Thursday October 15th, 2009

How Joyce Can Change Your Life

Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece by Declan Kiberd
Norton, 416 pp., $28.95

James Joyce once said about his notoriously difficult Ulysses that he had filled the book with so many enigmas that it would keep readers guessing  for centuries over his intentions. That, he quipped, is “the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

Nearly ninety years later, Joyce has certainly cemented his reputation, but with a decidedly more narrow audience than he sought.  It seems that only in the academy does anyone bother with what Joyce meant, his work routinely distilled through faddish literary trends: semiotics, deconstruction, post-colonialism. He has achieved tenure, not immortality.

The reading public, or what remains of it, cares little for the middle-aged Jew (Leopold Bloom) and distraught young poet (Stephen Dedalus) who are the protagonists of Joyce’s messy masterpiece. The heroes of our time are Harvard “symbologists” and Hogwarts wizards. A complex epic that employs a maddeningly non-linear plot, multiple languages and allusions to pretty much the entire Western literary tradition just isn’t suited to our tastes.

Declan Kiberd would vigorously disagree. In Ulysses and Us, he pleads that, “[It] is time to reconnect Ulysses to the lives of real people.” After all, it is real people that Joyce is writing about: people eating, drinking, defecating, fornicating, masturbating, arguing, laughing, dreaming their private dreams and harboring their private fears, sauntering through Dublin on the completely ordinary day of June 16, 1904.

Joyce may have wanted to exalt ordinary life by chronicling its minutiae, but Ulysses itself has become increasingly more obscure. An entire cottage industry has arisen in trying to decipher this 700-page enigma, but mammoth efforts like Ulysses Annotated end up making Ulysses more foreboding by doing little to distinguish between the book’s overarching themes (and they do exist) and those playful references that may have delighted Joyce but are ultimately not all that relevant. Though himself an academic, Kiberd blames this unfortunate development on the specialization of university culture, of the willful expurgation from the classroom of anything resembling lived experience.

Kiberd’s book, then, is a reclamation project. “Ulysses was wrenched out of the hands of the common reader,” he writes with a gusto that propels him like a bullet through Joyce’s dense work. “Why? Because of the rise of specialists prepared to devote years to the study of its secret codes.”

He also wants to make it Irish again. Kiberd clearly sees in Ulysses an attempt by Joyce – who rarely returned to Ireland after leaving Dublin in 1904 – to wrest the narrative of his land from the conquering English. With its reliance on the musical cadences of Gaelic and a nuanced treatment of Ireland’s past, Ulysses is Joyce’s struggle to “awaken Irish narrative from the nightmare of its colonial history.”

Nearly as distasteful to Kiberd as the English are bohemians, whom he blames for “a culture worship that rejected the idea of an art devoted to everyday life.” They had started out as artists, but the bohemians of Greenwich Village and the Latin Quarter, for Kiberd, became the graying academics — with refined sensibilities removed from the real world — who imprisoned literature in the ivory tower of the postwar period.

Among the bohemians is Stephen Dedalus himself. Back in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he entertained notions of forging “the uncreated conscience of my race in the smithy of my soul.” But now the frustrated aesthete wanders around Dublin, divorced from the city about him, entertaining far-flung theories about Shakespeare – theories that would sit well in any graduate seminar today. He is “a carrier of the bohemian virus,” Kiberd says with undisguised disdain.

Bloom also spends the day walking Dublin, but his journey is of a markedly more pedestrian nature. We first encounter him in the morning, eating “with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Later, he expels the contents of his bowels, and Joyce gladly supplies the graphic details. Through the course of the day Bloom will entertain notions that his wife, Molly, is having an affair; contemplate his own impotence; masturbate on the beach, watching a comely young girl; and finally climb into bed with Molly, where she, in the midst of pleasuring herself, concludes the novel with her triumphant “Yes.”

Kiberd delights in the earthly Bloom, an antidote to the detached Stephen. He holds Bloom up as the bourgeois ideal – a cosmopolitan man who is able to embrace the distinctions of the modern world without retreating from it or migrating to extremes. He is middle class, in the best sense of the word. As opposed to the “barren cleverness” of Stephen, Bloom is the kind of ordinary man about whom Ulysses is most concerned – and who was supposedly meant to enjoy it. “Growth is possible, even for settled citizens like Bloom,” Kiberd writes, “through openness to the Other and a willingness to talk with those who might seem different.” Ulysses, then, is a conduit for our conversation with the outside world, not a means to escape from it. Though it is nominally focused on a single June day, Kiberd sees Ulysses as a guidebook to a world of many cultures, many ideas, a cacophony of voices clashing in the public sphere.

Kiberd’s earnest celebration of the mundane does not mean that he shies away from scholarly interpretations. He is able to recall the literary tradition from which Joyce’s novel sprouts without burdening himself with the entire weight of history. His main touchstones – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible –  are not surprising, but he approaches them with disarming simplicity and grace. Of the Divine Comedy he says, “if Dante gave to the human body a concreteness . . . Joyce restored it to literature after a period of denial.” There are a hundred points of convergence between Ulysses and the Divine Comedy, but this one precise insight is just enough.

In his obligatory treatment of the Odyssey, which Joyce used as a map to chart his characters’ perambulations, Kiberd makes a more unexpected claim: “The wisdom to be gleaned from the Odyssey is clear enough: that there is nothing better in life than when a man and woman live in harmony . . . The whole of Ulysses might be taken as just such an extended hymn to the dignity of everyday living.”  The point here, again, is that even in the tumult of the twentieth century, the lasting truths remained the most obvious. Joyce, for all his supposed sophistication, knew that.

Kiberd goes to great lengths to make Joyce accessible. One images him making his passionate case for Ulysses in a dusky Dublin bar, so fluid and approachable is his style. Surely, some will remain confounded by his subject. It does not make good subway reading. It is not really “about” anything. But Kiberd goes some way towards assuring anyone who dares to scale its peaks that the “legend of its forbidding difficulty” is little more than myth.

Alexander Nazaryan has written about books for the New York Times Book Review, the Village Voice, the New Criterion, Salon, and other publications. He is completing a novel about Russian organized crime.

Mentioned in this review:

Ulysses and Us
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Ulysses Annotated
The Divine Comedy
The Odyssey