Confessions of a Reluctant Ulysses Fan
* Originally published on June 16, 2012 on Ology.com, republished here.
Happy Bloomsday, world! And while it didn’t look like any of you out on Ave A last night were busy forging in the smithees of your souls the uncreated conscience of your race, you should at least take today to celebrate the better of the two Irish holidays—St. Patrick’s day having now become Green Mardi Gras—by cracking the copy of Ulysses on your shelf, or at the very least eating with relish the inner organs of beast and fowls.
In the spirit of honesty I will openly confess that there is no way on God’s big green dumb earth that I ever would have finished Ulysses had I not taken a graduate school class devoted, as explicitly stated on its syllabus, to the completion of Ulysses. I’d tried reading it prior to that, and like so many frustrated, busy people before me had gotten promptly lost in the pretentious fog of Chapter Three and decided there were better things to do with my life.
I question that decision now that I’ve finished the book. Ulysses is so big, so hungry and capacious and commodious a text, that it contains all of life within it, or the most of life that could possibly fit into the novel form, and comes as close as any text I’ve ever read to recreating the whole of existence. There may not be better things to do with your life, as Ulysses is just about life itself.
It is also the most pretentious book ever written, literally and objectively: Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Hamlet as conceits, and aspired to write a text that would be their equal. That’s a pretty big pretense. Times 800 or so pages, divided into chapters that do not mirror but interact with the travels of the great fabricator Odysseus, each with its own literary and linguistic style meant to both perfect and exhaust its respective form, and you have the biggest pretense in literary history.
If this sounds tiring, it is. Joyce himself was so depleted after the completion of the manuscript that he didn’t write another word for a year. Modernist writing was so spent after Ulysses that it began a decades-long period of retraction, via the increasingly narrow works of Beckett, into the nouveau roman, which could slip between couch cushions. Whether Joyce so perfected the form of the novel that he rendered it obsolete—Chandler’s definition of a classic—or whether he simply made fiction writing a drag is debatable, but there’s no real debating that the modern novel was enervated as a result of Joyce’s monstrous iteration of it.
But life too is exhausting, and Ulysses, a celebration of mimesis in all its capacities, wears us out in service of introducing us to Leopold Bloom, for whom modern existence is a wonderful and trying and ceaseless experience. Bloom must eat, Bloom must sell advertisements, Bloom must keep at bay the knowledge that his wife Molly is to cheat on him that day with dandyish Blazes Boylan, who constantly appears at the periphery of Bloom’s vision, darting in and out of doorways in his bespoke suit. Bloom must also carry with him constantly the memory of his son, the death of whom has frozen his marriage in a celibate stasis.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Bloom must contend with being Jewish in an Ireland corrupted by anti-Semitism, and must prove his Irishness to the boors of the burgeoning nationalist movement, and he must also eat again—Bloom consumes as much as Stephen Dedalus does not—and continually assemble his existence out of these fragments on a moment by moment basis, pummeled on all sides by the 20th century concepts of nationality and class and gender and race, ideas that come at him at bars and on the street, from inside his head and from advertisements on the walls. Joyce presents existence as a panoramic assault, and if reading Ulysses is a challenge that takes twelve academic weeks, that’s all the more to render the struggle of Bloom’s daily life.
When Bloom finally arrives home, however, the novel settles into its best and most beautiful chapters. The relief, on both the part of the protagonist and the reader, is palpable. The last hundred pages or so of Ulysses are some of my favorite in literature: not only do the charades of the Citizen and sinister frivolity of Buck Mulligan no longer nag the book, but the language itself, burdened for 700 pages with both the conceits of its many tasks and the dull realist duty of carrying its characters through the text, finally relaxes into some of the most enjoyable experimental writing ever written. As much as Ulysses was mimetic of the challenge of existence for 16 chapters, its last two are embodiments of the wonder and joy of it, all the more so for having come after one of the most grueling reading experiences you’ll ever encounter.
I’ve never bought the whole Bloom-Dedalus father-son thing—it’s one too many conceits in a novel already bursting with them—but the modest, compromised reunion of Molly and Leopold, sleeping foot to face in their marriage bed, one of them fresh from adultery, struck me not only as strangely sweet, but as a culmination of the book’s long rail against the ideological constrictions of modern life. From page one, bit characters have proposed to Bloom and Dedalus teleology after teleology, a prescript of actions according to the scriptures of history or Catholicism or Ireland or the British empire. Everybody must act a certain way to bring about the kingdom of Heaven, or must ascribe to a certain set of behaviors to bring about the Irish revolution, and so on. Nobody in this world is free: everybody is beholden to some overarching set of ideas that leads them toward some historical end.
This necessity for a linear progression to an end—this order with which the nineteenth century had been obsessed—was so encoded in the language of Joyce’s time that it was indistinguishable from language itself. In a narrative, be it the narrative of a realist novel or the History in which Catholics and Irish nationalists and British officials project their telos, words are nothing but symbols in a relationship, meaningful only in the event that they advance a cause towards an end. Words, to the ideologies assaulting Bloom, must be in service of something, be it God or Ireland or Britain. Like people, language is not free.
Joyce gleefully overturns this convention, smashing words together into little combustions of sound and resonance that refer to nothing but their own expression of themselves. The novel heaps with neologisms—it weighs in at 265,000 words, far fewer than the Fountainhead, for perspective’s sake, but is made up of well over 30,000 distinct words, far more than the Fountainhead. Joyce invents words like shamewounded and peacocktwittering and shellcocoacolored. When Molly says that Ben Dollard has a “base barreltone,” she makes a play on bass—she doesn’t think much of Dollard, hence “base”—makes a play on baritone by including the image his voice evokes in her, that of a barrel—and combines these multiple meanings, images, and symbols into one little description of a bit character. The phrase is a celebration of euphony and multitudinous meaning. It doesn’t refer to any hierarchical structure like the Church or the state or the plight of the Irish people, and it doesn’t advance the plot of the book. It’s a linguistic revolt, refusing to do anything but ring.
Ulysses has thousands of these moments, but none so wonderful as Leopold and Molly Bloom falling asleep together at the end. The Blooms are not a happy couple, and I remember a fierce debate in my Joyce class as to whether they’d still be married come next June 16. Their desires are irresolvably different: even as Leopold is considering bringing Stephen Dedalus around as a son, Molly is thinking of sleeping with him. But still they combine, like shamewounded or peacocktwittering or shellcocoacolored or base barreltone, into a momentary creation of private meaning. Joyce combined words into a euphonic revolt, against the linear compulsion of the ideologies suffocating Ireland, and he made Leopold and Molly into the literal embodiment of that rebellion. Molly and Leopold come together at the end of Ulysses like a brand new word. To Joyce, this was the most wonderful thing human beings could do.