Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On the Mundane and the Profound: One Day in Dublin

What to make of Ulysses, that towering work of modernism that has been seen as both the hallmark of the age, and an impediment to later generations of writers trying to get out from beneath Joyce’s long shadow?  

Ultimately, the worth of the novel can’t be questioned, even if you do not ‘like’ the book.  Perhaps no novel in the 20th century exerted (and continues to exert) so great an influence over the written arts.   Lots of ink has been spilled about the novel.  On this, my third reading of it after twenty years, I have this to say:

Part of the challenge and thrill of the novel is Joyce’s chameleon like ability to thrown on literary guises, while at the same time being intractably, even stubbornly, Joyce.  He had few illusions about his genius, and wrote a work from that lofty standpoint.  Although loaded with humor, dirty jokes, and common place incidents, Ulysses is an intellectual’s novel, meant not to be read but re-read.  It is nearly Talmudic in its dimensions.  Dig deeper into a passage and you find multiple layers of meaning.

Part of the challenge (and frustration for some) of this novel is its incredible restlessness.  The first third of the novel features Joyce’s famous stream of consciousness technique.  Characters are minds in bodies, thinking a stream of thought, occasionally interrupted by some external datum. 

Here Joyce creates a kind of hyper-naturalism.  It is as if he wishes to show readers that the naturalism of the preceding generations was nothing more than a fictive mask.  Here is the closest we can get to the workings of the human mind in its social and psychological settings.  He bends language get this.  He coins new words.  He leaves words dangling off and thoughts unfinished.  In other words, he tries to reproduce how our halting minds actually think their thoughts.

Once Joyce has accomplished this, he appears to repudiate it.  We then get a variety of chapters written from certain literary standpoints (often mockingly so).  It is as if Joyce is saying: this is literature too, a series of guises that we throw on and off at will.  This is the lens through which people see the world.  They are more than encapsulated minds.  They also structure their worlds.

So, Ulysses keeps the reader off kilter, and with a sense of sheer delight on the part of Joyce.  We start over and over again, chewing on the same material and spiritual conditions of one day in Dublin over a hundred years ago.

In the process much that is profound happens surrounded by a spectacle of mundane happenings.  In other words, just another day.

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