Category: Joyce, James

ulysses seen in modern art

All the reproductions are from Artstor.

Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-Light Joseph Wright 1785
Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-Light, Joseph Wright, 1785

Why re-read the mighty ULYSSES this year, when the centennial Bloomsday was back in 2004, or when we could wait til the anniversary of the book’s publication in 2022? It was because I’m Stephen Dedalus’s age this year. I’d like to go again when I’m 38, but I dunno, I don’t like Bloom all that much. Still too much of a nobody.

I resisted posting about it. There’s so much official commentary and unofficial posting already (a river of secondary text to match the sacred flow of language). God knows I was reading most of that shit (the CRITICAL ESSAYS edited by Clive Hart, Burgess’s REJOYCE, Ellmann’s ULYSSES ON THE LIFFEY, various anthologies and monographs) in order to put off the forbidding novel, but at least I didn’t dare think the commentary could supplement the actual work.

If anything we should be more like Beckett, stripping away the superfluous critical language (with more language, though?).

After the Meal Nestor Lit the King's Cigar Deborah Bermingham 1995
After the Meal, Nestor Lit the King’s Cigar, Deborah Bermingham, 1995

This time around I thought the Homeric parallels were overplayed. They’re not any more or less salient than the other systems at work: the organs of the human body, the rhetorical techniques, the color symbolism. Ulysses was not an uncommon name for boys in the 19th century, and every Ulysses of historical note gets mentioned in the book (like Ulysses S. Grant). So even that name is in a context of everydayness.

When I went into an MFA program I actually kept these lines from Stephen’s consciousness in chapter 2 on my phone for motivation:

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?

So elegant to make fable a verb (but it has been a verb since the Renaissance, the etymology dictionary tells me). Stephen is teaching Roman history to some well-heeled boys in the brutal call-on for comprehension way, and catches one staring out the window. But of course history is a fabulation. And Joyce’s hero Blake, the outsider artist with so much insight into the 19th century, on which Joyce’s book is the capstone. (There’s still some time left for another encyclopedic novel to appear and capture the 20th century with Lovecraft as a lodestar of sorts.) “The ruin of all space.” An apocalyptic tone is laid down, which I had taken to be a lament for the loss of rational coherence, but is also linked by Joycean scholars to the political violence of the 19th century. Liberation struggle and mysticism mix together for Joyce as it does for Yeats.


Proteus Cy Twombly 1984
Proteus, Cy Twombly, 1984

I first heard about ULYSSES from the Modern Library’s top 100 list. I didn’t like high culture of any sort in my tweens and early teens. It was pretty much all comic books and anime, which still included great stuff like AKIRA or FROM HELL. It’s likely that those books, owing to the timing, when the window of purity was still open, will remain the biggest influences on me.

And sure enough it was the Modern Library’s edition I took at the public library, with the portrait of the author with the eyepatch, which was cool, and the big S which leads to “Stately, plump…” I didn’t know anything about modernism except that it was interesting. I got excited just by running my eyes over the text because it looked different. The emdashes for speech, the ornate sentences with their alliteration and iambs and vowel rhymes — sometimes it was really gaudy, deliberately so.

And I still tilt my head like a happy dog when I see a novel that simply looks different, like Burroughs or Barnes or Bernhard.

But back then I was one pretentious, socially absurd dickhead. I could only sort of parse out the first half of ULYSSES, when the second half, if more difficult, is way more interesting. I was monomaniacal and had a hard time talking about things other than my interests. I sunk at least a couple of years into Joyce’s transformation of Dublin.


Calypso's Sacred Grove Romare Bearden 1977
Calypso’s Sacred Grove, Romare Bearden, 1977

What other literature was I reading at the time? Hemingway, sort of. No Vonnegut at all, unlike my friends — I wish I had read him instead of Joyce like a well-adjusted teen. I was peeking through anthologies rather than novels or collections, so I had a big dose of realist short fiction by white Americans, some of whom, like Faulkner, were close in time to Joyce and admired him.

The only naysayers (who I gave a shit about) were Woolf and Stein, who I couldn’t read back then but love to read now.


Other Yellow Perdo De Leon 2007
Other Yellow, Perdo De Leon, 2007

My Penguin Modern Classics version is what I bought for myself, just for the cover. Molly Bloom’s monologue down to the final Yes. Why don’t more books put the last page on the front cover?

It has a long introduction that’s probably very interesting, but otherwise I don’t recommend it. The print is large, which means this edition has like 200 more pages than the Modern Library version, which I think uses the same ’60/’61 version, which makes my Penguin version pretty useless since no one’s going by its pagination.


Ten 1990 Autographs No 1 Hell Dahong Liu 1990
Ten 1990 Autographs No 1: Hell, Dahong Liu 1990

Other than a handful of phrases cut out and some extra attributions popped in, I couldn’t notice any major differences between my copy and the Irish radio broadcast in 1982. Did they use the Gabler edition? Perhaps the differences come from the production, which happens sometimes. But I read along as I heard it, and really enjoyed it. The sound effects and music were tasteful. There’s a huge cast of narrators, one for every character (I thought some voices were doing double or triple parts, but apparently not!), and a reverb effect is put on interior speech, which helps sort out a prose that seems undifferentiated on the page.


Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds Francois Boucher 1769
Juno Asking Aeolus to Release the Winds, Francois Boucher 1769

My arbitrary start-date for “modern art” is 1750.


Carnivorous Love Frank Moore 1993
Carnivorous Love, Frank Moore, 1993

Bloom’s streams of consciousness do feel like pointilism, as an Italian fascist critic once complained. Quite paratactic. Is the book sticking a net into a pre-existing torrent of atomized thoughts, or is it more like how Auerbach describes the narration style of the Odyssey in that other major text I read last month MIMESIS, where all the narrative elements are given a uniform externality above all other effects, like suspense or psychological realism.

He knows he will be cuckolded today. And lord who would have guessed the cuckoo meme would make a comeback thanks to the alt-right? Now you only have to think women are human beings and that philosopher kings and a CEO of America is a bad idea to be a cuck.

Bloom’s streams keep coming back to this sore point like a blister on the gum line but he keeps repressing.


Scylla Ithell Colquhoun 1938
Scylla, Ithell Colquhoun, 1938

“Nobody really wants to be James Joyce, though,” writes Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin.

When it comes down to it. Totally inaccessible and publishing poison, forced to self-publish with the help of two (inadequately celebrated) lesbians, thought to be a madman, and still cursed to this day. No one really wants to be James Joyce, living in borderline poverty with an insane daughter and a layabout son, quietly changing the world but very rarely, if at all, acknowledged for it. So completely out on the frontier his books were confiscated and destroyed by multiple governments.

No one’s made a pendulum swing like Joyce. From true avant-garde to the academic bureaucratic canon. Gass is right: vanguard art lives a short life, whatever its fate, be it recognition or obscurity. I once heard Stephen Wright, while reflecting on Melville’s poor fate, dying in the gutter when he had composed America’s gospel, that Thomas Pynchon had to be the luckiest writer alive. “To write books at his level and have the success he’s had…” But if your surreal door-stop masterpieces get published by Penguin Randomhouse, are they still avant-garde?

I used to get annoyed like the snob I am when writers like Ian McEwan get what I think is undue postmodernist cred. But even more annoying, now that I’m trying to be a writer, is every time an author or journal promises to be a bold experimentalist and it ends up being a posture. Everyone wants to play it safe while keeping up radical appearances. Literary fiction is more ossified a genre than epic fantasy. It’s not allowed to do much beyond entertain people with college educations. So perhaps the most artistically successful of the bunch are those without the delusions.


Wandering Rocks Tony Smith 1967
Wandering Rocks, Tony Smith, 1967

An entire entertaining realist bourgeois novel could be written in the style of chapter 10.

That’s how it is. Some great artists go broad, and some go deep. You have your Ozus, who in their late period seem to make the same film over and over, but it’s really more like each film is a slice of a metanarrative told with recurring stylistic motifs with incredible rigor. Or Bernhard, whose short novels could amount to a larger totalizing project.

But there’s also Weather Report: where every studio record seems to be exploring a new direction, and a later band could carve a career-long aesthetic out of one of them. And so too with Joyce’s stylistic exercises in each chapter. (Look what Beckett and Wallace did with chapter 16.)


Sirens Judith Linhares 1997
Sirens, Judith Linhares, 1997

Bloom lets out a fart while reading the last words of Ireland’s great martyr Emmet (the croppy boy of the song in the Sirens chapter).

Political blasphemy? The Joyceans say he read Bakunin and Proudhon with interest. He was anti-British and anti-nationalist. I’d call him an anarcho-pacifist, like Tolstoy but non-religious.

But Joyce is also about the modern, and one of the big crises of the modern, which Sterne also observed, is that without God, everything dissolves into sentiment. There’s a danger in repeating the ballad of the croppy boy so that only sentiment remains; not that useful for anti-colonial struggle.

But there are arguments to be had that the artist shouldn’t participate in that kind of stuff. Propaganda is fun to make, but can be awkward when you’re trying to do something poetic.


The Cyclops in Hotel Botanico Franz Ackermann 2001
The Cyclops in Hotel Botanico, Franz Ackermann, 2001

You may have heard the observation that Stephen represents Joyce’s fate had he chosen to stay in Dublin rather than exile. Dublin, provincial, bigoted, colonized Dublin.

And Stephen is depressed, snippy, a bit of a shit. But cut him some slack: he hasn’t eaten in like two days. He blows his wad on alcohol, including two absinthes, which is insane considering how empty his tummy is.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST is a bildungsroman, the purpose of which is to guide a boy’s way to bourgeois liberal subjecthood with a nationalist consciousness, which would be extra complicated for an Irishman. The bitter discussions with Haines who dreams of black panthers in chapter 1 reflects on this.

I cheered silently for Bloom as he tells off the anti-Semitic Citizen as he rides away. “Jesus was a Jew! Marx was a Jew!” A hooker yells out to him that his fly is down. Ireland and Israel will meet soon.

This chapter has long lists of names which devolve into absurdity, and it’s definitely worth hearing it read aloud in the radio play. There are also a lot of Wagner’s imagery and sensibility in this chapter, and everywhere in the novel.


Odysseus and nausicaa, Odyssey ellipsis Friedrich Preiler the Younger 1868
Odysseus and Nausicaa, Friedrich Preiler the Younger, 1868

How did the novel get attacked so much? Did people actually read it? How did they know there was shit and jizz as it happened? Was it rumors that got people outraged?

It’s not Bloom jacking off after getting an upskirt from young Gerty, very unseemly, that would offend the Duke University sensibility, but the incredible detail of lingering semen stains sticking his dick to his pants and messing with the foreskin. I also liked how exhausted he is afterward. Ah to be growing old.


Earth Birth (from the Birth Project) Judy Chicago 1983
Earth Birth (from the Birth Project), Judy Chicago, 1983

Oxen of the Sun. Still far and away the hardest level. The audio was a big help here.

A latin invocation of the sun (“quickening and wombfruit!”), a midwife bounces a newborn boy (“Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!”), then a survey of English through time — it was good to read Auerbach concurrently or the actual writers being spoofed here would escape me.


Circe Frederick Stuart Church 1910
Circe, Frederick Stuart Church, 1910

Bloom has an incredibly self-loathing fantasy:

BOYLAN (bumps surely from the car and calls loudly for all to hear. ) Hello, Bloom! Mrs Bloom up yet?

BLOOM (In a flunkey’s plum plush coat and kneebreeches, buff stockings and powdered wig.) I’m afraid not, sir, the last articles…

BOYLAN (Tosses him sixpence.) Here, to buy yourself a gin and splash. (He hangs his hat smartly on a peg of Bloom’s antlered head.) Show me in. I have a little private business with your wife. You understand?

BLOOM Thank you, sir. Yes, sir, Madam Tweedy is in her bath, sir.

MARION He ought to feel himself highly honoured. (She plops splashing out of the water.) Raoul, darling, come and dry me. I’m in my pelt. Only my new hat and a carriage sponge.

BOYLAN (A merry twinkle in his eye.) Topping!

BELLA What? What is it?

(Zoe whispers to her.)

MARION Let him look, the pishogue! Pimp! And scourge himself! I’ll write to a powerful prostitute or Bartholomona, the bearded woman, to raise weals out on him an inch thick and make him bring me back a signed and stamped receipt.

BELLA (Laughing.) Ho ho ho ho.

BOYLAN (To Bloom, over his shoulder.) You can apply your eye to the keyhole and play with yourself while I just go through her a few times.

BLOOM Thank you, sir, I will, sir. May I bring two men chums to witness the deed and take a snapshot? (He holds an ointment jar.) Vaseline, sir? Orangeflower?… Lukewarm water?…

This is so funny and heart-breaking.

Stephen has an ashplant walking stick. How does a 22 year old carry a walking stick without looking like a douchebag?

In Bella’s house he uses his cane to smash up the chandelier, which in his absinth trip becomes the ghost of his mother. He screams “Nothung!” (Sounds like “no tongue.”) That’s the name of Siegfried’s sword in Wagner’s RING, which was buried for a long time under –you guessed it — an ash tree. (And the “ruin of all space” line gets a play back.)

It’s like being high on books.


The Mariner Paul Cezanne 1905
The Mariner, Paul Cezanne, 1905

I love this painting, and think it’d be a good choice for a cover for ULYSSES. That or Simon MacLeod’s “Sandymount Strand.”

Father and son united at last. But Bloom has a hard time connecting with Stephen, and like the narrator of this chapter, overworks himself to come off well. He’s as wrong about Stephen’s politics as he is about Shakespeare (all free-verse, he thought in chapter 8).


Night Sky #5 Vija Celmins 1992
Night Sky #5, Vija Celmins, 1992

My favorite chapter. I love the slyness of the catechism format, the references to astronomy and geology.

Return to Ithaca is a useful metaphor for realist fiction. Reassuring foundation. Obstacles are overcome. The world is understood, and the hero understands himself. Joyce mounts up these ridiculous inventories of the Bloom residence, like a realist novel’s narration turned to 11. Of course, if you want to write realistically you need a good instinct for which details are pertinent to your story. Georges Perec did not have such an instinct, and was content to be exhaustive in his sociological listing — no wonder Joyce was such an inspiration for him, if not a revelation.

ULYSSES kills the 19th century, and in its heart of hearts it’s still in that realist vein. And so are the other great modernists of this period: Proust, Woolf, Mann and Musil.

Father and son sneak in, talk about culture, share old rhymes from their old languages. Joyce is at pains to avoid sentiment in this and the previous chapter, but all the same, it’s very sweet.

They look at the “heaventree of stars.” And they part.


Infinity Dots Yayoi Kusama 1996
Infinity Dots, Yayoi Kusama, 1996

And with Chapter 17 the novel ends. “Penelope” is not an ending but a slice of an infinite space which might actually envelope the rest of the novel we traversed.


I’m a little sad to put the book back on the shelf. And it’s very hard to read anything else, which sucks since I have a growing pile of books. It’s not necessarily that Joyce’s novel is so amazing (honestly, I’m over that guy at this point), but I had only just begun to get into its logic, and now anything else is too hard for me to comprehend.

I value how novels and paintings don’t have an instrumental value; I’m skeptical they even have an intrinsic value. And while I never got on board with Stephen’s notion of literature “affirming the spirit of man” or whatever, I do feel larger after this odyssey somehow. How grand we are this morning…