This essay originally appeared in three parts in InDigest Magazine
Bloomsday? What the hell is that?!
As we embark upon another June 16th let me be the first to wish you a Happy Bloomsday! Yes it’s that time of year again where we who claim membership, awarded or self-appointed, to the literary world pay homage to that most perfect pornographic perversion Ulysses, the masterwork of the one and only James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. For those of you not quite up to speed on exactly what Bloomsday is (careful you don’t get your literati membership revoked) let me give a brief explanation.
Bloomsday is a celebration of that fateful day recounted in Ulysses, June16th 1904, where two men set out on an epic journey through the streets of Dublin in a search (unbeknownst to themselves) for salvation and atonement. (It is also the day in real life that James Joyce had his first outing with his future partner and wife Nora Barnacle, and the day she “made a man of him”). The men in question are Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s literary avatar), and Leopold Bloom (the story’s hero and namesake of this anniversary day). Bloomsday is a day of mirth and merriment, celebrated worldwide complete with reenactments of the happenings in Joyce’s epic tale, dramatic readings of the text, and of course, plenty o’ drinkinness and debutchery. In Ireland it is considered an official secular holiday as participants dress-up as their favorite characters. A trek round Dublin following the path blazed by Mr. Bloom on that fateful day is faithfully followed, many of the pubs and other local spots from the novel being either still in existence from 1904 or resurrected sometime during the rise of James Joyce from goat of Ireland to preeminent Irish hero and cult figure.
As mentioned above this is a worldwide celebration, and many major cities around the world hold some type of celebration of Bloomsday; New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Saint Paul, Melbourne, Spokane, Beijing, to name but a few. Some of these celebrations are more elaborate with daylong celebrations and a whole host of activities, while others are more low-key, with just a reading hosted in some pub or community space. Whatever the level of celebration it speaks volumes that such loyal devotion can be shown to a single novel written almost over 80 years ago. Ulysses is the only novel (as far as I have found) that has had a special day devoted to it, and is celebrated annually and globally, a true testament to the status of this book as veritable classic. Viva Joyce!
**Part I: Viva Bloomsday**
As another Bloomsday has come, I feel that now is as good a time as any to make my case for why James Joyce’s Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written. That’s right, I did say greatest ever. Joyce’s Ulysses is the Mount Everest of English language literature; everyone dreams of climbing it, few actually attempt the climb, fewer still complete the climb and live to tell about it, and those that do complete the journey have earned the right to lord it over the rest of us could-have-beens and wannabes. It is a book, which has attained true mythic status in the world of literature, and it has done so on its own artistic merits, through the calculated efforts of its author, through its storied history of censorship, and through a self-generating and self-sustaining cottage industry of commentary, criticism, explanation and exaltation which has sprung from its head and taken on a life of its own. The scope of its influence on the world of creative artistic endeavor that would follow is beyond measure. The experiments, risks, and rules of formality and artistic propriety that Joyce challenged in Ulysses, changed the landscape of creation, first in the modern West, and eventually worldwide. Few novels, if any, can claim the impact of a Ulysses, and fewer still have the ability to strike fear and inspire awe in potential readers.
“For Lit-heads (particularly English Lit people) Ulysses is one of those books on their ‘must read’ booklist that they know they will probably never actually read.”
For Lit-heads (particularly English Lit people) Ulysses is one of those books on their ‘must read’ booklist that they know they will probably never actually read. I have met dozens of people who have told me how much they want to read Ulysses but they’ve heard how hard it is (true), or that it isn’t actually worth the effort (patently false), or that it doesn’t have any punctuation (ridiculous). There are so many rumors surrounding the book that one could write a book, and a useful one at that, just sifting through what is fact and what is fiction concerning Ulysses. This is a novel that has developed its own cult of personality. Pretty impressive for an inanimate object.
I also have encountered those who think that the book is entirely pretentious, and incomprehensible to anyone who is not an absolute genius. These people tend to dismiss it on the grounds of literary hubris, or unnecessary elitism (is elitism ever necessary?), or on the grounds that Joyce was an arrogant A-hole. People who dismiss Ulysses can be divided into two basic groups: those who pass judgment and haven’t read the book, and those who pass judgment and have read the book. Vis-à-vis the former group there isn’t a whole lot say; to pass judgment upon that which you know nothing about except (maybe) through rumor and innuendo is, well, not worthy of wasting any more words than have been so far proffered. It’s self-evident: you obviously have no frame of reference Donny! So, there is no means of having a fruitful discussion or debate about the novel. There, you have actually gotten more comment than you deserved.
On the other hand, for those belonging to the second group more consideration must be given. To those who have completed Ulysses and still find it lacking (for whatever reason) props on making it through. You have earned the right to pass whatever judgment you want and have your opinion taken seriously. (Note, that the operative word here is completed.) That said, I would challenge some of the notions of those who accuse the novel of being inaccessible, pretentious, dull, overly difficult, or sadistic. Okay, I will concede the point on sadism, but some people are said to really like that kind of thing, so don’t judge. But, I can personally attest to the fact that the average, decently educated person can read Ulysses and derive a degree of enjoyment from it. I, for one, am a college educated (bachelors degree at the moment of this writing), non-literature (studio Art and proud of it), faux middleclass (raised in the working and lower-class Black urban environs of Cleveland, Ohio – represent, represent), guy who (if grade school report cards and this particular essay are any indication) is far from a genius, and I thoroughly enjoyed Ulysses on my first reading. Was it difficult to read? Definitely! Was it accessible? Very! Dull? Far from it! Pretentious? Pretending to be what exactly? No, of course not. It was great! Challenging but great. Upon completing Ulysses I felt exhausted and inspired as though I were Odysseus finally landing on the shores of rocky Ithaca. Yes, Ulysses is a truly great book, however…
I would not recommend this book to everyone, nor to just anyone. I think there are some preconditions that should be met before choosing to embark upon this particular novel. First you have to want to read it, for whatever reason: curiosity, pride, obstinacy, sadistic pleasure, whatever moves you, but there must be something. You must also have the ability to suspend your foolish self-delusions of brilliance. Okay, you’re a genius, we get it. But, you are not going to understand everything in Ulysses all at once. Let me repeat this: YOU ARE NOT GOING TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE. No matter how smart your Mom, guidance counselor, and SAT scores said you were, and no matter how much information you’ve piled into that oversized brain of yours, you are not going crack the code in one reading. Greater minds than yours or mine have tried and failed. It’s not going to happen, so disavow yourself of the idea that you are going to get it in one take. Allow yourself to be humbled by someone else’s genius for once.
“Okay, you’re a genius, we get it. But, you are not going to understand everything in Ulysses all at once.”
Finally, be willing to invest some time in the book. To really get this book more than one reading is required. Not to mention doing some supplemental research. Yeah, it’s a little like work, but its actually much more enjoyable than it sounds (how could it be less so?).
So, if you think you can meet the above criteria then I say READ THIS BOOK, and if you think not then cross it off your ‘books I must read before I die’ list and get on with your life. But, don’t diss Ulysses until you’ve given it a fair shot, and don’t blame me when you cross paths with some jackass like me going on about all the cool things to be found in Ulysses, and making it sound all interesting and sweet, and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I should really read that book’ when in fact you should already have read the book, and then you could be that jackass prattling on and sounding all cool, like I like to think that I do when I’m holdin’ court on JJ and his masterpiece, chicks wanting me, and dudes wanting to be me. So now that I’ve totally whet your appetite for some Ulysses stay tuned for the next episode when I tell you what makes the book so GD good.
Part II: Why It’s the Greatest
So, I have boldly claimed James Joyce’s Ulysses to be the greatest English language novel ever written, and therefore, I am now left to the task of making a case to justify that claim. Art is a very subjective topic so one can never truly provide an indisputable proof of the quality of a work in the same way as we might prove, for example that Mount Everest is a more demanding climb than Mount Fuji. Still there are elements in any particular genre of art that attest to quality that can be intuited as well as proscribed by a list of agreed upon ‘objective’ characteristics. Put more succinctly and less didactically, we possess an innate sense of artistic quality and also have the ability to name the elements that differentiate great art from good art, and good art from crap.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with Joyce, and the word was Joyce. The greatness of Ulysses begins with the efficacy of Joyce’s prose – with the word. James Joyce was an indisputable linguistic virtuoso and his mastery of words is put to greatest effect in Ulysses. From the opening “Introibo” to the concluding “Yes” Joyce creates life and constructs a universe through the word. His characters are so fully formed through dialogue, monologue, and narration that the reader cannot help but experience them as flesh and blood beings. Joyce touches his pen to the page and infuses it with life, and the word is indeed made flesh. ‘That’s all well and good’, you may be thinking, ‘but all great writers have shown this ability’. Too true. Name a great author – Dostoyevsky, Morrison, Baldwin, Bronte (which ever one you like), Soseki, Orwell – and you will invariably find characters so realistically fashioned as to have taken on lives beyond the text and into the imagination of the reader. So while Joyce’s prose work in Ulysses is masterful, he is certainly not peerless in this regard, thus by this measure Ulysses finds itself as just another classic among classics having brought into the world memorable characters.
But Joyce was not merely a wordsmith; he was a painter and musician with words. Ulysses posses a visual texture and lyrical quality absent in many of the greatest works of literature. Much of Ulysses truly reads like poetry waiting for a musical accompaniment, and the scenes he constructs with words play out almost cinematographically before the eye. To illustrate the point let’s look at how Joyce closes the second episode with the following gem:
“Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.
— I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
— Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
— Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.
— She never let them in, he cried again through his laughter as he stamped on gaitered feet over the gravel of the path. That’s why.
On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”
“As with his character development Joyce’s prose skills transcend mere story to create true beauty.”
As with his character development Joyce’s prose skills transcend mere story to create true beauty. This is attributable not only to Joyce’s innate gifts as a writer, but also to his willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional literary rules and practices. We need simply peruse the famous, and nearly universally acclaimed final episode of Ulysses (Penelope) to experience the extent to which Joyce was willing to challenge custom, and his effectiveness in doing so.
Here again, however, though we may have narrowed the field, we have not yet distinguished Ulysses from the pack of great literature, which make up the canon. We could, once again, create a roll call of great books possessing beautiful prose and true to life characters, any of which might be legitimately called the greatest novel ever. Cervantes’ Don Quixote comes to mind, or maybe Wuthering Heights. But Joyce’s command of the language is only the surface beauty of the book, providing the point of entry for the reader into a rabbit hole of remarkable depth and discovery. Joyce’s prose serve merely as the siren song that draws the reader ineluctably into the story, however it is his method that constructs the labyrinth in which the reader loses him/herself, and out of which must ultimately find his/her way. It must be remembered that Stephen Dedalus, our creative hero in Ulysses and James Joyce’s literary incarnation, takes his name from the Greek mythic master labyrinth builder Deadalus, and it is no coincidence that the author chose this name for his fictional avatar, as Ulysses is an intentional maze to be navigated by the reader.
It is through this fact that we get a hint of the complexity and ingenuity of Joyce as a creative artist, and the depth of art and meaning to be gained through Ulysses. By casting himself as a fictional hero in the story (and thereby allying himself with the Greek artificer Deadalus) Joyce deftly bridges the divide between fiction and reality while simultaneously linking himself with the gods of creation, and implicating the text as a convoluted portal of discovery. (SPOILER ALERT!!!).The fictional Stephen Dedalus (through the pen of his factual counterpart) authors his own story, literally conceiving and recording the events of his day as he lives it. Strictly speaking Stephen’s authorship of Ulysses is only implied in the narrative and technically does not begin until sometime after the story has ended, but therein lay the genius. Joyce plants a plethora of clues to pointing to Stephen as author but it is never explicitly stated, thus it is only through the detective work of the reader that this fact is discovered, and once the reader comes to this realization the effect is intellectually devastating.
Joyce’s method in this respect is to drop subtle hints to the reader, barely detectable but hugely revelatory when discovered by the reader. Take for example the seemingly simple throw away line in episode 9 (Scylla and Charibdis) “See this. Remember” thought by Stephen Dedalus as he listens to the other Dublin literati speak of a social gathering of the “most promising young writing talents” in Dublin of which he has not been counted. Once we understand this fleeting thought for what it is, Stephen’s reminder to himself to remember to include this conversation in his future masterpiece of Irish literature, we have uncovered a significant piece of the puzzle of Ulysses; Stephen as author of Ulysses. Joyce supports this vague hint just a few lines later as Stephen picks up in the midst of this same conversation the following statement; “Our national epic has yet to be written, Dr Sigerson says. Moore is the man for it.”
The reference is to the Irish writer George Moore, and here Joyce, through Stephen, is able to take a little jab at all of those who dismissed, doubted, or simply overlooked his talent and promise.
Multiply this method of ingenuity by 100 and you begin to understand the true greatness of Ulysses and why it stands apart from other great novels. Ulysses manages (extraordinarily) to be the story of itself. Like the universe it is self-generated and its story is told from the center outward by characters of its own creation, who in turn are its creator. The hand, which pens the story of Ulysses, is itself a creation of Ulysses and it is through this convoluted yet simple art that Ulysses is the story of humankind, the godhead, and the cosmos. Sound pretty confusing? It is. But it is only through diving in and swimming through the muck that we discover its greatest treasures. To truly appreciate the complexity of Ulysses (and test the veracity of my claims) requires a conscientious read of the text.
Much is made of Joyce’s use of “stream of consciousness” and his “interior monologue” and while these innovative literary tools were essential to his creation of depth in his characters, it is his style, or more accurately his multiplicity of literary styles which opens up his creative palette allowing him to match mood to subject. Each episode is both a story in its own right and an essential part to the whole of the book. In fact what is most amazing in Ulysses is how Joyce fuses these multiple styles into a harmonic whole that radiates with a true life force. The end result of Ulysses’ ‘universality’ is no accident, but the careful and painstakingly crafted plan of the author.
“It is an epic of two races (Israelite – Irish) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story (storiella) of a day (life). …It is also a sort of encyclopedia. My intention is to transpose the myth sub specie temporis nostri. Each adventure (that is, every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the structural scheme of the whole) should not only condition but even create its own technique. Each adventure is so to say one person although it is composed of persons– as Aquinas relates of the angelic hosts.” 20 September 1920 (original in Italian, for Linati) (http://www.robotwisdom.com/jaj/ulysses/)
Joyce had grand ambitions and wanted to accomplish a number of tasks through Ulysses; he sought to both elevate and critique the Ireland that he both adored and despised, he wanted to pay homage to the history of English language writing and simultaneously banish it to history’s Hades in favor of a new method, and he wanted to raise the dead heroes of the past and cut them down at the knees. Not only was he successful in these pursuits, but he also managed to challenge the twin powers of Imperial England and the Papal Church, confront the ridiculous perversity of the overly and overtly macho gender politics of turn of the century western values, and expose the rich (perhaps pornographic) sexual nature of the human psyche which lay thinly veiled by the propriety of polite bourgeoisie values. To achieve this required a great deal of knowledge on subjects spanning literature, theology, geography, history, psychoanalysis, and physics to name but a few. Through the literally hundreds of references which construct the text Joyce proves to be more than equal to the task creating an iconographic narrative which begs interpretation for the sake of understanding, and it is through the investigations into these endless references that we learn both the meaning of the text and about the world which shaped it.
Through adept literary sleight of hand Joyce manages to transform turn-of-the-century Dublin into a time machine at the center of the universe taking the reader to the Garden of Eden, Rocky Ithaca, late medieval Denmark, and the far East (amongst other places) without ever leaving the confines of Dublin. Joyce condenses the cosmos into a single day in a single place, and through the layering of realities he melds past, present, and future. And just as Dublin serves as a prism through which historical place is filtered, so too does Joyce’s art cast his characters in the roll of conduit through which historical personages are reincarnated. In the end we can say that it is through Joyce’s masterly character development, virtuoso prose work, bold experimentation, and above all his meticulous planning and staggering intellect that Ulysses ranks among the greatest literary works of all time, but it is his ability to successfully pull all of these elements together into a harmonic whole, whose parts, great as they are, are transcended by the complete package, that make Ulysses the greatest English language novel ever written.
To read Part III of Charles Greene’s essay on Ulysses, where he takes the potential reader through the hooks and hang ups of Joyce’s madness, click here.
Charles Greene is from Cleveland, Ohio and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a Capricorn.