We’re approaching Bloomsday, June 16. On this day Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, wanders through Dublin having adventures before returning in the wee hours of the night to the bed of his cheating wife Molly. To celebrate Bloomsday I'm posting a revised version of a column I wrote several years ago when I re-read the classic 1922 novel.
James Joyce was an unsurpassed observer and, implicitly, theorist of the mind. In Ulysses he pulls off something that still feels revolutionary, although it has inspired countless imitations. He yanks us out of the prison cell of our selves and plops us inside the selves of other people. He helps us overcome the problem of solipsism. We’ll never really know what it is like to be a bat or a cat, but thanks to Joyce we have a better idea what it is like to be a human being.
Joyce had scientific precursors. William James drew attention to the weird nature of consciousness. It is not a train—a collection of objects moving through space—but a stream, James said. And thoughts are not like atoms, uniform and durable. They are evanescent, ever-changing, slip-sliding into each other. Another precursor of Joyce was Freud, who contended that deep down we are nasty, horny creatures, much more than we realize or care to admit.
Joyce brings the psychological hypotheses of James and Freud to life. He dunks us in streams of thought that swirl, eddy, cascade and collide with the objective reality of Dublin in 1904. Joyce’s major characters—Stephen Dedalus, a young, intellectually pretentious teacher and would-be writer (modeled after Joyce himself); Leopold Bloom, a gregarious Jewish ad salesman; Molly Bloom, his songstress spouse—are individuals rooted in a particular time and place. And yet these fictional humans feel universal.
Joyce flouts taboos in the service of verisimilitude, not titillation. Like an evolutionary biologist, he never lets us forget that we are animals. Bloom pisses, poops, gobbles, swills, haggles, preens, cringes, lusts. Unlike gloomy, judgmental Freud, Joyce is fond of his fellow humans, in spite of all their foibles. Bloom is timid, scheming, lecherous, gluttonous, but also noble, brave, generous, loving, dignified. He’s tragic and comic, brooding one moment about the suicide of his father and death of his son and the next hungering for a piece of cheese or ogling a woman’s legs.
Joyce’s novel resembles a multi-dimensional virtual-reality world, in which sights, sounds and smells are entangled with emotions, memories and fantasies. Compared to Ulysses, earlier literary renderings of reality seem quaintly artificial, like medieval paintings prior to artists’ mastery of perspective. Ulysses achieves its hyper-realism while constantly rubbing our faces in its artificiality. This book is just an elaborate literary composition, Joyce reminds us, like Homer’s Odyssey (which served as his template).
As Joyce would be the first to admit, the mirror he holds up to nature is distorted, blurred, cracked, as all representations must be, whether fictional or factual. And Ulysses, like life, can be baffling. One especially murky section, which takes place in a brothel, is named “Circe” after the sorceress who turned Greek sailors into pigs in the Odyssey. “Circe,” which takes the form of a play, reminds me of Shakespeare’s gender- and species-bending comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except it’s much edgier and weirder, as if conceived by a demented Jungian intent on exposing humanity’s collective id.
The prostitutes and their clients become caricatures, wearing grotesque masks and spouting bizarre lines. Bloom shape-shifts into a lawyer, tyrant and craven peeping Tom. The rhetoric of “Circe” keeps morphing too from grandiloquent/hifalutin to coarse/smutty and everything in between. Each of us, Joyce seems to suggest, swarms with multitudes of personas, from the angelic to the beastly.
An earlier section, “Wandering Rocks,” is also dauntingly chaotic. Following Bloom around Dublin, Joyce seems to thwart, perversely, our desire for a linear story line. His technique reminds me of a film in which the camera soars over a cityscape before zooming in on an individual striding down a street. Except in Ulysses the camera never stays put. Just as you’re getting comfortable with one perspective, the camera swoops away again. It’s fair to ask, What’s the point?
Here’s my guess. Joyce is depicting the macrocosmic world as composed of innumerable microcosms, individual minds. This pointillist approach represents shared, social reality more faithfully than the pseudo-objective, omniscient-narrator method of traditional masters like Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen. Joyce offers us multitudinous subjective views of the same objective places, events and people--notably Bloom, who is disdained and admired by others just as he disdains and admires them. Rather than spelling out his philosophy in abstract, Kantian fashion, Joyce embodies it in flesh and blood.
That’s my take on “Circe” and “Wandering Rocks.” But to be honest I prefer the sections of Ulysses where Joyce gives us a sustained point of view, especially that of Bloom. I love Bloom in part because he is a science geek, fascinated by the mechanics of the material world. Consider the following passage, which takes place in a bar. Bloom and a couple of pals are yakking about capital punishment, more specifically hangings. Bloom, an anti-execution liberal, expresses doubt about the deterrent effect of hangings, provoking a response from his buddies:
–There’s one thing it hasn’t a deterrent effect on, says Alf.
–What’s that? says Joe.
–The poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged, says Alf.
–That so? says Joe.
–God’s truth, says Alf. I heard that from the head warder that was in Kilmainham when they hanged Joe Brady, the invincible. He told me when they cut him down after the drop it was standing up in their faces like a poker.
–Ruling passion strong in death, says Joe, as someone said.
–That can be explained by science, says Bloom. It’s only a natural phenomenon, don’t you see, because on account of the …
And then he starts with his jawbreakers about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon.
Bloom is trying to educate his ignorant bar-mates, but they just roll their eyes and yawn. Joyce gently mocks Bloom too, depicting him as a pompous professor pontificating on the physiology of hanging-induced erections. Although he clearly identifies with Bloom the Jewish outsider, Joyce acknowledges that Bloom is a bit of a bore, a blowhard know-it-all. And that is, let’s face it, how many people view science writers, with all our bloviating about “this phenomenon and the other phenomenon.”
The most science-y part of the book occurs near the end, when Bloom, who has brought Stephen Dedalus back to his home, makes him a cup of cocoa. As Bloom fills a kettle, he muses about where the water came from, and the thought triggers a Q&A on water that is marvelous, empirical and lyrical, scientific and poetic. Joyce shows that science–or, more generally, a practical, materialistic perspective on life, like Bloom’s—can be acutely sensitive to beauty.
Joyce toiled over his great book during the Great War, World War I, which was supposed to end all wars. He chose to ignore the war, I suspect, because he wanted to celebrate life at its most ordinary. His anti-hero is a flawed, faithless salesman crawling back to the bed of his flawed, faithless wife, who as she falls asleep recalls the first time she made love with her husband, whom she still loves, in spite of everything. As cruel and foolish as we are, love redeems us.
Ulysses isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Virginia Woolf, another master of stream-of-consciousness fiction, complained, “I don’t know that [Joyce has] got anything very interesting to say, and after all the pissing of a dog isn’t very different from the pissing of a man.” Some feminists view Molly’s sexy soliloquy, which concludes Ulysses, as an all-too-male fantasy of a female mind.
But to my mind Joyce exemplifies Noam Chomsky’s dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science. Almost a century has passed since Ulysses was published, and scientists seem further than ever from finding a viable theory of consciousness. Hence the persistence of creaky old paradigms like psychoanalysis and even behaviorism, which assumes, absurdly, that mind doesn’t matter. Joyce doesn’t explain consciousness, but no one else can either, and he depicts the human condition with unmatched veracity. He evens offers a little uplift. Sometimes life sucks, it can break your heart, but it can be pretty great, too, and funny! Real wisdom should leave you with a smile on your face.