Ulysses (review)

Author(s): 
Department: 
Ulysses
written by James Joyce
reviewed by Zae Illo

Many Friends are unaware that James Joyce included a Quaker librarian, Lyster, in Ulysses. As the Religious Society of Friends gropes out of its colorless stasis, Ulysses reminds us that Friends carry a cultural presence beyond the confines of minutes, meetings, and social concerns.  Even so, I encourage Friends to read Ulysses not for its utility, but as a brutally honest exploration of our inner condition.

Ulysses is the literary Mount Sinai: unapproachable, threatening destruction to all who attempt to summit its heights. Ulysses overthrows the classical literary hero tradition, and renders instead a protagonist messy with contradictions, evasions, and flights of imaginative fancy. Leopold Bloom – the lead character – is a spaghetti of words whose interpretation depends on twists of the reader’s mental fork. Do we twirl the words around until they are an easily manageable ball? Is our preferred method to first cut each episode into smaller sections to reduce the bulk of words?

Bloom is an adulterer whose wife has recently taken a new lover. He is paralyzed with thoughts of her paramour – unable to maintain a dominant, distant position. The chasing quality of his thoughts underscores Bloom’s self-image of effeminacy, which haunts him for the entire day that Joyce depicts in the book. Bloom wanders around early twentieth-century Dublin, unsure of his masculinity. A sexless marriage, a dead son, and a daughter now embarking on a proper career, further emasculate Bloom – an advertisement salesman.

As he wanders from pubs to funerals to the seashore, Bloom’s thinking draws heavily from the Abrahamic faith traditions. He is a modern, syncretic Jewish thinker. But he lacks the courage of Spinoza – the seventeenth-century Jewish “heretic” who was expelled from his synagogue and later sought fellowship with Quakers and other non-conformists. Bloom speaks, but his talk is mundane, not of consequence. Like most mortals, the principal character of Ulysses lacks decisive action; he is the antithesis of Homeric heroes. Most of us will never be aflame with the Light to the intensity experienced by Harriet Tubman or Paul the Apostle. Ulysses is approachable because Bloom fails; his is the everyday walk that history will ignore.

Ulysses offers an inspection of the human condition. Joyce expertly criticizes the banality of the everyday economic order – burning food on the stove, trying to glimpse a woman across the street, defecating while reading a newspaper. Even as he fantasizes about utopian ideals, the Light exposes Bloom’s raunchiest sexual desires, and he is achingly unaware that his wife shares conjugal notions equally as wild. The Quaker librarian who appears in two episodes is a bookish, asexual intellectual, much too abstract to meet the Homeric standard.

The treasure here is the banality of everyday existential concerns – money, food, lust. Even from the distance of nearly a century, Ulysses offers a blistering womanist perspective in the book’s last episode. This is a single, stream-of-consciousness sentence, which makes plain the frustrations of married life. Mollie is, to some degree, the fiery Word that blasts the wheat from the chaff, reality from illusion. This single sentence of conjugal fury easily eclipses early classical works of sexual pining, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, both in scope and sheer intensity. After sixteen years with Leopold, Molly now believes that “. . . most people don’t have a particle of love in them.”

Each episode of Ulysses is a glossy apple which tempts us to pluck it to “know” what Joyce intended, a temptation as sweet as the call of the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, the work whose hero inspired the title of James’s epic. Joyce attempts to write in plain speech about the spiritually dry places through which all must travel on the way back to Eden.  This is a story about the angels and demons we are likely to meet along the road.  ~~~

Zae Illo is a member of San Francisco Friends Meeting (PYM).

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