Myth, meaning and modernity

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“I have put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”

James Joyce when asked to explain what Ulysses was about (1940).

TO date James Joyce has proved perfectly right because Ulysses is a very complex novel where all the metaphors lie transparently upon other metaphors, which in turn lie transparently upon other metaphors, several layers deep. It has therefore been said that until you deconstruct the images, you can’t get a hang of the novel.

Distrust of history

Part of the reason is that, unlike his contemporaries like H.G.Wells, Arnold Bennett, C.P. Snow and many more — writers who accepted the processes of the modern world and were sympathetic to the forces of realism, rationalism and positivism running through them — Joyce distrusted the historical direction, doubted its progress, felt dislocated from its past while remaining intensely conscious of modern life and culture. Life as Joyce saw it was fragmentary and disjointed; it implied a collapsing tradition, loose connections where nothing connects to anything else, rather like T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”. In Homer’s Odyssey, journeys are heroic, the founding or preserving of nations has a historical meaning and bravery. In Joyce’s Ulysses, all this grandeur is undercut and parodied. Ulysses is a commonplace book — or rather a book of the commonplace — because life was a collection of trifles that added up to just sound and fury signifying nothing.

Intertwining lives

At its simplest, Ulysses is the story of two men whose lives meet in Dublin on June 16, 1904. Stephen Dedalus (based on Joyce himself) is 21; Leopold Bloom, an older man, is 38. They pass a single day and night in parallel, at first missing each other and later meeting up before Bloom returns home and the bed of his wife, Molly. They wander around the city, “filming”, both close-up and wide-angled. Joyce believed that the portrayal of life in Ireland needed to capture the ordinary and the everyday (for instance, Leopold Bloom’s most ordinary and intimate actions, as in the bathroom or the bar and the brothel, are recorded) with seriousness and detail which would provide a true picture of the dailiness of daily life.

The structure of the book as a whole is, like all epic narratives, episodic. There are three main divisions, subdivided into chapters, or rather episodes, each of which differs from the rest not only in subject matter but also in the style and technique employed. In a loose way, Joyce has based his story on Homer’s Ulysses, making Bloom an Odysseus (or Ulysses) figure, and Stephen, a figure of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son.

The story line is simple; if there are complications in the plot it is that in Bloom’s day he knows that Molly would be meeting his sexual rival, Blazes Boylan, while he is away from home; in Stephen’s day, he would be getting his wages that he is likely to squander and waste his time. Leopold Bloom is just an ordinary man, but he is not traditional. He doesn’t do much during the course of the day except to observe; one of the unusual things about him is that he is a voyeur. But despite his sexual proclivities, he is kinder, more vulnerable, more long-suffering, more fastidious and more self-doubting that many people around him. Young Stephen is sensitive and arrogant though he is a literary genius and a professional singer in the making. What Joyce has stressed is that the modern man is very ordinary and their lives are very ordinary with nothing much to talk about.

But the combination of the mundane and seriousness required the deployment of many styles and forms (one section is written as a play) or as a critic put it, “stylistic pyrotechnics”. Therein lies the rub. Even the most straightforward chapters, such as chapters one and two are not easy to follow the first time through and several of the chapters require repeated re-readings (as well as some companion reading aid like Stuart Gilbert’s classic Guide to Ulysses and several others) and an intellectual determination “to see it through”.

Worth the trouble?

The question that many have asked is whether the exercise of going through Ulysses with the help of guides is worth it. The answer is Yes, for two or three reasons. First, it is the first serious critique of Modernism. As T.S. Eliot observed in a famous review, the book’s remarkable modernity, and its equally remarkable and complex method “was a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. Ulysses is the first great modern example of the “decreative” novel, a novel that takes us away from realism into its language and form. Nearly all major novels of any ambition since acknowledge the reconstruction of language and the tactics of modern myth-making in the study of history.

Second, Ulysses is a historical novel — all novels are also social and historical documents — not in the sense that it deals with the world of post-war crisis but with what history teaches us: that it is not reason, science, industry, revolution that guide our actions, but feelings which can be monstrously stupid and twisted. History is a nightmare from which Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are trying to awake.

Third, Ulysses explored a new method, the “stream of consciousness”. And not only did it display the flow of artistic consciousness, the pendulum swing from one mean to another, but it reached into the under-consciousness, to the unconscious, as Molly Bloom’s reverie at the end of the novel which reveals the inner nature of the human mind: “I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes….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.”

Ulysses, James Joyce, first published by Random House, 1934, Vintage Books, 1990.



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