Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ulysses - James Joyce

Any discussion of Ulysses in 2009 must begin with the obvious: the Modern Library. Of course, this novel occupies the #1 slot of the "100 Best Novels" according to "The Board." According to "the Readers" it is #11. According to anyone that is not an English major, or a highly pretentious literary dilettante, it is unrecognized. It is obsolete. Or rather, it is highly regarded, but mysterious. Of all the books I have read there is only one other that can be put in the same class with it, and that would be Infinite Jest. Now, I gave up on Infinite Jest after about 300 or 400 pages (and I intend it try again in 2010), and I gave up on Ulysses after about 120 pages about 9 years ago. I still remember going to stay over in Hoboken, NJ, the night after going on a guided tour of what would become my alma mater, and remarking to my hostess for the evening that I tried reading the book, but that I didn't understand any of it, except for the phrase "ineluctable modality of the visible," and she said it was an impressive phrase nonetheless.

That phrase opens up Chapter 3 out of 18 (and just so you know, I had to go back and mark all 18 chapters tonight after finishing, so that I could be sure I properly understood the boundaries of this work), and it is one of the most commonly associated "things" with the book--I believe because it is about as far as most people get:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see." (37)

Let us backtrack a moment. One of the most intelligible parts of my edition of Ulysses is the foreword by Morris L. Ernst and the decision by Judge John M. Woolsey, lifting the ban on Ulysses on December 6, 1933. Woolsey provides as fine a lens through which to view the novel as anyone:

"Joyce has attempted--it seems to me, with astonishing success--to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing." (xi)

He also mentions that it is "not an easy book to read or understand" and that understatement seems typical of the writing practiced by legal professionals. Now, okay, I have yet to read a single volume from D.H. Lawrence or Joseph Conrad or William Gaddis, but let me just say that Ulysses is the hardest book I have ever read, and only Infinite Jest can compare (in my own experience) but a comparison of the two will have to wait for another time.

This will be a different sort of review for Flying Houses because most of the passages that I intend to include are not especially for beauty, but rather as examples of the difficulty its audience will find in trying to attain a coherent interpretation of the text. To some this may seem pointless, or pessimistic, but I am trying to look out for the average reader here. Most people will be able to understand at least a few parts of this book (after about page 450 it becomes noticeably easier on the eyes), but few will see the point in struggling towards the end.

Who struggles towards the end?
English majors and highly pretentious literary dilettantes, once again. I really don't think anybody who says, "Oh Ulysses is my favorite novel" is telling the truth, but rather showing off. It does not offer much pleasure for the reader. That it was banned on the grounds of being obscene or pornographic--written for the purpose of igniting the sexual excitement of the reader--is laughable. Oh, parts are certainly pornographic, but there is plenty of obscure vocabulary, irrelevant detail, confusing changes of scenery, randomly introduced characters, and, well, what seems on the surface to be PURE NONSENSE, to keep 99% of the general public at bay. Those looking for a more transparent thrill will find it here http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/annotated-lolita-vladimir-nabokov-ed.html, it must be noted, #4 on the above-mentioned list. Of course that volume, along with Naked Lunch and our present topic, generally comprises the trifecta of the most notorious banned books. Ulysses has much in common with Naked Lunch, but its degree of obscenity---on a scale of 1-10, Naked Lunch is about a 9, and Ulysses is about a 5--but the percentage of the actual text that is obscene--that is where they differ. Ulysses has nearly as much politics in it as sex. Naked Lunch has nearly as much drugs in it as sex.

But that is not a bad starting point to understanding the type of book Ulysses is--that is, like Naked Lunch or Infinite Jest. It's not very straightforward. These writers (Joyce, Burroughs, Wallace) are capable of straightforward storytelling, but it appears they find it boring. They experiment with form (Ulysses chief virtue, in my mind, is its sheer creativity; Burroughs obviously did the "cut-up" thing; and Wallace has his footnotes, though Salinger, among others I am sure, also did those, but not to the same degree, I am sure), they end up alienating a ton of readers, but they don't care and they end up creating some of the most enduring masterpieces of the English language--or at least the most controversial or provocative.

Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904 and is billed as an extremely loose interpretation of The Odyssey. Here is the plot as far as I can remember. There are two main characters, well, three: Stephen Dedalus (formerly featured prominently in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Leopold Bloom, and Mrs. Marion Tweedy "Molly" Bloom. The third does not make her appearance until the final chapter but should be included as a main character because of the nature of that final chapter. The night before, Stephen stayed over at his medical student friend Buck Mulligan's boarding house, and the novel opens with them preparing to have breakfast. They drink together a lot and sometimes go to see whores. Stephen is about 22 and an English professor. The first three chapters, part I, detail his early morning. Chapter four and part II opens up with Leopold Bloom, wanting to buy a kidney from a butcher, preparing to to attend his friend Paddy Dignam's funeral. He goes later, and so does Stephen's father, Simon Dedalus, who apparently is very well respected about town. (But then later it appears they are actually poor? The first of many confusing interpretations I am bound to make.) After the funeral, he goes to a museum, but if this part is included in "present tense" in the novel, I missed it completely. He goes to a bookstore. Stephen's sister is there, I think. Later he goes to the beach, around sunset, and there is a girl named Gerty there.

It is at this point, the scene with Gerty on the beach, that the novel became tolerable to me. This section was the first part that I could truly call beautiful. Joyce switches perspectives from Gerty to Bloom as they regard one another from a distance. Bloom is the "strange man" that Gerty is attracted to, oddly trying to expose herself to him. It seems that Bloom is a big fan of looking up girls' skirts. Gerty is with a friend, and two toddler twins playing. There is a church service going on nearby (I think?). What is beautiful about this section is the way Joyce suddenly introduces the human element, with straightforward description. It reminded me of something I might read in Mann, albeit without the exhibitionism. At the end of the scene it is revealed that Gerty has a certain disability, and the manner in which this is discovered makes for arguably the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment of the novel. This is also apparently the masturbation scene, but I did not catch it. This is the 13th chapter in the novel, which ends roughly before page 400, and the moment at which the novel becomes palatable.

Though chapter 14 is pretty much impossible to read, chapter 15 is almost 200 pages long and takes the form of a play script, which makes it quicker to read. This is also a protracted scene in a whorehouse, which made me think, "Okay, so this is where it starts to get obscene." Yeah right! On the surface this seems like it would be one of the easier parts of the novel, but it is just as confusing as anything that came before. This is finally where part II ends. Chapter 16 and the beginning of part III involves Bloom taking Stephen away from the whores and into a cabman's shelter, drunk, and here, finally, the novel becomes understandable all the way until the end. Chapter 17 and 18 are definitely the two best parts of the entire book, in my opinion. 17 involves Bloom taking Stephen back to his house to recuperate--but the form of this chapter is what makes it so great, and allows Joyce to offer his most profound ruminations on the nature of existence.

But chapter 18 is the most fucked up part of the entire book-- and in case you didn't guess, the obscene part. Anybody that flips through Ulysses and sees that the final sixty or seventy pages appear to be one unbroken paragraph without punctuation might wince and feel that it is the final push of complexity before being freed of the chains that are this novel, but that is not the case. Actually, incredibly, this is the most transparent episode in the entire book. Bloom has gone to bed, and crawled beside his wife Molly--and Molly contemplates their life together as she tries to fall asleep. She also contemplates the many, many men she has cheated on her husband with, and this primarily comprises the "dirty" part of the book. And it does get quite dirty, but I don't think anybody that is able to read that far is going to be morally offended by it.

Finally, the last two pages of the book are incredibly beautiful. It is one of the most perfect endings I have ever read in my life. So it is worth it to get there.

But along the way, believe me, you will have to fight every urge to give up. The first twelve chapters of the book should make most people do that. Still, I have to point out that this book is extremely important for writers, and anybody who considers themselves a writer should force themselves to read all the way to the end, whether they understand it or not. The Wikipedia page is very helpful on this novel, but I didn't read it until I was finished.

Why is this book so important for writers specifically? Joyce's creativity. Chapter 7 of this novel takes the form of a series of newspaper headlines, and this form was mimicked by me when I was just 18 in the first essay I wrote for college, and many people found it quite good. The play format of Chapter 15 is not necessarily anything new, but the hallucinatory nature of this part is way ahead of its time (but so is this http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/12/faust-johann-wolfgang-von-goethe.html, our 1 year anniversary...sigh). The form of Chapter 17 has to be one of the most original devices ever employed in literature. Finally Chapter 18 should teach anyone that thought literary experimentation reached its apotheosis with the Beats a lesson. Also anyone that thought punk rock was an original idea in 1976.

Joyce also predates the MFA contingent with their lists of things:

"From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every move of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, Brian of Kincora, the Ardi Malachi, Art MacMurragh, Shane O'Neill, Father John Murphy, Owen Rose, Patrick Sarsfield, Red Hugh O'Donnell, Red Jim MacDermott, Soggarth Eoghan O'Growney, Michael Dwyer, Francy Higgins, Henry Joy M'Cracken, Goliath, Horace Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshall MacMahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castille, the Man for Galway, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, The Man in the Gap, The Woman Who Didn't, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, John L. Sullivan, Cleopatra, Savourneen Deelish, Julius Caesar, Paracelsus, sir Thomas Lipton, William Tell, Michelangelo, Hayes, Muhammad, the Bride of Lammermoor, Peter the Hermit, Peter the Packer, Dark Rosaleen, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Brian Confucius, Murtagh Gutenberg, Patricio Velasquez, Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, the first Prince of Wales, Thomas Cook and Son, the Bold Soldier Boy, Arrah na Pogue, Dick Turpin, Ludwig Beethoven, the Colleen Bawn, Waddler Healy, Angus the Culdee, Dolly Mount, Sidney Parade, Ben Howth, Valentine Greatrakes, Adam and Eve, Arthur Wellesley, Boss Croker, Herotodus, Jack the Giantkiller, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, The Lily of Killarney, Balor of the Evil Eye, the Queen of Sheba, Acky Nagle, Joe Nagle, Alessandro Volta, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Don Philip O'Sullivan Beare." (296-297)

Right there, if you ever need to think up a name for a character if you are writing a piece of fiction, go to this section of the book. This is one of at least three ridiculously long paragraphs containing tons of names. I don't understand anything about it.

Probably the most useful way to read Ulysses, in my opinion, is to go through it with a pencil or pen, and circle or underline every word that you do not know. You will find hundreds, I promise you. Perhaps a thousand. Some of them are made up, but you will be able to increase your vocabulary greatly if you make the effort to look up all of those words in a dictionary. The problem is that most of these words are obsolete anyways, and no one uses them anymore, and if you use them other people will just think you are being pedantic.

Another note about this text--it would help to have a grasp of Irish history. Do you know who Parnell is? I don't. Parnell is mentioned enough in this book to be considered a character. It is almost like people writing the name Bush in America one hundred years later. Except I think people will know who Bush was one hundred years from now. People will remember 9/11 for a while.

That is another thing about this book--its prophetic quality. Disaster in New York. Thousands killed. Read it and you'll understand. There are a few other instances of Joyce predicting future events. The Holocaust is not predicted per se, but the words "concentration camps" appear, and a lot of anti-semitism directed towards Bloom, who is part-Jewish.

But do not be discouraged, and push through to find beautiful parts such as this:

"For Gerty had her dreams that no-one knew of. She loved to read poetry and when she got a keepsake from Bertha Supple of that lovely confession album with the coral-pink cover to write her thoughts in she laid it in the drawer of her toilettable which, though it did not err on the side of luxury, was scrupulously neat and clean. It was there she kept her girlish treasures trove, the tortoiseshell combs, her child of Mary badge, the whiterose scent, the eyebrowleine, her alabaster pouncetbox and the ribbons to change when her things came home from the wash and there were some beautiful thoughts written in it in violet ink that she bought in Hely's of Dame Street for she felt that she too could write poetry if she could only express herself like that poem that appealed to her so deeply that she had copied out of the newspaper she found one evening round the potherbs. Art thou real, my ideal? it was called by Louis J. Walsh, Magherafelt, and after there was something about twilight, wilt thou ever? and oft-times the beauty of poetry, so sad in its transient loveliness, had misted her eyes with silent tears that the years were slipping by for her, one by one, and but for that one shortcoming she knew she need fear no competition and that was an accident coming down Dalkey hill and she always tried to conceal it. But it must end she felt. If she saw that magic lure in his eyes there would be no holding back for her. Love laughs at locksmiths. She would make the great sacrifice. Her every effort would be to share his thoughts. Dearer than the whole world would she be to him and gild his days with happiness. There was the allimportant question and she was dying to know was he a married man or a widower who had lost his wife or some tragedy like the nobleman with the foreign name from the land of song had to have her put into a madhouse, cruel only to be kind. But even if--what then? Would it make a very great difference? From everything in the least indelicate her finebread nature instinctively recoiled. She loathed that sort of person, the fallen woman off the accommodation walk beside the Dodder that went with the soldiers and coarse men, with no respect for a girl's honour, degrading the sex and being taken up to the police station. No, no: not that. They would be just good friends like a big brother and sister without all that other in spite of the conventions of Society with a big ess. Perhaps it was an old flame he was in mourning for from the days beyond recall. She thought she understood. She would try to understand him because men were so different. The old love was waiting, waiting with little white hands stretched out, with blue appealing eyes. Heart of mine! She would follow her dream of love, the dictates of her heart that told her he was her all in all, the only man in all the world for her for love was the master guide. Nothing else mattered. Come what might she would be wild, untrammelled, free." (363-365)

There are not many other very good reasons to read this book beyond the desire to witness a genius at work--and there are those that will persist in stating that Joyce is no genius, but a nut. And okay, from everything I've read or seen about Finnegan's Wake, it may have turned true--but Ulysses is not the work of a mind that has lost touch with its genius. It may have lost touch with populist sentiment, or the desire to be understood, but it is a work of genius, and near the end, as near the end of this contemporaneous novel of nearly the same length (http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2009/01/magic-mountain-thomas-mann.html), the reader forgets their preconceptions and just starts believing whatever the author writes, as fantastic as it may be, the author becomes the final authority on God, the universe, and the nature of existence:

"He believed that human life was infinitely perfectible, eliminating these conditions?

There remained the generic conditions imposed by natural, as distinct from human law, as integral parts of the human whole: the necessity of destruction to procure alimentary sustenance: the painful character of the ultimate functions of separate existence, the agonies of birth and death: the monotonous menstruation of simian (and particularly) human females extending from the age of puberty to the menopause: inevitable accidents at sea, in mines and factories: certain very painful maladies and their resultant surgical operations, innate lunacy and congenital criminality, decimating epidemics: catastrophic cataclysms which make terror the basis of human mentality: seismic upheavals the epicentres of which are located in densely populated regions: the fact of vital growth, through convulsions of metamorphosis from infancy through maturity to decay." (697)

And here, when Bloom and Stephen are regarding the stars, near the end of the narrative, perhaps a commentary on the discovery of the atom:

"Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?

Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in the cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatazoa: of the incalcuable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by the cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached." (699)

I don't care to type much more, but here is an excerpt from the final chapter. To my mind, the primary merit of the final chapter is the way in which a single character is fully evoked, without reservations. Of course, Molly is unfaithful, but so is Bloom, and the nature of their adultery is arguably the most bittersweet, painful revelation of this entire work. They are compatible, so they stay together. But Molly is so tired of Bloom, and Bloom can be a lech at times--their adultery is almost approved. Bloom is still the more sympathetic character in the final chapter, as Molly contemplates how she would like Stephen to come around more often afterwards, for obvious reasons:

"Im sure hes very distinguished Id like to meet a man like that God not those other ruck besides hes young those fine young men I could see down in Margate strand bathing place from the side of the rock standing up in the sun naked like a God or something and then plunging into the sea with them why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simply I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looked with his boyish face I would too in 1/2 a minute even if some of it went down what its only like gruel or the dew theres no danger besides hed be so clean compared with those pigs of men I supose never dream of washing it from 1 years end to the other most of them" (775-776)

In this final chapter, Joyce gets to the point that I have always thought I knew something about--that is, burying the sordid detail underneath a mountain of text, so that the reader will have to do the work to get there, so that it is almost like a secret or dirty joke that cannot be uttered aloud. Ulysses is obscene, but only really after about 700 pages, so no one should be bothered by it. It is not an affront to public morality more than any other book has been in the past, because barely anyone that is part of "the public" will be exposed to it. And there can be much value in a frank discussion of sexual mores, particularly in the 1920's, and mixed in with that, there can be real instances of proto-feminism:

"I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn't in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more I wonder why he wouldnt stay the night I felt all the time it was somebody strange he brought in instead of roving around the city meeting God knows who nightwalkers and pickpockets his poor mother wouldnt like that if she was alive ruining himself for life perhaps still its a lovely hour so silent I used to love coming home after dances the air of the night they have friends they can talk to weve none either he wants what he wont get or its some woman ready to stick her knife in you I hate that in women no wonder they treat us the way they do we are a dreadful lot of bitches I suppose its all the troubles we have makes us so snappy Im not like that" (778-779)

I have said all I can on Ulysses, I think. I recommend it, but primarily for writers. I do not know if I will ever read it again. I might, but only if I wanted to write a novel that was a very loose retelling of the story, the way this was a very loose retelling of that older, classic story, which can be read by almost anyone. If anything, it made me want to re-read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners. Perhaps in 2010, those will appear on Flying Houses, and perhaps Infinite Jest will too. But don't hold me to that, please.

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