Friday, February 15, 2013

A Time to Re-Joyce: "Telemachus" to "Wandering Rocks"

I had to take an unexpected break from Ulysses after getting a quick Quill & Quire assignment, but I came roaring back to finish the first 10 episodes – which I figured would be a good place to pause and add an entry here. In case you’re curious, I’m reading from Oxford World Classic’s reprinting of the original 1922 text, with the thorough and thoroughly engaging introduction by Jeri Johnson.

Indeed, Johnson’s foreword has been essential to my understanding of Ulysses, as it was 10 years ago when I read the novel the first time. She acknowledges from the beginning the paradoxes of beginning this book: that Joyce’s masterpiece has become the antecedent of so many of our cultural references – both high and low –that it is now inexorably tangled in its own legacy. Not a bad problem to have, if you’re a work of literature.

But if Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written (and Anthony Burgess, among many others, believed this to be true) then it certainly, in the parlance of academics, “problematizes” our idea of perfection. This is where irony, the thick skein that coats the entire Ulysses experience, begins. We would suppose, for instance, that such an accomplishment would mean the text is sacrosanct, that one would not so much as move a comma. But as Johnson meticulously details in both her introduction and her “Composition and Publishing History”, this was not the case. Ulysses, following its initial publication, went through several iterations and corrections, both prior to Joyce’s death and afterward. Indeed, the effort to summit a “definitive text” of the novel has taken decades, and we’re still not there.

Also, one would presume that the greatest novel ever written would be monolithic, that nothing outside the text is required to interpret it. But Joyce, in a mischievous shattering of the covenant that most writers have with their readers, left a much-needed roadmap for academics of his day that outright explained many of the structures and systems underlying the novel. He, in essence, told those first readers what to think and how to approach the book, and that extra-textual authorial interference continues to inform much of the literary criticism surrounding Ulysses to this day.

One irony that Johnson does not explicitly point out is the irony of quotidian detail in Ulysses. She does mention the painstaking effort that Joyce went through to accurately capture his native Dublin as it was on June 16, 1904, the single day in which the novel is set. (Another irony, of course—that one could even write a diurnal novel that tops 700 pages.) But having reread these first 10 episodes of the book, I believe Joyce was not simply concerned with exactitude. I think he’s poking fun at literature’s abiding preoccupations with the quotidian, that he’s exaggerating the level of detail in Ulysses to say something about our notions of reality and how decentralized modern consciousness really is. This, of course, could be seen as a comic shot over the bow of, say, the Victorian authors who came before him.

So what exactly do these obsessive details unleash in the book’s first 10 episodes? If one is looking for even a taste of traditional plot, one will have to go elsewhere. The novel introduces us to its two chief protagonists: Stephen Dedalus, school teacher and would-be author first introduced to us in Joyce’s previous novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man; and Leopold Bloom, a Jew who works in advertising. The chief incident in the early part of the novel is the funeral for one Paddy Dignam, which brings out Bloom, Stephen, Stephen’s father and other men in the community. But the funeral is not a catalyst of anything, nor some element of rising action: the reader must absorb its irony for its own sake. To begin, there’s Paddy Dignam’s name, which we can interpret as a combination slang-and-Latin play on “Irish dignity”—the irony being of course that Paddy died messily of a heart attack while in a drunken stupor. But what struck me reading this for the second time around is how utterly comic the funeral scene actually is. Comic, because the ultimate irony is that it’s a traditional Catholic mass, but one that we witness through the Jewish eyes of Bloom. This disconnect—of Ireland’s Catholicism, Bloom’s Jewishness, and the attendant questions they will raise about the nature of nationhood—is a foreshadow of what is to come later in the novel.

One element of Ulysses that is not in doubt is the diametric poles that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom represent, and these differences become more acute as their two worlds inch toward each other. Dedalus is, of course, a man of the mind, an artist utterly consumed by intellectualism. In episode 2, “Nestor”, we see him teaching a lesson on ancient history to his students. After class, the boys run off to play a spirited game of field hockey; but despite Joyce’s pitch-perfect descriptions of slapping sticks and shouts of glee, Dedalus is very much removed from their playing. He instead becomes embroiled in an anti-Semitic rant by his school master, Mr. Deasy, following a conversation about Irish history. This precipitates one of the novel’s most famous lines (and, frankly, a mantra for many a colonized country): “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Later, in episode 9,“Scylla and Charybdis”, we find Stephen at the National Library espousing various theories about Shakespeare to the scholars gathered there, marrying biographical assumptions to aesthetic tastes.  

Bloom, by contrast, is a man of the body, of sensuality and the needs of the flesh. Joyce introduces him in episode 4, “Calypso”, where we find him preparing a breakfast comprised entirely of animal organs.  So fond is Bloom of mutton kidneys that his breath carries the faint hint of urine. The entire scene, in fact, is one singularly contained trajectory of bodily function: we witness Bloom both consume a meal and then defecate in the outhouse. Being an ad man, Bloom’s mental preoccupations differ wildly from Stephen’s. Joyce, throughout Ulysses, does an admirable job of braiding together the argots of literature with those of advertising. Bloom, having attended the funeral for Paddy Dignam, is consumed with thoughts of death, the body, and the fragility of the life force contained in us all. As lunchtime approaches, his mind turns once again to food. He is never far removed from the corporality (corpus, corpse) of existence.

There is also an air of the lugubrious surrounding Bloom, due in no small part to the awareness that his wife, Molly, is cuckolding him with one Blazes Boylan. Indeed, the Bloom marriage is under tremendous strain: one child dead, another away at school, and Bloom preoccupied with thoughts of his own father’s death, from suicide. Molly Bloom plays a minimal role in these first 10 episodes, but we still get a taste of her character and the role it will play later in the novel. Burgess, in an interview, was correct when he pointed out that there’s something not quite right with Molly's diction: despite having been born and raised in Gibraltar, she still speaks “like a Dublin fishwife.” Still, as knowing readers, we wait for her to take centre stage for the famous soliloquy that will articulate, in both senses of the term, so very much.

The last irony to point here in these first 10 episodes would be the irony of intersection. Bloom and Dedalus’s narratives are destined to collide, but it’s brilliant how Joyce postpones it with several near misses: both men are at Paddy Dignam’s funeral, both men are at the newspaper offices of the Freeman's Journal at the same time (Bloom to place an ad, Stephen to deliver a letter from Deasy to the editor), and both are at the National Library at the same time. (It’s worth pointing out that this kind of approach, of making separate narrative trajectories intersect as if they were circles in a Venn Diagram, would be revolutionary at the time of Ulysses’ publication.) The irony in these intersections is of course that, even in 1904, Dublin was a large city and the odds that these two men would coincidentally occupy multiple physical spaces—in a single day!—would be highly improbable.

Yet there is almost a mystical destiny in the air of Ulysses, constant and overbearing, and how this destiny plays out will be the subject of subsequent episodes, and my next post on the matter.  

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