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Taming The Monster

Brian Donnelly


Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, by Declan Kiberd, Faber and Faber, 399 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571242542

There is no shortage of books designed to introduce Joyce to new readers, or texts that aim to guide the more experienced through the narrative complexities of Ulysses. Joyce himself began the practice before the book was published. In 1920 he provided Carlo Linati, his Italian translator, with a scheme of the parallels along which he constructed the scaffolding of that famous fictional day in June 1904. He wrote:

I think that in view of the enormous bulk and the more than enormous complexity of my damned monster-novel it would be better to send him a sort of summary-key-skeleton-scheme (for home use only) ... It is the epic of two races (Israel and Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses has fascinated me ever since boyhood ... My intention is not only to render the myth sub specie temporis nostri but also to allow each adventure (that is, every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the somatic scheme of the whole) to condition and even to create its own technique. (Joyce, Selected Letters)

This early authorial intervention into the reception of his work attests to Joyce’s awareness of the radical nature of the “damned monster-novel” and the need to prepare the ground upon which Ulysses might take root. Joyce proved to be his own best apologist and publicist. He was no aloof modernist seeking a realm of articulation that would remain beyond the common reader. At the very beginning of his book, Declan Kiberd tells the story of Joyce pointing to the son of the concierge of his Paris apartment and remarking to his friend, “that boy will be a reader of Ulysses”. Whether the boy ever did read the book is not known. What we do know is that many have tried to read Ulysses and failed, not a few abandoning the task just a few pages into the third episode, “Proteus”, if not even earlier. Joyce was acutely conscious of the paradox: his novel was an exact and minute rendering of the lives of ordinary Dubliners, but the techniques that he developed to record those lives took the conventions of fiction in directions that had not before been attempted. He wanted the people of his city to read his account of their lives and to this end he continued the instruction given to Signor Linati by engaging others to guide the reader.

The most influential acolytes in this regard can be seen to have established, more or less, the two strands of commentary and criticism of Ulysses. Stuart Gilbert and Frank Budgen were selected by Joyce to write the first book-length studies of his novel. Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. A Study (1930) engaged with the complexities of the novel’s language and explored its structures. Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses” (1934) emphasised the humanistic achievement of the author, his capacity to understand the men and women of his native city and to portray their lives with the depth and complexity that, in Coleridge’s memorable account of the young Wordsworth, gave “the charm of novelty to things of every day … by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonder of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure …”.

It is to the tradition of reading first represented by Budgen that Declan Kiberd’s book belongs, seeing in Ulysses “an inexhaustible treasure” that has become obscured by an academic industry that has hijacked a great work in order to serve its own ends. He early asserts that “it is time to reconnect Ulysses to the everyday lives of real people” and to “defend his book and those masses [common readers] against the newly illiterate specialists and technocratic elites”. This democratic imperative is tempered by the underlying understanding that it is a difficult book and that the reader must labour in the reading as Joyce did in the writing. Kiberd observes that “Ulysses was designed to produce readers capable or reading Ulysses … it offers not only a text but a training in how to decode it.” Ulysses and Us is, at the deepest level, a performance in which we observe a master reader reading a masterpiece which in turns reads him. This is a deeply personal appropriation of Joyce’s book which invites the reader to stroll in the steps of Stephen and Bloom in the company of one whose antenna is tuned to Dublin in 1904 and to the layers of historical, literary and cultural accretions that are today part of our reading of Ulysses.

Though Kiberd’s study belongs clearly to a line of Joyce criticism that begins with Budgen and progresses with Harry Levin’s milestone study of 1941, Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce (1956) and Richard Ellman’s 1982 biography, he is a critic whose reading is acutely aware of and informed by most of the significant scholarly studies and theoretic appropriations of Ulysses that have crowded library shelves in the last thirty years. His method is straightforward: a chapter is devoted to each of the eighteen episodes of Joyce’s odyssey with titles describing the main activity or preoccupation ‑ such as “Waking”, “Learning”, “Thinking” for the first three. The Homeric signifiers that Joyce ascribed to these episodes are explained as an integral part of the discussions that follow. The prototype for this method is Harry Blamires’s The Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1966), a book that paraphrases in detail the actual events in each episode of the novel. What distinguishes Kiberd’s book from the likes of Blamires’s is that in paraphrasing Joyce’s rendering of that summer day in 1904 he offers readings that are rich in historical insight and profound in their understanding of Ulysses as a radical work of European modernism with deep roots in Irish life and in Gaelic as well as English literary cultures. His readings, moreover, are designed to rescue Joyce from a self-appointed cadre of “Joyce specialists”. He writes:

When after World War II bohemia broke out of the ghetto and became the new middle-class lifestyle, the assumption behind Ulysses that there was never any deep-rooted conflict between bohemian and bourgeois helped to secure its speedy assimilation to the literary canon. But it was the corporate university – and not the liberated individual reader – which took over the work of interpretation. That university praised Joyce as the supreme technician and ignored Ulysses as a modern example of wisdom literature. However, modernism, like any other great movement of art, is full of lessons.

Though he does not make the exact point, Kiberd’s interpretations are designed to rescue Joyce’s book from the status ascribed it by TS Eliot in his influential article of 1923, “Ulysses, Order and Myth”. Eliot claimed that Joyce’s use of the Homeric story was “a simple way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. In Kiberd’s reading, Joyce is a celebrant of what, in Eliot’s view, is a diminished civilisation; his Dublin is far from Eliot’s London, the “unreal city” that appeared in The Waste Land in the same year that Ulysses was published. Kiberd remarks:

What Joyce liked most about his native city was its urbanity. ‘What a town Dublin is!’ he exclaimed to his friend Frank Budgen. ‘I wonder if there is another like it. Everybody has time to hail a friend and start a conversation about a third party.’ It was so different from London, where people had a horror of common hallways in which a person might have to talk with a total stranger. Ulysses, in recreating the effects of such chance meetings, connects the reader with his or her inner strangeness, helping us to make friends with our buried selves, epitomised perhaps by the Wandering Jew.

In Eliot’s aesthetic, “the mythical method” offered a structure that would highlight the poverty of modern history. For Kiberd, Joyce’s employment of myth and allusion is always designed to celebrate the heroic and the extraordinary in the lives of citizens such as Leopold Bloom, our native Odysseus. In this respect Joyce is closer in spirit and vision to the great Romantic poets than he is to most of his “modernist” contemporaries. For him, as for Blake, heaven and eternity are immanent in the ordinary daily struggle, not in the heroics of a Hector or an Achilles. Kiberd observes:

British pedagogy in the lead-up to World War I reduced many Greek and Roman classics to a cult of mere power as in empire-building, boy-scouting or mountain climbing. That is the immediate context for Joyce’s revision of Homer and for his redefinition of heroics. He sees heroics as a neurotic attempt by men who, fearing emptiness and anomie after the long peace, seek to create a cult of strenuous energy ‑ yet this search led only to the carnage of World War I. Joyce’s use of the classics is more humble and wise.

Throughout his study he locates Joyce’s book in its Irish as well as its European contexts. Those who have read his earlier writings, Inventing Ireland (1995) and Irish Classics (2000), will be familiar with his views of the novel as an imported literary form that sought to describe Ireland’s “unmade” social structures. In Ulysses and Us he asserts that when Joyce’s epic “finally emerged, [it] was caught in the interstices between these forms. If the epic is the genre of the ancient world, and the novel that of the bourgeoisie, then it is in the troubled transition period between these orders that the forms of art go into meltdown and a radical newness becomes possible.” In this context, Ireland afforded Joyce almost ideal conditions for his literary experiments, allowing him to explore “a world that is at once archaic and avant-garde”, one in which “its bohemia is not a voluntary gathering of dissidents in flight from the high rents of gentrification. It is the laboratory that Ireland was at the turning of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. It celebrated the ways in which a life could be simultaneously cosmopolitan and supremely local. After all, the local Irish features are an intrinsic part of the book’s meaning and appeal.” In a nice conceit that is typical of Kiberd’s readings, he views Joyce’s walking cane, which he carried habitually, as both the signature of the Parisian flâneur and the symbol of the Gaelic file, thus inscribing his literary lineage as cosmopolitan yet essentially Irish.

The individual chapters of Ulysses and Us, each a detailed analysis of an episode in the novel, view Joyce’s achievement as the portrayal of exemplary characters who, like the reader, must struggle to live their days within the limitations of their personalities and circumstances. The story follows the prescription of Aristotle in its unity of time and place, but, as Kiberd reminds us, “though set in 1904, [it] is written at the mercy of all those later moments of its enunciation from 1914 to 1921”; indeed its narrative structure, for all its Homeric and other dimensions, returns to the origins of the eighteenth century novel, in that it is a picaresque tale. Kiberd observes that “by recording the hour-by-hour variations in individuals, Joyce can show their selves in transformation”. We follow Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom as their paths run parallel, intersect and finally separate; and we are aware of Molly Bloom, whose presence is in the mind of her husband and many others until her consciousness and voice are given the final pages of a very long book. In Kiberd’s reading, Stephen is a troubled soul, sufferings the pangs of guilt occasioned by his selfish treatment of his dying mother, a callow youth struggling to define himself in relation to a colonial culture and much ill-digested learning acquired in gaining his BA degree from the new Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin). Bloom, on the other hand, is a man who, though mourning the death of a young son, discriminated against on grounds of race and cheated upon by his wife, is relaxed, at home in the world and at ease in his own body. Though very different in background, experience and education, they have one important thing in common: each has an open, inquiring mind that refuses to be limited by the straitjacket of history or the social, religious or sexual conventions of contemporary Dublin. In this regard they are at a tangent to the various teachers, intellectuals (either of the library or the public house), priests, makers of public opinion or shapers of literary taste whom they encounter during the day and night in the city. Molly Bloom too, though voiceless for most of the story, reveals, in the book’s final episode, a mind that is imaginative, flexible, generous and free of the shackles of any conventional female education. In this regard the book’s cover reproduction of Marilyn Monroe in a swimsuit reading the latter pages of Ulysses is no mere promotional gimmick. It is of a piece with the author’s implied assertion that Molly’s untutored wisdom and generosity of spirit might have been of comfort or even instruction to a troubled Hollywood star who reads with the rapt concentration of a woman engrossed in the secret, inner life of another woman.

However, if Ulysses and Us were a simple didactic reduction of Joyce’s book to a kind of self-help manual, as its subtitle might suggest, its interest would be limited indeed. It would belong to a species of latter-day, narrow Leavisite moral engagements with a canonical text. Kiberd’s perspective, however, is more imaginative and instructive in the manner of Harold Bloom, the reader who, in his learning and belief in great literature’s capacity to instruct and to redeem, this critic most resembles. Kiberd asserts that “the art of everyday living demands that a person has the wisdom to process a potentially negative experience in a different way, transcending the problem rather than being limited by it”. In this respect his reading is one in which Joyce’s characters define themselves against the traditions and codes that would shackle and limit their personalities. Their non-serviams are remarkable insofar as they avoid heroic gestures or alternative lifestyles. It is their ordinariness that makes them extraordinary, and it is Joyce’s achievement that his novel discovered the many ways of rendering these lives in all of their variety and complexity. Kiberd’s achievement is that he not only responds to Joyce’s originality in each of the episodes of Ulysses but also manages to uncover the layers of cultural accretion and personal experience that shaped his view of his world and formed his fictional vocation. He observes that for Joyce “no style achieved could ever be final or official” in the way that no view of life or mode of living could ever be definitive; a prescribed style soon becomes cliché and an overly strict, inflexible code of living leads to the death of the imagination and of the heart. In the eighteen chapters of his book, Kiberd shows, in thoughtful, insightful readings, how Joyce’s originality as a writer is always at the service of expressing the uniqueness of the individual rather than being mere literary display, though he is constantly alive to his linguistic playfulness and the sense of fun that will lead to Finnegans Wake.

From his opening chapter, “Waking”, to his reading of Molly’s soliloquy in the final chapter, entitled “Loving”, we are in the company of a reader who shows us the many ways in which Joyce constructed his portrait of the city which he hoped could be reconstructed from the pages of Ulysses should it ever be destroyed. He shows, too, a writer who not only uses the English language with a range and subtlety not seen since Shakespeare, but one whose aim is to master and to subvert a language and a literary culture imposed upon the people of Ireland. In his chapter “Reading”, in which he explores the complexities of the “Scylla and Charybidis” episode, set in the National Library of Ireland, Kiberd asserts wisely that the healthy mind must not submit to any of the extremes argued for by the protagonists (England v Ireland, Plato v Aristotle, Russell v Mulligan) “but [should] entertain both possibilities in a mode of openness”. In his chapters on “Sirens”, and “Oxen of the Sun” in particular, he demonstrates how Joyce allowed each episode of his story “to condition and even to create its own technique” (Joyce, Selected Letters). Of Bloom’s experience (and ours as readers) in the Ormond Hotel he writes:

That feeling of being suddenly confronted by the challenges of a new language is, of course, the experience of most readers as they work through Ulysses. Often the reader is expected to decode material without necessarily enjoying full knowledge of who is speaking. This is also true here of Bloom who listens to songs and voices coming from a nearby room. Such disembodied voices were becoming commonplace by 1904 in the age of the electronic recording. These voices connect also with those episodes of Ulysses which lack a named narrator. The overall effect is to make the reader feel as if he or she has been set down in a zone at once familiar and strange, like Robinson Crusoe placed suddenly among the denizens of a modern city.

The reference to the phonograph is typical of the way this writer always historicises Joyce’s work to illuminating effect. This he does again in, for example, the chapter entitled “Reporting”, in which Joyce explores the cultural significance of the printing press and the daily newspaper, “alerting us to the dangers of mechanical clichés as propounded by journalists” and, by implication, reminding us that much of daily reality is a linguistic construct, as the novel we are reading, Ulysses, demonstrates by its ever changing styles. In this context, Kiberd asserts that it is in the fourteenth episode, “Oxen of the Sun”, set in the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, that “Joyce’s book is finally born”. The parodies or imitations of English prose styles from early times until the present, he argues, not only mimic the birth and the growth of language but signal Joyce’s refusal to be subordinate to any one mode and, consequently, to the possibility of being anthologised. The “imperial mindset”, he argues, “was obsessed with anthologies, often as a way of refusing to know a native culture in all its depth and rigour”. One of Joyce’s objects, “right through Ulysses was to make his book unassimilable to such an anthology by refusing to settle into a single ‘hallmark’ style”. This is argued convincingly, but perhaps ignores the element of showing off that is displayed throughout this and other episodes. There is a sense in “Oxen of the Sun” that Joyce is displaying his command over the rhetorical resources of the English literary canon in a manner that is characteristic of the bright outsider thumbing his nose at a complacent cultural elite. Furthermore, Joyce here demonstrates, more profoundly perhaps than elsewhere in the novel, the way in which a fictional character is always a literary construct as is the case when Bloom, described in the style of Sir Thomas Malory, shows concern for the suffering of Mrs Purefoy in the labour ward above:

This meanwhile the good sister stood by the door and begged them at the reverence of Jesu our alter liege lord to leave their wassailing for there was above one quick with child a gentle dame, whose time hied fast. Sir Leopold heard on the upfloor cry on high and he wondered what cry that it was whether of child or woman and I marvel said he, that it be not come or now. … And sir Leopold that was the goodliest guest that ever sat in scholars’ hall and that was the meekest man and the kindest that ever laid husbandly hand under hen and that was the very truest knight of the world one that ever did minion service to lady gentle pledged him courtly in the cup. Woman’s woe with wonder pondering.

This goes beyond mere pastiche; the antique diction and syntax creates an image of Bloom that is perfectly in keeping with his customary old world courtesy and gallantry, displayed here among the drunken and boisterous young men who are indifferent to the discomfort of others. Kiberd’s reading of Bloom as a man who embodies the best of the male and female in his attitudes and behaviour is articulated beautifully in that last alliterative sentence in the quotation above. He observes that we see Joyce’s final involvement with the “writerly tradition” in this episode and that what follows is “a medley of voices, more oral than written”. This is so in “Penelope” and, of course, in Finnegans Wake, in which Joyce seems to approximate in print the original modes of telling of Homer’s tales and many of the conventions of early English and Gaelic storytelling traditions.

It is Kiberd’s deep understanding of the literary and cultural traditions in which Joyce was nurtured that makes his readings of Ulysses original and compelling. This is demonstrated in his discussion of the “Cyclops” episode, which he titles, appropriately, “Drinking”. He argues persuasively, as he has done elsewhere, that “the nationalism of modern Ireland is portrayed as a neurotic reaction to Englishness” and that “Irishness must be in all respects the opposite of Englishness, and masculinity the opposite of femininity”. In this context Bloom is the outsider who “disrupts the complacencies of all the settled codes with which he comes into contact”. He has none of the false, masculine swagger of the Citizen and his cronies; consequently his answer to the Citizen’s question, “What is your nation …”, is eloquent in its simplicity: “Ireland … I was born here.” This reply stands in contrast to the inflated rhetoric of the Irish national story that Joyce parodies with obvious glee throughout the episode. In these hilarious and seemingly interminable narrations he again shows the reader that Irish nationalism, like all such abstractions, is a cultural construct reflecting the wishes and aspirations of a people, not an immutable reality. Like Ulysses itself, all nationalisms are, to some extent, works of fiction. When he constructed these parodies of heroic tales and legends (many of them rewritten and extended following the original publication of the episode in The Little Review between November and December 1919), Joyce had the invention of a heroic Gaelic past by the writers of the Revival in his satirical sights. The crone who brings Sandycove milk to the tower in the opening episode is but the first in a series of deflationary portrayals of clichéd images of Ireland that the urban-bred James Joyce sets out to correct in his novel. In this regard Kiberd is the surest and most thought-provoking of guides, seeing Ulysses as the book that brings to fruition “many of the aspirations of the Irish Literary Revival”. The librarian’s observation in “Scylla and Charybdis” that “our national epic has yet to be written” is, in Declan Kiberd’s view, challenged by the book in which this opinion is recorded.

Kiberd’s view of Ulysses as both the Irish National Epic and a landmark of European modernism is apparent throughout his study. Two chapters, “Wandering Rocks” and “Circe”, should serve to demonstrate his awareness of the book’s roots in the island of Ireland in the struggle for independence and in the continent of Europe in the aftermath of World War I. “Wandering Rocks” is usually read as an entr’acte between the first and the second halves of the novel. Kiberd shows the episode’s roots in contemporary cubist art, in which the ways of seeing are as important as the things seen, observing that “Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which it is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative”. His description of the chapter as “a remote lens view of ordinary citizens moving through the maze of the Edwardian city … [framing] their struggles within the prevailing regimes of Christ and Caesar” leads to the best analysis I have read of how Joyce’s fictive techniques expose the layers of political oppression, church control and widespread poverty that lie under “the surface calm of a provincial Edwardian city on a sleepy summer’s afternoon …”. He observes that “not far beneath is a stress on poor sanitation, widespread debt, much unemployment and economic frustration among workers, but also among sections of the middle class”. We are informed that “by the time he was writing ‘Wandering Rocks’, the old deference towards this class [the new Dublin bourgeoisie] and their British overlords had been shattered by World War I and by the Easter Rising … the great, unmentionable fact which hovers behind so many episodes of Ulysses …”. He further remarks that

If the smug Catholic upper middle class was blown away by the rebellion, the uninvolved British rulers are also shown to have been off guard and out of touch with the people whom they claimed to be helping. Both Stephen and Bloom are untouched by the government cavalcade. For Dublin is both a colonial and an anti-colonial city, in which these forces are not just opposed but also sometimes interpenetrated by one another. … In a city where everyone, from rulers to ruled, appears to be marginal, the sense of being an outsider which he [Bloom] suffered from in the earlier scenes suddenly seems quite normal for all: as if this is more like the true state of things in a society yet to be made. If Bloom emerges now as representative of many other citizens, he also becomes a version of the reader, excited by but also anxious to decode the private signs all round.

This is a richly suggestive reading that expands our awareness of the scope of Ulysses, even if one disagrees with some of the details or emphases in the historical analysis. The observation that the viceroy has no lines of interior monologue because he is a type rather than a character is typical of the way in which this reader reminds us that narrative style and meaning are one in Joyce’s book. This is the case too in the reading of “Circe”, an episode that is the antithesis of “Wandering Rocks” in that we move from the impersonal, public display of the viceregal procession through the city in the summer sunshine to the sleazy, night-time realm of Dublin’s red light district. Kiberd’s reading of this “dream play” episode in which “much that had been repressed or denied in the daylight hours can be brought to the surface” is contextualised within the terms of contemporary psychology as well as Joyce’s antipathy to the kind of drama that was written for and performed by the Abbey Theatre. He reminds us that “Ulysses is unusual for a major work in that its strategies changed as it was written, by way of the writer’s reaction to the reception of earlier episodes, and with no clear sense of the total conception until the final phrase was written”. The strategies that he identifies here, as in his analyses of all the other episodes, place Joyce’s story firmly within its time yet attest to its timelessness. He sees the dramatisation of Stephen and Bloom in a brothel as of a piece with the function of the green wood in Elizabethan comedy as well as being a return to an Ireland of folk beliefs that were gradually eroded by the “embourgeoisification of culture, [that led] to a denial of wakes, local saint’s festivals, fire ceremonies and so on”, adding that “certain institutions like Nighttown functioned as safety valves, in which people could, like Shakespeare’s lovers in the woods, play with alternative identities and move between fact and fiction, a real and an imaginary world”.

This may be to give too much cultural weight and significance to Dublin’s brothel district in 1904, but it does enrich our sense of Joyce’s imaginative involvement with his home town and suggests that he was more profoundly engaged with many aspects of a hidden Ireland than was the movement known as the Literary Revival. In this respect, Kiberd’s comparison of the fantastic trial of Bloom to that in Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheáin Oíche (The Midnight Court) locates Joyce, yet again, within the traditions of Gaelic culture as well as within modernism’s demand to “make it new”.

Ulysses and Us is a deeply illuminating and accessible reading of Joyce’s masterpiece, which is based on its author’s own comprehensive reading in literature (Gaelic, English and European) as well as his wide learning in history, art, psychology, sociology and other humanist disciplines. Indeed, as a reader in the early twenty-first century, he seems to me to share the kind of intellectual curiosity and encyclopaedic cast of mind that characterised Joyce himself. Acknowledging the potential (as opposed to the reality) of the now widespread modular system of education in our university-level institutions, he laments the consequent loss of “a sense of chronology, an understanding of the evolution of English literature on which so much of the meaning of the text [Ulysses] depends”. Though it cannot be a substitute for the sound, old-style grounding in literature that was, until relatively recently, offered in the BA in English in our universities, Kiberd’s book will provide clear guidance to those on their first excursion into Joyce’s long and demanding novel as well as much instruction to those of us who have experienced the fictional June 16th, 1904 many times already. To accommodate further those whose reading and learning in the foundation works of western culture are imperfect, he provides a valuable coda to his study. In these four short chapters he offers thoughtful and accessible introductions to works fundamental to Joyce’s preoccupations as a man and as an artist: Homer’s Odyssey, the Old Testament and the New, Dante’s La Divina Commedia, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These are not intended to meet the rigours of scholars in the various fields of study; rather they are designed to illuminate these works in so far as they acted upon Joyce’s imagination and laid the foundations of Ulysses. Kiberd sees in the lives of the creators of these texts, in the circumstances of their productions and transmissions, in their continued life in our culture, some of the well-springs of Joyce’s inspiration. The archetypal patterns that he identifies (exodus-narratives of exile, the idealised female, authorial rivalry etc) enrich not only the reader’s sense of Joyce’s talent in relation to tradition but inform our understanding of how great writing comes about.

Brian Donnelly lectures in the UCD School of  English, Drama and Film. His research interest is in Irish literature from the 18th to the 20th century and in modern American literature.