The Common Reader amd Ulysses

some preliminary thoughts by

Willis E. McNelly

I sometimes think that if I could codify the rules which James Joyce lived by and delineate the artistic credo which ruled his life and formed the heart of his artistic creations, I would suggest that they comprise many opposites: his humanity coupled with his hauteur: his continual exile from Ireland and Dublin coupled with his penetration into the depths of the Irish psyche and the Celtic soul; his fascination with language juxtaposed against his mastery of it.

To be sure, he was Irish -- all too Irish as one of his characters puts it -- but he might have needed to distance himself from the bustling Hibernian metropolis in order to see it clearly, in order to love it boldly, deeply, and profoundly.

lf he had to fly the nets, he fled to freedom, but the nets remained the heart and soul of his work. Ireland may have been the old sow that eats its farrow, but it was also the warp and woof of the fabric of humanity that provided the artistic canvas upon which he painted the portrait of the artist as an artist, and delineated the portrait of the eternal male Poldy - and the eternal female - Molly, both magnificent human beings. Above all, I would try to emphasize Joyce's humanity - a somewhat defiant humanity to be sure, an independent one albeit perhaps a bit ambivalent about the turf that spawned him, but above all a humane humanity that he created when he put Leopold Bloom and his wife, Marion, known now to most of the world as it ""Molly" in that now, alas, destroyed flat on 7 Eccles street, and set Bloom off to become the unconquered hero, the most ordinary extraordinary human ever to grace the pages of a novel. For Ulysses is a novel so crammed with human figures that it continues to command its readers' attention even after the tenth -or even hundredth reading.

Yet for all of its artistic accolades on the part of its scholars, the Joycean elect who quarrel over commas and argue about who is doing what to whom in some of the pages in the scene in the brothel, Ulysses remains one of the most unread great books of the western world. Indeed, I would suggest that the book shelves of the English speaking world are replete with copies of the old Modern Library edition of the novel, a paper clip or some other book mark indicating where the Common Reader left off, perhaps dozing as Mr. Deasy became oracular somewhere in the second chapter of the book. Indeed, the CR might have set the book down early in chapter three, losing Stephen Dedalus somewhere on the sands of a beach in Dublin, wondering what the hell Joyce meant when he has Stephen say, "Ineluctable modality of the visible."

Why is this great novel so unread? Why is it so praised, yet so neglected by the CR who will accept abstraction in Hindemuth, Debussy, or even some of Bach's chorale preludes or great fugues, and pay millions for an impressionist painting or a Picasso of the Cubist period? Why can we accept abstraction, impressionism or complication in painting or music yet deny it in the novel? Is Ulysses THAT difficult to understand? It is THAT complex? Is Joyce's humor - nay his humanity - so abstract that it requires one virtual interlinear crib after another so we may comprehend it? Indeed, is it possible that for all of the praise given to the great Irish master, his supreme achievement, Ulysses, is doomed to being dissected by graduate students, its brilliance and magnificence forever denied to the very humans Joyce celebrates?

Yet I do not believe that Ulysses should forever remain the great "unread". I firmly believe that it can offer any relatively intelligent, patient reader more than virtually any other book written this century. I would like to suggest, in fact, that its "difficulties" have been largely overstated, that it can provide continual hours, or even years of enjoyment with only a modicum of difficulty. Thus in THE COMMON READER AND ULYSSES, I would like to suggest some meanings I find in the novel, meanings gleaned from more than a hundred close readings of the book coupled with teaching it scores of times.

What then is Ulysses about? Most relativeLy literate people at least know that it tells the story of one man, a certain Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Roman Catholic Dublin, as he goes about his work one day in mid-June, 1904. It traces him from the time he makes his wife Molly her breakfast in bed in the morning to his return to that same bed some 20 hours later after a day filled with the most mundane ordinary events, eventually asking his wife to make his breakfast the next morning.

Within this 360 degree full circle, much - and little - has happened. A baby has been born. A thunderstorm has drenched Dublin. Bloom has attended a funeral, eaten lunch, befriended a stranger, tried to sell some advertising, fed the sea birds as he crossed a bridge, visited the National Library of Dublin, watched a lame girl expose her underwear as he walked on the Sandymount beach. No Prufrock, Bloom was so stimulated by the exposure that he masturbates. It's a richly comic scene, however, what with roman candles exploding across the strand.

Earlier, he's taken a bath in one of Dublin's public bathhouses, gotten into an argument with an anti-Semite at a pub and so on - until he returns at about two in the morning. His wife Molly, an occasional singer with a rich soprano voice and ample body, has rearranged the furniture in the small flat they live in, tossed a coin to a beggar and sometime during the afternoon has committed adultery with one of her admirers, the magnificently named Blazes Boylan. Her thoughts before she goes to sleep at the end of the book, comprise the magnificent last chapter of the novel, a glowing passionate, intense revelation of her inmost self, her thoughts, feelings, sensations - and her ultimate acceptance of all that life can offer. It is Molly's eternal "yes" at the novel's end that finally elevates this terribly ordinary litany of events into true greatness.

Moreover, many readers or prospective readers of Joyce know very little about him. True, the late Richard Ellmann's great biography of the Irish master remains one of the prose masterpieces of the final half of the 20th century, but it is so long, so forbidding, so crammed with minute detail that the Ordinary Reader almost wishes for something less scholarly, certainly more accessible. What's more, the Ordinary Reader, if he or she owns the Modem Library edition of Ulysses - the one most readily available until the Gabler so-called "critical edition" was issued to great dispute a few years ago - may even have heard that Ulysses was banned from being imported into the United States on grounds of obscenity. Judge John M. Woolsey's decision to admit Uysses into the United States on the grounds that it was neither pornographic nor obscene - a complete copy of which was printed as an introduction to the Modern Library decision - remains one of the most cogent, most well reasoned arguments for freedom of expression ever penned. Woolsey's dry, even droll remarks about the alleged pornographic or obscene qualities of the book should be trumpeted above the hills:

"In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring."

For that matter, I know of one moderately eminent Joycean who bought a copy of the original 1934 edition when he was in high school because he had heard that it was a dirty book, and he's spent fifty years reading it, searching vainly for the so-called "dirty" parts. To be sure, the book used many four letter words, true Anglo-Saxon words, not euphemisms. Moreover, it mentions masturbation, fellatio, and cunnilinctus -- all long before it was fashionable to include these details in a graphic contemporary novel. Oddly enough, though Joyceans all over the world seemed to disavow their guru when many of Joyce's extremely frank, sometimes crude, certainly graphic letters to his wife, Nora Barnacle, were omitted from the first collection of his letters. It almost seems as if they could not believe that Joyce could be as crude in real life as he was elevated in his fiction. Again, credit must be given Ellmann from rescuing those "dirty" letters and including them, unashamedly, in a later collection. In these more enlightened, post-Comstockian times, we can now read those intriguing letters and wonder what the fuss was all about.