November 30, 2019

Literary ordeals: thoughts on finishing James Joyce's Ulysses

Irish author James Joyce, 1882-1941

Sometimes I enjoy a challenge, like setting a goal and working through it. The goal might be something physical, like a marathon or trail run, or something like trying to learn a language or a musical instrument (one of each in my case).

Some of these challenges are literary, like reading War and Peace and such. Lately I completed a literary endurance run, to wit James Joyce's long, rambling, stream-of-consciousness rewrite of the Odyssey, titled Ulysses. 

(I think the unreadable French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was right in this at least: a myth includes all its variants, as in Freud's ideas are as much a part of the Oedipus myth as Sophocles' tragedy. Ditto Joyce and Homer.)

I thought about it for a long time, but every time a picked up a copy and flipped through it my head began to swim. I also wasn't a big fan of his earlier work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young  Man, which introduces the aspiring author Stephen Daedalus, who is also a kind of self portrait of the author. 

To be honest, when I read that early book, I sometimes wanted to reach out and shake the narrator, especially the parts where he was too precious to attend Easter mass with his mother. I mean, would that have killed him?

Daedalus shows up in Ulysses as a stand in for Odysseus' son Telemachus. The main protagonist of Odysseus of the story is Leopold Bloom, a non-practicing Jewish resident of Dublin who sells newspaper advertising for the living. He's a married to Molly, from whom he has been physically estranged for ten years since the death of their infant son. She's the unfaithful counterpart to Odysseus' steadfast wife Penelope, although the ten year thing might have something to do with that. The whole action of the book takes place in one day and night in 1904, with most of the Dublin action reflecting some episode of the Odyssey.

It was pretty exhausting, all in all. I don't think I would have made it through by reading it, but was fortunately (maybe) able to listen to all 30+ hours of it on my smart phone thanks to the local library. I'm also glad that I'm fairly up on literature, philosophy, mythology and such, since the book is ate up with all the above. Otherwise I would have been totally lost. I still relied on a commentary to get through it.

My final verdict (not that I'm a judge): it really was quite an achievement, packing all the references and ideas he did into an imagined 24 hour period. His stream of consciousness style of writing does a pretty good job of capturing what Buddhists call our "monkey mind," which skips from object to object like the critter moving from branch to branch.

The term "stream of consciousness" can be traced back to William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, who wrote about "the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life." His style influenced many later writers from William Faulkner to Jack Kerouac.

So there's that, anyway. As the saying goes, it was real and it was fun, but I can't say it was real fun.

I guess I'm glad I did it. It was kind of like completing a difficult and long trail run in the summer: I enjoy having done it more than the actual process of doing it.

But next time I revisit the Odyssey story, it'll probably be Homer's original.

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