Sunday, July 21, 2013

Our Second Meeting

We had our second meeting yesterday. Ten of us convened to talk about our next section of Ulysses, the first five chapters of Part II. This time we met in a private room at Cafe Ventana. As John K. noted, our previous meeting in a noisy, crowded brewery was fitting, given Joyce’s bustling Dublin street scenes in this novel. Perhaps our location yesterday is more akin to the conversation in the library in the Scylla and Charybdis chapter (the first chapter of our reading assignment for next time). Though at times the silence of the room could be intimidating as we struggled to help each other understand this puzzling, even enraging book, overall the space was a success: each person at the table could hear everyone else, and each person contributed to the conversation.

Tom K. started us off with a story from his own recent experience, along with a passage from the novel that stood out for him in connection with that experience. On a trip with students to Camden, N.J., Tom and some other members of the group went in to Philadelphia to get a Philly cheese steak. The sandwich shop they went to, a highly recommended spot in the middle of a neighborhood largely populated by immigrants, had a sign in it that said, “This is America. Place your order in English.” Tom thought of that unwelcoming message when he read this statement, from page 598 in the Eumaeus chapter, spoken by Leopold Bloom:

It’s a patent absurdity to hate people because they live around the corner and speak another vernacular, so to speak.

We admired Bloom’s humanity, his enjoyment of the bodily and the sensual, his social gracefulness, skill in the everyday sorts of rhetorical situations that he finds himself in as he wanders the sidewalks and pubs of Dublin, his tenderness in his thoughts about his children. But do these things make him heroic? Barbara and Jeane again raised the question of whether or not Bloom can truly be considered a hero, an Odysseus figure.

Terry Q. pointed out that the book is not called Odysseus, but Ulysses, pointing to the ways in which the character of Odysseus has itself been constantly reinterpreted over the centuries. In calling his book Ulysses, Terry suggested, Joyce asks us to consider how this mythological figure can help us to understand what heroism might look like in our time—or to consider how someone like Bloom might be both like and unlike a classic hero of yore.

John K. brought with him a book called Odyssey of the Psyche, whose author, Jean Kimball, has this take on the question (emphasis added):

Ulysses is a book without a hero, but with two protagonists who are together its subject. It is a critical truism that Stephen and Bloom are opposites, but together ... they represent Joyce’s vision of the artist as a divided self working toward integration.


Frank K. brought up a line he read one time in an essay by Arthur Miller: “Whatever is not turned into art disappears forever.” It seems that this notion has something to do with Joyce’s encyclopedic project in Ulysses. He’s trying to preserve his home town, his homeland, with all of its effluvia and detritus, political debates and interpersonal resentments, in this monumental work of art whose complexity (he hoped) would give it immortality akin to that of The Odyssey or the Divine Comedy. In its experiments and osbcurity, it’s art that doesn’t always give us what we expect—like many modernist works of music or painting, as Jeane pointed out.

In some ways the book is Biblical, in its heft and occasional tedium. Bloom, though he may not be especially devout as either a Jew or a convert to Catholicism, nevertheless has a religious imagination, Rob G. noted—a view of the world as charged with significance and meaning, a lens on reality that is inflected by the language of ritual (“This is my body” (83), he thinks as he soaks in the bathhouse.). And so does Joyce, though he may have rejected the traditional Catholicism that he was raised in. (On the back cover of Odyssey of the Psyche is a blurb for another academic tome, James Joyce’s Pauline Vision: A Catholic Exposition, by Robert Boyle, S.J.)

The real journey of Ulysses, Chris K. asserted, is an internal, linguistic journey. The novel is about how human beings think, how the human mind uses language to make sense of the world and of the self. What does the stream of consciousness look like for someone who has never had access to language? Chris K. brought up the following fascinating quotation from Helen Keller to suggest an answer to that question:

Before my teacher came, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was no world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect.

Language, it seems, focuses our humanity, gives structure to our minds and shapes our experience of the world. Not only does Ulysses seeks to represent a human mind at work during the course of a particular day in a particular time and place, but in its more abstruse experiments it seeks to investigate language itself and play with this elastic, transformative, and mysterious human invention.

1 comment:

  1. Barbara writes in response:

    I agree that the venue was much better and I enjoyed everyone saying something--with very different perspectives. I want to respond to one of Frank's critical passages:

    Ulysses is a book without a hero, but with two protagonists who are together its subject. It is a critical truism that Stephen and Bloom are opposites, but together ... they represent Joyce’s vision of the artist as a divided self working toward integration.

    This passage is very helpful to me. In the old days, artists were craftsmen who mixed paint, made brushes and drafted frescoes. Then, in the Romantic age, the artist came to be figured as a kind of hero with mythical dimensions and an agonized, somewhat tragic soul. Perhaps this critical passage helps me with Bloom (though not Stephen as he is no protagonist for me--I am not pro him; I want him to shut up and listen in the way Bloom does). So perhaps the modern protagonist is just that--the person we are there for--watching, seeing him or her move and think and feel, but not looking to him or her as a hero, a model, or even a goal for ourselves, except in their humanity and frequently their humility. I think of Holden or Willie and they are not heroes (regardless of what Miller says) but they are worth reading about, thinking about, feeling strongly about and puzzling over. Bloom is that to me and I also enjoy his mind at work. Only the massive nature of this "Bible" daunts me and somewhat irritates me. Is anyone interesting enough to probe and listen to for that many pages? I guess the next set of readings will answer that for me.