Ulysses, a Century On

This year is the centenary of the annus mirabilis of literary High Modernism, with T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterwork, The Waste Land, and James Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses, having both been first published in 1922. What is extraordinary about these texts, a century on, is how “modern”, in various ways, they continue to appear, in theme and style. As I suggested in a discussion of The Waste Land in the April issue, the ideas that Eliot conveys about the destruction of Western civilisation are, if anything, more pertinent to today’s world than they were even in 1922, after the Great War and its “breaking of nations”. What Eliot praised about Ulysses, on its appearance, rings at least as true today:

in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr Joyce is pursuing a method which … is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.

Antiquity and contemporaneity meet in Ulysses, as Joyce appropriates Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, to trace and describe, through an adaptation of the eighteen episodes of the original, the decidedly less-than-heroic adventures, on one day in modern Dublin (June 16, 1904), of the wandering Jew, Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year-old advertising canvasser. As David Collard succinctly summarises the essence of the novel in his new book, it is “all about chance encounters in an urban setting, and the randomness of human interaction”. Joyce’s use of the stream-of-consciousness technique was being contemporaneously explored by Marcel Proust in the successive seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) and Scott Moncrieff published the first volume of his Proust translation in English, also, in the landmark year, 1922. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, similarly exploring the stream-of-consciousness technique, followed in 1925. David Collard asks rhetorically—and surely persuasively: “Was there ever a more productive decade for serious anglophone literature than the 1920s?”

This review appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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We might slip in the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, first published in 1918, just short of the decade, into the praise of the period, too. Robert Bridges, the editor of the works of the sometime Dublin Jesuit, wisely waited—for twenty years after Hopkins’s death in the Irish capital in 1889—until the reading public might be ready for his subject’s highly innovative verse. Although neither would savour the linkage, Joyce and Hopkins have much in common, both in terms of their precision of verbal focus on the “thisness”, Duns Scotus’s “haeccity”, or essence of things; and a highly inventive, distinctive vocabulary—Hopkins’s multiple compound adjectives in “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”, for example, could have been coined by Joyce: “Evening strains to be time’s vast, womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night”, and the next line’s playing with “yellow hornlight’ and “hollow hoarlight” could be straight out of Finnegans Wake (although Joyce would likely have taken it another step there to “whorelight”). Speaking of the Wake and strange literary bedfellows that yet make a kind of sense, there is Eliot’s comparison of Joyce’s last and most inventive work with John Milton’s epic:

Paradise Lost, like Finnegans Wake (for I can think of no work which provides a more interesting parallel: two books by great blind musicians, each writing a language of his own based upon English) makes this peculiar demand for a readjustment of the reader’s mode of apprehension. The emphasis is on the sound, not the vision, upon the word, not the idea; and in the end it is the unique versification that is the most certain sign of Milton’s intellectual mastership.

But the vision and ideas matter too, in both cases, and importantly so in Ulysses. These are masterworks which, in Milton’s description of great books in the context of his attack on censorship (which Joyce would have approved),

are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

Bloomsday, occurring annually on June 16, commemorates the day of Ulysses’s setting, and is a tradition (usually with extensive readings from the novel) that has been in place since the middle of the last century. It will be kept with particular enthusiasm this year to mark the centenary. So detailed is Joyce’s description of Dublin (his birth city) that, as he contended, if it were wiped off the face of the earth, it could be accurately rebuilt, brick by brick, from the details in the novel. Leopold is Ulysses; Stephen Dedalus, who is Bloom’s spiritual son, is linked to Ulysses’s son, Telemachus, and Molly Bloom represents Ulysses’s wife, Penelope—her famous monologue concluding the novel. These are just three of the six hundred or so characters in the book.

The metropolis, generally, provided the inspiration for Modernism—London (“Unreal City”) is the setting of The Waste Land and in Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), as Eliot observed after attending a performance in 1921, that Modernist composer’s music and rhythms capture the urban environment compellingly: “the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life”. As the poet’s appreciation indicates here, the city was regarded ambiguously by the Modernists. They delighted in evoking it in copious detail, but typically viewed it and its denizens with revulsion. Mr Bloom’s daily diet, for example, is reproduced with relish but with a stomach-turning element, too: a pork kidney, two Banbury cakes, lunch at Davy Byrne’s, a pig’s foot, a sheep’s trotter, some Fry’s plain chocolate, a square of soda bread, and coffee and bun. In the “Lestrygonians” episode of the novel, Bloom notes even more food: “Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugarsticky girl shovelling scoopful of creams for a Christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies.”  He passes a pub near his house:

He approached Larry O’Rourke’s. From the cellar grating floated up the flabby gush of porter. Through the open doorway the bar squirted out whiffs of ginger, teadust, biscuitmush. Good house, however: just the end of the city traffic.

In detailing all of this and so much more, Joyce regarded his Dubliners (as his wonderful short-story collection of that title also reveals in detail) with decidedly mixed emotions, more often with contempt than affection. He loathed, especially, their Catholic religiosity (Bloom’s essential Jewishness, at least, preserves him from this, although he officially converted on marriage) and their parochial politics, and Joyce spent most of his life as an exile from Ireland, dying in Zurich in 1941. Yet Dublin was his perpetual setting: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

David Collard, a Londoner who (as he notes of himself) “organises cultish online literary gatherings”, has written multiple short essays for the centenary of Ulysses (one hundred of them, appropriately) with the purpose of navigating “Joyce’s astonishing cultural legacy” over the past century: “no other great writer is more commemorated and commodified, and no other great writer is less read and understood”, he claims. He is an unashamed devotee: Ulysses is “the greatest novel of all, full stop”, he emphatically declares; Dubliners the “greatest of all short story collections”, and he regards Eliot’s Waste Land as the century’s greatest poem (and I am inclined to agree with these assessments, although not with his view that “An Encounter” is the best of the Dubliners stories; surely that is “The Dead”).

Hearteningly, Collard rejects the current, debased understanding of the role of literature in human life (at least as propagated in what remains of the concomitantly-debased schools’ and universities’ English courses) in which nothing is worth reading that cannot be—by whatever perverse and mendacious processes—brought into servitude to some dogma of Social Justice so-called “Truth”, arguing that

fiction should function as a window to other worlds, not as a mirror of our own, and readers who favour only novels that reflect their own experiences, or endorse their personal tastes and values, or feature “relatable” characters, hardly qualify as readers at all.

The phantasmagorical quality of Collard’s collection, an apparently random collage of impressions, details and personal anecdotes has, as its fiftieth essay, at the book’s centre, a personal “Confession”. The author, son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, credits Joyce with liberating him from the oppression of his home-life, initially through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, read at school for his “A” levels. Then, in his reading of Ulysses, he identified with Joyce’s representation of “the loss of any sense of completeness or security that accompanies the displacement of religion by the secular”, of “the disenchantment of the world”. Joyce’s writing offers “a portal into the real world, with all its horrors. A liberation”. The confession concludes with Collard admitting that he cannot, however, give himself entirely to Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake—but for an unusual reason. In spite of its being “of uncompromising genius, and fabulously original, and rewarding, and of enormous significance”, the formidable text “expects from its readers what an evangelical cult demands from its followers, namely that they devote themselves entirely to it”. For Collard, this is too reminiscent of the “Watchtower Bible & Tract Society’s horrible, inane and baffling publications”. We can imagine that Joyce would have found this conflation of the Wake and the Watchtower deliciously amusing. The Waketower! Elsewhere, Collard admits that such is his knowledge of Bloom’s “circumstances, memories, possessions, social contacts and so on”, that, he says, “I know far more about Mr Bloom, who doesn’t even exist, than I do about my closest friends and members of my family.” It appears that he has been true to Joyce’s expectation that—as Collard recalls it—“readers would spend their entire lives navigating his work”.

He realises that Ulysses, demanding “commitment, perseverance, patience and access to commentaries” is not “for everyone, but it can be, and should be, for anyone”. How heartening is Collard’s confident and spirited love of literature—of reading, of books! What a reassuring contrast his enthusiasm and commitment presents with today’s pervasively humourless, censorious, trigger-warning, literature-hating academicians and teachers in what remains of “English”, in the schools and the universities. They would deny students the great works of literature, such as Paradise Lost and Ulysses, on the condescending, patronising and ignorant pretexts that they are incapable of reading—let alone enjoying—any text that takes more than a couple of hours to read and which requires only the possession of a puerile intelligence to comprehend, and for whom the trash of “young adult fiction” is presumed to be the apex of their reading—and life—experience.

Of course Ulysses demands some hard work, from beginning to end. What worthwhile and rewarding pursuit in life, or art, does not? The first spoken words at the opening of the novel are the versicle, uttered by the priest, at the foot of the altar steps at the start of Mass in the Latin rite: Introibo ad altare Dei (“I will go up to the altar of God”). In the liturgy, this introduces the Eucharistic sacrifice in which the Word is made flesh—through transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare Dei.

In Joyce’s transgressive, parodic, ludic and timeless masterpiece, the flesh is made word (Clive James’s witty description of the Wake is relevant here: “a book full of nothing except writing / For people who can’t do anything but read”), and nowhere is this more evident than in its concluding sentences, in Molly’s extended stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, where the slowly but relentlessly accumulating climactic affirmation is one of the great literary testaments to saying “Yes” to life. It is what Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie, a teacher of the old school with a love and knowledge of poetry, music and art, and a genuine vocation to invite her pupils to share “all the possibilities of life”, knows that the great books embody. This is the ultimate meaning of Ulysses, in all its sensual and cerebral, linguistic and musical variety—its beauty, sordidness and wonder:

… and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays about James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy
by David Collard

Sagging Meniscus, 2022, 358 pages, US$21.95

Barry Spurr was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and is Literary Editor of Quadrant.


3 thoughts on “Ulysses, a Century On

  • ianl says:

    On a lighter note, I have a largish clutch of Irish in-laws (Dublin, Cork), all of whom I love dearly, of course.

    James Joyce’ stream-of-consciousness passages are clever representations of those group conversations with my Irish relatives that I’ve heard quite often. Reminds me of the well-known, simple psychology episode wherein a particularly bright 10 year old child was allowed to wander the floor of a well-stocked museum unhindered, while the child’s movements were mapped.

    In short, stream-of-consciousness can be found by listening to almost any Dublin group conversation. The genius of Joyce was in capturing that dynamic with empathy.

  • Tony Tea says:

    The Dead, from the late 80s, is one of the better literary adaptations to the screen. John Huston certainly knew his way around a director’s chair – wheelchair in this case – and in this, his last film, gave himself a thoughtful send off.

  • profspurr says:

    Yes, Tony. That film is wonderful.

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