The Trojan Horse
Last night I finished my major summer reading: on my third attempt in as many decades, I finally finished Ulysses. How do I feel? Well, I keep asking myself that question. I guess I feel relieved to be done and proud of myself for actually finishing it, bu mostly I feel rather exhausted, somewhat annoyed, somewhat amused. In some ways I still don't know what to make of it. Perhaps that's what Joyce intended, and perhaps that's part of what makes it a great book: the fact that you are never really done with it, and it's never really done with you.
My longtime blog friend Loren (In a Dark Time the Eye Begins to See) also finished the book last night, and he's written some initial thoughts here. Lorianne (Hoarded Ordinaries) is in the middle of it, and she made some good points in the comments over there. Earlier this summer several online friends and I decided to tackle the book; we figured that, as with exercise, we'd be more likely to stick to it if we had company, and that proved to be true.
Odysseus escapes from the Cyclops cave by hiding under a ram
Like Loren, I also read Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man; I should have started with it but actually read it as a kind of detour when I found myself in danger of completely losing both my way and my desire to finish Ulysses itself. That was a good idea; Portrait really helped to contextualize Ulysses, and to place Joyce (through his character Stephen Daedalus) in his own narrative. It was also interesting to enter the Catholic-steeped, "priest-ridden" (to use Joyce's own words) Irish culture not long after the death of Parnall, and compare it with what I have learned about Quebec, where I now live, another formerly-priest-ridden culture filled with nationalist sentiment and many problems that are circularly debated to this day, trapping the society in a provincial, insecure mindset that still keeps it from truly looking outward.
In the famous Christmas dinner scene in Portrait, Joyce describes a family fight over Catholicism and Nationalism, about loyalty to the Church vs loyalty to the nationist cause, that degenerates into hopelessness about the future. Daedalus/Joyce observes this as a boy; it is the first Christmas where he has been allowed to eat dinner with the adults, only to see the eagerly-anticipated event devolve into a complete disaster, with the family members at each other's throats. Later on in the book, people speak of their hopes for Daedalus, a young man of bright intelligence; he flirts with religious devotion, and is even vetted for the priesthood. But no, he says to a friend eventually, I hope to fly by all those nets. He want to escape becoming ensnared in Catholicism, in politics, even in academia. At the end of Portrait, we still don't see how. Ulysses is Joyce's answer.
Odysseus kills the suitors who want his wife and kingdom.
As an intellectual and literary monument Ulysses is fraught with “oughts”: I ought to read it, I ought to understand it, I ought to like it, I ought to say it is great. Frankly I think a lot of literary intellectuals lie about Ulysses: very few have actually read it all the way through. I did my own informal poll, and even people I was certain would have read it -- Oxford-educated literary clergy among them -- admitted they had not. And there are good reasons for that. After adeceptive start, the prose becomes as dense as a rain forest and you, the already-soaked and miserable reader, have neither machete nor macintosh; what you do have is the path behind you, you can turn around and go home, and most of us do. I certainly did, twice before. The verbal pyrotechnics can be extremely annoying; I don't want to have to read a book with a concordance in order to "get" everything, and I don't want to sit and listen to sophomoric male sparring: I had enough of that in college to last me a lifetime.
As for the structure of the book, I'm quite familiar with the Odyssey, but my copy of Ulysses didn't include the later notes and chapter headings, written by scholars arguing for the book's acceptance and legal publication, explaining the parallel scenes in Joyce's book and Homer's epic. I struggled to try orient myself in the two narratives, only getting the big picture after finishing, when I read the Wikipedia notes. As I quipped to a friend, part way through, "I think I prefer the original."
But actually none of this intellectual density ended up mattering to me. Once I had read Portrait, I was able to cut Stephen Daedalus a break because now I knew where he was coming from and what he was reacting against. I read several essays about the reaction to the book, when it was written, which helped me to understand the larger cultural context into which Ulysses exploded, and why what Joyce was doing was so revolutionary and shocking at the time. I read a good deal about Virginia Woolf's struggles with the book, and her friend T.S. Eliot's unmitigated praise for it.
I made a decision that it was OK not to read every word; and when pages became, for instance, simply a long list of names, I treated it the same way I once treated Deuteronomy; I got the gist of it and skimmed until I could find a footing again. Reading Ulysses became a lot like being immersed in a swiftly-moving streams: smooth, slower stretches alternated with rapids, where sometimes there was a footing, and sometimes one needed to just let go and be carried along by the sheer volume of words, feeling underneath with one's bare feet for a rock, trusting that there would eventually be a secure place to rest, get one's breath, look around, and start up again.
That stream could also be a description of the inside of our heads, and certainly this is one of the book's main points. As a longtime meditator, I'm aware of watching the stream of thoughts, experiencing the calmer places where one can rest, as well as the disorienting babble of the uncontrolled, unleashed, drifting mind. One of Modernism's goals was to explore the emerging awareness of human psychology in literature, and so we got various versions of this stream-of-consciousness writing: Joyce's, Faulkner's, Woolf's, Beckett's.
By her loom, Penelope and her son Telemachus await Odysseus's return
But there is also a meta aspect to Ulysses, I think. With words, Joyce is describing the minds of his characters as they go through their day in Dublin. But as the reader, you are also invited not only to examine your own thoughts, your own consciousness (both self- and sub-) in general, ("yes, I'm like Bloom, or Stephen, or Molly, I've thought like that too"), but to look back on the reading experience itself and say, wait a minute, this is what I've been doing as I read. I've had moments of clarity, periods of inattention and boredom, moments when I "got" the world depicted and moments when I was totally lost, periods when all I wanted to do was eat, or think about clothes, get up and go to the bathroom, make love.
Joyce knew what he was doing: he said that he'd given the professors enough material that they'd be occupied for the next hundred years trying to figure out what it all meant. On the surface that sounds like more of Stephen Daedalus's arrogance, but I wonder if Joyce -- entirely familiar with academia and literary critics -- wasn't simply pointing a wry finger at his own well-constructed smokescreen, knowing most of them wouldn't, and couldn't, see past it. The real brilliance of the book, I suspect, is not its erudition, verbal alacrity, or monumental pile of obscure references, but what it tells us about simple humanity; what it says about who we all are underneath our chosen veneers: human minds in physical bodies, and beautiful for it -- in spite of all our sins, excesses, failings, weaknesses and posturings.
After all, Ulysses - Odysseus in the Greek original - was a trickster. Known for his intelligence but most of all for his guile and cunning, he was relied upon by Agamemnon and all the Greeks. A major aspect of the Iliad is the way in which Achilles' physical prowess as a warrior, fired by anger, jealousy, and self-righteousness, is pitted against Odysseus' cooly rational intelligence and cunning. In the end, the Greek victory after nine years of fighting is not due to Achilles, for the Trojans had their extraordinary warriors too, but because of Odysseus, who devised the most famous battle strategem of all time, the Trojan Horse. The enemy, concealed and unsuspected, was lauded and wheeled right into the heart of the city.
Odysseus and Nausicaa; her father wanted him to remain and marry her, but Odysseus chose to return to his family.
Joyce's Ulysses is definitely a journey of homecoming, but I think the author has embedded his own brilliant ruse within it. You think it is this, he says to the academics and critics, and gives them, as Homer did, an adventure filled with monsters and seductresses, dangers and surprises, and enough complications, details and symbols to keep them busy forever. Wheeled into the heart of academic and literary tradition, the Trojan Horse opens, and shatters what had existed.
Meanwhile, like Odysseus, who alone of the Greeks came safely home, Joyce himself "flies by all those nets." He show us a possibility of finding our true home, beyond any concept of institution, nation, or family expectation. It's no mere coincidence that Homer titled the penultimate chapter of the Odyssey, "The Great Rooted Bed," and its final chapter, "Peace."