Thoughts on Ulysses

Paul R. Potts

A friend wrote:

Do I remember that you took a class on Joyce and Ulysses at Wooster and enjoyed it a lot? If so, I am genuinely curious what you saw in it. My book group just finished it, and we all found it frustrating and puzzling. We are all acute, intelligent readers — one has a Ph.D. in literature — but we found the deliberate obscurity far outweighed any value in wordplay or lyricism. We spent a lot of our discussion wondering who it was written for — Joyce, probably — and why anyone else should care, i.e. why should the reader have to make all of the effort in the dialogue.

What do you remember liking about Ulysses? Have you re-read it since then?

I replied:

I can’t remember if I actually “took” the class on Ulysses or if I was auditing it. [NOTE: my old transcript shows that I audited the class.] I know I did the writing assignments. I believe it was while I was an intern [NOTE: at the College of Wooster, during academic years 1989-1990.] Professor Nancy Grace was teaching the class and I remember that she gave me the chance to lead some discussions and even write up a couple handouts. In particular I did a detailed analysis of the “Circe” episode and made a timeline and a page that listed a number of symbols for discussion.

Were you reading the Gabler version or the orignal? The Gabler version supposedly has a lot of flaws but it also has a lot of things that were fixed, and some passages make a lot more sense than in the original edition.

I might have felt differently about the class if I had been taking it for credit in the midst of other deadlines, etc. I know a lot of the students found the class very frustrating. I was in a different mindset at the time, as I was working full-time but free of other daily responsibilities, so I could spend a lot of time on the text and really enjoy being the resident smart-ass.

I can understand finding Ulysses frustrating. I still believe that it is a brilliant work, but with a bit longer perspective, I also can understand why you are wondering who it was written for. I actually have read it again, at least, parts of it, just recently. I am still amazed with certain passages: for example, Steven’s meeting with the schoolmaster who is paying him for his teaching. Joyce’s language is amazing here, and so is his characterization of the schoolmaster as a hyperactive anti-Semite. His description and his dialog is incredibly vivid. For example, he describes a desk with shells embedded in it, the sunlight through leaves, and the poor confused snot-nosed students he tries to help with their math problems.

But, also, in the same book are a number of passages that are almost physically painful to wade through.

I think each chapter could be gratifying to someone in a different way. For example, “Sirens” would make a cool music video. It makes a lot more sense if you try to read it out loud. It opens with an overture, and ends with a fart. Have you ever seen the film Dancer in the Dark? It has a scene where the lead character is working in a factory, on the night shift, and getting increasingly distracted. She starts to hear music in the rhythm of the factory machines, and a dance number suddenly materializes. The sequence was shot with over 100 digital video cameras so that in editing, the director could assemble literally dozens of angles and shots seamlessly. “Sirens” is like that: a musical dance number appearing out of street sounds and dialog, where Joyce literally heard the words as music. In this way it was far ahead of its time and pointed more to what could be done in film than in print.

The “Circe” episode broke a lot of rules too: I think that you could make the case that it is really more like science fiction than a traditional novel form. It reads like an Ionesco play mixed in with some of the heavy LSD-fueled narratives from Tom Robbins. Space and time get all scrambled up, there is a black mass, every fantasy becomes reality. It is truly weird, and Joyce was really trying to freak us out and overload us with visuals and symbols.

I also really like Molly’s stream-of-consciousness episode. It is a little difficult to read when there are none of the usual breaks in the text but I think it is very rewarding.

But, yeah, several sections really drag. The whole recapitulation of the history of the language through old and middle English is academically interesting but kind of like, as (a friend) described Faulkner, having a ton of green sludge poured over your head. Joyce found this interesting and challenging to write, and he obviously worked hard to do it, but I would agree that most readers won’t find this very rewarding even if they do all the work to understand it. So who was it for? Maybe the literati who read it when it was serialized in the Paris Review.

I remember Professor Michael Allen saying that he thought I was reading too much Joyce and not enough Twain and starting to lose touch with reality, failing to understand that verbal pyrotechnics could not replace a “good yarn.” Mike was a big believer in American literature that was direct and unpretentious. Do you remember our slogan: “pseudo-intellectuals: pretensions in search of a pretense?”

I think it is possible to see a progression in Joyce’s work. He mastered a series of forms and then was looking for something more radical and challenging. For example, his short stories are great. “The Dead” has to stand as one of the most beautiful short stories I’ve ever read.

From there he wrote Steven Hero and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I think Portrait is a great novel. He showed and incredible mastery of the whole form of the novel. Portrait is a much more consistent and self-realized work. He plays with language, but there is both a physical and metaphysical story at work too that makes it hold together.

In Ulysses he pulled out all the stops and kept trying to break ground. Throw out all the conventions, break all the rules. He succeeded and it is one of the great works of “modernism,” but modernism is now a pretty dated world view. The idea that breaking all the rules for the sake of breaking all the rules is actually not very radical. He thought he was reinventing the novel but there is a long tradition of reinventing the novel.

I think as Joyce got older and blinder he also started to lose his mind. He became much too inner-directed. The endpoint of all this is Finnegan’s Wake. People claim it is “gobbledegook” — literally nonsense. It isn’t — it all can be read and understood — but the real question is “why would anyone bother?” I have tried whacking at Finnegan’s Wake, with various guidebooks to help, but always gave up. If it has rewards, I think they are a little too abstract for me. I think it is very clever that Joyce came up with so much overloaded meaning and reference, but is there a story worth reading under all that crap? Not to me. Some people might find it rewarding. I thought it was very rewarding to figure out what was going on in “Circe,” but not Finnegan’s Wake. And some chapters of Ulysses really did nothing for me; they were worth finishing only so I could claim victory over them.

So, yeah, I guess in retrospect Ulysses is a mixed bag. Parts of it can be very rewarding. Certain chapters may appeal individually to certain readers. It is best regarded as a very experimental work in the historic context of modernism. I think it is a “classic” and should be studied, if only so that people get a chance to find something of interest in it themselves and not just because it has a big reputation.

I hope you were able to find some parts in it that you genuinely appreciated. There must have been some.

It would have been interesting to sit in on your reading group. Did you read any of it out loud? I think that helps. For example, I love the dialog between Mulligan and the other guys in the first chapter. The boarder is complaining that the tea is too strong. “When I makes tea I makes tea, and when I makes water I makes water,” says Mulligan. The punch line is “just make sure you don’t make them in the same pot.” Ulysses is all about that kind of weird mixing between the high-brow and low-brow: both very abstract and high-minded, and very concrete and earthy.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
December 11, 2002

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