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Thread: Why is Joyce great?

  1. #1
    Registered User Kent Edwins's Avatar
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    Why is Joyce great?

    Hey all. I recently read Ulysses and I'm wondering- what was the point?

    I feel like I struggled through 700 pages (stopped reading the spark notes halfway through because I thought they were too focused on symbols that weren't really there), and now I'm a bit baffled. I've been told all sorts of things about the book, like "It makes you a better person", "Every line has 3 meanings", and so on. I'm not sure how it was either. I suppose the book has changed me in some ways- mainly in my views on what art should be. For example, after reading it I find myself more open to different forms of art- not just lit. but music and art too.

    But, with all due respect, what was the point? Was there one? Where is the content, the meat? The themes and the developed characters? Is it a book even worth studying?

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    Registered User Axle1017's Avatar
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    Ulysses is about language, but that makes it sound like it's some godawful lumbering doorstop written by an English professor. It doesn't feel abstract at all; it's full of sights (the band of old sweat inside Bloom's hat), smells (restaurants, horse urine, flowers) and especially sounds (cats, printing presses, trams). I can't think of any other book which transports you so completely to a different place and time.Borges described Joyce's prose style, at least in the earlier half of the book, as "strong and delicate" and that's a good description.As the day wears on, the book starts to rumble at the foundations and it lurches with increasing unpredictability from style to style. Joyce is making a point about language; that things are altered by the manner in which we describe them. This can get a bit wearisome after a while, but when it works well - as in the chapter where the doings of a young girl on a beach are narrated in the style of a girl's magazine story - it can be very funny and rather touching. The book closes with a mighty tour de force as Molly Bloom sits up and thinks about her life and her curious husband.
    Okay, that's the beginner's guide. My personal opinion? It's the best Irish book, a constant wonder, irritation and delight to read, and a stunning effort of imagination and intelligence by the most significant and most lavishly talented Irish writer. 20th and 21st century Irish culture is unthinkable without it. I'm grateful that it's there. What else is to be said besides reread ulysses.

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    Registered User Lambert's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kent Edwins View Post
    But, with all due respect, what was the point? Was there one? Where is the content, the meat? The themes and the developed characters? Is it a book even worth studying?
    The point: Love and Family, mostly. The two things that mattered most to Joyce. With Portrait Joyce declared that, as an artist, he needed to remain outside society in order to render it accurately in his work.

    With Ulysses Joyce wanted to abandon his alter-ego, Stephen because his “life”, as it were, was one without love or warmth. He had put too much distant from his society. You see this a lot in the strained relationship between Stephen and his father Simon and especially with Stephen’s distain for his friend Buck Mulligan.

    Bloom’s journey, on the other hand, represents the triumph of love over hatred. His Judaism, or lapsed Judaism, puts him in an akward place; stuck in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic and, at Theological level, hostile to him. He represents The Wandering Jew, the eternal outsider, hounded throughout his day by anti-Semitism, but still keeping an optimistic outlook by the end. His Judaism is one of the most important aspects of the book. In the beginning of Bloom’s section of the book, he seems to have drifted away from his Jewish identity. But when it comes to the encounter with the anti-Semitic Citizen, he reaffirms his identity to an extent.

    Another of Bloom’s epiphanies relates to his relationship with Molly. In the first chapter with Bloom, Molly is having a lie-in, while Bloom is making her breakfast. She receives a letter from her lover, Blazes Boylan, which she attempts to hide under a pillow without Bloom seeing. He does see it, unbeknownst to her, but doesn’t bring it up with her. The two seem to be aware that they are both having affairs, a situation which stems from the death of their son Rudy. The whole day depicted in Ulysses shows how Bloom exorcises these spirits. When he gets back home later that night, he tells Molly that she’ll make the breakfast the next morning. By breaking out of his role as a cuckold, he is making the relationship equal again but also showing that in a society where he is an outsider, he still has Molly as his solace.


    (BTW - The only means to truly appreciate Ulyssses is to re-read it, I believe.)

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    Registered User Kent Edwins's Avatar
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    I can say that the writing and descriptions where wonderful, though sometimes they made it a bit hard to follow. But where is Love in the story, though? I'd say, from what I read, that Bloom and Molly hardly represent a loving relationship. Unless I misread, is Bloom not a bit of a womanizer, pervert, adulterer, and, among other things, an unloyal and unfaithful person? It seems to be that love and family are missing from both the characters of Stephen and Bloom, and to say that Bloom's situation is any better than Stephen's is a bit of a mishap. Stephen, though cut off from love and warmth, seems to have the moral high ground over Bloom-I mean that he at least lives honestly. He doesn't live in some relationship where a false idea of love is constantly perpetuated.

    Anyway, I'm convinced enough in Ulysses and the power of Joyce, though I do not understand it. I have picked up "Dubliners" and I will read those stories first. After, I will return to Ulysses.

  5. #5
    Postgraduate Student Stephen Dedalus's Avatar
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    Hello Kent Edwins,

    I’ll give you just a few thoughts about Joyce and in particular Ulysses – having finished the latter novel recently, I should be quite fresh.

    I will start by conceding that Ulysses is one of the most frustrating books I have ever read but also, in compensation, one of the most brilliant and often vividly descriptive works ever written. You have touched upon the different symbolic organising principles and themes of the novel and understanding these is, of course, absolutely key in any reading of the work. May I suggest some background reading prior to tackling Ulysses?
    I read Homer's Odyssey before taking on the novel and I would firmly point you in that direction, not only for a wonderful adventurous narrative but also in order to make sense of the different sections and characters that organise Ulysses. I also believe that reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would be helpful. It is, of course, not absolutely necessary, as Ulysses stands alone as a work of art, but the former novel works almost as a prequel to the latter, and moreover it introduces a great deal of the key themes, especially the historical, religious and philosophical ones, that are also touched upon in Ulysses. I also recommend a quick read through Hamlet if you are not already familiar, as this work is mentioned several times, quoted and is key to the overall father-son theme. In addition to this, I read Harry Blamires's excellent paraphrasing of the novel entitled Bloomsday alongside Ulysses for those moments when I got really stuck in terms of interpreting the novel.

    Broadly speaking, Ulysses is an extraordinary and epic work based upon Homer’s Odyssey. Certainly one of Joyce’s key ideas was to show that Ancient Greek myths, the fundamental narratives of Western civilisation, can occur in miniature all of the time. Hence, each section is organised around one of the characters or events of Homer’s work. Furthermore, Joyce saw Homer’s character Odysseus (Roman version is Ulysses) as the ultimate character in literature, encompassing so many different types of characterisation and roles, for instance, the father and the son (a key idea in Ulysses), the outside/exile and the accepted and celebrated, the wise and the foolish etc. Joyce seeks to portray a modern day Ulysses, in the form of Leopold Bloom. Indeed, it is the double-sidedness of Ulysses/Bloom that dominates the novel, where the reader is invoked implicitly by the text to side with Bloom and disagree with Bloom in various parts of the novel. Indeed, the whole work could be said to represent this kind of double-sidedness, or oscillation between different meanings – the reader can never be absolutely sure of anything and constantly has to revise his opinions throughout the novel. There are, of course, many other key themes in the novel, such as the father/son relationship between Bloom and Dedalus, where Joyce builds to an incredible climax and then lets it disintegrate into a nothingness, a kind of anti-climax. Joyce has a wonderful ability to build to a climax like this, and then let it entirely disintegrate - he is a master of his art form and of language. He takes you on an emotional journey and then lets you almost reach the point of catharsis before pulling you back under for more!

    I will leave my discussion of Ulysses there, as I think that is enough to get you started and I don’t want to spoil the activity of discovery, which, in my opinion, makes the novel so special.

    Now to the huge question, why is Joyce great? Well, as I have already mentioned, he is an absolute master of his art, and the greatest innovator of language use in English Literature. Sometimes, I read a paragraph by Joyce, and I feel as though I am there, as if I have entered the novel. I love the way that he uses the musical features of language, the way the words sound together, the way he can capture a moment perfectly by using language and sound. Ulysses is simply a fantastical work because it is a huge complex piece of art, logically and internally organised to specific artistic principles, in such an incredible way. Joyce manages to capture something of the beauty of life, as well as the sordid realism. And to read Joyce is to embrace knowledge – to discover so many things about theology, religion, history, philosophy, love, poetry, literature and so many other disciplines. What is also interesting, is that some of the aspects of Ulysses that might be considered the most groundbreaking moments in literature are not that dissimilar to Hamlet for instance. Joyce often copes with the perceived chaos of the human experience by following tradition, as well as by innovating. The main reason that I consider Joyce to be a genius is his ability to embrace so much knowledge and to represent it in his work. If I have to read a paraphrase alongside his novel, as well as constantly referring to a special dictionary of complex words and performing searches on the internet for theological and philosophical theories and their proponents, not to mention foreign languages and medical terms, then just imagine the incredible intellect of Joyce. We can all learn so much from him. Yet despite the more esoteric moments in his works, there are also many that I would consider to be universal. Also, let us not forget the wit of the man, as his works are as serious as they are jocular; tragedy is nothing without humour. Finally, for me, it is Joyce’s ability to capture a moment, frame it in language, and send a shiver down the spine, that immerses me in his world and confirms his genius. There are moments of Joycean economy, especially those doleful and melancholy moments, when Joyce says less than expected where many would say too much. He leaves the sound of grief, jealousy, sadness, resentment ringing in your ears, rather than making it explicit and ruining the impact. It is his ability to write in such a lurid and colourful way, to create such vast and epic works with such a structured approach, to capture the incessant thought of his characters (compare the thoughts of Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses, at the beginning, and tell me you aren’t impressed with his representation of the two), to touch upon such universal themes, to use bathos to amazing effect and to juxtapose the sublime and the ridiculous and the jocular with the doleful. Those are just a few of the reasons I miss reading Joyce! Perhaps I will have to start Ulysses all over again - but there is so much else out there to read!

    Hope this helps.
    D.

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    There have been volumes upon volumes written about this
    particular question, all written by much brighter lights than your dim replier here. But, while running the risk of being simplistic, here goes:

    The best critical -- and eminently "accessible"-- study of Joyce is, in my opinion, written by the late novelist, Anthony Burgess. One really useful work to check out is
    ReJoyce.

    The previous posting by Stephen Daedulus (the name of the protagonist in this novel!) is useful in outlining the Homeric source for the plot (such as it is.)

    One thing we have to remember when reading this particular work is to forget all the various labels, such as
    Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Realism and even Surrealism. From a philosophical standpoint, the novel shakes the very foundation of what exactly a "novel" is. The traditional "point of view" has been replaced by a stream-of-consciousness, previously and concurrently experimented with by Joyce's contemporaries-- (Virginia Woolf comes to mind, as well as Faulkner and some plays of O'Neill )in which the characters and/or narrator's thoughts are what the reader sees and "hear." No longer do we have a Charles Dickens yarn with an omniscent, God-like narrator to tell us exactly what is happening, in which all the loose ends are tied up before the reader comes to "The End."

    Indeed, there isn't really an "end," but the never-ending, often oppressive "present," the random jumping, like sub-atomic particles around a nucleus. The jumping from one perspective to another, such as the rapid change of speakers in poems such as "The Waste Land" is a clue about first, the broad disintegration of society and its -- to use Freud's term-- "discontents." Like other great great works of art produced in the early 20th century, this book represents the chaos and disintegration of the world, not merely after World War II and not merely as a result of Einstein's theories as to how the universe works, comparable to the jolt to the collective consciencous in the Renaissance by Copernicus and Galileo, for instance. What Joyce also reflects is despite some pockets of evolution toward political egalitarian (in some parts of the world at the time) ,there has been a gradual disintegration of the importance of the individual, who has become, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, a mere "cog" in a greater machine.

    The theme of Ulysses -- but again, "theme" is another term that's "outdated" and no longer relevant, at least in that particular artist's frame of mind -- is the relationship between man, "a" man, and the Universe, the
    state of the human condition in a world which has lost-- or perhaps never really had --a discernible meaning.

    Secondly, Joyce presented a brand-new, albeit unsettling, way to look at language. Joyce What is it? Do words actually "stand for" something, or are they merely empty, arbitrary signals and sounds? (cf. The Dadaists, Gertrude Stein, Pound, et al.) Yet words as they are used by James Joyce become creatures with lives of their own. That would be the "joy" part of Anthony Burgess's "ReJoyce."

    For even in the dispiriting, nihilistic "what's the use?" effect
    of modern life, there is consolation in the very sounds and
    senses which beyond their integral selves make no "sense." That may be part of why Ulysses is one if not
    "the" greatest artistic triumph in western civilization in the
    disjointed twentieth century.

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