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James Joyce’s Untamable Power

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Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, in 1922

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in 1922

The Most Dangerous Book
The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
By Kevin Birmingham.
Buy this book

In 1946, a precocious student at the University of Toronto wanted to read the library’s copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He was informed that he needed first to submit two letters, one from a clergyman and the other from a doctor. The Canadian ban on Ulysses would not be lifted until 1949, so the young man headed south, to Yale University, where after some wrangling he was permitted to write his PhD dissertation on Joyce, and in 1956 it was published as Dublin’s Joyce, one of the first large-scale examinations of Joyce’s career. Even then, twenty-three years after the US ban against Ulysses had been lifted, Joyce’s book was more often talked about than read—it was dirty, immoral, impossible. Today, Ulysses is still more often talked about than read. What’s the most overrated book you’ve never finished? “Joyce’s Ulysses,” says the novelist Richard Ford in the pages of The New York Times Book Review. “Hands down.”

The author of Dublin’s Joyce was the inimitable Hugh Kenner, who had no patience for such literary chatter. When I heard him lecture on Joyce in the mid-1980s, he spoke without a prepared text, producing sentences that were small syntactical dramas, as suspenseful as they were incisive. Every century produces its signature epic, Kenner began. The seventeenth century had Milton’s Paradise Lost, the eighteenth century had Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the nineteenth century had—dramatic pause—the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s entry on the word “and” is longer than Paradise Lost, said Kenner. Who would read it? The great epic of the twentieth century was of course Ulysses, and Kenner’s point was that this modernist epic is as riven with mythic extravagance as Paradise Lost, as devoted to historical event as the Decline and Fall, as encyclopedic in its devotion to our language as the OED.

Any satisfying account of Ulysses must refuse the glamour of mastery, allowing us to recognize that the novel is always other than what we say it is, especially when what we say is accurate. In this regard the book resembles all great works of art, but few works of art make us so self-consciously aware of how any particular description carries the danger of occluding other necessary descriptions. How can a book scrupulously devoted to historical fact be simultaneously a book dominated by the most arcane flights of fancy? How can a book that contains this sentence—“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls”—also contain this sentence: “Universally that person’s acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed.” Or this sentence: “Come on you winefizzling, ginsizzling, booseguzzling existences!” Or this sentence: “lick my shit.”

Early readers of Ulysses understandably groped for mastery. Most famously, T.S. Eliot capitalized upon the fact that Joyce based the book’s eighteen chapters (or episodes, as Joyce called them) on eighteen episodes from Homer’s Odyssey. This “mythical method,” said Eliot, organized the book’s apparent chaos by providing a “continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.” But around the time that Eliot published this remark in 1923, Ezra Pound maintained in a less celebrated but equally influential essay that the book’s mythic underpinnings were chiefly Joyce’s affair and need not detain the reader of Ulysses at all. Had Joyce not titled the book with the Latin name for Homer’s hero, Kenner would later speculate, readers might never have noticed its mythic structure; they would have been liberated to experience the book’s linguistic extravagance as a pleasure, rather than feeling they held a key that threatened to turn Ulysses into a lock.

* * *

To say that neither Pound nor Eliot was completely right is not to diminish the power of their insights but to emphasize the untamable power of Joyce. Ulysses the realist novel, devoted to fact, narrates the events of a single day, June 16, 1904, in the lives of several people living in Dublin. A young man named Stephen Dedalus, haunted by the ghost of his dead mother, wakes up, teaches a history class, shows off egregiously to his friends and superiors at the National Library, feels ridiculous, gets drunk, meets a man named Leopold Bloom and, rather than falling back on the largesse of family, friends or Mr. Bloom, renders himself homeless and walks off into the night.

On this same day, the indefatigably generous Mr. Bloom, haunted by the death of his infant son, wakes up, makes breakfast for his wife, assumes—perhaps mistakenly; we don’t yet know for sure—that his wife has arranged a tryst that afternoon with the aptly named Blazes Boylan, wanders the streets and bars of Dublin, is subjected to an anti-Semitic tirade, meets Stephen, tries to care for him and, in one of the most heartbreaking passages in all of literature, ends his day communing with the vast emptiness of interstellar space. After Bloom falls asleep, we are finally given access to the mind of his wife, Molly, who has been a potently absent presence throughout the book; the longest of the eight unpunctuated sentences of her concluding monologue is 4,391 words long.

But well before we reach that impossibly extravagant sentence, we have become acutely aware that this realist novel is made of nothing but words, words that seem to develop a mind of their own, seducing us as much with their sound as with their sense. To varying degrees, all words do that; the newspaper headline Pope Calls for an End to Long Division does in miniature what great works of verbal artistry do at large, and when reading such works, we thrill to the documentary force of the words at the same time that we thrill to the sound of words, their rhythms, their patterns, their capacity for nonsense and non sequitur. This double thrill animates Hamlet as much as it animates Ulysses, but in Joyce’s work the power of words simultaneously to enforce and diffuse their documentary sense is impossible ever to ignore. Ulysses the realist novel is also at the same time Ulysses the mythic phantasmagoria, not simply the love child of Gibbon and Milton, but at times as relentlessly excessive in its accumulating verbiage as the entry on “and” in the OED.

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