Shhhh! . . . While he’s busy . . .
. . . for an Easier Ulysses
In the thirty-odd years since my first reading, I have only twice re-read the book continuously through, from stately plump Buck Mulligan to the final ‘yes’. I have preferred to take it in chapters, choosing any one I fancied at any particular time, recognising favorites–usually the episodes I liked least when I first met Ulysses–and, inside those favourites, turning to certain passages again and again. Ulysses invites this approach rather as the Bible does.”
–Anthony Burgess , Here Comes Everybody, p177
Imagine driving down a Dublin road on into night, blindfolded and bewildered. “Terrified” may not be too strong a word. You may succeed in crossing some of the landmarks where the characters of Ulysses are found. I compare this to reading Ulysses without guidance. I’ve done it, eight times. Good luck! Of course, you might get lucky and run into the nice cushy book, at left.
Imagine driving down those same streets with several big fat heavy unfoldable maps–with tiny print–on your lap. I would compare this to reading the same book with one–or two–or two dozen–references at arm’s length. Are you in any better shape than above? Citations and maps both need a light touch.
This is a blog about attempting to read just one single chapter of Ulysses, with the advantages of digital tools. There must be some contemporary method to replace those ratty, musky old copies, with margins chock full of notes and just enough underlinings in pencil, pages falling out. It brings back words of praise to Coleridge from Charles Lamb. I am working up chapter 1. Hopefully, you may want to mark up a single chapter.
Those days may be gone. I have wondered whether there might be a digital substitute. We, the digital, have accepted such reading conveyances as the Adobe Acrobat .pdf format (my thesis) to the Kindle (for stuff that people actually read). We can now hyperlink, comment, and highlight. These features have become so common that click, type, and rollover are in the daily lives of those who use computers and eReaders at all.
I wish to develop simple tools for marking up Joyce’s Ulysses. I hope that the process will encourage communal effort. One marked-up hardcopy of this big book will probably lead to one mark-up copy–in the trash. One marked-up digital copy may lead to many hundreds of readers marking up a single copy read by many thousands.
Why the extra effort, Buddy? Hasn’t all been said and done already? Well, no, Joyce made sure of that. And even though, we are bumping up against the 100 years he predicted it would take to unravel his novel, I consider this period to be the equivalent of excavation and tagging–and now restoring according to some taxonomy.
With the “second 100 years”, I wonder if the game plan might be along the lines of films The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (1995) or the more recent The Guard (2011). Now we need a guide or more than one for all that has been spread before us that is ever new. In my small part, I am one of those guides. I am here to show you through the labyrinth that ends at the room where–not filled with the twee and the whimsy–we encounter Stephen in his personal Infernos of Horror.
Joyce often referred to himself as a “killed poet” and I love the line. He had a wonderful poetic gift–that always seemed to flow on top of time. Most poets distill the moment. Joyce wishes to inspect every perception of the moment. Equally valid. Try this:
A little bewildering to encounter this animal of a page slinking down a corridor. Dissected, this is Joyce’s highly concentrated view of Irish movements. This is my favorite passage in chapter 1. Devilish and intense and depairing and deluded–but good! Stephen is awakened to the grief he feels for his dead mother. Perhaps one of the great passages of literature. To an untrained eye, it looks like two blurs of the page, two speed bumps on the road to Molly Town, or at least in that direction.
This “Good Stuff” extends throughout Joyce. It never separates itself from its circumstances, the way a poem is distilled into its own space in the pages of the New Yorker. All these still urgent moments are a part of the general bustle, and may clearly be beyond the awareness of the characters, even as is the talisman potato that Bloom carries by faith, but which protects both himself and Stephen.
This is GREAT STUFF! And, as is typical for Joyce, you can spend a lifetime looking for these nuggets, and develop your own theories as you go along. Life will interrupt. Thank God for that. Do not mind being distracted. As Bradbury makes note way at the top of the page, Ulysses is rather like 18, or 800, short stories. A single reading is almost a worthless pursuit for all but a few. Looking back now, I’m more productive on one chapter than I ever have been on cover to cover.
Joyce will be ever dense, but ever irreverent and funny. I sometimes think of him as well as I think of our own Laurence Stern. Why should you ever think of finishing Tristram Shandy? Just go until it’s no longer funny. Joyce does provide greater insight into a greater human comedy. However, by the time you know that, your head is probably full anyhow.
For the dense passages, I am proposing that one might unlock those more obscure citations in levels of three. One level to get you going. A second time around to point out the features of the land. A third is history.