James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ revisited | the new yorker


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The UlyssesReader Twitter account is what programmers call a “corpus-powered bot.” The corpus on which it feeds is James Joyce’s modernist epic, “Ulysses”, which was published a hundred years ago this month. For nine years, UlyssesReader has consumed the inner parts of the novel with relish, only to spit them out at the rate of a tweet every ten minutes. The eighteen episodes of the novel, each built according to an elaborate scheme of correspondences – Homeric parallels, hours of the day, organs of the body – tear each other apart. The characters are dismembered into stomachs, breasts and buttocks. When UlyssesReader comes to the end, it presents the novel’s historical signature, “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921,” intact, like a bone fished out of the throat. Then he begins again, arranging, in his mechanical way, the story of a young Dubliner named Stephen Dedalus and an older one named Leopold Bloom, reunited in a hospital, a brothel, a coachmen’s shelter and, finally, the kitchen. from Bloom’s home – June 16, 1904, “an unusually tiring day, a chapter of accidents”.

My relationship with UlysseReader is intense and, I guess, typical. When I wake up, drowsy and unhappy, I turn around to see what happened during the night. Sometimes he greets me with a phrase whose origin and meaning I know with the same certainty that I know my name. At the beginning of the novel, say:

The stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the top of the stairs, carrying a bowl of foam on which a mirror and a razor were crossed. A yellow, unbelted dressing gown was held gently behind him in the balmy morning air.

Placing these sentences is simple. It’s eight o’clock in the morning at Sandycove Martello Tower. The Tower, an obsolete British defense fortress, overlooks the Irish Sea “snotgreen”, “scrotumsqueezing” – “a great sweet mother”, Buck Mulligan intones, playing both the roles of priest and jester to a Stephen Dedalus indifferent, who mourns the death of his mother. Understanding from which point of view these sentences come is more delicate, but essential to the technical ambitions of the novel. The passage is marked by Buck’s rhetorical bombast – “stately”, “bowl carrying” – but deflated by the slightly tongue-in-cheek description of him as “plump”. It is on the basis of this observation that the critic Leo Bersani affirms that “Ulysses” brought to modern literature its most refined technique: a narrative perspective “both seduced” by the particular thought of its characters and “coldly attentive to their person”. .”

From these two sentences opens a whole history of literature, a sudden blossoming of forms and genres, authors and periods, languages ​​and nations. Why is ‘dressinggown’, like ‘scrotumtightening’, a single retractable word, as if English is stabilizing to turn into German? (A triviality, you might protest, but administrators of Joyce’s estate once sued the publisher of a “user-friendly” edition of “Ulysses” who split it into a “dressing gown.”) The Yellow Dress is she an afterimage of Homer’s Dawn, throwing off her golden robe? What to do with that particular word “ungirdled”? The cords of the unbelted robe draw my mind to the unbelted tunics of the warriors of the Iliad; to Shakespeare’s fairy Puck, who boasts of being able to “put a belt around the earth / in forty minutes”; to the plump, beltless Romans in “The Last Days of Pompeii,” by Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. How many novels encourage such wanderings?

“Ulysses” is about wandering, of course, and the loneliness that comes with it. While running errands that morning, Leopold Bloom recalls his wife, Molly, stuffing a crushed seed cake into her mouth the day he proposed to her, “I lay down with my lips full, I kissed her mouth. Yum. Gently, she gave me the warm, chewed seed cake into my mouth. Cutesy pulp his mouth had muttered bittersweet with spit. Joy: I ate it: Joy. Yet the sweetness of his memory is soured by a sudden memory. It is the day, he suspects, that Molly will sleep with businessman Blazes Boylan, the “worst man in Dublin”. Bloom is adrift from his wife, adrift from her past and alone with her memory – just as the readers, devouring the novel with delight, look up to realize they are alone and adrift from her. stormy sea of ​​references. “The angst that ‘Ulysses’ massively and encyclopaedically strives to transcend,” writes Bersani, “is that of disconnection”—the “traumatic seductions” of the desire to read whatever one would need to read to master these references . How many people have read not only Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Sterne, Fielding, Blake, Goethe, Wilde and Yeats, but also Irish, Indian and Jewish folklore? How many master French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek and Latin? Who do you share these connections with?

Seduced and abandoned, the reader strings together the links, but they affirm nothing more than Joyce’s appetite for knowledge, a cultural literacy presented as divine in its breadth. “Ulysses,” concludes Bersani, is “modernism’s most impressive homage to the West’s long and varied homage to the authority of the Father.” Father’s most devoted offspring are known as the Joyceans, and the rolling ‘Joyce industry’ spawned a vast apparatus of commentary that even they found oppressive. “Those of us who love Joyce must also hate him and the industrialized critical tradition that now trails in his wake,” researcher Sean Latham wrote, attempting to shake Joyce’s hold on his bandmates. But everyone knows that hating a dad only strengthens his power over you.

What about those mornings when I wake up and the bot’s nocturnal emissions are nowhere to be found? “The wind of desire blows the thorny tree but after it has become a bramble to be a rose on the rood screen of time. Mark me now. In the woman’s womb the word became flesh, but in the mind of the all-fleshed creator. What? I could go get a crumpled copy of Don Gifford’s “Ulysses Annotated” and find a hint hidden under the brambles. Or I could look for Sam Slote, Marc A. Mamigonian and the next “Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses(Oxford), which, with some twelve thousand entries, is more than twice the length of the novel. But I like the idea of ​​a hole in my knowledge of the history of literature. And I like the idea of ​​someone in another flesh-warmed bed making connections that I can’t. It is the pleasure of abandonment and passivity. Or, as Bloom thinks, when he comes home that night to a bed bearing “the imprint of a human, male form, not his own”, it’s the pleasure of feeling “more self-sacrifice than jealousy, less envy than equanimity”. This surrender is love. If desire is the pain of ignorance, then love, as the scholar Sam See proclaimed in a moving response to Bersani, “is the pleasure of ignorance: the pleasure of giving up our desire to to fill the void of knowledge, to make knowledge whole, to master those with whom we relate. To surrender mastery is to sing, as Molly does, “the sweet old song of love.”

“We heard about your little experiment, Mr. Franklin, and what we in the kite industry would like to know is how much it’s going to cost to clear it up.”
Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

Knowledge and ignorance, desire and love, control and submission, these are the straits in which “Ulysses” asks his readers to navigate. There are more browsing technologies available today than when Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach’s Parisian bookstore, first published the novel. There are studies, among which Anthony Burgess’ ‘Re Joyce’ (1965) and Richard Ellmann’s ‘Ulysses on the Liffey’ (1972) remain the unashamedly joyous. There are the audio and visual recordings: the thrill of hearing Pegg Monahan’s deep, raspy voice merge with Molly’s consciousness in the 1982 Irish Public Radio production; the wonder of seeing a windswept Rob Doyle atop Dalkey’s Martello Tower during the Thornwillow Centenary Reading. There are the illustrations, from the comically irrelevant ones of Matisse – having never bothered to read “Ulysses”, he just drew scenes from the Odyssey – to the enchanting surreal cartoons of Eduardo Arroyo. for “Ulysses: An Illustrated Edition” (Other Press) and the beautiful, flimsy “Usylessly,” which reproduces the physical form of the first edition but erases all the text. If all these projects make new ways of apprehending “Ulysses” desirable, they also recover the pleasure of loving him from the mouth of the machine.

“Ulysses” is often described as an encyclopedic novel. “An encyclopedia in the form of a farce”, declared Ezra Pound, comparing it to “Bouvard et Pécuchet” by Gustave Flaubert, whose wacky title characters do not complete their deliciously stupid quest to master all knowledge. “Ulysses” doesn’t depict anyone stringing together entries, but the novel’s repetition of certain terms and phrases is hard to miss. They rise from the page like “married words of shimmering whiteness”, gaining in intensity and meaning.

“Desire” is one of those words. If there were entries for it in “Ulysses,” sexual desire would attach itself to Bloom – who receives flirtatious letters, reads erotica, masturbates on the beach, and peers into the anus mirabilis of almost all the women he meets – while literary desire would attach itself to Stephen, the budding writer. “All desire to see you produce the work you meditate on, cheer you on Stephaneforos,” his fair-weather friend Vincent Lenehan taunts in the fourteenth episode, as they sit in the Holles Street maternity ward, awaiting the birth of a baby. . Childbirth and writing, the essence of creation myths, appear as paired rituals in “Ulysses.”

It’s tempting to think that the desire to create, whether it’s a life or a novel, requires mastery – the exercise of control over the materials of one’s mind and body. Stephen is stung both by this desire to master and by a melancholy revolt against the artifice of knowledge. The first three chapters of the novel extend the largely autobiographical arc of the Künstlernovel a project that Joyce began with the publication, in 1916, of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. So Stephen was just young and dilettante. Now he is young, unwashed, in mourning, half too smart and unable to write. “He’s going to write something in ten years,” laughs Buck Mulligan. “I will write entirely tomorrow,” insults Stephen, extremely drunk, towards the end of “Ulysses”. “I am one of the finest artists.”

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