June 16, 2012


It's Bloomsday today, when a bunch of trend-sucking dilettantes pretend to have read and enjoyed James Joyce's notorious excrescence, Ulysses. You can pretend also by checking out the much less painful Ulysses for Dummies. Or, you can learn why it's in no sense worth the effort to assay Joyce by reading the following, which oddly enough is to be found in a mystery novel:

It begins with Joyce and the novel of competence. In spite of what I just said bout him in a negative way--since we must smash old idols in order to raise new--Joyce was a man of undoubted imminence, great imagination, deep learning, and a brilliant intellect, none of it more obvious than in the manner in which he 'plotted'--and I mean that in the strategic, not simply tactical way--all of his works, but in particular Ulysses, which, to continue the military analogy, was his breakthrough book.

About words he once said, 'Why own a thing when you can say it.' And since with his intellect and astounding facility with languages, tongues, stories, and myths, he could say most things, it therefore followed that he--James Joyce, impoverished émigré son of a Dublin idler--owned not only the things he could name in the contemporary world, but many other things from all
recorded time. That was step one in the grand stratagem to become the modern Shakespeare.

Step two was to analyze the novel. Some critics contend that Joyce decided that the novel was the ideal literary art form of bourgeois society, in which, of course, people define themselves by the things that they own. The novel then is like a container--first word to last, beginning to end, front cover to back cover--that contains things or at least words that are references to things.

It follows, then, that that novel is best which, within the established limits of the container, includes the greatest number and type of things. Joyce decided he would set the limits of a single day in Dublin and write a book about it. He chose the sixteenth of June, 1904, the day that he first walked out with Nora Barnacle, the shop girl from Galway, who later became his wife.

But he would tell every thing about that eighteen-hour period, such that he would give (and I quote), 'A picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.' And so he poured the names, places, events, streets, buildings, race horses, tram schedules, tides, prices, advertisements, weather, a dog, a dead man, a birthing hospital, a cemetery, music, the theater, pubs, songs, murder, mayhem--you name it--along with the story of the day for two men who, although only partially acquainted, are like father and son. They are like the hero Ulysses himself, lost and wandering and trying to make their way back to impossible homes. Hence the mythic element.

Of course, how Joyce wrote the book was also new, an attempt to weave the actual verbal texture of Dublin--the specific whatness of Dublin verbal things--into the container. Ulysses is so perfectly constructed that it takes exactly eighteen hours to read aloud, the amount of time that one would have been awake on such a day.

Joyce said, 'If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of every city in the world. In that particular is contained the universal.' [...]

With the Wake Joyce decided to write the ultimate novel. Instead of exhausting the possibilities of some other day--or a year or a decade or a century--in dear, dirty Dublin, he expanded the container to its final extension. For setting he chose nothing less than the world entire. For
characters all people, speaking all voices, who had ever lived. Time? All time, past, present, and--since there is a belief that certain combinations of words can sometimes serve as prophecy--perhaps even future time as well. In conception, at least, it was an impossible project.

But he made it all into the simple tale of the dream of a Dublin pub owner. Finnegan, like Jung claimed all of us can, establishes touch with the collective unconscious of the race of man. And his mind, wandering forward and back in time, touches upon all symbol, myth, and history from the hieroglyphics on ancient tombs through Vedic and Norse myths, the Bible in its several forms, sagas and passion plays and verse, and on to modern literature, right up to Beckett himself, who was often sitting across the room from Joyce, and so appears in the Wake.

During the twenty years that it took Joyce to write the Wake, he had a team of readers--the literary groupies of his day--scouring the Bibliotheque in Paris, reading all the great books he suggested. They would synopsize each and include a few representative pages of text so that Joyce could then add both statement and word to Finnegan's dream.

With a few dozen minds and at least one, perhaps two--here I mean Beckett--indisputable geniuses working on the Wake, it became the ideally competent novel that the ideally erudite reader might peruse for the rest of his life and still never appreciate in all its ideal complexity. In other words Joyce, within the assumptions of his aesthetic, exhausted the form of the novel of competence. Another novel more complete probably could not be produced, since it would require another Joyce, greater scope, a larger vision, more and better help, a second Bibliotheque Nationale.

And since the form of the novel as written from Richardson to Joyce was exhausted, Samuel Beckett turned around and attempted to exhaust the form in its 'negative' image, as it were--the novel of incompetence. By incompetence Beckett does not mean novels written by incompetent authors. He means that, unlike Joyce, he cannot assume the possibility of communication among human beings, much less between human beings and the collective unconscious.

For Beckett words don't work. They are an imposition, given us by others after our births; they really can't describe our own particular experiences in our own individual terms. Also, when we speak words, we need somebody else to hear and acknowledge them. A witness. In other words, we can't say us in our own terms for anybody's ears but our own. And if we were to try,
say, by speaking out all the words of the Others once and for all, we would find that there's nothing to say, since Western civilization assumes that we are no more than what we were when we were born--a tabula rasa, a void, un neant, a nothing. And nothing can only be described by silence.

There--that takes care of Beckett too.

[originally posted: 6/16/04]

Posted by at June 16, 2012 5:14 PM

Yay! More Joyce bashing!

let me be the first to chime in this time: Ulyssess sucks.

Posted by: Brandon at June 16, 2004 5:57 PM

You should probably stay away from "Ubu Roi." I like it, but it's not to everyone's taste.

Posted by: Governor Breck at June 16, 2004 6:08 PM

Andrew Greeley is a big Joyce fan, or at least he has his best-known character be a Joyce fan. That should be illustrative of just how much stock to put in his political views.

Posted by: Joe at June 16, 2004 6:14 PM

"He means that, unlike Joyce, he cannot assume the possibility of communication among human beings, much less between human beings and the collective unconscious."

So then, why write?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 16, 2004 8:23 PM

Agenbite of inwit.

Posted by: Brit at June 17, 2004 3:45 AM
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