Five Ideas About Ulysses

1. "High Grade Ha". The phrase "high grade ha" is repeated several times by Leopold Bloom in the course of Ulysses--it is a truncated tag in his hat. "High grade ha" seems to me to be a reference to the novel itself. It is high grade because its author can, and does, intersperse quotes in Italian, French, and Latin, show off knowledge of Hebrew, discourse on reservoirs and gravity, Shakespeare and constellations and street-sweeping machines. It is a "ha" because self-indulgent and trivial in long stretches, overly long and packed with endless inaccessible hallucinations and unnecessary detail on minor things. Perhaps Joyce knew that he was simultaneously perpetrating a work that would be remembered and a joke on his audience. The author comes across as an annoying genius without self-control, washing the reader away in a vain and infantile torrent of words.

Joyce is at his worst in the Nighttown sequence, structured as a play, with stage directions like the following:

A yoke of buckets leopards all over him and his rearing nag, a torrent of mutton broth with dancing coins of carrots, barley, onions, turnips, potatoes.

Or how about:

Groangrousegurgling Toft's cumbersome whirligig turns slowly the room right roundabout the room.

Nighttown is not truly dreamlike nor is it real. It abandons the balance Joyce struck in the rest of the novel between description, hallucination, and wordplay. The language of Nighttown bars any possible access, similar to the dense Finnegan's Wake. Nighttown can be seen as a product of Stephen Dedalus's arrogance. At the outset of the novel, he called Irish art a servant's cracked mirror, implying that his own ravings were better than another's verse.

2. "The cracked looking-glass of a servant." Proust said that the novel is a mirror held up to life, and that the art is to be judged by the quality of the mirror, not of the life. Joyce's variation on the theme is that the mirror--everyone else's, one assumes, not his own--is a "low grade ha."

Nineteenth century novels--Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola-- capture an entire social world seen from the viewpoint of a Godlike narrator. Proust himself made the mirror personal and subjective, opening the door for Joyce's selfishness: he too will go on for a hundred pages on matters important to him and no-one else; we are married to the viewpoint of a self-involved and obsessive narrator. Joyce's achievement, for good and evil, was to smash Proust's mirror into a thousand shards.

I am speaking procedurally. Authors have always divided themselves into multiple characters; in Madame Bovary, Emma, her husband Charles, and the pompous pharmacist Homais may all be reflections of Flaubert himself (he famously acknowledged that Emma is). But the entire work is told in a single voice, and so is Proust's. Ulysses, by contrast, is a hundred voices, some magisterial, some gibbering, while the ones in the middle rave about recognizable things. In the Nighttown section, if a button is mentioned, it will have something to say for itself; the entire section is itself the button on schizophrenic Joyce's trousers. The novel begins with a somewhat conventional narrative voice, which it assumes again several times after; adopts a newspaper style, with headlines; a long stream of consciousness; a play; a q&a; and closes with a famous soliloquy of a single long sentence.

I don't think it is an accident that the first section is in a more conventional voice. We require of artists at the transition between two styles that, before we will trust their new voice, they must display a mastery of the old. (This is the same issue that is raised when people debate whether Picasso could draw lifelike figures.) Joyce demonstrates mastery of the nineteenth century style in Ulysses' opening pages. He gives us the parable of the mirror, then smashes it to pieces.

The shards of Joyce's mirror have been raining down on us for the balance of the 20th century. The shards of Nighttown are Burroughs, the beats, Ishmael Reed, a host of bad incoherent poets. The better shards are Beckett, the magical realism of Marquez, Pynchon's nightmarish rounds, or the wordplay married to content in Queneau's Zazie Dans Le Metro. Most imitators of Joyce have not added anything to his voice. We may value Magritte but not someone who can paint exactly like Magritte. Joyce's worst imitators are copying the least worthwhile parts of Ulysses. Talented imitation is uninteresting enough, but it doesn't require talent to create random hallucinatory prose where buttons and fish conduct dialogs with each other. That, as a critic said of Kerouac, is typing, not writing.

3. "Longest way round is the shortest way home." I have quoted this epigram all my life. The biggest difference between art and life is the lack of order in the latter. We have an idea of progress, of history as a line graph rising into the future, that is quite contradicted by the sense that one's own life is more like the flight of a sparrow, from a tree, to the gravel, to a bush and back again. One of the nicest insights in Proust and Joyce alike is that a narrative don't have to pass from point A to point B. It can swoop around. Proust caps it with an insight, as he stumbles in the street, old and weak, and recognizes just what his life has meant. Joyce is even more circular, circumspect, circumpolar: He simply piles facts about Bloom on us, which cumulate. He doesn't give us the insight as Proust does, but we may find it for ourselves once we have enough information. Some of the most important facts we need are not given us til the very end. A lesser artist would have told us everything we need to know at the beginning. It is as if Joyce has taken everything we need to know about Bloom and purposefully cut it up into pieces and embedded it hundreds of pages apart, and in no particular order.

Joyce's and Proust's novels would in fact work better as hypertexts than as conventional ones. Among the significant elements are the linked shards of story, recounted in no particular order, with no attention to chronology; the anecdotes told in passing; the separation of Joyce's work into different voices. Hypertext is a much better architecture in which to embed a smashed mirror than a paper book, for we must read a book in a particular order (we are forced to view Joyce's fragments in sequence from page 1 to page 933). In "hyper(text)space", one could explore Ulysses in any direction.

Edmund Wilson never heard of hypertext, but in 1931, in Axel's Castle, he summarized the quality of Ulysses which makes it a precursor of hypertext:

[Joyce's] force, instead of following a line, expands itself in every dimension (including that of Time) around a single point. The world of Ulysses is animated by a complex inexhaustible life: we revisit it as we do a city.... And when we reread it, we start in at any point, as if it were indeed something solid like a city which actually existed in space and which could be entered from any direction...

4. "Expecting every moment to be his next." This little gem is itself a "high grade ha", and like most of Joyce's gems, it comes up a few times. Joyce's entire philosophy is embodied in this line. It is funny, and it is funny because it raises and defeats expectations in a few words. It sets us up for drama and delivers comedy; predicts portentous meaning and delivers inconsequentiality. Since it establishes that the moment that follows is not more meaningful than the one before, it attacks linearity. And it illustrates the backdrop of time/space against which the 20th century novel is set:

the futility of triumph or protest or vindication: the inanity of extolled virtue: the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars.


If he had smiled why would he have smiled?

To reflect that each one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone, whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.

Prior Western literature raised and satisfied expectations: we watch Macbeth, Coriolanus, Richard the Third, Hamlet, riding for a fall for hours on end, then see their corpses in a pile of others. Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, all obey the laws of Shaekespeare's universe. Joyce is the anti-Shakespeare: he is a specialist in defeating expectations.

5. A solvent dissolving Yeats. Certainly the most imposing Irish artist Joyce might have insulted with his line about the cracked mirror is W.B. Yeats, who bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with his sometimes inaccessible, but very orderly, romanticism. Joyce is Yeats with the rhythm sprung; Eliot is what is left after you have applied Joyce to Yeats.

Not surprisingly, Joyce quotes Yeats repeatedly, and in such a way as to suggest that Yeats is dissolving. Stephen's faithless friend Mulligan quotes Yeats in the tower the friends share at the orderly outset of the book:

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love's bitter mystery
For Fergus rules the brazen cars.

Almost seven hundred pages later, Stephen is lying drunk and half-conscious in the street, muttering to himself: now.
And pierce....wood's woven shade?...

Joyce's last word on Irish art: Yeats' "dishevelled wandering star" as a muttering drunk in a Dublin street. Yeats himself would not have been a stranger to this insight; late in life, he wrote,

Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

And for symmetry, let's traverse Joyce, from Yeats, to Eliot:

These fragments have I shored against my ruins.