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Being Young and Being Old

I don’t have much too say specifically about the final episode of Ulysses. I’ve learned by now just to let myself be carried along in the stream of Joyce’s prose, so I bumped along as usual this week. Some things were funny and some were very nicely rendered. The closing cascade of memories/thoughts/emotions was lovely. Maybe it’s too cute to suggest that Molly undergoes a metempsychotic sort of change over the course of the episode, morphing from something of a shrill malcontent to someone who by the end has a bit of a heart.

The books I like the most are the ones that leave me sort of stunned at the end because of how well-wrought they are, or how dazzling. Ulysses falls short for me in this department. It’s clearly the work of a really smart guy who has a keen ability to make you inhabit the head of the characters he writes. But the thing is that I already inhabit my own head. My head isn’t quite the carnival that has set up tents in Bloom’s head, but the thought patterns Joyce captures are familiar to me. I suppose I’m ok with familiar, though. Part of what resonates so strongly with me in David Foster Wallace’s brief interviews, for example, is that some of them represent not quite the whole exact truth about ways I’ve felt or things I’ve thought, but neither are they so terribly close to outright parody. It’s the harrowing familiarity and honesty in that work that appeals to me. So much of Ulysses captured the formal or structural familiarity of how people think but had very little familiarity to me in terms of subject matter or personal feeling. It’s not a book I could relate to in any way, and that surely colored my enjoyment of it.

I guess I feel about this book more or less the way I feel about Pynchon’s books. They’re kind of like nasty medicine. I don’t much enjoy them going down, but they’re probably good for me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever reread this one. I’ve tried off and on for over a decade; ask me again in another decade. I’m pretty sure I’ll never attempt Finnegan’s Wake.

I suppose I should do something besides trash-talk the book, though, so I’ll toss out something half-baked and cross my fingers that the more learned and enthusiastic among us can add to or subtract from it in the comments.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I believe Joyce rewrote to serve as a sort of preface to Ulysses, is explicitly about being young. Ulysses, then, is a book about being old, or maybe — since its two most distinctive voices are closer to middle-age — about what happens to you as you begin to grow old. I started to type out a bunch of sort of flimsy evidence in support of this statement, but it began to feel a little high-school term-paperish, so I’ll let the statement stand more or less on its own now, and we can take it up in the comments.

I won’t say that I enjoyed Ulysses a whole heck of a lot, but I am glad to have read it, and reading along with others has, as ever to date, made the experience richer for me. Thanks to those who wrote blog posts or comments, and many thanks to Judd for starting us off; it wouldn’t have happened without him.

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  1. August 29, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Daryl, your feelings about Ulysses — and DFW — mirror mine almost exactly. But I think you are bigger-hearted about it than I am! — I would have a hard time coming up with anything positive to say about Ulysses, and I’m not even altogether sure it’s good for me. But I am proud of myself for having struggled through it, and grateful to the group here for supporting that, whether they knew they were doing it or not. Without all of you, I’m not sure I could’ve stuck with it.

    Because I loved Infinite Jest, I *got* interested in Boston. I wanted to know more about the places, real or fictional, that were the setting for that fascinating work — love of the book led to enough love of the city and its environs that I looked up lots of the places online just to read more about them, to immerse myself further in IJ. OTOH, in Ulysses — maybe more accurately, in the annotations — I was frequently groaning, “Oh no! Not more about Dublin! Not more about Irish history! Please, no more references to Catholicism!”

    Joyce strikes me as a thoroughly narcissistic show-off. Well I suppose lots of writers are, even ones I like, but Joyce’s self-exploration is so far from anything I can relate to, in his case I am offended. It all just seemed like literary pyrotechnics to me, thoroughly soulless. I realize how distorted my bias is, but I seem to be stuck with it, at least for now.

    Final tidbit: I met a woman recently at a local poetry reading, a writer who is also a Joycean scholar — this just serendipitously came out, and I was astonished to find she had written a short story about her experience of Ulysses, and published it in a book of her short stories, The Book of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. So of course I had to read it, and I would recommend it to anyone, especially anyone who’s read Ulysses. Read it and you’ll see why! (And if anyone does, I’d love to hear from you via email — your take on it.) Oh yes. The writer’s name is Sharon Doubiago.

    Cathy

  2. Leroy
    August 30, 2010 at 2:55 am

    I’m trying to figure out why my experience of Ulysses is so different from that of Daryl and Cathy. I’ve had a strange relationship with it. I first heard of Joyce in college when a close friend of mine, Richard, turned out to be a big fan. At the time, I tried reading Ulysses but found the first two chapters boring and the third incomprehensible (I had no guide and didn’t think to ask anyone for help) so I stopped. I did read (and really enjoyed) Portrait, and became fascinated with the idea of the Wake which Richard was exploring at the time, but I set aside Joyce for many years.

    It wasn’t until I discovered Robert Anton Wilson by way of his trilogy Schrodinger’s Cat (which many physicists consider to be three of the most scientific of science fiction novels, since in their form they illustrate the three primary interpretations of quantum mechanics despite their sheer silliness), that I came back to Joyce. Wilson was a big fan of Joyce and his frequent discussion of him in his many books restored my curiosity. When I next tackled Ulysses, I used one of WYT’s guides, and got a lot more out of it, though there remained much I didn’t understand. There were enough parts I loved, though, that I kept coming back (finding Jorn Barger’s website along the way) and I found that each time I read it, many things became more clear. At this point I’m up to at least ten times through and I like it more every time I read it (and see more of Joyce’s intricate web of connections and coincidences). As I’ve noted in previous posts, I love highly stylish prose of intricate form and writing with a wicked sense of humor so this naturally draws me to Joyce, but in and around all that style I see his great love, compassion, and sympathy for all of humanity. His characters are severely flawed, but he makes me understand and love them anyway. I used to fret about not getting all the historical and literary references (I’m not sure I’ll ever really enjoy Scylla and Charybdis, for example), but I came to see that you don’t need to know everything Joyce knew in order to find the gold.

    That’s enough for now. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say as I continue thinking about what it is that keeps me coming back.

  3. Hunter Felt
    August 30, 2010 at 6:29 am

    First off, I want to apologize to you and Judd for not contributing a guest post or two. My Blackberry is my only internet source, and it hates WordPress and Blogspot. I can’t even read some of my younger brother’s stories on this blasted thing!

    I was about to comment that I didn’t understand how you couldn’t emotionally relate to “Ulysses”, especially since you seemed to find no joy in “Circe” (which, on every re-read, gives me the same thrill that I experienced when I saw my first Monty Python episode), yet enjoyed “Oxen of the Sun” (the “Revolution 9” of modern English literature).

    Then I stopped myself and realized that I felt that way with “Moby Dick”. I’ve read it once and respect it and have loved many parts of it, but have never re-read anything other than the early quotes, the first two chapters, and the crazier asides. The less “Moby Dick” is about people, and the more it is about symbolism, (“The Whiteness Of The Whale”) and the technical aspects of whaling, the better it is.

    Then I remembered reading “The Sound And The Fury” and felt NOTHING even though I was and am a huge Faulkner fan.

    Then I remembered the movie “Happiness”, the TV show “The Wire”, and above all Radiohead’s “OK Computer”.

    At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of critics AND fans agree that something is impossibly wonderful.

    It doesn’t matter that you really really want to love it.

    It doesn’t matter if you have all sorts of logical reasons to back up the fact that you SHOULD like it.

    If it doesn’t move you, it doesn’t move you. No human being in the history of the world has ever forced himself to love something.

    But I would give it a shot a decade from now or so, because we all change. Heck, “we all change” is a major theme of “Ulysses”.

  4. Joann Karen
    August 30, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Whew ! I can’t believe I read the whole thing ! ( And at the same time Hart & Haymans “James Joyce’s Ulysses Critical Essays” and Stuart Gilbert’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses A Study”and the wonderful, informative posts and comments at this site.) Thank You All !
    What’s Next ?

  5. crazymonk
    August 30, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    I really enjoyed Penelope as it struck me as the most human of all the episodes. Molly’s thoughts on things realistically shift around during the course of the episode, almost to the point of somewhat devaluing the positivity of the final “Yes” — after all, last night’s Yes can easily become tomorrow’s No. Last week I was wondering in a comment whether we’d learn anything more about Stephen in Penelope, and to my surprise we do to one extent: what might happen between him and Molly if he decides to take Leopold up on his invitations.

    As for your thoughts on Ulysses as a whole, Daryl, I agree with you to the extent that Ulysses is not a book I’d press upon a friend of mine, unless that friend exhibited qualities similar to Stephen Dedalus. I’ve made it clear to those I have spoken to about my recent reading that I would hardly be enjoying it if 1) I didn’t have this online group to push me along and 2) I wasn’t approaching my reading like a college class, reading overwhelming amounts of supplemental material. This leads me to believe that for most people, Ulysses can only really be appreciated when reading along with (in my case) Gilbert, or Blamires, or Campbell’s lectures, or Gifford’s annotations — or most ideally, in a classroom environment with regular lectures. And that this is something that will become more and more true the farther one’s reading is from the publication date of 1922. To me, Ulysses is less of a novel and more of a thematic book of poetry, or a scholarly aesthetic manifesto — and from what I’ve seen of Finnegans Wake it is even moreso an unfiltered glimpse into Joyce’s convoluted mind.

    Why scholars have decided to put so much effort into unraveling Joyce, I think I partially understand. But I think they must recognize that there’s a fine line between what they’re doing and in analyzing the diaries of a mad man — puzzles and puns and obscurity can be fun, especially when you understand them without help, but for me it has been shown (by Wallace in Infinite Jest) that this can be done without taking away much of the joy of reading.

    So in the end, I feel that there’s a place in the world for Ulysses, and it certainly should be well-respected for what it is. But I also think that Jonathan Franzen was right when he wrote about the potentially harmful effects of putting Ulysses at the top of ranked lists of 20th century literature — I think it’s somewhat an artifact of its significance in the lives of 20th century critics, and that we’ll see Ulysses’s significance wane in the next few decades (where “wane” can mean something as marginal as it being considered one of the top five or ten important books of the 20th century, as opposed to being the number one most important book).

    Thanks all for posting your thoughts here over the past two months — this is the way difficult books should be read when lacking a classroom.

    • August 30, 2010 at 2:17 pm

      crazymonk :
      I really enjoyed Penelope as it struck me as the most human of all the episodes. Molly’s thoughts on things realistically shift around during the course of the episode, almost to the point of somewhat devaluing the positivity of the final “Yes” — after all, last night’s Yes can easily become tomorrow’s No…

      This rang a bells for me, crazymonk. The ending of Ulysses is so famous, and presented in references is such a way that I expected it to be more of a YES, an ecstatic, transformative EPIPHANY, but for me it was as you say — suspect. Just a point which could easily move on to No.

      Let me add to me earlier mention of Sharon Doubiago’s short story, “Joyce,” that mid-way through her story she shifts to the technique of writing employed by Joyce in this episode. She may partly be doing this to say, “See how a real woman does this,” since, after all, Joyce’s exploration of a woman’s meandering mind is conceived and written by a man. Just a guess, based on her strongly feminist perspective.

      Cathy

      • August 30, 2010 at 2:19 pm

        I somehow missed putting an ending to the quote, above — quote ends with “… become tomorrow’s No…”

        …and my comment begins with, “This rang bells for me…”

  6. Greg Carlisle
    August 31, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I loved the end of Ulysses. I felt uncomfortable about Leo and Molly’s relationship through most of the novel. It seemed loveless with Leo’s epistolary affair and Molly’s physical one and just a general deadness about their interaction. Then he is affectionate when he crawls into bed with her, and her memories of Leo (many unflattering) soar into this beautiful memory of his proposal to her that end in a kind of Wallacian static ring “yes I said yes I will Yes.” The ugliness and tiredness of their relationship metempsychosisizes into one of the loveliest images in the book. And that’s what he ends with: beauty, the memory that matters most, the heart and spirit under the ugliness.

    Franzen’s poo-pooing of difficult literature was one of the impulses that led to Steven Moore’s wonderful alternate history of the novel, which uncovers a massive reading list that could keep us blogging forever. You can link to the introduction here: http://www.stevenmoore.info/

  7. Ezekiel Crago
    September 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    At least Ulysses ends. Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake as a completely circular narrative that you can never finish reading. I tell people that I have read Ulysses six times, but when they ask how many times I’ve read the Wake, I just say I’ve been reading it a long time…

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