By Joshua Brown
I’m thirty-six, roughly Leopold Bloom’s age during the main action of Ulysses, reading it for the first time in fifteen years. The last time I read it I was a senior in college, and much nearer Stephen Dedalus’ age. But the first time was during the summer before my senior year in college. I was living off of a gratuitous “research grant,” and working on my undergraduate thesis in political philosophy. My advisor, who had a sense of humor, suggested that I’d like to live in Manhattan for a summer, so he included in the application letter that I needed to use “special resources available only at Columbia University’s world-renowned library,” even though, when it comes to political philosophy, one library is as good as another. I lived in one of the dorms left open for students in the summer, at 115th just west of Broadway, and a few blocks away from the iconic “Tom’s Restaurant” at 110th.
The first time I read “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” I was seated in one of the booths that you can sort of see through the rightmost window. One night, in the throes of the type of depression that comes from living by yourself and having enough grant money that you don’t have to work, but not enough that you can do anything really fun in New York, and only knowing a couple of people, both of whom worked during the day and so wouldn’t stay out late at night, I walked even further down along Broadway and strolled past one of those used book tables. On a previous night a few weeks earlier, I had found a cheap 1970’s era translation of The Stranger, and, in much the same semi-depressed state, had torn through it in one night. It allayed the depression for a few hours. On this particular night, perhaps again as a coping strategy, a Vintage paperbacks Ulysses caught my eye. In a way, this was a book I’d been destined to read for some time.
Source of Destiny #1: I used to love Greek mythology when I was a little kid. Somewhere along the way I caught onto the idea that all those names were culturally pervasive, showing up in cartoons, movies, other books. You could always expect a good “Juno” or “Achilles” to turn up any old place. At some point, I really took to the names. In fact, I was much more interested in the names than the stories that went with them. Especially interesting to my eight-year-old mind’s obsessive fits of organization were the pairings of Greek names and their Roman counterparts. It’s something my dad and I used to talk about. It might have come from a temporary (but passionate) interest in astronomy: buying a telescope, going to the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s lakefront. One day I discovered that Jupiter equalled Zeus. My dad explained they were two names for the same thing. He probably also inserted a little ad hoc lesson about how the Greeks and the Romans didn’t fight about religion the way my family did. But eight-year-old me only wanted to know how they all matched up.
Zeus = Jupiter
Aphrodite = Venus
Ares = Mars
Poseidon = Neptune
Hades = Pluto (allegedly “not a planet” but when I was eight, it sure was, which means it still is)
Hermes = Mercury
Cronus = Uranus (which, I noted, had two ways to pronounce it that both made a joke. Are there any other words like that, where no matter what you do to pronounce them, you create an unintended endocrine system reference with sexual overtones?)
Apollo = ?
This one puzzled me. My dad was glad to tell me the right answer at moments like this.
Apollo = Apollo.
I wanted to know why. My dad didn’t know. I didn’t like the lack of complete parallelism but I accepted it. Nonetheless, I moved from planets to other mythological entities. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was involved and somewhere along the way I became aware of this equality: Odysseus = Ulysses. I liked the name “Ulysses” better because I could pronounce it more easily.
Source of Destiny #2: Somewhere between the ages of eight and fourteen, I used to sit in our living room and stare at my parents’ books. Just their titles really. I never wanted to read them, or if I did, I never said so. Because the second I would express such a desire, my dad would have the book off the shelf, trying to convince both himself and me that even though it was usually something people thought was too hard for kids, I’d probably like it if I tried. So I kept mum about my interests. And like my interest in the gods, it was much more about the titles than what was inside them. There was one book called Alone Of All Her Sex that I’d often come back to look at for obvious reasons. I still don’t know what that book was about, who wrote it, or whether it was any good, but I do know exactly what it looked like (black spine, white lettering, pretty thick).
Among over a thousand books my parents shelved in three or four rooms of our house was Ulysses. It was the same Vintage paperback, off-white with black borders, and since it was my dad’s, it was horribly twisted up, coffee-stained, doubled-over, dog-eared, stuffed with torn-open envelopes with that crinkling plastic window on them and notes scribbled on the envelopes (not notes about Ulysses, but phone numbers relating to some mundane errand). The cover was in tatters and inside was a dried-out, green felt-tip pen, also coffee-stained and missing its cap.
One day Ulysses wasn’t on the shelf. It was on my dad’s desk in his study that doubled as my bedroom when I was eight and nine. Despite the built-in reflex I had to stifle any book-related questions (one day in my teens, I asked my dad about how to argue about morality, and by the end of the conversation, a familiarly dog-eared Critique of Pure Reason was handed to me which promptly went unread and sat under my bed for the next few months), or perhaps because of some more positive emotion towards my dad that it masked, or maybe just because that old mythological curiosity was set off, Ulysses was one I had to ask him about. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Is that about The Odyssey?
Dad: Yeah…well…but it’s obscene! [my dad has a voice like a radio-announcer, like he’s passing along an important bit of conventional wisdom, but not exactly taking a stance on it, yet inevitably taking one.]
Me: What do you mean?
Dad: It was banned—you couldn’t buy it.
Dad: Well… [his signal to let you know the conversation is over, even though it doesn’t sound like it is.]
Me [trying another tack]: But is it about The Odyssey?
Dad: It’s like a modern version. You can’t even understand it—it’s written in its own language.
For years, I thought my dad’s last statement was literally true. I thought it was written in “Irish” (at nine, I didn’t know that it wasn’t really a language, or wasn’t the name by which the language that is “Irish” is called). Now I suppose my dad was talking not about Ulysses, but about Finnegan’s Wake, and it’s actually a fair statement.
Something also about the way my dad kept hesitating—his “well…”—intrigued me. As an adult, I know now what that “...” really means because I do it to my high school students all the time. There’s some massive, complex, great work of literature I’ve just said something about, and they want to know “what’s it about?” How can I answer but “well...”? Ulysses? Infinite Jest? Demons? The Sound and the Fury? What are they “about”? I understand the question, but also the “…” answer.
From my place in the rightmost booth at Tom’s Restaurant with my own Vintage paperback edition, still in good shape with no creases, I decided I’d read the first chapter. It was around 10:45 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten dinner. Like I said, I was in a depressed, isolated student mode—Stephen Dedalus parallel intended. I ordered breakfast-for-dinner because once you get past a certain time of day, that’s how it has to go.
I didn’t want to read the first few pages. I wanted to read until Joyce had given me official permission to stop (not sure why chapter breaks feel like that). But if you’ve seen the Vintage paperback edition, you know that there’s nothing that even looks like a chapter break for like a hundred pages.
In fact, what you get is a rather unwelcoming:
“Stately plump Buck Mulligan...”
[plus 100 or so pages]
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowl…”
[plus 400 or so pages]
“Preparatory to anything else…”
“yes I said yes I will yes”
In other words, this is not a user-friendly book, even when it comes to chapters. After a few minutes of looking at the first page, I started to see the truth in my dad’s “its own language” idea. On the first page I saw the words “introibo ad altere dei” and concluded that this was nonsense Latin since I didn’t recognize “introibo” as a verb, and thought “altere” should be “alterem” since it needed to be accusative. Both of those ideas are wrong. As it turns out, it is nonsense, but of another sort—it’s perfectly grammatical church Latin—not Latin as “classics,” but Latin as necessary condition for theological and moral indoctrination.
After a few minutes of that, I flipped back to the introduction, looking for a breath of fresh air. And then I saw that my dad’s “obscene!” had been literally true. The Vintage paperback had a brief and ideologically charged introduction by its editor declaring that at last, Americans could finally read the greatest novel of the 20th century, etc. etc. And it also had a copy of the court decision that had lifted the ban.
Then I started skimming. After a little investigation, I saw that there were things that looked a little like chapter breaks. Every so often there were page breaks, and a line of capital letters. I always do a topographical investigation like this with every book I read. I need to know how it’s organized. Are there chapters? Sections of multiple chapters? Page breaks? Double-carriage return breaks? Changes in font? Pictures? I didn’t do anything like a full exploration of Ulysses, but I saw some things for sure. There was a long part that looked like a screenplay. Some things that looked like newspaper headlines. A final chapter that looked like thirty pages of a run-on sentence. The more I came to love this book, the more I saw that “topographical investigation” is a pretty good term for the problem—“literary criticism” is just too two-dimensional. This isn’t just a book that describes a landscape—it’s a book with a landscape. First-time readers are advised to get a lay of the land.
I wasn’t approaching this totally from scratch. I had become interested in Joyce the previous year during a year-long study abroad program at Oxford. Towards the end of my year there my younger brother Matt came to visit. He was a senior in high school. I felt charged with doing things like getting him drunk, what with the lax drinking-age enforcement. Beyond that, we made a trip to Ireland. I’m not really sure why except that it had some perceived connection to our maternal grandmother (turns out she was Scottish, but we may not even have known the difference). We road a four-hour bus to Stansted (London’s third and cheapest airport) and boarded a one-hour Aer Lingus flight to Dublin.
We stayed in an independent hostel in Dublin somewhere near Temple Bar. It was my second time staying in a hostel, and Matt’s first, and since we were Americans, there were all sorts of attendant fears. We entered a room of about six beds, and had taken two bottom bunks with already-occupied tops. A shaved-headed, slightly older Scandinavian man peered down from his roost atop the bed I had selected with such intensity I thought I had broken some unwritten rule of bed selection.
Scandinavian [thick Scandinavian accent]: You’re here for the events I assume?
Me: The events? Uh, I don’t...
Eighteen-year-old Matt looks on, uncomprehending and scared.
Scandinavian: Oh, yes, the James Joyce events.
Me: Oh, I don’t really…
Scandinavian removes multiple books from weathered-looking traveling backpack.
Scandinavian: Some say, this book [holds up Dubliners] can be tour guide for Dublin.
Me: Oh yeah?
Scandinavian: You haven’t read? Oh. You should read. Some say, he is genius [points to a back-of-the-book photo of Joyce himself].
Me: Yeah, I’ve heard he’s a great writer.
Scandinavian: Some also say he was mad. But then, others say, always with genius comes some madness.
Me: Well, we’re gonna go check out the city now.
It’s still a joke between my brother and me. Of course, now I get why the Scandavian man couldn’t comprehend us not knowing about “the events.” We were likely there on June 16th, the fabled “Bloomsday.” This Scandinavian was like some sort of latter-day Cerberus, foaming at the mouth, guarding the entrance to the Joyce-obsessed underworld I was nearing. What I get now that I didn’t then, was his eagerness to share. He didn’t just like Joyce—he needed to talk to me about it and couldn’t conceive of why I wouldn’t want to as well.
When I returned to Oxford, I promptly bought Dubliners. There are still days I’d say that is my favorite Joyce. And it’s not because of “The Dead” (though I love it) or his devastating realism-cum-social-critique. It’s the bawdy camaraderie and faux-gentility of “Two Gallants.” That’s the story that made me understand the Scandinavian’s tour-book remark. While I read that story, I was brought back to St. Stephens Green, just like Lenehan and Corley stroll through, Lenehan stumbling to stay on the sidewalk next to his broad (and broadly gesturing) friend, so Matt and I had ambled through there on a misty Dublin evening. Now I know Corley isn’t a Prince, and Lenehan is hardly a boon companion or brother, but even just knowing and feeling St. Stephen’s Green, as Joyce’s characters did—I got it.
In a way, that’s the quintessential Joyce experience. The minutiae somehow rises to the level of religious epiphany, not necessarily in the formal aesthetic sense Joyce intended, but just the immediate, cosmic moment of knowing exactly what’s being referred to. Not described, not embellished, just referred to. Tom’s Restaurant is not famous, of course, because I first read Ulysses there. Mostly we know that image from Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.” On those first readings of Ulysses, those fifteen years ago, this was a huge idea to me. Ulysses, like Seinfeld after it, was a “novel about nothing.” But, of course, just like George Costanza tries to tell television producer Russell Dauripple, “nothing is something.” I was consumed with the minutiae of it. Tag-like quasi-motifs like Throwaway, the tram along the North Circular Road, and the mysterious man in the brown macintosh were each joyful in their own rights. There are so many moments of realization about cross-reference, cleverness and amusement one can discover in Ulysses, once you’ve overcome an inevitable frustration and disappointment.
Fast-forward fourteen years. I’ve tried and failed (or better, given up) trying to earn a Philosophy Ph.D. I’ve taught high school for thirteen years. I recently signed up for a University of Chicago extension class with a familiar title. When I saw “James Joyce’s Ulysses” I thought, I’ve taken this class before. But then, what does that really mean? Reading and studying Ulysses is like trying to read everything everyone ever posts on Twitter all day. It’s like dipping a sieve into a river, and trying to drink from it. So why not re-Joyce?
As it turned out, the frustration I experienced when I first confronted Ulysses was now just boredom. I reluctantly made it most of the way through the first six chapters without seeing the point. I even considered dropping the course, but I knew I couldn’t get a refund. Then, something happened in the course of a few class sessions. Sharing Ulysses with the other students brought back that joy, and I ended up being an enthusiastic but annoying member of the class because I was just so eager (not unlike that Scandinavian I met back in Dublin in 1998).
We got through four classes before someone asked that most dreaded (but inevitable in any literature class) question: “aren’t we overanalyzing this? I mean Joyce couldn’t mean all the things you all are talking about.” Our discussions were far-ranging, from parallels between Irish and Indian struggles for self-determination, Irish history, and folk religion, to Homer, Foucault, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and the Tea Party. So it makes sense that someone would wonder whether we weren’t overanalyzing things.
But what I’m seeing on this reading through Ulysses is that over-analysis is impossible. It is quite possible, even likely, that Joyce did have just about everything in mind that you could ever accuse him of having had in mind, but then also more than you could ever discover. His seems to have been a massive and synthetic intelligence that could digest whole books, authors, and languages in single sittings, and then find some clever and hilarious way to weave that new-found knowledge into whatever chapter of Ulysses he was currently working on.
There is much more to this book than I thought there was. Each episode is crafted in a different style. Ideas recur in perfectly modulated ways to take advantage of the new style of successive chapters—and then, those ideas shed light on all their earlier occurrences, on the style’s present chapter, on the characters, on earlier misunderstandings you might have had, or on earlier understandings you falsely thought you had, or all of these in one simultaneously overloaded thought-feeling-experience that makes you set the book down, shake your head and marvel.
Beyond these interrelationships, though, there is also the profound humanity of the book. The fourth episode ends with the simple “Poor Dignam!” Bloom is to attend Paddy Dignam’s funeral in a few hours, and it’s on his mind. He’s a man near Dignam’s own age, and Bloom seems touched by his death in a way that his friends aren’t really. Two chapters later, Bloom again thinks “Poor Dignam!” When I was twenty-two and read that I thought it was merely repetition. I didn’t see what the big deal was. But, this time through, perhaps because of the intervening chapters and perhaps because I am older, I saw “Poor Dignam!” Somehow those words opened up to me like the great themes of the classical or romantic composers: they sang in their simplicity in the way that no over-narrated “realist fiction,” however effectively described, could have captured Bloom’s grief. Just like Gabriel Conroy at the window, thinking on Michael Furey, I was paralyzed. And yet, Bloom is still bumbling. He’s got all his halfway-understood religious and scientific factoids, his half-cocked ideas for civic improvement and get-rich-quick schemes. He’s, well, not the “everyman” people seem to want him to be.
Ulysses is like a giant prism that refracts not only light, but sound, smell, taste and touch, and shoots forth all their component parts at once. There is no “over-analysis” possible here. Somehow this book contains and modulates the whole of the human condition and western culture along with it through the life of a few people on June 16, 1904. You can look for anything and you will find it. You’ll find it turned around, mulched up and spit back out, and you’ll like that thing even more than when you brought it to Ulysses in the first place.
Joshua Brown was born and raised in the Chicago area; he received his undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University; for some time pursued a PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago, but is now a proud high school English teacher, husband, father. You can read Josh's blog at www.originalpositions.com