‘The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.’ – James Joyce, Ulysses.
The 16 June is here, marking the 112th anniversary of Mr Bloom’s trek around Dublin – the subject of Ulysses. Joyce’s novel is still a staggering monument to his literary genius. With a narrative style that moves freely through the minds of his characters, a deep intertextuality with Grecian myth, philosophy of all kinds and Irish history, Ulysses was the novel that brought the modernist epoch of literature to its thundering heights. A narrative of permanent contradiction, resolution and transcendence – it can be a little bit hard to understand.
Ulysses is set over a single day. It doesn’t in any way attempt to make this day extraordinary, but examines it, gets beneath it and finds the inner logic of ordinary events. So, for example, at the beginning of the narrative Buck Mulligan begins to shave and Stephen Dedalus gets up. There is no inciting incident, no change to the normality of Joyce’s characters, as there would be in a traditional narrative structure.
A good example of this takes place in the third section of the novel – subtitled Proteus in Joyce’s Gilbert schema for the book. At the opening of the section, Stephen stands on the strand, by the tide. In a monologue format, he reflects on the things he sees: ‘Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.’
At first glance, this is very hard going. We understand what Stephen sees – ‘seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot’ – but what he thinks about it is only half formed. This is a technique that Joyce uses frequently, the thought patterns of his characters forming through narrative, rather than simply being presented directly to us. Stephen, here, is actually reflecting on Aristotle’s crude materialism, his belief in Eternalism (that the universe simply was and always had been). In layman’s terms the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’ translates roughly to ‘the inescapable existence of what I can see’. Joyce uses a tiny, insignificant incident to reflect on an entire trend of western philosophy. Equally, he characterises that philosophy in Stephen, whose thought is but a reflection of what is (‘thought through my eyes’).
So, basically, Joyce’s book is about both nothing and everything. Everything is expressed by very little and very little is expressed by everything. This is reflected in what the author himself thought of the book: ‘If I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world’.
Whatever your thoughts on the book, we hope that we’ve inspired you to read it and to celebrate Bloomsday with us today.