Monday, March 18, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“ULYSSES” by James Joyce (written 1914-21; serialised 1921-22; first published in book form 1922)

Sometime he knew he would have to climb this mountain again and then write about it, especially as it was the week of Saint Patrick’s Day and something Irish was in order.

He had read it as a student in the early 1970s with little enthusiasm, and his 720-page Penguin paperback printed in 1972 [whence came all his page numberings] had thenceforth sat unconsulted on his shelf. But he’d encountered bits of it here and there in the years between, not least on two trips to Dublin wherein he had visited the famed Martello tower and later happened fortuitously to be there for Bloomsday and had wangled free tickets to events in the guise of being (ho ho) a journalist and travel writer.

So he read it a second time, about fifty pages at a sitting. Thoughtfully. Not hurrying. Setting it aside days at a time and then coming back to it, so taking four or five weeks to do the deed. He consulted no commentaries. Bugger them. He had pledged that his basic aesthetic said a book had to speak for itself and if it walked only on the crutches of scholars’ scribblings then truly it was lame.

He knew he could not insult or patronise his readers with a lengthy synopsis. Stephen Dedalus, sour young intellectual, sets out on his wanderings across Dublin on one single day (in 1904) after he is more-or-less kicked out of the Martello tower he shares with Buck Mulligan. Leopold Bloom, middle-aged advertising canvasser for newspapers, sets out on his own journey across Dublin ditto. Bloom begins by going to a funeral. Bloom dominates the novel, so here are his thoughts and feelings and memories in the one day. But the two of them stumble across each other in a brothel late at night. Young Dedalus feels guilty about the way he treated his mother when she was dying and he lacks a father. Middle-aged Bloom really lacks a wife because she scorns him sexually and she prefers her lover Blazes Boylan. Middle-aged Bloom also remembers a young son who died. So (figuratively at least) father meets son in the brothel and yes, plain as a pikestaff it catches the symbolism of the title. Ulysses. He’s the wanderer who is reunited with the son Telemachus who is searching for him. Leopold Bloom the bereft father (and outsider, because he’s Jewish). Stephen Dedalus the bereft son (and outsider, because he’s at odds with his church and nation – and soap and water). And they share a sympathetic moment urinating together before parting. And Leopold Bloom drifts to sleep and dreamland. And then Leopold Bloom’s wife Molly gets to speak a long onanistic soliloquy.

There now, he thought, how silly to attempt to synopsise something which travels on sensual experiences, words association, random memories, literary allusions, puns, parody, jokes, often the rhythms of poetry. Ulysses is the Modernist classic deliberately and self-consciously casting aside the narrative conventions of nineteenth century novels, so synopsis and development of plot be damned. Float with it.

But his experience of reading it a second time was not an experience of textbook exposition. Leave that to academics with nothing better to do than to tell us that you have to know Latin and Italian and French and German to get all Joyce’s meaning and wordplay, not to mention having a good functioning knowledge of Catholic liturgy, the Bible, classical mythology and Irish folklore and history.

It was, au contraire, an experience of personal encounter with the text.

And it went like this.

First, he had to ignore or accommodate all those passages that had become over-familiar through over-quotation.

This is the problem with any text that has become canonical. You know bits of it before you even read the text, such as “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” (Pg.40)

And he recalled how the opening of the novel’s second section was used in publicity for an outdoors breakfast, staged as part of the Bloomsday Festival, when he was in Dublin in 2003:  “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” (Pg.57) And he further recalled that when he had gone to that outdoors breakfast in 2003, such was the commercialisation of High Culture now, that a young man dressed in period costume harangued the breakfast-eaters with the following passage wherein, taking time off from throwing satirical darts at the Irishry and the Catholic Church and British colonial masters and their silly Freemasonry and lodges, Joyce chose to ridicule the new breed of American Protestant evangeliser, a genuine forerunner of the televangelist:

Alexander J.Christ Dowie, that’s yanked to glory most half this planet from ‘Frisco Beach to Vladivostock. The Deity ain’t no nickel dime bum-show. I put it to you that he’s on the square and a corking fine business proposition. He’s the grandest thing yet and don’t you forget it. Shout salvation in king Jesus. You’ll need to rise precious early, you sinner there, if you want to diddle the Almighty God. Pflaaap! Not half. He’s got a cough-mixture with a punch in it for you, my friend, in his back pocket. Just you try it on.” (Pg.425)

Yes, that’s the atypical passage they chose to harangue breakfasters with at the Dublin Bloomsday Festival. Maybe to appeal to American literary tourists?

Then he had to attune himself to the Irishness of it all, not just in the language, but in all the time-and-place specific cultural and national references.

He was once again amused to find that “fecking” in Irish-English, really did mean “stealing” (Pg.271 and Pg.396), and had nothing to do with oaths or sexual activity, no matter what recent television sitcoms may have suggested.

He noted that there was indeed much piss-taking of Irish pieties (religious and patriotic) but there was, too, always consciousness of Ireland’s degraded colonial status and therefore frequent sniping at The Castle and at West Britons. Take, for example, this satirical description of the British navy:

They believe in rod, the scourge almighty, creator of hell upon earth, and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was scarified, flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he arose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.” (pp. 327-328)

Yes, yes, of course James Joyce the naughty renegade Catholic simultaneously parodies the Creed, but the pomposity of Empire crumbles at his touch. Likewise in the “Nighttown” section, there is this introduction to His Majesty, King of Great Britain and Ireland:

“(Edward the Seventh appears in an archway. He wears a white jersey on which an image of the Sacred Heart is stitched, with the insignia of Garter and Thistle, Golden Fleece, Elephant of Denmark, Skinner’s and Probyn’s horse, Lincoln’s Inn bencher and ancient and honourable artillery company of Massachusetts. He sucks a red jujube. He is robed as a grand elect perfect and sublime mason with trowel and apron, marked made in Germany. In his left hand he holds a plasterer’s bucket on which is printed: defense d’uriner. A roar of welcome greets him.)” (Pg.521)

No, that fearful little Jesuit-trained Joyce was not the man to take up a gun for ould Ireland nor fight a war of independence. Continental Europe was the place for him (where, indeed, he wrote Ulysses) and he shoots arrows at bigoted Irish nationalism and “the Patriot” who is drunk, loudmouthed and anti-Semitic. But he does not tend to any worship of England, as did some others who were discontented with their colonial lot (and hence wanted to jump themselves up by identifying with the colonisers). One such jumper-up was George Moore, whom Joyce debags thus in a conversation between Dedalus and other students:

 “Did you hear Miss Mitchell’s joke about Moore and Martyn? That Moore is Martyn’s wild oats? Awfully clever, isn’t it? They remind one of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Our national epic has yet to be written, Dr Sigerson says. Moore is the man for it. A knight of the rueful countenance here in Dublin.” (Pg.192)

Joyce further describes the novelist as “Moore the writer (that was a papist but is now, folks say, a good Williamite).” (Pg.394)

He thought that in the meeting of “father” Bloom and “son” Stephen, the real climax [pardon the pun] of the book, there is much inconclusive and drunken chatter in the scene in the cabman’s shelter, but it does at least touch on patriotism and the Boer War and Parnell and the Land War and rationalist philosophy and it has some feel for the ideas that were going on at the time that Ulysses is set.

Thus much he thought of the time-and-place specific Irish references that beguiled or troubled him as he read. But, iconoclastically, part of him couldn’t help wondering if the essential Irishness of the novel wasn’t its penchant for talking about things without actually doing anything. Yet, remembering his Irish wife whom he loved, he suppressed this thought and considered that the whole (mental and sensual) “action” of the novel took place on one solitary day (or at least 18 hours thereof), and you couldn’t expect its characters to do much in such a timeframe.

And his third realization was that there was much that he genuinely enjoyed, especially in the vivid sensuality of certain passages and in the poetic rhythms of Joyce’s prose.

In the earlier sections of the novel, the disjointed and often single-clause sentences reminded him of nothing so much as Mr Jingle in The Pickwick Papers. Not what Joyce intended, he thought. But what a real whiff of Dublin one got from the discussion of the funeral at Glasnevin and of the hanging and of the citizen ranting; and the account of Stephen walking on the beach and of Bloom having a poo.

He found himself savouring individual paragraphs such as:

A divided drove of branded cattle passed the windows, lowing, slouching by on padded hoofs, whisking their tales slowly on their clotted bony croups. Outside them and through them ran raddled sheep bleating.” (Pg.99)

This was prose with the artifices of poetry.

And he relished such individual sentences as:

Bloom ungyved his now crisscrossed hands and with slack fingers plucked the slender catgut thong.” (Pg.276)

There was pleasure in the way Joyce caught so clearly the primness and the self-regard of the Jesuit Father Conmee’s stream-of-consciousness (pp.218-223). And there was that odd concatenation of the literary and the local dialect when Bloom at the cemetery thinks:

 “Love among the tombstones. Romeo. Spice of pleasure. In the midst of death we are in life. Both ends meet. Tantalising for the poor dead. Smell of frilled beefsteaks to the starving gnawing of their vitals. Desire to grig people. Molly wanting to do it at the window.” (Pg.110)

And, he had to admit, after the carousing of the obscene medical students, the first part of the “Nighttown” section (Bloom’s nightmares) worked reasonably well as a sort of surrealism, partly because the “stage directions” were so clear:

 “The navvy, swaying, presses a forefinger against a wing of his nose and ejects from the further nostril a long liquid jet of snot. Shouldering the lamp he staggers away through the crowd with his flaring cresset. Snakes of river fog creep slowly. From drains, clefts, cesspools, middens arise on all sides stagnant fumes.” (Pg.428)

Yet even on this stylistic level, he perceived that there were times when Joyce appeared merely to be playing around for the sake of playing around. Thus: “Grossbooted draymen rolled barrels dullthudding out of Prince’s stores and bumped them up on the brewery float. On the brewery float bumped dullthudding barrels rolled by grossbooted draymen out of Prince’s stores.” (Pg.118)

One could argue that it represented onomatopoeically the repetitiveness of the noise. But isn’t it really just Joyce having fun writing the same sentence forwards and backwards?

And then his reading gradually made him more critical, asking if there wasn’t something superimposed and artificial in the novel’s whole machinery of classical allusion.

As he read the varied and somewhat chaotic episodes, he asked, would one reader in a thousand pick out all the parallels between the novel’s progress and the story of Odysseus/Ulysses, which all the study guides urged them to note? Calypso, Hades, Scylla and Charybdis, Ithaca, Oxen of the Sun etc etc?. Obviously the very title Ulysses would make all but the most uneducated reader draw a parallel between Bloom’s and Dedalus’s wandering in Dublin and the classical wanderer. But how many people would even guess at the specific episode parallels without some study guide to tell them? He thought that this all smacked of a sensual record leaning on an artificial crutch. Indeed he knew that Joyce himself feared that the machinery of classical parallels was somewhat heavy-handed, and removed the chapter titles that would have more clearly signalled those parallels to the reader.

There were indeed passages where the classical allusions screamed at the reader, as in:

Francis was reminding Stephen of years before when they had been at school together in Conmee’s time. He asked about Glaucon, Alcibiades, Pisistratius. Where were they now? Neither knew. You have spoken of the past and its phantoms, Stephen said. Why think of them. If I call them into life across the waters of Lethe will not the poor ghosts troop to my call? Who supposes it? I, Bous Stephanoumenos, bullock-befriending bard, am lord and giver of life….” (Pp.411-412)

But his suspicion was that Joyce resorted to an artificial, external mythology to impose a unity on something that did not have much organic unity. And, of course, the little fecker loved the thought that he was creating work for academic expositors. Which the academic expositors, bless them, have joyfully taken up.

AND he found himself progressively alienated by Joyce’s deadly tendency to overplay jokes and flog them to death.

He had read inferior specimens of Modernist literature, such as Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, and had noted Lewis’s tendency to repeat and repeat and repeat the same joke rather than letting it end crisply. Lewis took many pages to make a simple satirical point that could have been made in one brief, deft jab.

But if a no-longer-esteemed Modernist like Wyndham Lewis could be criticised for this fault, then how much more should Joyce be criticised, he supposedly being one of the gods of Modernism? How often, he thought, Ulysses limps along as Joyce hits on yet another narrative device and plays with it and plays with it until it is no longer novel or exciting but just another mannerism. What is funny for two or three pages becomes deadly over fifty pages.

Yes, it is mildly amusing when Bloom’s pub conversations with journalists and others are reported in newspaper-format paragraphs each with its own sub-heading. What a deft deflation of journalese. But over nearly forty pages???? (pp.118-156)

There is that long, tedious discussion about Shakespeare, which is at least redeemed by one funny line: “Unwed, unfancied, ware of wiles, they fingerponder nightly each his variorum edition of The Taming of the Shrew.” (Pg.213) [Joyce may have laid snares for academic pedants, but he was also onto them.]

So many pages either side of Pg.400 in the Penguin edition, there is the show-offy stuff where Joyce imitates all styles of writing Medieval to Renaissance to Nineteenth Century as the medical students carouse and Bloom thinks of his dead infant son. Ah, what a gift to the expositor! Ah, what tedium to read!

What is the whole Nighttown section of the book but a two-page joke padded to 106 pages? He heard a dead horse being flogged very loudly. And then the encounter of Bloom and Stephen once they get to Bloom’s home (the “Ithaca” section), written in question-and-answer form. It goes on thus from Page 586 to Page 658. That is, 73 blinking pages. Yes, yes. Yes. Of course he realized it was parodying an examination paper or a question-and-answer catechism or an inquisition; but still, like so much of Ulysses, it was essentially a joke that wore out its welcome.

And there was another sort of condescending irony in which Joyce engaged too often. Take this moment when Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom find themselves in a cabman’s shelter:

A few moments later saw our two noctambules safely seated in a discreet corner, only to be greeted by stares from the decidedly miscellaneous collection of waif and strays and other nondescript specimens of the genus homo, already there engaged in eating and drinking, diversified by conversation, for whom they seemingly formed an object of marked curiosity.” (Pg.542)

How arch it is. Yes, Stephen and Leopold are both meant to be half-pissed, which is the state in which educated people pull out their more pretentious vocabulary. But “noctambules”? “Decidedly miscellaneous”? “Genus homo”?

He wondered, did James Joyce intend him to look down on his fellow human beings? This was the type of tiresome joke la-di-da tone, which Frank Sargeson used in Memoirs of a Peon, and it wasn’t any funnier there, either.

And so to what really repelled him from this novel. The ultimate sterility of its themes.

            There is sex. Sex is a real driving force. Stephen Dedalus craves sex but represses the urge. Leopold has had sex but is now denied it. He may indeed now be impotent. His condition is alluded to frequently. In the Nighttown section we have this passage, which seems to say exactly what ails Bloom:

 “BLOOM: (Cowed) Exuberant female. Enormously I desiderate your domination. I am exhausted, abandoned, no more young. I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general post office of human life. The door and window open at a right angle cause a draught of thirty-two feet per second according to the law of falling bodies. I have felt this instant a twinge of sciatica in my left glutear muscle….” (Pg.486)

And a little later:

BLOOM: It overpowers me. The warm impress of her warm form. Even to sit where a woman has sat, especially with divaricated thighs, as though to grant the last favours, most especially with previously well uplifted white sateen coatpants. So womanly full. It fills me full.” (Pg.500)

So what does a past-it and possibly impotent middle-aged man do with his sexual imagination but dwell on those women’s bodies he’s no longer up to? Mental masturbation is the tone. And everywhere he and Stephen and Joyce look, there is some form of wanking, even though, of course, Joyce himself was only in his thirties when he wrote the novel.

Consider the Gerty McDowell section (pp.344-364), virtually self-contained except for the intrusion of Bloom in the last few pages. It is the portrait of a prudish, virginal woman whose images of religious liturgy and cheap romantic fiction and matinee idols ache with unfulfilled sexual longing – just like the feelings of so many other people in this novel. Of being in the confessional with a priest, Gerty remembers:

 “He told her that time when she told him about that in confession crimsoning up to the roots of her hair for fear he could see, not to be troubled because that was only the voice of nature and we were all subject to nature’s laws, he said, in this life and that was no sin because that came from the nature of woman instituted by God….” (Pg.356)

And later Gerty masturbates to dead obvious imagery of fireworks exploding, mentally separating herself from the dirty sexual fumbling of men:
But this was altogether different from a thing like that because there was all the difference because she could almost feel him draw her face to his and the first quick hot touch of his handsome lips.” (Pg.363)

What is Joyce saying in all this except that “what she needs is a damned good ****” or some such? Bear in mind, the masturbating prude is Joyce’s imagining, not documentary reportage, so Gerty McDowell c’est lui! And Bloom wanks too and isn’t it funny in this book that while there are remembered moments of joyless copulation, masturbation is the most common form of sexual activity described?

He thought about this very carefully. Of course it could be read as commentary on a sexually-repressed society. But, as he saw it, it reflected more that whole lack of fulfilment in the novel. Yes, boyo, in a modern urban society you may fancy you are Ulysses the bold sea rover. But in this Ulysses, there is no heroic sea voyage; only a lot of wandering on shores. The heroic journey is sublimated in a city pub-and-brothel crawl. And your faithful Penelope is not waiting for you, but alone in bed thinking of other men. And your big adventure is a wank.

And what of that descent into nonsense?

Leopold Bloom lies in bed and :

“He rests. He has travelled.
Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer and Finbad the Failer and Binbad the Bailer and Pinbad the Pailer and Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer and Linbad the Yailer and Xinbad the Phthailer….” (Pg.658)

Naturally he recognised that the obsession with Sinbad the voyager was just as great in this novel as the obsession with Ulysses the voyager. He knew the passage caught the rhythms of a man falling to sleep to the ticking of a clock. But it was also a descent into dreams and hence into nonsense. Finnegans Wake next stop.

Where, then, did Ulysses leave him after this second reading?

How vivid some passages were. How much of a vanished Dublin he could hear, small, see as he read it. How crude he would be not to be grateful for this. And there were some good jokes. And there were some things to savour and some sentences and whole paragraphs to pluck out and read as prose poems. But he remembered that Spike Milligan once wrote a little book called A Book of Bits or a Bit of a Book and that really was what Ulysses was. A congeries. Its jokes went on and on to tedium.

It was a series of music hall turns, which never reached a satisfying punch line (or climax). It was a huge literary turd in which some gems could be seen flashing.

And the final unpunctuated and tedious soliloquy by Molly Bloom lying in bed no and fingering herself no and talking tits and bums and cocks no and even if it’s the thing they all run to first because of the rude words that were once banned and I’ll say that’s a great victory for free speech no and even if it is vaguely based on James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle it’s still tedious as all get out no and an artificial imposture because it’s egregiously unpunctuated no because it’s supposed to be stream of consciousness how very arty no but really just bloody confusing and if he can’t insert the occasional full-stop and divide it into sentences then how come he can still use capital letters for proper names in the course of it no which shows he’s just dicking us around no because he’s arbitrarily thrown away one convention but kept another and think for a moment it goes on for 46 tedious no pages which makes it another of James Joyce’s no overplayed and overlong and therefore unfunny jokes no why can’t he like a good comedian know about timing and no about when to get off stage when he’s ahead and he understood it was meant in no its last stages to replicate no the rhythm of the woman wanking so we’re back to wanking as no the novel’s chief form of both no expression and sexual pleasure but no also even if he no was married to Nora and heard her no eff and blind he’s still no a male getting his rocks off tediously pretending no he knows what’s inside a woman’s mind how very patronising and he said no I’ve now read James Joyce’s Ulysses twice in my life which I suspect is more no than most people who praise it no have done and now I know no I will never no read it again except maybe brief amusing bits no therefrom but if any semi-literate no comes no up to me no and says no I have to praise it no as a Modernist ground-breaking no classic no I will say no I’ve better things to do no I won’t it’s bloody boring and overpraised no I won’t No. 


  1. An interesting article, yet I find that the choice of tense really does put me off.

    1. Or perhaps the third-person voice? I worried abiout this.