Stanely Mushava Literature Today
To hear his contemporaries separately, James Joyce is either the literary equivalent of Albert Einstein or the pesky schoolboy. His hunger for controversy and avant-garde approach to literature either rings up fanaticism or frustration. His supreme achievement, “Ulysses”, a dense thicket of classical intelligence and double-time stream of consciousness, equally assumes this polarising tendency. Decluttering the romantic demands and heroic pretensions that literature feeds its audiences, the novel makes a potent case for the commonplace.
In “Ulysses”, Joyce, whose life and work is annually celebrated on Bloomsday, June 16, gave to fiction what T.S. Eliot gave to poetry: a style guide for modernism, draping mundane concerns with mythic layers, flipping tradition on its head to appropriate it for a lost generation.
That is not to suggest that modesty tops Joyce’s own resume.
Long before aggression landed a title role in urban entertainment, Joyce was already agitating for beefs with his fellow writers. His first mature poem, “The Holy Office”, called out the romantic tendency of the Irish literary scene, installing himself as the opposite number of W.B. Yeats and other eminent compatriots.
Declan Kiberd relates Joyce’s swaggering broadsides at Yeats’ circle, topped with a visit which the younger writer terminated with the satirical observation that Yeats, the national poet, was too old to be helped.
Joyce had to be invoked in the same breath with the immortals so he wrote “Ulysses”, the book that would keep conspiracy theorists hunched over cluttered desks for many nights, looking for codes and parallels.
But the novel, which Eliot ranked in the order of Einstein’s achievements for science, as it would be appropriated by latter creatives to create their own worlds, flew over contemporary talking heads.
D.H. Lawrence played down Joyce’s experiment to “old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness”.
He was not entirely off the mark. The commonplace diary of Joyce’s lead character, Leopold Bloom, riffs on classical references without replicating their grandeur. But what Lawrence beholds as misfiring is method.
Joyce is not selling his protagonist short when he denies him the ambition of his Greek parallel but rather showing man sufficient in his ordinary space.
At the time of writing, Joyce’s writerly conscience was weighed down by the body bags of the First World War. The grand narratives fed into the machismo that set men against men, and armies against armies, over questionable ideals.
By foregrounding the insistently mundane Bloom as the man of mankind, Joyce is reclaiming the ordinary, everyday space, stripped of heroic pretences. Waking up from the nightmare of history may just be faster without the romantic pretences that play men into war zones.
Joyce pares down heroines to femme fatales, further debunking the spell of romanticism on history. His conceited Irish nationalist, Deasy, sets himself up for a feminist backlash but, nevertheless, makes a telling point on the emptiness of war in conversation with Stephen Dedalus: “For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, 10 years the Greeks made war on Troy. A faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffni. A woman too brought Parnell low. Many errors, many failures but not the one sin.”
Fellow modernist Virginia Woolf’s disdain for “Ulysses” has an elitist ring: “An illiterate, underbred book, it seems to me; the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating.”
George Orwell’s dislike for the book reeks of oedipal motivation. It is the discomfort of feeling buried in another writer’s shadow. “I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production.”
What it all says is the intensity “Ulysses” elicits from any given angle.
If Joyce is extending the right hand of fellowship to the underdog by decluttering literature of heroic pretensions, substituting an epic hero with the domestic circuit of a common itinerant, why does he not feel obliged to be more conversational?
It is a dilemma a number of writers probably contend with: committing to but not communicating with the underdog.
For Eliot, if future readers fail to grapple with the text, the fault is in them not the writer.
“The next generation is responsible for its own soul; a man of genius is responsible to his peers not to a studio full of uneducated and undisciplined coxcombs. That account can still be applied, with no strain, to Ulysses.”
“Ulysses” inaugurates the sort of book apparently written for writers rather than readers. The reader has to bring his own bank of allusions, his prior engagement with the world’s intellectual record, in order to parse the book.
By the time he writes “Finnegans Wake”, Joyce has lapsed even from writing for writers to writing for himself. Private language runs the thread of the book, putting the reader at a loss even for references.
Maybe it is a book that was made for “Ulysses” to look good.
Bloom’s world hides no grand claims within the esoteric tropes, hyperliterate allusiveness, meticulous structures and vast vocabulary. That itself the point: the supremacy of the ordinary.
As Joyce teases us on with his sonic facility and classical intelligence, we wonder if we are carrying ourselves too seriously, if the booming and blinding high points of history are not really powered on dubious motivations.
With the marathon readings of “Ulysses” on Bloomsday, more than 30 hours at a go in past editions, Eliot could have underestimated the millennial appetite for complexity.
And you know that a writer has entered the ranks of the immortal when the commemoration of his life and work makes free with extra-literary highlights and even forgets to name him, as the case is with several Bloomsday articles, probably the way Christmas’ universal appeal makes free with hedonistic and consumerist agenda.