On Reading Joyce Reading the World: Reflections on How to Read Ulysses in Interesting Times

December 16, 2014

Joyce, J 1922, Ulysses, Sylvia Beach, Paris.

By Colm McNaughton

We live, to invoke the Chinese curse, in interesting times. Our human beings are moving, consuming and decaying in the context of the demise and likely collapse of Empire. When I invoke the term Empire I am not merely referring to the ongoing economic, political and spiritual crises that is the United States, whose reign commenced at the end of the Second World War. Through taking a longer view of history – la longue durée – we are also living through the end times of the rule of this big blue planet by a series of European Empires and their proxies, which was kicked off by the so-called discovery and looting of the Americas in 1492. This rule began with the collaboration of the Iberian Peninsula with a number of Italian city-states. Ascendency of the capitalist world system was transmitted to the Dutch, then the British and now the baton has been passed on to the United States. The shadow of this process of hitherto unimagined wealth accumulation has unleashed a tidal wave of destructive forces ranging from the military-industrial complex with its nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals, through to climate change, extensive pollution of land, sea and air and widespread species extinction. We are presently living through one of the most profound (this time human–induced) waves of species extinction that this planet has ever witnessed. Let the good times roll on!


There is no end to easily accessible distractions or corporate backed deniers that are more than willing to help us smudge, or if you prefer completely avoid, the profound implications of this unsettling state of affairs. Truffle infused roast chicken with rosemary and lemon potatoes anyone? My sense is that deep in the marrow of our bones we know what is happening – if we are willing and able to listen, because the art of listening is the source of new stories. It is at this historical juncture that I want to introduce, or perhaps re-introduce to you the author James Joyce, and his confronting, sometimes difficult, though fecund work, Ulysses. To help us on this sojourn I need to make a few introductory remarks.

Firstly, reading Joyce (and here I am thinking particularly of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake) is not in any traditional sense about ‘reading literature’. At a number of levels his experimentation both in form and content defies – or is it explodes? – innumerable assumptions, conventions and categories, not only in relation to how we relate to the written word and the Western storytelling tradition, but also how we understand and relate to our own bodies, human and non-human others and the cosmos itself. Reading Joyce is a bit like being repeatedly tripped up and destabilised. The question is how do you want to respond to this experience of deep-seated uncertainty and uprootedness.

Secondly, part of engaging with Joyce is necessarily encountering and trying to work your way through his legend and stature as one of the ‘greats’ of the canon of English (ouch!) or do I mean Irish? Hibernian–English? Postcolonial or is it post-colonial? (ahhhhh! language is so limited and limiting…) literature. It may not come as a surprise but these twin processes of categorisation and canonisation were something that Joyce always kicked against, but now they are the very forces that in so many ways straight-jacket his words and legacies. We need to remain mindful that canonisation is also a not so subtle way that powerful elites, who are essentially afraid of his subversive message, are able to control and fashion it in their own image (I am thinking here of folks like Jesus, Martin Luther King and Mandela). In the process they create a class of officially sanctioned interpreters who peddle often dumbed down and less, or non-subversive, readings of their works. Bingo! And everybody can go back to sleep. Prozac anyone? In trying to find our way through and even out of this labyrinth of holy writ, my advice is to trust yourself and be wary of deferring to the so-called experts (err…including me!). Of course, this is often easier said than done. Joyce, it must be reiterated, is at heart not elitist, he champions ordinary people, the everyday and the mundane, and as such we need to drag him out of the hallowed halls of academe, where he has been held captive for way too long, and back into the unruliness and cacophony of the streets – his natural habitat.

Thirdly, if you engage with the vast secondary literature about Joyce and his works, they have a vast array of opinions: that he is a modernist, or a postmodernist before postmodernism; that he is an Irish nationalist or conversely that he is against all nationalisms; that he is a big or little c Catholic thinker as well as being resolutely atheist etc, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, Joyce is the inspiration for many divergent traditions such as deconstruction, magical realism and quantum physics, as well as innumerable composers, authors, poets, thinkers and the like. What I am going to suggest, and for some it may seem counter-intuitive, is that Joyce is in fact all of these perspectives and much, much more. But wait, I hear you ask, how can he be the alpha and the omega, and everything in between? This is where the discussion gets kinda slippery and can be a little difficult to handle, but allow me to suggest that Joyce’s perspective is informed by his deep and profound relationship with the Word (in all of its possible connotations, a theme we shall return to shortly). And thus, rather than outlining a singular perspective, he approaches, responds to, contains and even attempts to represent the whole, in all of its encyclopaedic beauty. Joyce is heavily influenced by a range of mighty Medieval, Catholic (in the sense of universal) and Italian thinkers such as Dante Alighieri, Thomas Aquinas, Giordono Bruno and the like. To invoke the imagery of the final canto of Dante’s Paradisio, Joyce is not just offering us a few insights on a particular idea, theme or set of relationships, but rather a vast and breathtaking cosmology, which leaves us something like Dante and Beatrice when they come out at the end of their arduous journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, ‘to once again look at the stars’.

Many erudite readers and interpreters of Joyce’s works tend to focus more on the ground on which they are walking, and they don’t (or can’t?) open up their ears to see what Joyce is pointing to, and as such tend to write intricate and well-informed tales about the movement of their feet. What I am suggesting is that Joyce’s creative response to the Western storytelling tradition turns back on itself so that it is able to now perceive and read itself, contra itself. In making this revolutionary move, Joyce offers us only an affirmation, carried in the twinkling of his eye, without any promise of a synthesis or resolution. Thus, Joyce deeply unsettles many readers and our deep-seated attachment to things having an ultimate and discernable meaning. To help me explain what I think Joyce is doing let me start by briefly introducing who James Joyce was, errr is, err is, was and will be? (pffft!)

In 1916 when Joyce started writing Ulysses, he is precariously employed as a language teacher, an Irishman living in self-imposed exile in Trieste, Italy, with his unmarried partner Nora Barnacle. Joyce is a colonised man, writing about a colonised city, whose main character is the consummate other or outsider to European cultures and Empire, the Irish Jew – Leopold Bloom. Joyce is a colonised person writing in the coloniser’s language, while literally around him the British and Austro-Hungarian Empires are collapsing, and Europe is plunged into the First World War, a bloody battle over the spoils of Empire. So what was Joyce’s response to the extraordinary tumultuous set of conditions in which he found himself? He writes Ulysses.

Listening to History by Bill Woodrow 1995

Listening to History by Bill Woodrow 1995

Let us now turn our attentions towards the actual written words themselves as they are tended and presented in the text of Ulysses. Many first time readers of Ulysses (which sadly is also often their last attempt) complain that the plot is difficult to follow, the characters are diffuse and hard to comprehend, and that the language is obscure. As a consequence it is nigh impossible to follow what exactly is going on. I want to suggest that to be able to read Joyce you need to allow Joyce to read you. Many readers no doubt will respond to such a demand from literature incredulously, and respond that such a requirement is ‘unethical’, ‘elitist’, ‘too demanding’, and that ‘after a week of work I just want to be entertained’ etc. etc. That is fine, and if that is your view, then perhaps reading Joyce is not your thang. (Hark! I can hear the clarion call of Murdoch-istan beckoning you hither…) For more intrepid sojourners, willing to sweat a little, entertain moments of confusion and experience a little uncomfortability in the process of self-understanding. What I am suggesting is that to read Joyce, you invariably will have a whole host of your preconceived notions about literature, language, the body and the senses and how they are constituted, who you think you are and a whole lot more, all interrogated and much of it will crumble into rubble. Many people experience this when engaging with Joyce. Then, you are feeling hollow and lost and sitting on the edge of an abyss, in other words a true modern subject. Use the very same tools that destroyed your house to help you rebuild it, from the ground up. Joyce is very happy to let you into his world, but he demands that you create the eyes and ears and sensibilities to be able to do so.

The key that lead to my first reading of Ulysses came from the comedian John Clarke, who explained in a conversation back in 2007, that when the going gets tough, ‘to read it aloud and listen to it like you would music’. This advice not only allowed me to finally read Ulysses, but it also set in motion a whole process of , with Joyce’s help, investigating the “ineluctable modality of the audible” (p.37), which brought me into the brightly coloured, fast paced whirring dance between creation and destruction, which Joyce conducts, and continues unabated to this day.

When I first tried to read Ulysses words have meanings, and as a consequence I couldn’t get beyond the first fifty pages or so. With Clarke’s advice, I realised that words are meanings, and at the same time they are also sounds. This realisation not only cracked open my relationship to language, but also started me on a journey of reworking and reimagining my relationship to my senses, and how they relate to each other. I started listening to the words and phrases and expressions in Ulysses as sounds, opening myself up to pitch, rhythm and timing, i.e.: the beat. In an ocular capitalist world system, I was exploring new horizons and started living in the blue note. This process also is somewhat reminiscent of the young Marx’s observation that communism is ‘the emancipation of the senses’. As I engaged in this practice, not only did the distinction between the text of Ulysses and the rest of the world begin to blur and at times collapse, for where does the word end and the world begin? For example, I would be reading a section of Ulysses, put the book down and go to do something, let’s say go shopping and the many encounters and things would happen while engaging in this activity, which made me realise, not only that the experiences I was having were very similar to the ones Joyce had to write Ulysses, but that the text and characters are not inert and bound by a book, but rather are very much alive. Ulysses is a living text and as such a real part of the world we live in, and, if you listen closely, you can hear Molly and Leopold and Stephen breathing softly (interspersed of course with the occasional belch and fart!).

The next dimension of allowing Joyce to read me was the realisation that words are flesh. The shift associated with this form of embodiment is learning how to listen not just with my ears, but with my body. This is an ongoing and an endarkening process. By invoking the flesh, that is the body, I am not just referring to the corporeal sack of skin that stops my organs and blood spilling out all over place (yikes!), but also its relationship to Joyce’s rethinking of the body of Christ, embodied in the Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, the central element of the mass. In the Eucharist, the blood and wine of the mass is transformed by the priest in a process referred to as transubstantiation, into the living blood and body of Christ. (It must be reiterated that it is living blood and body and not merely a symbol, and in this way Catholicism distinguishes itself from other traditions.)This blood and body of Christ is the unleavened bread and wine of the mass, which is then eaten and drunk by the parishioners in the ritual of Communion. In this way, the body of Christ not only is embodied in those who take part in the ritual, but because the ritual is universal it is also that which connects many millions or even billions of others across the globe that constitute the church, who also take part in this primal and cannibalistic ritual.

The key to Joyce’s understanding of the sacred, and thus from whence we spring, what we are and what we are capable of (as mediated through language), is how he rethinks and reworks the processes and symbols associated with the Eucharist. For Joyce, the sacred is not otherworldly or cut off from the everyday functions of our bodies as they move through time and space; the sacred is very much present and informs the profane. In this way, Joyce secularises (in the sense of rejecting or moving beyond the material/spirit dualism) and universalises the Eucharist ritual, celebrating ordinary people and their foibles and the normal functions of the body like masturbating, taking a shit and picking your nose. These experiences are drawn out from the background to a much more tangible and this worldly Christ-like experience. As a consequence, the tale of Ulysses is told with a mischievous smirk and, a few deft dance steps ready in the feet. Through Joyce we can approach the sacred – or who we really are – through a deeper awareness and appreciation of our bodies, be they corporeal, imaginary as in city or nation, symbolic and/or celestial. This insight is the key for Joyce’s recalibration and reimagining of the relationship between words and the Word (as a translation of the Ancient Greek for logos) as invoked in the first line of John’s Gospel, and how we live and engage with the everyday world.

Ulysses, as I have already mentioned, is set in a colonised city, peopled with colonised subjects, who are living on the edge of Empire, as these Empires collapse around them. It is in this context, and through embracing the feelings, sensations and perspectives that develop through encountering these bodies that Joyce reimagines the sacred, bringing the margins into the centre and thereby turning the world back onto its feet. Like the Gospels, Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, but in a different ways, Joyce’s Ulysses is a spirited exploration of the cracks in history, that is, what is revealed when the very means of existence are ruptured in the processes of social transformation. But a key to being able to listen to what is possible, we need to learn how to listen with our bodies. Herein lies one of Joyce’s most radical subaltern messages, his reworking of the relationship between the word/the Word and the world is central to creating the space to reimagining the colonised body, but often also the subterranean, decolonisation process.

One of the deepest and perhaps most creative, though necessarily unsettling observations that I have had, or more precisely, that I now live, since embarking on this Joyce-inspired journey of listening with my body, is being able to engage, at a range of levels with silence.

I believe what is most profound about Joyce’s Ulysses, is the nature and quality of the silence that bubbles up between and through the words, lines and stories, especially when you are able to start hearing, containing and responding to it with your body. What I have encountered in this process is the underworld: that which cannot be said, and in some cases has been muffled for centuries; many dimensions of the dream, fantasy and fairy worlds; the ghosts of those who have died; and some of the stark, dark legacies of violence. (These processes are central to the endarkening process I referred to earlier.) What is more, as I have already suggested, if we allow Joyce to read us, as a precursor to reading him, he also gives us the tools to hear and creatively respond to these deepest forms of silence. It is here, in transforming our relationship to silence and in the process opening up new lines of communication with our dead ancestors, that new dimensions of the imagination can be born.

In the martial and death loving culture-in-crisis that many of us belong to, the stories we live by are literally disintegrating in front of us. (Reality TV anyone eh?) If we are interested in revealing and acting upon the transformative possibilities and the beauty available in squarely facing and responding to the shadows of this culture, then Joyce may yet be a central player in finding a way through and beyond these contradictions and the creation of the construction ‘a culture of storytelling.’

Colm McNaughton is a Literature lecturer. He received his doctorate in political theory in 2006. In the years that followed he worked for a number of years at Community Radio 3CR and as a freelancer for ABC Radio National. He is a multiple award winning radio documentary producer. He has previously lectured for seven years in Journalism at a range of different institutions. He is currently writing a novel.

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