Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Meditations on James Joyce. Part 1

A sequence of reflections on the question 'Do you like Ulysses?' that will probably take me the whole week. Here goes!


There’s no way of writing this as a cogent article without falling into academic discourse. I think that aphoristic mini-chapters will prove more appropriate (if nothing else, more entertaining).


Do I like Ulysses, the novel by James Joyce? I recently had a remarkable discussion on facebook with some friends (students of Joyce, all of them), and there seemed to be a tacit assumption among my interlocutors: that I do not like Ulysses. At the core of this assumption was a rather rash statement I once made at the pub, reported as follows: ‘No-one actually enjoys Ulysses emotionally, do they – just intellectually.’ I’ll discuss this statement further on. I’m not retracting it, but it’s definitely rather rash. Though of course any judgment made on Ulysses is rather rash, by default. Including this one.


Did you like Dubliners? Yes. A very solid collection of short stories, technically brilliant, very colourful and consistently enjoyable.

Did you like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Decidedly disliked it. But then, I am normally averse to autobiographies unless the writer has spent twenty years in Tibet or been in a war, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why I should give a fuck about the guy’s life. The Portrait gives no such reason, because Stephen Dedalus spends the entire novel doing nothing, and eventually decides to withdraw from religion, politics, nationalism, and everything else. Exactly what he’s going to engage with is unclear. For all of the linguistic pyrotechnics, the assumption behind the book remains, ‘my life is so important because I am an artist.’ To the point of writing an entire novel dedicated to nothing but the ‘Portrait of the Artist’, aka a self-portrait. There’s probably plenty of people who find the book’s passages beautiful, but for my own part, the feeling of circularity and narcissism (and the typical, misleading confusion between artistic maturity and spiritual fulfillment) that belie the plot are just too disturbing to overlook.

Did you like Ulysses? Well, now...


Consider the following image.

Which of the answers is the right one?


Why would I not like Ulysses? Without plunging into denial: because it’s boring. Wait – is it? There’s plenty of passages in the novel which I read with a sense of great enjoyment. It may be more accurate to say that it has a reputation for being boring. Is this reputation deserved? That depends. There is a difference between something being ‘boring’ and something being ‘hard work.’ Anyone who sees the two things as synonymous will think, legitimately, that Ulysses is boring. But regardless of the kind of work it implies, we may answer the original question: one reason why I may not like Ulysses is that it is hard work. Is that a good reason?


Be it or not a good reason, something immediately jumps to notice– just the act of discussing the novel has led me to question my ideas and standards of literature. What is it that I enjoy in novels, and what are the ethical responsibilities of the reader (why should he engage in the ‘hard work’?) – these are both natural follow-ups to the above. This points to one of the major identifying features of Ulysses – its responsibility, intended as, its capacity to call, evoke, or demand a response. You must respond to Ulysses. Whether for or against, you must take a stance on it.


This leads to the continuous jack about Joyce that you get among undergraduate students of literature. Your first two years at university are usually the age you’ll get in contact with Ulysses (even read the whole thing, if you’re the smartass type). It’s one of the most common discussions in the hood – not on the novel’s meaning or its significance, but on whether it’s good or not. The most vocal of the students are usually those who insist it is rubbish – and in my five years within academia, I’ve met quite a lot of them (did my share of protesting too, I won’t hide). Not just mediocre or generally not very good, but outright rubbish, nonsense. They rebel, even fiercely, to the idea of having to do the ‘hard work.’ But this is the point – they have to respond. They need to qualify their rejection. And the pressure goes both ways – students are pressured to justify themselves because they are also pressured to read it. The problem is not that Ulysses is hard work, but the fact that it’s hard work that you’re expected to do. Ulysses compels you to respond.


Let’s examine for a second this notion that Ulysses is hard work. Is it true? One thing is certain – it presupposes a lot of background reading, even without counting the Odyssey, and if you haven’t gone through that, then you can’t read Ulysses. A child cannot be expected to read Ulysses, and people who don’t read much or even dislike reading can’t either. So preparing yourself to read this novel is hard work, if you are not already prepared.


If you are not the kind of person who is ‘prepared’ to read Ulysses – then you probably wouldn’t be trying to read it in the first place. So the argument is moot.


Those who have nothing to do with art should have nothing to do with art (Stanislaw Jerzy Lec). Similarly, Ulysses is NOT hard work only to those whose profession is literature (or art) in the first place. (And even then, of course, it’s not necessarily an easy ride. But more on this later).

Part 2 to follow tomorrow.

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