Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Reading Ulysses

A teen Joyce phase got me a fraction into it; I think back then I read more of finnegans wake (but not much of that, either). I wasn't going near a class in college or grad school where it was read: those people were annoying. I knew enough about it and was familiar enough with it to think it was one of the great novels in English, maybe the greatest, but now, having finally sailed the odd oceans of Ulysses, I'm thinking: This isn't just a great book. Reading this book might be one of the great experiences you can have as a human being.

Did Robert Anton Wilson proclaim Ulysses "the first psychedelic novel" or did I make that up? Or was it Tim Leary? Wilson's attachment to Joyce's masterpiece always seemed a little precious to me, possibly a micron too "Kiss Me, I'm Irish," but now I feel like a bonehead and see, of course, why Wilson, why Leary, why Jefferson Airplane, why Carl Jung, why even T.S. Eliot grooved on this book. They were psychonauts, people adept in their various ways at navigating mind space, diving below familiar waves and journeying to hidden caves, sunken cities, unheard-of treasures-- like Wilson's renegade submariner in the Illuminatus! trilogy. Wilson, I'm sure, was attracted to Joyce's language, which no matter what you think of Dublin trivia c. 1904 is to most other English writers, even the really good ones, what a space plane is to a Toyota Tundra. I think, though, what really sent Wilson over the moon for Ulysses was its VALIS-like superimposition of mind and matter, its chest-thumping assertion that the world is made of consciousness.

Consciousness creates reality in Ulysses, creates and shapes it via language, and Joyce couches the novel as a series of stylistic games revealing the thin film of "normal," consensus reality-bound thought (often represented by hilariously trite public prose styles) floating atop seas of chaotic, daydreamy mind-stuff. In the narrative, chaos and order struggle for primacy as layers of various characters' and social groups' consciousnesses are superimposed on space-time (sorry, but there's no other way to put it, given Joyce's play with mind, style, reality) and, in turn, shaped by it. Finally, in the climactic, surreal and, yes, psychedelic "Circe" episode, various characters' consciousnesses are layered atop one another in a bewildering, baroque display of such virtuosity that one starts to feel we should date all subsequent English literature from 2/2/22, the date the novel appeared, after seven years of composition.

Ulysses is, then, through its focus on the interplay between matter, mind, and personality, a spiritual novel. Yes, it raps religion: Catholicism, missionary Protestantism, colonial C of E-ism, and, most humorously, Theosophy and occultism come in for an Ali vs. Liston beat-down. Religions are like spoons we use to try to catch the sea, Joyce seems to say (if he's "saying" anything), and the "sea" here isn't God or a higher power or ultimate being; the sea is consciousness, the golden sun of pure awareness that descends to earth as love, as compassion, as caring-- or sinks into mud of attachment, as grabbiness, swinishness, patriotism, Christ-ism, us-ism, violence and stupidity of all kinds. Joyce's sense of outrage towards religion and his tenderness and compassion come out in earlier works, it's true, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "Counterparts," and "The Dead," but in Ulysses he gives us Arjuna's vision of ultimate godhead, gives us microcosm and macrocosm all at once in every moment, from Bloom's morning dump to his rescue of Stephen in a David-Lynch hellish brothel to scattered starling thoughts as day and night and mind and self slip into sleep.

It's not for everyone. I can easily see someone being turned off by the wordplay, the allusions, the idea that to enjoy this work of art one should have at one's elbow two or three reference books. I mean, even The Tempest and Moby-damn-Dick don't need a dozen footnotes a page! You'll know if Ulysses is for you the same way you do any book: read a little and see what you think. If you like it, read more and get some crib notes. Only someone who actually lived in Dublin in 1904 could read the novel without them, and even that person would have to be one helluva well-read Dubliner, familiar with world history, religious history, the history of the English language and literature, and of course the history of the Irish struggle for independence.

The good news is, you don't have to know that much about any of these topics to enjoy Ulysses. It's not difficult for the sake of being difficult; Joyce wants you to break into the story, like Bloom and Stephen breaking into the house at two in the morning. By casing the joint and gauging access points and hoisting yourself over the railing, you create a new room in your brain that, TARDIS fashion, takes the fractal shape of Ulysses' meandering ways. Ulysses is one of those engaging (or irritating) works of modernist art that asks us to co-create it. Remember that a) Joyce is a musician and this work needs to be read aloud or listened to, and b) most fiction you've read has presented a cartoon version of the mind, a "stream of consciousness," if any, about as complex and true to life as a dream sequence in an old Hitchcock film.

Joyce, on the other hand, delves into Mind as we really experience it: chaotic, disjointed yet associative, fantasy-prone yet rooted in our hungering bodies; Mind as swirl of sensations, memories, fear, prejudices, quotes, half-formed thoughts and images, shadows, clouds, shimmers. Importantly, though, he takes the narrative beyond individual consciousness to the vast spaces where individual minds meet like rain-rings on a pond, to spaces of collective mind and culture and those of myth. Joyce didn't like Jung's reading of his novel, but at times the novel sounds like Jung wrote it (with help from Mark Twain).  

Ulysses is a novel not just about consciousness but about how we become who we are, how centrifugal and centripetal forces mold our mind-stuff into personalities, identities, nationalities, and other -ities of which Joyce was an arch-skeptic. As big a prick as Stephen Dedalus can be, for example, and he rivals Nelson's Pillar, we know why he's that way--and not because Joyce "explains" it to us via flashbacks or exposition, and certainly not because Stephen knows, but because, in a sense more intimate than any novelistic experience I can think of, we have felt Stephen's guilt, his frustration, his anger, his loss, and his subliminal pre-dawn sense that despite it all he's going to win his place in the world or destroy himself in the attempt. That Stephen's quest is simultaneously noble, absurd, self-involved, Christ-like, arrogant, and pitiable gives you a sense of how deeply Joyce is able to portray a character, while at the same time giving his characters full freedom to surprise and disappoint us.

Joyce manages to limn the social, economic, historical, religious, and cultural forces shaping his characters as if he were an anthropologist, but this isn't one of those guilt-trip novels hectoring you about the wrongness of your bourgeois existence. If you were nerdy or felt under-appreciated in your youth, you'll see yourself in Stephen, even as he aggravates you. If you've been a worried, working spouse or parent, you'll see yourself in Leopold Bloom. Joyce judges neither, nor anyone else in the novel. Ulysses is not a book you can put a populist spin on, but every page speaks the gritty marvel of the present moment or the utter preciousness of every human soul (even those belonging to aspiring hangmen, self-righteous priests, and deadbeat dads).

It sure ain't an easy read, but it might be easier than you think. One thing is, a lot of art is done this way now (and we partly have Joyce to thank for the Tarantinos and the Larry Davids and the Lil Waynes). Philip K. Dick is now, at least according to the Spectator, "the most successful writer in Hollywood." As I write this I'm listening to Mos Dub, an album of Mos Def songs that have been remixed on top of old 1970s reggae classics; footnotes, if they existed, would have to catalog the songs originally sampled by Mos Def, the reggae songs that replaced them and the significance of all of the above, plus the slang of the lyrics, their hip hop allusions, and the social, cultural, and political references in them as well, which range from the Vietnam War to--yep, old-school reggae. Multi-layered stuff like this-- non-linear stories, raps based as much on wordplay as on narrative, allusions wrapped in shibboleths wrapped in puns-- is the mainstream now. New York magazine calls Mos Dub "Perfect summer BBQ music."

That's not a comparison I can take too far-- Ulysses is not beach reading. It demands your attention and reading it takes work. The farther you get into the novel, the more of a hobby or obsession it will become. Stay with it and you will find it's one of the funniest books you have ever read, and hands-down the most dazzling. In the movie-review meta-cliché, you will laugh and you will cry, sometimes on the same page. When you're a fifth of the way in, you'll find yourself "hearing" your own thoughts as if Joyce were writing them. When you're about halfway through, you'll finally get the hang of Joyce's style and probably not need the crib notes so much.When you're done, you'll likely feel a sense of relief and a desire to repeat the experience. Like all the greatest art--Beethoven's music, the cave paintings, Chartres-- Ulysses will charge your soul with awe and an ardent gratitude for being alive. Every day is Bloomsday.

What You'll Need
  1. A copy of Ulysses. The Gabler edition is best. 
  2. Some background reading in classic English lit: dip into Beowulf, some other medieval stuff, Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Samuel Johnson, Addison and Steele, Burke, Gibbon, and some nineteenth-century newspapers and sentimental fiction (Ulysses contains a riff on The Lamplighter). You don't have to be anything like an expert on this stuff but it will help if you can tell various historical prose styles apart.
  3. Read the Wikipedia entry "Irish Home Rule Movement."
Strongly Recommended
  1. The audio book of Ulysses read by Donal Donnelly. Donnelly's reading is almost as much a tour de force as Joyce's writing, and listening to this after you've read a chapter is both enlightening and extremely enjoyable. 
  2. The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires. Read these chapter summaries (after you're done with a chapter) and you'll have the pleasure of saying "Hah! That's what I thought was going on!" and, not infrequently, "Oh. That's what happened??"
  3. Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman. These guys tracked down all the easy stuff (biblical allusions, translations of Latin quips) and also trainloads of arcana, like "23 Wicklow Street, on the corner of William Street, where the pork butcher was located" and "Arabic and Mediterranean slang for copulation."
  4. Sheila O'Malley has blogged her way through Ulysses with much wit and insight. Reading her posts will inspire "civilian" readers (non-scholar, non-English major) that they can read and enjoy this novel.
  5. Ulysses: A marked up version color-codes the text according to parameters like "External narrative," "External dialog," "Internal narrative," and the all-important "Fantasy and hallucinations."
  6. Searching for #ulysses on Twitter will lead you to an active community of Joyce readers.
Not Necessary But Really Awesome
  1. James Joyce by Richard Ellman. Word is, this is one of the best biographies ever written, and I'm not arguing. This exemplary work of scholarship humanizes its subject without sensationalizing, and makes a case for Joyce's significance without descending into hagiography. It's beautifully written, offers a staggering level of detail, and provides brief but valuable introductions to Joyce's works.