Ulysses Unbound

Why does a book so bad it "defecates on your bed" still have so many admirers?

This June 16, fans, hecklers, curiosity seekers, and others with an interest, pro or con, in James Joyce's Ulysses have a new treat to chew on. A lush period adaptation of the problematic novel, with Stephen Rea playing the title role of Leopold Bloom, Joyce's amiable, put-upon hero, is playing at gatherings for the 100th anniversary of "Bloomsday." That's the day in 1904 on which Ulysses, originally published in 1922, takes place.

Director Sean Walsh's Bloom marks the second time Ulysses has been brought to the big screen. Joseph Strick made a modest, modern-dress version of the story in 1967. That a book universally considered unfilmable should already be on its second movie is testimony to Ulysses' powerful attraction and decidedly mixed luck.

History has not been kind to efforts at popularizing Ulysses. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and other brilliant works, proselytized tirelessly for Joyce's work, producing television documentaries and a musical, The Blooms of Dublin, to little avail. Calico, Michael Hastings' recent play about Joyce's troubled daughter Lucia, was pronounced unconvincing by The Guardian and termed "a dud soap about artists" by The Daily Telegraph.

Ulysses recently has drawn the fire of literary iconoclasts. "I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce," writes the dyspeptic critic Dale Peck, who condemns the book's "diarrheic flow of words" and applauds himself for having spoken "heresy" against a canonical work. "Ulysses could have done with a good editor," the acclaimed novelist Roddy Doyle recently told an audience of crestfallen Joyce fans. "You know, people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it." Concludes the writer Stefan Sullivan in a recent Washington Times appreciation: "Ulysses is a pretty awful novel."

In the customer comments at Amazon.com, readers express bitter hostility at a book they suspect has been rammed down their throats by academics. "This is one of those classic novels that gives classic novels a bad name," writes Eric L. Sparling. "Joyce is blind in one eye because he read Ulysses and then the eye hung itself," writes nebber1214. "I'm contemplating traveling back in time and murdering James Joyce, in the face...For Ulysses to be any worse of a book, it would have to break into your house and defecate on your bed." Another disgruntled reader announces, "Its only function is to keep blinkered academics busy trying to wring another drop of meaning from a text already exhausted from analysis." Another says, "I feel sorry for English majors who are forced to read it."

Such protests would appear to be on the right side of history. As the cultural standing of literary modernism has eroded (when was the last time anybody at a cocktail party cared whether you were familiar with Ezra Pound's Cantos?), the monuments of the early 20th century increasingly appear to demand too much work and provide too little enjoyment. And none of these monuments is larger or more assailable than Ulysses, a dense, allusive, 300,000-word blend of stream of consciousness, multiple narrators, genre parodies, Irish history, and a long, farcical dream play.

"Bloom himself would never and could never have read Ulysses or a book like Ulysses," John Carey writes in his book Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. "The complexity of the novel, its avant-garde technique, its obscurity, rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership. More than almost any other 20th-century novel, it is for intellectuals only."

And yet 50,000 tourists, many or most of them with little connection to academia, are expected to flood Dublin on June 16. Bloomsday has become the world's de facto literary holiday, when devotees in Edwardian costume re-enact the book's salacious scenes, sing Irish music hall melodies, and tramp out for 18-hour pub crawls with a zeal more reminiscent of a Star Trek convention or a Renaissance Fair than a salon of academic snobs.

Astrologers, well-read doctors, prisoners, and fly fishing experts have all taken a crack at applying their areas of expertise to Joyce criticism; the James Joyce Quarterly in its next issue will publish an article by a high school student. Prominent fans have included Jerry Garcia, John Lennon (an early Quarterly subscriber), Mel Brooks (who named the hero of The Producers "Leo Bloom"), Woody Allen, and Slacker filmmaker Richard Linklater (whose movies are replete with Ulysses allusions and stylistic riffs).

Of the many riddles Ulysses presents, the toughest may be that the legendary Most Difficult Novel in Literature (or Second Most Difficult, if you count Joyce's catastrophic follow-up Finnegans Wake as a novel) attracts a wide, dedicated, nonacademic fan base. This may not be particularly unusual in literature (in the last three years we have all seen J.R.R. Tolkien fans inherit the earth), but it is unique in the field of difficult modernist art and literature. "It's hard to imagine much of a celebration for the Arnold Schoenberg 100th anniversary," says Scott Klein, a professor of English at Wake Forest University.

More intriguingly, the book's popular reception grows as its standing declines in both the academy and the wider literary culture. Since the 1970s, modernism's usual gang of idiots -- Joyce, Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and a handful of others -- has been largely displaced from the position of cultural dominance it enjoyed through most of the 20th century.

To be sure, the bear market in modernists is not complete: Virginia Woolf's stock continues to hold steady, or even climb, and wider studies of the modernist period and movement have made a comeback in the past decade. But the virtue of difficulty, the notion that being hard to understand was a badge of literary honor, has fallen into serious and perhaps irreversible disrepair, and some once-major figures (Blast editor Wyndham Lewis springs to mind) are all but forgotten.

At the same time, studies such as Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism examine literary abstruseness as a response to specific market conditions rather than (as Eliot and others argued at the time) an indispensable tool for comprehending the chaos of the modern world. The defining aesthetic of the modernist movement -- a refusal to compromise with the tastes of the masses -- now looks like a liability and a historical accident.

But for all its difficulty, Ulysses is oddly immune to the anti-snob criticism -- though you wouldn't know it from most of the verbiage about the book. Of the many wrong things T.S. Eliot said in his day, one of the silliest was his argument that Ulysses' "mythical method" (each incident in the book's 18-hour time frame mirrors, on a microscopic scale, an episode in Homer's Odyssey), is "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."

It would be hard to find a writer less inclined than Joyce to see the modern world in such tragic terms, or more enchanted by the disreputable cultural products the market produces. Bloom and his faithless wife Molly are enthusiastic consumers of middlebrow erotica (such as the novel Sweets of Sin by M. Paul deKock), popular songs (Harry B. Norris' "Lovely Seaside Girls," among countless others), works of general-interest science and self-improvement (Sir Robert Ball's The Story of the Heavens, and Physical Strength and How To Obtain It by the strongman Eugen Sandow). Nor are these plebian tastes presented to us as ironic class identifiers. They are, along with Joyce's storied "cloacal obsession," the book's lifeblood.

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