Jan 26, 2024
My Year in Dublin
Slow Reading 2023
I cannot recommend Ulysses. It's difficult. It's long. It's obtuse. It's un-recommendable; plain impossible to ask someone to read it. It requires an unreasonable amount of dedication to complete, let alone understand. You can't just kick back and dig in. You almost have to study it. Unlock it. Work with the novel as much as it works with you. In other words, you really have to want to read it to be able to finish.
And I did! A whole year after starting. And was it worth it? Well, I believe so. But I'm not sure if I could convince you of that. And I swear, it's not some sort of sunk cost fallacy – I genuinely enjoyed my time with Ulysses. I think it's one of the funniest books I've ever read. I also think it's the one of the most painfully honest works I've ever come across. It can be as beautiful and thoughtful as it can be crass. But I've also been trying to write up some sort of review for over a month now and am still unable to structure my thoughts.
Part of it is that I don't feel qualified to add to the discourse surrounding Ulysses. It's the Novel the Launched a Thousand Theses. I doubt I have anything to say that hasn't been said, and better than I could hope to say. And maybe what I have to say just isn't worth saying to begin with!
Perhaps this novel defies reviews. It's not about being good or bad, or even great, for that matter. So I'm not even going to attempt to write a review. Instead, I'll just share some general thoughts on having completed it.
Here is what Ulysses is about.
One of the more commonly held opinions about Ulysses is that it's difficult to read. Joyce carries a reputation, sure – the modernists aren't exactly entry-level material. But I'm not convinced that Ulysses isn't readable. It's just unusual.
In many ways, it's a novel about the act of reading. About how we communicate with language, and how that language affects our communication. How does a single word shift our understanding? How does it fall short?
Reading is something we take for granted. Even now, you're processing some words on your screen that I have written in the past. You're parsing whatever phrases I use with whatever connections your brain has formed. And forming new ones along the way. All this is unconscious. Automatic. We rarely consider the effect that a single word can have on the author, the reader, or the sentence itself. A block of text becomes an idea – an abstraction from the actual black and white before us. It's an imperfect telepathy.
But what Joyce does in Ulysses is explode that process back into the text. One word can trigger a memory of another thought which can trigger a new thought which can trigger a new action and so forth. And as each character experiences the world around them, new thoughts and experiences join the collective memory shared between the author and the reader. A new spring of information that can generate new thoughts.
Consider this small moment between Bloom and his wife early on:
—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.
He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eyes. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin’s Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metamspychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That a man’s soul after he dies. Dignam’s soul...
Already, there's a lot to unpack here. We're dealing with a discussion over language itself. A difficult word, misunderstood and half-remembered, prompts an approximate definition. The book from which the word originates triggers a solemn memory. A death of a dear friend. The scene drifts from the external inward, toward Bloom's private thoughts. Our critical brains have now linked this word "metempsychosis" with both Bloom's wife Molly and the death of his friend Dignam, despite any real connection to its definition.
And it isn't the last time we come across this word. It reverberates throughout the novel.
Good idea that. Wonder if he pays rent to the corporation. How can you own water really? It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream. All kinds of places are good for ads. That quack doctor for the clap used to be stuck up in all the greenhouses. Never see it now. Strictly confidential. Dr Hy Franks. Didn’t cost him a red like Maginni the dancing master self advertisement. Got fellows to stick them up or stick them up himself for that matter on the q. t. running in to loosen a button. Flybynight. Just the place too. POST NO BILLS. POST 110 PILLS. Some chap with a dose burning him.
If he...? O!
No, no. I don’t believe it. He wouldn’t surely?
Mr Bloom moved forward, raising his troubled eyes. Think no more about that. After one. Timeball on the ballastoffice is down. Dunsink time. Fascinating little book that is of sir Robert Ball’s. Parallax. I never exactly understood. There’s a priest. Could ask him. Par it’s Greek: parallel, parallax. Met him pike hoses she called it till I told her about the transmigration. O rocks!
Here we see this concept taken one step further. Bloom happens across a cleverly placed advertisement, which triggers the memory of another ad. A doctor specializing in venereal disease. He considers the possibility that his wife's lover might be diseased. Then the memory of his wife's half-remembered word: "met him pike hoses."
It's a reversal of the usual method of interpreting language. Instead of the word transferring meaning, we now have meaning transferred upon a word. And this singular word becomes a recurring motif in the novel. It morphs into a representation of Bloom's anxieties surrounding his wife's pending, or perhaps completed, infidelity. Just the mere thought of the word sends him spiraling inward and downward. In an incredibly clever twist, the word becomes so far removed from its original meaning that it morphs into a new definition. The transmigration of its soul. An act of metempsychosis.
Language and wordplay are merely tools for Joyce. A means of capture. But language is what builds the novel, not the novel itself. So what exactly is Joyce trying to capture?
Just as our construction of language is in a continued dialog with its usage, so is Ulysses in dialog with all the literature that has preceded it. It mines the collective subconscious of the literary world to craft a new form of literature, almost reminding the reader that they are, in fact, still reading.
The obvious allusion is of course The Odyssey, on which the structure of the novel is based. But I think there's less there than I anticipated. I had imagined something of a one-to-one journey, with Bloom as our Odysseus, heroically fighting through Dublin in an attempt to return home. That's not exactly a wrong interpretation, but it's also not exactly right.
Joyce uses The Odyssey as a framework. A structural skeleton. Each episode of Odysseus' journey home is mapped onto each chapter of Ulysses, albeit in a roundabout way. For example, Odysseus' encounter with the man-eating Lestrygonians becomes a chapter filled with food and gastric imagery. The use of Aelous' bag of wind becomes an onslaught of headlines and news articles, each full of hot air. It's a loose association that is likely more meaningful to the author than the reader. A clever point of departure to ignite the creative fires.
But it's also filled with fragmentary passages of other literature. Parodies of popular books, references to smut, lyrics to folk songs and operas, coded letters, Shakespeare. It draws upon an entire library's worth of work, spanning multiple millennia. But it isn't simply for added flavor. It's the semblance of the subconscious mind. The information we store deep within and recall on a whim. The garbage that clutters our thoughts as we attempt to formulate our words.
And that's what Ulysses is so great at capturing: the experience of individual thought. How each of our inner lives build upon the information we intake and the strange and often tenuous connections between it. How a song reminds us of a lost son. How a building reminds us of a child's illness reminds us of home remedies reminds us of our father reminds us of his dog. These circular and rambling chunks of history bounce around or brains until we sort them out. Edit them into something communicable.
But Ulysses forgoes that edit and presents these thoughts as-is. It's as if you're reading the formulation of the text itself. The next paragraph pinballing between an ancient text and a half-recalled lyric. Prior events echoing through a character's logic before the reader is even aware it ever happened. It's a highly subjective reading experience. One that favors thought over action.
But the brilliance here is that we're not experiencing Joyce's inner monologue, but the characters' themselves. As the novel progresses, we encounter the many minds of Dublin in their varied states, each with their own unique ways of parsing information. This manifests to the reader in different forms. A young girl imagines herself as the heroine of a romance novel. Molly's thoughts are eternally run-on sentences, shifting before the conclusions are ever drawn. A drunken Bloom is thrust into an avant-garde play, exposing his inner-most anxieties to a kangaroo court of characters that don't exist. Each individual has their own internal voice. Their own individualized experiences and references. Their own rhythms. Their own lives.
But again, this is merely a technique. If language is the tool, then thought is the form it takes. But what is the form's purpose? What, exactly, is Ulysses about?
From a plot perspective, it's rather simple. A man wanders through Dublin in an attempt to avoid his wife's inevitable affair. On his trek, he encounters a young writer, his wife's lover, more than a few drunks, a dead man, some flirty barmaids, a young woman with a limp, a mysterious man in a Macintosh, and even conducts a few affairs of his own. It's not the sweeping epic of The Odyssey, filled with monsters and battles. It's an intimate and rather dense portrait of a single day in Dublin. The details of that portrait, however, are what makes it so captivating.
As a person who attempts to write, I often struggle to verbalize the vastness of one's inner being. There is a large rift between the person we portray ourselves to be and the person we know we are. But there's an even greater rift between the person we know we are and the person we actually are. We each create our personas through a selfish act of myth-making. Constant edits and revisions of memory. Taking actions without reason, and rationalizing it post-act. There's a war raging deep within our minds of which we're rarely conscious. A lie that we tell ourselves.
And in those rare moments when we're confronted with that lie – where we become caught within the contradiction we've created and faced with our true selves – is when we experience reality. And that is what Ulysses is about.
Each character within the novel carries the baggage of a life well-lived. Sexual desires. Rivalries. Grief. Their inner thoughts are shaped by political arguments and careerism. They can be just as cruel as they are charitable. They lie more to themselves than they do to each other. But they're also incredibly isolated. Floating across Dublin in their own heads, barely noticing each other as they interact. As interconnected as the city may seem, it feels incredibly isolated. Lonely.
But there are snippets where the characters see each other. Truly connect, or at least connect as best they can. It's not in the words they say to each other, but the moments they share. The depth of their individual sorrows. The breadth of their fantasies.
One of the more significant chapters, and perhaps what some would consider a climax, is Ithaca. It's the entanglement of two narrative threads: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus sharing a cup of hot cocoa. It's largely a silent scene. We anticipate an eruption. An intellectual meeting. Anything at all, really. Instead, we get the sense of a missed connection. Two relative strangers missing each other on all fronts. We know each of them intimately. One longing for a stable father figure. The other in a deep depression after the death of his son. And yet, nothing.
In other novels, these moments would be a point of departure. A signal of change or reconciliation for our hero. A chance to reflect on their past and become another person. A better person.
But not in Ulysses. Perhaps nothing changes by the end. There's no cosmic shift or quiet resolution for Leopold Bloom. There's no promise of a better future for Stephen. There's no acceptance. No reflection. Things just are and continue to be. It's a day like any other. Another June 16th.
And what else?
Even now, I don't feel like I've accurately captured my feelings about Ulysses. I don't think I even could. It's an expansive novel and my full reflection would require an equally expansive text. But I also don't know if my thoughts can be organized into a readable format. Instead, they bounce around from idea to idea.
I considered writing about Joyce's relationship with Nora Barnacle. About his approach to writing about music. About Hamlet and his father's ghost. About the identity of M'Intosh. About sex and pleasure and shame. About drinking. Colonialism. Nationalism. Capitalism. Socialism. Anarchism. Judaism. Catholicism. Onanism. Ireland. Spain. Smut. BDSM. Bertolt Brecht. Mark Twain. Virginia Woolf. Infinite Jest. World War I. World War II. World War III. Third spaces. Mass media. Social media. Censorship. Centenaries. Rip Van Winkle. Penelope. And penises.
But those are my own thoughts. Violently colliding against one another into some flash of an idea that I could never write down. But that's where Ulysses succeeds. Sure, it's difficult. It's long. It's obtuse. But it's also an incredible piece of work. And how often do you get to experience that?