bard needs contact with real people in real places to produce real art—got away from Joyce halfway through his odyssey, leaving us with too much airless artifice where a true and living art, so abundant in the opening chapters and in the concluding one, should have been. But even in his errors he shows us where we, too, went wrong; even in his mistakes, he remains unsurpassed. And that, a century later, is still worth celebrating on this feast day of Leopold and Molly Bloom, modernism’s and modernity’s joyously secular saints.
[*] How to handle Joyce’s difficulty? I recommend a general guide like Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study or Harry Blamires’s Bloomsday Book for the novel’s first-time reader; these will give you the lay of the land. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, while a masterpiece of scholarship, is longer than the novel itself and will bog you down fatally in much more detail than you need; it should therefore be reserved for a second reading and even then need not be consulted religiously. Joyce’s epic ambition was encyclopedic—he wanted to immortalize every single thing about the Dublin of his youth—but we don’t and shouldn’t read an encyclopedia from cover to cover. The intimidated first-time reader should, in my view, focus on the human drama, on the overall set of values being promoted, and on the intermittent beauty and hilarity of the writing—and should, moreover, bear in mind Borges’s wise words from his early review of Ulysses:
I confess I have not cleared a path through all seven hundred pages, I confess to having examined only bits and pieces, and yet I know what it is, with that bold and legitimate certainty with which we assert our knowledge of a city, without ever having been rewarded with the intimacy of all the many streets it includes.