Ulysses Dummies Guide | Kochi News
Few people have read more than a hundred pages of Ulysses. Fewer have browsed the nearly 700 pages (Gabler edition) of the ultra-modernist novel and lived to tell the tale. Ulysses, named after one of Homer’s immortal heroes, chronicles a dull day in the life of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold and Molly Bloom in turn-of-the-century Dublin in excruciating detail. It’s kind of a quest in its own right, and Joyce’s original idea of portraying everyday life without the need for drama to bring out its dramatic potential is as radical and modern as it gets.
The novel depicts its hero Leopold Bloom going about his daily business of cooking, shitting, drinking, daydreaming, masturbating and fantasizing – but in doing so the narrative becomes notoriously dense, digressive and descriptive to the point of disturbing that it forced even someone one like Virginia Woolf (herself a ‘stream of consciousness’ modernist pioneer) to aptly ask, ‘why would anyone want to eat raw flesh when you can eat cooked food’.
How then did such an unreadable book – even to the writers themselves – become so elevated, regarded in the modern canon as equal to the Bible and Shakespeare? Is the banality of everyday life and the common man as hero just a ploy to create art for art’s sake? Is its illegibility a plea for an elitist and esoteric art of writing? Not necessarily. Joyce, seen in proper historical perspective, was perhaps only trying to rectify the balance, but to do so the pendulum might have to swing to the other end.
The whole modernist project is to demystify, to parody the epic, to celebrate the ordinary. Also, to challenge deeply ingrained notions regarding the sanctity of love, faith, family, and other pieties. Arthur Power described Joyce as an anti-romantic, a realist, determined to see, accept, and write about things exactly as they are. Seen in this light, Joyce was only challenging the tyranny of ‘readability’, the embellished image, of entertainment as edification.
Well, what better way to understand Joyce than to riff on what he wrote and how he wrote it!
(Now wouldn’t Joyce himself love the originality of the pun above. For the uninitiated: Joyce is as Irish as Guinness while Sinn Fein (the nationalist political party) is as (or was perhaps) as iconic as U2)
First you feel, says Joyce, then you fall. ‘We must sin if we are to grow was the subtext of Ulysses as it was of much of Joyce’s work. He upended religious notions of wrongdoing and the resulting guilt, seeing sin as part and parcel of being human, not something to be excised. And certainly, Joyce took to sinning audaciously at an early age, visiting her first brothel at the age of fourteen, an experience that was romanticized in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the end of the second chapter of this book, Stephen describes the “vanishing away from sin” he experiences with a prostitute, “surrendering himself to her, body and mind, aware of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her lips gently ajar”.
FIRST PAGE OF ULYSSES
“For this, O beloved, is the true Christina: body and soul and blood and names” – Buck Mulligan blasphemously parodies the moment of Eucharistic transubstantiation in the Mass.
A little later, Leopold Bloom is shown preparing Molly’s breakfast and eating “with relish the internal organs of beasts and fowl”. As Frank McCourt explains, “the text internally savors both consumption and transubstantiation. It begs to be consumed both as the tastiest, meatiest materialistic romance of everyday life and as a formally provocative affirmation of the transformation of all kinds of linguistic and physical material into art, in which “every aspect of life” are backed up by a Shakespearean. lord of the tongue.
JOYCE ON JOYCE
Joyce describes Ulysses in his own Finnegans Wake as the “unnecessarily unreadable Blue Book of Eccles”. “The requirement I make of my reader is that he devote his whole life to reading my works,” he says elsewhere.
ADULTERY AS THE NEW NORMAL
Remember, Ulysses, finally, is the story of a threesome – a triangle of adulterous relationship – not intended to scandalize conservative society, as originally thought, but aimed at adapting to the complexity of the human desire.
Joyce, as famous critic William Empson noted, enjoyed “feeling betrayed by his loved ones and kept trying to trap them in the position of having done so”. Joyce, Empson explained, was particularly prone to the idea that wives, when the world crudely calls them adulterers, are often deep down trying to give the husband a friend. “The Dubliners consider male friends more important than females, since they only meet males during the long hours in pubs, and indeed females are primarily important to them as a way for males to betray themselves; but this mindset is often accompanied by a deep belief that women are nobler than men, as in Joyce’s loud cry in a letter to Nora (his wife): “How the hell can you love a thing like me?
“Certainly it is clear that Joyce regarded this as one of his advanced ideals, suitable for Ibsen or Blake, and not at all a sordid technique to put his wife and friends in the wrong; all his adultery writings are different if you recognize him in the background. . . . even describing the story of Ulysses, where it is made wacky that Bloom plans to put Stephen to bed with his wife…”
LAST PAGE OF ULYSSES
“The day I got him to propose to me. . . first i took the piece of seed cake out of my mouth to him…he said i was a flower from the mountain…yes so we are flowers the whole body of a woman yes that was a true thing that he said in his life and the sun is shining for you today yes that’s why i loved him because i saw he understood or felt what a woman is and i knew i could always go around it and i gave him all the fun i could ride it until he asked me to say yes and i would. The first answer was just sea and sky. . . ”
The above is Molly Bloom’s monologue, where there is no punctuation and the word “yes” is repeated 17 times. It may sound rhapsodic, the repetitive “yes” seeming to indicate the triumph of romantic love. In fact, it is its opposite. As Gabrielle Carey says in her essay Breaking Up With James Joyce, “After spending the previous page reminiscing about her former lovers and suitors, she finally concludes that Leopold Bloom, the man with whom she is picnicking on Howth Head, will do just as well as anyone else. And she sets out to make him propose. Not because it’s meant to be, or that they were meant for each other, or because he’s her partner. perfect. Just because they are there in the late afternoon sun
surrounded by rhododendrons and she might as well marry him as marry anyone else”.
TO HURT ONE’S SELF
Seeing differently, being wrong, chance, chance, serendipity, and “misunderstanding,” as Joyce himself called it, were his preferred narrative mode. According to him, making bad connections, even if it took away the safety nets we always seek, was the most natural, human and often comical way. “For Joyce, reality was a paradigm, an illustration of a perhaps inexpressible rule…the notion of the world where unexpected simultaneities are the rule,” Samuel Becket once said.
Joyce always seemed to get exactly what he needed. “Chance provides me with what I need, he wrote, I am like a man who stumbles; my foot hits something, I look down and there is exactly what I need.