As I settled in to the usual morning chatter of skimming news, scrolling reddit, and getting mentally warmed up for the day, I came across this piece, A World of Waste, Stripped of Transcendence: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ at 100 by Jared Marcel Pollen, which was a nice surprise. I don’t often come across articles discussing Joyce in the popular culture, save for the annual pieces that celebrate Bloomsday.
The reason to celebrate? One hundred years ago today, on February 2nd, 1922, James Joyce’s magnum opus Ulysses was first published in its entirety, after being serialized during the few years prior. Interestingly, the publication date happened to be Joyce’s 40th birthday as well—so we can also wish Mr. Joyce a happy birthday today.
As Pollen details in his piece, the impact of Ulysses was immediate and has continued for the past 100 years. Ulysses is so substantial, so interesting, and so unique, that it’s kept readers, professional and amateur alike, quite busy since its release.
Few novels become institutions, to have departments rigged up around them, whole constituencies and spheres of scholarship, as works of lifelong study, fascination and confusion. Ulysses, whose publication centenary will be observed on February 2nd, is one such book. Like Marx’s Kapital, Joyce’s door-stopping opus has kept academics well fed and reliably employed for generations; it has kept grad students busy and ambitious readers cringing under its weight. It has been endlessly finessed and deconstructed, yielding piles of scholastic matter, commentary, analyses. It is a book that—despite being frequently listed as the “greatest” novel of the 20th century—few have actually read. People feature the book on their shelves, its spine pristine, like an action figure unopened. One wishes to be seen reading it in public, and completing it is considered a badge of honor. More than any other novel, Ulysses has become our obscure object of desire, the eminent fetish of our literary culture.Pollen, “A World of Waste, Stripped of Transcendence”
Pollen goes on to walk the uninitiated through the novel, explaining its style, structure, but he correctly implies that the novel is not so much about its plot or the development of its characters (it takes place in a single day, after all), but about the experience of the novel. Ulysses presents to its reader a world packed with objects, sounds, sights, smells, and experiences. It’s a novel full of stuff—so much so that many readers find it distracting. “What’s the point of all this crap?” is one question I’ve heard asked in a reading group, and it’s a fair question.
What the novel is ultimately about is experience, both that of the protagonists and that of the reader—and what is experience in the modern age if not a mirage of distractions all vying for attention. But more than seeing this experience through the eyes of an artifactual narrator, It’s very much a personal experience in that as protagonist Leopold Bloom meanders around the streets of Dublin on that now-famous June day, you too are there, seeing everything he sees, no more, no less.
And in this way, the novel is a work of art that exists somewhere between the encyclopedic text(s) and the reader’s willingness to be pulled along for the ride. It’s a maximalist novel that plays with experience and the means by which we communicate and share in that experience: language. These features are what, in large part, make it a Modernist masterpiece—its boldness to play in the meta-space above the text contained in the novel.
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I couldn’t help but notice Pollen’s title “A World of Waste, Stripped of Transcendence.” He’s carrying on the ideas laid out by Walter Benjamin that in the modern, mass-produced age, objects are robbed of their aura and become simply things. The fact that our civilization continues to increase the production of ever more and more of these things eventually leaves us with a “world of waste,” a kind of urban dump.
But does this mean the world is without transcendence, even if the objects themselves have become mere shells? Some of the characters in Ulysses seem to think so, namely Stephen Dedalus. I wonder, though, whether we can so easily assume Stephen’s increasingly bleak outlook on life and civilization, or even associate with Joyce himself, despite Stephen being a stand-in for Joyce.
Rather, I think what Ulysses asks us to do is to find transcendence in a new place—perhaps to look for it in ourselves, to find those parts of ourselves that contain the transcendent. That’s the point, arguably, of making an archetypal hero out of the likes of Leopold Bloom, the mundane, pedestrian, but very much likable man.
Rather than say Ulysses is a novel that strains toward the nihilistic, or at least finds in modernity a natural home for nihilism, Joyce seems to be saying that we can yet find beauty—just perhaps not where we’ve come to expect it. His novel asks us to look into our own lives, filled with their own mundane, often boring experiences, and consider fashioning ourselves into a hero. Rather than see Bloom as a pitiful modern replacement for Odysseus and lament what passes for heroism in the modern age, we can imagine Bloom (and ourselves) as a fitting hero for our age. And we can ask: What would that hero see? What beauty might be found? What even is heroism in this new age?
These questions, I think, are what continue to make Ulysses such an impactful work, to say nothing of its absolute beauty and craftsmanship as a work of literature. Ulysses continues to resonate not just because it’s a great work, but because it locates a hopeful truth in us as the world continues to speed up, fill up, and generally make less sense.
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It’s been a few years since I read through the novel, but I find it still sticks around in my head. More than particular scenes or phrases (though those seem lodged in my head, too), I’m reminded often of the power to reimagine the heroic in the mundane—to take that existentialist leap forward in defining for ourselves what’s meaningful, or being intentional about finding in traditional structures that which transcends the modern assault on transcendent meaning itself.
That is, Joyce gives me a little bit of courage to reject the claim that modernity and postmodernity have triumphed in their stripping away of transcendence. Instead, we are to discover and rediscover the transcendent every day.
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Have you read Ulysses? If you haven’t I suggest finding a dedicated group to read it with, and settle in for a whacky, difficult, beautiful trip. It’s certainly worth the effort.
This video on Joyce makes a great brief introduction, to Ulysses and to his work in general: