20 Jun 2013
Ulysses has outlived its critics, just as it has outlived the banning … Nor is it only because it has proved a wonderful store for the academic-criticism industry, spawning innumerable Ph D theses. It may indeed be a book more studied than read, but it has also been read with delight by several generations now, even if not always read through.
On the off chance that anyone was wondering what it is that I have been wasting away my time with in between political philosophers, I supplemented Gandhi, Nietzsche, and Heidegger with a course on ethics and modernist literature.1 The professor put Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce onto my reading list, because I clearly have infinite time and it makes sense to include three incredibly difficult and wordy authors in addition to my already gruelling workload.
Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’innommable) is an amazing set of novels and my reading of it marks one of the few times that I have wished for a working knowledge of the French language – to enjoy the clever wordplay.2 To quote Beckett himself, “there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be”. It is a set of stories that, in the teller, are both brought closer and made more distant. I thoroughly appreciated the tidal pull of these novels.
Ulysses, though, was a trudge through wind and hail. It parallels Homer’s Odyssey, which is to say that intelligent people have told me that it parallels Homer’s Odyssey and I believe them because I do not know enough to claim otherwise. It was not until I was finished with the novel that I started to develop any sort of appreciation for it. Ulysses concludes beautifully. Despite the madness, unintelligibility, and difficulty. Despite the times that I wondered at what Joyce was doing and whether I was comprehending anything that I was reading. Despite everything, I am glad to have tried my hand at Joyce.
And Conrad, and Beckett, and Pynchon. Modernist literature might primarily exist for the satisfaction of academics – I do not rightly know – but the rejection of old and established ways is always worth the attempt, even if it is limited in both sense and reach. Writers make for lousy astronauts. We lack the totalizing dedication to the pursuit of the heavenly bodies that is demanded of the contemporary Icarus. We have an elsewhere gaze, but we too raise our fingers to the sky to trace and map the spaces between the stars. We may not fly, but our hands are stained with ink, and our knuckles are sore from typewriters and pens. These are our V-2’s and Apollo’s. With them we likewise seek to reinvent the human being – or, sometimes, reinvent what it means to be at all.
I make no claims that Ulysses is the best novel to have ever been written – if only because I have not read them all and can make no such claim, though I would likewise not suggest that it is the best novel that I have ever read. What Joyce has done with Ulysses is crafted something new and different, a novel in all the definitions of that word. He broke with form. He broke with narrative. He broke with structure and character and technique, all in an attempt at bringing about newness into the world. And, in doing so, he made something that has lasted and endured beyond him.