Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ulysses by Declan Kiberd

For James Joyce the nation as an ideal created a sense of responsibility for the fate of others in the community. The decline of nations in an era of global economic forces is linked intimately to the collapse of the civic bourgeoisie and its replacement by a merely consumerist middle class in the later part of the 20th century. The civic bourgeoisie saw 'freedom' as the right to produce rather than consume, and, rejecting the idea that everything should be privatized, it invested its profits in public libraries, museums and parks. The vernacular modernisms of Barcelona, Bombay, New York and Dublin are among the ultimate achievements of that bourgeoisie, as is Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses which was intended as a counter- argument to the British pedagogy in the lead-up to World War I which reduced the Greek and Roman classics to a cult of mere power, as in empire-building, boy-scouting and mountain climbing. That is the immediate context for Joyce's revision of Homer and for his redefinition of heroics as social-democratic celebration of the common man; a pedagogy of non-possessiveness and peace.

The tragedy of the twentieth century, according to Kiberd, was the replacement of a public-spirited bourgeoisie, not with a fully enfranchise people, but with a workforce now split between overpaid experts and underpaid service providers. The world so lost now turns out to have been far better than that which replaced it. The world of the pub, cafe, civic museum and national library produced social democracy, modernist painting and Ulysses. The world which supplanted it can generate only the identikit shopping mall, the ubiquitous security camera and the celebrity biography. The middle class has no real public culture or artworks which critique its triumph, because it has assimilated all the oppositional forces of modernism, by reducing them to mass entertainment. Now the streets are places not of amenity but of danger, through which nervous people drive in locked cars from one private moment to another.

In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus's passage from adolescence to maturity is intimately connected to the nature of Dublin. In a truly civic city such as Dublin was in 1904, all sorts of people pass through very different parts every day. Growth is possible, even for settled citizens like Bloom, through openness to the Other and a willingness to talk with those who might seem different. This free circulation in the inner city contrasts with life in suburbia, which is designated to answer the middle class's fear of a world they cannot control. 'The essence of human development is that growth occurs when old routines break down,' writes Richard Sennett,' but suburbs make it possible for us to hide from being adults.' Stephen cannot do that, for he is pulled back into Dublin's center. It is the sheer randomness of their meeting that Joyce wants most of all to celebrate, their shared openness to all that is accidental. For him the wonder of a city is that it is a place in which behavior can never be fully predicted, controlled or even explained.

Before Joyce, nobody had so fully represented the process of thought, that stream of consciousness which everyone experiences every day. In previous artworks, such detail was offered only about a noble character like Hamlet as he considered suicide; but in Ulysses Joyce shows the inner soliloquy as a normal prelude to nothing more portentous than drinking a cup of tea. Admirers of Joyce's masterful interior monologues have often overlooked the elements of self-repression they sometimes contain. They can often be read like a compulsive blather, blocking out and controlling more painful thoughts, much as a person might switch on a radio to distract from sadness, or a parody of newspaper headlines in private thoughts. At other times they reflect richness and mastery of character. Just as each figure in Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon represents a different style in his artistic evolution, each episode in the single text called Ulysses is quite different from all the others. Thus, and by various other techniques and flexible styles, Ulysses becomes a narrative which uses the streets, and the mundane events in the lives of 'inconsequential characters' on a single day as a guide to an order hidden from those caught up in the accidents of its unfolding.


  1. "It was only in the decade before 1904 that the technology had been at last developed which permitted the publication of papers with news covering the previous twenty-four hours. Joyce was impressed by the penetration of newspapers into the popular mindset, as were the surrealist painters who attached pieces of newsprint to their constructs. Yet he was also worried about the failure of journalists to take advantage of the full possibilities opened up by the new technology.

    When early on he has Bloom wipe his bottom with a page from "Titbits", Joyce is fretting about the disposability of print, about how much of it is wasted and how much is frittered away. The danger is that newspapers reduce an item of news to mere sensation, so that it is lost to true emplotment and not accorded its full context of cause and effect. The need was to salvage some of the higher potentials, to create a two-way paper in which writers and readers enjoy an interactive relationship. One answer might be "Ulysses", a counter-newspaper which would provide a dense, perhaps even Primitive (Gaelic), background to the day's happenings.

    He realized that he and his contemporaries were participants in a new technology but that they had not, as yet, got control of it, making it the servant of humanity. Rather, they had been mastered by it, and the carnage wrought by the repeating guns of World War I was proof enough of that. But Joyce was born early enough to have high hopes for that technology and for the mass literacy which accompanied it. Unlike many other modernists, he celebrated elements of popular culture ( handbills, advertisements, posters, jingles, radio phrases, newsprint) and incorporated them all into his book. Joyce seems to have recognized his own journalistic tendencies: "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man, for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description." Not for him the later depressive diagnosis of the Frankfurt School, which after his death depicted modern media as forces which achieve nothing better than the manufacture of a dreary consent.

  2. The Easter Rising of 1916 is the great unmentionable fact which hovers behind so many episodes of "Ulysses"- the setting of 'Aeolus' near the Post Office which provided its headquarters; the 'triumph of failure' motif in that episode and in the Library scene; the blood sacrifice of 'Lestrygonians'; the Viceregal cavalcade. Joyce knew well the personalities of the upper-middle-class Catholic constitutional nationalists blown away in 1916. But he also felt that he himself had been, in a prior sense, blown away by them. For no 'nice girl' from that social group would ever marry a boy like him from Cabra, a lad such as he was in his final college years. He was an acceptable and amusing presence at parties of the Sheehy family, where he did his parodies of the Queen in "Hamlet". Hanna Sheehy's advanced ideas of suffragism, shared with her husband Frank Skeffington, conditioned his portrait of Bloom's androgyny, even down to the detail of his being given a female as well as male name, Leopold Paula Bloom. But the young Joyce had also called himself a socialist artist: and in an essay titled "Home Rule Comes of Age', he had proposed that little good would come of that group's take-over. As early paper in 1907, he had painted a devastating portrait of a local elite collaborating with the colonial occupier. "The Irish parliamentary party has gone bankrupt" , he lamented:

    "For twenty-seven years it has talked and agitated. In that time it has collected 35 million francs from its supporters, and the fruits of its agitation is that Irish taxes have gone up 88 million francs and the Irish population has decreased by a million. The representatives have improved their own lot, aside from small discomforts like a few months in prison and some lengthy sittings. From the sons of ordinary citizens, peddlers, and lawyers without clients they have become well-paid syndics, directors of factories and commercial houses, newspaper owner, and large land owners. They had given proof of their altruism only in 1891, when they sold their leader, Parnell, to the pharisaical conscience of the English Dissenters without exacting the thirty pieces of silver."

    "Wandering Rocks" is a remote-lens view of ordinary citizens moving through the maze of the Edwardian city, but it frames their struggle within the prevailing regimes of Christ and Caesar. There is a sense of resentment bubbling not far below the city's consciousness. The pervasive feeling through-out the book is of a people under intolerable pressure, even if its skirts are lifted only a little. In this episode and in the entire book almost anyone might be, even the reader finding his way, Odysseus-like, through the maze. The surface calm of a provincial city on a sleepy summer's afternoon is deceptive. Not far beneath is a stress on poor sanitation, widespread debt, much unemployment and economic frustration among the worker, but also among sections of the middle class.

  3. Some of the more interesting parts of this book recount incidents from Joyce's life. For example:

    "Working late into the night, Joyce often woke his partner Nora Barnacle with guffaws at his own prose. He felt himself working in a mainly oral tradition. If anyone couldn't understand a passage, he said, they should just try reading it aloud; and if that didn't work, they should change their drink."