James Joyce’s Untamable Power

James Joyce’s Untamable Power

Censors thought it dirty and rebellious, but what makes Ulysses radical is its dramatization of the unending conflict between good and evil.


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.

What matters most about the mythic structure of Ulysses, consequently, is not that Leopold Bloom corresponds loosely to the wandering Odysseus, in search of the rock of Ithaca, or that Stephen Dedalus corresponds loosely to the wandering Telemachus, son of Odysseus, in search of his father; what matters is that these mythic correspondences offered Joyce a logic that inspired the stylistic experiments that constitute our experience of his book as language exfoliating on the page. For instance, in the episode that corresponds to Odysseus’ encounter with the giant one-eyed Cyclops, the writing itself becomes gigantic, grossly hyperbolic and shortsighted: “The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairlegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.” And in the episode embodying the seduction song of the Sirens, the writing becomes egregiously musical, sound nearly obliterating sense: “Lid Ker Cow De and Doll. Ay, ay. Like you men. Will lift your tschink with tschunk.” And in the episode corresponding to Odysseus’ encounter with the seductive Nausicaa, the writing becomes floridly romantic, riddled with the clichés of sentimental fiction:

She would have fain cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has run though the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

These sentences describe the orgasm Leopold Bloom achieves while watching the young Gerty MacDowell lean back to reveal her undergarments to him. Before the sentences appeared in the first edition of Ulysses (published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris), it appeared in an issue of The Little Review, edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap with the assistance of Ezra Pound. Somehow, a copy of this obscure little magazine, edited by lesbian feminists and devoted to modernist experimental writing, appeared in the mailbox of the teenage daughter of a businessman named Ogden Brower. Brower wrote a letter of complaint to the New York district attorney’s office, and the DA’s office consulted with the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

By the time this happened in 1920, The Little Review had already been suppressed by the US Post Office Department on several occasions, once for publishing a short story by Wyndham Lewis and three times for publishing other episodes of Ulysses, one in which a boyish participant in a discussion of Hamlet invokes a less reputable drama (Everyman His Own Wife, or A Honeymoon in the Hand [a national immorality in three orgasms]), another in which Bloom recalls his first sexual encounter with Molly (“Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling”), and a third in which a drunken Dubliner jokes about King Edward VII’s legendary womanizing (“There’s a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo”). The editors of The Little Review knew what they were doing, publishing such sentences in a moral climate fueled on the one hand by the Great War and its aftermath and by the fight for universal suffrage on the other: in such a climate, the phrase “wildly I lay on her” could seem as threatening to national security as Bolsheviks and birth-controllers. Pound also knew what he was doing, delivering such sentences to The Little Review: he censored Joyce’s prose before it was published, cutting out some of the naughty bits, but not enough.

* * *

John Quinn, a powerful New York lawyer who was a friend of Pound’s and a patron of many modernist writers and painters, represented the editors at the Jefferson Market Courthouse. No passage from Ulysses was read into evidence; the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice argued that it would violate the law to do so, since the book was “so obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting that a minute description of the same would be offensive to the Court and improper to be placed upon the records thereof.” Cannily, Quinn based his defense on the Hicklin Rule (formulated by a British judge in 1868 and still current at the time), which maintained that the “test of obscenity” was whether or not the language in question would tend to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Language could not deprave and corrupt, Quinn argued, if nobody read it: “You could not take a piece of literature up in an aeroplane fifteen thousand feet into the blue sky, where there would be no spectator, and let the pilot of the machine read it out and have it denounced as ‘filthy,’ within the meaning of the law.” Quinn was himself an avid reader of Joyce’s prose, but in court he argued that Ulysses was like the entry on “and” in the OED: Who would get through it?

Quinn lost, and the trials of Ulysses, which at this point had not yet been published in its entirety, were far from over (it would be put on trial again in a US District Court in 1933 and in a US Circuit Court of Appeals in 1934). But what Quinn was trying to persuade the court to recognize is that the signature epic of the twentieth century is not simply a racy realist novel, even though it maintains a powerful relationship to the tradition of the realist novel. Ulysses the mythic phantasmagoria is hard to read—at least as hard as Paradise Lost—not because Joyce prized difficulty, but because ambitious works of literary artistry are by their nature hard to read. Writing Ulysses, Joyce wanted to produce a work of art in a relatively new genre, the novel, that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the most challenging and time-honored achievements of Chaucer, Spenser or Milton. To the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who was writing in the eighteenth century, the notion that a future century’s signature epic might take the form of a novel would have seemed as implausible as the notion that a century’s signature epic might be a dictionary. And even today, when a writer like Joyce might aspire to be published not by a small bookstore on the Left Bank but by Amazon, the relationship of the novel to artistic achievement remains in some quarters equivocal: dismissing Ulysses, Richard Ford is not implying that he prefers to spend his evenings curled up with a copy of The Faerie Queene.

The legal history of Ulysses has been examined many times, most elegantly by Adam Parkes in Modernism and the Theatre of Censorship (1996), a book that shows how several modernist novels may be seen, in retrospect, to diagnose the terms of their own censorship. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” casts its nets more widely, synthesizing enormous amounts of information and describing in detail the multiple circumstances surrounding the gestation, publication and suppression of Ulysses. Birmingham is a fluid writer, and the more intricate the detail, the more compelling the narrative he constructs: his account of the rise of American obscenity laws, beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the first postal obscenity legislation in 1865, is as gripping to read as his account of the barbaric eye surgeries Joyce endured or his account of the nearly slapstick manner in which Samuel Roth published a pirated edition of Ulysses in 1929—the edition on which the first trade edition of Ulysses, published by Random House in 1934, would mistakenly be based.

The Most Dangerous Book is a big book, however, and it flags when Birmingham pulls away from his tight focus; his accounts of Ezra Pound’s Imagist movement in poetry or Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury feel synthesized from a variety of secondary sources, not built up from the kind of heartfelt research that fuels this provocative conclusion about the culture of American censorship during World War I: “The censorship troubles of Ulysses began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because government censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.”

Ulysses is also a big book, and more disconcerting is the fact that Birmingham reads it in a strategically selective way, reducing it to a realist novel. Like the judges who declared Ulysses obscene, Birmingham implies that the most important thing about Ulysses as a revolutionary work of art is that, among its thousands of sentences, it includes a handful of sentences like “lick my shit.” “Ulysses was dangerous,” Birmingham concludes, “because it accepted no hierarchy between the empirical and the obscene.” But isn’t that just as true of any pornographic novel? Birmingham of course recognizes the particular brilliance of Joyce’s language, but he by and large treats it as if it were something that gets in the way of the essentially realist novel he wants to describe. “At times, Ulysses reads like a book that wants not to communicate,” he contends, a book that “can become a scavenger hunt for pedants.”

Anyone might feel frustrated reading Ulysses, just as one might find it difficult to get to the end of the first canto of The Faerie Queene. But to fetishize the novel’s realism, taking the documentary force of its language for granted, is to impoverish the power of realism. It’s well known that Joyce based many aspects of Ulysses on his personal experience, and Birmingham rehearses one especially charged example:

Once, Joyce’s drinking got him into a one-sided fight in St. Stephen’s Green. He approached a woman whom he did not realize was accompanied, and [his friend] Cosgrave simply walked away while the man beat the would-be writer senseless. As Joyce lay bleeding in the dirt, a stranger, a reputedly Jewish Dubliner named Alfred H. Hunter, lifted him up and brushed him off. He steadied Joyce by the shoulders, asked the young man if he was all right and proceeded to walk him home just as a father would have done. Joyce never forgot it.

This incident was indeed the inspiration for the meeting of the forlorn Stephen Dedalus with the paternal Leopold Bloom, but the language of Joyce’s novel introduces crucial complexities that the assumption of sheer coincidence between Joyce’s life and art occludes. While virtually every character in Ulysses assumes that Bloom is, like Alfred H. Hunter, Jewish, Bloom in fact is not; nor does he consider himself a Jew. Though Bloom’s father, Rudolph Virag, was born a Hungarian Jew, he converted to Protestantism before his son was born. Bloom’s mother was an Irish Catholic named Ellen Higgins, and Bloom himself was baptized multiple times, first as a Protestant and later as a Catholic, before he married Molly. In a crucial scene in Ulysses, when he’s assaulted by a rabidly anti-Semitic Dubliner, Bloom does retort, “Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.” But later in the day, when he recounts this incident, Bloom admits that he was pretending to be Jewish—pretending to be what the nameless Dubliner assumed him to be—in order to stand up personally against the forces of prejudice: “So I without deviating from plain facts in the least told him his God, I mean Christ, was a jew too and all his family like me though in reality I’m not.”

Joyce spreads the evidence regarding Bloom’s relationship to Judaism far and wide, making it difficult to synthesize and allowing his readers to misread Bloom’s identity, just as the citizens of Dublin do. But Joyce is not playing games; Joyce is never merely playing games. He didn’t simply write a book about prejudice; he wrote a book that embodies in its language the ways in which prejudice is perpetuated, carried aloft by language, regardless of the facts. Language alters reality in Ulysses, conferring an identity on Bloom, an identity that in a moment of selfless nobility Bloom embraces as his own.

Ulysses the realist novel can never be separated from Ulysses the mythic phantasmagoria, for the book’s highest purpose is to dramatize the ways in which our reality is not given but is continually made and remade by the words we speak. This, not the fact that Joyce uses shit and fuck freely, constitutes the book’s true radicalism, and to acknowledge this radicalism is to become aware that Joyce is a moralist of Dantean proportions—a writer who wants to entertain us (no one writes about shit more creatively than Dante), but also a writer who wants in the process to dramatize the unending conflict between good and evil. Joyce abhorred most forms of nationalism, and one of his many provocations in Ulysses is that Irish nationalism would perpetuate anti-Semitism even if there were, in reality, no Irish Jews.

I’m no Joyce scholar, but because I was lucky enough to have great teachers, I’ve been able to teach Ulysses myself. In my experience, college students are seduced by the challenge of difficulty, and I know how euphoric it feels not simply to read the whole of Ulysses slowly, page by page, but to share that experience with other people, people who’ve never read the book and people who have read it many times. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is, for the most part, meticulously researched and deftly recited, but if you want to be inspired to read Joyce, to feel that you’re engaged in intimate conversation with someone who loves Ulysses, I’d suggest a little book, also called Ulysses, that was published by Hugh Kenner in 1980. Though it presumes no prior knowledge of its subject, it’s challenging to read; every one of its sentences will give you pleasure.

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