Monday, August 22, 2022

Ulysses again

I first read Ulysses in 1979, finishing, not by plan, on June 16. I read the novel for a second time in 1980, and again in 1984. Coming back to the novel this summer, I find my aspirant-academic self in the marginal notes on the foxed pages, in penciled printing now so faint that I need (anyone would need) a magnifying glass to read it.

I often cringe at my earlier reading, which was informed — if that’s the word — by various commentaries and reader’s guides. Sun = son. Fetal position. Rebirth? Rebirth. Trinities everywhere. And of course the specific Homeric correspondences, some so improbable, so strained, that they now seem to me largely beside the point. Buck Mulligan = Antinous? Blazes Boylan = Eurymachus? Well, that’s what I was told.

What I missed so much of earlier on: the characters’ humanity. I missed Leopold Bloom’s utter loneliness: in his family life, in his relationships with other male Dubliners. He conducts a covert pseudonymous correspondence with “Martha Clifford” (whoever she, or he, is); he masturbates while looking at a seventeen-year-old girl (two years older than his daughter Milly, who’s now away for the summer); he’s haunted by the thought of Blazes Boylan’s afternoon visit to Molly Bloom, so much so, it seems, that he doesn’t return to his house at 7 Eccles Street until the early hours of June 17. Bloom is an outsider in the alcoholic, Catholic world of men: a (thrice-baptized!) Jew who drinks only in moderation, a figure whose kindnesses and advocacy of pacifism make him the subject of mockery. He’s haunted by losses: his father’s suicide, the death of his own infant son. With his daughter away, Bloom attempts to create a new familial triangle by proposing to bring Stephen Dedalus into his household: Molly will give Stephen singing lessons, and Stephen will instruct Molly in proper Italian pronunciation and provide intellectual companionship for Bloom.

Poor Stephen: a writer manqué who escaped to Paris only to return to Dublin, with no clear place of residence, haunted by the death of his mother (for whom he refused to pray), abandoned by his fellow carousers in his hour of extremity, the son of a hapless drunk who has ceded the role of parent to his oldest daughter. Stephen stands by silently while others plan literary gatherings; his own literary pull is no more than the means to get his boss’s letter about foot-and-mouth disease in a newspaper. On June 16, Stephen drinks heavily and eats nothing. He last bathed in October. When Stephen declines Bloom’s offer of a place to stay and leaves 7 Eccles Street in the early hours of June 17, he has, literally, no place to go. Like Mr. Duffy in “A Painful Case” (Dubliners), Stephen is alone.

And then there’s Molly Bloom. Her stream of consciousness is an amusing and often outlandish torrent of grudges, suspicions, cutting remarks, and sexual fantasies, the product of a male imagination with its own particular obsessions. But here too, I missed Molly’s humanity. I now see much more clearly that she, like her husband, like Stephen, is profoundly isolated. She is contemptuous of the crass, presumptuous Blazes Boylan, who is merely a respite from the sexual death that is her marriage. Imagining Stephen, she thinks “it’ll be a change the Lord knows to have an intelligent person to talk to about yourself.” Men, she thinks, “have friends they can talk to weve none.” But do men have such friends? Bloom doesn’t. But neither Molly nor Bloom recognizes the other’s isolation. I’ve swooned at Molly’s final “yes I said yes I will Yes,” and I still do. But that was in the past, as Molly and Leopold lay among the rhododendrons on Howth Head. Things are different at 7 Eccles Street.

So I now see more in Ulysses than I once did. And what I understand much better now is that the work’s value is not in its small cryptic details. Joyce famously said that he

put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
I think that Joyce was working with the sources-and-analogues model of literary scholarship in mind: reading as a form of archaeology or genealogy, to figure out where a particular plot element comes from, what a topical reference means, what an allusion references, where a saying or proverb might first be found. All worthy efforts of course. I suspect that Dante looms large here, given the vast body of commentary on the Divine Comedy.

But are enigmas and puzzles the reason anyone reads Dante? I don’t think so. I respond to Dante’s brutal wit, his bizarre pageantry, his extraordinary similes, and the tension between what doctrine dictates and what feeling demands: “Ser Brunetto, are you here?” Nor are enigmas and puzzles the reason anyone reads Chaucer, or the Shake, or the Brontës, or Proust, or Morrison, or Frank O’Hara, or, or, or. I think of literature, always, as what Kenneth Burke called it: “equipment for living.” It deepens our understanding of our common humanity: “always meeting ourselves,” as Stephen says. It deepens our understanding of the possibilities of language and imagination, of what might be made in words. Those are good reasons to read Ulysses. I’m glad I had another chance.

Related reading
All OCA Joyce posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

Frex said...

I love this post so much--actually more than I love reading the clips from the book itself, I love hearing your insight---and as an Older Person myself, I love seeing how my (our) reading of a book changes over time.
Frex = Fresca

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Fresca.