The Controversial Odyssey of James Joyce

This month—June 16, 2004, to be exact—will be the 100th anniversary of “Bloom’s Day,” the fictional date for the action in one of the great modern literary masterpieces, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Like Dante, Joyce transmuted real and imagined events in his native Dublin during the course of one day into a remarkable and perhaps even universal epic, populating the story with both invented figures (Leopold Bloom—the main character—among others) and real-life people he had known, settling a string of personal scores along the way. Joyce constructed his novel using a new and revolutionary stream-of-consciousness technique that would have repercussions in literature, film, and real life ever after. It is no wonder that, for years now, enthusiastic Joyceans have made it a tradition to meet on Bloom’s Day in various parts of the globe in order to take part in marathon public readings of the whole, complex, nearly 800 pages of this seminal work.

But as major milestones have a way of doing, the 100th anniversary has also opened the way for a long-overdue reassessment. Some more critical and skeptical voices have begun to be heard amid the usual hoopla. And a literary cat-fight erupted, most notably after the well-known Irish novelist Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) genially remarked at a New York conference this spring that Joyce, while an indisputable genius, would have benefited if a good editor had trimmed out some of the duller stretches of Ulysses. Orthodox Joyceans responded with the fury of an archbishop seeing heresy in broad daylight. The head of one Joyce society remarked that, of course, Doyle’s brief criticism had been picked up and blown out of proportion by the British press, because the British love to blast all things Irish. He continued that in 1998, American scholars voted Ulysses the number one novel of the 20th century; that in the same year Time magazine pronounced Joyce the most influential writer of the century; that there are now more books on Joyce than on Shakespeare; and that the public reading of Ulysses on Bloom’s Day was a phenomenon no other writer had inspired. All of this may be true. Yet the storm of emotions aroused by this little incident suggests that it may indeed be time for the idolatrous worship of the Joyceans to be reevaluated both on literary grounds and because of Joyce’s widespread and sometimes pernicious cultural influence.

Controversies about Ulysses are not new. When the novel came out in installments during and just after World War I, it was under constant threats from the censors in several countries. Its highly stylized and sometimes hilarious presentation of earthy matters such as defecation, masturbation, prostitution, various perversions, and many other things scandalized readers in the teens and 20s. Today, they seem relatively mild, partly because the “juicy” parts are so swathed in esoteric literary packaging that few people would turn to them out of prurient interest (the Internet is quicker and you don’t need to know how to read). But it’s also true that some of the artistic currents Joyce helped to validate were, by their very nature, impossible to restrict to this earthy, if exotic, frankness, which—controversy notwithstanding—had literary ancestors in figures like Chaucer and Rabelais. Those earlier writers, however, could rely on other, stable social elements to contextualize and contain their smuttiness and tomfoolery. The 20th century would show itself to have no such social immune system.

Even some of Joyce’s early champions grew tired of his obsessions and the literary longueurs they often enough produced. After several chapters of Ulysses had appeared in literary magazines, the American poet and literary impresario Ezra Pound, a staunch admirer who had pushed Joyce with the English literary elite and their financial backers, counseled him to move on from the focus on bodily functions and the somewhat bourgeois reflections of Leopold Bloom. Pound thought Joyce would be wise to bring back into greater prominence Stephen Daedalus, the intellectual and hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man who is also a main character in Ulysses.

About halfway through his novel, Joyce received a letter from one of his main financial supporters, Harriet Weaver, editor of the magazine The Egoist, which was bringing out some of Ulysses in installments. She expressed her disappointment in what she perceived as the flagging intensity of the book. Several others, including Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, wrote to Joyce in a similar vein. But Joyce had endless confidence in his own artistic judgment and persisted, with considerable damage to what is still a very great book.

The problem was not merely an aesthetic one, though it was also that. Ulysses recounts the events and thoughts of a small group of characters in Dublin from early morning until the middle of the night. This device enables Joyce to observe the old Aristotelian dictum that it’s best if the action in a fictional work takes place within the span of a single day. And there’s no question that in addition to Joyce’s unequaled verbal lyricism, the framework makes the reader see a day on our beloved common earth in a somewhat new light. But at the same time the typical reading of Ulysses lasts about 40 hours (the Recorded Books version, which is beautifully narrated, also runs that long). So at the barest surface, we face the absurdity, never envisioned by Aristotle, that the events of a day take longer to describe than the time of the events themselves. Joyce savaged this kind of literary incongruity when he found it in other writers. And short of taking a course in speed- reading, most of us have no alternative but to enter into the criticism on this point. Joyce’s ego simply got the best of him.

Further, while any brief passage in Ulysses will display remarkable stylistic achievement and insight, read straight through, the text often stalls, miring itself in static, obsessive passages. The stream-of-consciousness effects in the first few chapters were instantly recognized as the work of a master and remain very impressive. But those passages were interpolated amid more conventional narrative that helped keep things moving. As Joyce fell more and more in love with his own words, the interior monologues lost much of their grip on external reality and, with it, on the reader’s interest or attention as well. Joyce was at moments simply brilliant even in these less-than-successful passages. He wins you over everywhere with the Irish wit and quirkiness that constantly keep his story alive and virtually jump off every page:

• “—Are you on a strict T. T. [i.e., teetotaling]? says Joe.

—Not taking anything between drinks, says I.”

• “My patience are exhausted.”

• “May I say a word to your telephone, missy?”

• “I’ll leave you all where Jesus left the Jews!”

• “I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click.”

No one ever denied that the Irish are great talkers, but they never talked like this at such great length.

And then there’s the long monologue that ends Ulysses, which mesmerized many early readers and continues to do so today. It is a single sentence of more than 40 pages representing Molly Bloom’s ruminations as she falls asleep, a modern Penelope in the home where husband Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus arrive after the day’s voyagings through various places and, ultimately, Nighttown, the red-light district of Dublin. Joyce is without literary equal at this point. But many early readers made the mistake of thinking that he had also revealed hitherto unknown secrets about the female psyche. Molly is a coquettish opera singer born of a Spanish mother on the island of Gibraltar. She knows a good deal about men from long experience but, if truth be told, is otherwise not particularly bright. Her reading consists mostly of trashy romance novels.

Joyce certainly knew how to make the most of that kind of woman. But if she were his notion of women in general, there might well be a feminist counter-demonstration every Bloom’s Day. In the 1920s, however, it was chic to think that literature could compete with depth psychology. Carl Jung was called in to evaluate Ulysses and, after initial resistance to its charms, pronounced Molly’s monologue “a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.” Joyce, who had not intended to do anything more than represent Molly’s moments before sleep, didn’t much desire praise of this kind (he had grave doubts about depth psychology). And Joyce’s wife, Nora—as wives will—took a different view: “He knows nothing at all about women.” But the monologue is a gem.

Still, the greatest degree of humor and innovation can only take a long narrative so far, particularly one that includes large parts of our everyday lives. Most of what passes through our minds is junk. Joyce’s stream of consciousness faithfully tried to re-create that interior monologue. But in the nature of things, if it goes on for too long, it too must inevitably amount to a lot of junk. And with an obsessive type like Joyce (friends say that when he corrected page proofs they typically grew by one third), the means became a virtual end in themselves. Joyce seems to have thought that he should do whatever his genius could do. Many saw his error; he did not. So the Roddy Doyle view is not new, nor is it unfair.

Yet there may be an even deeper problem here. Joyce 1 deliberately wanted to include in his account of about 18 hours in Dublin a good deal of the seeming randomness and incompleteness of daily life. All that does form a part of how we immediately experience the world and Joyce’s sheer jackdaw inclusiveness broke new literary ground. But again, chaos threatens. As a good artist, Joyce knew that if he followed this principle too exclusively, his book would be as shapeless as the work he condemned by others. Hence the imposition of the “Ulysses” template over the whole. It doesn’t really fit, even in broad outline: Stephen Daedalus is not Telemachus looking for his father Ulysses, as is the case in Homer; Leopold Bloom is not the wandering Ulysses heroically striving to get home; and one of the reasons is that he knows that his wife, Molly, is not a faithful Penelope—indeed, is having a sexual liaison in their home that very day—which Leopold doesn’t want to have to face. The 18 chapters of Ulysses borrow a certain order from the 24 books of the Odyssey, and that order resonates with post- Christian intellectuals, but that’s about it.

Modern works based on loose adaptations of the Odyssey are not rare. In the nature of things (i.e., a modern world that hardly believes in God, let alone gods), the mythological framework cannot mean very much. And Joyce’s Odyssey doesn’t take on much significance from the Homeric parallels. But some Joyceans seem to like the novel because the Greek background provides a veneer of cultural toniness that a day in Dublin would otherwise lack. Joyce then adds plenty of literary and other intellectual allusions to individual episodes, so that the kind of person intrigued by literary puzzles can amuse himself chasing down references. This feature may have much to do with the recent supernova of Joyce criticism. Like the rest of us, academics have to find something to do to keep them busy. But all this is quite extraneous to the everyday activities and thoughts of ordinary human beings, even the wits and wags of Ireland. And perhaps it had to be so, because the stream of consciousness of more ordinary people would not have held the attention of academics.

In brief, all this was an artificial device, moderately successful, but an indirect witness to the fact that the world as Joyce and post-Christian Europe perceived it was, at bottom, chaos. Joyce borrowed a famous myth for a structure and his wordplay maintained a local aesthetic glow that came to overshadow everything else. Joyce continued this line into his final book, Finnegan’s Wake, an immense text of puns and language play meant to represent a single night of dreaming after the day of Ulysses. Here the difficulties are on display in their purest form. It’s telling that Joyce partisans don’t meet to recite the Wake, on which the author wasted 17 years. Joyce’s gifts never wholly failed him. But it’s hard to think of a great writer who allowed himself to slip into such a massive blunder. Eight hundred pages of wordplay will test even the purest literary aesthete. And it has to be said that some of Joyce’s wit has the same quality you meet with in a figure like John Lennon, after he met Yoko Ono. Just too damn cute for its own good.

Anyone even moderately aware of the sources of the contemporary world knows that much of modern life and culture, for all its drive toward radical autonomy, is still drawing on the capital accumulated by the classics and Christianity. Joyce’s work is a prime example of this phenomenon. The classicism is reflected in the Odyssey framework. But the Christian element may provide the greater human depths of the story. Irish Catholicism profoundly formed Joyce. And though he rejected it with a passion, he could only have harmed the sources of his own identity if he had tried to cut himself off wholly from the Church and its intellectual culture. Trained by the Jesuits (old dispensation), Joyce absorbed their rigor while rejecting their beliefs, and boasted of both. Has any other lapsed Catholic kept Dante as his favorite author and continued to read, after his loss of faith, a page of Aquinas every day, in Latin?

It is a fine question whether those beliefs did not also continue to give him much of his evocative power. Despite his own intentions, Joyce often gets across what Catholic writers harm by handling piously. In a letter, Flannery O’Connor describes a common experience. You get tired, she says, of reading Catholic authors, because they almost always start to slip at some point into didacticism, with sharply diminishing returns: “You get more benefit reading someone like Hemingway, where there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life, or Joyce who can’t get rid of it no matter what he does.”

How does this work out in Joyce? O’Connor notwithstanding, it’s ambiguous. Joyce adopted a conscious rebel-angel orientation in his young adulthood and in his most famous fiction, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even went so far as pronouncing Lucifer’s motto: Non serviam (I will not serve). But this setting oneself up in opposition to the Latin Church’s tradition by its nature still maintains a relationship with that tradition. If Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait rebels, he knows that his rebellion gets power from what it has both absorbed and seeks to escape. This was already evident in Joyce’s first book, a collection of short stories called Dubliners, which mostly explores the “lives of quiet desperation” he perceived among his fellows.

For all his later rejection of the Church, Joyce still admired the depth and precision of Catholicism. In his very first short story, “The Sisters,” a young boy—obviously a stand-in for Joyce himself—reflects on a priest, who had gone mildly mad and then died: “His questions showed me how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the Church which I had always regarded as the simplest acts. The duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever found in himself the courage to undertake them.”

Stephen Daedalus, another Joyce surrogate, in A Portrait scorns those who reject faith but then embrace literary vagaries, or as he tells his fictional brother who asks if he is leaving Catholicism and becoming a Protestant, “I said I have lost my faith, not my self-respect.” Joyce may have been an unbeliever, but he remained an unshakably Catholic unbeliever. In Ulysses, Stephen has already completed his revolt and is living in an old stone tower with some friends; yet even that work begins in the morning with one friend, Buck Mulligan, shaving, and he and Stephen trading intellectual jabs, partly in Latin, that echo a series of phrases from a morning Mass. Mulligan complains to Stephen that he has the Jesuit manner, but “it’s been injected the wrong way.” And later as Stephen begins a long, careful exposition on a point, Mulligan pleads: “I’m not equal to Thomas Aquinas and the fiftyfive [sic] reasons he has made to prop it up. Wait until I have a few pints in me first.”

Joyce knew how to work all these elements to maximum effect. He was militant and unwavering in his disbelief, refused a religious marriage to his wife, Nora, and even forbade his son to baptize his grandson (son and grandmother had it done secretly). But in the ways of the soul, things are never entirely straightforward. Joyce once told a friend that the only spirit he believed in was l’esprit de l’escalier, that brilliant French term for thinking of a witty response after the moment has passed. But was this true? In the most famous of all his short stories, “The Dead:’ Gabriel Conroy learns of a boy his wife once loved who died after leaving his sick bed in bad weather to see her one last time. As Gabriel thinks back on that figure, “The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” For a writer of Joyce’s unswerving devotion both to clear truth and avowed disbelief, this is a curious passage. It is this depth—which perhaps echoes things Joyce and other modernist writers learned from Dante—where the Catholic heritage in Joyce persists inescapably, whatever his conscious beliefs about the soul, God, and the afterlife. Certainly in Ulysses there are many passages that make sense for someone who believes in things beyond the material world, which would become mere literary invention if they were only psychological or symbolic.

It is difficult not to suspect that Joyce attracts a certain type of literary ex- or would-be-Catholic because of the wealth of Catholic things in his world. Along with the classical and other cultural references, it almost makes Irish Catholicism respectable for those who might otherwise think not. But Joyce’s influence as a man on artists and would-be artists and scholars has been far from salubrious in ways beyond this. In the 20th century, many young people aspiring to be writers read and memorized and often thought of the luminous invocation toward the end of A Portrait: “Oh life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

In real life, Joyce left Dublin for Paris shortly after he finished university, and after only two weeks was writing to his mother for money so that he could come home for Christmas. Joyce’s father, who believed in his son’s genius, took out another mortgage on the house to pay for the trip and other expenses. John Joyce was a fantastic character that perhaps only Dickens could have invented (many of his best jokes made their way into Ulysses) and was an unfailingly improvident man. So this filial exploitation hastened his financial bankruptcy only slightly. But the artist who blithely takes bread out of the mouths of several siblings so that he could play in Paris and still come home in time for the holidays is, to say the least, a fair distance from the lofty talk of a soul forging the uncreated conscience of his race. Joyce is here the progenitor not only of many temperamental artists, but of several generations of pampered undergraduates as well.

Astonishingly, though Joyce was often on the receiving end of these sorts of kindnesses and generosities from relatives and friends, he needed—and characteristically created—a myth about himself as an innocent betrayed and exiled by an Ireland enslaved by England and Rome. To begin with, he was never exiled. He chose to go to continental Europe to pursue his artistic vocation. Like many an intellectual renegade, though, when he was offered a writer’s subsidy by the British government while in alleged “exile,” he had no qualms about taking it. Joyce’s sheer irresponsibility about most public matters is shocking in so great a writer. Stephen Daedalus says at one point: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” His creator seems to have thought ignoring the world freed him from history. Joyce pretended to have barely noticed World War I, though he took refuge from it under the friendly government of Switzerland. Like many a subsequent literary and intellectual figure he claimed that as an artist he was “against every state.” But this led him into absurdities such as believing that World War II was unnecessary, while again enjoying the tranquility of the Swiss state during the conflict. The “uncreated conscience” of his race had a limited radius, mostly extending to some artistic and intellectual matters of immediate personal interest, but not much more in any significant way.

Many people in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris over decades were also to be accused of a disloyalty to him as great as that of the Irish—while he lied about his intentions, cheated landlords, stiffed people who had loaned him money, shirked duties as a language teacher because they bored him, drank his way through or otherwise squandered, without remorse, sums his family needed to live. Joyce repeatedly saw plots among his closest friends that were nothing short of paranoid thinking, and he could walk away from anyone he felt slighted him or his art.

He could also be a very warm and highly amusing man in the best Irish fashion, but there’s no question that much of his behavior places him high among the literary egotists of all ages. His charming self-absorption (at a distance) explains a good deal about his artistic misjudgments and the misjudgments of many who indulged his excesses in his time and even today. Ulysses would have been an even greater book if someone had convinced Joyce to make it a third shorter. We may still want to place Joyce’s literary achievements among the very highest of the past century—or any century—despite their blemishes and shortcomings. But whether we should also forget or excuse everything else because the man could at times write better prose than any living human being and all but a few dead ones is quite another matter.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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