June 2022

Arts & Letters

The consecration: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

By Ronan McDonald

James Joyce and publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris. © Bettmann / Getty Images

A century after its publication, the difficult reputation of Joyce’s seminal novel has overshadowed its pleasures

It’s a shame that James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, has become such an old scold. There it sits on the bookshelf, unread, or only partially so, reminding you of yet another thwarted good intention. A century after its publication, Ulysses is too often on the hole-in-the-bucket list: not those things you really want to experience before you die (snorkelling in the Maldives), but those you feel you should accomplish but probably won’t (fitting back into your wedding clothes). Yet – as enthusiasts never tire of beseeching – Ulysses should not be a chore or an exercise in dutiful self-improvement. Sure, it can be “difficult” in one sense, partly because of its encyclopaedic allusions to Homer, Shakespeare, Aristotle, European history, the Catholic Mass, music hall, Irish politics, Jewish folklore… But nobody gets all those references. The enthusiastic first readers in Paris in 1922 did not pick up most of the specific details about 1904 Dublin. All readers since have understood some but not all of its cultural range. The best readers of Ulysses de-emphasise the decoding and the annotations, while insisting that Ulysses is not a book to be mastered but to be experienced and enjoyed in the half-light, with some understanding and much confusion, a bit like life itself. Too much reverence towards this bible of modernism can lead us to forget how ribald and remorselessly profane it is as a novel, how brimming with humanity and, above all, humour. “There is not one serious line in it,” Joyce himself insisted.

How has Ulysses come to be one of the great unread books of the 20th century? Literary scholars, following the lead of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, use the word “consecration” to describe the processes by which an artwork becomes esteemed and highly ranked, worthy of veneration in our culture. Coincidentally, Ulysses, written long before Bourdieu, famously begins with an actual consecration, or a parody of one, as the stately, plump (and irreligious) Buck Mulligan sports his shaving bowl and razor in mockery of the Catholic Eucharist. “Introibo ad altare Dei,” he intones – “I go to the altar of God” – holding the bowl aloft, atop the Martello tower, his yellow gown ungirdled, surveying the snotgreen, scrotumtightening sea. This is a parody that nonetheless plays with the idea that the novel will perform a sort of secular consecration: through Joyce’s art, the ordinary becomes mythic, an unremarkable day becomes “Bloomsday”, Leopold Bloom becomes the modern Odysseus.

To consecrate (sacrere, literally to “make sacred”) traditionally also meant to separate, to take objects and customs away from everyday life so that they can be worshipped and ritualised. Ulysses is frequently consecrated in that sense, separated from the wider reading public, attended by acolytes and devoted scholars, and at the same time held up to be venerated. It has its rituals, its pilgrimage and its annual feast day (Bloomsday, June 16, the single day in which Ulysses is set), where the faithful, and not so faithful but along for the fun, pay homage. This centenary year, like every other Bloomsday, there will be events and readings in cities around the world, including Australia, with throngs of people in Edwardian costume, many of whom have never read the book. Why? How has this come to pass? Not even Shakespeare has a day set aside in his honour. You might say that the reason is obvious. The book is one of the great artworks, written – during the barbarism of the Great War – by one of the foremost geniuses of modern times. It takes the novel into previously unimagined directions and expressive forms, providing us with a more complete image of the human mind thinking than any novel before or since. It offers us an exhaustive exploration of literary forms, extending the possibilities of what language can do, culminating in an affirmation of human life, the body and the possibilities of human communion. I would agree with you. Yet greatness is a necessary but not sufficient cause of literary consecration. The cult around Ulysses is not just a matter of artistic achievement. It is also a cultural story of reception and acclaim, of a jostling for prestige that was not inevitable and often seemed unlikely. The tale of the publication of Ulysses is one of luck as well as fate. It had many setbacks and mishaps, with typesetters, printers and – most infamously, and like his previous work Dubliners (1914) – immolating censorship.

As well as the practical business of publication, a literary work needs the right attention, from the right people, in the right places, to continue on its path to glory. Ezra Pound, so often the mover and shaker of modernist literary reputation-building, wrote a letter in 1913 luring Joyce and his family to Paris from Zurich, thereby placing him at the epicentre of cultural and intellectual life. That letter may have been an even more crucial intervention than Pound’s immense help in securing publication outlets for Joyce, including for Ulysses in The Little Review, the American journal of which he was foreign editor. A large part of its eventual success can be credited to several committed women. Women such as Joyce’s patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, who supported Joyce financially and often (it must be said) thanklessly. Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap were the editors of The Little Review, which first serialised Ulysses. It’s salutary to remember some of the pleasure and excitement that these early readers and facilitators felt around this novel, those who perceived its importance without the aura or cultural capital that would later surround it. Anderson records in her memoir that she wept with relief and delight upon reading, in Ulysses, the opening lines of the “Proteus” episode: the notoriously hyper-intellectualised ponderings of Joyce’s recurring alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, on the processes of his own perceiving mind (“Ineluctable modality of the visible …”). These words are today often proffered as an example of the book’s incomprehensibility and obscurity. “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have”, cried Anderson. “We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives.” From 1918 to 1920, Anderson and Heap published 14 chapters of the work-in-progress in 23 issues. But it turned out to be a matter of publish and (almost) be damned. Their journal came close to bankruptcy when the copies containing the “Nausicaa” episode, where Bloom masturbates on Sandymount Strand, were deemed obscene, and were confiscated and burned by order of the United States Post Office. Anderson and Heap lost the subsequent 1921 court case. No publisher would then risk touching Ulysses, and it would remain unpublished in the US until the 1930s. “My book will never come out now,” despaired Joyce in 1921.

That it did so is down to the intervention of another woman, American expat Sylvia Beach, who agreed to publish Ulysses privately from her bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company. To the delight and relief of all, it appeared on Joyce’s 40th birthday in February 1922. If you want a treat this Bloomsday, look up the interview with Beach made for Irish television shortly before her death in 1962. (It’s on YouTube.) Beach was in Dublin for the opening of the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove, a key moment in the development of the Joyce tourist industry, now much in evidence in Dublin. The wonder of watching Beach reminisce is how relatable and kindly she seems – like your sweet-natured, elderly aunt – despite the heroic role she played in literary history. Her recollections of literary Paris, of Joyce, Pound, Hemingway and Stein, bring home the hubbub and humanity of the scene, a place of teasing banter and roguish venality, a place of youth and revelry (many American expats were fleeing Prohibition as well as seeking literary fame). It’s the immediacy and aliveness of Beach’s details that delight. (I love, for example, that Joyce calls Ulysses his “buke”, a strongly Dublin-accented pronunciation of “book”.)

It was in Paris that Joyce’s reputation bloomed through the offices of esteemed figures such as the writer and critic Valery Larbaud, introduced to Joyce by Beach in late 1920. When Larbaud got his hands on copies of The Little Review in which episodes of Ulysses had appeared, he wrote to Beach to say he had been unable to write or sleep since reading it. The critical moment in the consecration of Ulysses in Paris was Larbaud’s introductory lecture on the novel on December 7, 1921, to a packed audience in another bookshop, La Maison des Amis des Livres, owned by Beach’s partner, Adrienne Monnier. Larbaud’s lecture situated Ulysses explicitly in the European literary field, elevating Joyce alongside the great French naturalists Flaubert and Maupassant, but also pronouncing that “Ireland is making a sensational re-entrance into high European literature”. Larbaud, with Joyce’s assistance in the writing of the lecture, exploited the visibility of Yeats’s Irish Literary Revival but pointed to Joyce as its culmination, explicitly placing him within what we now call “world literature”. In Larbaud’s judgement, the work “ did for Ireland what Ibsen had done in his time for Norway”, a statement that would have immensely pleased Joyce, who revered Ibsen, even as a teenager, to the extent of learning Norwegian in order to read him.

The lecture was published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in April 1922, and an abbreviated version translated to English in T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion in October 1922. The separation of Joyce from Ireland in Larbaud’s telling (no doubt with Joyce’s own collusion) led to a critical stoush between Larbaud and Ernest Boyd, the major historian of the Irish literary movement. Boyd complained that the claim Joyce led Ireland into European literature downplayed both his debts to his Irish contemporaries and the internationalist elements of the Irish Literary Revival, many of whose writers (including Yeats and Synge) were undeniably saturated in European culture and influence. “To claim for this book a European significance simultaneously denied to J.M. Synge and James Stephens is to confess complete ignorance of its genesis,” Boyd wrote in 1923. Boyd raised an early protest against the split between “Irish” and “modernist”, which has endured, but part of the reason that Joyce was canonised as a modern more effectively than Synge and Stephens was because of his physical location in Europe and the networks he had built there. Joyce’s reputation would gestate and be delivered to the world from Paris, the site of consecration.

While Larbaud’s 1929 translation of Ulysses into French would allow the continental reception to grow, Joyce’s reception in England and Ireland, like that of a lot of avant-garde literary modernism, was less smooth. T.S. Eliot famously beatified Ulysses the year after it was published in book form in the modernist magazine The Dial: “I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.” Virginia Woolf did not agree and was amazed that “Tom” compared the book to War and Peace. Initially at any rate, she greeted this presumptuous Irishman with distaste, possibly because he trespassed into the sort of modernist fiction she saw as the preserve of herself and her Bloomsbury set. She detected in his work (wrongly in the case of the Jesuit-educated Joyce) the unseemly marks of the ill-bred autodidact who had achieved some self-education thanks to the growth in literacy and lending libraries at the time. For Woolf, Joyce’s book was that of “a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating”. Similar sentiments were expressed by D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. In Ireland it was not greeted with much enthusiasm either. The former provost of the then Unionist and Anglophile Trinity College Dublin, J.P. Mahaffy, used its publication as an opportunity for some sectarian point-scoring against the rival Catholic University College Dublin: “James Joyce is a living argument in defence of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island – for the corner boys who spit in the Liffey.” The Catholic nationalist Dublin Review was appalled too: “The Irish literary movement is not going to find its stifling climax in a French sink”, it declared, ruefully lamenting that “a great Jesuit-trained intellect has gone over malignantly and mockingly to the powers of evil”.

But it was indeed in a French sink that Joyce found his global fame, or perhaps writing about Irish sinks for a French audience whose esteem mattered. The ban was lifted in the US in the 1930s after a famous court case, and it gradually entered the American universities when liberal arts were in expansive mode, and from there was recycled back into Ireland and the United Kingdom, swathed in cultural prestige. Ulysses was established as the quintessential modernist work, which was also an affirmation of Western democratic culture during the Cold War. The academic consecration of Ulysses was a mixed blessing in that its elevation also heralded its separation in more than one sense. When Joyce gets taken up by the American academy, the European cosmopolitanism of Larbaud deracinates further to a universal and ahistorical idea of Ulysses, in which Bloom is the “Everyman” and Joyce rises above the local concerns of Dublin (or Triestian or Parisian) life. This was an apposite reading in one respect, but it also took Ulysses away from messy contexts of which it is inseparable, those of its reception as well as its production. In other words, the idea that Joyce “left behind” Ireland – creating a universal masterpiece – is one that would be the orthodoxy in mid-20th century campuses, but it also contributed to the rather disabling reverence that it sometimes attracted.

Importantly, though, the question of where Ulysses negotiates Ireland and Europe, local and cosmopolitan, is an abiding concern within the novel itself. Let’s return to Buck Mulligan on top of the Martello tower in Sandycove, facing, significantly, eastward – towards Britain and Europe. As I said at the start, his famous parody of the Eucharist suggests that the novel to come will be an act of transubstantiation of sorts. However, as well as the artwork being the Eucharist, with the artist as “priest of the eternal imagination” (as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), it is also the artist who is the “host” – that which is consecrated or indeed auto-consecrated. That Mulligan and Stephen are indeed acting as hosts – to the Englishman Haines – in this opening chapter should not escape notice. In Latin, hostis means enemy or victim, the one who is sacrificed, and Ulysses’ opening episode, “Telemachus”, is shot through with cordial enmity. But the chapter is also preoccupied with mechanisms of artistic prestige and aspirations of epical achievement, including Stephen’s famous definition of Irish art as the cracked looking glass of a servant, and the moment where Mulligan puts his arm around Stephen and declares that they both could make Ireland as cultured as Greece once was. This hunger for international esteem is staged throughout the novel, which is replete with self-reflexivity about its own status, its own path to consecration in every sense. This reaches its most intense pitch in the ninth episode, “Scylla and Charybdis”, Joyce’s most sustained engagement in Ulysses about how literature succeeds in the world, set against the aesthetic and critical debates in 1904 Ireland. From the start, we have an edified exchange that draws on international literary masters Goethe, Shelley and above all Shakespeare. And we get reflections on how Irish literature might or might not enter world literary space: “Our young Irish bards, John Eglinton censured, have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare’s Hamlet though I admire him, as old Ben did, on this side idolatry.” Which young Irish bard, a reader might wonder, and Joyce is rhetorically asking, will be the Irish Shakespeare? Yet, Stephen is intensely aware of the perils of these critical exchanges, these aesthetic agendas and this search for hierarchy. The chapter is, after all, named for the sea monsters around which Odysseus must navigate. “Will they wrest from us, from me the palm of beauty?” Stephen ponders.

One of the delights of Ulysses is how proleptic it is, how it anticipates our world and preoccupations. “We are still learning to be Joyce’s contemporaries”, begins Richard Ellmann’s acclaimed biography. This can be quite uncanny sometimes, when we read Ulysses and find references to a pandemic (no doubt read back from the Spanish flu of 1918) or to the MeToo movement. Another aspect of this foretelling is the many references to its own critical reception, for good or ill. We do well to recall, though, that Ulysses’ investment in consecration, in separation, must be set against its profanity, its enmeshment in history and the everyday. In that respect we might remember the anecdote of the smitten fan who approached Joyce and asked to “shake the hand that wrote Ulysses”. Joyce, the author of the book that still shocks with its graphic depictions, is said to have replied, “Let me remind you, madam, that this hand has done many other things as well.”

Ronan McDonald

Ronan McDonald holds the Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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