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Ulysses and Us By: Stephen Schwartz
Weekly Standard | Monday, June 07, 2004


NELSON ROCKEFELLER is alleged to have described the artwork of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, famously difficult classics painted shortly after the Second World War, as "free-enterprise painting." And there, in microcosm, we find the conundrum that has bedeviled certain conservative intellectuals for several generations: What should one think about modernism--particularly high modernism, the works of people like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce, from the first half of the twentieth century? There remains about them an air of the bizarre they seemed to have when they first appeared, and besides, American conservatives tend to be philistine in their judgment of literature and art.

The curious thing is that a great many modernist artists and writers were never political leftists at all. D.H. Lawrence, for example, believed in many peculiar things, but none of them look like radical egalitarianism. And several other modernists who started out as political radicals broke with the Left, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the phenomenon of anti-Communist modernism became markedly visible. In fact, the Communist regimes hated high modernism, precisely because they agreed with Rockefeller in seeing it as an expression of free enterprise in the arts (or "decadence," as they preferred to call it). Karl B. Radek--a Polish Bolshevik who, if he weren't real, only James Joyce could have invented--once having surrendered to Stalinist aesthetics, derided Joyce's Ulysses as "a camera focused through a microscope on a worm-infested dunghill."

It didn't do Radek much good, as Stalin had him murdered anyway. But the natural alliance of business entrepreneurship and cultural experiment becomes obvious when we consider the centennial of Bloomsday--the hundredth anniversary of June 16, 1904, the single day in which the action of Joyce's Ulysses takes place.

Ulysses recounts twenty-four hours in the life of Dublin, with each chapter paralleling an episode in the Odyssey. It begins just outside the city, in a Martello tower, where Stephen Dedalus, the autobiographical hero of Joyce's earlier Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, begins the day with his co-tenants: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" and an English Celtophile named Haines. Dedalus proceeds to the village of Dalkey, near Dublin, where he serves as an English instructor in a boys' school. There he is subjected to a tirade against the Jews, which anticipates a major thread in the book: his companionship with Leopold Bloom.

Stephen then wanders along a beach, contemplating the psychic difficulties of his life. Meanwhile, Bloom cooks breakfast for his wife Molly, before proceeding to a butcher shop where he buys a pork kidney and reads, in a newspaper, a plea for support for Zionist colonies in Palestine. Bloom continues across Dublin, meditating on the spectacle before him. After attending the funeral of an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam, Bloom at last meets Dedalus, in the office of the Freeman's Journal.

Further internal monologues are followed by Stephen Dedalus's visit to the National Library in Dublin. Bloom and Dedalus continue to wander across the city. Bloom saunters along the same beach where Dedalus had previously walked, and the sight of a woman's bare legs set him off in sexual fantasy. Visiting a woman friend in labor at a hospital, Bloom again meets Dedalus--and Dedalus, followed by Bloom, enters the surrealistic landscape of a brothel street, "Nighttown," where the pair begin a long exchange of observations about themselves and the world. They end at Bloom's house, where they continue their dialogue. At last, Stephen leaves, and Bloom goes to bed. At the close of the novel, Molly Bloom lies in bed, thinking--in the great example of Joyce's technique of interior monologue--of her life and her husband. The novel reaches, in its famous concluding line, into Molly's mind for her sleepy affirmation of life, "Yes I said yes I will Yes."

LEOPOLD BLOOM--the half-Jew of Dublin, his father born in the Hungarian town of Szombathely with the name Rudolf Virag ("virag" is the Hungarian word for "flower")--may be the greatest literary creation of modern times. Certainly Ulysses is the greatest novel of modern times: the English language's equivalent of Don Quixote. It must be stipulated that Leopold Bloom is not an exemplary descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for his hands are frequently placed in proximity to pork, almost no kosher food or practice is mentioned in the narrative, and his knowledge and practice of Judaism as a faith are fragmentary at best. His father is said to have converted to Protestantism, and to have married a woman who, if not Catholic, as suggested in the "Circe" chapter of Ulysses, was at the least a Christian. Bloom himself is said to have been baptized three times, and is married to a non-Jewish woman. (Although the name of Molly Bloom's mother, Lunita Laredo, and her place of birth, Gibralter, both suggest a possible Sephardic Jewish connection.) Still, Bloom is mostly a Jew as defined by his gentile neighbors and by his refusal to renounce his background.

Even as such, Bloom as Ulysses--as Odysseus, the wanderer--represents in Joyce's work a nation driven into exile. And it is an exile in which, in a world-wide diaspora, the Irish have joined the Jews. In the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses, Bloom is baited by a nationalist loudmouth who asks him insolently, "What is your nation if I may ask?" Bloom answers humbly: "Ireland. . . . I was born here. Ireland." Later, in the long recounting of dialogues between Bloom and Dedalus near the book's passionate conclusion, similarities between the Gaelic and Hebrew languages are enumerated, including "their dispersal, persecution, survival, and revival," and comprising an equation of Zionism with the struggle for Irish political rights.

OF COURSE, the original Odysseus was a Greek, and the Greeks also have a diaspora, which has led some--like the Grecophile Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair--to overemphasize the Hellenic element in Ulysses. In truth, despite Dedalus's inventive Greek name, there's little Greek about Dedalus or Bloom. Even the title of the book borrows the Latin form of the name of Homer's hero, not the Greek. James Joyce was one of the great polyglot polymaths of literature, and he had fled from what he felt was Dublin's insular smugness to compose Ulysses in Trieste, which was itself in those days one of the great polyglot cities in the world. But despite his skill with languages, his ancient Greek was never good, and the deep soundings he makes of the roots of Western civilization are far more often based on Latin sources than Greek--which may be why they are more often theological than philosophical.

The Irish are inordinately fond of jokes and puns, especially if they are esoteric and thus known only to a few, and Ulysses is full of teasing references, hints, and gestures. The action in Ulysses, for instance, transpires on the very June 16, 1904, when Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle had their first date, a beach promenade to which she acceded after earlier standing him up. And yet there is no mention whatever of the encounter, or the couple, even disguised, in the book's pages. It is as if the whole book were, secretly, a love letter to Nora, as well as to the English language, and, finally, to life.

Ulysses may be considered a homage to a little-understood phenomenon I would call "romantic imprinting," in which a particular love retains an extraordinary hold on an individual throughout that person's life. Joyce often expressed his disdain for Dublin, but Ulysses is a paean to memory, and the author ends up celebrating Dublin in a marvelously traditionalist way. Joyce is even a kind of literary Burkean, for he is uninterested in the pathos of the city's poverty, or, except in the rhetoric of the pub, in the rumblings of its revolutionaries, although references to Irish nationalism saturate the book. What Joyce really adores is the city's archaic character.

INDEED, Ulysses aims to be the supreme incarnation of the permanency of human collective memory in the habits of human existence--of correspondences between past and present, and between the lives of all human beings, from the heroic age to the present. Bloom's escape from the Judeophobic "citizen" reenacts Odysseus' escape from the rage of Cyclops, the one-eyed monster, an appropriate symbol of racial and religious prejudice. "It's no use. . . . Force, hatred, history, all that," Bloom decides. "That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life. . . . Love. . . . I mean the opposite of hatred."

BUT Ulysses transmutes the events of Homer's Odyssey into the common speech of the Dublin Joyce knew. It was English as the language had never been spoken before, and perhaps never will be again: an English of comedy, depth, pathos, and blarney. The reader feels an almost physical desire, a linguistic lust, to have heard the voices recorded in its pages. Joyce did not simply use language; he lived within language, and Ulysses is truly a poem in prose. There is no other body of fiction, in any language, fully comparable to James Joyce's.

For the novel's use of language alone we should all celebrate the hundredth Bloomsday this June 16. Becoming a writer in the English-speaking world without knowing Ulysses now seems impossible, and the book's influences are found everywhere--even in politics, as when Stephen Dedalus makes his famous comment, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," which could apply to millions today.

Those who aim to be genuinely literate should at least understand the sense of language as a multidimensional fact that led Joyce to succeed Ulysses with the considerably more difficult Finnegans Wake, a book composed in "dream language." The contemporary Irish writer Roddy Doyle early this year declared in a moment of ill-advised bluster, from which he quickly retreated, "I only read three pages of Finnegans Wake and it was a tragic waste of time." That is a bit like hearing that an aspiring artist looked at one painting of Picasso, with the same result.

There was a time when such mockery was prevalent among cultural conservatives; but that era should, by now, have passed by. Even Joyce's subtle prescience--particularly about the causes of national prejudice and brutality in the century we have left--is enough to make Ulysses worth our attention. So, too, Joyce's wisdom about the intellectual, cultural, and literary traditions of Western civilization makes the book worth revisiting this year. And then there's the fact that Ulysses is such a comic story: bawdy, raucous, uncontrolled. A lot like real life, as it happens. Never was there a book like Ulysses. James Joyce took the modernist novel and forged it into the great story of human beings as they are: mockable and praiseworthy, pathetic and noble, foolish and wise, beastly and angelic--and very, very funny.


Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror. A vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.


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