Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Messy Modernism. James Joyce. Ulysses.

About  35 (million) years ago I was writing a dissertation on modernism.  For those of you who are outside the academy, modernism was, in the 1970s, a hot topic.  Modernism was understood as a historical period, between roughly 1890 and 1940.  But not everyone who wrote during those years were modernists; instead, modernism contained a group of writers who were thought to share certain characteristics.  Figuring out what those characteristics were and who displayed them was a major critical concern.  Modernism seemed to include a concern with style, an exploration of consciousness, an attitude towards symbol, and new patterns of organization.  And, generally, the canonical modernist writers were Joyce, Pound, Woolf, and Eliot.  But what about other great writers during the period?   Particularly what about Lawrence and Yeats?  They were two of the most influential writers of their time, and they shared many modernist qualities.  But there was something different about them.  Should the concept of modernism be redefined in ways that would include them?  Or was modernism simply not a helpful way to understand the literary achievement of the period?  That, in a nutshell, was my (600+ page) dissertation.

Thankfully, my dissertation—as well as the questions it explored—is in the past.  I published dissertation chapters as articles to get tenure.  And I occasionally taught courses that included modernist writers.  But I left research about modernism and turned my attention elsewhere. 

This summer I have returned to modernism, not as a scholar but as a reader.  I have decided to re-approach the great modernist works that were once so important to me.  But I want to read them not as a scholar looking for an argument, but as someone who reads novels seriously.  The first modernist novel I re-read this summer was James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Joyce was not a major topic in my dissertation, but he was there; generally acknowledged as the quintessential modernist novelist, he was functioned as a kind of foil for Lawrence. 

If you have not read Ulysses (and truly most people who are not “English majors” have not), then you may not know how incredibly complex (and complicated) it is.  It covers a day in Dublin (June 16, 1904).  It is filled with allusions:  to Dublin, to Homer’s Odyssey, to history—ancient to modern—and to myriad other texts.  Almost everyone (generally people reading Ulysses as teacher, student or scholar) approaches it through the lens of other texts.  It is impossible to identify, much less understand, all the allusions without references. 

This summer, over a course of several months, Tony and I read Ulysses.  We occasionally turned to annotations, but we really tried not to scaffold our reading with criticism.  Instead, we wanted to  read it directly, to the extent that was possible.

The first challenge we encountered was whether or not Joyce even intended anyone to read it this way.  Surely no one, not even Joyce’s contemporaries, could have caught all the allusions.  Some of the Dublin allusions are so specific, you literally would have had to be there.  Many of the historical and literary allusions are arcane and demand an education and reading history that could hardly have been duplicated even by Joyce’s most enthusiastic advocates.  Furthermore, to read the bookeven superficially, requires one to read it through the framework Joyce himself (in laying out the Homeric parallels to Stuart Gilbert) provided.   

Tony and I did occasionally turned to annotations, particularly when we felt we were not understanding enough even to understand what was happening.  But we tried to read, as much as possible, without supplementary material.  At any rate, we discovered that allusions to texts or historical events we had never heard of (much less read ) were only of limited use; they sort of helped us “get it.”  More powerful were the references to texts and history we already knew, e.g., Shakespeare, Homer; they resonated for us and illuminated Ulysses in much more powerful ways than simple annotations.  Moreover, we used each other’s knowledge.  Tony knows much more about Latin and Catholicism than  I do; I know a very little more about early 20th century Irish poetry than Tony.

In the end, we realized that there were huge chunks of Ulysses we didn’t get, and that we could live with that:reading Ulysses was not going to be a project of our lifetimes.  But there were many parts that we read for the pleasure of the text.  We both loved the exploration of Bloom’s consciousness—its richness and diversity.  We loved (as do most readers) Molly’s interior monologue.  We liked Stephen’s argument in the Library about Shakespeare.  We were in love with Nausica√§.  We were stirred by Cyclops. 

We read chapter-by-chapter; discussing each chapter in turn.  For the most part, our talk was a list of the things we admired or were moved by in each chapter.  A kind of list of textual pleasures.  But out of that detailing of textual pleasure, argument arose.  We could not read Ulysses except by taking critical stances. Our claims about the text would not be sufficient for teaching or writing about or even “studying” Ulysses.  But our experience did make us wonder what would it mean to encounter such a book in a classroom and to begin by talking about the things we liked, rather than the things we didn’t  understand.



Tracy Altieri said...

As the daughter of a retired English professor whose area of expertise was Irish literature, I grew up surrounded by the volumes of Joyce and Yeats. I confess that it lead to an avoidance of reading any of their works! Perhaps one day I will overcome that!

Debra Journet said...

I still read Yeats. But I am not sure I would have Ulysses except that I wanted to know how different it might read now (I'm older, not reading for work, etc.) It's a tough book and demands a big committment. Tony and I read it together over about 4 months.