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Ulysses and Difficult Art

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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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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 in their eyes.

You have said a lot of good things here. But this one leaped out and made a home in my brain. Thank you.

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By a strange (or not so strange) coincidence, I have recently begun reading Ulysses (150 pp in, so far). Granted, I read the introduction in my Penguin Modern Classics edition, but I am endeavoring to read it without careful analysis or belabouring the allusions and allegory, and enjoy it for what it is. And so far, I am. I've really, truly enjoyed it thus far.

I, for one, applaud the sentiments expressed in this thread, and vigorously disagree with the one's in the link.

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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:

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

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FWIW, according to Poet's and Writer's, Marilyn Monroe was a fan of Ulysses. Here is a photograph

marilyn.jpg

...and a link to discussion about the photo. It wasn't staged. She really was reading the book.

http://www.thewriterscoin.com/2008/06/24/m...oe-and-ulysses/

Funny, this book just came out a few weeks ago:

9147_jpg_280x450_q85.jpg

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I, for one, applaud the sentiments expressed in this thread, and vigorously disagree with the one's in the link.

As do I. No doubt it's a common complaint that those who "enjoy" difficult literature are just fooling themselves, that they're really just narcissistic masochists in love with their effete selves and erudite tastes. It's the same in music and the visual arts, too, of course; people couldn't possibly enjoy the atonal elephant bellowing of free jazz, or those inconsequential surrealist squiggles of Joan Miro.

There's only one problem. There really are people -- and I am one of them -- who genuinely love this stuff. I love Ulysses. Is it the greatest novel ever written? Who cares? It's a great novel, and it's possible to delight in the language and follow the story. The same is true for Pynchon, DF Wallace, Proust, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gaddis, Barth, Coover, Eco, Calvino, or any of the other "difficult" moderns and post-moderns. Yes, their work can't be read casually. So? What's wrong with that? What's wrong with the notion of having to pay attention, particularly when paying attention yields such rich dividends?

Last night I was reading a short story by the criminally underappreciated Donald Barthelme called "Report." The story was written at the height of the Vietnam War. A journalist is interviewing a government engineer responsible for inventing secret weapons. The engineer states:

We could, of course, release thousands upon thousands of self-powered crawling-along-the-ground lengths of titanium wire eighteen inches long with a diameter of .0005 centimeters (that is to say, invisible) which, scenting an enemy, climb up his trouser leg and wrap themselves around his neck. We have developed those. They are within our capabilities. We could, of course, release in the arena of the upper air our new improved pufferfish toxin which precipitates an identity crisis. No special technical problems there. That is almost laughably easy. We could, of course, place up to two million maggots in their rice within twenty-four hours. The maggots are ready, massed in secret staging areas in Alabama. We have hypodermic darts capable of piebalding the enemy's pigmentation. We have rots, blights, and rusts capable of attacking his alphabet. Those are dandies. We have a hut-shrinking chemical which penetrates the fibers of the bamboo, causing it, the hut, to strangle its occupants. This operates only after 10 p.m., when people are sleeping. Their mathematics are at the mercy of a suppurating surd we have invented. We have a family of fishes trained to attack their fishes. We have the deadly testicle-destroying telegram. The cable companies are cooperating. We have a green substance that, well, I'd rather not talk about it. We have a secret word that, if pronounced, produces multiple fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields.

I love that, absolutely delight in Barthelme's crazy riffing. He's a post-modern Kafka. No doubt some would find his writing tedious. It's not at all linear or realistic. Yep. It's merely staggeringly funny and sad, vicious and compassionate. He's a kamikaze with language, much like Joyce. And it is possible for some unaccountable freaks to enjoy literature primarily at that level.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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It turns out that my comment got hung up in the First Things system because of the word douchebag. Rather appropriate for the topic of Ulysses, no? (Also fittingly for Joyce, I had them replace it with a neologism of my own.)

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It turns out that my comment got hung up in the First Things system because of the word douchebag. Rather appropriate for the topic of Ulysses, no? (Also fittingly for Joyce, I had them replace it with a neologism of my own.)

That's funny. When I read it, my first thought was the comment would probably not be approved. But having never been to First Things, I had no idea whether that really would be the case.

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It turns out that my comment got hung up in the First Things system because of the word douchebag. Rather appropriate for the topic of Ulysses, no? (Also fittingly for Joyce, I had them replace it with a neologism of my own.)

And you're surprised?!

I'm neither surprised nor unsurprised. I love First Things dearly and was merely noting a trivial but perhaps amusing coincidence.

Edited by thwackum

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I'm not sure I understand why you thought it necessary to use that particular word. That's where I was headed in my last post.

Surely you can think of some more creative - and less insulting - way of saying what you're trying to say, no?

I see what you mean. And that is what I did by making up a whole new word.

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Incidentally, I was under the impression that feminists have decided that the word is inoffensive to women because a douche itself is a tool of the patriarchy: it is different from say the p- or c- words because it was first foisted on women by zealously fastidious men. At least that is the impression I get from feminists like this and this and this (warnings for language). Moreover, I know a number of women who use this word as a generic insult seemingly without a second thought. Perhaps there is not so much agreement as I had thought--and I freely admit to not having kept up too closely with the matter. At any rate, you may be assured, e2c, that I did not use the word with intent to affront women (or the patriarchy, to be honest), and if you or anyone else did take offense I do apologize.

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Moreover, I know a number of women who use this word as a generic insult seemingly without a second thought...

Same here, and I'm noticing that the word has been popping up more and more in casual conversation. Which shocks me, since

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It still is. (In my opinion.)

Yeah, I've brought this up to my friends. And it's funny coming from me, the guy who is generally more likely to say something off color.

Anywho, back to the original topic. I started reading Ulysses about a year and a half ago. It was a gorgeous facsimile of Joyce's original first print

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My friend who is a girl calls me a douchebag on a regular basis. I have never taken the initiative to find out what exactly that means, though I've been assured I don't want to know.

That same friend started reading Ulysses recently and likes to complain about how dense it is. :)

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Umm... I think you might want to reconsider what women (and feminists) think, and why. (Not that I'm claiming to be someone who talks about "the patriarchy," though I guess I am a feminist.)

Seriously, it's a fairly (IMO) juvenile insult. ;)

I always thought it was a very vulgar phrase.

It still is. (In my opinion.)

Well, e2c, at the risk of disclosing my obtusity (which I have been known to do and I suppose is bound to happen again sooner or later), here is where I am puzzled. I can see how someone might object to or refrain from using douchebag in order to avoid what they consider a crass or puerile or off-color term. But the more I "reconsider" it, the more trouble I have understanding why that word would be thought offensive to women--or to be more precise, insulting (to use your earlier word) to women. To say that something is "insulting" would seem to suggest some willful derogation of character or identity. But to say that something is vulgar is, in this context, to place it in association with that which is low or crude or indecent. Since douchebag literally denotes a hygienic device used by women for very private purposes, it would be reasonable to classify its pejorative use as a vulgarity of the indecent sort. Like many other vulgarisms, its use publicizes what is private. But since, unlike a certain class of pejoratives, it is not a derogation of women themselves, i.e. a denigration of that which is biologically elemental and therefore beyond a person's control, and if the feminists I mentioned are correct that the device is linked with marketing-fueled obeisance to the supposed whims of the patriarchy, I cannot for the life of me see anything particularly insulting about the word itself.

As a Christian I know that I must take pains not to insult people, which is why I have been worrying on and off all day about whether someone found my usage here insulting. But as a Christian I have no objection to the use of vulgarisms qua vulgarisms. Given my strong belief that we should be stewards of language, I would want to avoid the over-use or misuse of such words, of course. But in general my view is that words are not actually corrupt or harmful or insulting in themselves, just as they are not edifying in and of themselves; rather, it is the human use of those words which is the true agent of corruption or edification. That is, I believe, Paul's very point in Ephesians 4:29. I would also note that as the word "vulgar" suggests, objections to vulgarity originated, historically speaking, mostly as the function of upper class aversions to lower class behaviors. Vulgar speech was a marker of low class, of being unable to afford distance from the low things of the earth and the body, and was thus to be avoided by those who could afford that separation, or aspired to. I believe that is the case, anyway.

So, to put it more clearly:

1. Douchebag may be vulgar but I don't see it as inherently insulting.

2. Furthermore, I don't think any words are inherently insulting; rather it is the use of words to insult which is proscribed for a Christian.

3. Nonetheless, the historically demonstrable fact is that some words are used to insult more frequently or in more egregious contexts than other words (and this is probably why these words are labeled offensive: over time they accrue associative meaning extrinsic to the words themselves). Thus, a Christian is certainly free to avoid those words in order to avoid the perception of insult. But he or she is not constrained to do so by the nature of the words themselves.

4. The determination of whether a certain word might cause the perception of insult can be an extremely difficult judgment, owing chiefly to the stark limitations of human knowledge. Thus the exercise of discernment and wisdom is imperative, as well as a desire to learn enough about those with whom we speak--i.e., our neighbor--so as to preemptively minimize unwitting insults.

5. By remembering just how difficult that judgment can be, and how often it has to be made, we can thereby more easily put the best (most charitable) construction on the motives of those whose speech we find insulting.

[/threadjack]

Say, I am the one who is guilty of threadjacking--and a thread I started, to boot!

Edited by du Garbandier

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It just *is.* (To me and to many other women, though obviously, not to all English-speaking women everywhere.)

I really don't want to get into a big discussion about it, OK? Honestly, I'm sure there are other, more interesting topics. :)

I have gone into detail because you said it is an "insulting word," which I construed to possibly mean that you took personal umbrage at my use of it, a possibility that horrified me. I realize that you may well not have taken said umbrage, but I felt obliged to err on the side of being safe and explaining something of my intentions and views. I am not necessarily looking for a "big discussion," either, although I would have appreciated even a link to something about how the word itself is insulting to women, and you must see that "it just is" does little to assuage my conscience. But I am content with my explanation, and I shall assume from your (perfectly understandable) reluctance to broach the issue further that you hold no grievance against me in this context--except perhaps for my longwindedness, for which I beg pardon.

By the way, I consider the intersection of ethics and language an utterly fascinating topic, and few discussions are more important and vitally relevant to online discussions than learning how to speak charitably and truthfully with one another. Perhaps I will transplant some of my thoughts here into a thread specifically dedicated to that purpose.

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No need to apologize, really. I think maybe you're doing a bit more analysis here than is necessary, though. :)

Since, where charity is concerned, I would prefer to say more than is necessary rather than less, I can live with that.

Edited by thwackum

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McSweeney's: Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop.

Caught some allusions to The Odyssey. Nice.

- - - -

Proper punctuation for dialogue is double quotes, not em dashes.

- - - -

Balked a bit at some of Molly’s “sexier” thoughts, which read like male fantasy. You can do better than this, Jim.

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Hat-tip to Andy Whitman, who posted this on Facebook: The Challenge of Translating Finnegan's Wake:

 

Dai Congrong started translating the book in 2006, but didn’t publish the first part of her translation until early 2013. Part of the reason it took so long is that Finnegans Wake, while challenging enough to read in English, is even more difficult to translate, owing to James Joyce’s puns, allusions, and multi-layered meanings which baffle most native English speakers and often lose their meaning in translation. The novel has been deemed “untranslatable” and the translations that are successful tend to be consuming: the Polish version took ten years to finish, the French version thirty years, and the Japanese version took three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad. 

 

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Hat-tip to Andy Whitman, who posted this on Facebook: The Challenge of Translating Finnegan's Wake:

 

Part of the reason it took so long is that Finnegans Wake, while challenging enough to read in English, is even more difficult to translate, owing to James Joyce’s puns, allusions, and multi-layered meanings which baffle most native English speakers and often lose their meaning in translation.

 

 

 

 

^ Not only that, but many puns draw from different languages.

 

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^ Not only that, but many puns draw from different languages.

 

 

 

No kidding; I fondly remember taking a course at my undergrad where the final assignment was to split into groups and each group annotate one page from the book. It took two additional sources: a Guide To and a massive volume of annotations. It was about then that I decided [a] that I wanted to read FW "someday," and that I wouldn't do it outside of a reading-club setting. Still haven't read it.

 

-------------

On a wholly different note, here's a story about Dubliners 100, a new project featuring several contemporary Irish authors:

 

It has often been said that Irish writers have struggled to escape Joyce’s shadow, but this new publication sees 15 of them tackle his legacy head on, starting with The Butcher Boy author Pat McCabe taking on The Sistersand concluding with Peter Murphy, author of John the Revelator, bravely reinventing The Dead, regarded by many as one of the greatest short stories ever written.

 

Edited by NBooth

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