Ulysses by James Joyce- Part 2

by Paul Mathers

I suddenly realized that the book is not divvied up into chapters 1,2,3, etc., each starting with a letter that fills a whole page. Along with this realization came the realization that I actually had no idea where the chapter breaks were or which chapter I was reading. There are breaks in the narrative and there are sudden shifts to entirely different forms of prose (I finally decided to end my reading for this section when it shifts to newspaper headlines), but I became aware that my updates on this book would have to be in sections of my own devising, rather than chapter by chapter. I suppose I could go look up where people, in the past 90 years, have decided where they put the chapter breaks, but I’m trying to avoid looking up too much in this reading. And I dread confirming my suspicion that there are long arguments by scholars about this.

Leopold Bloom arrives in our narrative and is instantly identified as a dreamboat. That is, if you are the kind who love men who love to eat the gnarliest innards of animals. If not, in his favor, he is also a cat lover. So much of the text, and a large part of why it is one of the most perfect novels in the English language, is its euphony. So much of it is composed for the tongue. “Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.” Read that line aloud slowly, over-enunciating, and enjoy the mouthfeel.

Like Dedalus and, indeed, Hamlet, Bloom is starting his day in mourning colors because he has a funeral to go to. But before he gets that far, we have a lot of sensuality to experience through his mind’s eye. He is imaginative, but also a bit vice-ridden and perhaps less educated than Dedalus. The 7 Deadlies are strong with this one. Observing Bloom in this manner began to grate against me and I began to second guess my perceptions. Was this just my crypto-puritanism rearing its ugly head? Are his attributes in this decidedly Modern piece intended more towards the lusty and sensual manly? This would be more in line with the character conjured by the title.

That Bloom is also unkosher is one of his earliest noted attributes; we’ve already been trained to take note when a character struggles with the religion of their fathers.

Oh, by the way, one thing I did look up: turns out you can cross Dublin without passing a pub.

I think one of the emerging impressions of the book is the importance of a seemingly unimportant day. How many thoughts we have. How much we do. How much changes with every action. Multiply that by the number of people we encounter and the people they encounter and so forth. There is something of the Great Web of Life in it. And it is true.

It’s also a much funnier book than anyone had ever told me. Here Bloom thinks good reasons why the cat ought not eat pieces of the kidney, but after burning it gives the burnt bit to the cat. I was a little surprised to find that Woody Allen stole a joke from Joyce. The “Lazarus, Come Forth!” joke appears in a slightly modified form in Love and Death. Although, I guess that shouldn’t be the most problematic thing I find with Woody Allen. As a complete rabbit-trail, he’s been on my mind lately what with the Golden Globe kerfuffle and I was struck by remembering his joke about how he can’t listen to Wagner because it makes him want to invade Poland. Fortunately, his own fans (of which I am as wary a one as I am of Wagner) did not follow suit with his own work and the artist’s own personal horribleness.

But we were talking about James Joyce. One thing that sticks in my mind is a letter of Virginia Woolf’s which I read years ago in which she said in passing words to the effect of being determined to finish that book by that horrible little man. The little man was Joyce and the book was this. Thinking on it now reminded me of my rather mild reaction to some of the more fervent critiques of this book and I think some of it has to do with the fact that I read William Burroughs extensively in high school. First of all, I am unphased by many pages of stream of consciousness or obscure narrative. Second, compared to the obscenity of Burroughs, Joyce seems quite normal and reasonable. Third, as is so often the case upon reading the classics, I find that the original groundbreaker is far superior to those who came later. And, it might get me in trouble in some quarters to say so, but the flaws in Joyce’s personal character are nothing compared to the horrible little men of the Beat Generation. But, again, I am firmly of the camp that art can separate from the artist. If you insist on all of your art coming from people whose lives were entirely unimpeachable, you will never enjoy art.

Bloom poops. Which is a thing people do in the morning. I did notice that twice in the early morning Bloom takes pieces of writing he appreciates on some level and condemns them to destruction. This struck me as a twinge Dadaist.

So after this man has pooped, eaten of the cloven hoof, lusted unabashedly in his heart, and entertained the notion of reincarnation, he goes to a Catholic funeral. In the dissolving of the communion wafer, Bloom reflects on the swallowing of religion by its adherents rather than chewing, as well as the palliative of the works-based dispensation of grace. Bloom’s view of religion seems to be more confident than Stephen’s, more confidently suspicious of it. He thinks, “Those old popes were keen on music, on art and statues and pictures of all kinds.” Which is a commentary on the post-Constantinian privilege. He does recognize what everyone seems to recognize about Catholicism: “Wonderful organization certainly, goes like clockwork.” Mirroring a sort of nature’s God order of the universe, a sort of Deistic “as above, so below” in the church unawares. Bloom strikes at the core of the problem of religion near the end of the service when he thinks “He had his answer pat for everything.”

Oh, there is so much here that I would like to write about. The procession to the burial and graveside is, I don’t think I am being overly superlative in saying, one of the finest pieces of writing in the English language. Joyce paints the inside of the head of one at a funeral: the inappropriate humor, the superstition, the grim, bleak existentialism, the wandering mind and the self-reprimanding at the wandering mind, the invariable odd moments (someone no one knows shows up, an acquaintance requests that you add their name to the list of people present).

Some stand-out moments before I cease what has become a much longer post than I intended:

*Bloom recalls Julius Caesar in defining the best sort of death, once again revealing our dependence upon antiquity while at the same time suggesting their inability to do us any practical good (the best death is the sudden, unexpected death).

*I think I will forever remember the line “Out of the frying pan of life, into the fire of purgatory.”

*Joyce agrees: Shakespeare’s Hamlet owns funerals.

*Where ever you go, whatever you’re doing, no matter how much fun you’re having, remember: people are dying somewhere right now.

*Bloom reflects on the manner of how the dead are disposed of and, while he doesn’t say this specifically, how funerals and burials are for the living. This is why I want my body to be donated to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s CSI decomposition study program. However, deferring to, as I’ve stated, the wisdom that funerals and burials are for the living because the dead don’t care, if Laurie survives me, I doubt she will be comfortable with doing that and so I want her to do with my remains whatever will make her feel best.

What a perfect way to start the morning! There is wisdom in the house of mourning! I wonder what’s next!

Not really because I’m actually halfway through the next chapter. Next Bloom takes us into a newspaper. A newspaper is a thing that used to be published daily full of news items and advertisements. You may have read about them in history class.

More soon.