Joyce in the City
Joyce in the City
James Joyce’s Ulysses is widely considered to be the most important book of the 20th century. By celebrating the human body and focusing on the processes of the mind, it announced a new era of modernity in art. For the first time in a major work of literature, the usual demands of plot are replaced by a passion for thinking. And the process of thought is perfectly calibrated to walks through the streets of the city of Dublin by its major characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Their wanderings replicate those of Homer’s protagonist in the Odyssey, whose Odysseus brought back knowledge that led to a reparadigming of culture in his homeland.
In the same way, James Joyce’s Ulysses has led to a radical revision of what literature is and can do. An ‘everyman’ is transformed into an artist of the ‘everyday’. Soliloquies and monologues, once thought to be the preserve of aristocrats, become expressive of ordinary people doing nothing more momentous than buying a bar of soap; yet, in the very littleness of humans, Joyce finds the basis of our greatness.
“The City as World”
“Trieste–Zurich–Paris.” The coda at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses hints not only at the author’s epic journey through Europe while writing the novel, but also at his insistence that, in his reworking of the Homeric epic, modern heroism’s proper setting was the modern city. From “dear, dirty Dublin” to Paris, Joyce recognized that the city was quickly becoming the entire world for the modern consciousness, an environment dominated by nationalism, advertisements needed to fuel mass production and consumption, and fundamental changes in what art even means. Mechanical means of reproducing an image, such as photography, signalled the end of a lot of assumptions about art. Was art about faithfully capturing an image? Now, someone with a camera could take a picture of a landscape or the Mona Lisa with far more faithfulness to the outside of the original than any artist. Art, then, turned inward, seeking to reflect the lightning flashes of thought and inspiration that better reflect how people truly think, or, more dauntingly, the subconscious, the post-Freudian revelation that people are influenced and even determined by forces of which we are barely aware. However, the city was full of distractions; it was loud, disjointed and fragmented, but it was also a place of energy and creativity. Joyce reconciled this duality by centering his fiction around one city from amidst a shifting location of others.
“Dear, dirty Dublin”
James Joyce was born in Dublin, in 1882, one of ten children. His father’s passions, eccentricities, as well as his gift as a singer are celebrated in his son’s work. Dublin, although overshadowed by its position as a colony of the British Empire, bestowed upon the young Joyce a love of storytelling and wordplay, which were, in themselves, a kind of currency in a city of economic fragility. However, Dublin’s religious domination by the Catholic Church stifled its artistic culture and English political domination cut Ireland off from the avant garde on the Continent, leaving the young Joyce with little recourse other than to leave Ireland for Paris to pursue the artistic freedom that eluded him. With him travelled Nora Barnacle, a chamber maid he met on June 16th, 1904, the day Joyce immortalized as the date of Ulysses, subsequently becoming known as Bloomsday. No matter where he lived, his art fixed firmly on Dublin: A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man (1914 and 1915), his short story collection Dubliners (1914), Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) all faithfully and strikingly represent his native city. Although Joyce died in Zurich in 1941, where he is buried at Fluntern Cemetery, he never truly left Dublin.
A Word about Paris
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Paris to the writing and the publication of Ulysses. A city that had witnessed the effects of the Great War, wherein technical innovations for killing threatened to make traditional values such as honor and bravery–those values celebrated by Homer–obsolete, Paris became the center of the avant garde, home to artists who often pushed boundaries of what was considered acceptable and who struggled to make meaning in a world where meaning was difficult to find. Here, Joyce found a large expat community, fellow writers and artists matching his own talent, imagination and sense of exile.
Paris was also home to Sylvia Beach, an American owner of Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore on 12 rue de l’Odéon and Joyce’s second home. Perhaps no other person was so instrumental in the novel’s publication than Beach. (You can listen here to Beach speaking of her experiences with Joyce and Ulysses) When publisher after publisher refused the manuscript on grounds that it was obscene, Beach stepped forward to publish it herself, a tremendously risky proposition that resulted in the book being seized by customs officials in several countries. Yet this notoriety only increased attention, leading to a landmark legal decision by Justice Woolsey in the United States affirming that any qualms about the novel’s virtuousness were outweighed by its artistic significance (Listen to a dramatisation of the struggle to publish the book here).
An Epic Scandal
So, what was the ‘scandal’ of Ulysses? Its plot is quite simple. It’s the story of a single day–now known as Bloomsday–in the lives of two characters: Stephen Dedalus, a writer who does little writing (and so a stand-in for Joyce himself) and Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertisement canvasser. The novel opens with Stephen, returned home from Paris to attend the funeral of his mother, aimless and estranged from Dublin’s artistic scene, which is far more interested in recreating Ireland’s mythic past than it is moving into the future. Parallel are the wanderings of Bloom, as he moves through Dublin encountering mundane reflections of epic adventures: the one-eyed Cyclops becomes a jingoistic nationalist unable to see the humanity of others; Aeolus, the god of the winds, happens in a newspaper office during a discussion of a politician's speech (listen here to Joyce reading from this chapter), and the Sirens is a chapter full of the seductive beauty of song.
Their parallel paths, representing, according to the novel, the “artistic” and the “scientific”, follow the fullness of human experience. Joyce chose to structure his novel based upon Homer’s Odyssey, because Odysseus was the “complete man”. Within the same story, he was a father, a son, a king and a beggar. He was a sailor and a farmer. He spoke with the gods and went to the land of the dead. Perhaps most importantly, he triumphed by using his intelligence and through perseverance, rather than simply killing monsters and defeating warriors. Moreover, he refused the opportunity to live forever as a god, choosing instead to return home to his family. In other words, he represented the fullness of human experience. Like his mythic counterpart, Bloom overcomes the monsters of the modern era–such as racism and intolerance–through perseverance, understanding and love.
The “scandal” emerges from this shift. Ulysses offended some for its rejection of received ideas of what a novel was thought to be, just as Impressionists and Cubists defied conventions of painting. Moreover, Joyce chooses to depict the consciousness of the characters–and sometimes even deeper, depicting the subconscious via a patchwork of styles and symbols, much of which could never be admitted in public, and so could be considered obscene, yet coming closer than any other novel in capturing the complexity of even the more ordinary of people.
It’s not too much to note, when praising a writer of today for doing something bold with style, that “Joyce did it first”. Yet the reason why Ulysses remains vital today extends well beyond mere wordplay and style. The intolerance and spiritual paralysis of Joyce’s Dublin–still very much a part of the twenty-first century cityscape–can be met by a vibrant, even joyful sense of play: with form, with identity, with language. Joyce’s narrative flexibility–mixing genres, shifting narrators and points of view–makes the very act of reading an act of resistance to conformity and authority. Thus, Ulysses, embodying both hardscrabble Dublin and audacious Paris, stands as a source of inspiration for writers and readers alike, its legacy secure as a landmark of freedom of expression.
The CCI wishes to acknowledge the kind support of the University at Buffalo─The James Joyce Collection for the use of images related to James Joyce. Comprising more than 10,000 pages of the author’s working papers, notebooks, manuscripts, photographs, correspondence, portraits, publishing records, important memorabilia and ephemeral material, as well as Joyce’s private library and the complete body of significant Joyce criticism, the collection distinguishes University at Buffalo as the leading resource for Joyce scholarship.