Farewell to Ulysses

The recent toppling of statues regarded as representing white supremacy is a sign that James Joyce’s Ulysses may soon be toppled from its top rank on the lists of great novels. Not only is James Joyce a dead, white, European male, but his work, particularly Ulysses, demands an understanding of Irish politics, Dublin geography, and literature from Homer, to Chaucer, Pope, and Milton. For decades, studying Ulysses was considered the crowning achievement of a study of English literature. In 2020, Ulysses is practically an unreadable narrative without multiple secondary resources that explain just what Joyce was doing in each chapter. Joyce jammed so many references, homages, and allusions into Ulysses that he expected Ulysses would keep the critics busy for three hundred years. Yet Ulysses may not last until the centenary of its publication in 1922. Thus, it may not be too soon to say farewell.

The action in Ulysses occurs on a single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904—now celebrated as Bloomsday. Many are aware that the structure of Ulysses is loosely based upon the action in Homer’s Odyssey. Cleverly, Joyce inverted the action in the Odyssey from twenty years to one day, and from a man striving to return home to a faithful wife to a man (Leo Bloom) finding excuses to wander about Dublin so as not to return to his unfaithful wife (Molly). Anyone who spends time reading and rereading Ulysses with the support materials cannot help but admire Joyce’s creativity in his use of imagery for characterization and his meticulous dedication to accuracy in his references.

Make no mistake, Joyce reveled in his blasphemies, both gentle and biting. He had considered becoming a priest, but rejected the Church and Ireland, as outlined in his semi-biographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He joyfully kept clippings of denouncements of Ulysses by bishops and clergy because he knew they would increase sales of his work. His wife refused an offer by a priest to say a requiem Mass after Joyce died, because she “couldn’t do that to him.”

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In this farewell, I want to focus on an aspect of Ulysses that has not received much attention since about 1970. Just as Joyce used the Odyssey as a framework in Ulysses, Joyce also used the Catholic Mass as a parallel framework. The reason why scholars have ignored this consideration is because the post–Vatican II Mass is not the Traditional Latin Mass of June 16, 1904, in Dublin. When Ulysses was published, Joyce’s references, irreverent allusions, and blasphemies were obvious for Catholic readers. Trying to discern references in Ulysses using today’s Mass would be akin to trying to understand the parallels between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey by watching the 1959 movie Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas.

That Joyce’s meticulous attention to detail in his liturgical allusions opened a window into Dublin society, clergy, and the way Mass was celebrated in 1904 was recognized immediately. Thomas Merton attributed his decision to join religious life, in part, to Joyce. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes how he “continued to read Joyce, more and more fascinated by the pictures of priests and Catholic life that came up.” Merton was moved by Joyce’s depiction of the “church, and its priests, and its devotions, and the Catholic life in all of its gradations,” which Joyce “meant to be as accurate as he could in rebuilding his world as it truly was.” Of course, this is of no interest to the academy today and, for some, would weigh in favor of toppling Ulysses. But before Ulysses is banished, using the Tridentine Mass as a lens with which to view Ulysses might yield some insights that the academy has overlooked and that might be savored before it is gone.

The first words spoken in Ulysses are by Buck Mulligan: “Introibo ad altare Dei” (“I will go in to the altar of God”). These are also the first words of the priest in the prayers at the foot of the altar at the start the Latin Mass. Scholars have recognized that fact and assumed that Joyce, through Mulligan, is simply mocking the Mass. But Joyce’s Catholic readers would have known that the response by the server to “Introibo” was “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” (“To God who giveth joy to my youth”). As the first chapter unfolds, we learn that the “server” to Mulligan is Stephen Dedalus, who will, with Bloom, be a major character in Ulysses. To Joyce’s readers who last saw Stephen Dedalus in Portrait as the young man tormented by a call to the priesthood—which he rejected in favor of his artistic development—could there have been any young man in Dublin to whom God had given less joy in his youth? Not only had his mother recently died, but the few joys Stephen had in Portrait certainly would not be approved by the Church as gifts from God. Joyce’s liturgical reference is not mainly directed at the Mass, as is commonly assumed, but uses the liturgy to tell his readers that Dedalus is back in Dublin and miserable.

Familiarity with the motions and the text of the Latin Mass provides context for the other liturgical references. To Joyce’s Catholic readers, the famous run-on sentences of the last chapter of Ulysses exaggerate the unique run-on sentences of the Gospel of John—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was… .” In the changes to the Mass made around the time of Vatican II, the Last Gospel disappeared, in lieu of which another reading near the Epistle and the Gospel was added.

Recognizing the framework of the Mass in Ulysses and its last chapter as a parallel to the Last Gospel provides a persuasive answer to the most disputed issue in interpreting Ulysses. The Big Dot at the end of the “Ithaca” chapter, the second to last chapter, has been the subject of many conjectures, none of which have secured a consensus among scholars. There is explicit evidence, outside of the text of Ulysses, that Joyce intended the Big Dot to be placed at the end of Ithaca. It was no printer’s mistake but his correction of a prior printer’s error. In the context of viewing the Mass as a structure of Ulysses, the Big Dot is a punctuation mark pun—an intentionally misplaced “The End.”

The Big Dot was Joyce’s humorous reference to the fact the priest announced “Ita, missa est” (“Go, the Mass is ended”) a while before the Latin Mass was completed. With the current Mass, the priest proclaims, “Go, the mass is ended,” after the final blessing, and he then immediately departs. But the order was different and confusing in 1904 and remained so until 1962. After the priest announced, “Ita missa est,” he turned to the altar, bowed and kissed the altar. He then turned and gave the final blessing of the congregation, after which he walked to the side of the altar to read the beginning of the Gospel of John.

After the Last Gospel was read, the priest descended the steps but still did not leave. He and the congregation recited the prayers after the Low Latin Mass which were instituted in the 1880’s by Pope Leo. These include three Hail Marys, a Salve Regina, a prayer for the Church, and a prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel.

The irony in telling the congregation to “Go, but stay” was recognized in Joyce’s time. In 1912, liturgical scholar Adrian Fortescue observed, “It must surprise a stranger that, after we have solemnly told the people to go away, they stay and the service continues.” None of the other explanations for the Big Dot tie in an overall framework of Ulysses. Use of a punctuation mark as a pun would presage Joyce’s insane use of puns in Finnegans Wake.

We now come to a last item on Joyce’s accuracy regarding his liturgical references. Readers who are familiar with the Latin Mass today may note that the prayers after Mass noted above do not include the thrice-repeated acclamation, “Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us,” following the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. Indeed, in the “All Hallows” chapter in Ulysses, Bloom stops to rest in a church. It is near the end of a Mass, and he observes the distribution of Communion and the prayers after Mass, which include a nearly verbatim prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. After that prayer, Bloom watches the priest and server walk off and notes, “All over.” The episode in “All Hallows” does not contain the Sacred Heart acclamation. The reason may be coincidental or final proof of Joyce’s attention to detail. Pope Pius X approved the addition of the Sacred Heart acclamation on June 17, 1904, the day after Bloomsday!

Since the Catholic Church changed the Latin Mass 50 years ago, these aspects of Joyce’s craft have already been forgotten. Perhaps the Church began the toppling of Ulysses fifty years ago by changing the Mass. Could that change have deprived Joyce’s late 20th-century readers of the background that Joyce assumed they would have to understand his liturgical references and puns? After all, it has been a long time since Ulysses produced a Thomas Merton.

The calls to topple Ulysses from the list of great novels will continue. Joyce would appreciate with cruel irony that the answer on whether to say farewell to Ulysses must be the words of Molly Bloom that end the book: “Yes, I said yes, I will yes.”

Photo credit: Harald Florian/Shutterstock.com


  • Michael McMahon

    Michael McMahon is an environmental lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio and is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Law.

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