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  1. In (dis)honor of Bloomsday, the estimable Joe Carter rantingly and entertainingly explains why he, like a number of others, execrates and abominates James Joyce's Ulysses: QUOTE Ulysses isn't The Greatest Novel Ever Written because it fails to do what even most third rate works are capable of doing: communicating its meaning. Joyce was too busy trying to cram the detritus of his erudition into the work to bother making a connection with the reader. He may have succeeded in making suckers of those who are impressed by technique. But for most readers�those of us who believe art should produce some type of emotional effect�his effort is a miserable failure. Ultimately, Ulysses is to literature what The Birth of a Nation is to film; a impressively horrible work that may (possibly) be admired but cannot (surely) be enjoyed. No doubt, fans of Joyce will say that I'm wrong. They will say that I am failing to put in the effort required to grasp the beauty of the novel. They will argue that I am discounting the remarkable use of language and linguistic technique. They will say that I am missing the point. These people will say many things. These people are usually English professors. They don't know any better. Here is an extended version of my comments (which I posted in reply but are still awaiting moderation as of now): In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes: QUOTE Where to seek the easy and the pleasant seems instinctive�and distinctive it appears to be in man; any deliberate tendency to pursue the hard and painful as such and for their own sakes might well strike one as purely abnormal. Nevertheless, in moderate degrees it is natural and even usual to human nature to court the arduous. It is only the extreme manifestations of the tendency that can be regarded as a paradox. Let me suggest that one difference between Ulysses and, say, Finnegans Wake, may be that the latter is an "extreme manifestation," readable primarily by those literary masochists who deliberately "pursue the hard and painful as such," for its own sake. Exceptions abound in both cases, of course. But the testimony of countless readers suggests otherwise--and no, Joe, not just insecure English professors and majors, but insecure persons of all majors, professions, ages, races, and genders enjoy Ulysses: it is entirely possible to accept Ulysses as an invitation to "court the arduous," and as a result of that courting to obtain true enjoyment. While some douchebags do like to rub their "erudition" in the faces of others (and often their erudition is superficial and crumbles upon closer interrogation), their snobbery says nothing significant about the quality of the work itself. People can be snobbish about anything, highbrow or lowbrow, so long as it lets them securely inhabit that inner ring of which C. S. Lewis spoke. People have a way of latching onto the smallest ornament or bauble if they find that by virtue of it they can wield exclusionary power over others; that says a lot about people but very little about the thing itself. Furthermore, I suspect that those who behave really snobbishly about a book may not really enjoy it themselves; perhaps they are snobs because they feel as though they should enjoy something but do not. After all, gratitude is the dominant note of the truest forms of literary pleasure, and the grateful reader wants to share his or her joy with others, not rub it in their eyes. Those who lord their tastes over others do not love a work for its own sake, but for their own sake, and thus they do not fully love the work (or themselves, for that matter). If pompous readers (and non-readers!) really wanted to lord something unreadable over the rest of us, they would push and preen over Finnegans Wake, that crackerjack humdinger of obscurity in comparison with which Ulysses reads like, well, a crackerjack box. But Finnegans Wake rarely appears on the top ten lists. Many who like Ulysses dislike or otherwise cannot appreciate Finnegans Wake. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, loved the former book but derided the latter as a "petrified superpun" and "one of the greatest failures in literature" (a "monstrously bad book," he might even have said). Furthermore, Nabokov said in an interview: QUOTE Ulysses towers over the rest of Joyce's writings, and in comparison to its noble originality and unique lucidity of thought and style the unfortunate Finnegans Wake is nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac I am. Moreover, I always detested regional literature full of quaint old-timers and imitated pronunciation. Finnegans Wake's facade disguises a very conventional and drab tenement house, and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity. I know I am going to be excommunicated for this pronouncement. But Nabokov was not excommunicated by critics, partly because he was Nabokov but just as likely because far fewer critics love or even read Finnegans Wake than Ulysses. The fact that even today, every so often a passionate rant like Joe's geysers forth against Ulysses suggests to me that the book has a certain level of readership which Finnegans Wake lacks. People respond to it viscerally; it divides people. I'm not saying that anyone has to love or hate either book. But surely it is possible to see that others may enjoy Ulysses for reasons having nothing to do with material insecurity or elitism or having been "suckered." A large part of the problem, I think, must be with how Ulysses�and literature in general�is taught (if it is taught at all anymore). Nabokov himself said that while "Ulysses is a splendid and permanent structure, [�] it has been slightly overrated by the kind of critic who is more interested in ideas and generalities and human aspects than in the work of art itself." Students are trained to extract ideas and allegorical meanings from Ulysses, focusing on Stephen Bloom's wanderings as a strict retelling of the Odyssey, and thus reading Joyce's novel quickly becomes a sort of tedious scavenger hunt for parallels of allegory. But by no means is it necessary to read in such a manner. As Nabokov said, "there is nothing more tedious than a protracted and sustained allegory based on a well-worn myth. [�] We say "stop, thief" to the critic who deliberately transforms an artist's subtle symbol into a pedant's stale allegory." Rather than punishing the work for the sins of its critics, perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to seek out and engage the "subtle symbols" of the work of art itself. At any rate, to say as Joe does that Ulysses "cannot (surely) be enjoyed" is�on its face�merely to dress what is a personal predilection in the finery of a critical pronouncement. Joe writes: "But for most readers�those of us who believe art should produce some type of emotional effect�his effort is a miserable failure." Leaving aside the question of what art should or should not do, this statement is questionable. Consider Nabokov himself: his chief criterion for what he sought in fiction was "aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm." And he treasured Ulysses and consistently taught it in his classes. According to Joe, "Ulysses isn't The Greatest Novel Ever Written because it fails to do what even most third rate works are capable of doing: communicating its meaning." Let's call the sort of art that is reluctant to communicate its ostensible meaning "difficult" art. Recall what the poet Geoffrey Hill once said about difficult art: QUOTE We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most 'intellectual' piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves, we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right � not an obligation � to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. [�] And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualification and revelations�resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification. So there are different reasons why a writer might resist explicitly communicating her meaning. Perhaps she is difficult because she is ego-driven and seeks new forms through which to express her love for the sound of her own voice. But might not a writer also be difficult for precisely the opposite motive, because she seeks to honor the reader's intelligence, and even to honor the difficult mystery of the real? I think Ulysses is not an insult.
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